Archive for Robert Burks

Friends of Carlotta

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2009 by dcairns

THE DESCENT

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“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”

In its final form, VERTIGO doesn’t feel like it could be called anything else, even if the hero’s acrophobia is only an occasional plot point — the film inspires all kinds of dizziness, and is perhaps finally about the fear triggered by standing on the brink of eternity.

But the source novel was called D’entre Des Mortes, (Wikipedia suggests Sueurs Froides: D’entre des Mortes, or Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead) translated into English as The Living and the Dead, which served as the first working title for the movie. Maxwell Anderson produced a draft called DARKLING, I LISTEN, a title which nobody could take seriously. Hitch suggested DOUBLE TROUBLE, as a joke, in a letter to Anderson. When his WRONG MAN co-scenarist Angus MacPhail bowed out of script duties due to alcoholism (sadly, the inventor of the MacGuffin never wrote again), Alec Coppel was hired to write a new draft, titled FROM AMONG THE DEAD, which included the dream sequence much as it appears in the final film, but did not satisfy the demands of Jimmy Stewart for believable characterisation.

Samuel Taylor was hired to solve this issue, producing a draft whimsically named FROM THE DEAD or THERE’LL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU, credited to “Samuel Taylor and Ambrose Bierce.” (Bierce, a great author of ghost stories and supernatural mysteries, longtime resident of San Francisco, vanished off the face of the earth in 1900. Fans of VERTIGO’s warped and death-defying love might like to try his necromance Beyond the Wall.) Taylor’s other joke title was TO LAY A GHOST.

As the film moved into production, Paramount execs started offering up titles: A MATTER OF FACT was suggested by Arthur Kram (what a pathetic title that is!) and Sam Frey drew up a list of seventeen alternatives, including such zingers as TONIGHT IS OURS, POSSESSED BY A STRANGER and THE MAD CARLOTTA. Six titles including the word “face” — FACE IN THE SHADOW was Hitch’s favourite — were thrown out when Warners started making A FACE IN THE CROWD.

Dan Auiler’s otherwise exhaustive Vertigo, The Making of a Hitchcock Classic doesn’t say where the title VERTIGO comes from, but it instantly became Hitch’s choice, and he defended it against stiff studio opposition. Very possibly it was his own idea.

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From the start, Hitchcock seems to have been intent on following the novel’s two-part structure, which translates in the movie into the Madeleine half and the Judy half. The novel sets these sections of story in France before and after World War II, with the doomed romance blossoming amid the misguided confidence of France’s entry into the conflict. After the war comes a truer understanding. This loose mirroring of the personal and the political doesn’t really form part of Hitchcock’s scheme, and he doesn’t seek to establish the events of his story in relation to any real-world equivalent. This probably assists the dreamlike quality of the movie.

The hero of Boileau & Narcejac’s novel, the gloomy, introverted and cowardly Gevigne, clearly needed work to become a Jimmy Stewart character — although by the end of Hitchcock’s film, Stewart has come as close as he ever came to demolishing utterly his nice-guy image. The novel’s protagonist even fails in his role as patsy: hired to stand witness to a fake suicide, he flees the scene and never appears at the inquest, causing a cloud of suspicion to settle on the Gavin Elster character. Hitchcock and Taylor wisely have Stewart play his unwitting part in the murder quite faithfully, getting blamed for Madeleine’s death from sarcastic coroner Henry Jones (whose snide, wheedling performance sparked libel fears among the censors, since the county coroner was a real individual).

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FALLING DOWN

Run the movie!

Enter Saul Bass: the graphic genius brought into movies by Otto Preminger here contributes a truly hypno-romantic dream descent, aided by avant-garde filmmaker John Whitney, who had been working separately on the question of how to animate Lissajou spirals (graphic visualisations of mathematical formulae). The nameless woman in Bass’s opening sequence adds another blurring to the identity of the woman in VERTIGO — Carlotta-Madeleine-Judy are all, in a sense one person. Midge paints herself as Carlotta-Madeleine at one point. Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie, spots several false Madeleines before finding Judy (one of these is Lee Patrick, Effie in THE MALTESE FALCON, another San Francisco detective story about “the stuff dreams are made of). The real Madeleine, glimpsed in the murder flashback, is played by Kim Novak’s stand-in. And the nun at the end is dubbed with Novak’s voice…

Feeling dizzy yet?

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DOUBLE TROUBLE

Gripping stuff! The hand grasping the rung is such a strong opening, and then we’re into an exciting rooftop chase! The process shots in VERTIGO are generally of a very high standard, and there are a hell of a lot of them. Perhaps Hitch’s reputation for sloppy effects shots stems from the fact that quality control is bound to slip somewhere if you do so many effects. Anyhow, this sequence is notably unreal but still effective and convincing, in its unreal way.

James Stewart, as John “Scottie” Ferguson (“A good strong name,” says Kim) slips on a loose slate and dangles. “Give me your hand,” hollers a cop, before plunging to his doom. Do you mind if I don’t? The exponential zoom yawns before us, a miniature alleyway constructed by FX man John Fulton and photographed sideways for ease. (No photographic record — besides that in the film — exists of the miniature alley and church tower interior.)

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This exciting opening is only referred to in the novel by way of memory, but Hitch wisely avoids flashbacking for now, and gets a cracking opening scene out of it, which leaves Scottie cliffhanging over an urban abyss. If anything, it runs the risk of setting too exciting a pace for the film to follow, since this is one of Hitch’s slowest and most floaty films. “We never find out how he gets down,” observe the restoration team in the DVD commentary track. But we do — why does Scottie need a walking stick and a support garment in scene two? Because he’s fallen four storeys shortly after the end of scene one. How come he didn’t die? Maybe Conductor 71 missed him in the fog. (But cinematographer Robert Burks — on top form — doesn’t use a fog filter until we get to the graveyard scene…)

Thinking of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH reminds me of my late friend Lawrie, with whom I last watched this movie. “Oh, I’m sure I’ve seen it at some point,” he said, airily. Either he hadn’t, or he’d forgotten it in the last forty years, because it was all new and wonderful to him. He would shoot glances of amazement at me all through it. “The most interesting thing Hitchcock ever did!” he proclaimed. Lawrie did like his hyperbole, but he’s not actually wrong.

