How to Tell if Your Prisoner is Too Smart for You

Madeleine Carroll sees her chance to escape. Image: kdsjf eoifu asdkljf

Tip: Never allow a woman access to her handbag. Image: Explore BFI

Dear Movie Villains:

Becoming an Evil Villain is largely a matter of trial and error. As far we know, there is no correspondence course to guide you in becoming a dastardly mastermind.

With that in mind, we hope you’ll take some well-meaning advice from the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps (1935)If there’s one take-away from this movie, it’s this: Know thy intellectual limitations.

In The 39 Steps, there are two people you need to defeat: The first one is Robert Donat, a bungler who believes he can outwit seasoned, professional villains.

The second one is more tricky. She is Madeleine Carroll, a smart and decisive woman who trusts no one except the blasted police.

The film, briefly, is about spies smuggling Government Secrets to a foreign power. Donat stumbles into the middle of this situation because (a) he believes what everyone tells him and (b) he thinks he can just pop into the spy business on a lark.

He ends up dragging no-nonsense Carroll into this mess, which is nearly his undoing – and is definitely the undoing of the poor, defenceless bad guys.

Dear Villain, we can tell you’re a bit anxious, and well you should be. How do you know if you have a Madeleine Carroll Smarty Pants Prisoner (SPP) on your hands? We’re glad you asked.

Who are you? Where are we going? Why do I have to go? Image: lkdsjf aoieuf sdjkf

Tip: A quizzical woman is already on her way to outsmarting you. Image:

Clue #1: An SPP will ask lots of questions, but don’t think this is the sign of a hysterical female. If you know what’s good for you, you’d better answer her with some believable baloney.

Example: In the film, villains tell Carroll and Donat they will be driven to a police station, but it quickly becomes apparent they are driving elsewhere. Carroll starts blasting the men with questions: How come they’re not going to the police station? Where are they going? Why are they going this way, not that way? You see, she’s already figuring out a way to escape and Do You In.

Robert Donat hides from the millions of coppers Carroll has alerted. Image: aksdj flkasdjf ksdjf

Tip: A woman who alerts 5 coppers will just as easily alert 5,000. Image:

Clue #2: An SPP never misses an opportunity to tell the police anything. And not just one police officer, but as many as she can find.

Example: On the train to Scotland, when she first meets Donat and recognizes him as a fugitive, Carroll alerts every copper on the train – and there happen to be several to alert. Not only that, she’s gotten them so worked up they’ve phoned ahead to every train station in the U.K.

You think this person isn’t going to marshall an entire government against you, if so inclined?

In response to this threat, Carroll calls Donat a "big bully". Image: lskdjf aiefj

Tip: If a woman is calling you names, she’s not afraid of you – even if she’s in a chokehold. Image:

Clue #3: An SPP may employ tough talk, but instead of masking an inner fear, it’s actually making her braver.

Example: While on the run, Carroll makes it clear to Donat that she doesn’t believe his so-called “spy story”:

Donat:    “Do you want them to hang me for a murder I never committed?”
Carroll:  “As long as they hang you, I don’t care whether you’ve committed it or not.”

Dear Villain, please take our advice and don’t let your ego sully your intellectual capacity. If you’ve gotten yourself entangled with a Madeleine-Carroll-type character, you need to admit defeat and back away slowly.

The 39 Steps: starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay. Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd, 1935, B&W, 83 mins.

This post is part of the MADELEINE CARROLL Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and yours truly. Click HERE for a list of all participants. Madeleine-Carroll-Blog-4_fix

Alfred Hitchcock’s 3D Murder

_____ can't wait for Grace Kelly to put the phone down. Image lsdkfj asd

Anthony Dawson can’t wait for Grace Kelly to hang up. Image:

We had an almost pure classic movie experience recently.

Well, perhaps not us, exactly, but the woman sitting beside us in the theatre, at the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. It was, we might add, SHOWN IN 3D. Whee!

