“Saboteur” - Alfred Hitchcock (1942)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) was another one of his inimitable sequential scenarios involving a perilous journey across a string of linked narratives. These kinds of stories were Hitchcock’s forte and represent some of his very best films, including  The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1938), and North By Northwest (1959). In fact if you look at all four of these films, you will find a number of striking similarities in terms of cinematic storytelling technique.

The stories invariably involve an ordinary middle-class protagonist who suddenly finds himself caught up in a baffling and violent situation in which he is targeted by unknown assailants. At the outset, the protagonist gets no help from the police or the authorities, and, indeed, is often mistakenly targeted by them, too. So throughout this string of mini-narratives, the protagonist is usually isolated and on the run as he somehow must
  1. get out of the local predicament he finds himself in,
  2. find out who is chasing him and why,
  3. recruit the trust and sympathies of a beautiful woman he encounters and who joins his journey,
  4. escape the attacks on his life by his antagonists, and
  5. ultimately thwart their evil plans.
Usually the sinister enemies are foreign agents, and the protagonist’s actions provide crucial patriotic service to his country.  Within this Hitchcockian genre, there are particularly close similarities between Saboteur and North by Northwest, among them are the following:

  • Both films feature a tour through some of America’s most famous iconic monuments and tourist sites.  In Saboteur it includes Hoover Dam, Rockefeller Center , the Radio City Music Hall, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Statue of Liberty.
  • Both films feature an important male member of the predator/antagonist group who has uncertain sexuality – Leonard in North by Northwest and Mr. Freeman in Saboteur (and perhaps Fry, too). The questionable masculinity of sinister characters is a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films.
  • Both films feature breathtaking acrophobia-inducing climaxes atop tall monuments, where someone falls to his death.  This is also a recurring Hitchcock theme and featured in Vertigo (1958) as well.
Hitchcock liked to cast big-name box-office stars as the leads in his films, and for Saboteur he wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. But since he was relatively new to Hollywood (his first Hollywood feature, Rebecca was released in 1940), he didn’t have the financial clout for this, and wound up with Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane in the leading roles. They serve him well here, though, and I think this is the best Cummings performance that I have seen.

The scenario of Saboteur runs though nine separate sequences, each of which achieves a partial closure and leads to the next step in the protagonist’s journey.

1 The Airplane Factory Fire
Barry Kane and his friend Mason work in a large military airplane factory in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. One day at work they bump into an unfamiliar and unfriendly coworker, who drops some letters and money on the shop floor, which they pick up and hand back to him.  Shortly thereafter a massive fire breaks out in the factory.  In the ensuing rush, the same unfriendly coworker hands Kane a fire extinguisher, who passes it onto Mason, who is quickly engulfed in flames and dies.

The next day investigators inform Kane that the fire extinguisher was filled with gasoline, and Kane realizes that he is suspected of being the saboteur who started the fire.  When Kane goes to console Mason’s mother at her home, the police come looking for him, and Kane slips out the back way and manages to hitch a ride on a truck.

Outcome: Kane has momentarily avoided the police, but he must continue his escape and find the unfriendly coworker who handed him the fire extinguisher and who must be the real saboteur.

2.  The Truck Ride
On the truck out of town while Kane chats with the driver, he suddenly remembers what was written on one of the letters he handed back to the suspicious coworker. It was addressed to Frank Fry at Deep Springs Ranch, California. 

Outcome: Kane has escaped the police again, and he must go to this ranch in pursuit of Frank Fry.

3.  Deep Springs Ranch
Kane gets to the ranch and meets the wealthy owner, Charles Tobin, who denies all knowledge of Frank Fry.  But Kane discovers another letter there that was addressed to Fry and also a telegram indicating that Fry should go to Soda City, California. Now Kane has made some progress on his quest.  However, Tobin knows that Kane is a fugitive from justice and, after a scuffle, Kane is captured, handcuffed, and handed over to the police.

Things look bad for Kane here, but the serendipity that often shows up in Hollywood movies intervenes.  The police car taking Kane back to LA gets stopped on a bridge, due to a problem with the same truck that had earlier given Kane a ride.  Kane seizes the opportunity to get out of the car, jump off the bridge, and swim to safety, while the friendly truck driver misdirects Kane’s pursuers so that he can get away into a forest.

Outcome: Kane has gotten away from the police again, but he knows that there is an all-out manhunt for him, and he must now get out of his handcuffs.  He now has to get to Soda City to find Fry.

4.  Cabin of Blind Man
Kane makes his way to a cabin where a very cordial blind man lives and welcomes Kane to dinner.  When the blind man’s daughter, Pat, show up, they discover that Kane is handcuffed, but the father assures Pat that he intuitively knows that Kane is a good man.  He instructs her to take Kane to a local blacksmith in order to remove the handcuffs. 

