Posts Tagged ‘Martin Landau’

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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There’s a long old spectrum when it comes to comedy and drama – at one end you will find things which are utterly broad and/or frivolous, at the other are things which are completely bleak and harrowing, and it’s quite possible to pitch something at any point along that line. There’s no neat cut-off point where comedy ends and drama begins.

Which is, I think, curiously illustrated by the filmography of Woody Allen over the last forty odd years – here’s a film-maker who started off making some of the most knockabout comedies imaginable, and then proceeded to make a long trek towards the realm of serious drama, covering just about every intervening mixture of the two. Allen’s reputation these days is that of the great misanthropist, but even so one occasionally comes across a film which is so strikingly dark that it’s still a surprise.


Bringing us to Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, which opens by looking not entirely dissimilar to any of Allen’s other affluent-New-Yorkers-have-trying-personal-crises comedy-dramas. Martin Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, a celebrated doctor and philanthropist, whose happiness is unexpectedly endangered: for some time he has been having an affair with a younger woman (Anjelica Huston) and now she is threatening to tell his wife – the fact she is privy to some questionable financial dealings he’s been involved in is also a concern. With his mistress insistent and refusing to listen to reason, Rosenthal is forced to contemplate resorting to extreme measures in order to secure her silence.

Running in parallel with this is the story of Cliff Stern (Allen), who as you’d expect is in many ways another iteration of the classic Allen character: neurotic and intellectual. This time around he’s a struggling, unhappily-married documentary film-maker who unwillingly accepts a job making a hagiographic profile of his wife’s insufferable brother Lester (Alan Alda), a pretentious TV comedy producer. He finds this fairly dreadful job is made more bearable by the presence of one of the associate producers (Mia Farrow), with whom he is much taken. But Lester seems equally interested in her, much to his chagrin…

The story with Allen is recognisably cut from the same cloth as earlier films like Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, but the plotline with Landau is something new and strikingly different: not to put too fine a point on it, someone is murdered, and a bloodied corpse appears on screen. The juxtaposition between the two is wrenching, and it’s only in the closing stages of the film – this is the only point at which Landau and Allen meet – that the connection between the two is clear, and it is a thematic, philosophical one rather than anything more grounded in the narrative.

As I say, Woody Allen’s intellectual bent is well known, with his admiration for Ingmar Bergman being especially obvious. Watching Crimes and Misdemeanors, however, the main influence seems to be the great Russian authors whom Allen so cheerfully lampooned in Love and Death. The main plot with Landau is essentially a restatement of the theme of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – that of the effect of guilt on a criminal, and the ramifications of a universe without an underlying moral structure. (This is debated at some length by various characters in the course of the film.) Crucially, however, Allen’s conclusion is the opposite of Dostoyevsky’s – and here perhaps I should include a small ‘Spoiler ahead!’ alert – in that the film appears to suggest that the virtuous go unrewarded and the guilty go unpunished, with moral rectitude providing no guarantee of lasting happiness.

Most of the time, however, the film isn’t quite as heavy as that sounds – while the Landau plot is more of a drama than a thriller, it’s still very engaging, and the scenes with Allen are mostly as witty and charming as anything else he’s done in this vein (although at one point, not relevant to the plot in any way, he gives himself the line ‘A strange man defecated on my sister’, which must hold some kind of record for sheer oddness). Even the Landau material is not without a few of the classic Allen tropes, chief amongst them being the one about the learned and virile older man who is irresistible to poorly-educated and attractive younger women (one has to wonder about the extent to which Allen is mythologising himself up on screen at this point).

That it remains very watchable and even gripping throughout is mainly a tribute to the strength of the performances. Landau is simply very good as Rosenthal, nimbly avoiding the melodramatic pitfalls offered by the part, and there are also moments which remind you what an extremely accomplished straight actor Allen can be given the right material – there’s a moment near the end of the film where he’s suddenly confronted with the fact that his worst nightmare has come to pass, and his utter shock and despair all appears in his face, no dialogue being necessary. Even the performers in less-developed roles, like Huston and Alda, manage to avoid making them into caricatures.

Crimes and Misdemeanors isn’t a film you would sit down to watch strictly in order to be entertained – the conclusion is just too downbeat, for one thing – and I would imagine that many people will disagree with the thesis of the film on principle. But the writing is solid, the performances are excellent, and the film articulates its arguments with some deftness, in addition to finding the balance between real drama and more comedic elements. Definitely towards the top end of the Allen canon.

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