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Midge is Samuel Taylor’s invention, and one we can be grateful for. She grounds the movie, without totally earthing it and letting the energy escape. Apart from her scenes, it’s surprising how closely the action of the first half mirrors that of the book. Even Madeleine’s grey suit is there. Barbara Bel Geddes, who also acted for Hitch in Lamb to the Slaughter, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode based on a Roald Dahl story, gives the film added humanity. The other masterstroke is Jimmy Stewart, who is Mr Credible. Oddly, the script insists they were at college together, except he’s 50 and she’s 36. The cantilever bra on her drawing board is described as the invention of “an aircraft engineer” — a Howard Hughes reference? Recall that BBG played opposite a Hughes surrogate, Robert Ryan as Smith Ohlrig in her other big movie, Max Ophuls’ CAUGHT.

Midge is, I think, the last Hitchcock character who draws. Artists figure obsessively in his work, and often use their drawing and painting to woo, as Midge does later. Think of the sleazy painter in BLACKMAIL, the stick figure courtship in RICH AND STRANGE, or John Forsythe trading his abstracts for a double bed in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. (The painter of those abstracts, John Ferren, also designed VERTIGO’s “Special Sequence.”) And after all, Hitch had used his art to snare Alma, in a way.

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Hitch, perhaps returning his French horn to the Friends of the Evergreen Society?

I enjoy how, learning of Elster’s dockside address, Midge and Scottie speculate that he may have fallen on hard times. Love how the nonentity Elster is assumed by his old friends to be a washed-up failure, implying that if he hadn’t married money, that’s just what he’d be.

“Power and freedom” — the first CLUE in the movie, a refrain introduced by Gavin Elster (another college chum of Stewart’s, even though he’s English) and soon taken up by Pop Liebel in the Argosy Bookshop and finally Kim Novak herself. Although VERTIGO’s status as a twist-ending tale is arguably it’s least interesting attribute, it’s still quite satisfying to follow the breadcrumbs when rewatching the movie, seeing how the hocus pocus works. Of course, the idea of Madeleine being possessed by a reincarnated ancestor is, if anything, MORE plausible than the Rube Goldberg assassination scheme used to “explain” it — maybe that’s why the hero strangles the heroine in the book, because she’s ruining a perfectly good supernatural story.

(It was just after this film that Hitch seriously tried to make MARY ROSE, his JM Barrie ghost story adaptation. He went as far as obtaining the original score of the London stage production he saw in his youth, to inspire Bernard Herrmann in his Wagnerian soundtrack for VERTIGO. Incidentally, the star of that stage show was Fay Compton — owner of Hill House in THE HAUNTING, and co-star of Hitch’s WALTZES FROM VIENNA.)

Exactly as in the book, Elster uses a trip to the opera to bring his detective and wife-impersonator together (Kim Novak’s great roles always cast her as wife-impersonators: cf Polly the Pistol in Billy Wilder’s KISS ME STUPID). Herrmann brings on the love theme for its first outing, and proceeds to show us how many changes he can ring on it in the course of the story. Madeleine is seen for the first time in profile, a recurring motif — Judy is also introduced this way.

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Following Madeleine: the long, slow, obsessive sequence, which started life much longer (until Hitch instructed editor George Tomasini to ignore San Francisco geography) and was to have VO dialogue between Elster and Scottie. The black wipe opening up on the flower shop. The museum (source of all those DePalma Steadicams). The cemetery, which it’s curiously localised fog effect (Burks’ fog filter doesn’t really try to suggest actual fog, it’s the mist of dream — and very effective, in spite of Hitch’s SPELLBOUND ruling that dreams are always quite sharp).

Madeleine checks into the McKittrick Hotel, and vanishes, without explanation. Hitch apparently shot a section of Judy’s later flashback that shows the hotel receptionist being bribed to facilitate this vanishing act, but he cut it — perhaps realising that he was replacing an old mystery, forgotten by most viewers, with a fresh one — why enlist the receptionist unnecessarily? Why vanish at all? The scene has a direct ancestor in the book, but Madeleine doesn’t vanish there. Here it’s just a bit of enigma to spice up the slow part — Hitch was acutely aware that he had nothing but slight intrigue to hook his audience here, and then only a love story to snare them with until Madeleine does a Waring Hudsucker.

Now both Elster and Hitchcock need to move their plot to the next level, so Madeleine jumps in the bay. Stewart rescues her, dragging her up a set of steps that don’t, in fact, exist at the at location — nicely prefiguring the belltower at San Juan Battista, which likewise doesn’t exist.

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Novak speaks — in a strange posh quasi-English accent, perhaps modeled on Tom Helmore’s Elster-speak. In fact, she sounds a bit like Dr Evil. Novak’s performance here only really works if we see her as Judy playing a role, not too skillfully. Even the muttering in her sleep — I can just make out “The house, my child…” — is in character as Madeleine/Carlotta. I listened to it very carefully, because it was amusing to think that if Judy talked in her sleep for real, and Scottie heard her, she might give away the whole plan before it’s really started.

As meet-cutes go, it’s pretty memorable. The censors objected to everything here — the underwear drying in the kitchen, Novak being nude, Novak being embarrassed, and Stewart’s pause in the next scene with her: “I enjoyed… talking to you.” Hitchcock ignored their concerns, and Stewart really milks that pause for maximum suggestion.