(Note: If you haven’t seen Dial M for Murder, even in 2D, you really ought to ASAP. You can thank us later.)

In the film, Ray Milland plays a former tennis star who discovers his wife (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with an American mystery writer (Robert Cummings). Milland, unwilling to divorce his wife’s money, begins to plan her murder.

The most fascinating element of this film, in our view, is that it takes place on a single set – the couple’s London flat. The one overarching dramatic moment is when the would-be murderer (Anthony Dawson) tries to strangle an unsuspecting Kelly while she struggles furiously, fumbling for a pair of scissors with which to fight back.

(Digression: On the big screen, this moment is riveting. Kelly’s hand desperately gropes behind her for the scissors she knows are within reach; her frantic hand movements reveal a woman who will not let her life be stolen so easily. One can hardly breathe when watching this scene in 3D.)

Even though the action takes place on one set, Hitchcock uses clever camera angles to keep us engaged. For example, when Milland demonstrates to Dawson how the killing should be done, Hitchcock mounts the camera high above the set; it feels as though we’re watching a crime via security camera.

Ray Milland choreographs the perfect murder. Image: lskdjf asdjk

Ray Milland choreographs the perfect murder. Image:

After Dawson has been unexpectedly killed, Milland straightens the room and manipulates bits of evidence before police arrive. Here, Hitchcock places the camera very close to the floor, as though we’re witnessing this as the dead man might.

This film is perfectly cast. Kelly and Cummings are brilliant, and Milland – Great Scott! His lengthy monologue to Dawson, recounting his discovery of Kelly’s affair, is mesmerizing. And when police start to suspect Kelly of cold-blooded murder, the smirky Milland is dazzling as laughs at suggestions that she may be guilty. The police see him as a man defending his wife, but we know he’s delighted that he’s, ahem, getting away with murder.

We (as in, yours truly) have seen this film several times, but it took the big screen and 3-D to make us appreciate it in a new way.

It also took the reactions of the young woman sitting next to us. She had never seen an Alfred Hitchcock film, and – get this – she had never seen a 3-D movie.

One would not have believed it possible in our society.

However. Her reactions would have been similar to someone seeing the film when it was newly released 1954. The woman gasped as Kelly drove the scissors into her attacker’s back. She said, “Oh ho!” at various plot twists, and laughed when, at the end of the film, the inspector (John Williams) combs his moustache while phoning Scotland Yard.

She provided an almost pure classic movie experience because it was like seeing Dial M for Murder for the first time, as Hitchcock intended it to be seen – in a theatre and in 3D. It was a pleasure to be seated next to someone who expressed nothing but admiration for this remarkable film.

Dial M for Murder: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Frederick Knott. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1954, Warnercolor, 105 mins.

On Precise Correspondence when Spying

Peter Lorre (left) gives Madeline Carroll the stink eye. Image: lskdjf asdfkj

Peter Lorre (left) gives Madeleine Carroll the stink eye. Image: The Belcourt

We believe modern Hollywood has been untruthful in its portrayal of the Spy Business. For example, modern spies never have trouble finding a parking spot. Furthermore, they never pay for parking.

Not that we’re annoyed.

The biggest Hollywood misconception, as far as we’re concerned, has to do with paperwork – correspondence paperwork in particular. Everyone in the developed world is saddled with this nonsense including, we’re certain, actual spies. But not according to Hollywood. When was the last time you saw James Bond write a memo?


In order to get a more accurate view of Spy Correspondence, we had to turn to the Master. By this we mean Alfred Hitchcock and his WWI mystery/thriller Secret Agent (1936)This film is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden: Or the British Agent.

Hitchcock’s film adaptation stars Sir John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll as British spies posing as a married couple on vacation as they pursue a German agent in Switzerland. Peter Lorre is Gielgud’s assistant (think: precursor to Batman’s Robin),  and Robert Young is an amorous young man bent on persuading Carroll to ditch her “husband”.

