Archive for Hitchcock Week

Murder in Three Dimensions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2009 by dcairns

dialm1Imagine the superimposed title popping out at us, but the “M” sunken into the background…

Hitchcock’s only 3D film… had the “gimmick” not died out, we could have had REAR WINDOW in three dimensions, which could REALLY have worked… VERTIGO in three dimensions, with that exponential zoom literally opening up before our eyes… PSYCHO in three dimensions: a dagger in your chest! A Janet Leigh in your lap!

But alas, DIAL M FOR MURDER is all we have, but nevertheless it may be the best 3D film of the era (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE actually serves up a remarkable number of nice visual ideas using depth and height and space — Richard Carlson is increasingly isolated — but Hitch’s use is both restrained and typically quirky. Unfortunately, these stills and this clip are all I’ve actually seen in depth.

Yeah, I dunno why this is the two-screen version you have to go cross-eyed to watch (the third version that appears between the two when you cross your eyes will be 3D) but if you double click on it you’ll get a red and green anaglyph version.

Note how the odd low angles set up peculiar perspectives — this seems to be part of Hitch’s strategy to gradually explore this room from every angle. Plus the constant use of foreground objects to add an extra layer of depth and really embed those characters in Hitch’s dollhouse.

In the second part, we get a high angle on Grace Kelly, and then the magnificent glide around her, cutting her adrift in space and suggesting a predatory POV. As the assassin raises the scarf to strangle her, the depth effect helps us appreciate why he can’t strike when her arm is raised with the telephone receiver.

When Grace reaches for the scissors we can identify them more easily in 3D, and not only do we get the great extreme perspective of her hand reaching out at us, but the sensation that, as Shadowplayer Paul Duane pointed out, we could almost reach into the screen, pick them up and hand them to her.

(Incidentally, there are two sets of scissors. One has already been attached to the assassin’s back, to make it look as if he’s been stabbed. These are only revealed when he falls forward, but they’re already there. The other pair is real, picked up by Grace, who then mimes stabbing the guy, before quickly lowering her hand with the scissors still clutched in it. You can just catch a glimpse of them.)

The beginning. Running for cover after the disappointing reception of I CONFESS, Hitch rounded out his Warner Brothers contract by accepting an assignment to adapt a hit play (originally presented on TV). Following his most recent theory on the subject of theatrical adaptation, he starts with a flurry of opening-out (with horrible grainy process shots of London streets) and then dives into the drawing room and shoots the play, with only minimal changes. The art goes into casting and design and presentation. Why buy a sound dramatic structure and then mess with it?

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Happy couple Ray Milland and his wife Grace Kelly are introduced, followed swiftly by happy couple Grace Kelly and her lover Robert Cummings. I’m not sure I follow Grace’s taste in men, but I guess a successful mystery writer, even if he is Bob Cummings, might be more interesting than a retired tennis champ, even if he is Ray Milland.

Tennis makes its first appearance in EASY VIRTUE, and had recently turned up as a subplot of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, making it the most Hitchcockian sport next to maybe ski-ing. Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor offers the amusing idea of Guy in STRANGERS marrying Ruth Roman and enjoying her wealth and status, then starting to feel insecure… slowly he morphs into Ray Milland…

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1950s photoshop!

Some swift and efficient exposition — in a highly artificial  theatrical structure like this, nearly everything is exposition, disguised or otherwise — and then Ray packs Grace and Bob off to a show so he can blackmail Anthony Dawson into offing his erring spouse. Edinburgh-born Dawson, a gaunt and haunted figure, is excellent as the vile Swann, even managing to generate little wisps of sympathy for the haggard blaggard.

Dawson’s low-key performance points to one reason the movie is often undervalued: apart from Grace Kelly, it doesn’t boast a lot of obvious star power. Ray Milland takes the role Cary Grant wanted, because Warners weren’t willing to cough up for his salary, and Milland is terrific but he doesn’t have the same star wattage. Dawson was never a well-known name, although his face crops up everywhere from DR NO to Polanski’s PIRATES. And Hitch favourite John Williams is again somebody who never hogged the limelight or rose to enormous prominence. And Bob Cummings is Bob Cummings — his wide-eyed heartiness is fine here, and helps us forget that his character is an adulterous swine as the story goes on, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart. Imagine Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart with Grace, and maybe James Mason in Dawson’s role and Charles Laughton in Williams, and you can redesign DIAL M as a big starry thing — but I don’t think you necessarily improve it much. These lesser lights all suits their roles perfectly, and shine in them.

