I'm going to concentrate on the films of British genius Alfred Hitchcock, whose big screen career stretches from the early days of silent film up to the 1970s. I may dwell on some of his slightly more obscure works, since I figure you've probably already seen Psycho at least once. I'm not going to consider films in which he wasn't the director, and if you're hoping I've somehow found one of his lost films, sorry, but no. I'm not that lucky.
Without further ado:
Sabotage (aka The Woman Alone). This 1936 drama stars Oskar Homolka as saboteur Karl Anton Verloc, Sylvia Sidney as his wife, John Loder as heroic detective Sergeant Ted Spencer, and child actor Desmond Tester as young Stevie. Karl is an agent for hire who agrees to carry out acts of sabotage in London. We first see him tampering with a power station, temporarily knocking it out. He's expecting a big reward for this but is disappointed to learn his bosses aren't best pleased, as his stunt did nothing except make London laugh when they wanted London terrified. This leads them to demand greater things of Verloc, and they supply him with a bomb which Verloc is supposed to plant at a train station. However Verloc gets nervous and, thinking he'll be suspected, he gives the disguised bomb to young Stevie to deliver instead. This kicks off one of the most suspenseful scenes in British cinema as Stevie, all unknowing, tries to get to his destination in time. We watch him get lost, get delayed, and all the while are screaming inside because at any moment the bomb could go off.
- Bookhounds Keepers need to see this film for its accurate and fascinating portrayal of London in the 1930s, particularly the street scenes.
- As an espionage thriller it's remarkable for three things:
- Its portrayal of its antiheroes as misanthropic, greedy men, which is a more accurate depiction of actual traitors and spies than usually seen on film.
- Its portrayal of hero Ted Spencer, as a reminder of how we used to imagine the heroes of this kind of thriller. An archetype soon to be replaced by the likes of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, Spencer is more a Bulldog Drummond type, but unlike the stock hero he abandons his principles pretty quickly when Mrs Verloc, the woman he loves, is in danger.
- The bomb-maker, who has to be seen to be believed.
The Lady Vanishes. This 1938 tale sees Margaret Lockwood as carefree dilettante Iris Henderson thrust headfirst into mystery and death aboard a luxury train that might as well be the Orient Express. She's travelling across Europe back to England so she can marry a blue-blooded idiot, but falls in with octogenarian Miss Froy, a charming old lady who vanishes mysteriously. Iris' attempts to find out what happened to her are frustrated when all her fellow passengers say they've never heard of or seen Miss Froy, and Iris is accused of making the whole thing up. Knife-wielding magicians and sinister bandaged men follow in quick succession, as Iris dodges assassins and soldiers in her search for the truth.
- If you've ever wanted to run Horror on the Orient Express, this is the movie for you.
- The first appearance of comedy stock British characters Charters and Caldicott, who appear in several other films including wartime espionage drama Night Train to Munich. A master-class in how to make supporting characters memorable.
Saboteur. A wartime drama which kicks off with the immolation of a bomber factory, and one of the most cold-blooded cinematic killings of all time. As the factory goes up in flames, two would-be heroes rush to the rescue. The villain passes one of them a fire extinguisher, which is immediately grabbed by his friend who rushes in to fight the blaze. Unfortunately for him the extinguisher's actually full of gasoline, and he dies in a ball of flame. Admittedly as an assassination it's a bit cheesy - how did the villain know to have a trick fire extinguisher on hand at that exact moment? - but as a piece of cinema it's undeniably effective. Which is emblematic of the movie as a whole; because it's filmed in 1942 when everyone's at their patriotic height - filming started two weeks after Pearl Harbor - there are any number of Truly Heroic Moments And Brave Speeches, but that doesn't prevent this being a brilliant film. The climax alone, atop the Statue of Liberty, is worth the price of admission.
