About Alan

I read omnivorously, tending to err on the side of quirky literary fiction. Although I also dip into young adult and children's lit from time to time. Check out my feed at Goodreads here .

Movie’s Better IX: Rebecca

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rebecca book“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

Opening lines from a much-beloved text & instant classic when it was released in 1938, Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca is a favorite of many and considered one of the finer Gothic romances. But this was Alfred Hitchcock’s second du Maurier adaptation in a row.

Hitchcock had just cranked out Jamaica Inn to disappointing effect, even though it featured the powerhouse actor Charles Laughton, of whom he had famously said “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” The reason this is forgettable, though still worth seeing (even his flops are fun), is that Hitch was busy shopping himself to Hollywood. Tired of a crumbling British film industry, he wanted to work at a major studio with all the modern tools at hand. The only one of those who’d hire him was the famously fussy perfectionist David O Selznick. So 1939 sees Hitchcock fulfilling his contract with this quickie.

affiche-rebecca-hitchcockSelznick green lights Rebecca, but rejects Hitchcock’s adaptation outright, preferring more of a straight adaptation, and a long battle begins where Hitchcock is forced to rewrite the screenplay and learn how to shoot and produce in a more modern studio style. Selznick was exacting. Selznick and Hitchcock would butt heads.

Trouble was, Selznick was busy with exactly adapting a little picture called Gone with the Wind. So, the rascal Hitchcock decides to merge his style (setting up each shot exactingly, shooting with one camera, moving on) with the studios’ (shooting “master shot” style, with several cameras, getting different angles and distance of framing, then sorting it out in the editing room later). Our favorite director gets to play with alternate takes and different outcomes to elements in the story. In other words, rather than shooting one scene from several cameras, he shoots one scene different ways several times. Selznick’s too busy pouring all of his efforts into his reputation-making adaptation across the lot to notice.

The end result? When it premiered, Frank Nugent of the New York Times enthused that Hitchcock’s “famous ‘touch’ seems to have developed into a firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel.” Later on, Donald Spoto said that Hitchcock worked closely with the screenwriters to “fashion a script with breadth and nuance, with wit and universality beyond the straightforwardness of du Maurier’s plot.” Better than? You be the judge.

The Evergreen Branch Library screens and discusses our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, Rebecca, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

Movie’s Better VIII: The Lady Vanishes

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Back again for another adaptation argument! This one conveniently coincides with The Evergreen Branch Library’s screening and discussion of our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, The Lady Vanishes, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.

wheel spinsI have to level with you, dear library readers: I haven’t had the opportunity to read the original source material, mostly known by the movie’s title, but originally called The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936). Few have read this incredibly hard to find book, which is not in the public domain due to the movie (which is in the public domain, ironically). As I checked review sources, found none, and eventually ended up trolling the Internet, I decided to go with a clever blogger’s description of the book as “vintage crime at its best.”

LadyVanishesLobbyCardBThere ara a couple reasons I (maybe, incredibly) contend Hitchcock’s adaptation to be an improvement over an original I haven’t read:

1.) Hitchcock’s track record. Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca (which we’re showing March 26th), and on and on, all terrific improvements over thier source material.

2.) Alma Reville. We all know his wife served as go-between, edited the films, and still cooked the big man dinner. But she was also a terrific screenwriter and script doctor, immeasurably improving his many adaptations.

3.) I’ll add a third. Frank Launder joined forces with Sidney Gilliat here, and together they wrote, directed and produced over 40 terrific British films, but this is one of their best.

Also, two poor adaptation/updates stand in instructive contrast. The Lady Vanishes (1979), starring Cybill Shepherd and The Lady Vanishes (2013), starring Tuppence Middleton continued to hold onto Hitchcock’s title while apparently ruining the core story. Lastly, The Lady was also serialized in six weekly 15 minute parts on BBC Radio 2, which is supposed to be OK, but no match for the original…film that is, which was a favorite of both Orson Welles and Francois Truffaut.

Will it be a favorite of yours? Come see for yourself this Wednesday! And check out the rest of our film series, Dial H for Hitchcock.

Movie’s Better VII: The 39 Steps

books_arrow_film_reelOn Wednesday, January 29th, we screen and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific thriller The 39 Steps here at the Evergreen Branch Library, at 1:30. At 6:30, we repeat the screening.

