Archive for It’s Only a Movie

The Death of Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by dcairns

Get out your handkerchiefs, this could get pretty emotional. I’m not kidding.

Filming in England again for FRENZY, Hitch remarked, “When I enter the studios — be it in Hollywood or in London — and the heavy doors close behind me, there is no difference. A salt mine is always a salt mine.”

I’m fascinated by this turn of phrase, equating the Master’s life work with a penal sentence, and tying the image of the movie studio to the central image of the police cell, Hitch’s primal scene, harking back to the time he was locked in a cell as a small boy with no idea of when he would be released. I happen to believe that story, which is mentioned by a character in MURDER long before Hitch seems to have told it to the press as a simplistic Freudian explanation of why he was fascinated by crime and suspense.

We shall return to that cell later…

After FAMILY PLOT was completed and had been publicized, Hitch started work on THE SHORT NIGHT a spy thriller he had acquired ten years before. He worked on a treatment with Norman Lloyd for a time, then snubbed him when Lloyd balked at the idea of jumping straight into a screenplay. Hitch tried writing by himself, but he’d always used collaborators, and nothing got done. It must have been lonely and depressing. Then came Ernest Lehman again, despite Hitchcock’s having been rather tired by Lehman on FAMILY PLOT. Work went well, but Lehman resisted a rape-murder scene from Ronald Kirkbride’s source novel, and Hitch decided he needed another writer.

Universal fixed him up with David Freeman, who wrote about the collaboration later in The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the fact that the action played out in England and Finland, they proceeded as if the film would get made: Hitch would simply have a second unit shoot background plates and he’d make the thing in the studio. Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s old agent and now head of Universal, let it be known that Hitch had made a fortune for the studio and if keeping him happy in his declining years cost them a couple of million, it was money well spent.

Hitchcock was arthritic, overweight, had a heart condition and a pacemaker, but the thought of making another film kept him going.

Meanwhile, Alma’s health was in decline: strokes left her disabled and confused. She resented Hitch’s going to work and  leaving her, and some mornings she would spew obscenities at him as he left the house. A stroke can have a disinhibiting effect on language: even little old ladies often say “Fucking hell,” as their first words upon recovering the power of speech. Robert Bolt though this was because the words sound so good, but it’s also due to the internal censor being knocked out of action. Alma Reville’s brain was behaving like Hollywood after the collapse of the Hays Code.

Charlotte Chandler’s “personal biography” of Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie, ends in this unbearably moving fashion:

‘Near the end of his life, Hitchcock said that when he and Alma realized they couldn’t travel anymore, it was then that they really felt old. “We could have traveled,” he said, but it would have been like trying to make movies when you really can’t.

‘Hitchcock was a romantic, as was his wife. They had spoken about just one more trip to the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, perhaps for Christmas, their favourite time to be there to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

‘”Neither of us wanted to disappoint the other,” he said, “by admitting to not believing the possibility existed. Then, Alma and I stopped talking about our next trip to St. Moritz. Each of us had come to understand that it wasn’t a place we wanted to return to, but a time.

‘”The worst thing, you know, is when you cannot go back to a place where you have always been happy,” he said, “because you are afraid that if you go back, you won’t be happy–not because the place has changed, but because you have changed.”

Finally, Hitch called a producer in and asked him to tell Lew Wasserman that THE SHORT NIGHT was off. “I can’t face him.” Within a day, Hitch’s office had been cleared. His staff were resentful that they’d had no warning of their approaching redundancy, but Hitch hadn’t known himself. For a while he still came into the empty office and had his haircut. Then he stopped coming.

Hitchcock went to bed. He refused food. If visitors came, he swore at them and drove them out. Hitchcock, whose brother had committed suicide, willed himself to die. His doctor said later that his system was still basically strong, and he could have gone on a few years, but he didn’t want to. It wasn’t exactly suicide, Hitchcock didn’t do anything to bring about his death. He just avoided doing the things that would keep him alive. If there was no movie, there was no point.

Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for MARY ROSE, perhaps the most fascinating of Hitchcock’s unmade films, ends with a slow pull-back from a remote, magical, and sinister island, with this voice-over, quoted in Bill Krohn’s seminal Hitchcock at Work:

Well, that’s it. Let’s go back home now.

(ironically)

There, of course, it’s raining…

THE CAMERA begins to retreat. The Island grows smaller, smaller.

…as usual. And there’s a naughty boy waiting for punishment and an old villager who had the fatal combination of weak heart and bad temper. He’s waiting to be buried. All the usual, dependable, un-islandy things.

(He sighs deeply.)

You understand.

I think I do. It’s raining back home because it always seems to be raining when we leave a movie, doesn’t it? (Plus, the movie is set in Scotland.) The naughty boy awaiting punishment (in a police cell?) and the old man with the weak heart are both Hitchcock, at opposite ends of his life, aren’t they? (The Tralfamadorians see human beings as long centipedes, with baby legs at one end and old arthritic ones at the other). On the Island That Likes to be Visited, imagination rules. It’s a frightening, mysterious place, and Hitch had the power to go there in his mind and return at will.

