Our current post is our submission to the third annual FOR THE LOVE OF FILM BLOGATHON, running from May 13-19, 2012, sponsored by Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, three superstars of the film-blogging universe. The Blogathon raises funds for film preservation and access; and this year’s event is to raise $15,000 to enable the National Film Preservation Foundation to stream the 1923 silent film The White Shadow for a limited time for free from its Web site, as well as to pay for its music scoring by Michael Mortilla. A click on this link here or on the Hitchcock ‘donate’ logo above will take you to the NFPF’s donation page, where you can make your gift and also learn more about what the NFPF does. If reading a film blog on the Internet tells us anything, it’s that the Internet is about access. So please visit the NFPF Web site and help make this film accessible for everyone to watch online.
Of course, you’re now asking, why is The White Shadow important? Well, it’s directed by Graham Cutts (Who? we can hear you asking). Ok, if that doesn’t grab you, then how about: this was the movie that offered a certain novice named Alfred Hitchcock an opportunity to learn his craft by serving as assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, AND set decorator while making this film. So you can see that it’s a big deal, not only in terms of film history and scholarship, but because Hitchcock is the kind of artist about whom anything we discover is important. Which is why we’re asking our own vast, dedicated readership (Hi, Mom!) to help out. Plus you’ll also have a great time reading posts by a talented bunch of bloggers, on subjects ranging from Graham Cutts (yes, he has an IMDB page) to silent film music, film preservation, and British cinema. And, of course, Alfred Hitchcock.
Our own post subject sprung from our wondering what to write for it. So how hard can it be to write about Alfred Hitchcock? Well, let us tell you: PLENTY hard. If there’s one film director who doesn’t lack for exposure, that’s Mr. Hitchcock. Hasn’t everybody written and said about everything there is to write and say about Alfred Hitchcock and his movies? Is there anything more to say about Alfred Hitchcock? (Oh, but why not write about The White Shadow? you ask. But we haven’t yet seen the movie, hence the Blogathon…). We almost thought of writing a post on THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO SAY ABOUT ALFRED HITCHCOCK, but decided that would be…cheating. Nor would it put potential donors in the mood. After all, we want everyone eager to see The White Shadow and to support the NFPF. By Jove, we thought, there must be something.
So we started to do a mental tickdown of all the Hitchcock movies we’ve seen, all those great films like Notorious, Rear Window, Rebecca, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, Spellbound, Vertigo…which have all been written about, all so many, MANY times … oh dear, very discouraging. And then we thought, say, what of those great movie stars in Hitchcock’s films—why not write something about a representative actor’s work with the Master? Though that’s also not so easy. There’s hardly a dearth of writing on such essential Hitchcock stars as Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant (THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO SAY ABOUT CARY GRANT); nor have writers skimped on the Hitchcockian likes of James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Anthony Perkins, Farley Granger, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, EvaMarieSaint, TippiHedren, JoelMcCrae, George Sanders, VeraMiles, RobertWalker, JoanFontaine, GregoryPeck,JosephCottonMadeleineCarroll…
Peter Lorre made two, count ‘em, two films with Alfred Hitchcock, which is only one less film than Grace Kelly made, and the same number as Farley Granger, Joseph Cotton, and Gregory Peck made, and one more than Kim Novak or Robert Donat. Or Robert Walker. Or Laurence Olivier. Lorre also appeared on Hitchcock’s 1950s-60s television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Yet does anyone mention Peter Lorre as a Hitchcockian actor?
