Archive for Edith Head

“I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by dcairns

As we hear, Hitchcock was already planning THE SHORT NIGHT in 1968 while making TOPAZ. That unmade film was preceded by two others, MARY ROSE, nixed by Universal, after which Hitch made TORN CURTAIN, and KALEIDOSCOPE, AKA FRENZY, which was likewise vetoed by Lew Wasserman, leading to the production of TOPAZ in its place. But while KALEIDOSCOPE would have been an experiment in modern film-making techniques, heavily inspired by Antonioni, whose work had impressed Hitchcock enormously, TOPAZ turned into a much more conventional thriller, somewhat influenced by mainstream European cinema, but by no means revolutionary.

Wasserman had objected to the graphic nudity and bloodshed Hitch seemed to be planning for his serial killer movie, and although Leon Uris also had some sex and violence in his doorstop of a political thriller, he seemed a safer bet for Universal, who didn’t want to jeopardize the successful Hitchcock “brand.” In the event, TOPAZ would be a costly flop, and it’s hard to imagine a sexy, gory psycho-thriller from Hitchcock failing in 1969. A case of the major studios lagging behind the times. A case also of Hitchcock not fighting for his artistic freedom, partly because his enemy in this case was a good friend.

I like the idea of Hitchcock as the leading man here, morosely doing his duty without passion or enthusiasm, but in fact the character who seems most like Hitch is Philippe Noiret’s spy — he has Hitch’s heavy lower lip and watery eyes, and his crutch hints at the arthritis which was starting to give the director trouble. His death, a defenestration artfully staged to look like suicide, recalls the time when Alma was ill after the production of VERTIGO, when Hitch talked openly of ending it all. His daughter Pat opened the hotel window and left the room — an odd thing to do, but she was quite clear that this was necessary to convince him to leave thoughts of suicide behind. It seems to have worked.

The cameo — Hitch is wheeled on, then springs to his feet. Unfortunately, as director, it feels more like he trots onto the set, then collapses into a coma.

TOPAZ is such a film maudit that it’s naturally tempting to find things to like about it, which I find easy to do, but I should say up-front that it is indeed an unsuccessful film, in terms of script, casting, and style. Carrying on the ambition of TORN CURTAIN to produce a “realistic Bond,” Hitch runs up against his own counter-realistic vision, struggles with the convoluted source novel, and was basically defeated by lack of time — lack of time to adapt the novel properly, to cast, and for his crew to design the film around his requirements. Designer Henry Bumstead got high blood pressure trying to keep up with the production’s demands, and Edith Head had to costume stars who often had only been cast a couple of days before they were to appear.

Ah, that cast! Hitch was often inspired by his leads in the writing process, and certainly found it useful to know who they would be, which proved impossible here. John Forsythe is absolutely welcome back, but instead of being surrounded by kooks as he was in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, he’s here surrounded with knitwear models. The TV episode I Saw the Whole Thing which Forsythe starred in shows how he’s not really suited to sustaining interest in a void (which is no slam: very few actors could have made TOPAZ more compelling).

Frederick Stafford, our real lead, is more of a problem. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s simply boring in a boring part. If Hitchcock had been able to get a young French Cary Grant, he would have been fine, but obviously such a thing wasn’t going to happen. They don’t make them. If he’d cast a really interesting French actor who didn’t fit his conception of the part, things might also have been fine — an actor with intriguing qualities would have brought something to the thinly-written role. But Hitchcock always liked to fill a pre-conceived outline with a matching actor, which is achievable if you have a large talent pool to draw from. If you don’t, it’s far better to abandon your plans and go with what works.

Stafford is the worst of all possible worlds, because he isn’t interesting and isn’t French. He’s a decent enough actor, but ability is secondary to intrigue. He doesn’t intrigue. And he’s German. His role isn’t a particularly hard one to play: all it needed, really, was a Frenchman. With the bland impression he tends to create, Stafford’s looks count against him.

Playing opposite Stafford is Dany Robin, who seems as dull as him, but isn’t — watch how she comes to life whenever she has someone else to act with. Poor Fred does inestimable damage to this film just by being in it, just by standing there and eating up screen space which could more profitably be granted to wallpaper or sky.

