Archive for Blackmail

Talkie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2012 by dcairns

Britain really lucked out with its first talkie — what made Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL great was that he’d made it first as a superior silent. Shooting sound scenes and dubbing Anny Ondra made it less great in most ways, but it was so good to begin with it survived the conversion. It took Hitch several more films before he could repeat the trick, internalizing the balance between dialogue and purely visual storytelling.

LES TROIS MASQUES is your Pathe-Natan film for this week. It’s officially the first French talkie, but because no sound stage was ready in France, it was shot in England, at the studio of John Maxwell, the Scottish barrister turned movie mogul who also produced many early Hitchcocks. Although already filmed in 1921 as a silent, this version is every inch the early talkie, with all the longeurs that implies. The camera never seems to be in entirely the right place, as if it’s shunted sideways to make way for a microphone, or maybe another camera. Scenes trundle on, mere records of time passing, and though pleasing design (by future director Christian Jacque) means there are some attracting images, nothing catches dramatic fire. Use of sound is generally for novelty value rather than really creative, with some background music and a storm scene no doubt adding interest, and the novelty of hearing their own language spoken probably wearing off for French audiences before the film ends.

Still, this was a throwing down of the gauntlet. While other producers in France saw sound as a death-blow, Bernard Natan seized it as an opportunity — films that spoke French in their original form would have an edge in the marketplace over dubbed American films. That might not be enough to conquer Hollywood, but it could allow the national cinema to carve out its own personal space — and it did. And this after MGM’s vice-president Arthur Loew had declared that, thanks to talking pictures, in ten years time English would be the only language spoken in the world. Against this background, the decision to make French talkies looks momentous.

Director Andre Hugon would make several films for the company, and to his credit he does throw in a few close-ups here, saved for moments of maximum dramatic impact. The film is in fairly wretched condition, with no good elements known to exist, and my copy comes from a VHS off-air recording which is likewise showing its age, so the movie may have other virtues obscured by the poor resolution.

Still, this was just the beginning, and the studio’s very next production, filmed on French soil, would be fluid and even dynamic, and creatively intermingled visual and auditory rhythms. It’s a slight piece, but I think it’s worth posting in its entirety…

Bad Business

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by dcairns

psycho2-1Drawing by Alfred Hitchcock.

PSYCHO of course was very good business, and intended as such. Inspired by the cheap and morbidly cheerful exploiters of William Castle, which were in turn inspired by Hitchcock’s TV show, Hitch wanted to make a film fast and cheap, promote the hell out of it, and make a killing. In parallel to this, he wanted an interesting artistic experience. Perhaps the gigantism of his last two productions, where everything was expensive — the stars, the sets, the locations — and everything took a long time, and was pursued with a considerable degree of perfectionism, made him ready for a change. PSYCHO was certainly a change. And Hitch made two million dollars from it, personally, in the first quarter of its release.

My parents had shunned the movie on its 1960 debut, despite the fact that NORTH BY NORTHWEST had been a spectacular success as their first date movie. So I thought it was time they caught up with it: after dining with the family, I hung back after the others left and watched it with this unprepared audience. Of course, in the intervening 49 years, they had encountered a few significant “spoilers,” but it was still as reasonable facsimile of watching the movie “fresh.”

After the trippy green MGM lion image that began NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Saul Bass turns the Paramount logo into a kind of woodcut-effect of horizontal b&w lines, leading into the animated slashes of the title sequence, which play like an abstract visualization of the screeching, spasmodic score.

Saul Bass’s titles and Bernard Herrmann’s score immediately grab the attention. Bass is so desperate for attention he plays a couple of tricks with both his credits: his “pictorial consultant” title remains onscreen for a beat longer than everyone else’s while his “titles” credit scoots off in the opposite direction to all the others. Cheeky.

(I give Gus van Sant points for staging the opening titles of his remake in green — that favourite Hitchcock hue.)

