Sunday, January 22, 2017

A knife in the back: The Chase and North by Northwest

The Chase is a 1946 film directed by journeyman Arthur Ripley. Remarkably it seems to prefigure several of Alfred Hitchcock's 1950s movies, including Stage Fright (1950), Dial M for Murder (1954), Vertigo (1958), and most especially North by Northwest (1959). Never seen it? Well, then, you know what you have to do now. The Chase has just been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and issued on DVD by Kino Films.

It's based on the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear (1944), but screenwriter Philip Yordan, who also wrote the screenplay for The Big Combo (1995), introduced some radically new elements into the story. Robert Cummings (the poor man's Dana Andrews) is Chuck Scott, a pill-popping, down-and-out WWII veteran who may be suffering from what we might now diagnose as PTSD. Chuck is hired as a driver by psychotic gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochrane); another indication that taking the job may not be the smartest move on Scott's part is that Roman's sinister right-hand man Gino is Peter Lorre. Scott's main responsibility is to chauffeur Roman's unhappy wife Lola (French actress Michèle Morgan) on nightly drives around Miami Beach.*

Soon Lola is offering Scott $1000 to escape with her to a place where no 1940s gangster could ever find them: Havana. Before you can say "Is that really a good idea?" Scott has booked a passage for two on a steamship headed to Cuba leaving the same night; he ignores some obvious signs that perhaps he should reconsider this move:

Note the warning over Scott's shoulder

In a Havana nightclub the couple are murmuring tender endearments when suddenly Lola stiffens, then slumps to the floor. When Scott takes her in his arms his hand touches something; pulling it away he discovers that he's clutching a knife:

The knife resembles one that Scott bought earlier that day, and the circumstantial evidence of his guilt is damning. But we know that the cops are after the wrong man; Scott must escape arrest in order to find the evidence that will prove his innocence.

This image may recall another scene filmed more than a decade later. In the United Nations, a conversation between two men is interrupted when knife thrown by an unseen assassin finds its mark, and an innocent man finds himself hunted by the police:

Both scenes take place in a crowded public place. In The Chase, it's La Habana bar:

In North by Northwest, it's the UN public lounge:

In both scenes a photographer is present:

In The Chase in the background of a shot the photographer has inadvertently captured the image of the real killer:

In North by Northwest a photographer instead takes a picture of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) holding the murder weapon, a picture that makes headlines and seems to prove his guilt:

Did Hitchcock or North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman see The Chase? The parallel of a murder by a knife-throwing assassin implicating an innocent man seems too direct for coincidence. And the knife-throwing man was one of the details introduced by The Chase's screenwriter Yordan; it wasn't derived from Woolrich's novel, in which Roman's wife is stabbed by a man standing next to her. If Hitchcock and Lehman did borrow and rework the elements of this scene, they could only have encountered them from a viewing of the film.

Circumstantial evidence that Hitchcock knew The Chase is also provided by additional parallels to several of his other films. Here are some other suggestive connections:
  • Towards the end of The Chase we learn that some of what we've seen occurred in the dream of one of the characters. This dream sequence violates film conventions because it is presented objectively (for example, scenes occur in the dream that the dreamer isn't present to "witness"). Towards the end of Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) we learn that some of what we've seen occurred in a false flashback related by one of the characters. This flashback violates film conventions because it is presented objectively (for example, as in The Chase's dream sequence details are depicted that did not actually occur).
  • The Chase stars Robert Cummings. He had earlier appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), and would later portray Grace Kelly's lover in Dial M for Murder (1954). It wouldn't be unusual for Hitchcock to make a point of viewing his other films. It should be noted as well that in Michèle Morgan The Chase features an elegant blond heroine of the type that Hitchcock favored in many of his movies.
  • In The Chase, Cumming's character Chuck Scott (often referred to as "Scotty") is tormented by the apparent death of the woman he loves. In Vertigo (1958), James Stewart's character John Ferguson (often referred to as "Scotty") is also obsessed with a woman he believes has died.
Hitchcock often reworked narrative elements or scenes in his films. A character precariously dangling from a height, for example, occurs in his Young and Innocent (1937) and Saboteur before reaching its perfected form in the finale of North by Northwest. Famously, he even entirely remade one of his early films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956).

But as I have tried to show previously, I don't think his borrowings and reworkings (which generally resulted in improvements) were limited to his own movies. In the same way that the UN assassination scene in North by Northwest seems to have made use of elements from the parallel scene in The Chase, a key scene in Vertigo seems to have had its visual origins in a Cary Grant film from 1932, Hot Saturday (for more details, including stills, see the post "Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchcock's Vertigo and its sources".)

Raymond Foery has looked at the Frenzy-related material in the Alfred Hitchcock papers held at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and reports that during the casting of that film "Hitchcock screened literally dozens of films, in whole or in part, as he scanned them for suitable actors and actresses...[H]e spent hours in the screening order to evaluate performances." [1] There is no reason to think he did anything differently in preparing for his other movies. Perhaps a closer look needs to be taken at those "dozens of films" Hitchcock watched in order to trace how some of them—such as, perhaps, The Chase—may have influenced his distinctive visual style.

* Both the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia give Morgan's character's name as "Lorna" (it's Eve in Woolrich's novel). But Lorna is a Scottish name, while "Lola" would be congruent with her obviously French nationality. Roman never calls her by name; Chuck Scott does, but Cummings swallows the middle consonants in such a way that it's impossible to distinguish which name he's saying. Since Lola makes sense in the context of the film and Lorna doesn't, I'm sticking with Lola until I see a copy of the script (the movie credits don't name the characters).

1. Raymond Foery, Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy : the last masterpiece, Scarecrow Press, 2012, pp. 40-41.

No comments :

Post a Comment