Archive for Bernard Herrmann

Joined at the Hip

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2018 by dcairns

SISTERS (1972) was the first film where Brian De Palma, hitherto a maker of provocative comedy, turned Full Hitchcock. It still feels the freshest of his thrillers, even when it’s secondhand — the PSYCHO playbook must have been open at Brian’s bedside while he was dreaming it up. We also see clearly where BDP differs from the Master — split-screen shots never figured in Hitch’s visual vocabulary, though one robbery sequence in MARNIE seems to hint at the possibilities with a divided frame ~

The tone is also much different — BDP’s feints towards Wagnerian grandeur are largely absent, but his “impish” humour (remember, imps are creepy, stunted, discoloured little guys) is more prominent, and still has an element of satire. (Whereas what is the comedy in RAISING CAIN actually about? Purely self-reflexive, I fear.) So the opening game show sequence — Peeping Toms, a kind of Candid Camera affair where the victims are encouraged to cross ethical boundaries — makes for a funny and weird intro. I especially liked the pan across the audience with the weird guy (De Palma’s pal William Finlay) reading a book in the front row. I’d have liked him even better if he’d just been a pure visual non-sequitur. He is in fact a plot point, and by standing out in a crowd he’s mimicking Bruno at the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The opening establishes Lisle Wilson’s character as a nice guy, since he resists peeping at Margot Kidder, and the TV show serves as a meet cute. Other De Palma films have not been so rigorous in making us care about the people. Wilson, of course, is being set up for the Janet Leigh role in PSYCHO. The charming couple go on a date at the ridiculous African Rooms (waiters in grass skirts with the top halves of tuxedos, piped-in jungle noises, SATIRE!) and she gets sloshed, which combines attractively with the French-Canadian accent she’s affecting. Kidder is so cute here — before she got painfully thin — I don’t know how we didn’t all notice on SUPERMAN that this woman was in some kind of trouble — maybe because she’s so damn good in it we gave her a Karen Carpenter-style pass.

Lisle Wilson went on to appear in the wretched INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, whose poster appears on a wall in BLOW OUT (I think it’s a missed opportunity that the Pennsylvanian exploitation filmmaker in that one isn’t played by George Romero — a man who hated going to the dubbing suite). His niceness may be compromised a bit by the fact that he takes the inebriated Kidder back to her place and sleeps with her — is she too drunk? Or just right? They’re followed by the sinister book-reading man.

(At his Edinburgh Film Fest appearance, some oddball in the audience asked BDP what books he’d read lately, phrasing the question as “You’re obviously an intellectual guy…” BDP rambled on, agreeing, and mentioned a TV series he’d been watching on PBS. So, not a big reader, I guess.)

In the morning, Kidder has an argument with her offscreen twin (and we’ve had a big closeup of the unconvincing and overdone lumpy scar on her hip) and runs out of her mysterious medication. De Palma shows the pills accidentally falling down the plug hole in slomo, another trick he likes far more than Hitchcock — see also Sean Penn’s discarded bullets in CARLITO’S WAY. Lisle goes out to get her more pills and also acquires a birthday cake since he’s learned it’s the twins’ birthday.

“Now I know my ABC…”

AND THEN spoiler alert HE GETS MURDERED. Really great creepy physical performance from Kidder here and she turns chalk-white. The movie’s made-up psychosis, which is apparently triggered because she’s half an hour late with her pills, seems to have aspects of epilepsy thrown in. Also, weirdly reminiscent of Peggy Lynch in THE ALPHABET. White person on bed plus splatter. Raspberry-hued blood, the most unconvincing ever. For some reason, all stabbing victims in this film get it in the upper thigh. Femoral artery — genuinely nasty. Also, Brian is teasing our castration anxieties (see also: DRESSED TO KILL and the Gratuitous Penectomy Conversation).

Then he gets stabbed in the MOUTH, which is fucking horrible, even though the tattered latex prosthetics are completely lousy, not even attempting to look like a knife-wound, just doing what the materials want to do, which is shred and flap. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so unpleasant conceptually and so disfiguring. You feel bad for the guy — not only does he die, he dies wearing unconvincing make-up.