Pat takes Kane away, but her intention is to turn him over to the police.  However, on the road Kane proves to be quite resourceful.  He commandeers the car, uses the car motor fan to break his handcuff chains (which wrecks the car engine), and kidnaps Pat on foot.

Outcome: Kane has avoided the police, but he must now get to safety with the uncooperative Pat in tow.

5.  The Circus Caravan
Kane sees a slow-moving caravan of trucks transporting a circus, and they manage to jump onto  the last truck, which holds a collection of performers for a freak show, including a bearded lady, a fat lady, a midget, and Siamese twins. The circus caravan is stopped and searched by the highway police looking for Kane, but the circus freaks, wanting to stick up for people who are down and out like themselves, conceal Kane and Pat.

Outcome: Kane has avoided the police again, and now he has managed to win over Pat to his cause.  They head for Soda City.

6.  Soda City
Soda City turns out to be an abandoned ghost town, but Kane and Pat discover a cabin that it is apparently a staging post for a sabotage operation to blow up the huge Hoover (Boulder) Dam. Two of the saboteurs, Neilson and Freeman, show up and question Kane just when Pat happens to be in another room. Kane manages to convince them that he is really part of their sabotage gang and that they should take him by car to their headquarters in New York.  Evidently hearing and believing Kane's lies before she sneaks away, Pat changes her mind about Kane again and goes to a local sheriff to report his presumed perfidy.

Outcome: Kane is headed for New York City in search of Fry, but Pat is now his enemy again.

7 NYC: the Dowager’s Mansion
The scene now shifts from the West Coast to the East Coast.  Freeman and Kane arrive in New York and go to a party at the mansion of a wealthy dowager and socialite who is apparently in league with the fascist saboteurs. In a room upstairs Kane is shocked to discover that Tobin and Pat are present. Tobin is evidently a key member of the saboteurs, and Pat was captured and taken to New York after ruining the saboteurs’ plans to blow up the Hoover Dam. Pat realizes now that Kane is on the level and that she is in love wit him, but they are both now captives: Kane is locked in the mansion’s basement, and Pat is locked in a room in the RCA (GE) Building.

Outcome: Kane and Pat now know that the saboteurs intend to blow up a battleship about to be launched the next day at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  But they are both locked up and powerless to stop it.  And Fry has still not been located.

8 Brooklyn Navy Yard
Kane and Pat both find ways to break out of their confinements, and Kane rushes to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he finally finds Fry in the act of attempting to blow up the big navy ship at its launching.  Kane wrestles with Fry to thwart that sabotage, but Fry pulls his gun and forcibly takes Kane back to the gang’s office at Rockefeller Center.  Pat, however, had tipped off the cops, who are waiting at the gang office to arrest the rest of the saboteurs.  Kane is immediately held in custody by the FBI (he is still wanted by the authorities), and Fry escapes into the Radio City Music Hall movie theater, where he shoots a spectator and escapes in the resulting pandemonium.  As Fry is getting away into a taxi, Kane, still in custody, sees him and calls out to Pat to follow Fry on her own.

Outcome: Fry has finally been found, and Pat must now track him.

9 Statue of Liberty
As Fry makes his way to southern Manhattan, he passes a half-sunken ship at a harbor dock and smiles, as if knowing that this was one of his gang’s acts of sabotage. In fact Hitchcock was showing footage of a real US Navy ship, the USS Lafayette, that had recently caught fire and capsized, perhaps due to a real act of sabotage. Fry goes to the Statue of Liberty (why he would go there is hard to fathom) to hide, but Pat follows him and lets the FBI know. Eventually Kane and the FBI arrive, with Kane chasing Fry up to the top of the statue’s torchlight lookout.  Fry falls over the railing, and though Kane tries valiantly to save him, Fry eventually falls to his death.  When Kane climbs back up to safety, Pat is waiting to embrace him.

Outcome: With the sabotage gang captured, we can assume that Kane will be cleared of the charges against him.  He and Pat are heroes.
Although the plot of Saboteur is full of unexplained happenings and outlandish coincidences, the breakneck pace of the film shields these curious details from the viewer. Indeed the fact that the many studio shots employing back projection fit relatively seamlessly into the visual sequencing is proof to just how effective are the professional camera placements and editorial cutting.  Note, however, that since the film was made during the darkest days of World War II, there is a considerable degree of patriotic propaganda laced throughout the film that sometimes brings the narrative pace to a standstill. Some of Barry Kane’s patriotic speeches were apparently written by Dorothy Parker, and they come across dramatically as very artificial – but I suppose that we should make accommodations for the stressful times of that period.

