Film of the Book: The 39 Steps

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1935)

From the book review of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan:

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know, Scudder, turns up at his door seeking help. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

I found the book a shade disappointing, with an almost incomprehensible plot that relied far too much on coincidence and got a little tedious in the middle as our hero ran around over the moors of Scotland, dodging the bad guys. I’d seen the Hitchcock film before but my memory of it was vague, although I remembered enjoying it. So time for a refresher!

Hitchcock’s cameo

Ah, Hitchcock! He’s the master! Scudder has been replaced by a mysterious female foreign agent, Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim). Hannay has been at a music hall where, in the midst of a performance by Mr Memory (the clue to his act is in his name), shots ring out causing the audience to flee. Hannay finds himself protecting the beautiful Miss Smith, who begs him to take her to his flat. Once there, rather than burbling incoherently about vague conspiracies in far-off lands as Scudder does in the book, Annabelle tells Hannay (Robert Donat) that there is a plot to steal plans from the British Military and that she must go to Scotland to meet a man in order to stop it. Later that night, she is stabbed and gives a marvellously ham death scene worthy of Jimmy Cagney at his finest. Fortunately she has left a map of Scotland, carefully marked with the relevant location, and Hannay decides to take her place, especially when he realises the police think he’s the one who murdered her.

Lucie Mannheim and Robert Donat – you can tell she’s a mysterious foreign agent by the way she knocks back her whisky…

This actually gives Hannay a reason to go to Scotland and a purpose when he gets there. In the book, he goes to Scotland merely to fill in a few weeks which (for no reason that made sense to me) Scudder had insisted he wait before going to the authorities. So book Hannay wanders aimlessly around the countryside followed by the baddies on whom he chanced by coincidence, while film Hannay goes to Scotland intentionally to thwart the baddies.

Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno as two commercial travellers Hannay shares a carriage with on the Flying Scotsman train. Their humour seems like a precursor to the characters of Caldicott and Charters in the later The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The second major change that Hitchcock makes – and this should come as a surprise to no-one – is to introduce a blonde! The book sadly lacks female characters in general, and a love interest for Hannay in particular – clearly Buchan didn’t realise that all great action heroes must have a love interest! Hitchcock puts this right. As Hannay travels up to Scotland on the train, he encounters Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). This first meeting doesn’t go well (and frankly, since he bursts into her carriage, grabs her and kisses her, this is not altogether surprising), but the audience know that they are destined to meet again. Pamela is fun – she’s feisty and independent and not easily won over by Donat’s rough wooing, but she’s also a woman of sense and intelligence who, once she’s convinced he’s the good guy, gives him real help. There’s lots of stuff that seems a bit sexist now, but it was 1935, and I don’t care.

Madeleine Carroll as the shocked Pamela – but he only did it to escape from the baddies…

The Scottish scenes are great. Hitchcock clearly hired real Scots for the bit parts of railway guards and so on, with the result that the accents are authentic, and he moved the locations from the lowland moors to the Highlands – much more dramatic scenery, better suited to film, even if the bulk of the film was probably shot in the studio. John Laurie (much later Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) shows up as a grim bullying crofter with Peggy Ashcroft as his put-upon wife.

John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft may only have small roles, but they’re still both great…

The plot plays out well, with a lot of humour in the scenes between Hannay and Pamela, and plenty of drama and danger to provide the thrills. The dénouement, I must admit, is nearly as silly as the one in the book, though quite different – but it’s very well done, both dramatic and quite moving, and at least it makes sense.

The two stars give sparkling performances, but they’re not alone – most of the actors in the smaller roles are excellent too. Poor Lucie Mannheim did remind me a little of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain – she has all the exaggerated over-dramatic gestures of the silent era, especially in her death scene, but it all added to the fun. The film itself shows its age a little at points, such as when Hannay is running and it gives that speeded up impression you get in movies of the Charlie Chaplin era. But on the whole it has held up brilliantly – exciting, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So the choice is easy this time. Hitchcock’s changes turned an OK book into a great film – a true classic. If you haven’t seen it, you should!

