RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Angus MacPhail

Whisky Galore! (June 16, 1949)

Whisky Galore
Whisky Galore! (1949)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Ealing Studios

I first saw Whisky Galore back in college. It wasn’t part of a class, it was just a Saturday-night feature shown in the film department.

I went to Bard College, which is in a beautiful, rural part of New York State. Procuring booze wasn’t exactly difficult, but it could be a challenge, especially if you didn’t have a car. So this rollicking tale of whisky drinkers on an isolated island suddenly facing the prospect of living without “the water of life” resonated with more than a few audience members. Hell, some of us were probably only there because we couldn’t find any booze.

I enjoyed Whisky Galore the first time I saw it, but I didn’t find it uproariously funny. This time around was different. I now think it’s one of the best comedies ever made.

Except for a few sight gags here and there — like a straight line of footsteps leading into a cave where whisky is hidden and a weaving, curving line of footsteps leading out — most of the humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek. I realized that I’d completely missed some of the funniest bits of the movie on my first viewing. (If you have even the slightest difficulty understanding English or Scottish accents — or if you’re at all hard of hearing — you’re going to want to watch this film with subtitles. The DVD currently available to rent from Netflix has no closed captioning, and there are several reviews written solely to complain about that fact.)

Whisky Galore is based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, which was inspired by the sinking of the S.S. Politician in 1941. The screenplay is by MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail.

The film takes place in 1943 in the Outer Hebrides, on the fictional island of Todday. The Second World War is raging, but far from Todday. The Home Guard goes on maneuvers and set up roadblocks that would be ridiculous even without the benefit of hindsight. The Home Guard in Todday is commanded by the puffed-up Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who is English, and frequently mystified by the peculiarities of the Scottish natives of this far-flung island.

One day, disaster strikes. Not famine or pestilence, but something far, far worse. No whisky.

But then, one foggy night, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, runs aground on the shoals.

When Waggett gets wind of the locals’ plan to “liberate” as much whisky as they can from the ship before it sinks, he jumps into action. Waggett feels strongly that order must be maintained. Allow a little looting, and anarchy will follow.

Basil Radford

Whisky Galore wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life.

Todday seems to contain just two small villages, Snorvaig and Garryboo. The insularity of Todday is personified by the young schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who assigns his students a composition assignment, “Why I like living in Garryboo.”

One of his pupils reads his essay aloud: “There are more people in Snorvaig. But they are not so nice as the people in Garryboo.”

Even though Campbell is an adult with a real job, he lives with his mother (played by Jean Cadell), who still treats him like a child. She doesn’t let him use the telephone on the Sabbath, and when he protests, she scolds and punishes him. “Go to your room, George Campbell! There’ll be no church for you in Snorvaig today!” And he sheepishly complies.

All the actors in this film are wonderful, and perfectly cast. Besides the pitch-perfect performances by Radford and Cadell (who have the funniest exchange of the picture when he tries to convince her to let her son out of his room because he needs his Home Guard second-in-command), I especially liked the lovely Joan Greenwood and the stalwart Bruce Seton as the man who loves her.

But, as I said, all the actors are wonderful. And this is a wonderful film. Even the ending, which seems to have been forced on the filmmakers by the censors, is hilarious.

Advertisements

Spellbound (Dec. 28, 1945)

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United Artists

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound gets knocked around for its basis in Freudian theory. Many reviews of the film written in the past 20 years use words like “dated,” “implausible,” and “preposterous.” A lot of these same reviews also praise the dream sequence, which was designed by Salvador Dalí, as the most memorable part of the film.

Freud has been knocked around, criticized, and discredited since the turn of the century, so to dismiss a film’s plot and ideas merely because they are “Freudian” seems like picking low-hanging fruit. Granted, Freud had a lot of wild ideas, but he was a brilliant thinker, and should be viewed as a philosopher and a humanist as much as a doctor or scientist. Also, many people who dismiss Freud out of hand haven’t actually read any of his writing, and cannot discuss his ideas beyond the fact that they’ve heard that they’re loony.

