Henry Hathaway | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style

Films: Diplomatic Courier | O. Henry's Full House: The Clarion Call | Niagara | The Bottom of the Bottle | 23 Paces to Baker Street

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors) | Mathematics and Visual Style

Henry Hathaway

Henry Hathaway was a prolific director of Hollywood films. He was one of the pioneers of the semi-documentary crime thriller in Hollywood.

A recommended survey of Hathaway is by Jean-Pierre Coursodon in his book American Directors (1983). See online pieces on Henry Hathaway, by:

Henry Hathaway: Subjects

Some common features in Henry Hathaway films: Transportation: Information: Technology: Characters and situations: Food:

Henry Hathaway: Structure and Story Telling

Story Structure:

Henry Hathaway: Visual Style

Mirrors: Obstructions: Architecture and Heights: Geometry and Architecture: Camera Movement: Costumes:

Diplomatic Courier

By 1952, the semi-documentary cycle had clearly run its course. Diplomatic Courier (1952) is one of the last semi-docs from a major studio. Diplomatic Courier is odd, in that the beginning of the film is a semi-documentary in form and content, while the later parts of the film are thriller-like, with few semi-doc aspects.

The Semi-documentary beginning

Diplomatic Courier starts out like one of Henry Hathaway's semi-docs, then changes its mind, and turns into a spy thriller. Its lead character is a US State Department courier (Tyrone Power). During the first half hour, it concentrates on Powers' work as a courier, and is constructed in a fashion similar to Hathaway's earlier semi-docs. Like other semi-docs, it involves a US Government institution. Here the film opens with an inside look at the State Department, as a narrator intones in the approved semi-doc manner.

Semi-docs typically focus on the high technology used by the government agency. Here we see the coded teletypes used by the Department to transmit secret messages. The coding machine is fascinating, looking much like a large early computer. We are also sent to a projection room, where messages to and from Europe to Washington are projected on a screen during their process of being sent. Henry Hathaway had previously focused on the high tech long-distance transmission of information in the finale of Call Northside 777 (1948), which depicted the sending of photographs over telephone lines. It shows the technological progress that has been made since 1952, to realize that everyone today has the capability to send and encrypt e-mail, using facilities far more elaborate than these Government agents had back then.

I have never seen the inside of the US State Department in any other film. It is unclear whether this movie was shot on location, or whether the studio built sets depicting these offices. They are far more workaday, being filled with technological devices, than I had imagined. They are not at all ornate. They actually look a bit like the technology departments of a film studio, and one wonders if they were actually shot somewhere on the Fox lot.

After this, we see Tyrone Power sent on his courier mission, and learn a little bit about how such couriers operate.

Unfortunately, at this point Power's mission is sabotaged by spies. Power is soon working with US Army Intelligence officers, and the film turns into a spy thriller. The semi-doc aspects of the film stop cold. We never see anything more about Power's courier work or the US State Department again. The narration stops too. So do most of the semi-doc style efforts to location shoot in Europe.

Characters in the spy part of the film

The spy melodrama in the later part of Diplomatic Courier is not very good. None of the characters is remotely believable, although Karl Malden's Army Sergeant is in there trying. Malden's performance is a cut above his confreres here.

Power is one of Hathaway's refined, sensitive heroes, thrown in among a bunch of much rougher characters, both the villains, and such Army tough guys as Malden.

Power's tough treatment by Army Intelligence colonel Stephen McNally recalls Victor Mature's mistreatment by DA Brian Donlevy in Kiss of Death. In both cases, we are meeting a social authority figure of dubious ethics, a man who is far more concerned about meeting his objectives, than about how the human beings he is exploiting might get hurt. McNally's character is willing to send Power to his death, if it will just smoke out Soviet spies and help recover the lost coded message. These authority figures are pretty creepy.

Hildegarde Neff repeatedly talks in the film about how much Tyrone Power and his murdered friend had loved each other. The two had been Navy buddies, and had shared their lives. Such elegies for a murdered friend recall John Cromwell's Dead Reckoning (1947), where Humphrey Bogart is concerned over his lost partner.

