Book Review: Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett

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Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky
Release Date: Mar 24, 2014

It would be rather short sighted to assume that Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution wasn’t altered by the various individuals that collaborated with him. Out of all the screenwriters that Hitchcock worked with, Charles Bennett likely had the most impact upon the director’s cinematic approach to suspense. When one looks at the director’s filmography, it becomes immediately clear that the director’s talents matured during his association with Bennett. After adapting Bennett’s play, Blackmail (1929) into Britain’s first feature length ‘talkie’ (an incredible artistic and commercial success), he went on to make a string of mostly forgettable films. The quality of his films improved exponentially once he teamed up with Bennett to create the screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Hitchcock certainly realized this since he continued to work with Bennett on The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1937). The fact that Hitchcock continued to make masterful film’s after his association with Bennett simply suggests that the writer’s skill had rubbed off on the director. (However, it is also important to note that much of Bennett’s best work was done with Alfred Hitchcock. Obviously, both had much to contribute.) One imagines that the pair would have continued their collaboration had Bennett not moved to Hollywood in 1937. [They would collaborate again on Foreign Correspondent (1940).]

This autobiography by Charles Bennett (with occasional commentary by his son, John Charles Bennett) offers readers the rare opportunity to read what the screenwriting process was like while working with Alfred Hitchcock from a writer’s perspective. The astute reader will recognize immediately that the text is colored by a desire to illustrate (and sometimes over-emphasize) Bennett’s own importance. This is one of those human qualities that everyone seems to possess. Some of the stories told in the book differ greatly from accounts of the same events by other parties. The truth is that nothing in an autobiography is ever an objective account of events. This is what makes them so interesting. The fact that Bennett worked with Alfred Hitchcock during his British period adds an incredible amount of value to the book. This is a period of the director’s career that is rarely explored.

That said; this isn’t a book about Alfred Hitchcock. As John Charles Bennett relates in his preface to his father’s text, Bennett’s title for this memoir was “Life Is a Four-Letter Word.” Obviously, a title mentioning Hitchcock is bound to grab more attention. However, one wonders if it does not do Bennett a discredit. After all, his work with Hitchcock is only one of many topics covered here. The book is an enjoyable account of an extraordinary life, and much of this life had little to do with Alfred Hitchcock.

Lovers of film history would be wise to add this title to their summer reading lists.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

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The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

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Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell

DVD Review: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache

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Distributor: Milestone Films

Release Date: 18/May/2010

Region:1

Length: 57 min

Video: NTSC, SD

Main Audio: French

Subtitles: English (hard coded)

Ratio: 1.33:1

Notes: These shorts are not currently released on Blu-ray in North America. They are currently only available on DVD and this disc is the only release currently in print.

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“I felt the need to make a little contribution to the war effort, and I was both overweight and overage for military service. I knew that if I did nothing, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. It was important for me to do something and also to get right into the atmosphere of war… but it wasn’t too easy to get to England in those days. I flew over in a bomber, sitting on the floor, and when we got halfway across the Atlantic, the plane had to turn back. I took another one two days later. In London, my friend Sidney Bernstein was the head of the film section of the British Ministry of information. It was at his request that I undertook two small films that were tributes to the work of the French Resistance.” -Alfred Hitchcock

In 1940, Hitchcock’s former boss, Michael Balcon, had criticized his former employee in the press. Without naming names, he made his point clear by describing a “plump young junior technician in my studios whom I promoted from department to department. Today, he is one of our most famous directors and he is in Hollywood, while we who are left behind short-handed are trying to harness the films to our great national effort.”

The criticism hurt Hitchcock, who had left the country before the London bombings in order to work for Selznick. He responded in the press, claiming that “Balcon’s view is colored by his own personal experiences with Hollywood… He’s a permanent Donald Duck… The British government has only to call upon me for my services.”

In 1943, the British government took him up on this offer. Selznick was a bit reluctant to allow his meal ticket to leave for England, but the producer eventually allowed the director to leave under the condition that he would work on the scenario for their next collaboration (which was based on Francis Beeding’s novel, “The House of Doctor Edwardes”).

The British Ministry of Information was responsible for releasing information to the public that would benefit the war effort (and suppressing any information from the British public that might damage moral). This department is responsible for several infamous  moral boosting posters, which were distributed around the country.

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freedom poster

Hitchcock’s shorts were to be the cinematic equivalent of these posters and the director seemed more than pleased to make them.

After his extremely uncomfortable voyage to his home country, Hitchcock was able to begin work on the shorts.

“…the idea was to show them in parts of France where the Germans were losing ground in order to help the French people appreciate the role of the Resistance.” -Alfred Hitchcock

The details of the scenarios were worked out by Hitchcock and his long-time associate, Angus McPhail in Hitchcock’s suite at Claridge’s. Bon Voyage was then scripted by Arthur Calder-Marshall and Aventure Malgache was primarily the work of J.O.C. Orton. Claude Dauphin helped the writers with the french dialogue.