This film is filled with wonderful British phrases (“Now, see here!”) and fast, snappy dialogue (“This lady is not my wife. She has been issued to me officially.”).

It’s also a fascinating espionage story, although the outcome is a little too easy to guess. However, as stated, we are more concerned with an accurate portrayal of Spy Correspondence.

Secret Agent has the usual paperwork formalities: examination of forged passports; letters handed to spies from hotel desk clerks; an incriminating note passed from one employee to another in a factory. Many of these are written in code, which is always thrilling in a spy movie. There is also the de rigueur scene where an urgent telegram is rushed to spies while they are enjoying A Night Out, which subsequently ruins said Night.

As if to drive home the importance of Precise Correspondence, the last shot of the film is of a handwritten note on the back of a postcard. Plus, as if there wasn’t enough paperwork going around, characters also write Letters Of Resignation and Relationship Termination.

However, Spy Correspondence is deadly serious, and one scene in particular demonstrates this graphically. It is a scene that we did not expect, and it made us gasp.

The scene occurs early in the film. While Gielgud and Carroll are in their hotel room casting about for a Spy Plan, a suspicious-looking man outside their hotel stands on a street corner. He pulls a chocolate bar from his pocket and unwraps it. (In an instant replay of this action, we determined the chocolate to be solid – not hollow – Swiss milk chocolate, nut free, rectangular, partitioned into eight sections, 25% cocoa solids.)

After unwrapping the bar, the man THROWS THE CHOCOLATE AWAY to read a note that had been wrapped around it.


Any reasonable person would ask: Would it not be possible to eat the chocolate while reading the note? The answer, apparently, is NO. Nothing shall interfere with Spy Correspondence, not even Swiss chocolate.

Secret Agent is a terrific movie with quirky Hitchcockian touches and a fairly tense plot. It may not have the budget or finesse of Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies, but it’s still one to put on your Must Watch List.

Secret Agent: starring Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Adaptation by Charles Bennett. Gaumont-British Picture Corp. of America, 1936, B&W, 86 mins.

Psst! This post is part of Snoopathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Click on Secret Agent Garbo (below) to read more Top Secret info.


Angela Lansbury: Mother of the Year

Angela Lansbury and her twin, the Queen of Diamonds. Image

Angela Lansbury and her twin, the Queen of Diamonds. Image:


Warning: Spoilers

She’s a cool drink of water, Angela Lansbury is.

In the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury plays the shrewd wife of bombastic political candidate (James Gregory), a man who cannot conceal the fact that he’s an idiot.

Having a moron for a husband is a minor consequence for Lansbury. In fact, she needs a moron if she’s going to scheme her way into the White House. It doesn’t matter who the moron – er, husband – is, as long as he can take direction.

The Manchurian Candidate stars Frank Sinatra as a U.S. Army veteran, recently retired from the Korean War. Sinatra’s character is a broken man – he cannot sleep or concentrate on his work because he suffers from recurring nightmares. These nightmares always revolve around a strange event that may or may not have happened during his tour of duty.

It’s only when Sinatra reconnects with his superior officer (Laurence Harvey) that he begins to piece together the events in Korea, and what they might mean for the United States.

Meanwhile, Lansbury (who is also Harvey’s mother) continues to drag her poor slob of a husband towards the White House. Because her son came home from Korea a decorated war hero, she’s determined to use him as a prop in her husband’s PR campaign.

In this film, Lansbury is a cool, neatly-pressed blonde, with a severely-sprayed ‘do and classic strand of pearls. She is very First Lady-ish, if not downright Presidential. Even in this harshly-lit film, she is stunning in her tailored tweeds. She’s every bit the Movie Star.

And every bit the Villain.


Lansbury supervises her thick-as-a-post husband. Image: lkdsjf

Lansbury supervises her dim-witted husband. Image: Cinema Nostalgia


Lansbury is a Take Charge kind of Villain. She either barks out orders or softly cajoles you into compliance. She smiles and gently presses your arm as though she were your best friend – or she snaps you in two like a brittle cookie. She’s a detonator, this one.

