Archive for Alfred Hitchcock Presents

…how it got in my pyjamas I’ll never know

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by dcairns

I’ve now watched the one Hitchcock-directed episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was left, and pleasingly, it’s a minor classic, confirming my theory that the best episodes revolve around a single, clear suspense situation affording opportunity for character development en route. This one being a Roald Dahl story, the character development is elementary, but it all hangs together nicely.

In Poison, James “Madness! Madness!” Donald is discovered in dire straits, having discovered a highly poisonous snake curling up to sleep on his belly while he’s reading. The arrival of Wendell Corey doesn’t exactly put his mind at rest (and why would it? This is Wendell Corey, not Harrison Ford we’re talking about) since Corey is a romantic rival, one apt to enjoy Donald’s discomfort more than is strictly necessary. I should say no more. No overt Hitchcockian flourishes in this one, just the steady drip-drip of tension, mainly maintained by impassioned performances, and expert and sparing use of “extremes” like the above angle.

Now, it might be nice to get some suggestions from you all for non-Hitchcock directed episodes, since the famous The Man from the South (Dahl again, directed by Norman Lloyd) convinces me there must be plenty of good episodes helmed by other filmmakers…

Alfred Christmas Presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by dcairns

Before we run out of Hitchcock Year, I just wanted to run through the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the master, so I can say I’ve done ‘em.

Breakdown is a real mini-masterpiece, reuniting Hitch with two-time collaborator Joseph Cotten. There’s an extremely nice conflation of theme, character and plot in this one, which gives the impression of being a simple exercise in suspense and subjective camera. Many of the best AHPs do this: deceptive simplicity at the service of an idea.

Revenge went out as the series opener, bumping Breakdown into a secondary spot, purely because Hitch was so pleased with Vera Miles. She co-stars with Ralph Meeker in a very dark, upsetting little conte cruel, strong meat for 1950s TV.

The Case of Mr Pelham I’ve already discussed, and it’s a nice, inexplicable fantasy tale with Tom Ewell and Tom Ewell. Hitch’s intro and outro actually expand the story nicely.

Mr Blanchard’s Secret is basically comedy — I think Hitch was often drawn to these episodes as a way of working outside the thriller genre which his feature films committed him to. This is a tiresome, overplayed story, with a very annoying performance by Mary Scott as a crime writer (a frequent Hitchcock character/stand-in) with REAR WINDOW style suspicions about a neighbour. I found this so tedious the first time, I’m deliberately leaving it unwatched in Hitchcock Year. Because nothing should ever be really complete.

Maybe because it’s so dull, the episode escapes mention altogether in Charlotte Chandler’s filmography in It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

Back for Christmas is a marital murder romp (lots of wives and husbands get the chop in these things), undistinguished as a story but enlivened by the presence of John Williams, sometimes called Hitchcock’s most frequent star. Williams also crops up in –

Wet Saturday, a fairly delightful John Collier adaptation with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, another actor Hitch enjoyed greatly. Collier’s stories also graced The Twilight Zone, and one, The Fountain of Youth, got the experimental treatment by Orson Welles. If you haven’t sampled his short fiction, I highly recommend it. In amoral little comedies like this, Hitch’s outro is often used to placate the censor with a tacked-on “happy” or “moral” ending.

One More Mile to Go is another neat little suspense situation, referred to in my PSYCHO post. David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M) plays another sympathetic wife-murderer in search of a body of water to lay his wife to rest in, and pestered by a persistent traffic cop and a faulty tail-light. A lot of these pieces nicely balance the sympathies of the audience, as deftly manipulated by Hitch, with the demands of morality and censorship.

Perfect Crime is enjoyable enough, the story not being anything special, but the pleasure of seeing Hitchcock direct Vincent Price is a unique one.

A Dip in the Pool is a comedy with uncertain sympathies but a very nice twist. Keenan Wynn stars, and it’s nice to see Fay Wray in a supporting role. Spectacular stunt, also (above).

Poison — almost missed this one! Will watch it tonight and report back.

Lamb to the Slaughter is the famous one where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her policeman husband with a leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to his investigating colleagues. Even better than the idea suggests, although it is basically a typical Roald Dahl piece, stronger on its central gimmick that anything else. This shot of BBG seems to anticipate the end of PSYCHO.

The chair against the wall, the slow track in to a smile…

Banquo’s Chair is a fairly predictable story, in which a fake ghost is to be used to trap a killer, but the cast is magnificent: John Williams, Kenneth Haigh, Max Adrian. The VERTIGO echoes are amusing too, with impersonation, faked supernaturalism, a retired detective hero, and a Ferguson.

