A stream of consciousness review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent

Just watched Secret Agent. One of Hitchcock’s sillier films, but I loved it nonetheless. John Gielgud’s character was another of Hitchcock’s pompous twits, Peter Lorre plays a crazed Mexican general apparently on the run from Mexico during their revolution, Robert Young is a characteristically swell American, a million laughs, and then, uncharacteristically, a noirish cad, and of course there’s Madeleine Carroll again, after having just seen her and her legs (and Robert Donat’s hand) in The 39 Steps. She’s nearly as stunning here, down a notch only because of the weaknesses in the script. What a beauty she was. Radiant. I would have been so madly in love with her at the time were I a Brit, unless I was a pompous twit. She slaps Gielgud for his wanton twittery, he slaps her back. The English you know, I’d like to see him try slapping an Irish dame that way. But that is halfway through the film. Flashing back to the beginning, there’s a creepy opener of an air raid, you can hear the rumbling hum of a zeppelin, the periodic explosions of the bombs (dropped back then by hand), the searchlights seeking it out although, in 1916, the German airships were far out of range of any aeroplane and vulnerable to only the luckiest shot of the luckiest gunner. London sat in the dark, helpless. We don’t know that now, we have images of the Blitz and dogfights and batteries of anti-aircraft guns, but British audiences watching this in 1936 or so would have remembered that terror vividly. Very unsettling. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the V-1s that London would hear the buzzing and wait helplessly for explosions again. But both they and the silent V-2s make for lousy cinematography and scarcely ever made it into movies. No Mrs. Miniver heroics, though I believe Robert Taylor chats up Vivien Leigh while ducking a zeppelin raid in Waterloo Sunset. But I seem to have drifted off into the wrong film. Getting back to Secret Agent, it’s about this time that three of the leads zip off to fun and intrigue in Switzerland. They meet Robert Young there. There are a couple of astonishing sonic sequences, one involving a Swiss Alpine chorus singing tunes that seem to hearken back to ancient harmonies, accompanied by coins swirling metallicly about bowls. Stunning. Just as stunning is the long scene of pipe organ dissonance in a mountain church. Never mind what or how, just wait for it. Creepy and gorgeous. Indeed, far from me to leak any of the plot, but it ends in a bewildering train trip to Constantinople though whether they are Turkish or Bulgarian soldiers on board with them I couldn’t quite tell, nor understand just why English spies and a defrocked Mexican general were allowed on military trains with such ease. And the events highlighted in the newspaper headlines at the film’s conclusion refer to Allenby’s (Trevor Howard in Lawrence of Arabia) Palestinian campaign in 1918, while Secret Agent begins in early summer of 1916 and seems to run on for only a fortnight if that, indeed ending before the Battle of the Somme even commences (as there is no mention of it). I’m certain English audiences would have noticed this, one armed Tommies complaining loudly in the lobby afterward till plied with a dram or three at the local pub. And I too was thoroughly confused at this point, even straight and sober as I was, though to be honest I could care less that the plot seemed to have gone off the rails somewhere east of Zurich and had entered some sort of wormhole through space and time, 1916 rendered into 1918 like magic. It’s Hitchcock, why ask for an explanation. Besides, many of the English audience would have read the Somerset Maugham novel anyway, and could have filled in the details apparently excised from the screenplay by the chapter full. Then, as I was busily looking at Madeleine Carroll, the film suddenly ended in one of Hitchcock’s beloved disasters. The screech of metal and madness and irony. A few laughs even. The leads that didn’t die live happily ever after humping their way through the rest of the war. The end. Fortunately no children or puppies were blown up in the making of the picture, nor kitty cats skinned and eaten. Not exactly a classic, but who gives a fuck. It’s Hitchcock.

Up next is Jamaica Inn. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen that one either.

Secret Agent

John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, secret agents.

Juno and the Paycock

Laughed myself to sleep on the sofa watching Hitchcock’s ancient take (1930, I think) of the Sean O’Casey gem Juno and the Paycock. The characters are enchanting and the dialog is poetry, the stereotypes ring all too familiar and it is funny as hell. A darling film, it is, a darling film. As Fyl passed through the parlor I burst out laughing. What did he say? He said rest in peace. That’s funny? Well, he said it in Latin. But I thought this was an Irish play. Well, yeah but…. Never mind, she said. She stood there silent as the characters prattled on. You people never do stop talking, she said. Well, it’s not so funny in the original Sioux, I said. Though not out loud.

