Category Archives: Mystery

#313 The 39 Steps

(1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

“I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel”

Hitchcock was an awesome director, as we’ve already established here on SvTM, but I find that much of his best work came during his later years as a filmmaker, and I’ve found it harder to get into some of his earlier British work. But I’m not giving up, as today we’ll be looking at another of his early British works and seeing how well it holds up today. Let’s examine The 39 Steps.

In typical Hitchcock style, The 39 Steps is about a man who ends up wrongfully accused of something he doesn’t fully understand. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on holiday in London, attends a performance by Mr Memory, a performer who claims he can remember all manner of facts. During the performance, shots are fired, and Hannay finds himself trying to help a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who reveals herself to be a spy, prompting Hannay to end up in an adventure of espionage and mystery.

The 39 Steps is a movie from Britain made before 1990. As a result, it suffers the same problem as every other pre-1990 British movie suffers from – it’s incredibly stiff and awkward. Character interactions are persistently marred by an insistent politeness and an obsessive fear of showing any kind of emotion. This, of course, affects the film before it even begins. It’s most notable in Hannay’s rather flat response to a random woman following him home and announcing that she’s a spy, which feels like a big thing that would elicit more questions than he seems willing to ask.

Fortunately, Hitchcock managed to tap through it a little. Just a little, mind, but it’s something. Some of the dry wit does feel dry in a way that’s genuinely amusing, there’s a sense of attraction between Hannay and his unwitting partner, Pamela (Madeline Carroll), and there are plenty of action-packed moments to hold the film together.

That said, The 39 Steps is a confused movie. While it’s not hard to follow by any means, there’s a feeling that things don’t piece together nearly as well as they do in later Hitchcock movies. Pamela is introduced quite late in the movie, an encounter with a mysterious professor seems to happen too soon, and generally moving from one scene to another feels slightly haphazard, as if it was all made up on the fly.

I think part of the reason the movie flows as well as it does despite these issues is because Hannay is a likeable protagonist. A witty and sarcastic chap, Hannay faces up to a lot of the weirdness he ends up wrapped up in with humour and quips. He clearly isn’t too pleased by what’s happened, but he seems to take it in his stride, and the audience ends up coasting along with him. At times his reactions can feel a little unrealistic and silly, but he’s so likeable that you really don’t care.

I also felt that much of the movie’s set pieces were hugely entertaining, from Hannay sliding across a train carriage to escape pursuers to a scene where he’s forced to give a political speech because he ducked through the wrong door at the wrong time. The central mystery is also intriguing enough that it keeps the film moving even when the film seems determined to not give you a direct answer.

The conclusion was also immensely satisfying, bringing everything full circle and wrapping things up nicely enough, leaving some ambiguities to keep us thinking even after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t answer everything but it concludes things nicely enough.

Overall, The 39 Steps is a good movie, but suffers from British stiffness that prevents it from being a great one. Makes for a good career starter for Hitchcock though.

Starring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Lucie Mannheim & Godfrey Tearle
Written by John Buchan (novel) and Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Produced by Michael Balcon
Music by Jack Beaver & Louis Levy
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist

Favourite Scene: The scene where Hannay finds himself mistaken for a political candidate is hugely entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: A gunshot being stopped by a book continues to be implausible.

Watch it if: You want to see some of Hitchcock’s history
Avoid it if: You need the title explained to you immediately

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#296 Touch Of Evil

(1958, Orson Welles)
“In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law”

Hey look, it’s another film noir! I’m getting pretty happy with how often these seem to be turning up these days, so today I’m particularly happy. This one is an Orson Welles film too, so hopefully it’ll come with a Citizen Kane level of sheen. Let’s take a look shall we?

Touch Of Evil is set around the US-Mexico border, with the star of the show being Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug enforcement officer newly married to Susie (Janet Leigh), an American. When a car explodes after passing onto US soil, an investigation is launched, headed up by Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a disgusting, overweight slob of a man. As Vargas assists with the investigation, he begins to question Quinlan’s judgement and suspects him of falsifying evidence for his own gains, causing him to launch his own investigation. However, this potentially puts his wife in danger.

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#285 LA Confidential

(1997, Curtis Hanson)
“It’ll look like justice. That’s what the man got. Justice.”

For some reason, this review appears to be missing from the spot it’s supposed to be in, and I don’t know what went wrong. So please forgive it from posted way out of order, I only just discovered this!

I love me some detective thrillers. I love detectives and mystery and crime and thrillers so much that I think I might marry the entire genre one day. So I’m happy today because I get to review a nice little classic crime thriller. Happy days.

LA Confidential is about three detectives that get involved in a web of corruption and deceit following a mass murder at a local café called The Nite Owl. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a young sergeant determined to be the most honourable police officer, attempting to live up to his famous detective father. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a violent cop who likes violently attacking men who beat women, and sees the Nite Owl killings as personal due to the death of his former partner. Finally, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a charming narcotics officer who receives kickbacks for providing information about celebrity arrests to Hush-Hush Magazine, and gets involved when one of his schemes results in the death of a young actor.

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#282 Blue Velvet

(1986, David Lynch)

“Don’t you fucking look at me!”

David Lynch is well-known for making some very odd movies, but not all of his movies are dreamlike drug trips where character names change and mutant alien babies cry for eternity. Sometimes he’ll make a movie like Blue Velvet, which is actually a pretty standard mystery movie. Mostly.