Splitscreen as Lisle crawls to the window and scrawls HELP in his own blood — mirroring the icing on the cake he helped prepare (which totally changes from shot to shot, by the way). He’s seen by intrepid and mildly counterculture journalist Jennifer Salt — later she talks about witnessing the entire murder, which is weirdly not what she sees at all.

Oh, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is excellent, is FREAKING OUT during the murder. It’s like the most extreme sound he ever made. The savagery of PSYCHO but with the delirium of TAXI DRIVER (still unborn). It’s like the composer himself is being traumatised by the New Hollywood. Or like Benny is saying, “Gee, these kids are really amping things up — I better do likewise.” He’s about the only example of a film composer of his generation doing major work with the movie brat generation, and those films otherwise tend to depend on source music, or sound design, or pop songs, or gentler scoring by low-key minimalists like the aptly-named Michael Small. John(ny) Williams noodled around for years doing modest and quirky stuff before connecting to old-school grandeur and oomph with JAWS.

From here on, there is some depletion of interest. We have not only lost the sympathetic Lisle, we’ve kind of lost Kidder, since she now seems to be conniving to conceal her crazy twin’s murderous act — in fact, we are SO far ahead on this… BDP will spend about an hour investigating and expositing what we guessed as soon as we saw the rubbery hip scar and overheard the “conversation” “between” the “sisters.”

In fact, despite the plot’s tacky nonsense-science, there’s a smidgen of truth. I saw a documentary about conjoined twin separation once, in which only one child survived. She was only about three. “She seems to be having some trouble with her identity,” reported a clinician. She was sometimes referring to herself by her sister’s name. She couldn’t work out where her sister had gone, and it was somewhere between a bereavement and a phantom limb. There was a suggestion that, in operating while the kids were so young, the doctors may NOT have acted for the best, but only time would tell.

So the big reveal here, that the “normal” Kidder twin has SPOILER created a psychic substitute, a split personality which keeps her sister alive (EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates, yes) is perhaps not so dumb. Only the film’s treatment of the idea is crass and silly. But kind of entertaining.

For light relief, we get a comedy-relief annoying mom (Mary Davenport), also straight out of Hitchcock, and Charles Durning as a private eye (likewise), who brings a lot more interest to the role than the writing suggests. There’s a big hypno-flashback that’s kind of tacky but amusing but redundant since we already guessed everything, and then a funny, unlikely ending which kind of ties off the plot in an intractable knot. Salt has a hypnotic suggestion implanted which causes her to deny the murder ever happened — so the once-skeptical cop, who now WANTS to listen to her, can’t learn anything. And the dead body of Lisle is sealed up in a folding sofa-bed, impossibly, and shipped to Canada. During follows, waiting to see who collects the couch. And he waits. And waits… anyone who knows about the couch is dead or in custody or brainwashed…

De Palma, in his next production, should include a shot of a skeleton dangling from a telephone pole in order to pay this one off.

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A Train of Death

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2016 by dcairns

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The story is told, by Elmer Bernstein, that he once sent a tape of Sidney Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, figuring Richard Rodney Bennett’s score might appeal to the old guy. (Lumet says in his book Making Movies that this was the one film he made were he really wanted the audience to be aware of the score. Lush, romantic, exotic, period. The dubbing editor had laid an amazing bunch of tracks for the scene where the train starts its fatal journey with pistons and steam and even a TING as the light came on. Lumet threw them all out when he heard the score.

The score made the famously choleric Herrmann apoplectic with rage, “Did the composer not understand,” he asked, “that this was a Train Of Death?”

Bernstein’s point in relating this was that Herrmann, though a genius of film composition, was perhaps a little heavy at times and might take things over-literally. Lumet did not intend his all-star murder mystery to be doom-laden.

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I found myself using the expression “Did the composer not understand-?” while watching IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT, a skillfully made Swiss thriller scripted by Friedrich Durrenmatt. FD later came to believe that the script he’d written was not plausible, and reshaped it as his novel The Pledge: An Elegy for the Detective Story.

In the movie, directed by Ladislao Vajda, a detective (Heinz Ruhmann, usually known for comedies) becomes convinced that the vagrant who hanged himself after confessing to a child murder (Michel Simon) was not actually guilty, and sets out to catch the killer using a forensic profile and live bait.

