Archive for Eyes Wide Shut

Scottie Ferguson Investigates

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2018 by dcairns

To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to investigate Park Circus’s release of Universal’s new 4K restoration of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, a dazzling sight. Not only does the painstaking work turn back the clock on the wear and tear the film suffered before its previous restoration, but it undoes some of the less thoughtful decisions of that controversial face-lift — gone are the shockingly modern-sounding, ricochet-heavy gunshots from the opening chase scene, replaced with more period-appropriate BLAM-BLAM FX I don’t know if they’re the ones Hitchcock originally used (whereas the Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz job junked all the original FX and added all-new foley, this one was reportedly able to salvage about half the original footsteps, doors, guns, etc).

When Hitch walks by with his horn, and Scottie (James Stewart) turns in at the entrance to visit his shady friend, you can actually read the headlines on the news-stand here. I don’t have the film on Blu-Ray, nor do I own a massive TV or projector, but I’m uncertain anyone ever saw these before. There’s a story along the lines of COMPANY DIRECTOR AND SECRETARY FOUND MURDERED. The secretary might be Marion Crane, from Hitchcock’s next again feature, I guess. The company boss might be Brenda Blaney, director of the marital agency in FRENZY. Fanciful, I know. But the headline sounds a note of warning right before Scottie meets Elster, and the warning includes a company director, a woman, and murder.

That’s the kind of thing that’s so on-the-nose it SHOULD be small, otherwise you get the hilarious LUCKY TO BE ALIVE headline in EYES WIDE SHUT, the dumbest thing I’ve ever read off the screen.

A little over halfway through the film, when Scottie is reduced to wandering the streets (like sad, mad Carlotta in the story), he keeps thinking he sees the departed Madeleine. And he does: even in this giant longshot, in 4K you can see that it’s genuinely Kim Novak coming out of the building and chatting to the doorman. But, after a brief reaction shot of Scottie, the figure appears subtly different — Novak has been replaced by Lee Patrick (associated with another San Francisco detective — she was Sam Spade’s secretary, the estimable Effie, in THE MALTESE FALCON). On my DVD I can kind of see this, but I could never be sure.

(I’m told that the tiny Novak in this shot, hovering above the hedgerow on the right, is also quite identifiable if you have the 2014 Blu-Ray and a biggish screen.)

This substitution trick was first played by Hitch in SABOTAGE, when Sylvia Sidney thinks she sees her slain little brother in the street — cutting quickly, Hitch first shows the boy we know, then replaces him with a stranger. A heartbreaking and uncanny moment in a film Hitch was never really satisfied with. So he replays the effect, multiple times, here.

VERTIGO is constantly mirroring itself — replaying scenes from earlier. Scottie revisits the places he associates with Madeleine, and each time he thinks he sees her, and Hitch pulls the same gag. Returning to Ernie’s, where he first saw Madeleine, he sees her again, and it’s definitely Novak. One reaction-shot later, and she’s been switched for a pod person.

Only in the gallery scene does Hitchcock resist the temptation to slip a Novak in: the young woman studying the Portrait of Carlotta remains stubbornly herself.

But, obedient to the Rule of Three, Hitch has another spectral walk-on by Novak later, AFTER Scottie has met up with Judy, who really is (sort-of) Madeleine ~

Fiona: “Her arms are MASSIVE.” (Not criticising, just impressed.)

Back at Ernie’s, Scottie looks past Judy and sees Madeleine — two Kim Novaks in the same shot. The fact that Hitchcock routinely uses rear projection stops this effects shot seeming that out of the ordinary. But though Scottie clearly registers surprise, I’m not sure I’d ever seen what was surprising him before. If I had, I’d forgotten it, and seeing the film so much sharper made me feel I was seeing it anew. Madeleine, in that familiar grey suit, enters Ernie’s (in the distance, to the left of Judy)

There’s a reaction shot of Scottie — he notices Judy has noticed him looking — and he furtively looks at his plate. Judy looks over her shoulder, and in Scottie’s POV we see that her doppelganger has been replaced by the shiny-faced intruder from the previous Ernie’s manifestation.

So, Scottie, having found Judy, is still satisfied. His subconscious is still seeking Madeleine as she was. And he knows these visions are hallucinatory, he knows he’s still crazy, but he knows he has to act sane and not admit to them…

Maybe I never caught this moment because I was too fascinated by the sight of Novak eating.

And then he starts the creepy makeover thing with Judy. And this time, I formulated a new theory (or so I thought) about what he’s up to. I call it the second murder plot.

You see, according to this theory, Scottie is not just trying to make Judy look just like Madeleine so he can have sex with her and pretend Madeleine’s alive. That’s part of it, the part he can admit to himself but not to her. But I think there’s another scheme, that he can’t even consciously recognize.

In the first half of the film, Scottie, a natural sceptic (a Scot, like the hero of MARY ROSE, Hitch’s unmade ghost story), has become convinced that the dead can possess the living. And the way this happens is when the living first become obsessed by the dead. When Madeleine wears Carlotta’s jewellery, gazes at her portrait, styles her hair with that vertiginous whorl, visits Carlotta’s home and her grave, she gradually gives herself up to Carlotta’s spirit.