In fact, Bass’s insistence that he directed the shower scene may have had something to do with him not being asked back to work on later Hitchcocks. Or maybe the fact that he wasn’t asked back accounts for his making that (inflated, I think) claim. I believe he was sincere in his belief that he was responsible for that scene (and the other murder scene). Hitch doesn’t seem to have commented on the shower scene claim (he didn’t need to, with Janet Leigh supporting his cause), and tartly remarked that he had to reshoot part of the Arbogast killing because Bass made it feel like a sinister man climbing the stairs, rather than an innocent man climbing sinister stairs. Certainly Bass, as storyboard artist, had much to do with laying out the visual plan for these key scenes, and the unique credit accorded him for his work reflects his considerable contribution, but the drawing reproduced above shows that Hitchcock had plenty of ideas of his own.

Herrmann, by claiming that he rescued Hitch from a post-production funk during which the director was convinced he had failed and contemplated cutting the film to an hour for TV, may have sewn the seeds of his eventual falling-out with the master. Certainly John Michael Hayes had already discovered that Hitchcock disliked sharing credit with anyone, and the idea that Herrmann’s score rescued the movie, or was half of its success, may have displeased him.

Nevertheless, these guys do indeed contribute a colossal amount to the atmosphere of the movie. So does John L. Russell, who began his career with MOONRISE and MACBETH, but had laboured in B-movies and TV ever since. Hitchcock brought him in from his TV show, as part of the economy drive. Goodbye perfectionist Robert Burks (for now), hello expediency and speed. But the process nevertheless yielded indelible images, from the American Gothic Bates house rearing its back against the louring  sky, to the water droplet hanging from Janet Leigh’s eyelash, her dilated pupil fixed and staring past it.

Those little titles that introduce the film proper: “Phoenix, Arizona” chimes with the film’s incessant bird imagery (as will the heroine’s surname) while also establishing a semi-spurious factual tone. Of course, given that novelist Robert Bloch was inspired by the Ed Gein case, which is even freakier than his invented monstrosities, the documentary gesture is quite apt.  I read somewhere else, years ago, the observation that the film carefully establishes the date of the opening scene as “December 11th,” then weeks pass after Marion Crane’s disappearance, but nobody ever mentions Christmas.

Move in on a hotel window, and attempt, clumsily enough, to pass through it to the inside in a single shot. I think this is the one thing Gus Van Sant’s remake improves on, with its smooth CGI-assisted float from helicopter-eye-view cityscape to intimate interior. It’s exactly the kind of thing we can do better, and easier, now. Apparently this starting point was screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s idea. Stafano and Block both got movie careers out of this film, naturally enough, but they don’t seem to have exploited them too successfully. And despite Stefano getting on really well with Hitch (following the Master’s usual procedure: meeting at the office, talking about everything BUT the script), they never collaborated again. Why? (see Comments section)

“The score is two string quartets,” I say.

“Fighting?” asks Mum.

My mum expresses some enthusiasm for John Gavin, then admits he’s not too great an actor (maybe I should loan her A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE THOUGH). Janet Leigh may not be a typical Hitchcock heroine but they seemed to gel and it’s a shame he didn’t use her again. But I think with her and Perkins there’s a sense that their work here was so instantly iconic, any further collaboration would have been overshadowed in advance.

The Return of Chubby Bannister Pat Hitchcock! Who almost gets to share a frame with her pop. The usual disparaging kind of role, made slightly worse by the fact that Pat is now mature, and being mocked as a frump. One of the more surreal things in the Van Sant version is that the Pat substitute, Rita Wilson, is more conventionally glamorous than Anne Heche (whom I like), so that when she muses that the drunken rich guy was flirting with Heche, and it must be because he saw Rita’s wedding ring, the line is literally true, and therefore a pointless line. Whereas when Pat says the same thing it’s a cruel ironic joke about self-deception. Potentially, if we see the remake as a piece of conceptual art, the rendering pointless of lines and scenes through miscasting is a good way to go: there should be more of that.

Weird line about Pat taking tranquilizers on her honeymoon — more of a Victorian thing, from Hitch’s childhood, I think. Sir Richard Burton (not the actor) wrote deploringly of the custom of the  groom finding his bride self-etherized on the bridal bed, a note pinned to her nightie ~ “Mamma says you’re to do what you want.”

The dirty old man is very good, isn’t he? I think on previous viewings I missed the importance of the fact that this is undeclared cash, so he can’t call the cops. Marion can steal it and the only consequence would be losing her job and having to avoid the dirty old rich man, neither of which seem like altogether heartbreaking sacrifices.