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Nice plotting when Stewart sets off to follow Novak the next day — the same places, inevitably, with Herrmann’s score adding heavy doom notes — and finds her stopping by his apartment to thank him. Which gets us to the first “date” (he’s already undressed her so it’s a backwards kind of relationship) and the giant redwood, referenced so beautifully by Chris Marker in LA JETEE. “Here I was born, and here, I died.” Novak starts to get more into her role. In the forest, she seems to disappear again, then is rediscovered. The sea! The first big Wagnerian love scene, and the problem of Madeleine’s possible madness is now stated. It’s Scottie’s task to cure her by proving she’s not mad, that there are reasons she remembers all this stuff — perfectly rational explanation. Some hope.

Scottie must now play detective-shrink, which is what leads him and Madeleine inexorably to the old mission house. Madeleine’s invented dream — which will soon become Scottie’s ACTUAL dream — provides all the clues. But although Scottie constantly does what a good detective and shrink should do, it never works out. My friend, the arch-genius Comrade K, suggests that VERTIGO can be seen as Hitch’s anti-Freudian story, where confrontation with the truth just leads to renewed trauma. Hitch WAS skeptical about therapy: after all, he was well aware of the source of his policeman phobia, but knowing its origins did him no good at all.

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Midge’s role continues to be essential for now — she represents the reality Scottie is drifting loose from. With her commercial art and her hanging bras, it’s been suggested that Midge demystifies sexuality, which is why Scottie prefers the unreal Madeleine. But I know a lot of guys who are crazy about Midge, and BBG is so sweet in the role…

Taking Madeleine to the site of her dream seems like a good idea, but it backfires rather badly. Note the very compressed editing as Novak flees — Alma objected to Novak’s run, and Hitch had George Tomasini cut the sequence to the bone. “She will just leap from one side of the square to the other, but nobody will notice it because we will cut from big head to big head.”

(I love Hitch’s use of “big head” instead of close-up. Reminds me of Put Money in They Purse, Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir of shooting Welles’s OTHELLO. According to Welles, an emigré director in Hollywood’s silent days had been in the habit of asking for a “Big Head of Pola” when shooting his star, Pola Negri. From then on, all closeups in OTHELLO are referred to as Big Heads of Pola.)

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More vertigo effect exponential zooms as Stewart chases Novak upstairs. Now, we’re told that no record of the model used exists. But I’m not convinced it IS a model. In the first shot, Stewart’s hands can be seen in the foreground — and the finger move. It’s not a GI Joe doll or something. If they can raise the camera vertically two flights, why not more? Indeed, there is a high angle of Stewart descending at the end, so they certainly COULD situate the camera up there, though lowering it while zooming would certainly be trickier. I’m wondering if they alleyway was a model shot and the tower shot real? The tower was built, it seems, full-scale, for the actors to act in. If I’m right, this would explode a major piece of accepted wisdom about the making of this movie…

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Great matte painting showing Madeleine’s body being recovered from the roof, while Scottie wanders off in a daze. The God Shot.

Now we get Henry Jones’s drolly vicious turn as DA, one of the few sequences of plodding prose left in the film — verging on the dreaded “photographs of people talking” — not a bad scene, just a necessary rather than an exciting one. Jones is delightful in Tashlin’s THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose nominal star, Tom Ewell, is excellent in The case of Dr Pelham, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the man himself, which deals with a Doppelganger, and is one of only a couple of Hitchcock films to avoid a rational explanation — the story’s nightmarish events are the work of an agency “more than human…”

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The Special Sequence! Fiona demands I prepare for her, somehow, a T-shirt bearing Jimmy Stewart’s Big Head flying disembodied through a Vortex of Insanity. Maybe I will, maybe I will. It’s the ruffled hair and little corner of neck that make it. Dig also the plunge into open grave — replayed in Gilliam’s BRAZIL, a decade before her recombined VERTIGO in 12 MONKEYS — and the splay-legged knock-kneed unstrung puppet figure of Stewart dropping bedazzled into an aerial landscape that bleaches out into the White Screen of Death — a cinema screen with nothing projected on it.

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And now the psych hospital scene, a recasting of THE WRONG MAN — even the nurse, with her professional smile, and the doctor, with his professional concern, seem the same. (In fact, Scottie has the same doctor as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN — and he’s equally helpless in both cases.) Scottie sits zombified in the care home listening to exactly the kind of light classical music he objected to Midge playing in scene two.

From Chris Marker’s SANS SOLEIL.

MAD DETECTIVE

Long pan of San Francisco skyline, which stands in for any explanation of what’s happened to Midge or how Stewart has recovered. This odd transition actually backs up Chris Marker’s semi-crackpot theory that the whole last 45 minutes of the film are Scottie’s fantasy, rewriting part one in vain hope of making it come out better, rather like the second part of LOST HIGHWAY and the first part of MULHOLLAND DRIVE seem like fantasy attempts at rewriting the intolerable fact of death.

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Stewart now revisits the scenes where he saw Madeleine, behaving at once like a madman — since what can he hope to find? — and a detective (methodical, plodding). Lee Patrick’s scene as the new owner of Madeleine’s green Jag illustrates the dangers of the Hitchcock style — her voice trails off before Stewart cuts her off, an awkward bit of sound editing that reminds us of how pre-packaged and artificially assembled everything here is.

But then Judy’s entrance redeems all that — laughing with her friends, she seems like a figure from a parallel documentary, although Hitch takes care to catch her in profile, and her strange Groucho Marx eye-brows add a note of artifice. “She very obviously does not wear a bra,” observed M. Truffaut, and as a teenager reading that I thought, “What a typical Frenchman.” But now I find her breasts awe-inspiring and impossible to wrench my eyes from. What a dirty old man I have become.

Novak as Judy is a superb, natural and moving as she is stiff and weird as Madeleine, which totally works and is at least somewhat intentional on the actress’s part (although I’d favour playing Madeleine as a completely separate character with complete conviction, but that’s just me). As a big Vera Miles fan, I’m still curious as to what her casting would have been like (a Portrait of Carlotta featuring Miles does exist) — some will talk about the surprising qualities Novak brings to the role, but my own view is that a superior actress is ALWAYS better, whatever qualities you want to talk about. And Miles beats Novak hands down, BUT — Novak is utterly excellent in part two and I don’t know if anybody could have done it better.

