Sunday, October 13, 2013

Random Double Feature: Man and Monkey On the Run

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving weekend everyone! Hope you're all enjoying your turkey, tofurkey or turducken, whatever blows your particular skirt. Maybe you need a nice long double feature to while away the hours while you lie on the couch, pants undone, and work off that tryptophan? Well, I've got a doozy for you today, selected by my friend Damian, whose random selection of numbers gives us Alfred Hitchcock's early classic The 39 Steps, followed by Peter Jackson's updating of a classic, King Kong.

Let's start off with The 39 Steps. Before coming to America in 1940 to make Rebecca (which won Best Picture that year), Hitch made a series of films in his native England, some of which were the equal of his later masterpieces, although much more modestly made. Hitchcock began his film career in the silent era, working as a title designer for various film studios in London before working his way up to assisting the British film director Graham Cutts and eventually directing his own films. In 1924, he was sent to Germany to the famed UFA Studios, where he observed the techniques of masters such as FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. Their stylistic approach, grounded in expressionism and subjective camera work, had a profound effect on Hitchcock's visual style.  In 1926, his first out and out thriller, The Lodger, was a substantial hit. In 1929, his film Blackmail was converted to sound, becoming considered by many the first British talkie. By the early 1930s, he was among the most successful of British filmmakers. His next film was to be an adaptation of a Canadian novel by John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps.

The film opens in a London Music Hall, where Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is enjoying a performance by a man called Mr. Memory, who has memorized countless facts that he's able to recall instantly. While he takes questions from an increasingly rowdy crowd, a fight breaks out and shots are fired. In the melee, Hannay meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) who invites herself back to his apartment. She confesses that she fired the shots in the theatre, as she is a spy who has uncovered a plot by foreign agents to steal military secrets and is being pursued by assassins. She needs a safe harbour for the night before heading to a town in Scotland. Although Hannay doesn't quite believe her, he agrees. That night, she stumbles into his room, having been stabbed in the back. Hannay sees men outside the apartment, watching him, obviously the assassins Annabella was fleeing. Hannay manages to sneak out of his apartment and boards a train to Scotland, learning that he is being sought as Annabella's murderer. Now Hannay is on the run, dodging foreign agents, the police and a suspicious public. It's a classic "Wrong Man" Hitchcock story, filled with twists and turns, inventive action sequences, black humour, repressed sexuality and a cool blonde, all of which would soon become hallmarks from the work of the master of suspense.

The 39 Steps doesn't disappoint in any way. It is a little clunky, yes, but this stems from being nearly 80 years old. Otherwise, the film totally deserves its reputation as one of the best of Hitch's British films and indeed one of the best British films ever. It moves along like lightning from one suspenseful moment to that next, and there's a really fun central performance from Donat. The resolution is kind of bizarre, but it's still fun and supremely well-structured.

Next comes King Kong. Following the mega-success of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson could basically do whatever he wanted as a follow up. He had seen the 1933 original film as a child and was moved to tears by its tragic ending. He saw a remake as an opportunity to use cutting edge 21st Century visual effects to create an even greater sense of reality in the love story between a woman and a 25 foot Gorilla. The story opens with gregarious film maker and con man Carl Denham (Jack Black) attempting to secure funding for his latest jungle film. Staying one step ahead of his creditors, he packs his crew, including his artsy screen-writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and newly hired ingenue Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts), aboard a steamer that sets off for a mysterious island in the Pacific. Once there, they are captured by natives and Anne is offered as a sacrifice to a 25 foot tall Gorilla named Kong that the villagers worship as a god. Taking her into the jungle, Kong becomes obsessed with Anne, and a strange bond grows between them. Meanwhile, Jack leads a rescue party while Denham uses the opportunity to secure great footage for his film. Eventually Anne is rescued and Kong is subdued and taken back to New York aboard the ship. Denham has him put on display in a Broadway theatre, and Kong, searching for Anne and enraged by the crowds, escapes and rampages through New York, leading to a tragic finale.

Can you have too much of a good thing? King Kong was a great movie in 1933. It was an absolute landmark of visual effects, and though as an early talkie it suffered from clunkiness of dialogue and a static camera, the sequences that featured Kong himself were so stunning that they easily overcame that. The film was remade in the 1970s, and that remake, though it has its fans, was objectively awful. Jackson's King Kong is by no means that bad. In fact, it's pretty damn amazing in many ways. Andy Serkis gives a truly great performance as Kong, proving once again that he is the master of creating captivating motion capture performances. This is not merely a visual effect. Kong is a character enhanced and co-created by visual effects, yes, but it is still a performance, and its the best one in the entire film. The human cast is decidedly more mixed. Naomi Watts does a great job, as she customarily does, but while I like Adrien Brody, I feel like he's miscast. I simply don't buy him as a man of action, as a Depression era rough-hewn intellectual who can still shoot a gun. Those guys actually existed, but Brody doesn't quite fit the bill. As for Jack Black, I don't know if he's not capable enough of an actor to bring the disreputable Denham to life, or he was poorly directed into his bizarre performance, but he's terrible here. Like derail the whole move with unintentional hilarity bad.

Still, the major problem here is length. It's just too long, and it feels indulgent. This is not a story that requires 3 hours and 7 minutes to tell. An entire hour could be cut from the film, and it would become a great film. It's not as if anything that is happening is bad. In fact, overall, I really like King Kong, but it absolutely needs to be cut down. There are swaths that we could lose, mostly in the beginning of the film, that are just unnecessary. Once again, everything here is well done, and entertaining, but it's just too much. And this is a problem with which Jackson clearly continues to struggle.

So, what ties our two films together? Clearly the setting of the 1930s is one factor. But there's a large thematic element of pursuit throughout both films, though that's a tenuous connection. The best thing I can come up with is that these are both films made by directors who see themselves as showmen. Hitchcock was considered by the French to be an auteur, but was probably most happy when he was thrilling a wide audience. Jackson is clearly that kind of showman as well. And while I will say that this double feature was the hardest so far to tie together, I do think that Hitch and Jackson probably would have gotten along.

Next up on Random Double Features: Mrs. Nerdlinger chooses our next night at the movies, and her random numbers work out to a very, very odd pairing. We've got a comedy adventure film from 1941 about Nazi Fifth Columnists going up against some New York Mugs led by Humphrey Bogart in All Through the Night. That's paired with 1963's Italian made horror/sci-fi craptacular Atom Age Vampire. I'll be posting my thoughts on these Oct. 27th!

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