My parents were impressed with the amount of bra-work in the movie. Was there a sponsorship deal? James Naremore, in Psycho (Filmguide), observes that the change from white to black bra is Hitch’s playful way of suggesting Marion’s fall from grace after she steals the swag. Naremore’s book is the best there is, although Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is essential and Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look at “Psycho” has much to commend it.

My one problem with Rebello — he seems to imply that Janet Leigh was required to manually stimulate John Gavin in the opening scene in order to get him to seem “passionate.” I slightly disbelieve this — at any rate, I would rather hear it in Janet’s words, in order to understand what exactly she told Rebello. Rebello gives us a third-hand version using veiled, sniggery language which just leaves me scratching my head.

One More Mile to Go.

The Adventure of the Highway Patrolman. If you see the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode entitled One More Mile to Go, you will see David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M, a good casting choice for Bloch’s version of Norman Bates, the middle-aged schlub, had Hitch and Stefano not reinvented him as young and sweet) driving around with his murdered wife in the trunk, trying to reach a lake to dispose of her, continually hassled by a motorcycle cop giving him grief over a defective tail-light. The cop, the guilt, the body in the boot — it’s like a bunch of elements from PSYCHO misremembered in a dream. It’s also one of Hitch’s best episodes as director, since in milks a single suspense situation for all it’s worth.

We did a storyboarding exercise in class last year — a pro boarder from Denmark took a couple of pages of script from PSYCHO — the cop tapping on the window — and had several students breaks it down into shots. Interestingly, nobody identified the movie (!) and nobody came up with this shot –

– which is clearly the most effective in the scene. They lost the shock. Janet Leigh’s big eyes are very impressive here — think what Hitchcock could have done with Barbara Steele! Like shiny wrecking balls, those orbs.

Herrmann’s score, already showcased in the titles, gets to real work its magic in the driving stuff. In almost every Hitchcock TV episode, there comes a point where the protag starts either talking to himself aloud, or internally monologuing, often because the story comes from a piece of prose fiction and the screenwriter hasn’t found a better solution. Here, we get something more clever, Marion’s paranoid thoughts about what her boss and her sister and the guy she robbed will say. Stefano apparently wrote these speeches as full scenes, then agreed with Hitch that they’d work better as fantasies, because that way they characterize Marion too.

That’s some storm! I think the lighting makes the rainfall more opaque, so that it seems more dangerous than any real rainstorm. A welcoming motel sign! Better pull over. My parents know enough about the story to know this is bad. And the Bates Motel is indeed a Bad Business, since the highway moved away. Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies.

Hello, Norman. Hitch was able to pick up Anthony Perkins cheap, because Perkins owed Universal one film on an old contract — otherwise the low-budget thriller could never have afforded his services. Hitch actually dropped Perkins’ name in order to lure Stefano onto the film, suggesting that Bloch’s rather unappealing schizoid protagonist/antagonist would become, outwardly, a boy next door. With his intense round eyes under the dark, straight eyebrows, Perkins has an inherent talent for the unsettling stare — the only real similarity he bears to singer David Byrne, who once told the actor that their resemblance had been the bane of his life (hence “Psycho Killer”). Perkins is so bashful and sweet (Vince Vaughn CANNOT DO BASHFUL — he is DISGUSTING when he tries) that, although we notice his last-minute decision to select room 1 for Marion, we would not suspect at this stage that his decision has anything to do with a peephole looking through from the office…

Mrs Bates’ voice is heard. And it certainly isn’t Perkins’. A student asked me last week if Marion is crazy too, since she hears a woman’s voice. I don’t think that’s it. In another scene, WE hear the voice, when only Norman is around. It’s kind of like a shared delusion. Or a narrative cheat.

A standing set already on the Universal lot…

Norman brings dinner to Marion, since mother won’t have strangers in the house — “I suppose men don’t desire strangers!” Sandwiches — which look like unadorned white bread — and milk. The fatal glass of milk! Milk is even more sinister than eggs in Hitchcock’s films, and come to think of it, both foodstuffs are associated with the female of the species…

When Anne Heche hides the money in the newspaper, Van Sant and editor Amy Duddleston break the action into a series of jump cuts, unlike Hitch’s flowing single take. It’s neither better nor worse, just more modern — but isn’t it kind of breaking the rules of the exercise? What IS the exercise?

