Archive for Donald Calthrop

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?'”

 

Sweet 17

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by dcairns

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Noel Simsolo demonstrates that of all the instruments of death available to the modern man, the cigarette is without doubt the coolest. Nevertheless, despite his savoire fair and sang-froid and je ne sais quoi, I’ve been getting progressively more irked by NS as he pops up introducing all the films in my Early Hitchcock DVD box set (so it’s a good job this is the last in the set), mainly because of his tendency to pull historical “facts” out of his ass. According to Simsolo, Hitchcock looked back at those of his films which had been most commercially and artistically successful — THE LODGER, BLACKMAIL, MURDER — and decided to replicate that success with another melodrama, NUMBER 17.

Whereas, according to Hitch, quoted in numerous sources including his authorised biography, the film he wanted to make was an adaptation of John Van Druten’s play London Wall, while a fellow director at British International Pictures, Thomas Bentley, had his heart set on NUMBER 17. So naturally, producer John Maxwell ordered Hitchcock to make NUMBER 17 and Bentley to make LONDON WALL. “Typical producer,” Hitch grumbled in later years.

(There is, I think, a breed of producer who sees their job, in relation the director’s, as the task Denholm Elliott gives Michael Palin in THE MISSIONARY: “Find out why they do what they do, and stop them from doing it.” But I don’t want to tar them all with that brush: the producer who helps the director achieve their best is an incredible boon, and being helpful is also a smart strategy for keeping a director focussed and on the right course.)

But there’s yet a third view of NUMBER 17, by Charles Barr, in his book English Hitchcock, which I’ve come to trust implicitly, because Barr has really done his research, and is a smart fellow to boot. Barr dismisses traditional accounts of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s play being a ponderous and dull mystery, and he’s actually read it. In fact, the Hitchcock film is quite faithful to its source, merely condensing and intensifying the play’s rapid flow of dramatic entrances, mysterious strangers, impersonations, reverses and reveals (which are typical of Farjeon’s other work, as exemplified in THE PHANTOM LIGHT, THE GHOST CAMERA and THE LAST JOURNEY). The film’s parodic and even self-referential qualities also have their origins in Farjeon — the play was a vehicle for actor Leon M. Lion (!) who reprises his role here as a cockney sailor, looking like Lon Chaney in the lost film BLIND BARGAIN, a sort of subnormal neanderthal Fred West figure, yet apparently intended to be lovable. Hitch also finds another part for BLACKMAIL’s blackmailer, the perennially seedy Donald Calthrop.

I was pleased to see that Charles Barr draws connections with James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE, connections which struck me independantly as I watched the movie for the first time a few years back. The shadowplay, vast dark spaces, and rogue’s gallery of grotesques forge a clear link with the Hollywood film, written by Hitch’s friend Benn Levy, whom he had recently collaborated with on BLACKMAIL, and whose directorial debut, LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, Hitchcock would produce (Hitch’s only effort as producer for another filmmaker — it kills me that I can’t get a copy). Hitch even throws in a gratuitous but lovely funhouse mirror shot, echoing Whale’s use of distortions during Eva Moore’s religious tirade.

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The frustrating thing is that both movies were 1932 productions, so it’s hard to work out if one directly influenced the other.

The plot is actually too gnarled and spaghettied to summarise, with everyone wearijng someone else’s hat, but the eponymous 17 is a spooky vacant house used as a meeting point for thieves taking a secret escape route to the continent.

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Various oddballs congregate here one dark and blustery night, and stuff happens. Barr again proves useful, pointing out that the stolen jewels in this film are the first MacGuffin on record — everybody is, or might be after these precious baubles, but they are of no real concern to the audience. So, although Hitchcock disparaged this film, it marks another definitive step in his evolution. The placement of WALTZES FROM VIENNA, an atypical film and a low ebb in Hitch’s view, between this movie and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, allowed him to draw an imaginary line, with NUMBER 17 on the wrong side of it, and TMWKTM as the moment of reinvention when Hitchcock discovered his metier. In fact, all the evidence is already on display here. I’ll see what I think of TMWKTM when I watch it again in a fortnight, but right now my feeling is that 17 is a better film.

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It’s also, amusingly, Hitchcock’s sevnteenth feature, in the same way that 8 1/2 is Fellini’s eight and halfth: ie, by a process of contorted arithmetic and goal-post-moving. We have to include THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, which is lost (fair enough), MARY, the German version of MURDER! (also reasonable: it IS a discretely filmed entity) and also the whole of ELSTREE CALLING, which Hitchcock would certainly object to. Or else, Fellini-style, we count ELSTREE as a half and include THE ELASTIC AGE, a 1930 short film which absolutely nobody seems to have seen, as the second half.

At any rate, obviously this kind of thing appeals to the mind that would arbitrarily decide that Hitch made 52 films, so we can watch one a week for a year…

Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2009 by dcairns

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“Of no interest whatsoever,” — Hitchcock’s peremptory summation of ELSTREE CALLING seems rather harsh. And in fact, what he really means is, “A bunch of crap,” since the film is basically without merit, but very far from being without interest. I mean, how could you say THIS is of no interest ~

Rubbish, possibly, but it’s eye-poppingly interesting. And then there’s the Friese-Greene colour process, with its shimmering tones (much faded now, I fear) which seem to be fighting to escape the outlines of the figures and blaze across the screen and out into the auditorium ~

But Hitch didn’t direct this stuff. He shot the framing bits, in which Gordon Harker (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE) returns for his last Hitchcock performance, struggling to get his anachronistic television to work. Hitchcock is terrible at slapstick here (there were some fine bits with Harker in THE FARMER’S WIFE, though) — something about early sound, in conjunction with Hitchcock’s use of closeups, and some woeful writing, contrives to make it all seem painful and upsetting.