So it would make sense that, styling Judy after Madeleine, Scottie is preparing a new body for Madeleine’s spirit to inhabit. Judy, who doesn’t matter to him, can be replaced by the departed loved one, an inversion of Elster’s replacing wife Madeleine with lover Judy (everything in VERTIGO seems to get replaced, repeated, mirror-flipped at some point).

It’s a frightful scheme, perhaps worse than Elster’s. But maybe we’d all do it, if we thought it could work.

NB: Novak is brilliant as Judy. If we study her performance as she walks through the green fog effect, we can see that she’s definitely still Judy as she emerges.

Counter-arguments: if this interpretation is wrong, it’s because of two things. One (1), there isn’t an obvious moment where we can see Scottie hatching this plan. It’s more like a series of increments, with Scottie fixating on Judy’s clothes, then her hair, etc. I would normally expect Hitchcock to crystallise the moment the scheme comes into focus, but here it kind of doesn’t, because Scottie never admits it to himself. Two (2), after the big motel room special effects love scene, Scottie seems content to be with Judy, even though she’s still talking like Judy, evidently hasn’t been taken over by Madeleine’s spirit. He seems content with his makeover. But something hallucinatory/supernatural happened to him in that green fog. Like he thinks Madeleine took over just for the sex (Judy was smart enough to keep her mouth shut) and he can get her back anytime.

And now that I reread my piece from Hitchcock Year, I find that I was onto Scottie’s scheme back then, and that it’s spelled out in the novel. I forget many things. But this one was worth rediscovering and spending some more time on, I think.

 

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Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

The Plot Coagulates

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, this time watching THE BIG SLEEP, I decided to keep notes and try to track the plot. And think about to what extent it makes sense and why the audience seems to not care.

Hawks liked to brag about how the story didn’t make sense and even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who did it, and said that afterwards he never worried about plot. What does that mean, and is it true? Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, Hawks was a big fat liar, happy as long as he was telling a good tale. It’s highly likely the fabled phone call to Chandler never happened, isn’t it? Unless someone can point to Chandler acknowledging it…

It’s perfectly true that what THE BIG SLEEP is nominally about — a bunch of offscreen events and characters — isn’t of much importance to the audience. We do need to understand what Bogart is supposed to be doing, so we can be invested in his success. So that, at the end of the film, if some bad guys are punished and Bogart survives and gets the girl, we’ll be happy even if we’re still scratching some small residual part of our collective head.

Truffaut observed to Hitchcock that a lot of movies have scenes where two characters discuss an absent third, and the audience can’t recall what they’re on about, because we don’t remember names as easily as faces, especially at the movies. David Mamet put it more bluntly, and in all-caps: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” I quoted him on Twitter recently to express some frustration with episode 12 of Twin Peaks. (I know think something interesting and conscious was going on with that episode’s cluster of unseen characters, though I still don’t know what.)

Well, THE BIG SLEEP seems to be entirely composed of crocks of shit, by Mamet’s measure. Yet, rather than being undramatic and expositional, it fulfills Hawks’ credo — it gets some fun out of every scene. We enjoy it so much we don’t mind that we have no idea what’s going on. And since every scene is enjoyable, the wrap-up doesn’t have to give us a super-detailed summary of exactly what happened, since that would be a little dry and boring.

It’s worth distinguishing the scene from the backstory — nearly every scene is about trying to figure out what various offscreen characters did in the past. But the movement of the scene itself involves present tense, onscreen characters, and what they get up to provides the entertainment.

Everything’s clear enough at first: we pay attention when Marlowe is given his briefing by the General, because audiences like to know what the story is about. We’re just as happy to have M brief Bond, or have the RAF officer point at a map with a pointer. Only a small amount of decoration is needed to make such stuff mildly amusing — the General’s extremely characterful dialogue provides that. And we’ve already had amusing encounters with his twisted daughter and his butler. The exposition functions the same way as “Once Upon a Time” in a fairy tale: we don’t care about Snow White’s mother, we barely meet her, but we happily submit to being told about her because it’s the way into the story. Once we’re in, we hope to be intrigued and emotionally involved, but we’ll listen for a while to some raw narrative information as long as the indicators are promising.

The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite favourite thing, the way Bogart SNORTS in reply to Betty’s “My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”), and then the bookshop stuff is fantastic — a prime example of Hawks getting some fun out of it, assisted by Bogart’s camping it up. I wish Humph did an entire film as that character. This all adds up to just about the best first half hour of any forties movie, and then a helpful corpse turns up just when one is needed.

This Buddha head camera must be what Robert Montgomery used to photograph THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

I think we start to lose hope of following the story around the time one body disappears and another turns up. If it had been the same body, we’d feel we were getting somewhere. That and the multitude of blackmailers and chauffeurs, each of whom is mentioned before he appears, causing us to wonder if we’re supposed to know the name. One blackmailer and both chauffeurs never really appear at all, except as corpses. We come to feel that keeping track of who did what to whom before the movie began is about as worthwhile as counting the revolvers Bogie collects during the course of the action.

