Posts Tagged ‘Leo G Carroll’

Alfred Hitchcock, in addition to his many other innovations, came up with the notion of fridge logic: by which he meant the way that a story can hang together just well enough to entertain the viewer, at least until they get up and go to the refrigerator to get a beer – at which point they say ‘Hey, waiddaminute…!’ and the whole spurious narrative edifice comes tumbling down. Or, to put it another way: if you keep things really, really entertaining and go really, really fast, most viewers won’t notice the plot holes first time round.

How well this principle still stands up in the DVD age, where some directors almost seem to design their films to need multiple viewings to become wholly comprehensible, is debatable. However, it also seems to me that Hitchcock also came up with – or at least made use of – the related idea of ‘fridge titling’, where the name of a story bears no obvious connection to anyone or anything actually mentioned in it. This idea has also had a long and reasonably noble history, and no doubt it will stay with us, assuming the cinema industry recovers from the current unpleasantness. (As a tribute to Hitch I have given this review a fridge title.)

A movie which has a fridge title and relies somewhat upon fridge logic is Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. (The title seems to allude to Hamlet’s declaration he is ‘but mad north-north-west’, but if so quite what the link is remains impenetrably obscure.) This is a film which came towards the end of Hitchcock’s 1950s imperial phase, slotting into the gap between Vertigo and Psycho – and it hardly suffers in comparison to either of them, which just goes to show what a roll Hitchcock was on at this point. However, where Vertigo is a self-referential, dream-like psycho-drama, and Psycho essentially raises the curtain on the modern American horror movie, North by Northwest is something from a wholly different part of Hitchcock’s register – and while it may not be quite as revered as either of those other two films, in a way it may be the most enduringly influential of the three.

The story opens in New York, and proceeds to crack on with great economy. We are swiftly introduced to advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), perhaps a bit of an amiable rogue in a very domestic way. Through sheer bad luck, Thornhill gets himself mistaken for the mysterious and elusive George Kaplan, who appears to be an agent of the security services, involved in pursuing members of a communist spy ring. Two members of the gang bundle Thornhill into the back of a car and whisk him off to meet their leader, Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau). Thornhill, understandably, can’t give them the information that they want, and so they decide to arrange his death – needless to say he manages to avoid dying in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, this lands him in trouble with the police, and in order to prove his story Thornhill tries to track down Kaplan, with no success – and indeed only manages to make his enemies even more convinced he is the man they want. Very soon Thornhill finds himself framed for a murder he did not commit, fleeing across the country and desperately trying to locate Kaplan, who may have the answers to what is happening. It seems like his only ally is cool young blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) – but can Thornhill afford to trust anyone…?

One of the brilliant touches about North by Northwest is that, having set all this up, the film very sensibly takes a step back and explains (for the viewer’s benefit, if not Cary Grant’s) what’s really going on. In one of a small number of scenes not to feature Grant’s character, we find ourselves at some sort of FBI committee meeting where exposition is briefly provided, mostly courtesy of Leo G Carroll, playing a donnish spymaster known as the Professor: Thornhill is chasing a phantom, as Kaplan doesn’t exist – the evidence of his existence has been created to act as a decoy and distract the gang, without placing a real agent in danger (and hopefully distract attention away from the real informer they have in Vandamm’s ring).

This scene doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it clarifies the plot enormously and means that most of the rest of the movie can proceed slickly, with a minimum of pipe-laying. Also, it comes at the end of the first act, when the viewer is ready for a brief break from the action. One of the things about this movie is how immaculately paced is it, and another is the way it switches flawlessly between its various modes: understated romantic comedy between Grant and Saint, moments of tension as Grant finds himself having to pull off another unlikely escape, and what these days we would call action set-pieces, include two of the most iconic sequences in cinema history – the one where Grant is menaced by a crop-duster while out in the middle of nowhere, and the climactic chase across the face (literally) of Mount Rushmore.