Arthur is a black comedy about a homicidal chicken farmer, with a lovely sinister and charming perf from Laurence Harvey, and the always-welcome Hazel Court.

Crystal Trench crams most of Fred Zinneman’s 5 DAYS ONE SUMMER into half an hour, with this tale of a woman waiting decades for her lover to be freed from the glacier in which he perished. Evan Hunter, preparing to take the job of writer on THE BIRDS, came by the set, and the block of ice shipped in nearly melted while Hitch entertained Hunter’s attractive wife.

Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is another incredibly drab comedy, with no bad-taste or homicidal element whatsoever — it shouldn’t have been done on the show, let alone by the master himself.

The Horseplayer could be said to have similar issues, but the religious setting is intriguing for Hitch, and the presence of Claude Rains (and Percy Helton!) means the piece can’t be considered a total loss. Quite enjoyable.

Bang! You’re Dead is another masterpiece, and a great note to end on. It’s not the last ever episode of Hitch’s show, but it’s the last he directed himself. The story is so nerve-wracking, Hitch dispenses with humour in his intro in order to justify the torture he’s about to subject us to. It’s a little gun-safety lecture wrapped up in another basic suspense situ: a small boy with a loaded gun. The small boy is Bill Mumy. As he aims the pistol at his mother, neither of them realizing that it’s a genuine weapon, the effect is both frightening and deeply shocking, almost blasphemous. Various parties are placed in danger as the story goes on, and the jeopardy mounts as the kid keeps adding bullets to the gun, so what starts as Russian roulette ends with the certainty of a shot being fired…

Hitch guesses that we don’t expect him have the kid assassinate his own mother, so for the climax he aims the pistol at the family maid. We’re calculating… is Hitch going to go through with this? He wouldn’t kill the other, that would be too much. But maybe the maid? After all, she’s not a family member, she’s not white, she’s not middle-class… You’d think the mother might produce the maximum suspense, but it’s the maid, because she seems more… disposable.

Hitch and his writers have thought it all through, of course.

British readers can support Shadowplay by shopping here:

Fancies and Goodnights (New York Review Books Classics)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 1 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 2 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents : Complete Season 3 [1957] [DVD]

The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2009 by dcairns

Nearly done, old boy…

My inhalations and exhalations sound like the sand whirling around in a hula hoop, my chest is constricted as if there are elastic bands wrapped round my lungs, my head has the thickness of lagging and throbs like a Rick Baker bladder effect, while my nose… it’s simply better not to touch upon my nose.

I have a cold.

Which may not have been a bad way to finally watch TORN CURTAIN, one of those Hitchcock films that had always politely resisted my attempts to watch it. Fiona, too, would drift off within minutes of its starting. Having finally obtained a widescreen copy (Universal, worthless organization that they are, having issued all Hitch’s 1:1.88 movies in 1:1.33 ratio) we determined to give it a fair whack.

A nice Edward Hopper shot, and as close as I want to get to Julie in that repulsive outfit.

It’s not that bad: the right aspect ratio immediately sharpens up the filmmaking, which appeared lackadaisical when pan-and-scanned. Hitch’s mise-en-scene is as crisp and thoughtful as ever, and is sometimes inspired — whenever Julie Andrews isn’t around, he seems to perk up. But Andrews is a massive problem — you simply cannot watch this film without somebody saying, about three minutes in, “She really has no sex appeal at all, does she?” I remember trying to watch the film with my Dad, decades back, and him saying that, and now Fiona said it. “Or warmth,” she added, damningly.

“She’s perceived as being warm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, isn’t she?” I ask. But then, Andrews’ big roles are both nannies, rather than mothers, which may be significant. She offers professional care. It’s her main quality as an actor. And I bet she can create warmth on stage. But in this movie, Paul Newman must be sexy enough for two: in fact, that’s easy for him, but Julie is like a damp rug thrown upon his smoldering embers.

Well HELLO, professor!

Welcome to the cinematic world of Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now studio head at Universal, who basically cast this film, pressing Hitch to take two big box office stars. But of course, Andrews was only a hot property in a particular type of family film. The audience for gritty espionage thrillers surely would have been put off by her presence. How do you solve a problem like Julie Andrews?

Nifty opening montage of name-tags to introduce our protags in the sack, Hitch trying to sex up Julie’s image, which is like strapping a dildo to Mickey Mouse. Edith Head lets the side down with a horrible outfit for our heroine. “It’s not even green. What is that colour? Mustard?” asks Fiona. I liken it to baby shit.

Hitch and his Mini-Me.

