Archive for Bernard Herrmann

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 dresing 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 the 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.

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns

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Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.

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In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…

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You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)

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Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.

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As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

Mondo Kane 9: Rosebud

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2013 by dcairns

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The final part of our journey through The Second Greatest Movie Ever Made (pah!).

Paul Stewart’s brief flashback is the only one that dovetails into a substantial new scene, picking up his factotum character Raymond with Thompson on the grand staircase at Xanadu and following them into a sequence detailing the inventory of Kane’s vast collection of objet d’art and general junk. (“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head.”)

“Part of a Scotch castle over there but we haven’t bothered to unwrap it yet.” It’s exciting to think that Xanadu might contain all the sets for all Welles’ future productions. This one would obviously be MACBETH, whose “Scotch castles” always did look somewhat incomplete. The reference to Spanish ceilings could mean MR ARKADIN or DON QUIXOTE…

“I wonder… you put all this stuff together […] What would it spell?” Here, Thompson is hinting towards Borges’ parable, not yet written — “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” Interestingly, Borges disparaged KANE as “a labyrinth without a centre” — yet it seems to have inspired this memorable mini-narrative, with its echo of Kafka’s The Parable of the Law, visualized by Welles in THE TRIAL. (Borges’ claim that KANE owed its cleverness to Sturges THE POWER AND THE GLORY is fatuous, whether Welles had seen the earlier film or,as he claimed, not. The brilliance of KANE stems from the application of its audio-visual, formal qualities to that structural idea. William K. Howard’s direction of TPATG does not approach these qualities. Borges is reviewing KANE as if it were a novel.)

Alan Ladd gets a line! I never really notice him here, and I find him a little bland for my taste. But the perky, bespectacled girl reporter character (Louise Currie, who died September 8th this year) should’ve had her own movie series. Thompson as romantic interest? Perhaps not.

When William Alland, who plays Thompson, took over Universal’s sci-fi monster department in the fifties, he ought to have hired Welles. Those movies should look like TOUCH OF EVIL, not the flatly lit and composed, static things they are. I wondered at this, and thought maybe Alland wouldn’t have wanted to hire his own boss because how would he exercise authority over Welles? But then I learned that Alland named names for the blacklist, so he and the pinko Welles would mutually have wanted to keep away from each other, I guess. And thus we were deprived of Orson’s version of THE MOLE PEOPLE.

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Welles is using camera flashes — often in the form of inserted white frames — to teleport about his big set. The formal ploy of tying the flashes to the edits is a genuinely experimental technique unheard of in ’40s cinema, yet it doesn’t get mentioned much in discussion of the film’s innovations, possibly because, like the abstract snowglobe opening, it didn’t immediately lead to anything. Whereas low angles, noir lighting, overlapping dialogue, atmospheric echoes, etc, were picked up and run with.

The trek through Kane’s collection allows for lovely echoes of previous moments in the movie, as the jigsaws, statues and the trophy from Inquirer employees get to reappear. This narrative replay, a sort of slight return of the opening newsreel, is picked up again by Welles’ closing credits…

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Thompson’s speech, intended as the only moment when he gets to be a real character instead of an audience surrogate (“The embodiment of your desire to see everything,” as Walbrook puts it in LA RONDE) becomes instead a bit of editorializing by Welles and Mankiewicz, both keen to “take the mickey out of” their MacGuffin, Rosebud. By having Thompson claim that Rosebud’s identity wouldn’t have explained Kane, they’re trying to diffuse accusations of what Welles called “dollar-book Freud.” So we can see the sled as the answer to the emptiness in Kane (not in itself, but in the childhood and mother-love he was deprived of) or we can simply see it as a missing piece of a puzzle, still scrambled and incomplete.

“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” ~ Thompson. “What does it matter what you say about people?” ~ Tanya.

In the excellent doc The RKO Story, Ed Asner wanders through the studio scene dock, which incredibly still houses props from the 1940s. Maybe that’s why this last scene always feels like the employees packing up at the end of a studio shoot. A great way to end a movie, with the actors leaving the partially deconstructed set. But there’s more —

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Slow, funeral glide over the array of boxes — see also TOO MUCH JOHNSON, which has a chase through a maze of stacked crates, likewise taken from a high angle. Amazing the visual continuity in that early work with Welles’ later masterpieces. The end of this movement takes us to the heap of “junk,” most of it recognizable as the stuff from Mrs Kane’s boarding house which her son had put in storage. Interesting arrangement of a china doll embraced by a plush toy chimpanzee in the crate at centre here. Next to it is a picture of the adult Kane, presumably kept by his mother, along with all his toys. There’s an image of Agnes Moorehead with Sonny Bupp (young Kane) too.

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“Throw that junk!” orders the unobservant Paul Stewart, uttering the last line of the script. Rosebud seems to be going up in smoke along with several violin cases of unknown provenance.

I think none of us really put a lot of store in what Welles told Barbara Leaming, that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s affectionate term for his mistress Marion Davies’ genitals. As well as being a way of further “taking the mickey” out of the plot gimmick of KANE, this may have been Welles’ rebellion against the movie which had come to define him and must have seemed something of a millstone around his neck. Kind of like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. But where did Welles get the Georgia O’Keefe-style flower-vagina connection from? I didn’t think that one needed explanation, but then just as I was finishing this piece I found an answer anyway ~

I was reading Robert L. Carringer’s essay The Scripts of Citizen Kane and I think I have the answer. Carringer’s source is the biography William Randolph Hearst, American.

“Finally, the strongest of all of Kane’s attachments to mother and youth may also have been inspired by Hearst. One of Hearst’s childhood friends was a neighbor, Katherine Soule´, called “Pussy” by her playmates. She and Hearst often played together in the Hearst walled garden as Phebe Hearst tended her flowers. Miss Soule´ recalled to Mrs. Older: Willie Hearst was conscious of all beauty. When his mother bought new French dishes he pointed out the rose buds to Pussy. One day his head appeared at the top of the fence and excitedly he called, “Pussy, come and see the ‘La France’!” Pussy had never heard of a La France, and so she hastily climbed the ladder to see this new exciting object. “Why,” she exclaimed, “It’s just a rose!”

EXACTLY. It’s just a rose, Orson.

Magnificent Bernard Herrmann music and effects shot as Rosebud comes out the chimney as a death-like black cloud. And Welles repeats a few of his opening shots to pull us out beyond the No Trespassing sign. Welles loved signs.

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The end credits are lovely — MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS improves on them, though. But by bringing his cast on for curtain calls like this, Welles gives the film’s last line to George Coulouris, and who can begrudge him? Note also that it’s a different line reading from the one earlier in the movie.

“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

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