For Hitchcock, books were simply a basis for the film; and his adaptations usually wildly changed (and often far surpassed) the source material. Psycho is one of many examples. Hitchcock: “Well, for me, it all starts with the basic material first…you may have a novel, a play, an original idea, a couple of sentences, and from that the film begins.”

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It all began in  1915, when John Buchan wrote the book on vacation, the steps down to the beach inspiring the title to this classic British thriller. The plot concerns a man in London who tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top-secret information.

Is the movie better? Total Film calls it the second best 39_stepsadaptation ever, period. How are they different? The 39 Steps refers to the clandestine organization, whereas in the book and the other film versions it refers to physical steps. By having Annabella tell Hannay she is travelling to meet a man in Scotland (and produce a map with the town circled) Hitchcock avoids the plot hole in Buchan’s book where Hannay, with the whole country in which to hide, chances to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.

Hitchcock made his best films from pulp or mediocre works: “I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it, just because one angle of it is really worth screening.”

So, the film closes a plot hole and certainly isn’t one of his usual pulp derivations. But is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece better than this classic British novel? Too close to call, but you can make you own judgment when you attend our screening this Wednesday at 1:30 (we repeat it at 6:30) at the Evergreen Branch Library. Be sure to check out our yearlong series Dial H for Hitchcock as well.

Movie’s Better VI: the No-Need-for-a-Book Edition

Rocky PosterIn the column thus far, we’ve explored adaptations that surpass their source material. This month’s screening (October 23rd at the branch) of Rocky got me thinking of movies that came out of nowhere. It has been estimated that between a third and 65% of all films came from a book of some sort. But some of the most important films ever made came from the creator’s heart, soul, and, in the case of Rocky, guts.

An underdog film made with pure heart about that very subject. Sylvester Stallone did not see success quickly. Sly cleaned a lion’s cage, was cast in roles like “subway thug #3,” and even appeared in an adult film to make ends meet. Inspiration struck and he hammered out a screenplay in 3 days after he saw Chuck Wepner knock down the invincible (and 40-1 favored) Muhammed Ali and then go 15 rounds until his triumphant loss. Stallone fought to get the film started and then made, trimming and rewriting scenes to work with the non-existent budget. Hunger makes for inspiration; it also was the only way Stallone could afford extras for the fight scenes–they were there for a chicken dinner. There’s so much more to this linchpin underdog story and we’ll discuss it all on Wednesday at 1:30.

For more evidence to support the “no need for a book” argument (though I wouldn’t be much of a librarian if I didn’t truly love them), I shall list a few more sterling examples, without even mentioning the most important movie ever made:

ModerntimesCharles Chaplin: He directed (and scored, his music is underrated because every other aspect of his films is so brilliant) his original screenplays. They’re all worth seeking out, with special mention to  Modern Times & City Lights.

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Preston Sturges: The man who birthed the modern romantic comedy with his terrific screwball comedies, where every laugh is intelligent and earned. They’re all brutally funny and clever, but especially Sullivan’s Travels & Palm Beach Story

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Modern Times: The list goes on and on and suggesting no chronological end. And we’re not just talking about Oscar-winning throwback The Artist. 

But a few more: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pan’s Labyrinth. the work Pan's Labyrinthof British master Mike Leighthe list goes on and on and on… 

…and  I’m still not mentioning the 
citizen-kanemost critical artistic statement in the history of film, but I would be remiss (and not much of a librarian) not to include a poster with a link to our catalog.

Movie’s Better V: Noir Edition

Double I stillOften, when I’m in the right (or wrong) mood, I’ll raise some Cain…James M, that is. He perfected the hard-boiled literary style: books about crime & criminals written with precision, brutality, and distance.The adaptation of one of his masterpieces, Double Indemnity, however is an improvement. This would be a pretty short blog post if it wasn’t, wouldn’t it?

After World War Two, we lifted an embargo and our books and movies flooded into France. Perceptive, they sensed trends in theme and style and labeled the books a “serie noir” and the movies “film noir.” The books, by authors like Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, and Horace McCoy, are considered classics of the hard-boiled style. The films comprise a movement that is considered the most artistically important in American film history.