- If Lady Vanishes is a master-class in making supporting characters memorable, this is a master-class in villainy. One character in particular, whose name I shan't mention as it might spoil his entrance - one of the best introductions of a major character I've ever seen - is superb. Charming, persuasive, and utterly ruthless, his defense of totalitarianism is chilling. Moreover for a wartime film about sabotage there isn't a racist Japanese or German stereotype in it, which is remarkable in and of itself.
- As luck would have it I'm reading Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil, and thought this was worth repeating: 'The real horror of Himmler is not that he was unusual or unique but that he was in many ways quite ordinary, and that he could have lived out his life as a chicken farmer, a good neighbor with perhaps some antiquated ideas about people.'
- Hitchcock's known for gorgeous set-pieces, but that moment atop Lady Liberty is undoubtedly one of his best. Better, I'd say, than a very similar moment in North By Northwest, though the latter film is more well known.
- Night's Black Agents Directors wondering what Dust mode looks like on film need look no further. One scene in particular, the murder of a security man, epitomizes the whole gruesome, exhausting business.
- Ever wonder what it's like to create Thrilling Contest scenes that aren't car chases or acrobatic parkour leaps from rooftop to rooftop? See how you can have a theoretical physics Thrilling Contest, or a cat-and-mouse with two buses.
- The race to the border is the very essence of an extended Heat contest, right up to the final moment when someone machine guns the plot.
- Much like The Lady Vanishes the supporting characters are memorable and interesting in their own right. My hat's off to unnamed tetchy ballerina played by actual ballerina Tamara Toumanova; now there's someone you have to feel a little sorry for!
Topaz. On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a French intelligence operative is asked by an American contact to investigate potential NATO leaks within the French government. In doing so he runs foul of Topaz, a French spy ring that's been funneling NATO military secrets to Moscow. He has to use every trick in the book in his search for the truth, and even then it might not be enough, as his shadowy opposite number Columbine, head of Topaz, is so well connected that not even the strongest evidence may be enough to get him arrested, never mind convicted. Frederick Stafford, a spy film veteran, plays the heroic French lead Andre Deveraux, and at the time critics blamed his performance for the film's poor box office. Having seen the film I don't agree; his performance wasn't stellar, but he's unfairly blamed. No, to my mind the larger problem is that an audience used to Bond level heroics can't get behind a spymaster who actually behaves like a spymaster - that is, he gets other people to do all the dirty work. So the action scenes and heroics belong to other actors, and Stafford shows up only when the big scenes are over and done. Even at the end - and there are several possible endings depending on which version of the end you watch - he isn't directly involved. All the big moments belong to other actors.
- Night's Black Agents directors and players both need to watch this, to get a better understanding of Network. Deveraux is a master of this very important Ability; his agents and catspaws can be found all over the world, even in Castro's Cuba. It's thanks to them that he succeeds, and by that I mean it's often thanks to their shattered corpses, as it's a hard life being a Network contact. Deveraux's own Network pool is so exhausted that, by the end, he's recruiting family members, leading to a tense moment when one of them goes missing, presumed murdered.
- If yours is a Dust game, this could be a useful way of keeping Agents alive. After all someone's got to risk themselves, and many players would rather it wasn't their character. However it does mean that the big action scenes end up going to Network contacts rather than the characters themselves; the Director may wish to impose Stability penalties, or let players play Network characters for that all-important moment when the enemy spy is bearded in his den, just before the vampire counterspies turn up and make steak tartare out of everyone.
- In fact let me propose a device I'll call The Topaz Maneuver: If an Agent wants to create a Network contact but has no Network to spend, the Agent can spend Stability instead, provided that the Stability spend is permanent, just as Network spends are permanent. There is no refresh for Stability spent in this way; like Network, this lost Stability can only be bought back with experience spends.
- It's also useful for a look at how Solaces can work. In this case Deveraux's Solace is his wife Nicole, who leaves him halfway through the film when he goes to Cuba to commune with his agent and mistress, Juanita de Cordoba. Here we have a legitimately frayed Solace relationship, and see one potential consequence - in this case that she may or may not go over to the enemy, wittingly or otherwise.
That's it for this week! Enjoy.