Monday, May 18, 2015

Suspicion (1941)

Generally speaking, the Oscars are an incredibly difficult thing to take seriously. While The Silence of the Lambs (1991) sweeping the 64th awards show awards was a step in the right direction, the amount of blunders made by the apparently important institution is staggering. For instance there is no defendable reason why Harvey Kietel wasn’t nominated for best actor for his performance in Bad Lieutenant (1992). The same could be said for Matthew McConaughey’s knockout performance in Killer Joe (2012). Or how about David Lynch not winning best director for Mulholland Drive (2001)? The mind boggles. What exactly this has to do with Alfred Hitchcock and 1941’s Suspicion is this, Hitchcock was nominated for best director five times and shockingly (or perhaps not considers the organization in question) not once did he win. The only film of Hitchcock’s to win best picture, and deservedly so, was Rebecca (1940). Suspicion was also nominated for best picture and although it didn’t win, lead actress Joan Fontaine won best actress and its been suggested over the years that her win for Suspicion was the academy making up for not giving her the best actress award for Rebecca. That may or may not be the case but what is certain is that it’s a fantastic performance in a film that, while hardly obscure, has gotten pushed aside somewhat when compared to some of Hitchcock’s more famous films.  

Following an uneventful encounter on a train, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), a shy young woman is properly re-introduced to Johnnie Aysgarth (Carry Grant), a charming playboy who is immediately smitten with Lina. After initially resisting, Johnnie’s charms get the better of Lina and the two fall madly in love and are soon married. Not long after the marriage however Lina discovers Johnnie’s dire financial situation and his continuing to gamble against her wishes which only leads to more lies. With Johnnie’s behavior growing more and more suspicious along with his obsession with murder mystery novels, Lina slowly begins to suspect that Johnnie is planning a murder, and that his intended target is her.

Leave it to Hitchcock to take an idea such as a happy newlywed couple and twist it into something sinister. While Suspicion might not have been Hitchcock’s direct follow-up to Rebecca with Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) coming before, there are a few undeniable similarities between Rebecca and Suspicion and the two could be considered “cousin” films so to speak. The most explicit connection between the two films would of course be the characters played by Joan Fontaine in both films with both women being fairly provincial who marry into some pretty dark situations, although the situation Fontaine’s Lina finds herself in is possibly a bit more dangerous than the one her second Mrs. de Winter inherits in Rebecca. While Fontaine is phenomenal and deserved her Oscar, what really sells the film is Carry Grant. After all, the entire point of the film is to raise the question of whether or not Johnnie is or isn’t a murderer and Grant projects that ambiguity brilliantly. Much like his character, Grant was a charmer with an instantly likable presence. At the same time there is also something about Johnnie’s presence that gives off the impression of something darker hiding beneath the surface yet due to his slyness that possible dark side goes unnoticed by most. One moment a small nuance in Grant’s performance will give off the impression that there’s no way he’s capable of murder and a minute later another nuance will have the opposite effect. Truly an astonishing performance.

Hitchcock actually had the rights to the book the film was based on, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Before the Fact, several years before the film was actually made. The biggest difference between the film and the book was the ending with Hitchcock wanting to go a specific route but the studio wasn’t having any of it. Hitchcock also hated the title “Suspicion”. There were a number of working titles for the film and Hitchcock wanted the film to be called “Johnnie” but "Suspicion" proved to be the more marketable title. What’s also interesting is that a colorized version was eventually made, however as noted by film historian Robert Osborne in the featurette on Warner Bros. DVD, the colorization of films specifically designed for black and white photography often take away from the power of the original photography. That is certainly the case with Suspicion, particularly with Hitchcock’s use of light and shadow, specifically during the films most celebrated moment involving the most intimidating glass of milk in film history. Perhaps due to the thematic similarities and ironically Fontaine’s Oscar win, Suspicion will in some ways always be in the shadow of Rebecca. While Suspicion might not be the psychological juggernaut that the former film is, it is nonetheless a quintessential Hitchcock film featuring one of the finest performances from any of his leading men and worthy of being referred to as a Hitchcock classic.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Escapees (1981)