But in most scenes, Lansbury is calm, regarding others with with thinly-veiled contempt. Her expressions reveal the work it takes to drive a fool in politics. In one scene she loses patience with Gregory. “You’re going to look like [an] idiot if you don’t get in there and do exactly what you’re told,” she shouts. Gregory, a seasoned political candidate (and a grown man), whimpers like a kicked puppy.

She takes a different tactic with her beloved son, Harvey, who resists everything about her. In outlining her Master Plan, Lansbury tells him, “[This] will sweep us into the White House with powers that will make martial law look like anarchy.”

Control of the White House! Power! Martial Law!

Is this a villain, or is this a Villain? Here is a woman capable of hijacking an American election and making it look like an act of democracy. Villains don’t get any more cunning than this.

Her genius lies in making everything look easy. Just look at this laundry list of duties:

  1. Single-handedly getting an idiot elected to the White House.
  2. Mastering mind-control techniques.
  3. Breaking up romances if they’re politically inopportune.
  4. Juggling her interests with those of her mysterious co-conspirators.

The Manchurian Candidate, besides being a top-notch political thriller, shows us a diabolical Mother-Villain at work. If you haven’t seen this film yet, put it on your Bucket List immediately.

The Manchurian Candidate: starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and our gal Angela Lansbury. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod.M.C. Productions/United Artists, 1962, B&W, 127 mins.

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and yours truly. Be sure to read all the villainous contributions.


The Delightfully Evil Lilyan Tashman

Lilyan Tashman is distressed by the death of her husband's rich aunt. Image:

Lilyan Tashman manages to squeeze out a tear after the murder of her husband’s rich aunt. Image:

When it comes to movies, we like our campy-ness well done.

So imagine our delight when we discovered a new-to-us performance by Lilyan Tashman in the 1931 mystery thriller Murder by the Clock.

Ms Tashman was unknown to us personally until we read about her life and career at the fab classic movie blog, Shadows and Satin. She certainly led an unusual life; you can read the article here. (Say! If you’re not a regular reader of Shadows and Satin, you should click the “Follow” button whilst there.)

Murder by the Clock is one of those scenarios where rich people are in danger of being killed by greedy poor relatives who want their money. Likewise, the poorer relations are also in danger because the greedy rich folk want to protect said money. There’s lots of arguing and skulking and almost-murdering in this flick, not to mention actual murdering. It’s a bit of a bloodbath when you think about it.

Murder by the Clock is a good story, even if some of the plot developments are a little too convenient. You also need to forgive the some of the stilted, awkward dialogue and actions. (1931 is still pretty early for talkies, after all.) But the camerawork is innovative and has a modern feel; the atmosphere is drenched in a consistent moodiness. Even though some scenes are unintentionally hilarious, we suspect it would be a fascinating film-viewing experience on the big screen.

The best part of the film, by far, is Ms Tashman’s performance as the wife of a jelly-kneed man (Walter McGrail) who stands to inherit a lot of dough from his cranky rich aunt (Blanche Friderici). However, the annoying part about inheriting a fortune is all the waiting around until someone dies, and Ms Tashman’s character is impatient. “Do you think I’m going to sit around and watch my youth disappear?” she  snaps. She asks her husband to think about all the money she – er, we mean he – would get if the aunt were to die suddenly.

To while away the hours, Ms Tashman has acquired a boyfriend (Lester Vail). To this poor slob she insinuates that if the aunt died, and then the husband died, the two could finally marry and live a life of ease.

She also suggests the husband-murdering plan to her husband’s mentally-challenged cousin (Irving Pichel). So if one fellow doesn’t succeed in getting the husband, the other surely will.

She does all this while strutting around in stunning designer clothes and thumbing her nose at police. Plus, she gives a terrific stink eye. Your blood would run cold if someone gave you the Tashman Stink Eye in real life.