Another noticeable theme in the film is the sense of American solidarity with the common man. Kane is a known outlaw, but he is successively assisted by the friendly truck driver, the blind man in the cabin, and the circus sideshow performers, all of whom are innocently openhearted and keen to stick up for the underdog on the run. This, too, adds to the patriotic, “we’re all in this thing together”,  flavor of the film.  Another American value on display is Kane’s overriding sense of fair play and the obligation to live up to humanist principles. At the end of the film, Kane risks his own life in an effort to save Fry’s life, even though that man is a terrorist.  I wonder just how pervasively that sense of fair play still holds in America today.  Let’s hope it does.

But beyond these issues and period-piece elements, Saboteur still stands as a fascinating general display of narrative film technique.  This plot scheme is like life, itself – we find ourselves focused on local, immediate circumstances and demands, but we are also aware that there are longer-term goals on the horizon that only we know about.
½

“Lost Horizon” - Frank Capra (1937)

“There are moments in every man’s life when he glimpses the eternal.”                                                                        – Robert Conway
Lost Horizon (1937) is a film that probably everyone should see at some point.  Although it is not without some limitations, the film provides an eloquent narrative expression of two key cultural metaphors – the search for the ideal, harmonious society and our all-too-often failures to hold onto the truly miraculous things that we stumble upon in life.  The story of the film was based on the best-selling 1933 novel of the same name by James Hilton [1].  It was then fashioned by the popular Hollywood director-screenwriter team of Frank Capra and Robert Riskin into what became a classic. 

Actually, the film was not immediately a hit and ran into problems early on.  The film was set in the Himalayas and had the largest (up to that time) production budget.  But Capra overran the budget by a considerable margin.  The overruns were not due to expensive location photography – Capra relied on stock footage for many of the Tibetan mountain scenes – but instead was due to Capra’s extensive reshootings of various studio scenes.  When he was finished, Capra had a 3½-hour film [2], a length for which the viewing public of that day was not ready.  The film was eventually cut down to 132 minutes, but it was still not a box-office hit early on [3].

The story concerns a small group of people who are brought against their will by serendipity to the obscure, hidden Tibetan kingdom of Shangri-La, where most of the action takes place.  This Shangri-La turns out to be an idyllic utopia that we could only dream about, and the term “Shangri-La” entered the popular vocabulary as a term for a mythical paradise [4].  But it is not just a heavenly place that we cherish from watching this story, but the heavenly state of mind that it engenders within the characters who visit this place.  This is what makes the story a classic.  In fact the famous Latin American novel, Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps, 1953) by Ajexo Carpentier takes up the same theme in a South American setting and is also a work well worth reading.

The story goes through a classic narrative progression of four sections: journey to –> entry –> engage –> departure.
1.  Escape from Baskul
At the beginning we find British diplomat Robert Conway sent to the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul to arrange for the escape of 90 Europeans who are trying to flee a violent local revolution. At the airfield Conway shepherds the remaining Europeans onto any spare planes that can be found to rush the refugees out. At the last moment, he and the final handful of foreigners barely make it onto the last getaway plane as the runway is overrun with rioting combatants. With the plane in the air, we are introduced to what will turn out to be the principal characters:
  • Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) – a suave Englishman who is thought soon to be appointed the next British Foreign Secretary. He is evidently also a political scholar and has authored some well-known books on political philosophy.
  • George Conway (John Howard) – Robert’s younger, more emotionally immature brother.
  • Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) – a down-to-earth businessman.
  • Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) – a stuffy academic paleontologist who has been conducting research in China.
  • Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell) – a hardened young floozie of uncertain virtue who seems to be terminally ill from consumption.

As the flight over China continues, the passengers discover that their plane has been hijacked and is being piloted by a mysterious Asian who has headed the plane not to the safety of Shanghai but to some unknown destination over the western mountains.  After a half hour of screen time, the plane eventually crashes high up in the Himalayan mountains, killing the pilot and leaving the passengers shaken but alive.  Their prospects of survival in the mountainous wilderness look dim at this point, but they are fortuitously met by a party of Tibetan mountain men headed by a  English-speaking Chinaman named Chang (H. B. Warner).

2.  Arrival in Shangri-La
Chang leads the five survivors along narrow cliff ledges and over a perilously dangerous mountain pass until they reach a mysterious valley that is bathed in sunlight: Shangri-La. This is the sight of Chang’s monastery, and the entire valley, though essentially inaccessible to the outside world, seems extraordinarily prosperous and civilized.  The people there live in complete harmony and want for nothing.  There is no acquisitiveness or jealousy, only good will and kindness. 

