Archive for Alfred Hitchcock

Grabbed by the Balsam

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2022 by dcairns

“I used that in THE EXORCIST. There’s a shot of, uh, well, frankly it’s a shot of a character being grabbed by the scrotum.”

William Friedkin, speaking in PSYCHO extra feature In the Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy, comparing Martin Balsam’s death scene in PSYCHO to a shot in his own shocker. His use of the word “frankly” I find, frankly, hilarious.

But he’s wrong.

This is a passable doc — what’s frustrating is they have people of the calibre of Scorsese, Carpenter, Friedkin, but they have to make room for Eli Roth and the composer of BASIC INSTINCT 2. There’s an assortment of editors and sound designers, and they mainly earn their presence by saying interesting or amusing things.

There’s also a colorized shot from Alfred Hitchcock Presents where they give Hitch a hideously crimson, ready-to-burst head, which looks set momentarily to take flight from his collar and go off to star in an Albert Lamorisse short. Or like somebody’s grabbed him by frankly the scrotum. My photo off the TV screen does not capture the full horror.

Friedkin tells us that he “found out” how Hitchcock filmed Balsam’s topple down the Bates house stairs, and duplicated it by attaching the camera to his scrotum agony man. Which isn’t what Hitch did at all, so I wonder what the “finding out” consisted of.

Hitchcock achieved his shot with rear projection, which most viewers can tell, I think. It looks as if Balsam is attached to the camera because he doesn’t move in relation to it. He’s sitting on a gimbal so he can sway from side to side but nobody seems to have thought of sitting that on a dolly so his distance from the camera can vary. The unreality of the effect is dreamlike, and Friedkin seems to have latched onto this bug and treated it as a feature.

The moving background was shot with what Hitch called “the monorail,” a kind of STAIRLIFT OF TERROR attached to the banister which let the operator slide smoothly down from landing to hallway.

The shot in THE EXORCIST always struck me as a bit of a blunder. It’s the kind of tricksy effect Friedkin normally eschewed in the name of realism. Screenwriter William Peter Blatty stuffed his first draft with fancy effects, and Friedkin tore them all out. A particularly extreme or striking shot should accompany important dramatic moments, I feel. Well, THE EXORCIST is full of traumatic stuff, but it seems to me that a mere ball-crushing, inflicted upon an insignificant character whose testicles play no further role in the story, doesn’t rate this kind of splashy treatment.

The shot goes by really fast, though, so I don’t think it does much harm. I mean, I would say that, they’re not my balls.

Supposing Hitchcock HAD attached a camera to Balsam, though. He’d still have had to devise a way to get his actor to stumble backward downstairs without breaking his neck (or the camera), so he’d still have needed a monorail. But a bigger one. And the resulting movement of the actor would be just as unreal, although I guess he’s have been more IN THE SCENE, instead of the sort of Cocteauesque feeling we get. Which would have been even more of a mismatch for THE EXORCIST, so in a way Friedkin misinterpreting or being misinformed about the PSYCHO shot worked to his benefit.

In the same piece, Scorsese talks about being influenced by the shower scene for the bit in RAGING BULL where Sugar Ray delivers an apocalyptic pounding to Jake LaMotta’s face-bones. And nifty intercutting of the two sequences creates a real sense of connectedness, with many shots appearing like exact analogs of one another. PSYCHO, of course, has no counterpart to the brief shots where DP Michael Chapman attached his camera to Sugar Ray’s arm, so that his boxing glove sits in the foreground, a leathery planetoid, a spherical scrotum agony man locked in position, while Robert DeNiro’s spurting face seems to lunge forward for a violent collision. This kind of FREAK SHOT is, again, a little much, but Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker cut the shots so tight you can’t quite register how odd it is, and it pretty much scuds by as just part of a generalized onslaught. Scorsese had a similar angle in LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, the camera mounted on the arm of the cross as Christ hauls it along, but he didn’t use it. Too wacky. The only comparable angle is the view from the top of the cross as it’s raised into position — which he nicked (honourably) from Nick Ray’s KING OF KINGS.

Of course, LaMotta on the ropes is another Christ-figure, in the classic aeroplane pose.

(In framegrabbing that shot, I realize it’s a very different angle, though with the same crosscam effect, and there’s another shot moments earlier where the camera is attached to a hammer nailing Willem Dafoe or a disposable body double to the crossbeam. Also, arguably, too wacky, but again it’s quick and also we can at least agree that the moment is an important one, worthy of special effort.)

Nothing succeeds

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2021 by dcairns

Finally catching up with Succession which is every bit as good as everyone says. An excellent lesson in how to make a show without sympathetic characters, except damned if I can pin down how they’re doing it. I guess because everyone is focused on achieving things that we can understand, so we can follow the machinations with interest. As Hitchock knew and constantly showed us, watching somebody try to do something is fascinating and involving when we know (a) the goal (b) the stakes and (c) the obstacles. And then it doesn’t necessarily matter if we like them, we at least understand them. The boardroom battle in episode 6 was incredibly tense, even though the character most involved, the one with the clearest goal and the most at stake, is one of the least appealing (great per from Jeremy Strong) though admittedly he does have a rather heartrending central position (needs his father’s respect, will never, not ever, get it).

The only character without a really clear set of wants is, arguably, Brian Cox’s Logan Roy, the show’s Lear, who is basically just futzing around, upsetting people. Maybe he had a sense of direction once in his life, but now it’s just the love of power, making people do things.

Nothing will come of nothing.