AKA Les paumées du petit matin, The Runaways, Fuges mineures, A couteaux tirés

While Jean Rollin was never shy about straying from the vampire subgenre in which he made a name for himself early in his career with non-vampire films like The Iron Rose (1973) and The Demoniacs (1974), as the 70’s turned into the 80’s Rollin began traveling down some interesting roads and distanced himself from vampires even further until he returned to the subgenre in 1997 with Two Orphan Vampires. The 80’s were a particularly interesting time for Rollin as he brought his signature style to a number of films in a variety of subgenres like the emotional zombie film The Living Dead Girl (1982), the Cronenbergian Night of the Hunted (1980), the atypical crime thriller The Sidewalks of Bangkok (1984) and the made for TV dream piece Lost In New York (1989). Of course there’s also the notorious Zombie Lake (1981) which Rollin finished after Jess Franco abandoned the project and several adult films Rollin signed with his “Robert Xavier” pseudonym. If there’s one film from Rollin’s 80’s output that sticks out but also has gotten lost in the shuffle a bit over the years it’s The Escapees. For the longest time The Escapees was one of Rollin’s most under the radar films and in some ways it still is to more casual fans, however its also an incredibly powerful film and an excellent example of the emotional impact Rollin’s films can have.

Immediately after arriving at a mental institution, Michelle (Laurence Dubas), a belligerent juvenile delinquent forms an escape plan with the aid of the extremely reserved Marie (Christiane Coppé), a fellow inmate who begs Michelle to let her go along. After some initial hesitation, Michelle agrees and with no particular destination in mind the two make a run for it in search for a better place, encountering an odd assortment of characters and dangerous situations along the way.

At first glance The Escapees (Les échappées) might seem like one of Rollin’s most atypical films and to a certain extent it is due to the lack of any supernatural elements yet Rollin’s fingerprints are all over the material. Instead of vampires, vengeful demons or zombies, the creatures of the night featured in The Escapees are the types found in the real world. Traveling gypsy circus troupes, thieves, tramps, shifty nightclub patrons, these are the inhabitants of Marie and Michelle’s new world. Despite the “realist” setting, the film is still quintessentially Rollin in that it retains a fairytale quality due to Rollin’s surrealist tendencies and the random nature of Marie and Michelle’s encounters, the highlight being an exotic dance show put on by the gypsies held in the middle of a junkyard. The film also features one of Rollin’s most poignant uses of his “two girls” as the main protagonists with the characters of the timid Marie and the outgoing and opinioned Michelle perfectly contrasting each other which also makes them the perfect match. The development of their relationship throughout the film, going from slightly contentious at first to sisterly and co-dependant by the end of the film comes across as genuine which makes the film pack an even bigger punch. Rollin fanatics will instantly recognize Louise Dhour as a nightclub owner and of course Brigitte Lahaie as a lesbian yuppie. Her role might not be the biggest but it is memorable and plays a major role in fate of Marie and Michelle.

There were two scripts written for the film, Rollin’s original script
which was then given to a screenwriter by the name of Jacques Ralf who then wrote another script which Rollin hated. According to Rollin, Ralf was more of a theatre writer and his script contained far too much dialogue and Rollin’s films were always sparse on dialogue. Rollin also claimed that Ralf’s script was full of clichés, so when the time came to actually make the film Rollin essentially combined the two scripts shooting the best scenes from his original screenplay and the re-write. Interestingly, Rollin initially hated what has essentially gone on to become the best remembered and most highly regarded scene in the film, the amazing scene of Marie ice skating as it contained the aforementioned extra dialogue that Rollin found melodramatic and unnecessary. By his own admission, Rollin basically lost interest in the film do to all the difficultly with the script and over time had sort of forgotten about the film until a French cable TV channel acquired the rights to it for broadcast and eventually the film made its DVD debut in 2009 so at least it won’t be completely forgotten about. While it isn’t likely to win over anyone not used to Rollin’s style, there’s no reason why fans of Rollin who for some reason haven’t gotten to The Escapees yet wont find plenty to love.