With Kelly and Cummings playing love rats, we could actually sympathise with Milland a bit more than is comfortable, but the fact that he’s mainly plotting murder to ensure his financial security robs him of pathos, and his nasty scheme to blackmail another wretch into actually committing the ghastly deed is pretty low. Still, his glee in explaining how cunning he’s been turns a very long, expository scene into a pleasurable experience. Writers are always afraid of exposition, whereas Hitchcock knew fine well that all storytelling is exposition, whether it’s done in dialogue or via action. The trick is to make it GOOD exposition.

There’s one odd shot I love in this scene, when Milland talks about spotting Dawson by chance in a bar. We suddenly get a shot of Dawson’s elbow, and then the camera kind of wobbles up to his face. What it’s just done is re-enact Milland’s discovery of Dawson in that distant bar (rather as the camera re-enacts the first Mrs DeWinter’s death in REBECCA). A lovely, strange moment.

The appeal of a perfect murder scheme is always watching it go tits-up, of course. Grace announces her intention of going out to the movies, forcing Ray to act quite suspiciously to force her to stay in. He manages the hideously complicated business with the key with skill (surely he could just get another key cut for the killer? But that would ruin the third act) and then his watch stops, and he has trouble getting to the phone… (Ray’s scenes are the biggest addition to the play, with Hitch enjoying making us root for the baddie, amping up the suspense, and then having the plan misfire in a totally different way.)

I’m fascinated by the snatches of conversation we get from the club bore who’s droning on at the stag party (world’s worst stag party, I think we can agree).

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Hitch had a very precise colour scheme worked out which involved dressing Grace in a red robe for this scene (her white costuming was only to begin after she survives the murder attempt and goes from adulteress to innocent victim. But Grace wanted to wear the diaphanous nightie (the saucy trout!) and Hitch relented, making this the first really sexualized attack in Hitchcock, prefiguring all that nastiness in FRENZY. Dawson isn’t sexually motivated, but the slow build-up to the scene, the light shining through the gown, and the shot of the bare legs kicking, stress a queasy erotic undercurrent.

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Dawson’s death is pretty unpleasant — the scissors going in is bad enough, but then when he falls on them — ouch. I guess this gruesome detail also serves to make Grace not wholly responsible for his death. She just wounded him, the rest was bad luck. Of course, we don’t blame her for scissoring his spine anyway. I hope we’d all have the presence of mind to do that. And if we all did, he wouldn’t stand a chance. The place would be like a butcher’s window.

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Scheming Ray must now switch from a carefully thought-out scheme, months in preparation, to frantic improvisation, which he does with incredible skill, framing the victim for blackmail and his wife for murder. Hitch beautifully fast-forwards through the trial with what would normally be called a montage, except here it’s only a couple of shots. The shifting coloured backdrop makes for a stylized scene quite different from everything else in the movie, but somehow he gets away with it.

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If a thing is lovely, maybe it stands a good chance of being accepted for that reason alone.

Then we get the grand unmasking. Cummings suggesting that Milland fake a confession is a really nice idea — using his crime-writing prowess he’s come up with a fictional explanation for Grace’s innocence, not realising he’s hit on the truth. The rest of the climax, with detective John Williams (“Highly unorthodox — but my blood was up!”) getting Grace off death row so he can take her home and establish her innocence, is highly implausible, but you just go with it, I think, for the sake of Platonic unity.

Get all the main players back on the stage, and incriminate Ray with a variation on the “Why Mr Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie…” ending. And then Ray, a good sport, offers everyone a drink. Here it might have been nice to end the movie the way Dusan Makavajev ends MONTENEGRO: subtitles appear, word by word:

THE

DRINK

WAS

POISONED

But no, I think John Williams combing his moustache is equally good.

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Mogo on the Gogo

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by dcairns

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“You have mogo on the gogo!” diagnoses Gregory Peck, mysteriously. Ingrid Bergman just laughs fetchingly. I’d have smacked him in the face. And then asked him what the hell that means.

There’s quite a bit of odd dialogue in SPELLBOUND, scripted by Ben Hecht from an Angus MacPhail adaptation of a novel by the pseudonymous Francis Beeding (in reality two different blokes), The House of Dr Edwardes. MacPhail, a drunken Scotsman, is no doubt responsible for the plethora of Scots names infecting the movie’s population: Gregory Peck is Ballantine, Leo G Carroll is Murchison, and Rhonda Fleming is Carmichael, Regis Toomey is Gillespie.