As the five survivors wander about Shangri-La, we learn more about both them and their new paradise.  Henry Barnard is a man on the run from the US authorities for embezzlement.  Alexander Lovett, nicknamed “Lovey” by Barnard, is a pompous professor who seeks to uncover objective knowledge. Barnard, on the other hand, is a pragmatist and a man of skill – he discovers things by direct interaction.  Robert Conway is inquisitive and reflective – he wants to learn more about the nature of Shangri-La from the generally taciturn Chang.  Robert Conway also meets and is immediately attracted to a beautiful European resident of Shangri-La, Sondra (Jane Wyatt).  His impatient and self-centered brother George has no interest in Shangri-La and merely wants to return to “civilization” as quickly as possible, but he, too, becomes attracted to another one of the rare resident Europeans, a pretty Russian girl named Maria (Margo).

3.  Settling In
Eventually Robert Conway has an audience with the High Lama of Shangri-La, who turns out to be a former Belgian Catholic priest, Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe), who long ago wandered into the valley and eventually founded the lamasery.  Conway is astonished to learn that Father Perrault is more than 250 years old and that the beneficial spiritual atmosphere of their locale greatly retards the aging process.  In fact, Perrault tells Conway, Maria, who looks 20, is actually more than 70 years old.  But if a youthful-appearing person should happen to leave Shangri-La, Perrault warns, he or she will undergo sudden and dramatic aging.  Conway also learns that he and his colleagues were essentially kidnaped and brought to Shangri-La by design.  It is Perrault’s and Sondra’s intention to have Robert Conway remain in Shangri-La and eventually assume the duties of the High Lama himself.  As he tells this to Robert, Perrault dies peacefully.

Meanwhile Henry, Lovey, and Gloria are all getting into the spirit of Shangri-La and are in no haste to leave the place.  Indeed the benign environment of Shangri-La seems to have cured Gloria of her terminal ailment.

4.  Departure from Shangri-La
George Conway, though, is determined to get away and take Maria with him.  He has arranged for some native porters to guide them out of the area, and he wants his brother to go with him.  The two brothers then have an interesting conversation about Shangri-La.  Robert tells George about the spiritual wonders of the place and his interest in staying, while George insists that the whole story about virtue and longevity is paranormal rubbish that defies scientific logic and that Perrault was a charlatan. George summons Maria, who scornfully laughs when she hears about Perrault’s assertions concerning her age.  She insists to Robert that she clearly really is only 20-years old.  Reluctantly, Robert gives in to the hard-headed logic of George’s argument and agrees to leave with them and abandon Sondra.

Once away and up in the mountains, Robert, George, and Maria are abandoned by their hired porters and are left on their own in the bitter cold.  Maria immediately withers to a 70-year-old woman and dies, spurring the unstable George to commit suicide. 

Robert eventually makes it back to civilization but is in woeful condition and suffers from amnesia.  Much of the remaining few minutes of the film are then related by newspaper headlines and third-person accounts.  Robert Conway is reported to have eventually recovered his memory and spent the next year maniacally determined to return to the impossible-to-reach Shangri-La.  A fellow British Foreign Service officer, Lord Gainsford, is assigned to find Robert and bring him home, but he abandons his efforts after a year of trying.  When Gainsford returns to London and is asked by his colleagues if he believes in all that rubbish that Robert Conway was talking about concerning that mythical Shangri-La, he answers in the affirmative: “yes, I believe it, because I want to believe it.”
The story of Lost Horizon is a fantasy about paradise found, lost, and the desperate attempts to regain those “lost steps”.  As such, the tale fits into the Frank Capra’s Hollywood production values, and much of the production is effective.  Ronald Coleman, as Robert Conway, is the perfect protagonist – sensitive, reflective, and idealistic.  Capra’s characteristic stock characters, for example “Lovey”, Gloria, and Henry, are, of course, schematic, but their presence makes Coleman’s character that much more believable and worthy of empathy.  Unfortunately, Dimitri Tiomkin’s over-the-top musical score is something of a hindrance, but you get used to it after awhile. 

There are some unexplained puzzles in the story, though, that seem to be gaping holes. 
  • If Shangri-La is so physically inaccessible (as is shown in the entry and departure sections of the film), how did those porters manage to bring so many large artifacts to the place, like the grand piano and the huge church bells?
  • If the all-pervasive ethics of Shangri-La are so devoted to selfless humility and kindness,  how did Father Perrault and Sondra reconcile their high values with their plan to kidnap all five foreigners  (not just Robert) to Shangri-La and subject them to life-threatening risks and violence?
  • Since Maria ages dramatically when she departs from Shangri-La, she must actually have had the age that Father Perrault attributed to her.  So why did she lie about her age to Robert Conway if she knew that departure from Shangru-La would return her to a decrepit condition?
I doubt these things were explained even in Capra’s 210-minute version of the film, but never mind.  These mysteries, I guess, are minor quibbles if the narrative telling manages to get away with them.  Nevertheless, I have one further complaint about Capra’s ending to the story.  At the very close of the film, the viewer sees Robert Conway up in the mountains still searching for Shangri-La and finally finding that hidden pass into the valley.  This is Capra’s feel-good ending, but I think it would have been more effective to leave us with the uncertainty about Robert Conway’s ultimate fate.  Then we would be faced with what Lord Gainsford in the story faced – the uncertainty that can only be resolved by what we want to believe.
½