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Now: the controversial decision to dispel mystery by explaining Judy’s resemblance almost as soon as she’s been introduced. Hitchcock actually argued for removing this scene just before the release, and got in quite a savage argument with his associate producer, Herbert Coleman (really, Coleman was the producer, but Hitch’s desire for sole authority was such that he preferred to leave that title unclaimed). The scene has one major effect apart from clearing up the confusion and focussing us more on suspense as to the outcome — it makes Judy into a more sympathetic character at the end. If we didn’t know of her role in the murder, we’d be shocked, I guess, to discover that this poor doormat had tricked Scottie and us, so the compassion we feel for her up until her unmasking would be broken, right before the conclusion. So I think the scene is defensible on those grounds. Seeing Judy write a confession to Scottie, we get to hear of her guilt and desire to do the right thing by him. On the other hand, treating the story as a typical Boileau-Narcejac twist-in-the-tale yarn would certainly work, and may have been more popular. The trouble with those movies is, I seldom want to watch them twice — the exception being LES DIABOLIQUES.

Judy’s flashback is anticipated in the scenes which suddenly switch to Midge’s POV earlier, as when she sees Madeleine leaving Scottie’s apartment late at night. Hitch always seems to do this — establish a clear POV character, then switch away for brief but telling moments — usually to the POV of a woman.

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Following the colours in this movie is fascinating. Stewart most often in brown, but he picks up the green from Novak’s car, and the Edith Head gown she wears at Ernie’s, and wears a green jumper after rescuing her from the bay. Judy is first seen in her green dress, which ought to be a clue. Later, a green skirt and brown top, harmonizing with Stewart’s suit (his blue eyes practically sear through the screen amid all these earth tones). The gray suit is useful because you can give it any colour value, so the green neon of the Hotel Empire sign hazes Judy into the ghost of Madeleine, and then Judy/Madeleine seems to walk THROUGH Robert Burks’s fog filter, without breaking it, like Bela Lugosi passing through the spider’s web on the stairs of Castle Dracula, or like Death walking through a mirror in Cocteau’s ORPHEE.

Stewart’s plan, to possess Judy with the spirit of dead Madeleine, as she was possessed by Carlotta (like Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY?), is quite crazy, and faithful to the book, leading to the famed obsessive makeover. It’s a very Poe idea — specifically, it’s the plot of Ligeia, where the narrator seeks to use his unloved second wife’s body as host to the soul of the departed, and still adored, first wife. It’s Judy’s desperation to be loved that Novak excels at, the emotion which causes her to allow Stewart’s attempts to erase her and replace her with a phantom — a woman she knows never really existed. It’s very much a film about a filmmaker and fantasist, in this sense, because Scottie does not, in the end, love a dead woman, he loves somebody who was an invention, an unreal construct. And his quest is to make her real. Whether Hitchcock tried to do this with Tippi Hedren or not, he certainly did something similar every time he made a film on paper and then attempted to actualize it.

Incidentally, Taylor and Hitchcock get over the weirdness of Stewart’s quest quite neatly — he never fully explains what he’s doing. What we see is the sinister makeover, which is disturbing enough, but the real goal is hinted at (and comes straight from the book). I don’t think there’s any way to deny that this is what Scottie’s up to.

As Arthur S helpfully pointed out yesterday, Stewart BECOMES Elster — the villain of the piece — making over Judy as Madeleine and dragging her to the old mission just as Elster had done. So there are multiple cases of possession going on here. Stewart, meanwhile, becomes truly terrifying towards the end — all the more so because he’s still Jimmy Stewart, still in some way making a claim on our sympathies. The scene where he decides he has to dye Judy’s hair — brilliant! He’s staring at her head EXACTLY like Gaston Modot stares at the statue’s foot in L’AGE D’OR. Oblivious to the suffering human being in front of him, fixated on the image of his fetish idol.

“It can’t matter to you!” The greatest line in cinema. Taylor denies any intention of provoking a laugh here, but it usually gets one (I’ve never heard anyone laugh at Judy’s place or origin, “Salina, Kansas,” although Taylor was convinced they’d be rolling in the aisles). And not, I think, a bad laugh — it’s the laughter of shock. It doesn’t take people out of the picture, and it isn’t an expression of superiority… well, maybe over Scottie. And it’s usually women who laugh most because the sentiment is more grotesque, and maybe more recognizable, to them, from their dealings with the male of the species…

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The rotating turntable shot of Scottie and Judy embracing in the hotel, with space-time melting around them, and Herrmann’s great score freaking out on the soundtrack, is one of the greatest moments of cinema ever, I contest. I particularly dig the moment when Jimmy Stewart looks up and NOTICES that he’s elsewhere, then kind of shrugs and goes back to kissing Novak. And the blue-green haze that engulfs them at the end is sublime, like an abstract space that isn’t the hotel or the mission or anywhere. The embrace of death.

Post-coital satisfaction, and a happy, charming, naturalistic performance by Novak, before Scottie’s detective side reasserts itself and he rumbles the deception, due to her extremely foolish error of putting on the Carlotta necklace. Off to the mission! The same shots used, though now day-for-night, emphasizing the  quality of hypnotic reenactment here. Recall Midge quoting the doctor who said Scottie’s vertigo could only be cured by another emotional shock…

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The mission, with its painting of a tower (the first time we see it, the Scary Nun of Death can be seen walking across the lawn, on her circuitous way to terrify Novak to her death). Stewart is now the detective explaining why he’s called us all here today, and reenacting the crime, he’s an Elster surrogate re-staging the original murder, a doctor treating a patient with vertigo (himself), and a betrayed lover confronting his mistress with the proof of her infidelity. He fails rather badly at all his roles, except in seemingly curing his high anxiety — which does him no good. He loses his fear, while discovering just what he had to be afraid of.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never wholly liked the nun. I like her better now that I’ve spotted her elsewhere (she’s at the inquest too), and now I know she’s dubbed by Novak. But despite her bringing in Hitch’s Catholicism, she always seemed a slightly unwelcome addition to a movie that’s practically a two-hander. I mean, Elster doesn’t count as human, and Midge, though very warm and real, has disappeared entirely from part two and we don’t actually miss her. So the Scary Nun of Death is a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. But as Sidney Lumet says, nothing has to be perfect.