While all this is happening, something else slightly more subtle is going on in the story, too. One text on story structure describes the journey of the protagonist as being that of ‘orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr’, and that journey is happening here as well – Thornhill starts the film as a clueless innocent, baffled by everything happening to him, but his efforts to unravel the mystery only make things worse and he finds himself cut off from his old life, searching for Kaplan. Finally he begins to take steps against his enemies, even to the point of willingly risking his own life against the Professor’s orders. By the end of the film, Thornhill has effectively become the daring and effective spy that he was mistaken for at the beginning of the film – and when films with this kind of structure are made today (for example, The Spy Who Dumped Me, or – less recognisably, perhaps – American Ultra), they usually end with a coda showing the protagonist has embraced this new career. (Hitchcock chooses to end with a naughty visual pun instead.)

Watching Grant glide through the movie as a suave, resourceful, womanising secret agent, and considering the film’s mixture of glamorous, iconic locations, well-handled action, witty dialogue, and slightly outlandish characters, I can’t help but think that it would only take a couple of spoonfuls of extra grit for North by Northwest to be instantly recognisable as what it is: the proto-Bond movie, and, as such, the ultimate progenitor of every other film ripping off or positioning itself in opposition to the Bond franchise, from Our Man Flint to Enter the Dragon to Austin Powers to The Bourne Identity. It’s not surprising that Cary Grant was top of Eon’s wish-list when it came to casting Bond for Dr No, though the actor’s refusal to sign on for multiple films (and quite possibly his salary demands) led to them going down a different path. (Mason was also offered the part, while the TV series The Man from UNCLE, one of the Bond franchise’s small-screen imitators, likewise acknowledges the influence of North by Northwest by essentially getting Leo G Carroll to reprise his role as the Professor as Alexander Waverly, head of UNCLE.)

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has spoken of how his desire to make ‘the ultimate Hitchcock movie’ was central to the origins of North by Northwest; it also seems that many of the film’s most memorable elements originated with the director – the crop-duster scene apparently sprang from Hitchcock’s desire to find out if he could produce an effective suspense sequence in broad daylight, in a wide open space. Is this the ultimate Hitchcock movie, though? Well, as noted, it is somewhat less revered than the two films made on either side of it, and it certainly possesses fewer of the darker and more complex psychological elements that sometimes bubble to the surface in Hitchcock films. However, as a slick piece of escapist cinema it stands up fantastically well even sixty years on. A superb entertainment and an immensely influential film.

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I was fortunate enough to spend a few days last year in the Grand Canyon state itself – Arizona, home of the Saguaro Cactus, the Apache trout, the two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly and the Colt Single-action Army Revolver. (Don’t mock, these are all official state insignia of Arizona.) Phoenix, Sedona and Flagstaff were all beautiful, to say nothing of the Canyon itself.

Missing, however, from Arizona’s list of attractions are giant spiders the size of bus stations. Luckily, in 1955 this oversight was rectified in Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, the last of the SF B-movies I’ve been ploughing through recently. (Well – there’s still one film to come, but that doesn’t quite qualify.) Arnold’s films dominated this genre in the mid-50s and while it’s not really one of his best, it’s still massively and obviously influential.

It opens strikingly, with the corpse of a horribly deformed man being found in the desert. Local doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) can’t explain what the cause of death is. Investigations reveal the dead man worked at the private lab of biologist Gerald Deemer (Leo G Carroll, who does indeed find himself over a barrel as the story progresses). Deemer claims the man, his co-researcher, suffered from acromegaly (a disorder affecting the body’s growth), which Hastings disputes but can’t prove.

But unbeknownst to Hastings and his friend the sherriff, there is trouble at t’lab. Deemer’s lab animals are noticeably big for their ages, including a tarantula which is the size of a large dog, but this does not worry the boffin too much. What does distress him is being attacked by another acromegaloid gentleman, who starts a fire, injects Deemer with Something Ominous, and allows the spider to make a discreet exit before expiring.