At the time Lorre made his two films with Hitchcock, in the mid-1930s, he was probably just as, if not more famous than the director himself, having achieved almost-instant international stardom in 1931 for his performance as the pathetic child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M. Fortunes change, however. Today Hitchcock and his films are in mainstream culture; books, university courses, film festivals, and even whole blogs are dedicated to the man. Whereas Lorre has pretty much slipped into the Cult Actor Class, known more for a pair of bulging eyes and too-many-to-count bad whispery vocal impressions than for his actual body of work. Which, outside of singular masterpieces such as M and his 1940s Warner Bros. years as sidekick to Humphrey Bogart or Sidney Greenstreet, can be…kinda dismal. Frankly, no one is going to call The Boogie Man Will Get You art. Nor does chucking knives at Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette do much for upping the old status level. We won’t even go into Muscle Beach Party or Comedy of Terrors. Horror-film fans have a soft spot for such Lorre films as Mad Love and The Beast With Five Fingers, but those are the kinds of movies that get you a pedestal in the Niche Actor Hall of Fame—just ask Karloff or Lugosi. Both Lorre and Grant made films with Hitchcock (they also made a film together, Arsenic and Old Lace), but if we say Hitchcock Actor, you’re more likely to say Cary Grant than Peter Lorre.
So how did we come to Peter Lorre? It comes back to that question: what is a Hitchcock actor? At such a question, most of us might think ‘Hitchcock Blonde’: those lovely, cool, flaxen-haired ladies who smolder like inside-out Baked Alaskas and who don’t play too hard to get. Although not every blonde in a Hitchcock film fits that Hitchcockian image; it’s a long way from Grace Kelly to Priscilla Lane or (the mind boggles) Julie Andrews. Pressed further, we might bring up the ‘Hitchcock Everyman.’ Those are the poor schmos who through extraordinary circumstances are suddenly jerked out of their mundane, everyday lives and find themselves caught up in such non-everyday activities as rappelling the sides of Mount Rushmore. As Hitchcock explained in the famous series of interviews with Francois Truffaut, he liked to cast in these parts actors with whom audiences could strongly identify, such as Cary Grant (we do keep returning to Cary, don’t we?). Maybe Cary Grant is not your everyday Everyman, but Joel McCrae, Jimmy Stewart, or Gregory Peck present enough of a facsimile of your Average Joe for spectator involvement. (Though when you come down to it, there’s not too much Everyday about those guys either.)
But do Blondes and Everymen get to the heart of what is a Hitchcockian actor? What makes an actor Hitchcockian in the way that, for example, John Wayne is a John Ford actor? To define Wayne as Ford’s man is to understand not only that the two made a gazillion films together, but that Wayne as an actor somehow distilled through his very presence the qualities we associate with the films of his director; it acknowledges, even if indirectly, the notion of director as auteur, that the director has a vision which can be expressed not just in the style of the film but through the persona of the performer. To take an analogy from another art form, if we say ‘Balanchine Dancer,’ you might understand not just the concept, but the image of a dancer embodying the qualities considered Balanchinean—speed, for one thing; technical precision; musicality; energy; and what might be called a Hitchcockian-style ‘cool’—a persona perceived as witty and aloof, and self-aware of being so; qualities we associate with Balanchine’s own choreographic style.
You might even compare Hitchcock’s style to Balanchine’s. (“Hitchcock and Balanchine: The Collaboration.” Now there’s a fantasy film!) Certainly the speed and technical precision are there; the energy also (Hitchcock narratives rarely flag). And then they’re cool. Not just in the blonde sense, but in that sense of a chill, ironic wit. They’re charming and funny and detached. The charm and the fun come from that detachment, the sense of the director standing outside his product and dispassionately observing his own and our reactions. Hitchcock liked to manipulate his audiences, and our fun in watching his films is that we know we’re being manipulated—and we enjoy it. Take Rear Window, when Grace Kelly is searching Raymond Burr’s apartment while, unbeknownst to her, Burr’s just outside the door, like the Postman coming back to ring twice, and we, stuck in Jimmy Stewart’s helpless point of view, watch and writhe in our seats, frantic because we care for this brave, beautiful girl’s safety and because we can’t do anything about it—and we’re enjoying it. We know the whole scene is a set-up; we know Hitch is pulling our strings. And we’re having a ball. And when Hitch chose to violate that detachment, in a film like Psycho, the shock cracks open our feelings with a great, headlong whoosh of release. Reports of original audience reaction to this film indicated that spectators were laughing as well as screaming in response. But the detachment is there, too; we recognize it in Anthony Perkins’ best-known line, one that, in retrospect, is ironically funny, because we get the grisly joke behind it: Mother “isn’t quite herself today…”