In any case, the ending is more intriguing and satisfactory than that of the source novel, where the hero strangles the heroine — interestingly, because she’s explained the plot to him, and he can’t accept it. I guess a few audience members have felt that way. But the idea that our protag prefers to kill the woman rather than face the reality that his great love was based on an illusion is an interesting one. My problem with the nun is that she seems, on the face of it, arbitrary.

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If she represents a maleficent fate, she’s making a late entry into the story-world. If anything, she’s like the return of the numinous specters haunting part one, seemingly banished by the explanation of the murder plot, but still lurking in the belfry of the subconscious. “…someone within me, and she says I must die…” In the end, we are left with a man standing on the brink. John Boorman would probably suggest he’s imagined the whole story while hanging from a drainpipe at the end of scene one — like the hero of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Certainly, Scottie’s situation has spiraled back to the end of part one. How many more times does he have to climb this tower? The novel’s last line is superimposed across my mind’s eye — ‘I shall wait for you,’ he said.

UK purchasers:

Vertigo – 50th Anniversary Special Edition [DVD] [1958]

North By Northwest [Blu-ray] [1959]

US purchasers:

Vertigo (Collector’s Edition)

North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Book) [Blu-ray]

Alfred Hitchcock – The Masterpiece Collection

For B. Kite.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by dcairns

Thanks to Comrade K for drawing my attention to the above.

“Reading from top to bottom…”

REAR WINDOW is maybe the Hitchcock film I love most. I saw it at the cinema on its 80s rerelease when I guess I was a teenager. Reaching this point in Hitchcock Year feels like a turning point. Hitch begins his deal at Paramount, where he basically worked for the rest of his career, with side-trips to MGM and Universal and Warners. He begins working with John Michael Hayes as screenwriter, the last regular writer Hitch would have (after Elliot Stannard, Charles Bennett, Ben Hecht, and of course Alma). He resumes working with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Robert Burks shoots, Franz Waxman scores, and George Tomasini joins the team as editor. It feels like a seminal moment.

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The story derives from Cornell Woolrich’s short story It Had to be Murder. Woolrich himself had a bad leg and maybe spent a lot of time looking out the window, like Jimmy Stewart. Three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, by various directors, derive from Woolrich stories, and Hitchcock himself directed a TV play, Four O’Clock, based on another Woolrich source. Woolrich was a lousy prose stylist, whose delirious fictions sometimes reach a kind of addled poetry where his vices become virtues and he looks like a good writer reflected in a funhouse mirror. Even when that doesn’t happen, he’s a lot of fun, and creates heaps of suspense. Like Hitchcock, he doesn’t always seem to care about logic or plausibility — Woolrich actually maybe doesn’t know what such things are — but he is attuned to nightmare. I’d love to film Rendezvous in Black, in which a girl on a street corner is randomly killed by a beer bottle slung from an aeroplane, and her traumatized boyfriend goes on a revenge spree, tracking down the men who were on that plane (rented for a drunken hunting trip) and killing the person each of them loves most… “A nutty kind of a book,” as Jean Harlow might say.

In John Michael Hayes’ hands, the story of It Had to be Murder becomes more sophisticated, with a cast of New York window inhabitants, each with their own little narratives, and the central character is more developed via his relationships with Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey. Reading from top to bottom –

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“Who are you?”

Grace Kelly gets that great, dreamlike entrance, with the Edith Head fashions and strange step-printed kiss (Hitchcock tries to explain how it’s done in the Truffaut interview, but makes no sense: “Those are little pulsations I give the camera…”) Note how the Gershwinesque city, less salubrious than in ROPE but with the same sodium-orange sunset, participates in her introduction, a little car horn parp sounding distantly after each of her names. “Lisa…” Peep! “Carol…” Toot! “Fremont.” Meep! (The last so quiet I may be imagining it.)

Lisa is a real woman who only seems like a dream, which is her big problem with James Stewart’s LB Jeffries. He can’t imagine this dream will last, he has to spoil the relationship before it evaporates on him. Screwy, but plausible. My teenaged self was fascinated by all this. I think I also grasped that all Jeff’s reasoning was specious and basically he was afraid of commitment. When you have Thelma Ritter to explain these things, all is clear.

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Ritter is of course wonderful — it was probably years before I saw her in anything else, but what a career she had. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (“Anyway I tried,”) A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (“Soup’s on!”), even Leisen’s THE MATING SEASON (“Eventually a snapped and hit her. With a banana.” — a funny line that’s approximately 10,000 times funnier the way she says it) and all this not despite her walnut face, raspy voice, plebeian demeanor, but triumphantly because of it.

Wendell Corey would be the weak link in any film except that here we don’t really need to like him. He’s a good actor, when he doesn’t sound like a slowed-down tape of a drunk man hanging by his ankles, but he exudes a kind of anti-charisma. It’s a bit like the legendary minus factor — when an actor has this, they become much sought-after, because you can bring them into any scene that’s in danger of becoming too exciting. It’s always a shock to find Corey in a leading man role, as it would be if you turned on your TV one night and found Barbara Stanwyck co-starring with a wardrobe. I don’t mean he’s wooden. I just mean he’s square, hollow, stiff, creaky and reverberant. He works perfectly here.

“Here lie the broken bones of LB Jeffries.”