Compare frames from the Hitchcock and Van Sant films here — it’s notable that Hitch includes the corner of the bed, and we know that Norman is noticing this when he looks into the room. Then, when he looks back at Marion, there’s an intimation of seduction, which is all in his mind, but which we recognize. The shot of Marion absolutely reads as Norman’s POV, and it’s the beginning of the process by which he’s going to take over the next phase of the film.

In the remake, the bed is absent, and although we still get Norman’s thought, the medium shot of Marion looks like a simple reverse-shot, robbed of its power as POV. And Vince Vaughn doesn’t even look into the room. A shot-for-shot remake can still miss out on the whole point of something. Which may be the whole point of the remake, or at least it’s most interesting reason for existing.

Dinner in the office, with the stuffed birds. Hitchcock is in economy mode, keeping it static and letting the actors hold the scene, with repetitive shot/countershot coverage that keeps amping up, every minute or two, with an angle change that intensifies the mood. Stefano wrote this as a little play, a two-hander that could almost stand alone — without the backstory we already have for Marion it would be positively Pinteresque. Anyway, by the end of it, Marion has decided to return the loot, which is a pretty tragic irony. And Norman has discovered that she signed a false name on the hotel register, which makes him think… what? That she’s not a nice girl, presumably. This makes it OK, in his mind, to peep on her (except he was already planning on doing that, it seems) and presumably explains his later line “She might have fooled me but she didn’t fool mother.”

Toilet Alert! I think it’s the act of flushing which upset the censors. Were there really NO toilets in Hollywood movies before this? You can see the cistern of one in NO 17, and again in SECRET AGENT, where Peter Lorre goes berserk and nearly TP’s John Gielgud (now that would be a screen first). Hitchcock’s foregrounding of the lav in the famous trailer — the first time, I think, that he started treating his trailers like extensions of his TV show openings) strikes me as hilarious but puerile, almost unworthy of the Great Man. But Hitch’s sense of humour is irrepressible.

Hitch would make a great estate agent.

I didn’t think it was very funny,” laughed Saul Bass, when confronted with Hitch’s claim that PSYCHO was a black comedy. the grim little scene in the office deepens the characterization and intensifies the mood to the point where we’re forced to take things fairly seriously. I guess Hitch meant that the central set-up, of a man preserving his mother’s pickled corpse, and cavorting in her clothes, and carrying on conversations with her, had a comic side. I’m not sure my Mum agrees.

The shower scene — note that Janet appears to lock the bathroom door, yet the knife-wielding assassin will simply waltz in later. Maybe the door is fixed so it won’t lock? This makes Norman even more sinister and premeditative than we suspected. Or maybe it’s a joke. Anne Heche seems to turn a built-in key-handle type affair when she closes the door too.

Famously, the censorship committee sent the film back for recutting, saying some of them saw nudity during the murder. Hitchcock resubmitted the film, unaltered, and the ones who saw the nudity the first time thought it was gone, and the ones who hadn’t seen nudity the first time now thought it had suddenly appeared. I think there’s like one frame of nipple or something, but nothing in focus. Does out of focus count?

There may not be much more to say about this, but I want to clarify something in Durgnat’s PSYCHO book. I’m quoted as saying something about nudity in the murder scene which I didn’t say. Durgnat seems to have misunderstood the comment being about Janet Leigh’s breasts appearing in shot at the bottom of frame, which certainly doesn’t happen. I was talking about the aftermath of the murder, and this shot ~

The abstract shapes in the background are Marion’s breasts (absent in the remake), out of focus. Presumably Janet Leigh’s stand-in, a Playboy model. I thought it was sort of funny that Hitch got this past the censors, simply by directing their eyes elsewhere. The focus tells us it’s a shot of a hand. Rack focus, and it’s a shot of a rack. You just didn’t frames like this in 1960 movies.

Some interesting micro-detailed shot analysis here, but I dispute the guy’s interpretation of the torso-stabbing shot. To me, it’s clear that the knife IS penetrating the stomach, and therefor (one hopes), it’s an artificial stomach. A very good one, considering that in 1960 the manufacture of prosthetic rubber women had not reached the levels of technical perfection we routinely expect today. If it’s a fake tummy, then the shot probably isn’t in reverse, but the trail of droplets falling from the knife blade need not worry us — thrust a knife into a shower spray and water WILL fly off it.

