Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Brahm's Concerto #1

The man above is the late movie and television director, John Brahm. In 1944, he remade a film originally done by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, called The Lodger. In 1998, director Gus Van Sant also remade a film by Hitchcock called Psycho. Most people have heard of Van Sant's remake. Most haven't heard of Brahm's or his amazing follow up, Hangover Square. That's a shame. 

I know I'm beating a dead horse, or more accurately, stomping on the cremated ashes of a syphilitic mule, but I was really irritated by the Psycho remake. Maybe it's because I'd since seen someone do a far superior job of remaking one of the Hitchcock's films, maybe it's because the movie was such a discordant attempt to simultaneously update and nostalgia-fy a classic, but whatever the case, the Psycho redux was a mess. There were basically three glaring flaws with Van Sant's redo. Most importantly, the decision to film in color instead of the original's black and white fundamentally changed its gothic horror feel and not for the better. It's surprising just how little any added color it takes to change the stark and moody atmosphere of the original. Van Sant not only changed it, but exacerbated the situation by turning the hue contrast up to 11. The technicolor-like wardrobe choices were especially distracting and wildly out of place. Secondly, the anachronistic qualities of the film were often disconcerting and lacked the original's timeless quality. This was not unexpected as Van Sant was simultaneously matching shots from a 60's film in a 90's world. But why does Lila Crane sport a 90's Walkman, Norman Bates wear an 80's Zubaz shirt, and the local sheriff's wife make a call from her modern home phone by picking it up and ringing a 50's switchboard operator Mayberry-style? Was Van Sant trying to do a Pulp Fiction-like retro nod? If so, it was a huge misfire and just as distracting as the color blitzkrieg. If not, it was an egregious blunder someone should have pointed out early on in the filmmaking process. The third bad decision was the cast. Filling an iconic role is a losing proposition at best if you're a mediocre screen presence and Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche are tired, bland smirk-iness personified. Even the ever reliable Viggo Mortensen and William Macy look like they'd given up and were just going through the motions. The only actor who looked the least bit interested and actually gives an original cast member a run for the money, is Julianne Moore in the Vera Miles role. She actually brought some energy and emotion to the role and occasionally kept me engaged. But her presence wasn't enough to hold my attention for long due to bizarre casting choices like Flea and James Legros whose odd presence took me right out of the film. Ultimately, all the errors in judgement should be placed squarely at the feet of Van Sant who seemed to paradoxically want an exact duplicate of Hitchcock's Psycho that was nevertheless significantly different from it. Subliminal images, were they in the original? Van Sant set himself up for this contradictory failure by playing it safe and following precisely in Hitchcock's footprints - except when he decided to throw in some trivial but irritating weirdness that did nothing but annoy.  The only correct move he made was to re-use the Bernard Herrmann score, which of course, John Brahm could have told him was the right choice.

What does Henry Bemis have to do with this discussion? Simple, if you look up John Brahm's name in Wikipedia, it will tell you he was known primarily for directing 12 episodes of the original Twilight Zone including the classic episode, Time Enough at Last with Burgess Meredith as the bespectacled bookworm. Brahm also directed one of the finest of the original Outer Limits episodes, The Bellero Shield, and one of the best Thriller episodes, The Watcher. In fact, most of  his latter career was spent directing TV including, not surprisingly, over a dozen episodes combined of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. And therein lay the irony, the man who remade a Hitchcock classic that was, by most accounts, better than the original, wound up directing TV episodes for the man he once bested. I wonder if Hitch would have let Gus Van Sant work on his shows...