Notes:
  1. James Hilton also authored two other much-loved best-sellers, Good-bye Mr. Chips (1934) and Random Harvest (1941), which were also quickly turned into big box-office movie hits.
  2. Even so, Capra had a shooting ratio of about 60-to-1 for the film.
  3. The film was shot with the then standard nitrate stock, which inevitably deteriorated over time.  In addition, later releases, such as 90-minute cut-down versions of  the original, led to neglect of some of the original footage. In 1973 the American Film Institute, along with UCLA and Columbia Pictures, launched an extended effort to find extent footage in order restore the original 132-minute version.  After 13 years they were able to restore most of it, although some restored elements are of poor quality.
  4. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shangri-la.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” - Frank Lloyd (1935)


Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) follows the extraordinary, true story of a mutiny aboard the Royal English Navy ship HMS Bounty in 1789. The story was made famous in the popular imagination by the “Bounty Trilogy” novels of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1932; Men Against the Sea; 1933, and Pitcairn’s Island, 1934). Although this fascinating subject was subsequently filmed several times with big budgets and big stars, none of those productions ever matched this 1935 production.

All treatments of the story address the basic issue: under what circumstances is a mutiny aboard a ship justified?  In many cases the task of answering this question is simplified by the fact that one side of the confrontation does not survive to tell its side of the story.  This was not case with the Bounty mutiny – a court proceeding with surviving witnesses was held back in England to adjudicate the charge of mutiny aboard the royal vessel.  In fact the true account is a fascinating and complicated tale about discipline, duty, and adherence to basic principles of humanity. Although the 1935 filmed version of the story took more liberties with the historical record than did later versions in 1962 and 1984, to me it still stands as the finest expression of the tale. It does so by its superb presentation of the conflict between the principal adversaries, Lieutenant (“Captain”) William Bligh and First Mate Fletcher Christian.

The film received nine US Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Director Frank Lloyd received his fifth Oscar nomination for Best Director, and Jules Furthman, one of my favorite screen writers, was (along with co-scripters Talbot Jennings and Carey Wilson) nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar. But what really stands out in this particular Mutiny on the Bounty are the acting performances of Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.  In all the course of all their justly touted screen portrayals, neither Gable nor Laughton surpassed what they did here.

The film narrative passes through five stages that progress from the buildup to the mutiny, then to the event itself, and finally its aftermath.

1.  The Bounty Sets Sail
In 1787 the HMS Bounty is ready to depart from Portsmouth for a two-year voyage to the South Pacific.  The goal is to collect breadfruit trees in Tahiti and deliver them for planting in the British colonies in the West Indies to feed the slaves.  This was classic British mercantilism: they were not seeking gold, but looking to tighten the net of their empire. The opening sequence introduces the principal characters, including Captain Bligh, the First Mate Fletcher Christian, and Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose upperclass background is supposed to represent the more principled aspect of British society.  In addition there are two other ship’s mates, along with the ship’s surgeon, its clerk, its chef, and several commoners who have been “impressed” into service (forcibly rounded up like slaves and “drafted” into service on the ship). 
Just before the ship sets off, we get a glimpse of the harsh discipline that is believed to maintain order on the king’s ships and the degree to which Captain Bligh believes in that ethos. A sailor from another ship is sentenced for some misdemeanor to be severely whipped by other ships in the harbor. By the time this miserable wretch is brought to the Bounty, he is already dead, but Captain Bligh orders that the full whipping be administered anyway. 

2.  The Outbound Voyage
The voyage around Cape Horn to the South Pacific features a number of incidents displaying Bligh’s sadistic and vengeful demeanor.  Bligh is aware that he comes from a lower class than Christian and Byam, and he resents them all the more for that. He assigns the poor impressed sailors, who are inexperienced in their jobs, to half rations; and then he orders a sailor who used too much water to be keelhauled under the ship’s bow, which unsurprisingly kills the man.  Christian and Byam witness and suffer under these conditions, but they can do nothing.

3.  Arrival in Tahiti
When the ship arrives in Tahiti, it is clearly a paradise for the half-starved crew. They are welcomed by the locals, and they joyously set about collecting the breadfruit trees to be taken back aboard the ship. By now Bligh and Christian are at loggerheads, but Christian manages to get ashore and quickly romances a beautiful Polynesian girl, Maimiti (Mamo Clark).  Byam, too, meets and (more chastely) romances a beautiful girl who is the chief’s daughter, Tehani.