Janet plays dead very convincingly indeed — eyedrops froze her pupils in a death-like stare, and she manages to remain unblinking even with a drop of water in one eyelash (lovingly placed there on Hitch’s orders, I assume). A cutaway to the shower head covers the moment, spotted by Alma alone, where Janet swallowed. But her eyelash CAN be seen flickering very slightly just ahead of the cut.

My parents are vaguely impressed that Hitchcock stages the whole sequence without any overt nudity, and without having to contrive his shots in a massively contorted way (no “trained furniture”) and then they’re more worried about the fate of the $40,000 than they are about the murder. “It’s our generation,” claims Mum. It’s fascinating to see Hitchcock’s strategies working so well on a small, reasonably unfamiliar audience.

Can we make sure Vince Vaughn never does THIS again? Some kind of face-clamp, perhaps.

Enter Vera Miles, re-enter John Gavin, and then enter Martin Balsam, in a scene which is, amusingly, a virtual remake of the Donald Calthrop’s entrance in BLACKMAIL. Here’s Donald:

Here’s Martin:

Both enter through glass doors, although Donald is opening a phone booth, as I recall. Both scenes are set in shops, and feature hushed couples discussing criminal matters, interrupted by an interloper who seems to know all about their private business. The self-plagiarism is appropriate to the scene, an amusing gag for me to uncover at this stage in Hitchcock Year, and proof of Hitchcock’s looong memory — I certainly don’t think the repetition is inadvertent. Ironic if Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, remade “shot for shot” by Van Sant, is already, in part, a shot-for-shot remake of BLACKMAIL.

I like Martin Balsam. I like the story of Eddie Izzard meeting him and complimenting him on his campy turn in THE ANDERSON TAPES, and Balsam being amazed that anybody noticed him, a mere character player, in that film. I even like Martin Balsam’s death. He arrived at his holiday hotel, told the desk clerk that this was his favourite place in the whole world, went to his room, lay down and died.

Martin’s conversation with a hotel clerk in this film is less pleasant, but equally final. Poor Norman Bates, the night man and the day man at the Bates Motel, must be getting very confused now that everybody’s hassling him for this money that he doesn’t know anything about. Another murder — my Mum screams, a little, at the shot of the door opening to release Mrs Bates. Gus Van Sant randomly cuts to a cow and a girl in a mask. I can’t decide if he’s breaking his own rules, or making something more interesting. Maybe he should have these random images all the way through the film, or not at all.

Balsam’s death scene is more surprising, in its presentation, than Leigh’s , because it hasn’t been so over-analysed, and because of the strange shot of Balsam sort of gliding downstairs backwards, and because the shot choices are so unpredictable — that high angle “God shot” when Mrs B attacks is there to stop us getting a clear look at the old bird, but it also works to disorient us.

Now Vera Miles has to drive the plot forward. John Gavin’s character really is a drip. But Vera shows real determination. The movie could just be over if she wasn’t so pushy. My parents are pleased to see the town sheriff, whom they remember from something or other (it turns out to be sixty-odd episodes of The Virginian), but he turns out to be no help, save to hint darkly at “that bad business” out at the Bates place, and to tell us that Mrs B is deceased.

Dig this image! Like a Catholic icon. My mother, a keen gardener, tells me that these tools are known as “scarifiers.” Seems appropriate.

The fruit cellar — introduced in that awesome twisting crane shot as Norman carries mom downstairs for safekeeping — leading to a slight reprise of the VERTIGO on-high view — the whole climax is staged totally differently in Van Sant’s version, which seems like an utter admission of defeat, really.

I remember replaying over and over Norman’s entrance in drag at the climax, because I’d read that you could hear him screaming “I am Norma Bates!” (an odd thing to say, admittedly), almost but not-quite swamped by Herrmann’s shrill strings on the soundtrack. I was listening to the wrong bit! The line can be heard, quite clearly, when John G wrestles him to the floor.

My Dad admires the swinging light-bulb effect, which takes him back to his days as an electrical engineer — his colleague used to swing a light bulb whenever anybody told a story that sounded a bit doubtful — he’d say “Just a minute,” then set the light swinging to and fro, then turn back and say, “You were saying?”