The thing about Ms Tashman is this: it’s as though she’s in a different movie than everyone else. Her campy villainess is almost like a wink to us in the audience. While most of the other actors are all serious and dramatic, Ms Tashman practically screams at us, Get a load of what I’m gonna do next. We love her for it. This kind of character takes an actress who is unafraid to grab the scene, throw it on her shoulder and carry it – in high heels no less.

If you’re in the mood to see an early talkie, especially one with impressive Camp Factor, we recommend Murder by the Clock. It’s worth seeing just for Lilyan Tashman alone.

Murder by the Clock: starring William Boyd, Lilyan Tashman, Irving Pichel. Directed by Edward Sloman. Screen Adaptation by Henry Myers. Paramount Publix Corp., B&W, 1931, 74 mins. 

The Boris Karloff Drinking Game

No one escapes Boris Karloff's menacing eye.

Boris Karloff knows all and sees all. Let’s drink to that!

Gentle Reader, we do not normally advocate drinking games while watching classic movies. Today, however, we are making an exception.

If you’re someone who doesn’t imbibe spirits, do not fear! You may still join us with the soft drink of your choice. At the conclusion of the movie, the effect will be the same.

To which movie are we drinking? It’s the 1940 war thriller British Intelligence, starring Boris Karloff and Margaret Lindsay.

This is a film about British and German agents who spy on the opposing government, and on each other. These are very busy spies; they do not eat, shop, play, read, visit or do anything regular people do. They spy. Period.

This film is supposed to take place during World War I, but the costumes are unmistakably 1940-ish. Maybe this doesn’t bother you, but it bothers us no end. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted beat us about the head with a metaphor of another big war. (Now, which one could that be?)

Before we get into the rules of the Drinking Game, here is the basic plot of the film: A female German spy (Lindsay) is sent to England to spy on a family that has Information Useful To The German Government. This family employs a limping French valet (Karloff) who says his wounds are the result of the Germans – blast them!

It’s not long before Karloff and Lindsay discover they are both spies, but for whom are they really spying?

The film has a great cast. Karloff, best known for his portrayal of Frankenstein, is credible as a man you’re never quite sure of. Plus, he has a really creepy way of looking at you sideways, so that you fear what’s going to happen next.

Lindsay, who bears a passing resemblance to Barbara Stanwyck in this film, is such a good sport. She marches through the awful script with the determination to make this a better movie than it has a right to be.

But it’s still a dreadful movie. Which is why it’s necessary to employ the Boris Karloff Drinking Game. Are you ready?

A drink must be taken for…

  • Each time an agent changes his/her story about which government he or she is spying for.
  • Each time a new spy is revealed.
  • Every how-very-convenient plot device.
  • Each time a member of the English family suddenly appears on screen, only to be written out again.
  • Every dire prediction of a “strong man” rising to power in Germany at some point in the future.
  • Every time you suspect a piece in Lindsay’s wardrobe was stolen from another movie set.

This constitutes a lot of drinking during the 62 minutes it takes to get through the film. You’d better make sure you’re sitting down – even if you’re just consuming soft drinks.

Do we recommend viewing this movie without the aid of alcohol or caffeine? We do not.

If you’ve already seen British Intelligence and have more recommendations for the Boris Karloff Drinking Game, please let us know. This movie provides a vast wealth of liquid opportunity.

British Ingelligence: Starring Boris Karloff, Margaret Lindsay, Bruce Lester. Directed by Terry Morse. Written by Lee Katz. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., B&W, 1940, 62 mins.

James Cagney, Secret Agent

James Cagney WWII Secret Agent 20th Century Fox 1947

James Cagney (centre, illuminated) works with the French Resistance.

Have you ever dreamt of becoming a secret agent?

We (as in, yours truly) could never handle the life of a spy. It sounds far too stressful.