Everyone else is basically a cameo, given the story’s globe-trotting action (essentially the secret backstory of the Cuban missile crisis, and a French spy ring reporting to Moscow). Some of the cameos are interesting (John Vernon and Karin Dor), some are actually fascinating (Roscoe Lee Browne), but none are around long enough to hurt or help the film too much. Of course, everybody plays the wrong nationality: German Dor and Canadian Vernon play Cubans, Browne plays Martinican, the very Swedish Per-Axel Arosenius plays a defecting Russian (I feel I should say “defective”)…  And the weakest stuff is at the end, where everybody’s French. French actors acting with each other in English shouldn’t present a colossal problem, as long as they all speak good English. If they don’t, one starts to wonder: why don’t they just speak French? And then one thinks, ah, they are speaking French, it’s just being decoded by the cinematic BabelFish Translator. So why are some better at it than others? The whole artifice crumbles.

Here, Dany Robin is less fluent than her husband, and while the lovely Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are always welcome, their scenes tend to sound a little uncertain. It gives everything a quality of awkwardness.

But, there are virtues throughout: after the disappointing stock footage titles, buoyed up by Maurice Jarre’s score (which sounds exactly as a Euro-thriller ought to sound), there’s a terrific crane shot at the Russian embassy. A slight nervous tremor makes this shot seem impossibly difficult, as I imagine it was. Cameraman Jack Hildyard, who’d worked for David Lean on his last British shoots, had been doing big international films for years now, and does a good job with TOPAZ — but Hitch never found another Robert Burks.

Arosenius, though ethnically miscast, does a fine job with the Russian ambassador, and Samuel Taylor, who scripted VERTIGO, manages a pleasing character touch for Forsythe when he has him order new stockings for the ambassador’s daughter after she tears them during the defection.

The plane touches down in Washington — seemingly shot at 16 fps — ground crew scurry about like Keystone Kops. Why was this shot used? The flaw is trivial, but easily corrected simply by deleting the unnecessary, rote airport establishing shot.

We’re already in trouble, and it thickens — such is the convoluted narrative that everything seems to take a long time, and things are set up which don’t seem to be necessary: they pay off two hours later, but by then you’re bored. It’s really a sophisticated and clever piece of plotting, disguised perfectly as a bloated and tedious one.

Another Hitchcock character who draws (see also: BLACKMAIL, REBECCA, VERTIGO — people either draw or they don’t, and since Hitchcock did, he was always keen to feature his half of humanity in his films, it seems), Stafford’s son-in-law, Michel Subor (the narrator of JULES ET JIM), leads us to Roscoe Lee Browne, who fascinates me. I wanted a film about this character. Alternatively, I couldn’t see why his action couldn’t have been given to Stafford, who hasn’t had anything interesting to do. But Stafford is so dull, I’m glad Browne gets the job.

Although much of TOPAZ looks flat and studio-airless, like a TV movie (seeing it in widescreen does help) the recreated hotel exterior is an impressive build (the real place where the Cuban UN delegates stayed and parties had been demolished) and Hitch’s filming of much of the action with a long lens makes this his most convincing faux-documentary moment. In the 70s, telephoto shots like this would almost become a cliché, but Hitch is somewhat ahead of the game for 1969. Perhaps the European influence.

Top-secret meeting in the loo with John Vernon’s male secretary. Later, Stafford will find hidden evidence in a book in an aeroplane lavatory. Toilets are very important to Hitchcock, almost as vital as food. Maybe some Freudian should write a thesis on this.

After a genuinely tense sequence where Browne photographs stolen Cuban documents (the filmmakers’ portrayal of the Cuban delegates as drunken near-savages, while rather crude, does enhance the sense of jeopardy), he leaps from a fire escape into an awning, a dodge last used by George Sanders in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT — another character who rather usurped the hero’s role.

Roscoe Lee Browne is utterly cool, but not in an obvious, “urban” or “secret agent” way. He is, after all, a florist. But the way he eludes pursuit by ducking into the back of his shop, donning a hat, and finishing the preparation of a funeral wreath — that’s suave. I guess the whole reason his character is necessary is because Stafford can’t run into John Vernon at this point, but does Vernon really need to be here? Still, given a choice between Browne and Stafford having screen time, we can count ourselves lucky the better man won.