4.  The Mutiny
As the return voyage begins, Bligh continues his sadistic treatment of his crew.  His fanatical demands for respect lead to the death of the ship’s ill surgeon, and this puts Fletcher Christian at the breaking point.  Many of the crew urge Christian to lead the mutiny, and he finally agrees. Bligh is captured by force and cast off into an open boat along with several other loyalist shipmen. Their seemingly hopeless task is to somehow sail their small boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean all the way to the East Indies. But thanks to the able seamanship of Bligh, they manage to accomplish one of the most amazing sailing feats in history and reach the Dutch East Indies after sailing some 3,500 miles over seven weeks in open water.

Meanwhile the Bounty, now captained by Christian, returns to Tahiti and a new life.  After about a year, Christian and Maimiti have a small child and are living and loving happily.

5.  Settling the Score
After managing to get back to England, Bligh captains another ship, HMS Pandora, and sets out to find the mutineers and bring them back to “justice”. When Christian and his men get word of the coming arrival of the Pandora, they set out on the Bounty and try to escape. Byam and some other men who wish to return to England remain on Tahiti, and they are immediately imprisoned on Bligh’s arrival and brought back to England in chains.  Fletcher Christian, along with his crew and some Tahitian friends manage to get away from Bligh’s pursuit and settle in safety on the uninhabited Pitcairn island. 

On returning to England, Bligh’s captives are all sentenced to death, but Byam gives an impassioned speech before the royal court about humanitarian principles, and he is eventually pardoned [1].  The other sentenced men, though, are all hanged.
Outstanding features of Mutiny on the Bounty are the dramatic on-location cinematography and dynamic editing. This was an example Hollywood studio production values at their apex.  But as I mentioned earlier, what makes this a classic story is the dramatic interplay between Charles Laughton, as Captain Bligh, and Clark Gable, as Fletcher Christian. Laughton’s posture and gestures are perfect for the depiction of a defensive, mean-spirited individual who seeks to use the rules of the Royal Navy to force subservience and fear. In fact he tells Christian early on that to command is to rule by fear. His character is the epitome of a man with no self-respect and a hatred of all those around him who remind him of his despicable nature.  I have seen Laughton in a number of screen roles, but this one stick in my memory the most.

On the other hand, Clark Gable comes across as a straightforward and authentic individual who seeks fairness and commonality with his coworkers and those under his command. Although Gable generally favored his (what he must have considered to be) rakish moustache, he looks much better clean-shaven, as in this film. When you see him in this film, you can’t help wondering just how even better he would have looked in his other films without the ‘stache. 

Unfortunately, I find Franchot Tone’s performance as Robert Byam to be a detriment. Although he is supposed to represent a man torn between loyalty to the rules of society (and hence obedience to Captain Bligh and the law) and human comradery (and thus friendship with Fletcher Christian), his middleman role doesn’t serve any real purpose here. We viewers can assume that middle position without his help.  In fact Tone is too much of a jolly good boy scout in this setting, and his performance distractingly reminds me of Hugh Laurie’s “George” character from the Blackadder television series. While Laughton and Gable draw the viewer in to an immersive involvement in their dramatic interactive contexts, Tone's performance merely distances the viewer from such an immersion.

Overall, the adversarial contrast between Laughton and Gable sets the tone for the entire film.  Innate humanitarian justice comes across as the winner here, while the manipulation of rigid, inhuman rules is seen as a tool for oppression.  We know in fact that some discipline is necessary, particularly back then on long sea voyages manned by undiscipined crews, but in this film, the appeal to our innate sense of empathy and compassion is eloquently made with full cinematic force.  The natural “paradise” of Tahiti, the innate romantic attraction between Christian and Maimiti, and the common spirit felt between the Tahitians and the ship’s crew all contribute to our romantic feeling of intrinsic compassion and justice.

The real, historical William Bligh went on to further promotions and success in the Royal Navy. He was eventually appointed to be Governor of New South Wales in the Australian colony. But his behavior apparently was unchanged. While serving as Governor, he brought on another mutiny, the Rum Rebellion in 1808, which was the only successful armed takeover of government in Australian history. As for the historical Fletcher Christian, he and his friends survived on Pitcairn island, and mixed European-Polynesian descendants live there to this day. There are conflicting stories concerning Christian’s ultimate fate – he may have been killed in a dispute on the island, or he may even have sometime later made his way clandestinely back to England. Whatever happened to him, we can’t help standing behind his quest presented in this film for an honest, humane, and compassionate society of mates on an equal footing.


Notes:
  1. The person on whom the character Roger Byam was based, Peter Heywood, abandoned the idea of returning to his Tahitian wife after his pardon and resumed his naval career.  He eventually rose to the rank of flag captain (captain of an admiral's flagship).