Sidney Bernstein had arranged that the Molière players (a theatrical company built with exiled French actors) perform in the film. He also used actual members of the French underground. None of these actors were individually credited in the film, as it would have been extremely unsafe for them. Hitchcock elaborated on this in one of his interviews of the period:

“I had to round up every available French actor in London, but there were not enough of them. Most of the players were members of the underground and fighting French who had never had any stage or screen experience. It was incredible to find myself working with men who, only a day before, had been in Paris.” -Alfred Hitchcock

Stages for the shorts were built at the Associated British Studios at Welwyn Garden City with very little money. Hitchcock and his cinematographer, Günther Krampf, began shooting the the two shorts in extremely quick succession on January20, 1944.

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“The first short was Bon Voyage. It was a little story about an RAF man who is escorted out of France through the Resistance channels. His escort was a Polish officer. When he arrives in London, the RAF man is interrogated by an officer of the Free French Forces, who informs him that his Polish escort was really a Gestapo man. Upon that startling revelation, we go through the journey across France all over again, but this time we show all sorts of details that the young RAF man hadn’t noticed at first, various indications of the Pole’s complicity with the Gestapo detail. At the end of the story there was a twist showing how the Polish officer had been trapped. At the same time, the RAF man learned that the young French girl who’d helped them, and had spotted the Pole as a spy, had been killed by him.” -Alfred Hitchcock

What modern audiences might fail to notice, is the meticulous war-time detail given to the film. Several French Resistance members were brought in as consultants in order to make sure there were no errors in the production.

“The slightest error, they feared, might hold the picture up to ridicule… I couldn’t show a scene where cigarette butts are lying around. French audiences would simply laugh off such a preposterous sight.You must remember that where people are limited to four cigarettes a day, as they are in France now, there is no such thing as an unclaimed butt. People take a few puffs on a cigarette and stuff the but into a match box, taking it out later for another puff.” -Alfred Hitchcock

There were other such examples given as well.

“I showed a restaurant. Ordinarily, you would never think about the look of the table where a meal has been finished. But in representing a French restaurant of today, you do. There are no crusts of bread left on the table. If I permitted anything like that, it would simply mean to future French audiences that the people who made the picture didn’t know what they were doing.” -Alfred Hitchcock

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Bon Voyage has a structure somewhat like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (and predates the film by several years). This is merely an observation and should not be interpreted as a suggestion that Kurosawa was influenced by the film in any way. As a matter of fact, there is almost no chance that he was even able to see the film. However, the story also brings to mind some of the more interesting Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and one wonders if the short provided a blueprint for the series. 

The only certainty is that working on the short directly influenced Aventure Malgache.

“We used to work on the screenplay in my room at Claridge’s, and there was a whole group of French officers, including a certain Commander or Colonel Forestier, who never agreed with anything the others suggested. We realized that the Free French were very divided against one another, and these inner conflicts became the subject of the next film, Aventure Malgache. One of the men there was an actor and a lawyer whose Resistance name was Clarousse. He was in his late sixties, but he had lots of energy and he was always at odds with his Free French companions who finally threw him in jail, in Tananarive. It was a true story and Clarousse told it himself. But when it finished, there was some disagreement about it and I believe they decided not to release it.” -Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock’s recollection was quite accurate. The powers that be decided not to release the film. It was decided that a film showing the ineffectiveness of political squabbling didn’t make for effective propaganda during wartime. They simply weren’t interested in honesty or important sociopolitical messages. Hitchcock’s film illuminated issues that the MOI usually tried to suppress.

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The film was locked away and was actually censored by those who financed the film, calling it “inflammatory.” Bon Voyage received an extremely limited release. It was distributed in France and Belgium for a very short time. The films were eventually locked away, and they remained unseen until 1993. Today, they are seen as an important part of Alfred Hitchcock’s canon.

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The Presentation:

The disc is contained in the standard DVD case with reasonably attractive cover art. On the back there is a brief history and a summary of both shorts.

The disc includes only chapter menus.

Picture Quality:

The film is only available on DVD in North America. The image is serviceable and probably a slight improvement on Image Entertainment’s disc, which is now out of print. It is slightly disappointing that the subtitles are hard coded, but this is forgivable under the circumstances. The quality is slightly better than what one might expect from some of the public domain houses, but might not live up to some of the more impressive DVD releases that modern audiences are accustomed to.

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Sound Quality:

The disc features an adequate mono soundtrack. There is some very slight hiss, but the track is consistently clear and dialogue is always intelligible.

Special Features:

There are no special features available on this disc.

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Final Words:

In short, Milestone Films deserves praise for making otherwise unattainable films available to the public. I recommend this disc to Hitchcock fans, but hope that these films eventually receive a quality Blu-ray release.

http://www.milestonefilms.com

Review by: Devon Powell