The opening sequence, displaying “Hitchcock’s dollhouse,” is a beaut, cramming in so much visual and aural exposition (location, time of year, temperature, hero’s name, profession, cause of accident…) that it becomes positively funny. As a teenaged viewer I assumed the woman on the magazine cover was Grace Kelly, but she’s not. She is wearing a black top slightly like Grace’s though, so I assume she’s a sort of surrogate. And Stewart has framed a negative image of the portrait, suggesting his negative feelings about the relationship, and maybe about this kind of fashion photography. The society lady/action photographer romance was apparently suggested by Ingrid Bergman’s fling with Robert Capa.

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“…rear window ethics…”

Hayes’ dialogue not only surpasses what Woolrich might have produced, but Hayes created all the supporting characters, a considerable embellishment of the original yarn. This movie is pretty much a Swiss watch, with multiple narrative uses made of Stewart’s profession, an unhurried development of the story, with convincing reversals and character development cunningly woven into the central crime plot. The biggest cheat is probably the question of how and why Lars Thorwald, our murderer next door, buried his wife’s head in the garden without being spotted.

For those who prefer VERTIGO and other more mysterious Hitchcocks, there are one or two unresolved mysteries in REAR WINDOW to test our negative capabilities. Thorwald’s mistress is a shadowy figure — to what extent is she in on the crime? What is the attraction the paunchy killer holds for her? And why did Thorwald kill his wife anyway? True, he wasn’t happy with her, and he might not have been able to divorce her, but he didn’t have to live with her, did he? Maybe he did. His little world starts to look awfully grim.

“…the hundred knives you’ve probably owned in your life…”

But I don’t find this movie, with its voyeur hero and dismembered victim, excessively morbid. On my first viewing, I remember being transported to this foreign world of 1950s New York, meeting these rather appealing people, and being blown away by the juggling of the central storyline with the subsidiary characters in all those windows. I liked how they all had their own stories.

I also struggled to see how the film consisted only of Stewart’s POV and his reactions, as several critics remarked. Although the camera stays in the apartment with Stewart until he falls out the window, apart from a couple of God’s-eye high angles when the dog is found dead, and all the shots of the courtyard seem as if they could legitimately be from Stewart’s POV, it isn’t all POV / reaction within the apartment. There’s a very nice high angle view when Stewart writes the sinister letter to Thorwald, for instance. Hitchcock restrains himself, but not THAT much.

He also moves the camera independently of Stewart’s consciousness, as at the start, when we prowl around Stewart’s room as he snoozes. This kind of overt cine-narration drops off markedly in the main body of the film, as we come closer to Stewart’s consciousness, returning at the end, when Stewart is asleep again, completing the film’s loop-like structure.

(I seem to recall that Stewart ends more films unconscious than one would expect for a leading man — he never recovers consciousness to discover his victory in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. But now I can’t think of any other examples.)

The scene where Grace boldly investigates the killer’s apartment taught me a whole new sensation of suspense. I was emotionally quite caught up with Grace’s loveliness, so I felt protective, and also the film seems to amp up the tension by using Stewart as a mirror of the audience — the helpless viewer unable to intervene.

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A little radio play — screenwriter Hayes was from radio — as Thorwald mounts the stairs to Stewart’s apartment, and Stewart listens in the dark. Something very frightening about suddenly having this man in the same room with us, instead of separated by all that comfortable space. As one of my students remarked at a screening: “Shit!” Raymond Burr does a very good job subduing his Raymond Burrness (his principle quality as an actor).

Defenestration! Having set up the suspense idea of Stewart going out the window (the way this movie uses and re-uses all the narrative elements — flashbulbs for self-defense, window as murder weapon — is extraordinary and worthy of the imitation it’s inspired) Hitchcock isn’t expected to have it actually happen. But he does. Stewart isn’t very lucky with heights in Hitchcock’s films. The cleverness of the construction is that the thing that seems to preclude a happy ending — chucking the hero from a great height — actually inspires it, leading to the fine joke of the happy man with the two plaster casts.

The plunge itself looks to me like a nifty John P Fulton (THE INVISIBLE MAN) special effect — he did the helicopter and the flashbulb retinal afterimages — but I’ve heard accounts suggesting it’s an exponential zoom with the camera shooting straight up in the air while zooming in on Stewart. Looking at it again I’m convinced it’s a matte shot, a pretty good one that works partly because it takes us by surprise. The window ledge in the foreground, which wobbles very slightly in relation to the ground below, suggests that there’s more than one optical layer here.

“I don’t want any part of it!”

Perhaps the tightness of REAR WINDOW provoked a reaction in Hitchcock, since he began preparing his next production while still shooting this one — the location-set, apparently loose and freewheeling TO CATCH A THIEF would exercise a different set of directorial muscles than those deployed to machine-tool REAR WINDOW.

Hitchcock 14 Disc Box Set – Vertigo/ The Birds/ Rear Window/ Marnie/ Frenzy/ Topaz/ The Trouble With Harry/ Torn Curtain/ Psycho/ Family Plot/ Saboteur/ Shadow Of A Doubt/ Man Who Knew Too Much/ Rope [DVD]

Film Club: End of the Line

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by dcairns

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So, Film Club ends its weekly tyranny of our schedules and goes monthly after this…

A psychopath proposes an exchange of murders with a tennis champ he meets by chance on a train. In exchange for strangling the tennis player’s wife, the psycho wants his father done away with…

Picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler Speaking at a library sale. Here he is on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, a note intended either for Hitchcock or himself ~

“I nearly went crazy myself  trying to block out this scene. I hate to say how many times I did it. It’s darn near impossible to write, because consider what you have to put over:

(1) A perfectly decent young man agrees to murder a man he doesn’t know, has never seen, in order to keep a maniac from giving himself away and from tormenting the nice young man.

(2) From a character point of view, the audience will not believe the nice young man is going to kill anybody, nor has any idea of killing anybody.

