Archive for March 15, 2009

Paycox

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

paycox

Hitchcock’s cameraman, Jack Cox, seems almost as fond of cameo appearances as the Master himself. In THE MANXMAN his name appears as signatory on a sailors’ petition, and here in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, he’s apparently a partner in the law firm that provides the plot’s, well, “MacGuffin” might be too dismissive a word for it.

Here’s Ronald Neame, quoted in Charlotte Chandler’s It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biography (personal? is there another kind?) ~

“I was just starting out, and I was terribly overeager. Someone sent me to fetch the ‘sky hook,’ which I was told was a terribly valuable piece of equipment. I looked all over until I got to THE FARMER’S WIFE set. A rather plump twenty-seven-year-old director named Alfred Hitchcock was rehearsing the actors.

“For several minutes, I forgot all about the sky hook and watched the great director at work. Then I approached Hitchcock’s cameraman, Jack Cox.

“This kind man said, ‘You have been given a sort of initiation, because the sky-hook is a leg-pull. Why don’t you go back and tell them it was sold last week because it wasn’t being used.’

“Because of that nonexistent sky hook, I was able to watch Hitchcock directing, and I met Jack Cox, with whom I would be working.”

Later, Chandler quotes Roy Ward Baker ~

“Cox was very tall, a man of very few words, with a complete lack of pretense, and a sardonic wit. He didn’t chatter, you know. He just got on with his lighting.”

I suspect most cinematographers are a bit like that. My friend Scott Ward is, even down to being very tall. And Hitchcock wouldn’t be attracted to the “rock star” kind of cinematographer who puts his personal style first. I saw Nestor Almendros talk once, a charming, gentle man, and somebody from the audience asked him if he’d like to have worked with Hitchcock. A strange question, really, but Almendros graciously replied, saying that he’d have loved the chance, and that it could have happened. But I wonder if their styles would have fused or clashed?

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Intertitle of the Week: the living intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Lois Weber’s TOO WISE WIVES features an unusual device — intertitles with live action footage incorporated. Mrs. David Graham (Claire Windsor) sits embroidering as the intertitle assures of her domesticity. It seems like a very good idea, since a common use for the intertitle was to introduce the dramatic personae. In some films, the actor’s name would also be given in parenthesis, making the title cards work as a sort of running credit sequence.

But, since TOO WISE WIVES was made in 1921, and I haven’t seen this approach in other silents, it look like an experiment that didn’t catch on.

(Incidentally, Mr. David Graham is played by Ambassador Trentino himself, Louis Calhern.)

Lois Weber is fascinating because of her mixture of bold experimentation with lapses into woodenness. Her devotion to enlightening the public about social issues makes her the kind of didactic do-gooder modern cinephiles often scorn, but her equal devotion to trying new things (see SUSPENSE, 1913, for a barrage of exciting tricks and first-time techniques) mean she cannot be lightly dismissed.

TOO WISE WIVES features some impressive special effects rooms — the ceilings are paintings, probably on glass, allowing a lighting rig to do its work, unseen ~

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Unfortunately, Weber rests on her laurels somewhat, re-using the same master shots of each room, again and again, at various points in the story. It’s as if the house were fitted out with 1920s CCTV, so that each room has one wide shot and one wide shot only. Fortunately, the closer shots show more variety.

It was from David Mamet that I first heard the dictum “Never repeat composition in a longshot,” and despite not caring much for his movies, I think it’s a very sound argument. By returning to the same set-up, you are saying to the audience, “Nothing has changed since the last time you were here,” and thus, by extension, “You have no reason to be watching.” Sometimes a return to a wide shot at the end of a scene can be justified, if the characters have struggled during the scene and wound up at an impasse, the repeated angle can affirm that. That depends for its effect on a lot of dramatic power shifts within the scene, and is probably overused because it’s economical: if the director has shot a master of the whole scene, the beginning and the end are probably the only times he can get away with using it.

Weber’s problem is doubtless that her master shots, with their special effects, took so long to set up that she couldn’t possibly shoot variations on them for each scene. Also, since the tableau style of shooting has only recently been replaced by the more montage-based approach, directors are still experimenting with what works, on the most basic level.

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Not much seems to be known about this beauty, who rejoices in the name of Mona Lisa.