Of marginal relevance to PSYCHO, perhaps — my Dad once put in the wiring in a psychiatric hospital  (“someplace”). An odd sensation, being up a very tall ladder, while some in-patient had a fit of the screaming pazuzus down below… He met one chap who was getting released with a Certificate of Sanity. He thought, Wow, I don’t even have a Certificate of Sanity of my own.

The “old-fashioned expository scene” written by Stefano to supply all the information Bloch conveys in the novel via characters thoughts — a controversial bit of writing, to be sure. Kind of a pace-killer. I guess we do need the info, but maybe the scene could be shorter? You can see why filmmakers since then so often reach for the Madman’s Gallery — the collection of news clippings, photos, crazy drawings, designed to give a clue to the nut-job’s psychopathology. Fiona dates this trend back to THE HOWLING — blame/credit John Sayles and Joe Dante. It does beat having some windbag analyst huff up and down for five minutes.

And then everything is redeemed by Norman/Norma’s internal monologue, a new narrative device making an eleventh-hour appearance, but perhaps echoing Marion’s imaginary conversations in act 1. My Dad greatly admires John Russell’s lighting here — subtle modeling, and the impression of a white, clinical room, without actually any white. My Mum misses the neat-subliminal glimpse of Mrs Bates superimposed over Norman’s features as we dissolve to the car and the welcome return of Marion and the $40,ooo from the clammy embrace of the swamp…

A strange contradiction I just noticed — the shrink says he got the whole story from Norman’s mom, i.e. the part of his mind that thinks it’s her. But in the internal monologue, Norma blames her son for all the killings, which flatly contradicts the doc’s account. Further, Norma claims she can’t even move a muscle, although according to who you listen to, she’s either dead, or healthy as a horse but insane. Does Norma know she’s dead? Does Norman now believe himself to be his mother’s embalmed corpse? There’s that scene, earlier, where Norman says his mother couldn’t manage without him — “Her fire would go out…” Here he seems to have some intimation of the unfaceable truth.

My folks enjoyed PSYCHO, at last. “Bits of it were maybe dated, but it kept my interest,” said Mum.

Can’t end this without recalling an appearance by the late Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals, on a BBC2 discussion show. She was always on about sex and violence on TV, was Mary, and this time she started in on the screening of PSYCHO II, the better-than-you’d-think belated sequel directed by Richard Franklin, a genuine Hitchock fan. “We saw a gang of youths, beating up an old lady,” ranted Whitehouse. The interviewer intervened: “I believe it was one person, not a gang, and Anthony Perkins couldn’t really be called a youth… and besides, I think really the scene was played for comic effect.”

Whitehouse’s reply does kind of sum up the madness of the censor’s mind, so I think it deserves to be quoted: “Do you really think that old lady, as she lay dying, said to herself, ‘It’s all right, this is only for comic effect?'”

 

The System

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-62043

The official story is that Hitchcock, under contract to Paramount, somehow felt that he hadn’t given Warner Bros full satisfaction during his time there, and made THE WRONG MAN for them for free as a sort of parting gift. I have a hard time swallowing that. If Hitch worked for nothing, it must have been because he really wanted to make the film, and he made it at Warners because the story, a true crime narrative “torn from the headlines,” was their property. Fortunately, he was able to take his team with him, including Bernard Herrmann and Robert Burks, as well as Vera Miles, whom he had used on TV and was grooming for stardom.

Sidebar — the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Miles, a grim little number called Revenge, also featuring the mighty Ralph Meeker, is a plainly-told little masterpiece of horror, serving as an illustration of the old adage, “He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves.” In both Revenge and THE WRONG MAN, Vera Miles suffers a breakdown, presented in a harrowing but realistic and un-showy fashion. But ultimately Revenge is a yarn, what Hitch called “an old-fashioned plot,” even if it ends in such a dark place that Hitch, appearing at the end to sum up, is forced to drop all his lugubrious jocularity and more or less apologise for subjecting us to this ordeal.