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My VHS copy of BON VOYAGE has some tracking problems, giving the titles an odd PSYCHO-like flavour.

MacPhail also worked on BON VOYAGE and AVENTURE MALGACHE, Hitchcock’s two war propaganda shorts, made in French in England. Both feature prolonged takes (AVENTURE is nearly all filmed in master-shots) of the kind Hitchcock was increasingly interested in, and which Selznick would try his best to discourage, since they interfered with his ability to tamper. Safely away from Selznick, Hitchcock indulged his interest in the sequence-shot. His producer on these shorts, Sidney Bernstein, would later collaborate with him on the production of ROPE and UNDER CAPRICORN, which pushed the technique to its limits.

BON VOYAGE strikes me as the superior of the two, for its fluidity, twisty story, and charming dope of a hero, played by John Blythe, a handsome young fellow who went on to a long but defiantly minor career. Though he was born in London, his character is a Scot, complete with throwaway drinking jokes. He’s also very concerned with eating — for a French Resistance drama, the movie focuses to a surprising extent on the need for quality sustenance. Very Hitchcock.

Like BON VOYAGE, SPELLBOUND features a couple on the run, fleeing from hotels, traveling by train, aided by colleagues and sought by the police. But there are differences.

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Dr Edwardes, taking over a swank psych clinic, is not really Dr Edwardes at all, but an amnesiac who may have killed the man he’s replaced. Dr Petersen falls in love with him and seeks to prove his innocence…

“Beeding’s” novel was a potboiler disdained by Selznick, but offering Hitchcock some interesting narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, Selznick had started undergoing psychoanalysis himself, and brought his doctor on as advisor to the film. (“Selznick’s shrink? She must have done a great job!” exclaimed Fiona) This meant that Hitchcock once again faced considerable interference from his producer, compromising many of the film’s most promising sequences — especially the famous dream. In the end, though it utilizes Dali’s designs, the sequence was largely directed by design genius William Cameron Menzies (responsible for the look of GONE WITH THE WIND, although his work here calls to mind the magnificent THE LOVE OF ZERO), with Peck’s voice-over rather ruining the uncanny atmosphere with a prosaic description of everything we see.

I also have issues with the dialogue. Hecht is a very important screenwriter, but his psychiatrists are rather clunky creations — and nearly all the characters are psychiatrists. It’s a similar problem to the priests in I CONFESS, they don’t talk like people, and the more Hecht tries to give them a jovial approach to their profession, the less convincing they are. Everything they say has some kind of psychoanalytic slant: “And may you have babies, not phobias,” says Professor Littleoldman Dr Brulov.

And then there’s all the stuff about Ingrid Bergman being a woman, as if we needed to have it continually pointed out to us. And always in such insulting ways. “As a doctor, you’re a genius, but as a woman… I hate smug women… Women make the best psychiatrists, until they fall in love, then they make the best patients… Nothing is so stupid as a woman in love… stupid… woman… stupid woman… stupid woman!!! Alright, most of those lines aren’t actually in the film, but many others just like them are.

Am I alone in thinking there’s a strange resemblance between Green Manors Psychiatric Hospital for the Very Very Nervous and the Selznick Studios?

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Both institutions are bursting with neurotics, of course. Guilt-complex nut-job Norman Lloyd and mustache-biting weird-ball Rhonda Fleming (both happily still with us today) haunt the halls of Green Manors, while cop-phobic Hitchcock, speed-freak gambling addict Selznick and alurophobe Val Lewton, who couldn’t bring himself to shake hands, were all inmates of the studio. The film’s opening info-screed, explaining that psychiatry treats “the emotional problems of the sane” is rather baffling. Don’t insane people need treatment too? And what are Lloyd and Fleming? Their keels don’t seem entirely even to me. The additional information, that exposing the roots of the neurosis automatically cures it, is highly questionable: Hitchcock said he could never really believe in analysis, since he was quite aware of the source of his own fear of policemen, but knowing that did him no good whatsoever.

The other thing that beats me in Freud is the idea that the mind suppresses damaging, traumatic information, to protect itself. Of course, observation tells us this is not true: the traumatized are signally incapable of forgetting their traumas. But more than that, the idea seems inherently contradictory. The mind protects itself by suppressing the trauma, but un-suppressing it results in a cure? Surely exposing the root of the trauma would cause exactly the greater damage the mind was trying to protect itself from?

