Archive for Bernard Herrmann

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 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.