“Shadow of a Doubt” - Alfred Hitchcock (1943)

Alfred Hitchcock shifted to the US to make films in 1939, but his earliest American-made films still had mostly English settings. But as with many foreign filmmakers who came to the US, Hitchcock soon evinced his fascination for the peculiarities of American culture, particularly with his Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the shooting for which was begun in the latter part of 1941.  In this story the ordinary life of a typical small-town, middle-class family is disrupted by the intrusion of a beguiling but sinister visitor.  Over the course of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the idea of an ordinary middle-class person suddenly thrust into unusual and threatening circumstances is standard fare for Hitchcock, but Shadow of a Doubt is rather different from Hitchcock’s other popular thrillers.  In fact the film has some odd strengths and weaknesses that cause viewers’ reactions to vary.

In Shadow of a Doubt, an attractive teenage girl, Charlotte Newton, lives in the idyllic small American town Santa Rosa, California, but she is bored by the humdrum nature of her family life.  She longs for excitement, romance, and something to give meaning and some magic to her life. In particular, she doesn’t want to end up living like her much-loved mother, Emma Newton, whom she sees as mired in housework and trivia.  When she learns that her adventurous, but little seen, uncle Charlie Oakley will be paying a visit to this parochial cocoon, she feels that her dreams for excitement have been answered. 

Charlie is a stimulating and charming fellow who is much beloved by his older sister (and Charlotte’s mother), Emma, who named her daughter (“Charlie” is her nickname, too) after him.  Unfortunately, however, it soon becomes obvious to the viewer (and only later to the local residents) that Charlie is a psychopathic murderer on the lam from the authorities.  So the story concerns the confrontation between Charlie’s seductive, but ultimately evil, charm and Charlotte’s benevolent innocence and decency – perhaps the kind of fare appropriate for a country enmeshed in a war with moralistic overtones.

But there are curious aspects to this story as it is presented.  First of all, there are so many implausible and unrealistic elements to the story that one wonders if one is in the middle of a kind of Shutter Island (2010) type dream world.  (Indeed that element of unreality does add to the expressionistic feeling that is a peculiar attraction of the film.)  Second, there is a question concerning what narrative perspective the film is taking.  It is evident from the earliest frames that Charlie Oakley has dark secrets and is essentially a criminal, and relatively early one we learn that the police are looking out for a serial murderer of rich widows.  So there is no real mystery about Charlie’s guilt. Nevertheless, the focalization of the film is directed towards both Charlotte and Charlie, so the viewer unconsciously tends also to empathize with Charlie’s sense of entrapment.  Thus the viewer follows two narrative threads in parallel: 

  1. Charlotte’s journey of coming to know the truth (and escape its potentially dire consequences);
  2. Charlie’s attempt to escape capture.  That makes Shadow of a Doubt essentially a combination of a youthful “coming-of-age” film and a film noir.
To tell this story, the film’s plot moves through four progressive stages of revealing the truth  about Charlie Oakley.
1.  Uncle Charlie Comes for a Visit.
The first half hour of the film concentrates on the commonplace pleasures of the Newton family in Santa Rosa.  Charlotte’s father, Joseph, works in a bank, her mother is a typical housewife, and she has a younger brother and sister who are animated by typical things that kids engage in.  Charlotte dreams of having her exciting uncle come for a visit, and when she gets a telegram that he is already en route, she thinks that fate has intervened. 

Meanwhile Charlie knows that people are on his tail, but it seems that his pursuers don’t know what he looks like. He thinks it would be better for him get out of town and head for the West coast. On his arrival, Charlie settles into a room in the Newton home and notices that the local newspaper has an article describing the “Merry Widow Murderer”, who is on the loose.  He removes article from the paper, but his observant niece, Charlotte, notices the missing pages in his room.  It’s clear to us that Charlie is the culprit, but Charlotte is only mildly bemused.

2.  Charlie Under Suspicion
The Newton family is approached by two men who want to interview and photograph everyone in the house as part of a “national public survey” about typical American families for some institute. Charlie correctly suspects these men are detectives who are after him and wants no part of the survey, but they do take a photograph of him. Interestingly, Charlie protests against this invasion of his privacy and successfully demands that the photographic film that was used be handed over to him. Although the detectives cheat and give Charlie a substitute roll of film, it’s interesting, with respect to the current age of National Security Agency 24/7 surveillance of everything that you do, that a person’s rights to privacy in those days were more sincerely acknowledged.

The next day Charlie goes to the bank where Joseph Newton works and jovially deposits $40,000 in cash – presumably money stolen from rich widows.  This would be about US$ 600,000 today, which should have raised eyebrows of suspicion from the bankers, but not in this implausible film.

Later Charlotte goes out on a date with one of the detectives, Jack Graham, who admits that he is really a detective in pursuit of the “Merry Widow Murderer” and thinks Charlie is his man.  Now fully spooked about her supposed hero, Uncle Charlie, Charlotte then goes to the city library and reads more information in the newspaper about the murderer. 