Double I CoverIn 1939, James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity, a novel as elegant and brutal as a rusty nail about an insurance cheat perpetrated by a wife, with help of a clever, but weak-kneed insurance man. Like the film, it’s told from the perspective of our doomed anti-hero.
The 1944 adaptation is considered the most important film in the film noir style. Not only was it directed by one of cinema’s greats, Billy Wilder. But he and his writing partner Brackett had none other than Raymond Chandler to improve the story and add his inkily cynical humor to a story that richly benefits from it.

A line from the novel: “Maybe that don’t mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never accident. That stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it.”

Double I Movie PosterAn exchange from the film: “Walter Neff: You’ll be here too? Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am. Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet? Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean. Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.”

It’s easy to see that the film greatly improves the verbal style. But what of the visual style? Roger Ebert lauds: “The photography by John F. Seitz helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely Edward Hopper settings.”

And we know it’s a classic, but how was it received in 1944? Alfred Hitchcock (yeah, him): “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder.’”

Come see what they were (and what we will be) talking about in our “Best of the Best” film series, as we screen and discuss Double Indemnity on Wednesday, September 25th at 1:30 PM. A repeat screening at 6:30. See what’s playing and cast your vote today at http://www.epls.org/films/.

Movie’s Better: The Maltese Falcon

MalteseFalcon1930Back for more. Here’s another extremely close call: The Maltese Falcon. Screening at the Evergreen Branch on August 21st!

Director John Huston did books right. The Man Who Would Be King and Fat City are masterpieces. Back when he was just a screenwriter, Huston set the film community on its ear when he faithfully adapted High Sierra rather than shift things around, add a love interest or amusing animal, you know: ruin the source material. He also gave his buddy Humphrey Bogart a shot at the lead, more on that in a bit.

Before Huston started adapting movies, things were pretty dire. To wit, The Maltese Falcon began its life in 1930 as a hard-boiled detective novel by Dasheill Hammett, the source of all in the style that followed, and one of the best novels of all time. The first two adaptauntitledtions of The Maltese Falcon were famously terrible, even though Bette Davis appeared in the 1936 light comedy version, Satan Met a Lady. Finally, the producer (or fellow director and Huston buddy Howard Hawks, depending on who you believe) said “just make the book already” to incredible result. All three versions can be found on the library’s copy of The Maltese Falcon.

One of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, he says it was “as impressive as what Welles and Gregg Toland were doing on ‘Kane.’ The Maltese Falcon gave birth to the great director-actor partnership of Huston and Bogart, introduced us to Sydney Greenstreet, set the standard for all subsequent private eye films, and virtually launched the film noir style“.

So, judge for yourself. Check out the book. And then enjoy the free screening and discussion on August 21st to discover for yourself whether the movie supersedes its source material.

Alan

Movie’s Better: The Wizard of Oz

936full-the-wizard-of-oz-poster1 versus  wizard1

Here’s a tough call. A perennially beloved book (the mega-smash Harry Potter of its day) is also considered one of the best movies of all time.

And timely as well! Our patrons voted for The Wizard of Oz over Singin’ in the Rain and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the category “Family Musical” for the Best of the Best series we’re screening at the branch on June 26th. Take a look at the poll here.

Opinions, however, are split on whether the adaptation improves the book. The topic is so divisive, that they’re even split from the same review source.

The book came about when L. Frank Baum was telling stories to the children in his Chicago neighborhood. Word has it, he was stumped for the wizard’s name and, glancing at his “O-Z” file cabinet drawer, Baum had an epiphany. A reviewer over at Common Sense Media (a terrific resource in finding age-appropriate media for young ones) says it’s got “magic, great characters, tongue-in-cheek humor, a good deal of sturdy American self-reliance, good deeds and kindness rewarded, and a cheerful appreciation of hucksterism…” …and that Hollywood ruins this elegance. However, the same site also says: “Everyone should see The Wizard of Oz multiple times in their lives; it’s simply a must-see film.” Further, a Boolean Google search for “Wizard of Oz” “better than the book” returns some 7,510,000 hits!

So, take a look at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and come watch The Wizard of Oz – at the Evergreen Branch on Wednesday, June 26 (1:30 for screening and discussion, 6:30 for just the film). Then decide for yourself. And take a look at http://www.epls.org/films/ to vote on upcoming screenings in the series. For now, get ready for the screening by reading this article detailing all of the changes the book and movie went through before it became the 10th best movie ever made and the one Everett Library patrons like you voted as best of all family musicals.

Alan