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

THE FILM!

* * * * *

Film of the Book: The Lodger

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1927)

From the book review of The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes:

London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

This is a silent movie, Hitchcock’s third as director but first real success, and the film that set him on the path of psychological suspense movies. It shows all the signs of his later interest in twisted psychologies, innovative techniques – and blondes. And in taking the basic premise of someone else’s story and then changing it almost out of all recognition…

In the book, the victims are drunken women who, to some extent in the mores of the time, bring their misfortunes on themselves. Hitchcock immediately changes this to beautiful blondes, and makes Daisy Bunting, the quiet, respectable daughter in the book, into a glamorous blonde mannequin (a model for clothes). This allows him to do a bit of innocent titillation by taking us backstage at her girly show and letting us glimpse lots of young beauties in states of semi-undress. It also elevates Daisy to centre stage from the rather small role she plays in the book by making her a potential victim of the Avenger.

The Buntings in the film are a happy little family with no mention of money worries, taking away in one stroke much of the reason for Mrs Bunting’s moral dilemma as to whether she should report her suspicions of her new lodger to the police. Joe the policeman is still in love with Daisy and, at first, she with him. Joe is unfortunately rather ham, and looks considerably more sinister and crazed than the lodger – I’d have had him arrested just on the grounds that he looks as if he ought to be a murderer!

Malcolm Keen as the policeman Joe Chandler – I’m still convinced he’s probably a murderer…

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth the lodger, though, looks beautiful and sinister and tortured. I fell in love with him within about a minute and a half, so could quite understand when Daisy found him irresistibly attractive too. Poor Joe! I bet he preferred the book. As the film goes on, it diverges further and further from the book so that by the time it ends, it really has very little to do with the original in terms of plot.

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth… or is he The Avenger?

As so often with Hitchcock, though, the movie is still superb in its own right. I’m no film expert as you know, but some of his techniques feel very modern for the time: the use of flashing words to introduce the concept of the blonde victims and the girly shows; the way he shows the latest news being spread via newspapers (in scenes that reminded me somewhat of the later Citizen Kane) and radio – an interesting update from the book which, 14 years earlier, doesn’t mention radio at all; and a brilliant and completely Hitchcockian (is that a word?) moment when we see the Buntings listen to their lodger pace back and forth in his room above theirs – and then Hitchcock lets us see him pacing from below, filmed through a glass floor. The scene cards (yeah, I don’t know the technical term for those…) look more modern than is usual in silent films too – they are in colour for a start, often flash, and have a kind of jazz age style about them somehow.

Although Hitchcock changes the plot and loses some of the psychological depth as a result, he does a brilliant job with the creepiness and suspense, and again it’s not at all clear whether the lodger is the Avenger until late on. Peril a-plenty stalks our poor Daisy, while Joe does some seriously jealous tooth-gnashing. Mrs Bunting, as the worried mother and landlady, is the stand-out performance for me, though I was impressed by most of the cast, especially the women. Ivor Novello’s performance is variable – sometimes he feels a little ham too, like poor Joe, but at other times he’s so good at being a tortured soul that it’s easy to understand why the women especially so badly want him to be innocent.

Marie Ault as Mrs Bunting with her lodger…

The film was restored by the British Film Institute in 2012 and given a new score by Nitin Sawhney. The restoration is great – the film is pure pleasure to watch, and I wouldn’t often say that about a film of this age. I found the score less successful overall. Sometimes it adds greatly to the atmosphere of the film, but at others it sounds rather incongruous – too modern and not always quite in synch with the action. Halfway through, the orchestral music gives way to a sung love song which, while fine on its own account, simply seems out of place.

Lucky June Tripp as Daisy Bunting. He can’t be a murderer! Can he??