Off to Cuba, where again Stafford won’t do anything exciting, leaving the work and risks to his agents. His single tense moment, departing through customs, happens offscreen. Defenders of the film may argue that it’s unusual and therefor interesting to have a hero who delegates all the exciting jobs, but I would respond by quoting ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon: “many things are interesting. Not many things are dramatic.” Clichés become clichés often because they’re useful dramatically — it’s no trick to avoid a cliché and provide a dull alternative, the skill lies in dodging both the obvious and the unsatisfying.

Cuba lacks any character as interesting as Browne (maybe he fascinates so because we learn so little about him) so it more or less drifts past me, enlivened by some bravura moments — the Pieta (above) and the death of Karin Dor (a former Bond girl playing a character loosely based on Castro’s daughter, but the fact that she dies shows just how far the filmmakers are willing to depart from the established facts, even if TOPAZ was really SAPPHIRE and most of the incidents have real-life counterparts). Asides from these highlights — and Dor’s purple dress spreading on the tiled floor like a pool of blood (pulled by five stagehands with monofilament wires) is truly a coup de theatre — we mainly get different ways of concealing cameras in food: two of Hitchcock’s favourite things, presented in surreal conjunction. It seems like Stafford should have discovered the secret film strips not in a book, but in a biscuit, just for the sake of symmetry.

If Cuba was a little dull and misshapen, France seems even more listless, although at last we start to feel loose characters like Stafford’s son-in-law, and even his wife, have some real reason for being in the film. (If, as some have suggested, Stafford represents Hitchcock, a European working for the Americans, pulling off a thankless mission that takes him around the world — a married man with one married daughter — a political realist with a naive belief in justice and honesty, caught up in a dirty business, then casting a quirky character actor would surely have been better than this plywood Cary Grant, and would have served as an alibi for the fact that he never does anything heroic. And even if Stafford is in some ways Hitch-like, it’s Forsythe who has an assistant named Peggy, a nice homage to Hitch’s faithful Peggy Robertson.) And now we come to the romantic triangle — Stafford’s lover being safely dead, we can focus on Michel Piccoli as the head of Topaz and his covert relationship with Dany Robin. Romantic triangles go way back in Hitchcock (THE LODGER, THE MANXMAN, BLACKMAIL), although we are unable to find any definite autobiographical reason why they seem to obsess him so.

The narrative is nicely woven to allow Robin to recognize her lover as the ringleader, but doesn’t seem to unfold in an interesting way. Uris and Taylor have been technically skillful, but nobody’s looking out for real sources of dramatic tension, it seems. And then come the three endings. It’s a shame the stadium duel isn’t attached to the most widely available and complete version of the film, but only included as an extra — I’d far rather watch the film through and at least get rewarded with a climax of sorts for my trouble, even if again Stafford is cheated of the chance to be an action hero. The airport ending satisfied Hitchcock’s sense that big spies never really get punished, but it feels very hollow and unconvincing when Stafford smiles back at Piccoli. Why would he? But I like the line “Anyhow, that’s the end of Topaz,” because it reminds me of “The Trouble with Harry is Over.” The only truly putrid ending is the one cobbled together from stray odds and ends. Samuel Taylor, who suggested it, had a decent idea, but it can’t be executed by hauling out off-cuts from elsewhere in the movie, by freeze-framing on a door, by slinging newspapers around. And earlier in the film Hitch has attempted to prepare for this sequence by inserting a few headlines, including one bizarre superimposed newspaper…

Maybe Stafford should have said, “That’s the end of Topaz, thank Christ!” since that’s how the viewer is apt to feel after two and a half hours. And yet, study of the film is far more interesting than casual viewing of it, making it a nice illustration of the auteurist principle that a bad film by Hitchcock is more rewarding of study than a good film by just about anybody else.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by dcairns

Thanks to Comrade K for drawing my attention to the above.

“Reading from top to bottom…”

REAR WINDOW is maybe the Hitchcock film I love most. I saw it at the cinema on its 80s rerelease when I guess I was a teenager. Reaching this point in Hitchcock Year feels like a turning point. Hitch begins his deal at Paramount, where he basically worked for the rest of his career, with side-trips to MGM and Universal and Warners. He begins working with John Michael Hayes as screenwriter, the last regular writer Hitch would have (after Elliot Stannard, Charles Bennett, Ben Hecht, and of course Alma). He resumes working with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Robert Burks shoots, Franz Waxman scores, and George Tomasini joins the team as editor. It feels like a seminal moment.