(3) Nevertheless, the nice young man has to convince Bruno and a reasonable percentage of the audience that what he is about to do is logical and inevitable. This conviction may not outlast the scene, but it has to be there, or else what the hell are the boys talking about.

(4) While convincing Bruno of all this, he has yet to fail to convince him so utterly so that some suspicion remains in Bruno’s mind that Guy intends some kind of trick, rather than to go through with it in a literal sense.

(5) All through this scene (supposing it can be written this way) we are flirting with the ludicrous. If it is not written and played exactly right, it will be absurd. The reason for this is that the situation actually is ludicrous in its essence, and this can only be overcome by developing a sort of superficial menace, which really has nothing to do with the business in hand.

(6) Or am I still crazy?”

Remarkable, reading Chandler’s  cogently argued deconstruction of the inherent implausibility of the scene, that in the finished film it plays out so smoothly that you can’t imagine it was even difficult.

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After the titles, the opening montage cross-cutting two pairs of feet on a collision course. I’d misremembered this as a title sequence, and I suspect a few years later that’s how they’d have done it. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin — Bernard Herrmann could have done wonders with this one, but then again, nearly all the great moments are accompanied by that scarifying wurlitzer version of The Band Played On, so there wouldn’t have been much for him to do. Amazing how often Hitch does weave the music into the plotline — it’s almost a constant technique.

Farley Granger as the nice young man — perhaps too nice? The more violent Guy feels towards his estranged wife, the better the story works. But I never had any real problem with Farley in the role (this movie is difficult to see, in  a way — what I see is myself as a kid watching it for the first time). Robert Walker is truly impressive. The camp mannerisms are just the right side of overdone, and balanced by the surprising physical strength, and weird flights of fancy to create a believable and unpredictable psychopath. Like Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, it’s clinically quite a shrewd portrayal, matching what we know of such types, but the two characters are nevertheless entirely distinct people. While Uncle Charlie occupied his mind with philosophy, charting his separation from and superiority over the world he moved through, Bruno Anthony’s restless brain flits from one crazy scheme to another. It’s not clear how many of them are japes and how many he entertains seriously: he seems to enjoy springing them on the unwary, just to get a reaction.

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Hitching a ride.

As with ROPE, an idea which seems like a gag is taken too seriously by one party… in fact, ROPE, STRANGERS and DIAL M FOR MURDER form a sort of informal Perfect Murder Trilogy. Lots of Hitchcock films feature careful killers, but these three films hinge upon murder schemes that aim for artistry, and which must be explained to an appreciative audience. Brandon in ROPE has his accomplice, and also seems to hope that Jimmy Stewart’s going to catch on to the plot and come to respect its fiendish brilliance; Bruno needs a partner who shares his enthusiasm for the idea of swapping murders (which is where his plan miscarries); and Ray Milland will need to enlist a patsy to do his killing for him, which allows him to enjoy explaining just how clever he is.

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The movie is a noir symphony of lampshades. Cinematographers take note — the solution is to have lots of lamps, with fairly opaque shades, so not too much light gets through.

The first act of STRANGERS plays out entirely in a criss-cross pattern, intercutting Guy and Bruno’s storylines, barely introducing Ruth Roman as Guy’s romantic interest, and leaving her family for later. To put over the jumps from character to character, Hitch has fun linking scenes with audio-visual connections, as when Bruno finishes his first encounter with Guy by murmuring “Criss-cross…” and Hitch cuts to the Metcalf station, the big X of a crossing sign in the centre of frame. Later, he’ll cut from Bruno”s watch, after the killing, to Guy looking at his own watch, fixing the time of the murder and Guy’s potential alibi.

(In counterpoint to this back-and-forth rhythm, Hitch favours long takes in the early scenes, playing a number of them in single sequence shots, which raises no ROPE-style difficulties since he doesn’t make a fetish of it. But there are some beautiful long takes here, marvelously played by Granger in particular, who of course has had practice.)

In fact, Bruno’s plan goes wrong from the start, when Guy can’t establish his whereabouts beyond a doubt. But it’s not a fatal flaw, since the authorities can’t place Guy at the crime scene. This makes the whole story possible. It’s quite ingeniously worked out, although Chandler complained that the story was inane.

“The question I should really like to have answered, although I don’t expect an answer to it in this lifetime, is why in the course of nailing the frame of a film together so much energy and thought are invariably expended, and have to be expended, in exactly this sort of contest between a superficial reasonableness and a fundamental idiocy. Why do film stories always have to have this element of the grotesque? Whose fault is it? Is it anybody’s fault? Or is it something inseparable from the making of motion pictures? Is it the price you pay for making a dream look as if it really happened? I think possibly it is.”

I think possibly it is in the case of Hitchcock…

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Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife (the viciously effective Kasey Rogers) is one of the more DePalmaesque sequences in Hitchcock, depending on a seedy conjunction of sexuality and violence, and upon an exploitation of the audience’s baser instincts. We’ve been led to dislike Rogers. Bruno is a fun character. And his stalking of his prey is mistaken by his prey for sexual interest. Hitch spoke often about how, in a suspense sequence, the filmmaker should not have the terrible, threatened thing, actually happen, yet here it does. The implication is that it’s not so terrible. Only Guy and Leo G Carroll, the boring moral voice character, think it is. And Guy is pretty conflicted/compromised.

Of course, Hitchcock is always morally aware, and so even the bravura, baroque reflected murder shot is played with an eye to discretion and a kind of restraint. And the aftermath is a slow come-down, designed to slowly calm the audience from their murder-lust and start them thinking about the consequences of Bruno’s indefensible act.

Czenzi Ormonde, a Ben Hecht assistant, tidied the script up when Chandler departed the project, leaving a bit of a mess behind him, and reports seeing first-hand Hitchcock’s fear of the police. And, like STAGE FRIGHT before it and I CONFESS after, much of the action here is based on an apparently innocent character’s persecution by the authorities. Here, as in the early spy movies, the hero is in fact caught between the police and the real villains, leading to those superbly dreamlike shots: the zoom onto Bruno in the stands at a tennis match, staring fixedly at Guy as everybody else swivels their heads left and right to follow the ball; the little figure standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, who somehow we KNOW is Bruno.

