Archive for January 14, 2009

Hitchcock Year, Week 2: The Lodger

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2009 by dcairns

— A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG. I’ve written about this remarkable entrance before.

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Fiona is fascinated by Ivor Novello’s wax hand. Actually, since he moves his fingers a second later, it obviously isn’t actually a wax hand, but it looks like a wax hand, you see, so we call it his wax hand. It makes another appearance in the classic shot where the lodger goes out for his Tuesday night perambulations —

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The white, waxen extremity glides down the banister like Thing from The Addams Family on a helter skelter. It’s the first appearance of an angle Hitchcock would use on several other occasions, always adding something new. Here, the disembodied effect produced by the angle creates an eeriness that heightens the anxiety felt about Novello’s mysterious attic occupant. In VERTIGO, the overhead view is accompanied by Hitch’s famous exponential zoom, making the staircase concertina out in a, well, vertiginous fashion.  And in PSYCHO, the shot allows Hitch to conceal the true nature of Mrs. Bates when Norman carries her down to the fruit cellar.

While one of those shots is purely subjective — James Stewart’s literal POV shot, with a psychological effect distorting it — and one is a piece of objective narrational sleight-of-hand — Hitch keeping Mrs. B. off-camera without hopefully giving the game away, the case of THE LODGER is slightly different. The shot is bracketed by images of landlady Mrs Bunting (lovely name!) sitting up in bed, listening to the lodger’s movements. So we are primed to read the top-shot as her imaginary view of what’s happening, in exactly the same way as we read the celebrated (but disparaged by Hitch) glass ceiling shot, in which Mrs. B. and the other supporting characters imagine Ivor stalking around upstairs, based on the sound of his footsteps and the rattling of the little chandelier.

Naturally, since Mrs. B. already regards the lodger with a fair bit of suspicion, she imagines his exit using the sinister imagery illustrated above. The fact that we start with a view looking up at Ivor leaving his room — a figurative POV taken from the angle of Mrs. Bunting’s bedroom on the floor below, and then go to the high-angle as he descends further, shows how careful Hitch was about creating the impression of subjectivity.

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Ivor Novello keeps the home fire burning, which is perhaps a joke on his status as composer of the song “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” a song whose ubiquity during WWI was such that officer/war poet Siegfried Sassoon vowed to shoot the author dead. Sassoon did later meet Novello, and although he didn’t shoot him, he apparently was rather rude.

THE LODGER is an incredible film. Already in THE PLEASURE GARDEN Hitch shows that he knows how to construct a scene skilfully, but here he’s obviously quite excited by every aspect of his story (the first story he selected himself), and seizes opportunities for creativity, dramatic tension, bravura gestures, psychological and social observation — everything.

The piece is amazingly packed with Hitchcockian tropes, and scenes of sinister discussion and un-aired tensions over the breakfast table, looking forward to BLACKMAIL (“Knife! Knife!”), SHADOW OF A DOUBT, et al. The opening sequence, where news of a murder spreads across the city, features not only the first Hitchcock cameo (motivated purely by a shortage of extras, we’re told), but the kind of procedural detail that fascinated Hitch, even though he’s not thought of primarily as a social documentarist. His fantasy project, the documentation of the movement of food into a city (by cattle-trucks and grocery vans etc) and out again (by the sewers), is pre-echoed by this montage, which follows the reporting of a homicide from crime scene to morning paper.

Let the eagle soar

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2009 by dcairns

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A svelte Hitch shooting THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE on location in Obergurgl.

As we trek through the year and through the oeuvre of Alfred, Lord Hitchcock, this ought to be the week where I view and write about his second feature, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, but wouldn’t you know, someone’s only gone and lost it. (An even earlier Hitchcock, seemingly his first work as director, an unfinished short with the appealing but ill-fated title of NUMBER THIRTEEN, also appears to be lost. Since it’s the only collaboration between Hitchcock and the almighty Ernest Thesiger, it’s loss is a tragic one indeed. The idea of Ernest acting for Alfred fills my mind with champagne bubbles of joy [which can be fatal].)

Since there may well be nobody alive who has seen and remembered the missing MOUNTAIN EAGLE, I was faced with two possibilities — I could research the project, tracing production stills, screenplay and continuity notes, read up on the history of the project* and find out what Hitchcock had to say about it to Truffaut — or I could go to sleep and dream the entire film, on the basis that it’s still, you know, out there somewhere, perhaps detectable by the unconscious mind. You can probably guess what I decided to do.

Since Fiona remembers her dreams much more often than I seem to, I invited her to join the project, reminding her at each bedtime to try and dream THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE. After four nights, all I had was a vague image of bland 90s “folk” singer Tanita Tikaram, which seemed unlikely to connect to the missing Hitch.

But Fiona has succeeded where I failed!

Saturday being a non-work day for us both, we were attempting to sleep in, when at 7.30a.m. I was awakened by a piercing scream. Once I had gotten over the initial shock and racing heartbeat associated with such awakenings, I ascertained that Fiona was awake — barely — unharmed — and the victim of one of her intermittent night terrors. Brilliant — obviously the Master of Suspense had been at work.

Here is the plot of THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, as dreamed by Fiona.

“At the beginning, I dreamed that I flew to America on my own.”

“I thought that maybe I had been hypnotized and sent on a mission. Then I came back.”

“We were in a school.”

“There was a man who was trying to get a bag from me. He said it was the bag I had taken to America. “

“He had either hypnotised me or drugged me, using a bottle of perfume. There was a strange device on the top of it.”

“He said, ‘If you scream I’ll kill you.'”

“But I thought, ‘I have a better chance if I scream.'”

Then she woke up, as did I.

I have just read the plot synopsis of THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE ~

Truffaut: “The story is about a store manager who is after an innocent young schoolteacher. She takes refuge in the mountains. under the protection of a recluse, whom she eventually marries. Is that right?”

Hitchcock: “I’m afraid it is!”

Fiona didn’t know any of this, so I think her dream is pretty convincing (although perhaps contaminated by other films from the master’s canon). The dream does not in every respect coincide with the plot contained in the historical record — but records can be wrong!

*For one thing, it starred Nita “tits-out” Naldi, whose very long fingernails Hitch recalled with a suppressed shudder.