The show, at least in these early eps (we’re at S1E06) has an irritating, jerky-zoom style presumably imposed by exec Adam McKay who directed the pilot. It’s a look, I suppose, but not a pleasing one. He tried something similar on THE BIG SHORT. It’s purportedly a cinematic idea, this “look” thing — TV used to all look the same, while movies tried to look distinctive (sort of — there have always been genre norms, and constraints on what was considered “commercial,” though these are fluid over time). I think Hill St. Blues‘ briefings introduced the idea of the unstable camera — use all the reframings! It’ll give it a documentary edge. Except we can tell, I think, when the camera is reframing just to create jitter, as opposed to actually, you know, getting a better framing.

I discussed the Paul Greengrass approach with a producer friend. “He tells the operator to move whenever they feel like it,” I said. He replied, “I think if you asked most operators what they feel like, they would feel like offering up a nice, stable, beautifully-composed shot.”

Through the static, we can still see that Succession is brilliantly written by Jesse Armstrong and team, always brilliantly acted, and often well directed by folks like Adam Arkin and Andrij Parekh. I eagerly await the moment when they realise the crash zooms are stinking the place up and ditch them.

Mitehunter

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2021 by dcairns

Purely by accident we wound up rewatching BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING last night. Which was well worth it — I’d forgotten just how excitingly Otto Preminger melds his two main stylistic tropes here: long takes (enhanced by the ultra-widescreen) and location filming. He somehow manages to cram some kind of a crane inside a tight staircase, he rushes from room to room (but tends to use the passage from indoors to out and vice versa to motivate the few cuts in his sequences).

Poor Carol Lynley has to work very hard to not seem to SEE this busy, nosy intruder with its heap of crew — she’s constantly required to look into, past and THROUGH the lens, giving her an unsettling blind quality. But on the other hand, the long takes and domineering camera eye seem to calm both Laurence Olivier in a major role, and Martita Hunt in a smaller one, and they give perhaps the most restrained and naturalistic performances of their careers. And this was done, we’re told, without Otto’s usual beetroot-faced temper tantrums: Larry let it be known that he didn’t want any shouting, and as long as he was around, there was none.

In the extras, Lynley recalls that Otto found it amusing, when an actor was struggling with nerves, to sidle up behind and scream “RELAAAAX!” in the player’s ear. John Huston recounts this happening to Tom Tryon on the set of THE CARDINAL, but Huston gives no clue that Otto was being humorous. Carol L was in THE CARDINAL too, but I bet Otto gave poor Keir Dullea the same treatment.

BLIM is preposterously crammed with familiar faces from the previous thirty years of British cinema. Finlay Currie turns up for one scene, Megs Jenkins is practically an extra (maybe her nurse is the same character from GREEN FOR DANGER?) and Lucie Mannheim, from THE 39 STEPS (Fiona excitingly noting that she was Conrad Veidt’s first girlfriend) gets a bit.

There’s also the Zombies. Otto had a weird sense of showmanship — turning up in his own trailers, Hitchcock-style, is understandable (although the one for IN HARM’S WAY is inadvertently hilarious, with Otto standing talking to us in the middle of war scenes, apparently invisible to those around him, like Christopher Walken appearing in his own visions in THE DEAD ZONE). He promoted BUNNY with orders that nobody be admitted late, and requests not to reveal the ending, a la PSYCHO. But he does other things that are stranger: here, a pub TV is tuned to a performance by posh sixties beat combo the Zombies, and the film stops for a bit to enjoy the show. And the same song turns up whenever a radio is turned on. Otto and songs is a whole essay in itself: the sung end credits of SKIDOO and strolling troubadour Pete Seeger wandering through TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON… Otto is an artist but also a huckster, but his sales techniques would make Stan Freberg wince. It’s comparable to Jerry Lewis’ use of product placement, which was always so unembarrassed — it was like Jer was PROUD that he could get Colonel Sanders to associate with his movies (the only other filmmaker to woo the Colonel was Jer’s namesake, Herschell Gordon of that ilk).

Paul Glass’s score is very attractive, but behaves oddly too: Lynley’s exploration of a doll repair shop’s spooky basement, lit by oil lamp, should be terrifying, but Glass treats the place as enchanting, a delicate wonderland.

It’s an odd movie, all in all, but effective enough as thriller and mystery, until the last act, which is a tad unconvincing. A character who’s seemed acceptably normal throughout is revealed as the crazed baddie, and is suddenly completely deranged, a dissociated manchild who can be tempted into children’s games at the drop of a hat. Fiona rightly wondered how he’d held down a responsible job previously.

Impossible to know whether screenwriters John & Penelope Mortimer are to blame for this, or Ira Levin who did some uncredited work on it. Haven’t read Evelyn Piper’s source novel. But I think I recognise the Mortimers’ style in the quirkier details, as when Olivier notes that bus drivers are notoriously unobservant: “They’re philosophers and poets, mostly. Probably out of self-protection.”

While everyone else is mostly underplaying, Noel Coward as a sleazy landlord and BBC personality, seems to be having the time of his life, showing off his chihuahua, his African masks, and his collection of whips.

Well worth seeing — Preminger is almost anti-Hitchcockian in every aspect (despite Hitch’s dalliance with the long take) so it’s fascinating to see him waddling about in the master’s disguise.

BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING stars Heathcliff; Mona and Regina Fermoyle; Dave Bowman; Lady ; Miss Prism; McWhirter and Sheik Abu Tahir; Magwitch; Annabella Smith; The Witch of Capri; Mrs. Alexander; Mrs. Grose; Nervous Man; Ancious O’Toole; Grogan; Antoinette de Montfaucon; ‘Bluebeard’,- Gilles de Rais; Sir Nules Thudd; and the Zombies as themselves.