So if we’re defining an actor as Hitchcockian, as having these enumerated qualities—wit, charm, detachment—then the essential actors are the ones who plays the Hitchcock Villains. Those velvet-voiced gentlemen, like George Sanders, James Mason, or Robert Walker, delighting us with their depravity, and yet never taking it, or themselves, seriously, as they laugh up their well-tailored sleeves. There’s also a couple of ladies in this group—who doesn’t love the magnificently monikered Leopoldine Konstantin, puffing on that Freudian cigarette while poor Claude Rains is confessing how he’s loused it up big time—but it’s really those jolly men we remember. They’re like cats, sleek, supercilious, and self-satisfied; and always at their ease (it’s the heroes who get flustered), purring their lines—always the best lines—and dressed as glamorously as the blondes. Next to rascally George Sanders in Rebecca, even Olivier looks like a stiff. Yes, George is an awful fellow, but he’s awful fun to be with, and he’s got a wicked sense of humor. (What, you really wanna stay and watch home movies with decent-but-dull Maxim de Winter?) Or recall Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, sighing and exclaiming, “I’ve had a strenuous evening!” The guy’s just committed murder, for Pete’s sakes, but, still, we laugh; who wouldn’t like to have even a scintilla of such blasé cool? And doesn’t a little part of us wonder why, in North By Northwest, Eva Marie Saint dumps James Mason for Cary Grant (there we go again…)? Just Mason’s voice alone, oozing over us so that we can almost taste it, like dark chocolate steeped in port, could make the most upright of us overlook his less-than-ethical deeds. Hitchcock Villains have an insinuating way of appealing, just ever so slightly, to our desire to be the big sophisticate in the room: the one whose clothes are never mussed, who never sweats, and who always has the great come-back line. Admit it—you’d love to be George Sanders, even for just an hour, and stand above the fray. Is that too much to ask for?
Well, before Sanders, or Walker, or Mason, or even before smiling Godfrey Tearle, who played that guy with the reduced finger in The Thirty-Nine Steps, there was Peter Lorre.
Lorre was the first great Hitchcock villain. He first collaborated with Hitch on the 1934 British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, as Abbott, the leader of a terrorist group plotting a political assassination and kidnapping a small child to boot. He’s clearly the bad guy here. In his following film with Hitch, 1936’s Secret Agent, his role’s a little more ambivalent. He’s a hired assassin known as the General, helping Our Side stop an enemy agent from crossing the border, but you feel he could switch loyalties at any moment; it’s all a game to him (as for Robert Young, the actual enemy agent…right, we don’t remember him, either). That’s how Lorre plays his characters in both these films. In spite of the deadly serious activity they’re engaged in, each man behaves as if what he’s doing is an inside joke that we’re slyly invited to join in.
Lorre and Hitchcock might have been made for each other. According to both Stephen Youngkin in his Lorre biography, The Lost One, and Donald Spoto in his famous Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, both men had a similar sense of humor, liking to play practical jokes (which could veer into the sadistic). But more, both were capable of a similar approach to their respective arts of acting and directing: a detachment, a standing-outside-the-messiness-of-life objectivity toward their work. Viewers who grew up watching Hitchcock’s drolly macabre introductions on his television show were certainly familiar with this style. Said James Allardice who wrote these intros, Hitch “wanted to bring an audience in on a great private joke, the way he brought them in on private jokes…in his films.” In Lorre’s case, he honed his objective method as a member of Bertolt Brecht’s ensemble in the late 1920s, achieving, says Youngkin, “a split style of acting that left a gap between the person and his actions” (Lorre was said to be one of Brecht’s favorite actors). You can see this style at work in M in such scenes as when Lorre’s murderer grimaces and makes faces at himself in the mirror, as if the character is practicing at being the monster that he is. But Lorre could also, as he was once quoted, “be that [character] while you’re in the role,” as anyone who’s seen M’s gut-wrenching trial scene can attest. Fluid and sensitive in his technique, Lorre could assume or drop the pose as needed; he was, as the title of one of his better films aptly captures it, The Face Behind The Mask.