And who was broadcasting TV in 1930? The Nazis, possibly, but nobody else. If someone asks you to name a Hitchcock musical, you could stretch a point and maybe offer a few possibilities (the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, WALTZES FROM VIENNA), but this seems to me the only true Hitchcock sci-fi film.

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A terrifying vision of the future.

The film also features BLACKMAIL’s Donald Calthrop and John Longden and, in a sequence that could conceivably have been directed by Hitch but probably wasn’t, Anna May Wong in a Flash Gordon costume kicking a hen:

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I mention all this, even though ELSTREE CALLING isn’t part of the canonical 52 Hitchcocks I’m duty bound to watch and write about this year, purely because it’s a lot more fun than JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I “studied” Sean O’Casey’s play in school, which aversion therapy may have prejudiced me against it, but coming back to the thing did give me a sinking feeling. It’s one of very few Hitchcock films I wouldn’t watch for pleasure. But it is pretty interesting as early talking cinema, and as an example of a direction Hitch could have gone off in. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Look at Anthony Asquith. After the blazingly cinematic, expressionistic UNDERGROUND (haven’t seen it, but the clips look spiffy) and A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Asquith approached sound cinema in a completely different way, abandoning his powerful visuals and simply photographing actors reciting dialogue by Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan. Apart from some exciting montage sequences (sometimes the work of a young David Lean), there’s little of filmic interest, and the choice of writers is suspect: I’m not sure Shaw and Rattigan CAN be cinematic, and while Wilde clearly can be adapted into cinematic language (look at any version of Salome), Asquith carefully avoided doing so.

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Cinematographer John Cox seems to have been almost as fond of cameo appearances as Hitch.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is a step towards Hitchcock’s metamorphosis into Asquith, a transformation that was thankfully never completed. While Hitch was a theatre-lover, and believed in fidelity to the source when transferring plays to the screen (quite the opposite of his approach to literature), his later filmed plays all have cinematic energy and dramatic tension. That tension is something I find missing in most of this play. True, it does build to a conclusion in which tragedy piles up on top of tragedy, but in a way that depends upon theatrical compression to appear remotely plausible. In screen terms, for the daughter to fall pregnant and be abandoned, the legacy to prove false, the son to be murdered, all at the same time, stretches credibility more seriously than the murder plot in VERTIGO.

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Representative Types of Irishman.

Hitch begins with an opening-out sequence, according to a scheme he often promulgated: start with something exterior and dynamic, telling the audience they’re getting a film; then give them the play. I’ve already blogged about this opening sequence here, but note the cutaways of grizzled and degenerate Irishmen as Barry Fitzgerald is talking about the nobility of the Celtic race. Hitchcock is always rather mean to public speakers, but this heavy-handed irony almost smacks of racism, which is not the overall point of the film or the play. As a Catholic, Hitchcock has some connection to the characters in the play, but the Hitchcock family appear to have been long-standing English Catholics*, so the connection is not ethnic. I don’t think Hitchcock regards the Irish as inferior (why would he make the film if he did?), in fact he relates to working-class life in Dublin as similar to working-class life in London (Hitchcock’s family was never as poor as the Boyles, but he must have known poorer families), but I guess he couldn’t resist the “joke”. I think he probably should have.

(I remember a TV interview with Cyril Cusack, saying he thought at the time that JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was the worst film ever made. I wonder why? I don’t think it’s too brilliant, but that’s a very strong reaction. Possibly the situation of an English director tackling an Irish play, and making the kind of possible misjudgement cited above, is part of it.)

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Icon of Grief.

Hitch’s most impressive moment in the film, and one worthy of Bunuel: a shot of a plaster Virgin Mary, accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire.

The cast is worth commenting upon: Sara Allgood returns from BLACKMAIL, and from the original stage production. she would soon head for Hollywood, but her path did not professionally cross Hitchcock’s again once there. Too bad. John Laurie makes his first appearance in a Hitchcock. A Scot by both race and inclination, he attempts a vaguely recognisable Irish accent, and swings between conviction and pose-striking drama-queenery. It’s a shock to see him young and somewhat handsome though — within a few years he would be cast as an elderly crofter in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (his father was a crofter for real), and would never play young again.

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“We’re all doomed!”

All in all, the acting here smacks of the stage, with over-precise enunciation through the accents, and very deliberate, self-conscious moving about from everybody. Plod from Position A to Position B, declaim line, await response. The compositions are generally very nice, and it would be unfair of me to slam the thing too hard, since I just looked at Peter Hall’s film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Now there’s theatrical acting. Vanessa Redgrave’s lips move like copulating serpents.

O’Casey’s comedy always struck me as totally unfunny. I know that’s the kind of purely personal response that isn’t much help to anybody else, but isn’t it all just either paddywhackery or reverse-paddywhackery? It feels like a series of responses to the concept of Irishness, rather than to actual life, but maybe the production’s to blame. What does feel true is my original objection to the thing back in school: the comedy is just a bunch of eejits saying stupid things — nothing happens for most of the play, and nothing much is expected to happen. The Master of Suspense has nothing to be master of.

But — I welcome more informed, enthusiastic or insightful comments. Let’s see what we can make of this thing.

*This is according to John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography, but Patrick McGilligan dug deeper. It appears that Hitch’s mum was London Irish, and there was some Irish blood on his father’s side. I was also interested to learn that Hitch’s maternal grandfather was a policeman, which seems significant in the light of the director’s oft-expressed fear of cops.

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