Upon revisiting the film, I found the much-praised dream sequence by Dalí overly gimmicky, adding little to the narrative beyond a “gee whiz” moment. (Hitchcock had almost nothing to do with its production. Dalí worked with a production unit from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures on the sequence.) There’s nothing wrong with “gee whiz” moments, but Spellbound is an underappreciated film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it bears rewatching as a complete work of art, not just as a showcase for pop surrealism or “dated” notions of neuroses and the unconscious.

In 1942, after winning back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture (then called “outstanding production”) for Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), producer David O. Selznick was morose. He took time off and sought treatment. His experience with the “talking cure” was so positive that he decided to produce a picture with psychoanalysis as its subject. In 1943, Hitchcock mentioned to Selznick that he owned the screen rights to the 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym “Francis Beeding.” The Gothic potboiler was about a homicidal lunatic who kidnaps a doctor named Murchison and impersonates him, taking over his position as head of a mental institution. A female doctor named Constance Sedgwick uncovers the impostor’s ruse and eventually marries the real Dr. Murchison.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and his friend Angus MacPhail crafted a preliminary screenplay in which Dr. Murchison was the outgoing head of the institution and Dr. Edwardes was his successor. They also created a romance between Constance and Dr. Edwardes, as well as the downhill skiing set piece that cures Edwardes of his amnesia. In March 1944, Selznick offered Hitchcock the talents of Ben Hecht, and Hitchcock and Hecht worked together for months to refine the screenplay. They even visited mental institutions, and preliminary versions of Spellbound featured more semi-documentary material than the final product does.

The final product may be, as Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” But with Hitchcock behind the camera, even the most pedestrian manhunt story can become something dazzling. Hitchcock considered Spellbound one of his minor works, but part of his underestimation of the picture could have been due to all the clashes he had with Selznick, who was known for meddling with his productions. Selznick even hired his own therapist, Dr. May E. Romm, as a technical advisor for the film. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dr. Romm told Hitchcock that an aspect of psychoanalysis in Spellbound was presented inaccurately, Hitchcock responded, “It’s only a movie.”

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the director of Green Manors, is being forced into retirement shortly after returning to work following a nervous breakdown. His replacement is the young, handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). “My age hasn’t caught up with me,” Dr. Edwardes responds when someone mentions how young he appears. But this isn’t the case, of course. He is actually an amnesiac who has no idea who he is or how he arrived at Green Manors. His state of confusion is such that he initially believed he was Dr. Edwardes, and is now playing the role because he doesn’t know what else to do. Dr. Petersen uncovers the truth, but she has already fallen instantly, madly in love with him. When the rest of the world learns the truth about Dr. Edwardes, he flees Green Manors. He still has amnesia, but he knows that his real initials are “J.B.” He heads for New York, and tells Dr. Petersen not to follow him. Does she follow his advice? Of course she doesn’t.

The romance is a high point of the film. The presentation of Dr. Petersen’s initial “frigidity” is certainly dated, but it leads to one of Hitchcock’s wildest sequences. When Bergman first kisses Peck, a shot of her forehead dissolves into a shot of a door. The door opens, revealing another door, which also opens, revealing another door, and so on.

Bergman’s performance is pitch perfect in every scene. Peck’s performance is less natural, but it works, since he is playing a man who literally doesn’t know who he is. (Apparently Peck craved more direction from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock just kept telling him things like “drain your face of all emotion.” Hitchcock had little patience for method acting.) Also, you would be hard-pressed to find two actors in 1945 who were more physically attractive than Bergman or Peck.

The cinematography by George Barnes is another high point. Each shot in Spellbound is beautifully constructed, and gives off a silvery glow. There are a number of choices that are still shocking, such as a flashback to an accidental death, or the penultimate sequence in the film, in which a P.O.V. shot shows a revolver being turned directly on the audience. When the trigger is pulled, there is a splash of red, the only instance of color in the film. It’s an assault on the audience par excellence from a man who spent his entire career assaulting his audience while almost never alienating them, which is not an easy thing to do.