The Lodger was originally a black and white silent thriller made by Hitchcock in 1927. It starred Ivor Novello in the title role as a mysterious man who rents a room from a London family at a time when a serial killer known as The Avenger is stalking blonde women in the city. Like many films of the era, it is quite melodramatic and stage-y featuring overly long reaction shots from the actors. Even conceding the early limitations of a medium in its adolescence, Hitchcock's original falls well short of Brahm's remake in many respects. First and foremost is the cast, particularly Laird Cregar in the titular role, who makes Novello's lodger character in the original look absolutely wimpy and safe by comparison. Cregar's bulky 6'3", 300 pound frame alone makes him more imposing, but add to that his striking visage, bulging eyes and a voice that's sounds like a cross between Vincent Price and Orson Welles, and it makes for one of the biggest character role mismatches in cinema history. Cregar's acting skills, whether speaking or not, are also far superior to Novello's. It's one thing to have the tools, another to employ them well, and Cregar does in a magnetic and subdued performance. The other players in the remake are made up of some great Fox all-stars of the time including Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Sara Allgood and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. This group complemented Cregar perfectly, especially Oberon who also blows her original counterpart, June, out of the water in terms of screen presence, sex appeal and acting skills. Secondly, the story was re-written by BarrĂ© Lyndon with Jack the Ripper himself as the serial killer, a character implied by the original's Avenger, but never expressly stated. It's sounds like a small change but that historical character brings much more gravitas then the near-beer, stand-in version of 1927. There are also major changes to Cregar's character that work much better in building suspense, and the story's ending is far superior to the original's upbeat, yet tepid, weak tea. The remake was professionally produced by Robert Bassler with elaborate studio sets that simulate nicely the foggy London streets. The Victorian era garb is exquisitely reproduced adding much to the atmosphere as well. Brahm's direction takes full advantage of all these elements, wisely emphasizing Cregar's physicality, but never forgetting to build atmosphere with many nice overhead and street level shots of the city's set. In short, it's a magnificent production that improved on numerous components of the original while keeping the basic story and upgrading the thriller aspects. The remake of The Lodger was such a large commercial and critical success that Fox essentially put the same team together including producer Bassler, writer Lyndon, stars Cregar and Sanders, and director John Brahm to make another film in a similar vein the following year. Brahm had just outdone Hitchcock, with Hangover Square, he topped himself.

With heavy elements of noir and gothic horror, Hangover Square (1945) was Brahm's somewhat tonal sequel to The Lodger. Laird Cregar returned to play another sympathetic but flawed protagonist, George Harvey Bone,  an up-and-coming, London classical composer who suffers from stress related, fugue-like blackouts triggered by auditory dissonance. The film again co-stars George Sanders, this time as a Scotland Yard M.D., who initially helps Bone but subsequently suspects him of murder. Linda Darnell plays a very manipulative, noir-ish femme fatale that takes advantage of Bone and Faye Marlowe plays the good girl/sponsor who introduces Bone to her symphony conductor father (Alan Napier).
The other major star of the film, which goes uncredited but gets more screen time than anyone, is fire. Most critics mention the three major blazes that break out during the film (two of which are phenomenal both in terms of the story and visually) but fail to mention what a ubiquitous character fire is from first frame to last. The opening shot of the film is the flame from a street vendor's chestnut roasting cart and there are gas lit streets outdoors and candle lit interiors. There's even a construction pit outside Bone's residence with kerosene lanterns ringing it like Victorian era traffic cones. It's no coincidence that Brahm uses, and indeed, emphasizes flame or fire imagery at every turn. Not only does this work thematically to remind the viewer of the hellishness of Bone's obsessions, it also provides some fantastic gothic/noir atmosphere in virtually every scene. 

Brahm must have done some meticulous storyboarding as each shot is beautifully framed and composed. Brahm made use of high contrast shots, shooting from overhead, ground level and even some nice sweeping shots to highlight the urban sets and maintain visual interest. Over and over again, an otherwise ordinary scene would be enhanced by an interesting camera point of view or movement.

The film was cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's next project after he won the Academy Award for Laura and his work here is peerless as well. The lighting had to have been a struggle but everything was photographed clean, crisp and well illuminated, even in a scene where Sanders is intentionally photographed in deep shadow with Cregar well lit. 

As in Brahm's version of The Lodger, Cregar again puts in a great, sympathetic performance and is strongly supported by Sanders, Darnell, and surprisingly, a 17-year old Faye Marlowe in her first role in which she shows some incredible poise for a newcomer among veteran actors. Cregar's believability as a composer is aided immeasurably by his ability to actually play the piano and Brahm takes full advantage with several shots of Cregar's hands on the right keys matching the score. Darnell is drop dead sexy especially in her first cabaret number and does some subtle acting considering her character's one dimensional scope.

What elevates the film to an unequivocal masterpiece, is the 11-minute concert at its climax. I have never seen anything approximating this sequence in film. Bernard Herrmann's brilliant composition is somehow woven seamlessly into the plot as Bone plays the completed concerto while the same music simultaneously comments on the finale's events. The composition being played is scored perfectly to the events that unfold despite a change in pianist - twice! It's tough to explain and really needs to be experienced to fully understand and appreciate what Brahm and Herrmann pulled off, but this is one of the greatest endings in cinema - beautifully conceived, shot, scored, acted, edited and executed. The movie elements are so varied and intricate in this final scene, yet Brahm smoothly puts them all together and makes them flow with the Herrmann score perfectly.

In 2009, some guy named Ansel Faraj did a remake of Hangover Square. I think I'll skip it.

Psycho (1960) - 8/10
Psycho (1998) - 4/10
The Lodger (1927) - 7/10
The Lodger (1944) - 8/10
Hangover Square (1945) - 9/10
Hangover Square (2009) - ?/10

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