Monday, August 4, 2008

Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928)

This very early Hitchcock silent film is fascinating. Just before the crash of ’29, we have a moral fable about giddy youth in the jazz age. The movie opens with a most unusual shot—a young couple dancing vigorously (though blurrily) in the centre of a circle, and when the camera pulls back, it turns out we’ve been looking through the bottom of a champagne glass. The madcap flapper heiress Betty (Betty Balfour) — all curly blonde hair and big eyes and twinkly smiling is taken on board a Cunard steamer after she's ditched her small airplane in the sea. She’s done it on purpose, to elope with a handsome fellow known only as “The Boy” (Jean Bradin), but he offends her by saying he wishes she didn’t have so much money, and she spurns him. At the same time a rather ominous looking fellow, “The Man” (Theo von Alten) moves in. He keeps looking at her with heavy-lidded eyes and a slightly svengalian gaze. In Paris Betty buys gowns and acts giddily until her father (Gordon Harker) shows up and tells her their fortune has disappeared. So they move into a little apartment and Betty tries to cook and tries to sell her jewelry and gets a scandalous job as a cigarette girl. Of course the whole thing was a set—up, to test her and to build character. The father wanted to teach the girl what was truly valuable, and The Man was in on the plot; she forgives them and as the movie winds to an end she’s about to marry “The Boy.” Balfour has a bright, softly triangular face, and she acts giddiness, resolve, wounded pride, and joy quite well. The movie is not really a mystery like so much of Hitchcock’s later work, though it does have some of the misdirection Hitchcock later perfected. The most interesting thing, for me, is the camerawork — cinematography by Jack E. Cox — because of the champagne-glass shot, repeated at the end, and because there are seven or eight quite remarkable shots when the actor walks straight into the camera from middle distance to extreme close-up, looking straight at us, until the cut to whoever it is he or she’s looking at, a sort of reverse point-of-view technique.

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