Trieste

The plot involves a coded message about Stalin's proposed invasion of Yugoslavia. This is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, the film makers do little with it, treating it instead as a MacGuffin driving forward a routine spy plot.

Much of the film takes place in Trieste. The best location scenes in Trieste involve a chase through what seems to be the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. This is some of the circular architecture Hathaway likes. Power falls over the edge of a high platform here, one of many sequences in Hathaway involving falling from a height. He is realistically knocked out, and the event is quite scary looking.

The hero goes to a train station. This is the sort of large, official looking building Hathaway liked in his semi-docs.

Costumes

In Europe, the hero wears a snazzy coat. It has features recalling a trench coat, including a belt and elaborate double-breasted lapels. Trench coats often symbolized international intrigue. But the hero's coat is not quite a trench coat, instead having features that suggest an upper crust man's dress coat. This symbolizes the fact the the hero is a diplomat, and hence dressed in a prestigious manner.

O. Henry's Full House: The Clarion Call

O. Henry's Full House (1952) is a multi-episode film. Each episode is a separate story with different characters, actors, writers and directors. Henry Hathaway directed one of the five episodes, The Clarion Call. Like the other episodes, The Clarion Call is set in the early 1900's, the era in which O. Henry lived and wrote.

A Crime Film / Costume Drama Fusion

The Clarion Call tells the story of a policeman's hunt for a professional criminal. It is thus a full-fledged crime film. It often feels like Hathaway's crime films set in contemporary times.

However The Clarion Call is different in being set in the past. The sets emphasize their "New York City 1900" feel, being full of period detail. The Clarion Call is thus a fusion of the crime drama and the historical costume drama.

The Clarion Call has a playful, tongue-in-cheek quality. It seems to know that it is bending and fusing genres, and has fun doing so. It is like a comic riff on the "serious" crime films Hathaway had spent much of the last seven years making.

Richard Widmark's criminal is similar in manner and voice to his notorious villain in Hathaway's Kiss of Death. In Kiss of Death this character was terrifying. In The Clarion Call, he seems to be played for laughs, though he still is rotten to the core and with an edge. This revival of a previous character has a playful, comic quality.

Not Quite a Semi-documentary

The Clarion Call is hardly a conventional semi-documentary. Differences: Because of these differences it is hard to classify The Clarion Call as a semi-documentary. Still, it often has the "feel" of Hathaway's genuine semi-docs set in modern times.

There are some police procedural aspects to The Clarion Call. We learn about the policeman hero's previous case, a counterfeiting job. I particularly liked the "Barney Miller board" used by the cops to sign in and out of the office. Such boards later became associated with the TV cop series Barney Miller.

Mirror Shots

The scene in the crook's hotel room has two elaborate mirror shots. These use two different mirrors. Mirror shots are a key approach found in much of film noir.

Once again, these shots have a playful quality. It is as the film is saying, "we're making a fun fusion of the crime and costume films, so let's put in some exuberant mirror shots." The way there are two mirrors and two mirror shots, right in one room, suggests a playful spirit at work.

Music

There is an unusual creative use of music. The cop hero searches through a large number of locales for the crook: one of the long searches for information that run through Henry Hathaway films. At each place, we hear a different arrangement of Camptown Races being sung. This differing music gives audible variety to the search.

Niagara

Niagara (1953) is a suspense thriller, set at Niagara Falls.

Semi-documentary features

Niagara is a thriller about "ordinary" people, not a typical semi-documentary film with police heroes.

Yet is has several features in common with the true semi-docs:

In real life the Buffalo - Niagara Falls region was indeed a major center of cereal manufacturing. This is brought out again in a fine documentary film shot in Buffalo, Decade for Decision (Jay Bonafield, 1957).

Staircases: Noir Imagery

Staircases play a major role - as they do in much film noir: As in film noir in general, the staircases are elaborately shot.

Circular Architecture

Early on, the heroine gets her picture taken, while standing on a semi-circular platform at the falls. This is an example of the circular architecture than sometimes appears in Henry Hathaway.