Hitch shot, but did not use, a cameo appearance for THE WRONG MAN, electing instead to introduce it personally, something he had just started doing on TV. But the High Expressionism of Robert Burks opening frame prepares us for a very different kind of Hitch — the shadow that elongates towards us is quite different from the chubby profile on NBC — and this has a more powerful effect than what Hitch is telling us: his lines about this being a very different kind of suspense thriller seem more like a showman’s come-on than adequate warning of the Bressonian blackjack we’re about to get slugged with.

vlcsnap-61113

In THE WRONG MAN, Miles’s depression is triggered by her husband’s arrest for a series of neighbourhood stick-ups (he bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal). Fate conspires to rob him of a demonstrable alibi, and a chain of circumstantial evidence sends him clanking through the machinery of the justice system like an animal on its way to slaughter. The narrative proceeds with the deliberate, chilling pace of a conveyor belt. When Hitch films the police van conveying Fonda to court, it’s under a vast iron bridge, the world cut into mechanical pieces by the shadows of the girders. It suggests prison bars, but even more it calls to mind some vast unfeeling apparatus — and this is the film’s subject.

Fonda’s arrest is notably Kafkaesque: the cops drive him from one neighbourhood store to another, instructing him to enter, alone, walk the length of the store, and then exit. He does so, his perplexity and fear stamping him as suspicious from the moment he appears.

The cops are at once decent, unsensationalized professionals, and immensely cruel. Hitch does not criticize the authorities in anything anyone says, but we notice that Fonda doesn’t get his phone call, isn’t read his rights, and is deliberately thrown off-balance by the detectives, who obviously hope to make him crack. Fonda is such a good citizen that he goes meekly with them from his own doorstep, rather than insisting on telling his wife what’s happened (he hasn’t been formally arrested yet, so there’s nothing official to stop him doing as he pleases).

Hitch apparently found the real-life Manny Balestrero rather undramatic as a character — the man could not express to Hitch what his experiences felt like. I can see how in reality this would have made Balestrero’s plight worse: an inexpressive, emotionally inarticulate man would have had trouble both convincing the cops of his innocence, and reassuring his worried wife. It hardly matters in the movie — Hitch is recreating his own primal scene in its purest form — the terror of inexplicable arrest by the authorities. (Supermodel Jinks Falkenberg and her husband once pranked Hitch by sending a cop to ask for him — never mess with peoples’ phobias! This shit is serious.)

To solve the problem of dramatizing an undramatic man, Hitch worked with semi-regular collaborator Angus MacPhail (perhaps the originator of the term “MacGuffin”) and famed playwright Maxwell Anderson. The low-key but quietly passionate character devised for Fonda suits his performance style perfectly. And Hitch had always wanted to work with Fonda, I think he’s one of the few stars mentioned in Hitch’s 1930s essay, written upon his departure for Hollywood, that he actually got to direct. Gary Cooper and William Powell always eluded him.

bmailFirst arrest: 1929.

We’ve seen the arrest procedure before, in BLACKMAIL. But there, the hero was a cop and the suspect a thuggish career criminal, well-used to imprisonment. In Hitch’s original ending, we would have seen the process repeated with heroine Anny Ondra, which would have been powerful stuff. But being thrown into the strange rituals of confinement and judgement, seeing it through the eyes of our blameless hero (loving husband, brilliant father), with the most insistent use of extreme POV shots in all Hitchcock, that’s something else.

A witness places her hand on Fonda’s shoulder to identify him, and we see the shoulder as if from Fonda’s own eyes.

wrong1vlcsnap-181322wrongzvlcsnap-181446

As the cops drive Fonda around, we see his POV looking past each of them in turn, left, right, straight ahead, as the free world speeds past, unreachable, outside. Amusingly, this sequence was ripped off with perfect precision by Freddie Francis in THE SKULL: substitute Peter Cushing for Henry Fonda. Of course the effect is different: context is everything in the Hitchcock. The fear we feel (and this film is more genuinely uncomfortable and frightening than anything Hitch had made to date) is all to do with where we are in the story and how we feel about the characters.

