Propaganda films offer clues to Hitchcock's later television work

September 29, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Those blasted artists! They just don't get it, especially during wartime. The mad and treacherous fools, they actually believe in telling the truth!

So it was with John Huston. Sent by the Signal Department to record the heroic march across Italy in 1943, he insisted instead upon portraying combat as the horrifying, whimsical nightmare of actuality in the melancholy "The Battle of San Pietro." Irritated a lot of important people.

In England, Alfred Hitchcock was trying to crank out propaganda films for the war effort. Evidently, these two short films were planned to bolster spirits among the Free French in England and among the freed French in France, but they ran so counter to their intended purpose, they were locked in a vault for 50 years.

Now unearthed by the British Film Institute, both are showing at the Charles for two days.

It's easy to see how Hitchcock's natural cynicism about human nature was completely unsuited for the role of propagandist; he saw dark meanings in the brightest of parades and the noblest of crusades. "Aventure Malgache" and its companion piece "Bon Voyage" represent the gloomiest possible readings of the romantic crusade known as "The Resistance in France."

"Bon Voyage" is the trimmer of the two, though not so politically incendiary. It takes a familiar form, which is even repeated in today's feature films: the harsh education of an idealist. The film takes the shape of an interrogation, as a downed Scottish pilot, ++ who's been returned to England by the Resistance, recounts his adventures to two Free French intelligence officers. As he sees it, it's another example of heroes working in teamwork to achieve a common goal and everything went like clockwork! And that's how, say, Warner Bros. would have filmed it and, in fact, did film it in "Desperate Journey," with Errol Flynn and, yes, Ronald Reagan!

Alas, Hitchcock was too pessimistic. When the young man is done, the two interrogators gently lead him through events again, explaining each anomaly, each confusion and each misinterpretation. It soon becomes clear that he was not an escaping hero but the pawn in a sophisticated Gestapo operation set to roll up the network, and that he unwittingly led a bunch of workers to their deaths.

Technically, one might comment that Hitchcock was experimenting with shorter narrative forms and learning to refine his technique into 26-minute bites, a skill that would come in handy years later when he started producing his famous television series. "Bon Voyage," with its efficient setup, its intelligent foreshortening and its wasp-like sting at the end, is like a prototype for a better "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode. It only misses its portly on-camera host to issue a few drolleries before a Pepto-Bismol commercial.

"Aventure Malgache" is much less gripping, though it's insanely ambitious. Formally, it's a flashback within a flashback as someone is using the present to re-enter the past. But it has the same point-of-view problems such enterprises often boast: the flashbacks show scenes the rememberer was not present for.

It begins with what seems like seven or eight pages of background sketched in by titles, then cuts to some actors in a Free French troop preparing to go on stage. One of them complains he doesn't really understand his character -- a Vichy police chief on the island of Madagascar in 1940 -- and his companion, a lawyer, tells him the story of the play they are seemingly about to perform, in which he, the lawyer, runs afoul of the corrupt and ultimately collaborationist chief.

Too much of the drama is talk as it shuffles back through time and points of view. What is remarkable, though, is its portrait of French colonial society seething with political backbiting, treason and contempt. Liberty, equality, fraternity -- not. It's hardly a film you could show a young man and then say, "Now, go die for your country." He'd say, "Include me out."

As novelty items, both films are fascinating, and for Hitchcock aficionados, absolutely riveting. They are being shown with a 1973 documentary on the director, "The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock."

MOVIE REVIEWS

"Bon Voyage" (1944)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Released by Milestone Film & Video

Unrated

"Aventure Malgache" (1944)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Released by Milestone Film & Video

Unrated

...

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