A Fifties Party

The young people at the cabin have an outdoors party. It is both innocuous and lively, with dancing and loud music. It anticipates the opening party in The Bottom of the Bottle. Both gatherings have a "mid-50's feel", with people determined to have a good time at a simple gathering.

The Slickers

Both men and women wear long slickers at the falls. The men are in shiny black, the women in yellow. This links color to gender.

The men's slickers have bullet shaped heads. These seem distinctly phallic.


The Bottom of the Bottle

The Bottom of the Bottle (1956) is a combination thriller and melodrama about personal relationships.

As in other Hathaway films, there is some good location shooting. A Mission church is especially well photographed. The Southwestern landscapes are also good.

Links to Kiss of Death

As in Kiss of Death, the hero is a loving dad, separated from his children by prison.

In both films, the hero is a gentle, easily confused man who makes a lot of stupid decisions, rather than being a hardened criminal. In both films, there is what seems to me to be special pleading for these characters. We are supposed to be sympathetic to their bad decisions to commit felonies. One can muster a bit of sympathy - but most adults know that committing crimes is always a bad idea!

Both films show characters at home at night in bed clothes, in situations that mix suspense and thrashing out personal decisions.

Links to Niagara

There are several links to Henry Hathaway's previous thriller Niagara:

23 Paces to Baker Street

This is a well done mystery story. It is part suspense, part detection. Despite its title, 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) has nothing to do with the Sherlock Holmes stories. Instead, it is an adaptation of Philip MacDonald's mystery novel, Warrant For X (1938).

Although Henry Hathaway was a pioneer of film noir, 23 Paces to Baker Street probably can't be classified as such. The hero is a successful playwright, and his surroundings of secure, middle class gentility do not qualify as noir. The hero is played by Van Johnson, the perennial nice guy of MGM flicks, and he does not come across as the sort of obsessed, alienated man that Alain Silver has identified as the essential noir protagonist. Furthermore the film is in color. The film instead should be seen as a part of a long tradition of screen mysteries and whodunits, a genre associated more with the 1930's and early 40's than the 1950's.

Similarities to other Henry Hathaway Films

MacDonald's story has been adapted in ways that bring it into line with Henry Hathaway's previous films: Suspense sequences in Hathaway often involve height, open heights from which someone might fall: These are suspense sequences, little islands of thriller material embedded in the whodunit plot.

Fog, Mist and Water

The many fog scenes are appropriate for a London thriller; they also recall the mists at the end of Kiss of Death.

Niagara and 23 Paces to Baker Street both have scenes in which the characters get wet - the walk under the spraying falls in Niagara, the scene where the butler follows a suspect in the rain in 23 Paces to Baker Street. Hathaway likes misty, wet or foggy weather.

The visuals in 23 Paces to Baker Street resemble those in Niagara. In both films, we frequently see spectacular water landscapes through open windows: in 23 Paces to Baker Street, a view of the Thames through the hero's apartment balcony. This underlines the location filming approach: even in interiors, Hathaway is shooting on real locations. It emphasizes the semi-documentary nature of the films.

Frontal staging and use of architecture

There is much London location photography in 23 Paces to Baker Street. Stylistically, it recalls Hathaway's mid 1940's location filmed semi-documentaries. Even the title has a number in it, "23", recalling Hathaway semi-docs.

The most beautiful scene in the film is shot in a London park. Here Hathaway shows his fondness for ornamental grill work, something that appears in almost all of his location shot films.

Hathaway tends to shoot the locations frontally, with a building, doorway or piece of grillwork exactly parallel to the plane of the screen. This makes the background extremely easy to see and understand. The characters are often framed by doors or windows. There is a geometric quality to these - each character has their own background region of rectilinear space.

23 Paces to Baker Street and later films

23 Paces to Baker Street anticipated some dramatic works that came after it. It looks a lot like Midnight Lace (1960), the Doris Day thriller in which she is menaced in the London fog, and in an apartment much like Van Johnson's in the previous film, several stories above a London street. Both films have disbelieving Scotland Yard inspectors, and both have suspense sequences involving dangerous heights in half constructed buildings.

The blind hero of 23 Paces to Baker Street also anticipates that of Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark (1966), as does the film's final sequence.