Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

And the film preservation blogathon rolls on...

Alfred Hitchcock was trained as a draftsman and an engineer. His early career saw him working as a graphic designer, a skill he took with him to the movies. He began his film career in 1921 as a title designer. Over the course of the next five years, Hitch took on more and varied jobs as he moved up the pecking order at Islington Studios (subsequently Gainsbourg Pictures). He got his first chance at directing in 1922, when he was assigned Number 13, a film whose financing fell apart before Hitchcock could shoot more than a couple of scenes. Afterward, Hitchcock worked as an assistant to Director Graham Cutts, who took Hitchcock with him to Germany to make Die Prinzessin und der Geiger. While in Germany, Hitchcock observed F. W. Murnau working on The Last Laugh and probably a number of other German productions. They left an impression and Fritz Lang's influence in particular can be seen all over some of Hitchcock's early films. Cutts and Hitchcock had a falling out when Cutts refused to let Hitchcock direct The Rat (1925). As a consolation, producer Michael Balcon assigned Hitchcock to The Pleasure Garden (1925), which filmed in Munich, London, and Italy. The film had a troubled production, running afoul of customs in Italy and sitting unreleased for two years after it was finished. It wasn't released until after Hitchcock had his first great success with The Lodger. It wasn't a success.

What is to be made of Hitchcock's first film? It's hard to see the director Hitchcock would become without squinting. It's there, but it's not fully formed. The Pleasure Garden has interesting similarities to some of the director's melodramas, but there's no hint of the master of suspense.

The story follows the fortunes of two women. Patsy is a chorus girl working at The Pleasure Garden theater. On stage, she appears to be a fast blonde, but off stage, she's as sensible as they come (a brunette, at that). Jill is a woman without a situation, whose pocket has just been picked. Patsy takes her in and gets her a job at the theater. Jill, it turns out, is a social climber. She plays the boss at the club to get herself a starring role. She plays to the Russian Prince who wants her as eye candy. She generally behaves abominably, much to Patsy's chagrin. The worst part of it all is the fact that Jill's fiancé, Hugh, is a generally awesome guy, but for the fact that he's trying to make his fortune in India, where he works at a plantation. Hugh's friend, Levet, takes a shine to Patsy. He works the plantation in India, too, but that doesn't stop him from marrying Patsy. Neither does the fact that Patsy's dog, Cuddles, doesn't like him. Cuddles adores Hugh, though. When both Hugh and Levet return to India, Jill forgets Hugh even exists and accepts an engagement from her Russian prince, while Patsy pines for news from her new husband. Levet, for his part, has a mistress in India, and he doesn't miss his wife. Thinking that he's fallen ill, Patsy becomes desperate to go to his side. She approaches Jill to get the money for passage, but she's shunted aside. No good deed goes unpunished, it seems. When she eventually makes it to India, she finds Levet in the arms of his mistress. She leaves him, only to discover Hugh languishing from a fever. Levet murders his mistress and when Patsy eventually returns to him, he becomes convinced that he must kill her to put his mistress's soul to rest. Patsy is saved by the overseer, who shoots Levet, freeing Patsy to marry Hugh. They live happily ever after.

Watching this on the heels of watching Under Capricorn was kind of a shock. A lot of the elements of The Pleasure Garden resurface in that film, including the love triangle and the exotic locale. There's also a love of theaters in this movie that prefigures the various theaters in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stage Fright, and The 39 Steps. So this isn't entirely devoid of Hitchcock's thematic concerns. What it IS devoid of is the director's visual invention. Most of the film is shot in two shots and master shots. There aren't a lot of close-ups in the movie, and very few shots specifically devoted to signifying objects. The closest you get to that are a couple of letters that for all intents and purposes are another kind of title card. Many of the shots in this film seem stagebound, if you catch my drift. The actors are occasionally dwarfed in the frame by the sets and the framing. The best shots in the film are in the first five minutes, in which Hitchcock is setting the stage. Here, you can see some flashes: the overhead shot of the chorus from backstage, for instance, or the traveling shot across the front of the audience. These show Hitch trying to incorporates at least some of the free cinema he learned from Murnau. But there's not enough of this.

The Pleasure Garden mostly lacks the director's virtuosity in the editing room, too, though there are a cuts in the film that betray a close study of the kind of contrapunctual editing that Fritz Lang preferred. This isn't a complete absence: there's a nice transition from Patsy's hand waving goodbye to Levet fading into Levet's mistress's hand waving hello. On the whole, the editing scheme in this movie seems purely functional.

It's interesting to watch a movie so drenched in colonialism, too. This is a movie that commits the Heart of Darkness fallacy, in which the farthest reaches of the map are utilized to enact some crisis of white identity. The dissolution of Levet in the second half of the film shows the risks of going native, I guess, and there's certainly a casual brutality in the scene where he drowns his mistress. Still, this part of the film is where the story actually comes to life, with more extreme emotions motivating the characters (and actors). We also get Hitchcock's first suspense sequence of a sort when Levet tries to kill Patsy with a sword. Hitchcock probably didn't need to show the phantasm of the murdered woman. He learned subtlety later.

In the final analysis, The Pleasure Garden creaks. It's very much the work of a man who knows the possibilities of film, but doesn't quite know how to unlock them just yet.

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Chris Hewson said...

I remember seeing The Lodger years ago. I don't think that movie had a proper ending! Best as I can remember, the lodger, thought to be the film's vicious serial killer, runs off and is attacked by a large crowd, then the police show up and say that the real killer has been caught, then the lodger and his beau kissTHE-END.

Tinky said...

I haven't seen this one but probably will at some point, although I'm not going to rush out! I love the work "creaks."