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The story derives from Cornell Woolrich’s short story It Had to be Murder. Woolrich himself had a bad leg and maybe spent a lot of time looking out the window, like Jimmy Stewart. Three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, by various directors, derive from Woolrich stories, and Hitchcock himself directed a TV play, Four O’Clock, based on another Woolrich source. Woolrich was a lousy prose stylist, whose delirious fictions sometimes reach a kind of addled poetry where his vices become virtues and he looks like a good writer reflected in a funhouse mirror. Even when that doesn’t happen, he’s a lot of fun, and creates heaps of suspense. Like Hitchcock, he doesn’t always seem to care about logic or plausibility — Woolrich actually maybe doesn’t know what such things are — but he is attuned to nightmare. I’d love to film Rendezvous in Black, in which a girl on a street corner is randomly killed by a beer bottle slung from an aeroplane, and her traumatized boyfriend goes on a revenge spree, tracking down the men who were on that plane (rented for a drunken hunting trip) and killing the person each of them loves most… “A nutty kind of a book,” as Jean Harlow might say.

In John Michael Hayes’ hands, the story of It Had to be Murder becomes more sophisticated, with a cast of New York window inhabitants, each with their own little narratives, and the central character is more developed via his relationships with Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey. Reading from top to bottom –

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“Who are you?”

Grace Kelly gets that great, dreamlike entrance, with the Edith Head fashions and strange step-printed kiss (Hitchcock tries to explain how it’s done in the Truffaut interview, but makes no sense: “Those are little pulsations I give the camera…”) Note how the Gershwinesque city, less salubrious than in ROPE but with the same sodium-orange sunset, participates in her introduction, a little car horn parp sounding distantly after each of her names. “Lisa…” Peep! “Carol…” Toot! “Fremont.” Meep! (The last so quiet I may be imagining it.)

Lisa is a real woman who only seems like a dream, which is her big problem with James Stewart’s LB Jeffries. He can’t imagine this dream will last, he has to spoil the relationship before it evaporates on him. Screwy, but plausible. My teenaged self was fascinated by all this. I think I also grasped that all Jeff’s reasoning was specious and basically he was afraid of commitment. When you have Thelma Ritter to explain these things, all is clear.

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Ritter is of course wonderful — it was probably years before I saw her in anything else, but what a career she had. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (“Anyway I tried,”) A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (“Soup’s on!”), even Leisen’s THE MATING SEASON (“Eventually a snapped and hit her. With a banana.” — a funny line that’s approximately 10,000 times funnier the way she says it) and all this not despite her walnut face, raspy voice, plebeian demeanor, but triumphantly because of it.

Wendell Corey would be the weak link in any film except that here we don’t really need to like him. He’s a good actor, when he doesn’t sound like a slowed-down tape of a drunk man hanging by his ankles, but he exudes a kind of anti-charisma. It’s a bit like the legendary minus factor — when an actor has this, they become much sought-after, because you can bring them into any scene that’s in danger of becoming too exciting. It’s always a shock to find Corey in a leading man role, as it would be if you turned on your TV one night and found Barbara Stanwyck co-starring with a wardrobe. I don’t mean he’s wooden. I just mean he’s square, hollow, stiff, creaky and reverberant. He works perfectly here.

“Here lie the broken bones of LB Jeffries.”

The opening sequence, displaying “Hitchcock’s dollhouse,” is a beaut, cramming in so much visual and aural exposition (location, time of year, temperature, hero’s name, profession, cause of accident…) that it becomes positively funny. As a teenaged viewer I assumed the woman on the magazine cover was Grace Kelly, but she’s not. She is wearing a black top slightly like Grace’s though, so I assume she’s a sort of surrogate. And Stewart has framed a negative image of the portrait, suggesting his negative feelings about the relationship, and maybe about this kind of fashion photography. The society lady/action photographer romance was apparently suggested by Ingrid Bergman’s fling with Robert Capa.

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“…rear window ethics…”

Hayes’ dialogue not only surpasses what Woolrich might have produced, but Hayes created all the supporting characters, a considerable embellishment of the original yarn. This movie is pretty much a Swiss watch, with multiple narrative uses made of Stewart’s profession, an unhurried development of the story, with convincing reversals and character development cunningly woven into the central crime plot. The biggest cheat is probably the question of how and why Lars Thorwald, our murderer next door, buried his wife’s head in the garden without being spotted.