It’s this mask-on/mask-off style of Lorre’s that serves Hitchcock’s own style. And Lorre assumes it so well that you have no idea who he is when first seen in The Man Who Knew Too Much. He’s introduced as this jovial, laughing man whom a skier collides into during a ski-jump competition. A nice fellow, we think, with a nice sense of humor, even when knocked ass-over-backwards into the snow. A few minutes later, he’s trying to amuse fidgety young Nova Pilbeam with a chiming watch, and we’re more favorably impressed. Anyone who’s dealt with a fractious child could appreciate his efforts to entertain this impulsive young lady. But the watch will have a more sinister import; it will clue us to the owner’s real identity. When Pilbeam’s father, Leslie Banks, finally encounters the man who’s kidnapped his daughter, Hitchcock lets us hear the watch before showing us its possessor; we’re shocked to discover it’s the laughing man. And he’s still laughing. All sorts of things make this guy laugh. Humiliating an elderly female employee, for instance (he orders her skirt removed so she can’t leave the building). Or briefly reuniting father with terrified daughter in order to, as he mockingly puts it, witness a “touching scene” of a parent saying farewell to his child “for the last time.” The scene’s hilarity is apparent only to Abbott; but it leads to one of the few times when the man blows his cool. As a sobbing Pilbeam is yanked from her father’s arms, Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Lorre, who for once has stopped smiling; his eyelids droop, his mouth sags—for a few seconds the mask has dropped. What he’s actually feeling, we’re not sure—pity, sympathy, fear? Hitchcock and Lorre keep the moment ambiguous; but for that moment we sense this dreadful man is, like the rest of us, merely human.
The critical consensus is that the better-known 1956 version of TMWKTM is superior to the ‘34 one. It’s more serious, its characters more developed, its plotting more complex. Hitch himself preferred it. Certainly, in contrast, the ‘34 version can seem a bit…cold-blooded. When we saw the ’34 film for the first time, when we were much (very much) younger and apt to be more serious ourselves, we were slightly shocked; it seemed so daring in its jesting attitude. The parents casually joke about such serious subjects as infidelity, as when Edna Best flippantly informs husband Banks that she intends to run off with another man. We always found ourselves wondering if she, at some level, meant it; Best tantalizes us here with just that tiny touch of ambivalence in her line readings. Or when she speaks about getting rid of her child. True, daughter Pilbeam is annoying, distracting Mother at a crucial moment during a sharpshooting competition: “If I lose this game,” declares Best about her offspring, “I’ll disown her forever.” Of course, when the child does disappear, the mood shifts, but not entirely. For example, Hitchcock stages Banks’ confrontation with the assassin gang as a battle of thrown folding chairs; it’s a grim fight, but the chairs, flying back and forth across the screen, also make it absurd. Or when Hugh Wakefield as Pilbeam’s uncle brings a policeman to the gang’s church hideout, Lorre puts off the law’s representative with a story that Wakefield is drunk: “Disorderly behavior in a sacred edifice,” puffs the copper, scribbling it down in a notebook with pompous British efficiency. We’re exasperated but amused. Hitchcock finds ways to distance us from the drama; confronting us with a fraught situation, he then pulls it out from under us.
And Lorre manages this tricky straddle between emotion and its shield without a misstep. The actor always comes up with the unexpected reaction; he keeps us jumping to keep up with him. Note the scene of Lorre and his crew of true believers listening to a radio broadcast of the concert where the assassination is to take place. As we know, the hired gun is to shoot on the clash of cymbals (to hide the sound of the shot). All the conspirators are tensely listening, leaning forward to catch the fatal moment—all except Lorre. He’s lolling back, relaxing, eating his dinner, like a smug suburbanite at supper, nothing more on his mind than his hair. A loud roll of drums issues from the radio; one accomplice abruptly stiffens. “Is that it?” he cries, meaning, is that the signal? The moment to shoot? The moment of death? Lorre merely waves a disparaging fork in the other man’s face; he can’t be bothered answering this ignoramus. He doesn’t even stop chewing. In spite of the tension, it makes us laugh. And it’s why, in spite of the later film’s virtues, we find ourselves liking the first version more. Lorre makes the difference for us.