Good use of Regis Toomey, paralleling the good use of Richard Barthelmess in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: both former leading men whose stardom had faded since the early thirties.

I started scribbling questions as the film went on, and soon had enough to convince me that an audience couldn’t be expected to remember them all and still take in new information, which would be the point at which they’d give up and just trust the movie to sort itself out. Sit back and enjoy it. But I kept with my notes, and was able to tick the questions off as they were eventually answered. Though none of that gave me any particular satisfaction. What’s satisfying is when Bogart gets Canino and Eddie Mars killed, the two men responsible for the only onscreen murder of a character we’ve actually met and can therefore care about — inevitable victim Elisha Cook, Jr.

Oh, I guess we met Brody the blackmailer and saw him get killed, too. But we don’t like him. Funny how the guy who kills him kind of looks like Truffaut, without really looking like Truffaut at all.

A really good pair of heavies, Pete and Sidney. “Is he any good?” asks Bogie, re Sidney. “Sidney? Sidney’s company for Pete,” comes the reply. So Pete’s good, but only when he has Sidney for company. Marvelous.

Marlowe seems to quite enjoy Eddie Mars when he first meets him: I guess the two have a Hawksian respect for one another’s professionalism, but Marlowe becomes sterner once he places the guilt for little Elisha’s killing where it belongs. Still, Mars would probably have won if he didn’t have to rely on idiots to do his bidding, and if there weren’t a bunch of other, random idiots gumming up the works.

John Ridgely is Mars and Bob Steele is Canino — not really star players, but very good here. Impressive how Hawks can raise them to the level required. Ridgely’s timing with Bogart is particularly fine. Manny Farber argued that only the first half of the film is really good, and he has a point, sort of — the immortal stuff is all in that first half hour. But there are really good scenes all through it.

It’s a first-person detective story the way THE MALTESE FALCON mainly is (presenting Archer’s murder from outside Spade’s viewpoint just for dramatic impact), but it’s interesting what use this is to Hawks. He uses it to restrict our knowledge to just what Marlowe knows, making this in theory a “fair-play” detective story. we ought to have the same chance of solving the mystery as Marlowe. But since Hawks doesn’t care if we’re keeping up, does that matter? There’s no Agatha Christie surprise to the outcome, in which bad guy Mars turns out to be the bad guy. Or there is, I guess — Carmen Sternwood started the whole thing by bumping off a chauffeur. Or is that two chauffeurs? I’m looking at my notes but I can’t seem to understand them…

One problem of the “closed narrative” can be the plodding effect of following one character around — it’s certainly part of why I find EYES WIDE SHUT kind of pedestrian, even as I also find it fascinatingly peculiar. Ditto THE NINTH GATE. And yet, every time a scene begins with Bogart coming in a door, my heart soars. Those tend to be the really good scenes in this film.

Hawks observed that you need a really good, interesting star to pull off this kind of tale — which is where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp in boring mode are a problem, I guess. Polanski pulls off the closed narrative approach brilliantly in ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the claustrophobic concentration on Rosemary’s viewpoint also allows a build-up of doubt about her sanity and her the accuracy of her perceptions. None of that here: despite being sleep-deprived throughout, as detectives always seem to be, Bogart always seems to be fresh as a daisy and at the top of his game, even if that face would seem tailor-made for insomnia.

(In THE MALTESE FALCON its Spade’s secretary, Effie, who gets the sleepless night. A brilliant character, Effie, who deserves her own book.)

Of course there’s the earlier edit of this movie, with more exposition and less glamour. Hawks told Bogdanovich he made the film very cheaply because he had a contract that would get him a big share of the profits. Since every Hawks anecdote is about his mastery and victory, he neglects to mention that he was forced to shoot new Betty Bacall scenes, which presumably pushed the costs up substantially…

I’m fascinated by Eddie Mars’ casino, which is full of men in evening dress and men and women dressed as cowboys. Almost Lynchian. Or, better, with its cowboys and drapes, like a Glen Baxter cartoon. Is this an accurate portrayal of a forties casino?

And then the ending, which is perfectly satisfying (as opposed to TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’s which is a sublime grace note — I find it impossible to say why it’s so beautiful — or as opposed to Huston’s KEY LARGO, where the action climax is a disappointing shrug after the intensity of the build-up). But personally, I don’t think the doctors are going to be able to help Carmen Sternwood, who strikes me as probably a psychopath. And I can’t see how the Bogie-Bacall thing really has a future: she’s been lying to him all through the picture. Also, she was doing it to protect her sister, but now that that’s failed, she’s suddenly remarkably happy.

It’s a movie ending, in other words, fine for a movie that embraces its movieness as much as this one. If I had to guess, I’d credit it to Jules Furthman, the most movie-ish of the three credited screenwriters. It has nothing to do with Chandler, nothing much to do with the rest of the movie, but respects the audience’s wish that the two delightfully sparring stars should share a final clinch that promises Happy Ever After. We don’t HAVE to believe it any more than we’re required to believe anything here. We’re all sleeping the big sleep, dreaming the big dream of cinema.