Obergurgl Blues

Mrs Norma Bates making her screen debut in Hitchcock’s THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE.

John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography Hitch is still a damned good source of Hitchcockian insight — if the author was unable to include the more scurrilous or sinister stories that have circulated since Donald Spoto came on the scene, it’s nevertheless rather a relief that he doesn’t feel obliged to trump up some kind of “case against.”

Anyhow, according to JRT, Hitchcock was coming back from a location-scouting trip to the out-of-the-way German Austrian town of Obergurgl (and you can bet I’m going to keep saying “Obergurgl” until somebody laughs), preparing his second film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, when he was attacked by a violent fit of nausea. Using the kind of Freudian detective techniques that would later play a role in SPELLBOUND and MARNIE, Hitch later decided that the attack was caused by a claustrophobic reaction to the German language. Right before the upset struck, Hitchcock recalled wanting to scream “Let me speak English to someone,” since neither his German guides, nor the Obergurglians themselves, spoke a word of English.

Obergurgl does sound like the sort of place where you WOULD be taken ill, leading me to wonder whether place names have some secret influence upon our physical constitutions. Are the people of Liverpool more prone to renal problems (I expect some of them are, but this might be unrelated to the name of their fair city)? Are the residents of Windhoek, Namibia, plagued by excessive flatulence?

No, they’re not.

The second question is whether languages can really cause claustrophobic nausea. I have no trouble believing Hitchcock’s story, but I’m not absolutely certain that claustrophobia is the correct word for what he had. I have a suspicion — or perhaps a prejudice — that German might be the most claustrophobic language, however.

Anyway, STAY TUNED, because although THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE is officially a lost film, this week Shadowplay will attempt a very special reconstruction of this project, allowing you to see, smell and taste Hitchcock’s second  completed film as director in a way you never dreamed possible.

10 Responses to “Obergurgl Blues”

  1. You had me at “Obergurgl”.

  2. Isn’t Obergurgl in Austria?

  3. It is now. Taylor’s book seems to suggest it was in Germany then, but maybe I’m misreading it.

    I think I am — he does say it’s in the Tyrol. The film was a German-British coproduction, is all.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Good luck.

    By the way, Donald Spoto ought to be tarred and feathered for his books on Hitchcock. Taylor’s book might have been hagiographic and not fully accurate but it’s at least not dumb enough to accuse Hitchcock of being as perverse as his characters.

  5. As a theory, it COULD be worth investigating, but it’s not supported by the facts (Hitch had his eccentricities, including an unpleasant side, but he was no psycho), and leads to a rather dumb reading of the films. And Spoto doesn’t understand nearly enough about cinema, as that line about shots, “some only a few seconds long,” reveals — he uses it for the mirror scene in Lady from Shanghai, and i think he might actually use it for the shower scene in Psycho too. This indicates that either he hasn’t watched very carefully at all, or he doesn’t actually understand what a shot IS.

  6. Perhaps Obergurgl is also one of those places like Paris, Texas or Dublin, Texas or Perth, Australia or Glasgow, Kentucky.

  7. Or like Alsace and Lorraine, which changed nationality every time there was a war in Europe. Alsatian William Wyler went from being French to German halfway through childhood.

  8. Actually, it might have been the other way round, or it could even have been French-German-French. It was always a German-speaking town, but the nation it was part of changed.

    So Obergurgl might have been German until after WWII, just possibly.

  9. Obergurgl is a little village in the near, where the 5.000 years old iceman “Ötzi” was found, in the Ötztal Valley in Tirol/Austria. 5 km in south ist the Timmelsjoch, where the state Italy begins. I know it, caus i live in the near. “Mountain eagle” ist also called “the fog”. We think, the film get lost. rasputin

  10. Great to hear from you! It would be nice to invent a connection between Hitchcock and iceman Otzi, but I guess that would be far-fetched. I agree that the film seems to be lost, but maybe a can will turn up frozen in the grasp of a 5000-yr-old iceman…

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