Hitchcock nevertheless realized that the “dream detective” was a fascinating narrative notion, one which he would invert in VERTIGO and return to in MARNIE. SPELLBOUND, his first go at the idea, is perhaps the clumsiest, since the script’s concern with clarity for an audience unused to psychiatric lingo tends to battle against credibility, subtlety and pace.

But there are many compensations. The wordless scene where Peck, “spellbound,” wanders Brulov’s home with a straight razor in his hand, is a classic suspense scene with superb blocking and framing –

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Peck is a good new leading man, although his discomfort with the film and Hitchcock shows a little in the early scenes, where he seems unsure how to play a man unconsciously pretending to be something he’s not. Bergman, of course, is a fine Hitchcock heroine, with a winning smile in which the corners of her mouth sometimes go up, sometimes down. Sometimes one goes up and the other goes down. I could watch it for hours. Hitch face Leo G Carroll is welcome again, and the man from Pittsburgh who bugs Bergman in the hotel lobby, and the hotel detective, are probably the best characters in the film. It’s a relief to find somebody who’s not either a psychiatrist or somebody who thinks they’re a psychiatrist.

There’s also the music, by Miklos Rosza, with its gorgeous love theme (overused, Hitch felt) and eerie/camp theremin. If only the Dali/Menzies dream dispensed with VO and relied on the power of music and image, it would be a bracingly vulgar fantasia. Mr. Theremin himself, the inventor of the electronic marvel, suffered a fate common enough in Stalin’s Russia, he was disappeared. Conventional wisdom has it that he perished, unrecorded, in Siberia, but I like to imagine him abducted by UFOs and delighted to find they’re playing his song.

And then there’s the climax, with the real murderer shooting himself in the face from an impossible angle. Two Hitchcockian tropes return here — the outsized prop, first seen in the form of EASY VIRTUE’s giant magnifying glass –

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– and the flash of red, an avant-garde device harking back to the deleted train wreck sequence in SECRET AGENT, in which Hitch had wanted to animate the effect of the film itself tearing in the projector and catching fire.

Incidentally, Leo G Carroll must have extraordinary, Mr Fantastic arms to be able to point a gun straight into his own face like this. I reckon if you turn your head sideways you can do it, but you’d definitely be able to see your arm as well as your hand. But this in no way harms the shot for me, in fact, it enhances it. Like all the daft stuff in the movie, it’s in keeping with the general delirious tone. I’d say that SPELLBOUND is quite a bit sillier than most of Hitch’s American thrillers — it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so it doesn’t have humour as an alibi — but it’s nevertheless a sophisticated entertainment.

Sidebar: as I think I mentioned before, sci-fi author David Gerrold (father of the Star Trek tribble) once suggested that a traditional story has three climaxes: emotional, physical and intellectual. SPELLBOUND conforms to this, and goes one better: it has two sets of three.

In the skiing sequence, Gregory Peck must figure out the guilt-causing episode from his past, emotionally overcome it, and avoid going into a crevasse with Ingrid. The Freudian investigation naturally combines the intellectual and emotional parts of a good climax, so that all Hitchcock and MacPhail needed to do was get the protags off the couch and onto the piste.

This is followed by a dramatic revelation that lands Peck in the slammer, so that Ingrid must take part in a second set of three challenges. Intellectual: figure out who the killer is. Emotional: force him into a confession but talk him out of killing again. Physical: get out without being shot.

I suspect the three parts of a climax usually come in this sequence, for inescapable narrative reasons. One, figure out the solution. Two, make the emotional leap needed to achieve it, sometimes involving sacrifice, generally involving the change required by the “character arc” of convention. Three, act upon this new understanding. But there are other ways to order it, especially if the climaxes occur in three separate scenes. Hitchcock felt that villains needed to combine three distinct traits: brains, brawns and wickedness. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST he divided these qualities between three characters, the mastermind, the thug and the sadist. He doesn’t dispose of each baddie in a separate climax, but he could have. Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser do at the end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS.

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BANG! A few frames of red. Since the gun firing into the audience recalls Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, I’m also reminded that that movie features hand-tinted red flames during the safe-blowing sequence, and I wonder if Hitch was inspired, directly or indirectly, by this venerable movie?

Next: NOTORIOUS, probably the most famous Hitchcock film I’ve never actually seen all the way through. I know, you’re shocked. I’m shocked. Time to rectify the situation.

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