Nearly a century on, I still found the film remarkably watchable, enjoyable and effectively scary, and I heartily recommend it even to people who, like me, normally avoid silent films. (There’s a very good quality copy on youtube, though perhaps illegally – I don’t know. Here’s the link, the decision is yours.) The trailer below gives a good idea of the style of the film and a snippet of the new score…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Although I enjoyed the film hugely, the changes to the plot means it doesn’t quite have the psychological depth of the book, so if I reluctantly have to choose, then…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

Film of the Book: The Lady Vanishes (The Wheel Spins)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1938)

From the book review of The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White:

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

It surprised me on re-watching the film just how different it is from the book on which it’s based. The basic premise remains the same, that Miss Froy disappears during the train journey and Iris sets out to find her, but the tone of the film is much lighter and Hitchcock has changed the emphasis in several places.

Firstly, Iris is not particularly likeable in the book. She starts out as one of a rude, noisy crowd in the hotel, alienating the other guests and being insufferably superior to all and sundry. She is travelling alone on the train because she has had a falling out with one of her friends who is annoyed because her husband was flirting with Iris. The Iris in the film is completely different. She’s still extrovert, but charmingly so, and clearly loved by her friends. She’s travelling home alone to marry a man her father has more or less chosen for her, out of a sense of duty.

Iris (Margaret Lockwood, centre) saying goodbye to her friends…

Hitchcock introduces the two other major characters in the hotel before the journey begins. Max the engineer from the book has morphed into Gilbert the musician and his first meeting with Iris is a typical rom-com instant antagonism scene, signalling the romance that will inevitably follow. They are more equal in the film, sparring partners at first, and it’s not long before their mutual attraction becomes obvious. Much more fun than the patronising male attitude Iris had to tolerate in the book.

Gilbert the musician (Michael Redgrave) with some comedy foreigners…

Miss Froy appears in the hotel in order to develop the motive for her disappearance – an entirely different motive than in the book. The change means that Miss Froy, like Iris, is an active participant in her own story rather than the passive and unwitting victim of the book. I’m intrigued that Hitchcock’s version of the female characters feels considerably more modern than the portrayal of them in the book. It feels as if there’s been a generational shift somehow, which is rather odd since there’s actually only a two year gap between them. But it does mean that White’s insightful picture of the subordination of women – the treatment of them as inferior, hysterical, and to be controlled by the men around them – is largely lost. Perhaps White’s portrayal is more English, and Hitchcock had one eye on the less socially restricted American audience?

Iris, Gilbert and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty)

In general, though, White’s story harks back to the past – the England of the dying days of Empire – while Hitchcock’s refers to the future, his changed motive and thriller ending clearly influenced by the coming war. The result is that, while White was being somewhat snarky about the self-proclaimed superiority of the English abroad, Hitchcock reverses this to show that, in a tight spot, the English will ultimately band together when any one of them is threatened, and show the old bulldog spirit in the face of danger. The one English character who doesn’t go along with this is seen as a coward and a weakling who gets his just desserts. In other words, White’s English characters think they’re superior to Johnny Foreigner, whereas Hitchcock’s actually are. I guess bolstering the national ego on the eve of war is forgiveable. (Fellow Scots, I thought about saying British all through this paragraph, but both film and book feel distinctly English rather than British to me.)

Banding together in the face of adversity…

The other major change that Hitchcock makes is to do away with the sections of the book that show Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved child – scenes which give the book an unexpected emotional depth. Instead, Hitchcock inserts some humorous scenes involving two additional characters – the delightful cricket fanatics and archetypal bluff Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. (Apparently this pairing was so successful that the characters later appeared in other films and even got their own TV series, though by that time they were being played by different actors.)

Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) listen avidly to Miss Froy’s reminiscences…

The film also has a scene in the luggage compartment involving some magician’s props that is more or less slapstick. These changes alter the tone entirely, making the film much more humorous than the novel. And hugely enjoyable!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So it’s hard to pick a winner this time, since apart from the basic premise, they’re pretty much chalk and cheese. Great chalk and great cheese, though: the book darker, with a wicked edge to the occasional humour; the film frothier, funnier, as much comedy romance as thriller, and with a distinctly patriotic edge. I thoroughly enjoyed both, though for different reasons.

But if I really have to choose… after much swithering…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE FILM!

* * * * *

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

vertigoFrom among the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Paris waits uneasily for war to begin, Roger Flavières is approached by an old college friend, Gévigne, who puts an odd proposition to him. Gévigne is concerned about his wife, Madeleine. She has been lapsing into odd silences, almost trances, and seems bewildered when she comes out of them. Gévigne knows she’s been going out during the afternoons but she says she hasn’t – either she is lying, which Gévigne doesn’t believe, or she has forgotten. Gévigne wants Flavières to follow her, partly to find out what she’s doing and partly to make sure she is safe. Flavières assumes she is having an affair, but eventually agrees to Gévigne’s request. But a few days later, Madeleine steps quietly into the river and Flavières has to rescue her – a meeting that leads to him developing a strange obsession for her, which he calls love.

This is, of course, the book on which the famous Hitchcock film is based, a film I have always admired more than enjoyed, partly because I’m not a huge fan of Kim Novak. The plot is very similar to the book, though Hitchcock has changed the emphasis to make more of the vertigo aspect. Apparently the book was originally called D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead), and this is a much more apt title. Flavières does suffer from vertigo and this was the cause of him being indirectly responsible for the death of his partner when he worked for the police, and also provides a crucial plot point later on in the book. But the focus of the book is much more on the breakdown of Flavières’ hold on reality as he comes to believe that Madeleine has the ability to return, like Eurydice, from the dead.

Vertigo_1_rgb

The book is set in wartime, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. It is impossible for Flavières to track Madeleine’s past because records have been destroyed, and people are constantly on the move, both physically and socially, as black marketeers and weapons manufacturers grow wealthy and those who can leave the parts of France most affected by war. Flavières failed the medical for the army, for reasons left deliberately rather vague, and feels he is despised by strangers who see an apparently fit man avoiding service.

Another major difference is that in the book Flavières is a loner – or, at least, alone. He appears to have no friends and gets no fulfilment from his job as a lawyer. In the film, Scottie Ferguson (the Flavières character) has a devoted friend in Midge Wood, and is an all-round decent chap, although guilt-ridden. Flavières is not a decent chap! He is a weak man, pitiable almost, whose obsession with Madeleine seems like an extension of an already unstable mental state rather than the cause of it. As the book progresses, he steadily disintegrates, and his behaviour becomes ever more disturbing and crueller towards Madeleine for not admitting to being who he thinks she is.

vertigo-alfred-hitchcock-865414_1024_768

The book is very well written, and well translated for the most part, although with an annoying tendency to leave some phrases untranslated, such as names of paintings or institutions, meaning I had to resort to Google from time to time to catch a nuance that a translation would have made clear. Apparently, according to the notes in the book, Boileau and Narcejac wanted to create a new style of mystery, away from the standard fare of whodunnits and hard-boileds, putting the victim at the centre of the plot. Boileau was responsible for coming up with the plots while Narcejac created the characterisations. In my view, a partnership that worked brilliantly – the plot of this is fiendishly complex, and Flavières’ character is a wonderful study of the effect of obsession on a weak mind. Overall I thought it was much darker than the film, mainly because Flavières may be a victim but there is no attempt to make him out as a good guy – an example of how to write an unlikeable character in such a way as to make him fascinating. The beginning is somewhat slow but I suspect that may be because I knew the plot from the film. As it begins to diverge in the second half I found it completely riveting as it drove inexorably towards its darkly satisfying ending.