Returning from college to visit his hospitalised father, Special Agent Dale Cooper eccentric student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovers a severed ear and decides to investigate. Using information given to him by a local detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), Jeffrey discovers a dark underbelly to his hometown occupied by mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and violent sadomasochist criminal Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

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#281 Open Your Eyes

(1997, Alejandro Amenabar)
Abre los ojos

“Open your eyes”

In 2002, Cameron Crowe made a movie called Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. It got mixed reviews, and it did reasonably well, telling a very strange tale of romance with a bit of good old-fashioned mindfuckery thrown in for good measure.

It was also a remake, which not many people know. You see, Cameron Crowe took the entire storyline from a Spanish movie from the nineties called Abre los Ojos, aka Open Your Eyes. He also swiped one of its main cast members (Cruz) and put her in the same role as the original. Today, we’re looking at that movie, and ignoring Vanilla Sky entirely because that’s not on the list. Sorry about that.

Open Your Eyes is a hard film to describe. It’s about a man named Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) who is a rich, good-looking kid living in Madrid. He’s known for womanising and generally being a bit of a smug bastard about how good-looking he is. We switch between him going about his day and enjoying his life to him sitting in prison and talking to a psychiatrist (Chete Lera) while wearing a prosthetic mask.

During the course of the movie, Cesar flirts with a woman named Sofia (Cruz), who happens to be the girlfriend of his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez), while simultaneously trying to avoid a crazy, jealous former fling named Nuria (Najwa Nimri). During the course of the movie, Cesar climbs into a car with Nuria, who then immediately crashes the car, horribly disfiguring him. And then things kinda go a little bit haywire…

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#280 Rope

(1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

“Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it. Nobody except us.”

It should be no surprise to anyone by this point that I’m quite fond of Alfred Hitchcock and his movies. So be warned, this is a Hitchcock review, so if you don’t want me to sit here and tell you how fantastic he was and why Rope is such a good movie, then feel free to sit this one out. Sound good? Okay, let’s get going.

Rope starts with the murder of David Kentley by his former classmates Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) in the duo’s apartment. They strangle him with a rope and stuff him in a chest in the lounge. Their reasoning is that they wish to commit the “perfect murder”, even going as far as holding a dinner party immediately afterwards. As the guests arrive, Brandon maintains a psychopathic calmness while Phillip’s panic and guilt threatens to reveal itself in front of the party. Cue the arrival of their former teacher, Rupert Cadell (James GODDAMN Stewart!), who begins to suspect them.

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#265 Celine & Julie Go Boating

Céline et Julie vont en bateau
(1974, Jacques Rivette)

“BUT THE NEXT MORNING”

)

So, last time we watched a movie about close female friendship framed as a road movie. Well, this time we’re taking another look at a movie about female friendship, and I swear I didn’t plan that. Today, we’re taking a look at Celine & Julie Go Boating, a French movie about…two women and a mysterious house???

While sitting on a park bench one day, Julie (Dominique Labourier) witnesses a young woman, Celine (Juliet Berto) clumsily walking past, dropping her scarf and sunglasses. Julie picks them up and chases after Celine, leading the two to become friends and eventually move in together. After flirting with switching identities, with Celine disguising herself to meet Julie’s childhood sweetheart and Julie hijacking an audition scheduled for Celine, they eventually become fascinated with a strange house that seems to be telling its own story.

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#260 The Big Sleep

(1946, Howard Hawks)

“I don’t know yet what I’m going to tell them. It’ll be pretty close to the truth”

Humphrey Bogart was pretty much the star of film noir during the forties. Best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca (which will be appearing on here at a later date), he also famously played acclaimed mystery writer Raymond Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. I like me a good mystery thriller, so I should like this, right?

The Big Sleep sees Marlowe, a private investigator, being called to the offices of retired general General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Someone is blackmailing his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), and he wants Marlowe to find out who, and find a way to resolve those debts. Meanwhile, Sternwood’s older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), informs Marlowe that her father’s real motive for contacting him is to find a missing friend of his. What follows is a twisted tale of twists and mysterious motives.

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#256 Safe

(1995, Todd Haynes)
“I know it’s not normal but I can’t help it”

I love movies about quirky subject matter, especially when the subject matter has a sense of mystery about it. I love movies that make me wonder what the hell is going on, that make me feel uneasy but I still love every minute of them. Safe is one of those movies.

Safe is about a housewife named Carol White (Julianne Moore), who one day starts to get mysteriously ill, suffering random nosebleeds and coughing fits. When her doctors find her strangely healthy despite this, she discovers that she may have a strange illness known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which is seemingly set off by chemicals in everyday life.

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#248 Gaslight

(1944, George Cukor)

“How can a madwoman help her husband?”

I love me a good noir thriller. Spooky mystery and tense atmosphere is an easy way for a film to win me over. And so, I gleefully look back to a movie from the classic era of film noir starring classic actress Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight, the remake of a British movie released only 4 years before.

World-famous opera singer Alice Alquist has been murdered, and her murderer has escaped before he could find her jewels, as he was interrupted by Alice’s daughter, Paula. A few years later, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), studying singing in Italy, where she meets a man named Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

Gregory convinces Paula to move back into the inherited home owned by Alice, but when they move in, strange things start happening. Things begin disappearing or moving around the house, footsteps are heard in the sealed attic and the gaslight lamps begin to fade at mysterious times. Is Paula going mad or is there something sinister afoot?

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