Things calm down a bit after this, with Hastings romancing Deemer’s new lab assistant (Mara Corday) and trying to figure out what Deemer’s up to (the audience is, of course, many steps ahead by this point). Eventually, Deemer himself starts showing signs of acromegaly (some relatively sophisticated make-up courtesy of Bud Westmore), while elsewhere in the area something starts eating cattle, their ranchers, and the ranchers’ pick-up trucks and leaving large pools of venom in its wake. Just how soon will Hastings figure out that two and two make four?

The main problem Tarantula has is that it’s called Tarantula. This may just tip the audience off to the possibility that the plot may revolve around a tarantula. (To be fair, neither script nor director try to be clever about this and the big spider turns up quite early on, though not as big as it will later become.) The giant spider plotline doesn’t really take centre stage until quite late on, though.

The film has a mildly peculiar and somewhat inelegant structure – it opens with one of the acromegaly sufferers keeling over in the desert, from which we transition to Dr Hastings examining the corpse and crossing swords with Deemer. And then from here we go into an odd sequence with Deemer returning to his lab. We see lots of things, including the giant animals and spider, none of which are explained to us. Then the plot proper kicks off with Deemer being attacked and the spider taking to the hills.

It would probably been hopelessly clumsy had all this been done through exposition or a flashback, but the problem remains: the title and this sequence make it quite clear that this is going to be a rampaging giant spider movie, but none of the characters are allowed to know that until the third act. This makes them all seem annoyingly dense in the sequences where they investigate the scenes of its attacks – unlike similar moments in, for example, Them! (a movie to which Tarantula clearly owes a tremendous narrative debt), there’s no sense of mystery or tension, just a vague awareness of plot cogs clicking over.

Most of the mid-section is preoccupied with the plight of Leo G Carroll’s character, anyway. As the movie isn’t called The Funny-headed Acromegaloid Man there is some genuine tension and horror here as he gradually becomes more and more deformed, and Carroll’s performance is accomplished. (All the main players in this movie are superior, compared to their counterparts in other Jack Arnold movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and This Island Earth, which makes the clunkiness of the script all the more annoying.) Even so there’s a repeated trope where, while driving through the desert (Agar spends most of the movie driving back and forth between the sherriff’s office and the lab), Agar’s car zooms past the camera only for the arachnid colossus to scuttle out from behind some rocks seconds later. Presumably this was to remind the audience of what film they were watching, but it eventually becomes silly – does Hastings never look in his rear-view mirror? How come nobody else spots the damn thing? Is the state impediment of Arizona chronic tunnel vision?

Oh, well. Given the subject matter the effects are decent enough, though there are inevitably a few issues with the background plates of the scenery not quite aligning with the inserted tarantula. For the vast majority of the movie Arnold opts for blown-up footage of a real spider, as opposed to the full-size puppets of Them!, which works fairly well considering.

Arnold directs with his usual energy and gives everything the slightly lurid tone common to his work (a definite contrast to the more naturalistic Them! – I’m sorry to keep going on about it, but the two movies are such close cousins in terms of setting and theme). He also inserts a dash of subtext, making it clear that there’s nothing wrong with being a spider per se, it’s just the disruptive influence of man (and particularly scientists) on the ecology that’s causing all the trouble. And even then there’s a touch of ambiguity, given that Carroll’s motives seem wholly pure – he’s trying to ensure there’ll be enough food to go around in the far-off year 2000, when the population will reach – gasp! – three and a half billion people!

A movie from a more innocent age and no mistake. As usual, the US armed forces come to the rescue, and one of the things that makes Tarantula notable is the fact that the spider is eventually killed by an uncredited Clint Eastwood, playing a jet pilot (shades of Lee van Cleef in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). The fact that the plot is resolved by the characters essentially just ringing up the Air Force for help makes for a weak and rather abrupt ending, but there are enough incidental pleasures along the way to make Tarantula a fun if slightly exasperating watch.

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