Narcejac and Boileau
Narcejac and Boileau

Unusually for a Hitchcock film, I think the book actually delves more deeply into the psychology and makes it more credible. Hitchcock’s decision to elevate the importance of the vertigo aspects somehow makes his Ferguson a less complex and intriguing character than Boileau-Narcejac’s Flavières. And the ending of the book is much more satisfying than that of the film. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Psycho by Robert Bloch

psychoMother love…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mary Crane, driving through a downpour with the $40,000 she has just stolen, takes a wrong turning and finds herself lost. But ahead she sees the welcome sight of the Bates Motel and decides to stop there for the night. The proprietor Norman Bates is alone there, except for his mother, since the new road that’s been built means not many guests ever show up at the motel any more. Poor Norman. Fat and unattractive, he has never dated a woman, and spends his lonely evenings reading books on psychology, trying to understand his relationship with his overbearing and cruel mother. That’s when he’s not reading about the occult, or poring over his collection of pornography. Poor Mary. Driven to theft by her desire to marry the man she loves, she is beginning to wonder if she’s made the right decision or if should she go back home and return the money. Poor Mother…

bates motel

Anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s film of Psycho knows that the real shock factor rests on two things – the shower scene, and the major twist at the end. I was intrigued to see whether knowing the twist would be such a spoiler that it would ruin the book for me, but I’m delighted to say that it didn’t at all. It seems the film stuck pretty closely to the book with just one or two changes, but the way Bloch wrote the passages relating to Norman and his mother were intriguing even though I knew how it all ends. In fact, I wondered at points if knowing the thing that I know, but can’t say for fear of spoiling it for anyone who doesn’t know, didn’t actually add an extra frisson of horror to the whole thing. I also wondered if I’d have been able to work out the twist, if I hadn’t already known what I know. You know?

psycho 1

The major difference is in the appearance and to some extent the personality of Norman. In the film Anthony Perkins as Norman is kind of creepily attractive and seems quite functional, both of which add somehow to the evilness of his character. The book version of Norman, though, paints him as a bit of a sad and unattractive loner with a drink problem, and we get enough glimpses of his relationship with his awful Mother to feel that it’s not entirely his fault that he’s turned out the way he has. Without the restrictions of film censorship, Bloch can tell us more clearly about Norman’s penchant for porn, a thing the film only hints at so subtly it’s easy to miss. His other obsession with reading psychology lets us know that he knows himself that his relationship with his mother is abnormal, and that he worries about it. And despite the fact that the shower scene in the film is shockingly gory, it pales in comparison to the brutality of the same scene in the book.

NormanBates.jpeg

The characterisation in general is excellent, with the emphasis very much on the psychology of the people involved. Mary (Marion in the film version) has a back story of sacrificing her youth to look after her elderly mother and make sure her sister Lila got through college. Now Mary feels time ticking by and desperately wants to marry her fiancé, Sam, sooner rather than putting it off for the couple of years Sam needs to get enough money together. Lila doesn’t have quite such a major role, being more or less the catalyst for Sam to go snooping round the hotel, but she’s still filled out reasonably well. Sam is more complex than I remember from the film. Having met Mary on a cruise and only really communicated with her by letter ever since, he’s pretty quick to accept that she could be guilty of theft, and to go on to wonder how well he really knew her at all. So it’s as much out of duty and to help Lila that he goes off detecting, rather than out of devoted love. Through Sam we also get a picture of small town life, both its restrictions and its sense of community, and this is very well done.

Robert Bloch
Robert Bloch

In the end, I enjoyed the book as much as the film but for different reasons. The film is scarier, but then I usually find films scarier than books, so that might just be me. But the book goes more deeply into the psychology of all the characters, making it much more substantial than a mere shocker. Bloch’s writing style suits the material well – spare, almost noir in places – and he’s very clever in the way he hides the truth from the reader until very near the end. Definitely recommended even if you’ve already seen the film.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing.

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