Archive for Charlotte Chandler

The Death of Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by dcairns

Get out your handkerchiefs, this could get pretty emotional. I’m not kidding.

Filming in England again for FRENZY, Hitch remarked, “When I enter the studios — be it in Hollywood or in London — and the heavy doors close behind me, there is no difference. A salt mine is always a salt mine.”

I’m fascinated by this turn of phrase, equating the Master’s life work with a penal sentence, and tying the image of the movie studio to the central image of the police cell, Hitch’s primal scene, harking back to the time he was locked in a cell as a small boy with no idea of when he would be released. I happen to believe that story, which is mentioned by a character in MURDER long before Hitch seems to have told it to the press as a simplistic Freudian explanation of why he was fascinated by crime and suspense.

We shall return to that cell later…

After FAMILY PLOT was completed and had been publicized, Hitch started work on THE SHORT NIGHT a spy thriller he had acquired ten years before. He worked on a treatment with Norman Lloyd for a time, then snubbed him when Lloyd balked at the idea of jumping straight into a screenplay. Hitch tried writing by himself, but he’d always used collaborators, and nothing got done. It must have been lonely and depressing. Then came Ernest Lehman again, despite Hitchcock’s having been rather tired by Lehman on FAMILY PLOT. Work went well, but Lehman resisted a rape-murder scene from Ronald Kirkbride’s source novel, and Hitch decided he needed another writer.

Universal fixed him up with David Freeman, who wrote about the collaboration later in The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the fact that the action played out in England and Finland, they proceeded as if the film would get made: Hitch would simply have a second unit shoot background plates and he’d make the thing in the studio. Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s old agent and now head of Universal, let it be known that Hitch had made a fortune for the studio and if keeping him happy in his declining years cost them a couple of million, it was money well spent.

Hitchcock was arthritic, overweight, had a heart condition and a pacemaker, but the thought of making another film kept him going.

Meanwhile, Alma’s health was in decline: strokes left her disabled and confused. She resented Hitch’s going to work and  leaving her, and some mornings she would spew obscenities at him as he left the house. A stroke can have a disinhibiting effect on language: even little old ladies often say “Fucking hell,” as their first words upon recovering the power of speech. Robert Bolt though this was because the words sound so good, but it’s also due to the internal censor being knocked out of action. Alma Reville’s brain was behaving like Hollywood after the collapse of the Hays Code.

Charlotte Chandler’s “personal biography” of Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie, ends in this unbearably moving fashion:

‘Near the end of his life, Hitchcock said that when he and Alma realized they couldn’t travel anymore, it was then that they really felt old. “We could have traveled,” he said, but it would have been like trying to make movies when you really can’t.

‘Hitchcock was a romantic, as was his wife. They had spoken about just one more trip to the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, perhaps for Christmas, their favourite time to be there to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

‘”Neither of us wanted to disappoint the other,” he said, “by admitting to not believing the possibility existed. Then, Alma and I stopped talking about our next trip to St. Moritz. Each of us had come to understand that it wasn’t a place we wanted to return to, but a time.

‘”The worst thing, you know, is when you cannot go back to a place where you have always been happy,” he said, “because you are afraid that if you go back, you won’t be happy–not because the place has changed, but because you have changed.”

Finally, Hitch called a producer in and asked him to tell Lew Wasserman that THE SHORT NIGHT was off. “I can’t face him.” Within a day, Hitch’s office had been cleared. His staff were resentful that they’d had no warning of their approaching redundancy, but Hitch hadn’t known himself. For a while he still came into the empty office and had his haircut. Then he stopped coming.

Hitchcock went to bed. He refused food. If visitors came, he swore at them and drove them out. Hitchcock, whose brother had committed suicide, willed himself to die. His doctor said later that his system was still basically strong, and he could have gone on a few years, but he didn’t want to. It wasn’t exactly suicide, Hitchcock didn’t do anything to bring about his death. He just avoided doing the things that would keep him alive. If there was no movie, there was no point.

Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for MARY ROSE, perhaps the most fascinating of Hitchcock’s unmade films, ends with a slow pull-back from a remote, magical, and sinister island, with this voice-over, quoted in Bill Krohn’s seminal Hitchcock at Work:

Well, that’s it. Let’s go back home now.

(ironically)

There, of course, it’s raining…

THE CAMERA begins to retreat. The Island grows smaller, smaller.

…as usual. And there’s a naughty boy waiting for punishment and an old villager who had the fatal combination of weak heart and bad temper. He’s waiting to be buried. All the usual, dependable, un-islandy things.

(He sighs deeply.)

You understand.

I think I do. It’s raining back home because it always seems to be raining when we leave a movie, doesn’t it? (Plus, the movie is set in Scotland.) The naughty boy awaiting punishment (in a police cell?) and the old man with the weak heart are both Hitchcock, at opposite ends of his life, aren’t they? (The Tralfamadorians see human beings as long centipedes, with baby legs at one end and old arthritic ones at the other). On the Island That Likes to be Visited, imagination rules. It’s a frightening, mysterious place, and Hitch had the power to go there in his mind and return at will.