Lorre plays his assassin role in Secret Agent not as the smoothly elegant beast from TMWKTM, but as a pixie. He’s a ball of energy, leaping onto furniture, spinning his arms, and popping his already-prominent eyes. His performance oddly prefigures his Mr. Moto character at Fox in the late 1930s, even to his rapid, high-pitched, pidgin-English voice and his near-constant grin. At least Mr. Moto had a conscience; the General has none. When told that the fellow he’s killed is the wrong man, he laughs. It’s a tremendous joke to him, and Lorre booms a big laugh from his belly, as would an uninhibited child. The General may have a man’s job to do, but he’s really an amoral little boy who, if not laughing, is then whining. Learning that John Gielgud’s Ashenden has been assigned beautiful Madeleine Carroll as a wife, he sulks that he hasn’t been given a wife also. But unlike Ashenden, who becomes morally anguished by having to carry out orders to kill, the General’s character doesn’t deepen or change. He’s happy to kill again. The mask on this man doesn’t budge.
That rift between Gielgud’s Man and Lorre’s Mask can make watching Secret Agent a schizophrenic experience. More even than with TMWKTM, Secret Agent splits between feeling and detachment, the way it splits visually between Gielgud’s lank scarecrow of a silhouette and Lorre’s plump little Pillsbury Doughboy. Ashenden may be the nominal hero, suffering a crisis of conscience, but we’re drawn to the General. In part, Gielgud’s glum, diffident performance throws our attention to the much livelier Lorre. Gielgud was uncomfortable making the film (he felt he didn’t look good on celluloid and that his acting technique didn’t transfer well); he was also working on a play at night and had to rush every day from the studio to the theater. Both Spoto and Youngkin write that Lorre engaged in shameless scene-stealing during filming (of which Gielgud was aware, but didn’t know how to stop), and also played pranks on the set in which, says Youngkin, Hitchcock “took a vicarious pleasure.” Of further discomfort to Gielgud was Hitchcock’s obsessive focus on the beautiful Carroll (apparently an early sign of the director’s tendency to become fixated on his leading ladies). Our own sense watching the film is that Lorre and Hitchcock create the General as an out-of-balance character, a puppet stand-in for their off-set pranking. He’s first seen chasing a blonde up a staircase, like Harpo Marx but in a better suit (the curls Lorre affected for the role heighten the resemblance). He also barks (like a dog) at people, flirts with a buxom maid by tossing small objects down her bodice, and in one scene frantically unwinds a roll of toilet paper. Poor Gielgud hadn’t a chance. If there’s any peeking around the Mask here, it’s Lorre and Hitchcock doing it, teasing us with their own little in-jokes.
Per Youngkin, Hitchcock had a falling-out with Lorre by the end of filming Secret Agent; at any rate, they never made another film together, even though both later worked in Hollywood at the same time. Lorre, as mentioned, did film a couple of Hitchcock’s television shows (though he was not directed by Hitchcock in them). Probably the best-known is the 1960 “Man From the South,” a hilariously ghoulish little number adapted from a Roald Dahl story, in which Lorre co-starred with the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen. The episode is like a Battle of the Masks, each actor trying to one-up the other in stone-faced chill. There’s a suitably grotesque punch line, plus there’s Lorre wielding a meat cleaver with the calm detachment of—well, of Cary Grant sizing up Ingrid Bergman. Or maybe of George Sanders sipping a martini. Or even of Hitchcock himself, blandly wishing us “Good Evening” as he prepares, once more, to twitch our ever-so-willing strings.
BONUS CLIP: Here’s the complete “Man From the South” TV episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents:
And don’t forget: please support the NFPF so we can all watch The White Shadow online and learn about Hitchcock’s beginnings, villains and all — Thanks!