We realized this while watching the WWII spy thriller, 13 Rue Madeleine (1947). To be a good secret agent you need to come up with credible lies quickly, and then remember them later on.

Noooo, thank you. We ain’t that clever.

Instead, we’ll just enjoy movies about secret agents, like the fast-paced 13 rue Madeleine. The title refers to an address in the city of La Havre where, according to the film, the Gestapo headquarters are situated. This building is never shown, only its iron gates, which adds an element of creepiness. The only other part of the building that is shown is a sparse, plain room in the basement that is used for torture.

The movie begins as a documentary-style film on how to become a secret agent. Seventy-seven people are selected to be trained as agents, and they are taken to a training facility near Washington, DC. This group learns offensive and defensive tactics, morse code, and how to lie if they’re caught going through someone’s office. You know, the usual spy stuff.

James Cagney stars as Robert Sharkey, a scholar and master linguist. He trains this particular group of students to be super spies before they are shipped to Europe for various espionage assignments.

However, there is a glitch: one of the students is a Nazi agent. Not only must Cagney must find out who it is, he must give this person false information about the Allies’ D-Day plans. Cagney realizes that the Nazis are relying on this agent to retrieve valuable information about the invasion.

As soon as the agents are put on a plane to cross the English Channel, the movie kicks into high gear. This is no longer a documentary; this is now a first-rate spy thriller, where you find yourself talking out loud to the movie. (We actually said things like, “Oh no!” and, “Don’t go up there!”) The scene on the plane is incredibly tense; it is so good you’ll want to watch it twice.

Once those agents parachute from the plane, the movie becomes a hang-onto-your-hat ride with a sudden, shocking finish.

13 Rue Madeleine doesn’t claim to be based on a true story. However, there really was a top-secret organization called the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) that was created during WWII and is regarded to be the forerunner of the CIA. The OSS sent spies all over the world during WWII to form a global intelligence network. It is also true that the Allies “leaked” false information about the D-Day invasion.

Cagney is really good as the super-smart spy instructor, but so is Richard Conte who plays one of Cagney’s students. The French actress, Annabella, was given second billing but her role is too small; her character’s story would make for a fascinating movie in itself. Also watch for Karl Malden, E.G. Marshall and Red Buttons in uncredited roles.

If you’re in the mood for a realistic spy thriller (where agents rely more wits than electronic gadgets), you might want to see 13 rue Madeleine. It will also give you a chance to see if you’d like to fulfill your life-long dream of becoming a Secret Agent.

13 Rue Madeleine: starring James Cagney, Annabella, Richard Conte. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Written by John Monks, Jr. and Sy Bartlett. 20th Century Fox, 1947, B&W, 95 mins.

Ingrid Bergman Goes Insane

This post is part of the 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by the lovely and talented ScribeHard on Film and Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. This blogathon runs every day in August.

Poh-la, I can't take you anywhere

Charles Boyer convinces Ingrid Bergman that she’s going crazy.

Have you ever been in a situation so surreal you felt you were being driven out of your mind?

This is the situation Ingrid Bergman faces in the 1944 thriller Gaslight.

Bergman, in her Academy Award-winning role, plays Paula, a newly-married woman who moves into her deceased aunt’s house with her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer). No sooner have they settled in than Boyer starts the process we now call gaslighting: he begins manipulating Bergman and has her believing that she is responsible for losing and/or hiding valuable household objects. (Never mind that this is her house and they are her objects.)

Boyer is delightfully evil in this movie. He has exaggerated airs as the put-upon husband, a man who sighs loudly and talks to his frantic wife as though she were an imbecile. But as strong a presence as Boyer is on screen, Bergman is equally strong if not stronger.