In his little cell, Fonda looks around, and we get a succession of banal objects: a wash-basin; the corner of the ceiling — and the simplicity and solidity of everything is hellishly oppressive. Hitch then produces one of his few outright flourishes, a spinning camera that causes Fonda’s head to gyrate giddily about the frame: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

wrong3

Some, like official biographer John Russell Taylor, have remarked on the incongruity of Hitch, who declared “Some make slices of life; I make slices of cake,” doing a substantially location-set (the real Stork Club), documentarist piece of social realism. But there’s nothing incongruous about the experience of watching the film, since it all works so well. The few obvious directorial flourishes are well-chosen and are complimented by a wealth of intelligent detail that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the whole thing aims at a psychological effect rather than a social one. If Hitch uses a real place or a convincing replica, he does it not to show us what something looks like, but to inflict upon us the emotional impact of the real thing. And it’s all focussed through the central character, who acts as a kind of lens for Hitch’s personal terror, which is thus beamed into the viewer at concentrated strength.

Balestrero’s job as bull fiddle player motivates the jazz-inflected score, which uses sparse instrumentation to create memorable soundscapes of slow anxiety. As always with Hitch, there’s some kind of motif at work, something woven into the narrative, although here it’s a lot more elusive than the two compositions that play key plot roles in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. When we first see Vera Miles with her husband, she says, “Sometimes I’m so frightened waiting for you to come home at night,” — and this is the first hint we get that she is more than normally insecure. The moment is underscored by a series of soft chimes, played on a triangle, which come out of nowhere and initially suggest a carriage clock or a musical doorbell, something diegetic, but are then joined by the double bass and sax. The chimes return later, only once, when Miles loses her mind and strikes her husband with a hairbrush. She retreats to a distant chair and murmurs, “It’s true, Manny, there is something wrong with me. You’ll have to let them put me somewhere.”

Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting.

The effect is chilling because it happens so utterly on cue and thus suddenly seems mechanical — this happens, so you hear this sound — part of the overall impersonal forces pushing Manny towards imprisonment and destruction.

wrong4

Fiona: “Was this film a terrible flop?”

Me: “It sure was.”

Nevertheless it’s profoundly impressive.

As hairy script guru Phil Parker is always saying, injustice is such a powerful event in our lives from childhood on (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be trusted.” ~ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) that it makes a powerful narrative hook. Hitch’s previous nightmare scenarios don’t exploit this as fully as TWM, because in the chase film the unjust suspicions of the authorities are mainly a spur for the character and plot, driving us along to the next situation and preventing the interference of reinforcements. In THE WRONG MAN we get Hitchcock with the mask of entertainer removed, and the story is this: even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night may be crushed by the impersonal forces of the world he lives in.

wrong5wrong6wrong7

When Fonda prays, and the real culprit appears before us and is apprehended by heroic storekeepers (how we cheer these plucky citizens!), Hitch pulls off a remarkable coup, foregrounding his Catholicism via a magnificent lengthy dissolve that literally supplants Fonda’s face with that of the actual stick-up artist (this is Hitch’s most Bergmanesque movie!) It’s presented as a miracle, and the beauty of the transition reinforces that. but, unbearably, when Fonda goes to tell Miles that he’s finally a free man, she’s too sunk in depression for it to mean anything. “I was hoping for a miracle,” admits Fonda, ruefully. He’s already had one.

Mental illness, by the way, is something movies nearly always get wrong, if what you’re looking for is either clinical accuracy or emotional insight. There are valid approaches to any subject that are not realistic ones, but most movies have a hard time being even truthful here, and too often demonize the mentally ill in a way that would be considered unacceptable with any other minority. So I applaud THE WRONG MAN’s portrayal of a mostly quiet, desperate slide into confusion and misery, which feels absolutely authentic and beautifully observed. Hitchcock filmed in a real psychiatric hospital with real staff (a rather nice-looking one) and, although the doctor’s description of Miles’ complaint is overly poetic and general, it’s not the dollar-book Freud of PSYCHO.

THE WRONG MAN is a tough watch — maybe the only Hitchcock film to attain this status through strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s intended to be hard on the viewer. All that stuff about it being Hitchcock’s most Catholic film — possibly true, but not an observation that’s necessary to in some way justify the film’s existence, which it sometimes seems to be used for. All that stuff about the oddness of Hitch doing realism — this is psychological realism. This is pure Hitchcock. And it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

wrong8Mr Right Meets Mr Wrong.

UK buyers: Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

US buyers: TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Suspicion / Strangers on a Train / The Wrong Man / I Confess)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 447 other followers