Alma lived on for two years, “as happy as a clam,” according to daughter Pat. Although she attended Hitch’s funeral, she had no idea he was gone. “Hitch is in the next room,” she would whisper, confidentially.

I wondered what 2010 would be like now Hitchcock Year is done — odd, not having him around. But Hitchcock is always around when you’re talking about film.

“Hitch is in the next room.”

Best wishes to all Shadowplayers in the New Year!

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Waltz and All

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

‘When I mentioned to Hitchcock that I’d never seen WALTZES FROM VIENNA, he said, “That’s a good girl. Don’t.”‘

~ Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

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It’s tempting to regard WALTZES FROM VIENNA, directed by Hitchcock after his relationship with producer John Maxwell at British International Pictures had gone into a decline. According to John Russell Taylor’s authorised bio, Hitch, Maxwell had passed on a screenplay called Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, which Hitchcock had developed with BLACKMAIL’s original author Charles Bennett, with the words, “It’s a masterpiece of cinematics, dear boy, but I’d rather have the £10,000.” The screenplay would be revamped, losing the familiar character of Drummond, and become THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film which sparked Hitch’s renaissance.

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Meanwhile, the only offer on the table was a musical-comedy life of Strauss the younger, produced by an independent but umbrellaed by the sizable Gaumont-British. Hitch would always dismiss the film in later years, and was heard to vocally denounce it even while it was in production: “I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do,” a remark overheard and recorded by the film’s star, Esmond Knight.

Yet as Charles Barr points out, melodrama is exactly what WFV is, in the literal sense of being a musical drama. It introduces the idea of a musical leitmotif woven into the story (in this case, the writing of The Blue Danube) which became a favourite Hitchcock device, deployed in both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, as well as THE LADY VANISHES and REAR WINDOW, a film which can be viewed as the story of the composition of its own theme song.

In addition to the composition story, there’s romance, with Knight’s Strauss torn between romance with baker’s daughter Jessie Matthews, who wants him to get a straight job, and an affair with countess Fay Compton, who wishes to nurture his talent and also to cheat on her husband. A further layer of complication is added by Strauss’s fraught relationship with his father, Edmund Gwenn, who feels threatened by his son’s talent.

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Cries and Vosper.

Does any of the film work? Yes, any of it does. But certainly not all of it. The early parts of the film attempt Lubitschian comedy, and despite Hitch’s well-known puckish sense of humour, much of this falls flat. Frank Vosper as the cuckolded husband gets the only laughs, with some beautifully timed physical playing. There’s a heaviness to the story and characterisation that tends to crush the attempts at gaiety. Esmond Knight would be blinded in the war and make a heroic come-back as a character player (riding a donkey through a forest in BLACK NARCISSUS, he declined the use of a stunt double: “The donkey doesn’t want to run into a tree any more than I do!”) but he’s not quite a light comedian yet. Jessie Matthews certainly could be, but her contemporary musicals kept her informal, to counterbalance her highly coached vocal delivery. Here, the costumes and pomp seem to stiffen her, and she gets little comedy to play and surprisingly little to sing. Fay Compton, so moving and natural in Welles’s OTHELLO, years later, is somewhat floaty and somnambular as the Countess, who ought to be a bit flightier, one would have thought.

The pleasure of the film is in little flourishes concocted by Hitchcock, like the naive but fun scene where Strauss conceives his waltz by watching the work in a bakery, and a couple of bold jump-cuts:

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In this one, Hitch achieves an impossible rack-focus into a close-up on the fleeing Jessie Matthews, by the expedient of cutting sharply from blurred to focused.

In another scene change, Hitch tracks in on a rolled-up score clutched by one character, then cuts directly to an identically composed shot of a matching score held in the same way by someone else — then he tracks back, mirroring the earlier track in.

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Hitchcock was without his usual cinematographer, John Cox, on this movie, which may have added to his sense of alienation from the project. Cox wouldn’t return to the fold until THE LADY VANISHES, but Hitch would soon forge a productive collaboration with cameraman Bernard Knowles.

My favourite moment was the ending, which is not intended as a glib dig: I genuinely like the ending. After a rousing performance of his new composition (Hitch’s low-budget version is like a rough sketch for Duvivier’s delirious THE GREAT WALTZ, with both filmmakers cutting to the beat to create visual music), Strauss’s personal problems are wrapped up with a certain amount of effort and contrivance, but Hitchcock leaves the oedipal drama unresolved until the last moment.

Strauss the elder walks disconsolately through the beergarden, scene of his son’s triumph, as the lights are turned out one by one around him. A little girl asks for his autograph. He signs it, “Strauss”, then calls her back and amends it. “Strauss Snr.” He walks on, reconciled to his place, and his son’s place, in history. Not only is it a good piece of Hitchcockian (and Lubitschian) indirect storytelling, it unleashes the wealth of sweetness which Gwenn possesses as an actor, and which his director will not allow him to use fully until THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, twenty years later.

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Paycox

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

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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?