Bergman gives an exceptional performance as a woman who cannot believe she’s going insane. Her character is smart and rational, but slowly she’s being convinced that she’s going crazy. Bergman’s disbelief at her accusing husband matches our own; there is simply no way she’s responsible for the things she’s accused of. Her character desperately wants to please her new husband and tries to suppress fits of hysteria when he calmly reprimands her for losing her memory again. You feel for Bergman and cringe every time Boyer gets a certain look in his eye, which means he has a new and troubling accusation. This, in turn, becomes another push towards madness.

Slowly, Bergman is isolated and cut off from the world. She becomes nervous and uncertain, and finds she cannot leave the house; she doesn’t trust herself Out In The World. Even the maid (Angela Lansbury in a scene-stealing role) has been turned against her, and speaks to her with utter contempt. Bergman’s only friend is Brian (Joseph Cotten), a detective from Scotland Yard who is suspicious of Boyer.

Gaslight is a tense thriller that exploits one of society’s most dreaded fears – the fear of going insane. The real tension in this movie deals with Bergman’s mental health: Can she keep hold of her sanity long enough to expose her husband’s dark secret?

Our favourite scene is near the end of the film, when Bergman and Boyer have their final conversation. We will not reveal any details, for fear of giving away the story, but it is a scene so well acted it almost makes you gasp. Bergman shows us her intense acting ability and when the scene is over you almost can’t blink. Then you reach for the rewind button and watch it all over again. It is that good.

If you have not yet seen Gaslight, promise us you’ll make it an urgent priority in your life. With incredible acting and directing, plus a water-tight script, you’ll be glad you made the effort to see it.

Gaslight: starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten. Directed by George Cukor. Written by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1944, B&W, 114 mins.

Hitchcock’s Dark, Twisted London

Look at my creepy, creepy eyebrows

Oscar Homolka is a man of secrets.

*Spoiler alert!

Who isn’t a sucker for a world that never existed?

For instance, look at the London in the opening scenes of Sabotage (1936), a tense thriller from Alfred Hitchcock‘s pre-Hollywood period. This London so well-behaved that a bobby reprimands a green grocer for dropping a piece of lettuce because someone could step on it and “break ‘is leg.”

Break ‘is leg, indeed! Imagine a law enforcement officer with enough time on his hands to make a fuss about lettuce! It’s ridiculous!

Yes, it would seem like a simpler life, in a simpler time, unless you’re stressed-out Sylvia Sidney and married to creepy Oscar Homolka.

Homolka is Mr. Verloc, a slightly odd man who owns the Bijou Cinema. He has a thick accent and sinister eyebrows, and is inexplicably married to a much-younger, beautiful British woman (Sidney). Sidney’s character, in between running the theatre and fixing gourmet meals, looks after her kid brother (Desmond Tester).

Unbeknownst to everyone, Homolka’s character moonlights as a saboteur. In the film’s opening, he puts sand in an electrical generator which causes a power outage. But this does not satisfy his sabotage superiors, and they ask him to do something more sinister, such as planting an explosive device in a cloakroom in Piccadilly Circus.

It is remarkable that, in this movie, people are not naturally suspicious of Homolka. He is a menacing character who always looks like he’s trying not to strangle you. It is only when evidence against Homolka begins to mount, that the police come sniffing around the theatre. The grocer next store (he of the dropped lettuce) quizzes Homolka. “You must’ve been showing some funny sort of films,” he says accusingly. “You know, perhaps a bit too odd.”

Homolka is told to plant the device early on a Saturday afternoon; it is timed to go off at 1:45 pm. However, because the police are watching him and his house, Homolka cannot leave. He has the bomb but there is no way to dispose of it.

However, he realizes the boy, his wife’s beloved kid brother, could transport the bomb without arousing suspicion. Yes, of course! The bomb could be disguised as film reels that need to be returned to Picadilly Circus! The boy need never know the truth because surely he could deliver the package in time!

This is where Hitchcock toys with his audience. Turns out the kid brother doesn’t walk, he meanders. He becomes distracted by a street performer who demonstrates personal grooming products. Then he stops to watch a parade. Finally, realizing the time, he decides to take a bus, even though the flammable film reels (not to mention EXPLOSIVES) are not allowed on public transport.