Hitchcock’s cameo is nice, but Richard Addison’s rather quaint score offends me by quoting Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, AKA the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Here’s my problem with it: in an interview, Elmer Bernstein once noted that in 1930s Hollywood scoring, if you saw a French ship, the soundtrack would be Max Steiner’s version of La Marseillaise. “An intellectual idea.” The man who undercut all that corn, scoring only the emotion of the scene, was Bernard Herrmann.

Here I should correct one of the few serious errors in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. McGilligan imagines Herrmann playing Hitch a recording of his score for TORN CURTAIN, and Hitch stopping the recording partway through, followed by the argument which ended the two great artists’ collaboration forever.

The truth is more dreadful and dramatic — it was at the recording session that the bust-up took place, before a full orchestra. Hitch didn’t switch off a tape player, he cancelled the score midway, even though Herrmann argued that as the orchestra was already paid for, they might as well complete the recording and Hitch could think about it. Instead, Hitch fired his composer in the most public and humiliating manner.

The seeds were sewn by Universal, who seem to have pressured Hitch to record a more popular kind of score, perhaps with a song for Julie Andrews (which at any rate they never got). Hitch telegrammed Herrmann early on to warn that the modern audience was “young vigorous and demanding” and that successful European filmmakers had “sought to introduce a beat and a rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of said audience”. This slightly vague concern was answered by Herrmann with assurances that he could produce something suitable. Perhaps unable to grasp what Hitch was driving at, the composer trusted in his talent to come through. And his score is excellent — you can see the scenes he recorded as extras on the DVD.

John Addison’s music at times seems appropriate for a 1930s-set caper, and insofar as it shows a coherent musical strategy, it would seem to be striving to lighten the picture’s tone. This was probably Hitch’s trouble with Herrmann’s music: he had made a glum, monochromatic film, and Herrmann had produced a dour, unmelodic score to go with it. All through preparing the project, Hitch had tried to inject some lightness, but his subject (cold war armaments and espionage), his settings (Helsinki, East Berlin, Leipzig), his writer (Brian Moore, author of the tragic The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) and his mismatched stars had deferred any lilt or zing to the last possible stage of post-production.

Moore himself hadn’t wanted to write a film, but was persuaded by his lawyer that he needed the money. Hitchcock pitched him an original story, Moore developed it into an outline, introducing the idea of the painful, drawn-out murder, which Hitch then acted out with relish (I would love to see film of this impromptu performance, but none was taken). All the while Moore was aghast at what he saw as Hitchcock’s lack of character insight. Moore only really invested himself in the character played, like a demented elf, by Lila Kedrova, a Polish émigré hoping to escape to America. Her character, and that of Gromek the security man killed by Newman, are the only really living people in the film.

It is worth mentioning Newman’s cab driver, though — Peter Lorre Jnr. No relation to the real Lorre, this was a semi-crazed fan who changed his name in honour of his hero, and was sued by the original. I wonder if Hitch knew he’d hired a fake?

The scene where Gromek stalks Newman through an art gallery is the first striking set-piece, although the development of Newman’s defection and Andrews’ following him to East Berlin are interesting enough. Since Hitch’s two stars between them cost more than half his budget and dictated his shooting schedule, the film was almost entirely shot in California, mainly on the Universal lot (it shows), and so the gallery is a series of Albert Whitlock matte paintings. Only the floors were built. They’re very beautiful, and since the whole scene is composed of these artificial settings, they don’t pop out as distractingly fake. It’s like a chase through a virtual reality. Later, some of Hein Heckroth’s phony Leipzig exteriors will look like cast-offs from OH… ROSALINDA!!!! and not in a good way.

The Whitlock Gallery recalls Hitch’s reconstruction of the British Museum way back in BLACKMAIL.

Ah, Gromek! How I long for an entire film detailing your brief period in New York (“corner of 88th Street”) which you recall so nostaligically. Gromek is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the German voice of Bert from Sesame Street. We must thank the IMDb for its little nougats. Gromek, with his black motorcycle and crappy East German cigarette lighter, is wildly endearing and formidably sinister, and although his murder is the highlight of the film, I do wish it came an hour later so we could enjoy him for longer.

“I didn’t order this!”

The skirmish starts when the farmer;s wife (Carolyn Conwell, another great character, actually) interrupts Herr Gromek’s phone call with a sloppily-aimed bowl of rice pudding. He tries to get his lighter to work. Newman tries to strangle him. Years later, Hitch’s summary of the scene’s premise, “It’s very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time… to kill a man,” became the slogan for the Coen brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE. The farmer’s wife takes up a carving knife, which memorably breaks in Gromek’s chest — for some reason, that detail is nastier than all the successful stabbing in PSYCHO. The shovel to the knees is next — ouch — then the long haul to the gas oven, with Gromek gamely strangling our hero all the way. His head stuffed within, Gromek’s chubby little hands begin to flicker and dance, like fleshy butterflies, then lie still.