Alma lived on for two years, “as happy as a clam,” according to daughter Pat. Although she attended Hitch’s funeral, she had no idea he was gone. “Hitch is in the next room,” she would whisper, confidentially.

I wondered what 2010 would be like now Hitchcock Year is done — odd, not having him around. But Hitchcock is always around when you’re talking about film.

“Hitch is in the next room.”

Best wishes to all Shadowplayers in the New Year!

Alfred Christmas Presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British readers can support Shadowplay by shopping here:

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

Waltz and All

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by dcairns

‘When I mentioned to Hitchcock that I’d never seen WALTZES FROM VIENNA, he said, “That’s a good girl. Don’t.”‘

~ Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

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It’s tempting to regard WALTZES FROM VIENNA, directed by Hitchcock after his relationship with producer John Maxwell at British International Pictures had gone into a decline. According to John Russell Taylor’s authorised bio, Hitch, Maxwell had passed on a screenplay called Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, which Hitchcock had developed with BLACKMAIL’s original author Charles Bennett, with the words, “It’s a masterpiece of cinematics, dear boy, but I’d rather have the £10,000.” The screenplay would be revamped, losing the familiar character of Drummond, and become THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film which sparked Hitch’s renaissance.

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Meanwhile, the only offer on the table was a musical-comedy life of Strauss the younger, produced by an independent but umbrellaed by the sizable Gaumont-British. Hitch would always dismiss the film in later years, and was heard to vocally denounce it even while it was in production: “I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do,” a remark overheard and recorded by the film’s star, Esmond Knight.

Yet as Charles Barr points out, melodrama is exactly what WFV is, in the literal sense of being a musical drama. It introduces the idea of a musical leitmotif woven into the story (in this case, the writing of The Blue Danube) which became a favourite Hitchcock device, deployed in both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, as well as THE LADY VANISHES and REAR WINDOW, a film which can be viewed as the story of the composition of its own theme song.

In addition to the composition story, there’s romance, with Knight’s Strauss torn between romance with baker’s daughter Jessie Matthews, who wants him to get a straight job, and an affair with countess Fay Compton, who wishes to nurture his talent and also to cheat on her husband. A further layer of complication is added by Strauss’s fraught relationship with his father, Edmund Gwenn, who feels threatened by his son’s talent.

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Cries and Vosper.

Does any of the film work? Yes, any of it does. But certainly not all of it. The early parts of the film attempt Lubitschian comedy, and despite Hitch’s well-known puckish sense of humour, much of this falls flat. Frank Vosper as the cuckolded husband gets the only laughs, with some beautifully timed physical playing. There’s a heaviness to the story and characterisation that tends to crush the attempts at gaiety. Esmond Knight would be blinded in the war and make a heroic come-back as a character player (riding a donkey through a forest in BLACK NARCISSUS, he declined the use of a stunt double: “The donkey doesn’t want to run into a tree any more than I do!”) but he’s not quite a light comedian yet. Jessie Matthews certainly could be, but her contemporary musicals kept her informal, to counterbalance her highly coached vocal delivery. Here, the costumes and pomp seem to stiffen her, and she gets little comedy to play and surprisingly little to sing. Fay Compton, so moving and natural in Welles’s OTHELLO, years later, is somewhat floaty and somnambular as the Countess, who ought to be a bit flightier, one would have thought.

The pleasure of the film is in little flourishes concocted by Hitchcock, like the naive but fun scene where Strauss conceives his waltz by watching the work in a bakery, and a couple of bold jump-cuts:

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In this one, Hitch achieves an impossible rack-focus into a close-up on the fleeing Jessie Matthews, by the expedient of cutting sharply from blurred to focused.

In another scene change, Hitch tracks in on a rolled-up score clutched by one character, then cuts directly to an identically composed shot of a matching score held in the same way by someone else — then he tracks back, mirroring the earlier track in.

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Hitchcock was without his usual cinematographer, John Cox, on this movie, which may have added to his sense of alienation from the project. Cox wouldn’t return to the fold until THE LADY VANISHES, but Hitch would soon forge a productive collaboration with cameraman Bernard Knowles.

My favourite moment was the ending, which is not intended as a glib dig: I genuinely like the ending. After a rousing performance of his new composition (Hitch’s low-budget version is like a rough sketch for Duvivier’s delirious THE GREAT WALTZ, with both filmmakers cutting to the beat to create visual music), Strauss’s personal problems are wrapped up with a certain amount of effort and contrivance, but Hitchcock leaves the oedipal drama unresolved until the last moment.

Strauss the elder walks disconsolately through the beergarden, scene of his son’s triumph, as the lights are turned out one by one around him. A little girl asks for his autograph. He signs it, “Strauss”, then calls her back and amends it. “Strauss Snr.” He walks on, reconciled to his place, and his son’s place, in history. Not only is it a good piece of Hitchcockian (and Lubitschian) indirect storytelling, it unleashes the wealth of sweetness which Gwenn possesses as an actor, and which his director will not allow him to use fully until THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, twenty years later.

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