For those who prefer VERTIGO and other more mysterious Hitchcocks, there are one or two unresolved mysteries in REAR WINDOW to test our negative capabilities. Thorwald’s mistress is a shadowy figure — to what extent is she in on the crime? What is the attraction the paunchy killer holds for her? And why did Thorwald kill his wife anyway? True, he wasn’t happy with her, and he might not have been able to divorce her, but he didn’t have to live with her, did he? Maybe he did. His little world starts to look awfully grim.

“…the hundred knives you’ve probably owned in your life…”

But I don’t find this movie, with its voyeur hero and dismembered victim, excessively morbid. On my first viewing, I remember being transported to this foreign world of 1950s New York, meeting these rather appealing people, and being blown away by the juggling of the central storyline with the subsidiary characters in all those windows. I liked how they all had their own stories.

I also struggled to see how the film consisted only of Stewart’s POV and his reactions, as several critics remarked. Although the camera stays in the apartment with Stewart until he falls out the window, apart from a couple of God’s-eye high angles when the dog is found dead, and all the shots of the courtyard seem as if they could legitimately be from Stewart’s POV, it isn’t all POV / reaction within the apartment. There’s a very nice high angle view when Stewart writes the sinister letter to Thorwald, for instance. Hitchcock restrains himself, but not THAT much.

He also moves the camera independently of Stewart’s consciousness, as at the start, when we prowl around Stewart’s room as he snoozes. This kind of overt cine-narration drops off markedly in the main body of the film, as we come closer to Stewart’s consciousness, returning at the end, when Stewart is asleep again, completing the film’s loop-like structure.

(I seem to recall that Stewart ends more films unconscious than one would expect for a leading man — he never recovers consciousness to discover his victory in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. But now I can’t think of any other examples.)

The scene where Grace boldly investigates the killer’s apartment taught me a whole new sensation of suspense. I was emotionally quite caught up with Grace’s loveliness, so I felt protective, and also the film seems to amp up the tension by using Stewart as a mirror of the audience — the helpless viewer unable to intervene.

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A little radio play — screenwriter Hayes was from radio — as Thorwald mounts the stairs to Stewart’s apartment, and Stewart listens in the dark. Something very frightening about suddenly having this man in the same room with us, instead of separated by all that comfortable space. As one of my students remarked at a screening: “Shit!” Raymond Burr does a very good job subduing his Raymond Burrness (his principle quality as an actor).

Defenestration! Having set up the suspense idea of Stewart going out the window (the way this movie uses and re-uses all the narrative elements — flashbulbs for self-defense, window as murder weapon — is extraordinary and worthy of the imitation it’s inspired) Hitchcock isn’t expected to have it actually happen. But he does. Stewart isn’t very lucky with heights in Hitchcock’s films. The cleverness of the construction is that the thing that seems to preclude a happy ending — chucking the hero from a great height — actually inspires it, leading to the fine joke of the happy man with the two plaster casts.

The plunge itself looks to me like a nifty John P Fulton (THE INVISIBLE MAN) special effect — he did the helicopter and the flashbulb retinal afterimages — but I’ve heard accounts suggesting it’s an exponential zoom with the camera shooting straight up in the air while zooming in on Stewart. Looking at it again I’m convinced it’s a matte shot, a pretty good one that works partly because it takes us by surprise. The window ledge in the foreground, which wobbles very slightly in relation to the ground below, suggests that there’s more than one optical layer here.

“I don’t want any part of it!”

Perhaps the tightness of REAR WINDOW provoked a reaction in Hitchcock, since he began preparing his next production while still shooting this one — the location-set, apparently loose and freewheeling TO CATCH A THIEF would exercise a different set of directorial muscles than those deployed to machine-tool REAR WINDOW.

Hitchcock 14 Disc Box Set – Vertigo/ The Birds/ Rear Window/ Marnie/ Frenzy/ Topaz/ The Trouble With Harry/ Torn Curtain/ Psycho/ Family Plot/ Saboteur/ Shadow Of A Doubt/ Man Who Knew Too Much/ Rope [DVD]

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