It opens with musical comedy duo Flotsam and Jetsam in a radio studio singing to us the headlines from today’s newspaper after which a radio announcer interviews Mr. Henry Hopkins, a cockney cat food manufacturer, who informs us that cats like strong meat (so does a cinema audience so we should be getting the flesh we desire) and how a retired publican’s wife wanted something special for her Persian pussy. So Henry Hopkins went and got a Grand National winner…
“And, do you know, after one plateful of that meat, that cat, it jumped all round the furniture, hopped over the grand piano, cleared the table and made a beeline for Aintree”
He feeds about a hundred cats a day, Mr. Hopkins does — “Fifty of ’em I gets paid for and the other fifty I feeds for nothing to stop ’em from following me around. Do you know, in my fifty years as a pussy’s butcher I must have supplied meat for about one-and-a-half million cats.”
It was at that precise moment, ladies and gentlemen, before the film proper had even started that I realised I had immediately fallen madly in love with this movie and from here on out, no matter what it did, it could do no wrong.
Tod Slaughter’s ‘The Crimes of Stephen Hawke’ (1936) opens in what I’m starting to detect as typical Slaughter fashion in that it mixes various entertainment mediums to pull the audience into its world. Previously it had been that of the theatrical stage and cinema whereas with ‘Hawke’ it’s radio and film and it’s not long before the two are soon blended together, manipulated and mischievously buggered about with for our stimulation.
When the tale finally begins we discover it’s about a feeble moneylender, Stephen Hawke (Tod Slaughter), who is fiercely jealous of any man wooing his attractive young daughter. This is because, unbeknownst to her, she ISN’T his biological daughter but adopted instead and Hawke’s obsessive parental protection is actually a guise to cover his own lustful yearnings for her.
Not only that but Hawke isn’t as feeble as he appears as he is also the notorious serial killer the Spine-Breaker and in possession of incredible strength allowing him to murder people by snapping their spines using only…
Okay, look, I’m sorry but I’m not sure I can carry on any further because simply writing down the outline to this movie is already reducing me to a heap on the floor helpless with laughter as, once again, Slaughter serves up another insanely delicious treat for us to devour.
What’s most remarkable is the way the film invites us to play with it, collude with it, to the point where it really feels like the audience is an active part of the process as opposed to an inert observer, and that’s intoxicating. The film knows what we want, we give it licence to satisfy us, it delivers and the result is a relationship, and THAT’S the sign of a highly effective movie.
There’s a wonderful moment when Hawke puts his arm around a victim and, before breaking his spine, informs the poor man that all of Hawke’s previous victims were killed unawares whereas he has the fortune of knowing his fate. “You are lucky!” cries Slaughter as he grasps the whimpering man in his hands of steel, “You are about to watch the whole process!”, before breaking his spine. The thing is, he might as well be talking to us as well as he knows that that’s exactly what we’ve came for.
I’ve also noticed a trick director George King likes to use to keep everything moving and that’s to transition from one scene into the next by linking the two either visually or verbally. In ‘Sweeney Todd’ (1936) it was by fading from a light source in one scene then switching to a similar light source in another whereas in ‘Hawke’ it’s by one character starting a line of dialogue only for it to then be picked up and finished by an entirely different person in a completely separate location and this really keeps the momentum flowing.
These Slaughter films were described as “new-old melodramas” as that’s a great way of putting it as despite their Victorian trappings there’s a real sense of playing with modern technology and sensibilities, which could explain why these ninety year old films feel so incredibly fresh.
I’ve now watched three of the eight Tod Slaughter films in my possession and if the others are as consistently entertaining as the ones I’ve already consumed (and I’ve heard that they most definitely are) then we’re dealing with a body of work that’s superior, in entertainment terms, to the filmographies of Tarkovsky, Kubrick and even Bergman’s.
I might have managed to avoid Stephen Hawke from breaking my spine but he certainly cracked several of my ribs laughing.