Miklós Rózsa’s score for the film incorporates a haunting theremin melody, as did his score for The Lost Weekend, released around the same time. Rózsa won an Academy Award for best score for his work on Spellbound. Hitchcock was disappointed in the music, however, since it emphasized the romantic aspects of the film, and was more to Selznick’s liking than his own.

Sometimes creative dissonance leads to great creations, however. Spellbound is a great movie, whether or not its producer and director ever saw eye to eye.

Dead of Night (Sept. 4, 1945)

DeadOfNightDead of Night is a British anthology of horror stories with many layers and a cyclical story structure. The five segments are based on stories by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, and Angus MacPhail. Each is great, but the way the stories are told and the way they are linked together is the most interesting thing about the film.

When Dead of Night begins, an architect named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is driven to an English country estate, where he has been hired for a reconstruction project. Once he arrives, and is introduced to the group of people in the living room, he experiences déjà vu. He claims to have dreamed the room and the people in it many times. He is able to predict certain things before they happen in the narrative. A psychiatrist named Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) refuses to believe any of it, but Craig claims that he is being treated by the doctor, and works hard to dispel the doctor’s doubts. In between the stories that people tell, Craig presages disaster. Horrific events will come to pass, he keeps telling his fellow house guests.

Antony Baird tells the first tale. His character is a race car driver named Hugh Grainger who survives a smash-up on the track, but soon after has disturbing visions of a hearse driver who appears in different guises, but always at a quarter after four, and always speaking the words, “Just room for one inside, sir.” This story provides the template that was followed by every Final Destination film, and it does so in less than seven minutes.

The second story is about a young woman named Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) who attends a Christmas party. While playing hide-and-seek with the other young people, she is found by a young man who hides with her, and claims that there was a murder committed in the house in 1860 by a mad young woman. Going off on her own, she discovers a passage into a child’s bedroom, where a little boy sits, weeping. He tells her about his older sister. She puts him to bed and sings to him. When she rejoins the party, she learns that the name the little boy gave her was the name of the boy who was murdered by his sister.

In the third story, a woman named Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) recalls buying a birthday present for her fiancé, Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), a large mirror. He starts seeing strange things in the mirror, such as a room completely different from the one in which he is standing. Increasingly disturbed by her husband’s claims and his strange behavior, Mrs. Cortland tracks down the history of the mirror, and learns that its former owner was a wealthy gentleman who groundlessly accused his wife of infidelity. He murdered his wife, and then sat down in front of the mirror and cut his own throat. Will history repeat itself?

In the fourth story, the owner of the house, and the host of the party, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), tells a comical ghost story about his two good friends, George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne), who were both avid golfers. Bitter rivals on the links, they were the best of friends at all other times, until they both fell in love with the same woman, Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan). They decide to settle things with an unfriendly game of golf. When the game is finished, one of them quite unexpectedly walks into a lake and drowns himself. The winner marries Mary, but is haunted by the voice of his late friend, destroying his golf game for good. (Radford and Wayne played comically sport-obsessed British gentleman in a number of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. Their alliterative pair of names changed from picture to picture, but the schtick was the same.)

In the final story, Dr. Van Straaten tells his own tale. He was once called to examine a ventriloquist named Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) who was accused of the attempted murder of an American ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). Frere’s dummy, Hugo, seemed to have a mind of its own, and threatened to leave Frere for a new owner, Kee. Dummies in horror movies had been done before, (e.g., The Unholy Three), but Dead of Night created a template that many films have used since.

Dead of Night was released on September 4, 1945 in London, and a little less than a year later in the United States, on June 28, 1946, in an edited version. Apparently the U.S. distributors felt that the film’s running time (103 minutes) was too long, so they cut out the golfing story and the Christmas ghost story, leaving only three stories. I can’t imagine seeing this film without them. The structure of the film is deliberate, and all the segments are tied together in a brilliant and surreal climax.