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Maybe my favourite Monument Moment in all Hitchcock.

Pat Hitchcock! Her finest hour, maybe? “He spent six hours trapped in the meat locker with the left leg.” Sharing with dad a fondness for the macabre, Pat’s character is a delicious piece of comic relief, while adding value as a trigger for Bruno’s psychotic breakdowns. The track into ECU on her face, with wurlitzer music fading up and superimposed reflections of a lit cigarette lighter reflected in her glasses is the most outrageous moment in the film.

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Daffy old ladies! There are so many of them in this film — why? Bruno’s mom is deeply pleasurable, of course, but there’s also the lady who effects his introduction to Guy’s party at the tennis pavilion, and Mrs Cunningham, the lady he throttles at the drinks soiree, and the woman in the commandeered car at the end — “How exciting!” This movie is like the Revenge of the Old Dears.

By the way, has anybody seen THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN? This is one of many Hitchcocks to throw up not a straight remake but a kind of echo. I have seen THE DESIGNATED VICTIM, with Pierre Clementi even more flamboyant than Robert Walker in the bad guy role. This Venice-set giallo follows the Highsmith plot all too closely, although it has a humdinger of a plot twist stored up for its ending.

Hitchcock, I surmise, has just seen THE THIRD MAN, because his canted angles, not heavily featured elsewhere in his oeuvre, suddenly come to the fore, and are often associated with doorways — like the one Harry Lime stands in in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic. Dutch tilts continue to feature in I CONFESS, also shot by Robert Burks, whom Hitchcock discovered on this film, and with whom he continued to work until Burks’ untimely death in a fire. The cameraman helps make STRANGERS Hitch’s most noirish film — his b&w work is every bit as beautiful as his later lush Technicolor films for Hitch.

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Now we approach the scene that gave Chandler conniptions. In fact, the problem is solved partly by having Guy and Bruno communicate by letters and a phone call. He hangs up before we can question whether Bruno is convinced or not. Since Guy brings his gun along, the expectation that he may be going to kill Bruno’s father, as planned, is planted. The fact that he’s been so reluctant in the past is enough to make Bruno suspicious. The extraneous element of menace is provided by the Anthony family dog: we find ourselves worrying that Guy will not be able to kill Bruno’s dad. The thing works.

Having incurred Bruno’s wrath by trying to warn the designated victim, Guy sets in motion the events of act 3 (from Bruno’s point of view, it’s Guy who causes everything in the story to happen) where Bruno will try to plant incriminating evidence at the crime scene. Guy must finish his tennis match in record time (perhaps it would have been easier for him to deliberately lose, but that would be dishonest), escape the police, and physically stop the incredibly strong psychopath from leaving his cigarette lighter on Lovers’ Island. A very good set of seemingly impossible problems.

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(Meanwhile — as if that weren’t enough — Hitch throws in the gratuitous / absurd / delightful / wicked suspense sequence where Bruno drops the lighter down a drain and must retrieve it by extending his arm, Mr. Fantastic-style, through the narrow grille and into the bowels of the earth. And we’re shocked to find ourselves rooting for the bastard.)

Hitchcock’s deft touch allows us to know part of Guy’s plan but not all of it, so there’s a perfect balance between surprise and clarity. Pat pulls off her part of the plot with aplomb, lunging for Detective Hennessy’s crotch like a bull at a gate, and Guy is OFF — already incriminating himself by running from the cops. We suspect that his plan doesn’t really extend as far as dealing with Bruno, and every step he takes is adding to the authorities’ suspicions, so it’s an excellent set-up for a climax which, when Hitch started shooting, did not exist.

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In some ways, using the merry-go-round for an action climax is an act of desperation, since the whole thing smacks of that element of the grotesque Chandler complained about. Having Hennessy’s partner shoot the carny in charge is a bit cold-blooded, and anyhow, is this ride fitted with an engine from Lockheed? Do fairground hurdy-gurdies really have the ability to accelerate to 90 mph? I’d like to think so, but I suspect the true answer is “Don’t be silly.”

But the sequence is justifiable on every level other than plausibility. The fairground is a key location already established and the return there is central to the plot. The wurlitzer has played during the first murder, and has been fixed in both Bruno’s and the audience’s minds. And the very public nature of Guy and Bruno’s death-brawl signals the moment when the secrets are dragged from the closet and the truth is outed, so to speak.

Surprising that Hitch jeopardizes all these kids and then never really reassures us that they’re all OK. It seems unlikely that Bruno is the only one hurt. I recall as a kid that the extra I was really worried about was the old Manny Farber lookalike who crawls under the spinning attraction to pull the off lever. I wasn’t alone — Hitchcock himself was in an agony of suspense filming the dangerous stunt.

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The single action of Bruno’s hand opening in death to reveal the lighter is maybe the single neatest narrative wrap-up in Hitchcock’s career, considering the number of things it accomplishes all at once. To return to Chandler’s numerical system, it

(1) Shows Bruno’s death.

(2) Clears Guy.

(3) Forces into the open the secret true story.

(4) By extension, frees Guy to marry.

The inscription “From A to G,” originally meaning “From Anne to Guy”, now stands for “From (Bruno) Anthony to Guy,” as he gets it back (except the police  need it for evidence — well, after all this fuss, we kind of hate that lighter, I bet Guy never wants to see it again).

Isn’t Guy still an accessory after the fact? Aren’t they going to hold him partly to blame for the destruction of a funfair? Is Hennessy’s partner, kicked out of the force for shooting an innocent carny (if such a phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms), going to come gunning after Guy? Find out in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN II: MONORAIL OF MADNESS!

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