3.  Charlie Targeted
Around the Newton dinner table, Charlie gives a venom-tinged speech about how useless rich widows are and how they don’t deserve their money.  For a man under suspicion, this speech is ludicrously over-the-top, but some reviewers have strangely found it be a highlight of the film.  Under emotional stress, Charlotte runs out into the town, and Charlie runs after her.  He takes her to a bar, admits that the’s the Merry Widow Murderer, and urges her to help him escape capture.  For the sake of her dear mother, Charlotte reluctantly agrees.  The pressure heightens the next day after church service when the detectives tell Charlotte that out of respect for her mother, they want to arrest Charlie outside of Santa Rosa, and they tell her to get Charlie to leave town immediately.

4.  Charlotte Targeted
Soon, however, news arrives that another suspect in the “Merry Widow Murderer” case has been killed while fleeing the police. For some reason the police apparently presume that this other person’s flight proved his guilt, and so the murder case will be closed and Charlie cleared. Consequently Charlie is in no rush to leave town. Now But Charlie still has a problem, though, since he has admitted his guilt to Charlotte.  He arranges for a few potentially lethal accidents to befall the still cooperative and not-ready-to believe-the-worst Charlotte, but she manages to survive them.  Finally she convinces Charlie to leave town, but on the day of his departure, Charlie is still intent on killing his niece.  He grabs her and tries to throw her off the train as it picks up speed, but in the struggle, he falls to his own death instead.

Charlie’s guilt is never publicly identified, and after his funeral, Charlotte and Jack Graham are shown talking about how they will keep the secret in order to protect the feelings of Charlotte’s family.

As mentioned, Shadow of a Doubt can be seen as something of an expressionistic film nor, and this is evident from the cinematography.  There are numerous high-angle and low-angle shots of people in conversation, giving a stilted view of the social scenes.  In particular, Uncle Charlie is very often seen from a very low-angle view, making his appearance appear more threatening.  Moreover, there are numerous shots looking up or down stairways that heighten this effect.  But the overall production values are not really up to Hitchcock’s usual standards.   There are numerous jump-cuts (awkward on-axis editing cuts) that distract the viewer.  In addition Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack music is mostly loud, brassy band music that is merely intrusive and only detracts from the film.

The acting has its strengths and weaknesses. Teresa Wright, as Charlotte, is outstanding and carries the film along with her sensitive portrayal of the young girl.  On the other hand, Macdonald Carey, as Jack Graham, is supposed to provide a romantic side to Charlotte’s life (they are presumably betrothed at the film’s end), but I find him hard to take.  I think Charlotte could do better.

Joseph Cotton, in an early starring role as Uncle Charlie, has a memorable screen presence, but he is at times too gothic to be believable.  Just to make sure that you are not so charmed by Charlie that you might believe in his innocence, his true evil nature is heavy-handedly given away at a number of points along the way.  Here are a few examples:
  • Charlie is early and frequently seen arrogantly smoking cigars in the manner of someone self-obsessed and unmindful of others.

  • When Charlie is shown his room in the Newton house, he throws his hat on the bed – traditionally thought to bring on bad luck.  When he is reminded by Joseph Newton not to challenge such folklore, Charlie arrogantly repeats the gesture.
  • When Charlie early on gives Charlotte a ring, she sees that it already has an engraving on it (presumably the ring belonged to one of Charlie’s victims).  Charlotte laughs it off, but the ominous aspects are all to clear to the viewer.
  • When Charlotte grabs the newspaper article about the widow murderer that Charlie had removed from the newspaper, Charlie angrily manhandles the poor girl in order to snatch it back from her.
  • When the “surveyors” from the “institute” (i.e. the hard-to-believe detectives) come to the Newton’s home to conduct their NSA sweep, Charlie’s paranoid reaction is again evidence to the viewer of his guilt.
  • At one point Emma mentions to Charlotte that her brother Charlie had a childhood accident that for a long time left him mentally unstable.  This gives us clear evidence that Charlie has never really recovered and that his psychopathy stems from that accident.
  • When Charlie goes to the bank to deposit his $40,000, he roisterously makes fun of Joseph Newton and the bank president, implausibly calling attention to his unusual behaviour.
  • After Charlie learns that another suspect has been killed, which removes the heat of suspicion from him, he then realizes that Charlotte has heard his confession and could give him away.  As he looks down at Charlotte from an upstairs windows, the camera closes in his hands making a strangling gesture. Even in an expressionistic film, we don’t need this degree of explicitness.
OK, there are some interesting things in Shadow of a Doubt, but this is not one of Hitchcock’s top films.  The idea of an idyllic small town that has unsuspected dark secrets received much more haunting noirish, expressionistic treatment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). 
½