I highly recommend Juno and the Paycock though how anybody not familiar with the brogue could understand a word of it is beyond me. If so, I recommend picking up the Criterion DVD and either switching on the subtitles or listening to it dubbed in Spanish or Portuguese. Also, it is really great high with the sound off and Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo.

Seems I’m having trouble coming up with a comparison to wind this up. I’m terrible at this movie reviewing thing. You’d be amazed the things you do not learn being a jazz critic. However, it’s safe to say that Hitchcock fans will be disappointed. As will most of you English speakers, or anyone who saw Riverdance or wears Kiss Me I’m Irish buttons on St. Patrick’s Day. Think of The Informer but with lotsa laffs. Actually, now that I think about it, it is sort of like The Informer but with lots of laughs.

Hope that helps.

Juno and the Paycock.jpg

A little bit of heaven.


Wow. Yet another spontaneous celebration last night. In lieu of live music we watched the 27 hours long Director’s orgy of Woodstock, followed by the concise Gimme Shelter. A whole night spent in the last months of the 1960s. Sure I’ve seen both a zillion times, but never as a sixty year old. Noticed: music was way loose back then. Way. Also, people were way thin back then. Way. And septuagenarians now were once beautiful hippies. Beautiful. And also: weed was less strong and people rolled enormous bombers. And also as well, fat naked people on LSD, though that was Gimme Shelter. (Note to self, avoid LSD, or least keep clothes on.) Thin gorgeous people on LSD in Woodstock, pulchritudinous even. (OK, you try spelling pulchritudinous on a hungover Sunday morning after a couple hours sleep.) And you can tell where all this paranoia came from, though people are infinitely more paranoid now than then. Still, the two dudes yelling about the government seeding the clouds, man, was perhaps the only part of either movie that seemed like today. Finally, the Jefferson Airplane were one awesome band in 1969. Seriously. The extended 98 hour cut of Woodstock gives them more songs than any other band, they were that good. Damn.

Off to loll about in the flowers. Acid, incense and balloons. Figuratively speaking. I can’t stand incense. Punk rockers, you know, we just don’t appreciate nothing.

Also, think I’ll stay away from red wine for a while.

If that cat don’t stop it man.

Lotta freaks.


A Thousand Clowns

A Thousand Clowns. I saw this in a hippie movie theater when I was maybe 17 or 18 and it ruined my life. Jason Robards as worthless bum writer Martin Burns is great, as always. So is Martin Balsam as his brother (and won an Oscar for it). William Daniels. Barbara Harris. The thing oozes and crackles with smartassery and stagecraft. Barry Gordon won the best supporting kid ever award, or should have anyway, he is beyond terrific. And Gene Saks does a monologue wearing chipmunk ears that is to monologues in chipmunk ears what Charlie Parker was to the Great American Songbook. He’s flying so high and so fast that Jason Robards retreats to the window sill mid-monologue and looks offstage, laughing, so not to blow the take. And you know that was one take, had to be. One glorious take. If I had to pick one scene and one scene only in all of filmdom that was my favorite scene ever, it would be Gene Saks in chipmunk ears, raving. It’s not on YouTube. It’s not in the IMDB quotes. It exists only in the last twenty minutes of this flick. I sit here watching and waiting.

Herb Gardner wrote this thing. It was a play, on or off Broadway, one of those early sixties thing, a hit with bohos, jazzbos (Gerry Mulligan and Judy Holliday wrote the number under the credits), folkies, beatniks and New York intellectuals. Gardner wrote this screen adaptation, too, when they filmed it in 1965. The screenplay has that pre-hippie pacing, sharp, twisting, ironic, bitter, funny as hell. Lots of ultra loud John Philip Sousa and crazy cuts, segues shattered like shards of glass. It’s not surreal so much as bent. The script anyway. But Gene Saks takes it to another planet in his big scene, like a Catskills comedy club in a galaxy far away. Dialog and trialog and quadrilog, even, all follow the script. It’s Gene Saks’ monologues I worry about, they are so crazed. The other players scatter out of the way. Some of his lines, surely, were written. But they’re the bare melody, the head arrangement, as he must have winged (wung?) most of those monologues with Rod Steiger abandon, if Steiger were funny and Jewish and had body language like Dick Van Dyke in a nuthouse. Sometimes Saks’ schtick is demented Yiddish stand up compressed into a rant. Other times it’s jazz baby, riffing on words, alliterative triplets and quatrains going on and on till dropping back into the head arrangement, goofy and breathless. Damn. Like I said I was sixteen, or seventeen, something, when I first saw this, tucked into a Depression era seat in a beat up hippie art house theater. I’d gone to see some Woody Allen flicks, I think. In between was this. A bunch of it went over my idiot head, the rest left an indelible impression, like the brown acid they warned about, and I think it damaged my chromosomes. Hell, just look at this essay. If things aren’t funny then they’re exactly what they are, Murray says at some point, and then they’re like a long dental appointment.