Note that, as Dan Auiler discovered, Hitchcock’s original notes requested music for this scene, which Herrman duly provided, and very powerful it is. The scene is still a stand-out with no score, but one wonders what else Herrman might have done for the plodding thriller. At any rate, the silence augments the risk of discovery that prevents our heroes using a gun to off Gromek.

Newman picks up the dead man’s lighter, which now sparks into flame on the first try. He leaves the farmer’s wife to bury the body and the motorcycle. We rather wish she’d entombed him astride it, like Nicky Henson in PSYCHOMANIA.

Despite working without his regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitch achieves consistently striking shots.

By contrast with the effulgent Gromek, Professor Lindt is rather a stock figure, a bearded physicist with a brusque manner. Professor Littleoldman! And here the film reaches its fatal flaw, one Moore and Hitchcock apparently missed, and script polishers Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse (BILLY LIAR) weren’t authorized to address. After the incredibly long and uninteresting diagrams on a blackboard scene, in which case the need for a simple MacGuffin becomes blindingly obvious, Newman and Andrews must flee back to the west. Their lovers’ misunderstanding resolved, and the secret information now secured, they have basically won. Of course, apprehension would still mean utter defeat, so we expect a further climax of suspense, but instead we get a long journey back to Berlin by bicycle and bus, then Kedrova and a long wait in a post office, which is not as exciting in this film as it would be in real life, and a trip to the ballet, where at last Hein Heckroth can do what he does so well.

This is why the film seems so overstuffed. It should be called BURST CUSHION. The third act is practically half the film, and the suspense sequences don’t quite come off (Herrmann would have helped immeasurably), so it’s not only structurally malformed but ineffective on a scene-by-scene basis, apart from the incidental pleasures.

The prima ballerina looked familiar until I realized I knew her from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The subliminal freeze-frames Hitch pulls on her pirouettes are amazing — he must be reprinting the last frame of each shot just two or three times. I’ve no idea why nobody seems to have copied this striking effect.

The ballet, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of a character featured in Dante’s Inferno, climaxes the story’s metaphorical arc, which Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders rightly describes as Dantean: Newman embarks on a journey into the underworld, in this case, the Eastern Block. Even the refugee/spy organisation’s name, π, suggests the circle of Hell. Newman’s quest, to steal missile secrets, is Promethean, and the film’s opening titles, a montage of anguished faces amid blue and red clouds of smoke, seem like an analog of Hell.

Conrad notes that the film begins and ends with its characters huddled under blankets, but doesn’t quite make the obvious point that the film could thus be read as a shared nightmare. Hitchcock may have aimed to make “a realistic Bond,” but realism was never his preferred mode, and it seems more profitable to judge the film, with its grey-filtered, shadowless monochrome (shot using reflected light), for its successful expressionism rather than its doubtful authenticity.

Conrad is also excited to see Hitchcock following Paul Newman into the gents’ lav to decode his secret message onto a square of toilet paper. Sometimes a critic’s work is done for him.

Paul leads Julie up the garden path in what looks like Hein Heckroth’s take on INVADERS FROM MARS. One of the few bursts of colour is permitted for this happy moment of truth.

Hitch originally toyed with the idea of Newman discarding the formula he’d worked so hard to get, an idea only Alma liked. It wouldn’t have made sense, but it connects to Hitchcock’s consistent portrayal of espionage, in all his films, as a dirty business with a horrible cost. But the whole idea of Newman as amateur spy is unconvincing, as is the anti-missile missile plot — though it’s been suggested that it inspired Ronald Reagan’s expensive and unworkable Star Wars defense scheme.

TORN CURTAIN isn’t terrible, although it could at least be shorter (Hitch had just lost his usual editor), but we should recall that Hitch really wanted to make MARY ROSE, scripted by Jay Presson Allen and ready to go, a deeply personal film, a departure from his normal turf, and a fascinating story. It’s Universal who are to blame for this film, as they are to blame for TOPAZ, when Hitch wanted to make KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY. Their poor decisions, made with a view to protecting the Hitchcock brand, soured much of the last stages of his career, and his friendship with MCA-Universal boss Lew Wasserman prevented Hitchcock from fighting for his most promising subjects. In the meantime, years were wasted. As we shall see, Universal were very kind and considerate to Hitch during his last years, but in a way their concern was damaging to Hitchcock the risk-taking artist. At the end of TORN CURTAIN, the Universal logo appears ghost-like over an extreme close-up of a blanket, possibly wet.


The Hitchcock Murders
Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks

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