Hitchcock never fails to remind us of the time of day; he keeps showing clocks that are counting down. It’s 1:30, and the boy is still on the bus, innocently clutching the explosives. It’s 1:35; now 1:40! The bus is stalled in gridlock traffic! It’s 1:43! 1:44!

Well, the boy comes to a bad end and at that moment you are filled with rage and disbelief. Suddenly, this is no longer genteel London where bobbies fuss over dropped lettuce. This is a dark, twisted London where saboteurs kill innocent children and shrug it off as the price of doing business.

Some movie scenes will always stay with you. You may forget the actors, or the title, or details of the plot, but there are certain things that will never be erased from your memory. If you watch Hitchcock’s Sabotage, we guarantee the scene in Piccadilly Circus is one you won’t easily forget.

Sabotage: starring Sylvia Sidney, Oscar Homolka, Desmond Tester. Written by Charles Bennett. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Gaumont-British Picture Corp., B&W, 1936, 75 mins.

This blog is in support of the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by This Island RodFerdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. Click HERE to donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Wartime Spies on Vacation

Look here, old chap, I have ways of making you talk

Frederick Valk plays James Mason for his lunch money.

The best way to spread a rumour is to take someone into your confidence and swear them to secrecy.

Because who can keep quiet when they’ve got a really juicy tidbit they’re bursting to share?

This don’t-tell-anybody-but-make-sure-you-tell-everybody ploy is a trick James Mason uses in the British war-time thriller Hotel Reserve (1945). Mason is a happy Austrian medical student vacationing at a French resort during WWII. But when police discover he (unknowingly) possesses images of a top-secret French military base, he must find out who shot the photographs.

It’s weird to see Mason as an innocent bystander, in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced into the role of a reluctant stool pigeon. (We much prefer to see him as a bossy villain, such as the delightfully evil Phillip Vandamm in North by Northwest.)

Frankly, we found Hotel Reserve a bit odd. The plot is a stretch: someone at the resort has accidentally used Mason’s camera to take illegal military photographs. The premise is meant to be Hitchcock-ian, no doubt, but in this film it falls flat. Never mind treasonous agents, who is that careless with their camera when they’re on vacation?

Then there is the matter of Mason’s character. He is supposed to be Austrian but his demeanor and accent are stereotypically British. For example, when a fellow guest catches a large fish, Mason exclaims, “I say! That is a fish, isn’t it?”

Plus there are the usual supporting characters: the untrustworthy hotel proprietress; the grumpy and secretive German; the unlikable honeymooning couple; the British tourist (complete with tweeds and a pipe); and the young woman, Clare Hamilton (Maureen O’Hara’s real-life sister), who is hopelessly in love with Mason. Everyone is supposed to be suspicious – who, WHO shot those pictures? – but it’s painfully easy to see who’s guilty and who isn’t.

The movie also seems to have trouble deciding if it’s a thriller, or a pseudo film noir, or a light-hearted drama. In one scene, a man squeezes the flash bulb on an old-fashioned camera and it makes the sound of someone passing wind. The man squeezes the bulb repeatedly, which produces rapid-fire flatulence sound effects.

And yet, there are things to love about this movie: the scenery of the seaside; the interesting sets; the foreign feel of the film. The texture is rough and in no way feels like it’s been manufactured by the slick Hollywood studio system.

We also like the importance the script places on eating lunch. Any movie that takes lunch this seriously is A-OK with us.

We’ve given it a mixed review but we don’t want to discourage you from watching Hotel Reserve. Not at all! You really ought to see it because it isn’t from Hollywood, and because James Mason is always worth it.

Reserve: starring James Mason, Lucie Mannheim and Raymond Lovell. Written by John Davenport. Directed by Victor Hanbury, Lance Comfort and Max Greene. RKO Radio Pictures, BW, 1945, 90 mins.