In the film, this succeeds, but the novel reverses this by throwing in the randomness of real life — the killer never makes it to the trap that’s been set, and the detective goes to his grave never knowing for sure if he was right. It’s an amazing book.

One thing that lets the movie down, despite a strong cast and good noirish visuals, is the score, which is fine to listen to and good and dramatic, but did cause me to utter the time-honoured words “Did the composer not realize-?”

In this case, what’s missing is dramatic irony. The composer — OK, let’s name the poor man, Bruno Canfora, he may still be alive — does good bombast for moments of straight-up shock, but let’s the side down when a more subtle effect is called for.

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Little girl playing in woods.

Looks up and sees Gert Frobe. Gert fucking Frobe. Being a puppeteer magician dude. This is how he grooms kids before killing them.

At sight of Frobe, Canfora lets out a shocking scream, via his orchestra. In principle, it’s effective. It’s playing along with what we know about this perilous situation. But how much creepier to play along with the little girl’s understanding? A strange, mysterious and magical man has suddenly appeared in the forest, and wants to play with her. Treat it like Disney, maestro Canfora, and we will be truly creeped out.

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A similar but opposite blunder — the danger is known and the kid has been safely locked indoors. But she escapes, to go playing. Canfora accompanies her exit with gentle, whimsical playing music. Maybe he would have got away with this if he’d kept to the child’s emotions earlier, but now we expect music of terror. We know this kid is potentially skipping to her demise. You MIGHT, as I say, be able to play this lightly if you’d established a capacity for lightness. But the music doesn’t even bring us into the little girl’s world. It’s sentimental, parental music, that looks at a playing child from a distance and says “Aww.” If we’re not going to be in HER world, we need to be in our own, in which case the music should now be screaming a warning…

The Sunday Intertitle: Things I Read Off the Screen in Blackmail

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Glasgow! With silent film accompanist Jane Gardner, to see BLACKMAIL with live score by Neil Brand, under the baton of Timothy Brock. This was preceded by a special concert of Hitchcock scores — Webb, Rosza, Tiomkin, Waxman and of course Herrmann. It’s quite something to have VERTIGO blasted at you live. As for PSYCHO, a young couple to my left obviously regarded the shower scene as their song: as the violins shrieked, he mimed stabbing her in the back with an invisible knife, to her apparent delight.

Getting there, mind you, was a journey of Hitchcockian suspense — taking the bus to meet Jane we got caught in football traffic (ugh! the worst kind of traffic — even worse than badminton traffic) and arrived late, then scooted off in her Fiat 500, struggling to find a parking spot near the venue and then struggling to find the venue, eventually arrived seconds before the lights dimmed.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did us proud, and there was a surprise treat in the form of a theremin for SPELLBOUND — I wasn’t at all sure such a thing would be provided — there are, after all, entire recordings of the SPELLBOUND score without a theremin — some wretched fiddler taking the part, I guess, I haven’t troubled to listen to such abominations. This was a delight.

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Then BLACKMAIL, which I hadn’t seen since Hitchcock Year, Maestro Brand’s score was thrilling, of course — with many playful references to the musical spirit of Hitchcock to come. The most overt was the extract from Gounod’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme (I know, I know, he didn’t write it for TV) played when Hitch makes his first true guest appearance. I wondered whether such references would distract me,  but in fact, the playfulness was discrete — it must have taken restraint not to turn the scene where artsy rake Cyril Ritchard waits while Anny Ondra changes into something more comfortable into a straight reprise of the similar scene in VERTIGO.

The score, in fact, worked wonderfully, the proof being that despite the visible presence of the orchestra between us and the screen — Brock’s hands would occasionally rise into the bottom of the frame as he signalled a particularly vigorous moment — for much of the show we forgot the music except as part of the enjoyable experience of watching a story unfold on a screen. A smooth artistic synthesis was achieved!

Hitch’s cameo got me noticing how incredibly well handled all the extras are. The small boy who torments Hitch on the underground ends the scene, having been told off, standing on his seat and simply glowering malevolently at Hitch, like a raven from THE BIRDS. He doesn’t realize that Hitch has a short way of disposing of children on public transport. From then on, I was aware that each individual walk-on character, however crowded the scene, had a bit of personal business to distinguish them, and each performed his role perfectly.

