Thursday, August 21, 2014

Disney meets Hitchcock

Walt Disney was above all else a storyteller and was quite capable of telling stories (or helping talented writers and directors tell stories) in live-action as well as animated films. The live-action films made by Disney during the 1950s & 1960s include some excellent stories. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Swiss Family Robinson are perhaps the best remembered, but other films such as In Search of the Castaways, The Great Locomotive Chase and Dr. Syn are equally wonderful.

In 1964, a rapidly growing up Hayley Mills starred in The Moon Spinners, based on a suspense novel by Mary Stewart. Like the other movies I've mentioned, it's a entertaining story, beautifully filmed on location in Crete. What makes it interesting, though, is that it really feels more like a Hitchcock film than a Disney film.

Hayley plays Nikky Ferris, who is vacationing in Crete with her aunt. She meets a young man she likes, but then finds him hiding out in an old church one morning with a bullet wound in his shoulder.

And so she finds herself neck-deep in an adventure, despite efforts by Mark--the wounded guy--to keep her out of it. Without at first knowing what's going on, she patches up Mark's wounds, helps him hide out, but then gets kidnapped by the villain (played with effective menace by Eli Wallach) and is tied up inside a windmill.

The sequence in which she--with a little help from others--escapes from the windmill is absolutely outstanding, perhaps the highlight of the film.

She and Mark end up on the run, hiding in some ancient ruins, before she finally learns that the whole thing involves stolen jewels. The story continues to move along briskly, coming to a conclusion aboard a yacht owned by a rather odd woman with a pet cheetah.

This last character is played by silent movie star Pola Negri, whom Walt Disney talked out of retirement to
play this one last role. This was a wise move on Disney's part--Pola brings a splendid eccentricity to the part.

The director was James Neilson, whose credits include other cool stuff such as 1963's Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow and around a gazillion TV episodes covering everything from The Donna Reed Show to Adam 12. With The Moon Spinners, he's definitely channeling Hitchcock. All the elements of Hitch's films are here: innocent bystanders caught up in a criminal scheme, visually striking action set pieces and quirky yet somehow believable characters. And it all comes together to make yet another great story.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. The flavor of the film is definitely Hitchcockian, with one more twist that you didn't mention: one of the supposed "good guys" turns out to be a villain! (Shades of "The 39 Steps" and several others.) The windmill sequence is absolutely the standout segment of the film, but the entire piece is incredibly cohesive in its variety of characters and scenes. I love Pola Negri's dialogue in her scenes with Haley Mills. And Haley by this time, in her Disney films at any rate, had become very identifiable as the somewhat innocent young protagonist (a blonde yet, in the Hitchcock tradition!). The casting was brilliant. The pacing, and this is tricky for a film of this genre, was spot-on. Many other Disney films of this era tended to plod, but this one moves along at just the right speed. It's also intelligently done, doesn't "talk down" to its audience while at the same time not being so complicated that a young person would have difficulty following it.

    It's a shame Disney never pursued suspense as a sub-genre of his films. This one proves that he was capable of it.

    1. You make an excellent point about the pacing. When a movie depends more on suspense and characterization than on pure action, pacing can be an issue. But here the characters and the strong story keep things moving along briskly.


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