Gene Saks and Gene Saks.


Thoughts on a few seconds of The Third Man

Interesting bit in The Third Man that few probably pick upon anymore…after Holley Martins (Joseph Cotten) first meets Baron Kurtz, they go walking down the sidewalk together. Kurtz has vaguely Mediterranean features and it dawned on me that the character might be Jewish. It had never occurred to me before because Austria had been thoroughly Judenrein by an especially efficient Nazi administration. Apparently this Kurtz would have been one of those who had either survived the death camps or been in hiding in Vienna for six long years. Now he was making his living in a vaguely Fagin sort of way, Graham Greene falling back on an old and cringeworthy English literary trope. Then again, perhaps I was imagining all this. Perhaps Kurtz represented some sort of Austro-Hungarian Balkan-Mediterranean blend. After all the Hapsburg empire, though officially German speaking (outside of Hungary, but that’s another story), had been a swirl of ethnicities, never been even close to the Germanic stereotype. If you listen you can even hear bits of Italian in the German dialogue, unthinkable in Berlin. Now we watch Baron Kurtz and the Joseph Cotten character walk down the street. An Austrian policeman on his beat walks toward them, still with a Gestapo-ish hint of a Hitler mustache. The cop pays no attention to either of them, nor does Holley, with his American film noir disrespect for cops (I hate coppers, as Cagney seemed to always say), pay attention to the cop. Kurtz does, however. He looks up, sees the cop, and with the alacrity of experience steps out into the street. The cop passes and Kurtz gets back on the sidewalk. What might be taken for a little common sense courtesy had, I’m sure, a much darker meaning. Nazi law forbade Jews to walk on sidewalks. Jews on sidewalks were beaten. In Riga they were killed on the spot. I saw that microcosmic scene within a scene, those few steps, and knew that Kurtz was Jewish. Sometimes a few seconds of film illuminate vast crimes and unspeakable tragedies, throwing shadows you never noticed before.

About me

TCM is weirding me out. First there were giant ants in the river behind me. Now there’s a guy named Brick bossing John Wayne around. Next up is the Thin Man, which I haven’t been in a long time. Then a loser writer in the Third Man, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and I do little enough as it is, and finally A Thousand Clowns, about a do little writer. What is Robert Osborne trying to tell me? If this is narcissism, you can have it.

The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act


I keep falling asleep on the couch during the midnight movies . . . last nite it was On the Waterfront, my fave flick ever. I couldn’t figure out why . . . after all, one of my seizure meds discourages sleep even. Then I read Greg Burk’s latest MetalJazz and he’s going on about the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act. CALM for short. Clever.  He’s crazy about it. No longer can commercials be louder than the programs they’re interrupting. You can imagine Burk before its passage, in his EZ chair, lunging for the remote and cursing the Toyotathon.  No more, though…all is mono-volume, smooth and unsurprising as the Kansas plain. The law went into effect on December 13, about the time I began dozing off before Marlon Brando had a chance to tell Rod Steiger he coulda been a contender.  I am lulled into deep sleep curled up on the couch, surrounded by the new fluffy couch pillows (which don’t help things either). Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger and Ashley Madison and the Mattress King flowing seamlessly together.  Nothing interrupts. No more being jolted awake by those ads for the Trojan Twister and their haunting undertone that men aren’t really necessary at all. But the thing is, I always did my best writing in the wee hours, invariably after being awoken by that delicious babe describing hideous malpractices that can be sued for. She rattles them off, all kinds of scary things,  diseases and deformities and even death. She talks so fast, this chick, and never blinks. Disturbing. And I don’t even know what a vaginal mesh is.  So I’d turn off the TV and turn on the computer and out would come prose. All kinds of prose. A blog’s worth of prose. No more. Now I just sleep, wake up, straighten up the house (I always straighten up the house), read a while and go to bed, the real bed, and sleep again. No prose at all.

There goes my writing career.