I also started noticing writing. Some of what follows was noted during the show, some found afterwords, perusing the DVD.

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Receiving a radio message — “Flying Squad Van 68 — Proceed at once to Cambri” — the rest is unfinished — the van makes a 180 turn into Looking-Glass Land, where all the shop signs run backwards into a kind of cod-Russian cypher. Evidently nobody had shot a background plate traveling in the right direction, so they simply flipped the film. The store Dollond & Aitchison glimpsed here, is also advertised on the London Underground scene later.

Perhaps due to this confusion, when the Sweeney arrive at their destination, it isn’t Cambridge Street or Place or Circus of Terrace, it’s Albert Street. Perhaps close to Eastenders‘ Albert Square? Certainly in the mysterious East. Less salubrious than Hitch’s native Leytonstone.

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A slew of text inside. The criminal is reading The Daily Herald. An ad for Wrigleys in the bottom corner. Another newspaper lies on his desk, bearing his watch and revolver. We can read a headline about MURDER TRIAL and, at the bottom, the words I’VE FOUND IT! — probably another advertisement. Most amusingly, above the bed is a religious motto, GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES. Ironic, since it seems our friend in the nightshirt has been helping himself a little too freely.

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The note Anny has received proposing a secret assignation ~

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Torn from a cocktail menu, it suggests a whole furtive nocturnal backstory. I like the abbreviated slogan “NIPPY” COCK — a partial directorial signature?

Anny’s despondent walk after she’s killed Ritchard is full of printed cues and clues. For one thing, she passes a poster advertising the climactic fight from THE RING, Hitchcock’s previous film, starring Carl Brisson, Anny’s lover from THE MANXMAN. The fight is staged at the Albert Hall, looking forward to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

A neon sign in Piccadilly Circus, advertising Gordon’s Gin “The Heart of a Good Cocktail” dissolves so that a cocktail shaker outline becomes a hand stabbing with a kitchen knife — a ludicrous idea, but bold, and the call-back to the “nippy” cocktails is appreciated.

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IS PRAYER ANSWERED? A significant question in Hitchcock, directly addressed at the film’s climax, when Ondra apparently prays, and her decision to confess her crime is answered with the death of the blackmailer. See also THE WRONG MAN.

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Ondra’s family newsagent yields a plethora of signage! My eyeballs dart like frightened mice, from one corner of the screen to another to try and catch all the little textual nudges. Alice’s first sight of home is viewed through the reverse side of a shop sign, so we get mirrored lettering AGAIN — Alice is through the looking glass! The earlier accident begins to look deliberate. Confirmed when Alice stares at herself in her dressing table mirror just moments later.

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PICTURE SHOW — lower right. Ah, if only Anny had gone to the pictures with John Longden, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The reference may also remind us of the pieces of art in Ritchard’s sex garret, each of which has an accusatory role in the narrative. One is a laughing, pointing jester, the other is a sketch on canvas signed by Ondra.

When we see the phone booth again, from Longden’s POV, that sign has vanished, in the best ROOM 237 manner. On the left of frame is a possible explanation — a MYSTIC ERASER. Just what Anny needs to obliterate the past 24 hours as neatly as she obliterated her incriminating signature from Ritchard’s canvas.

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The booklets and other props around the phone booth will continue to change randomly throughout the scene, an uncanny peekaboo of discontinuity.

Ondra’s dad, Mr. White, is explicitly framed with a halo reading the word WARLOCK. Not sure why. But the shopkeeper dad is obviously a stand-in for Hitch’s own father, with whom he associated his fear of arrest. So although Mr. White is kindly, Hitch makes him a source of anxiety with this supernatural halo of occult lettering.

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Ondra has mentioned Edgar Wallace earlier — now a poster at floor level refers to Sexton Blake, stalwart hero of schlock thrillers, whose exploits had been printed in the Union Jack since 1894. The threat from ‘D’ (no idea who he is), “If Sexton Blake comes to Yorkshire, I’ll get him!”, gives the blackmailer’s first appearance a further underscore of menace.

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And finally ~

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SHAG (middle left). Obviously a reference to another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose favourite pipe tobacco this was.