Friday, 19 July 2019

Gunshots fired at Royal Albert Hall ! Assassination attempt.

Gunshots fired at the Royal Albert Hall ! The broadcast of the performance was suddenly interrupted by a scream, then silence.  What happened ? The BBC made an announcement.. "We have to apologise to listeners for the delay in the broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall. An attempt has been made to assassinate the distinguished European diplomat  Monsieur Ropa, who was attending the concert."  Fortunately, the scream, from a woman in the orchestra stalls, distracted the gunman, whose shot deflected. Mr Ropa was not killed. With chilling sangfroide, the concert resumed, as if nothing had happened.

On the eve of the First Night of the BBC Proms 2019, (read my review here) a visit to the Royal Albert Hall as it was in 1934, when people in boxes wore top hats and tuxedos, with medals, and concert goers in the stalls wore fur coats and evening dress (white tie compulsory?). In Alfred Hitchcock's The Man who Knew Too Much, (available from the British Film Institute) we get to see the RAH as it was then.  The basic structure of stage and stalls hasn't changed much - a bit less cheerful then, maybe.  The circular corridor we know now, then opened onto curved doors, which led straight onto the street, where taxis conveniently lined up, waiting. The movie's also interresting because it shows how Hitchcock and his audiences were "European-minded". Jill Lawrence (played by Edna Best) is a champion sharp shooter who competes on the European circuit. She misses out when her shot is interrupted by a chiming watch, the significance of which is revealed later. Later, her companion is shot, while they dance, but as he dies in her arms, warns her of a plot, and tells her to get her husband Bob to retrieve a note (concealed in a shaving brush in his hotel room) and deliver it to the British Consulate. Meanwhile Jill and Bob's daughter Betty is kidnapped. Though Jill looks about 25, (she was 35), the girl looks 14! (the actress was 17).  So Bob doesn't dare inform the British authorities, either, though the Foreign Office knows what's going on.

Bob and his friend manage to penetrate the den where the assassins hide out, disguised as the Temple of a secret order of initiates who worship the sun.  A send up of the esoteriuc, spiritiaulist cults, so popular from Victorian times.  It's headed by a strange eccentric Englishwoman Nurse Agnes,  and an even stranger man called Abbott, played by Peter Lorre, newly escaped from the Nazis.  He didn't speak English at the time, so delivers his lines phonetically, which adds to the surreal situation. Bob and his friend join in the hymns, singing out of tune. The plotters aren't fooled and hold them captive.  Bob overhears Abbott telling Ramon, the assassin,  to fire when the performance reaches a specific climax. Luckily, there's a scuffle, and Bob's friend gets away to warn Betty, who heads to the Royal Albert Hall.  The music is pretty horrible, a pastiche which vaguely resembles RVW's A Sea Symphony but is suitably loud enough to hide the sound of gunshots.  Jill scans the auditorium, and, being a sharp shooter, spots the gun and screams, throwing the gunman off his target.  Just as, implausibly, Abbott's watch had thrown her off target in Switzerland, so Ramon won the tournament.  Jill follows Ramon to the hideout, followed by the police, who break in and shoot Abbott, when yet again, his watch beeps at an inopportune moment.

Because the plot centres around the device of using loud concert repertoire to conceal an assassination, Hitchcock needed a suitable piece of music which would not have been familiar to real concert goers, to keep them in suspense.  Arthur Benjamin was commissioned to write the piece which he named the Storm Clouds Cantata. It's a pastiche of the piece in the film, complete with high dramatic mezzo soprano and chorus. Since it runs less than 9 minutes, and requires fairly big forces, it's not the easiest piece to programme, except as a novelty.  In the early years of the 20th century, cinema was still a "new" genre, which many recognized as a potentially new form for "serious" art combining visuals, music and storytelling.  Even in the silent era, music was specially composed to be performed live while screening. (Please see my piece on Armas Järnefelt : Song of the Scarlet Flower 1919 HERE and on René Clair, Hanns Eisler, Eisenstein and many more.  Because the genre was so new, there was a learning curve, figuring out different ways to blend music with visuals.  By the very nature of film, narrative tends to take precedence, so music is usually employed, as in theatre, as incidental to drama. In rare cases, notably the works of Hanns Eisler, the music itself is integral to the development of concept.  That's why I have so much respect for Arthur Bliss's music for Alexander Korda's Things to ComePlease read more here.  Bliss knew the horrors of war first hand and was very much taken by the idea that war might be eradicated. His music wasn't incidental, but integral to the film, where long sequences are shot using state of the art cinematographic techniques, which forward the narrative in the expressionist terms which give the film so much of its power. 

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