Archive for Hitchcock

Dress to camera

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2020 by dcairns

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2019 by dcairns

Bruce Dern, that god among men, appeared at the Telluride Film Festival with NEBRASKA the year Paul Duane and I were there with NATAN, so I got to hear him talk to Leonard Maltin. Dern likes to talk, so my memory is that Maltin asked about four questions and Brucie filled the ninety minutes with ease.

I’ve never gone into his Hitchcock stories here since I assumed they were readily available in the public realm via Dern’s memoir, Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have. BUT I finally just read the book, which is terrific fun, and the stories I recall aren’t included. So I’m just going to tell them here. I think my memory of them is accurate though of course I can’t vouch for Dern’s. But he seems pretty reliable.

First, Dern reported that on day one of FAMILY PLOT (Hitch’s last movie and his second with Dern), Hitchcock ended the day by thanking his whole crew, individually by name, for their efforts. Sixty people he’d never worked with before. Dern said he’s asked other directors if they thought they could pull off a feat like that, and hadn’t ever gotten a “yes.” He speculated, correctly I think, that Hitch wanted to demonstrate to everyone, aged 76, that he was still sharp.

It’s the other story that’s the real doozy, though. Hitch, said Dern, was approached by Lorraine Gary. You may know her as Sheriff Brody’s wife in JAWS, but she was the real-life wife of Sid Sheinberg Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now the head of his studio, Universal — and Spielberg’s casting of her, twice, seems like a shrewd way to keep the boss on-side, though LG is also an excellent actress, well worth casting purely on merit. Anyway, she’s a woman of influence at this time.

Lorraine Gary says to Hitch, reportedly, something like this: “My friend Mary [not her real name so far as I know] is an actress, and she needs to work once a year to keep her union membership, and she would be just perfect for the role of the bra saleswoman in your film.”

“Out of the question,” says Hitch.

“Oh, but-“

“Out of the question.”

But the day comes to shoot the scene, and on the set is not the actor Hitchcock chose for the part, but Lorraine’s friend Mary.

Hitch makes no comment. He sets up his first shot — we’ll be over Bruce’s shoulder on Mary, then at the end of the scene she’ll leave and Bruce will turn and it’ll end as a single on him.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vlcsnap-2019-09-30-18h41m25s188.png
A bra saleswoman.

Take One. It goes fine. Hitchcock says, “Cut,” and walks up to the camera. Opens it. Unspools the film, exposing it: holds it up to the light.

“Oh dear,” he says to Mary, “It appears you’re not photogenic.”


“Your image does not appear on the celluloid.”

Mary starts crying and leaves, Hitch returns to his director’s chair to await the arrival of the actor he chose (pictured).

Dern had told Hitch that he wanted his chair right next to Hitch’s so he could study the Master of Suspense at work. So he leans over and asks, “What was all that about?”

“What that was about, Bruce, was DON’T FUCK WITH HITCH.”

The Icebox Moment

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 26, 2019 by dcairns

We really liked BORDER — even if you’ve had a big spoiler about what’s going on in it and who the lead character really is, you can enjoy it hugely seeing the revelation built up to, and then there are a load of really nice plot twists after that point too.

But this post will unavoidably contain heavy spoilers. It’s all about the ending. STOP NOW if you think you might like to see this really good Scandi-noir fantasy drama by the writer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

We had what Hitchcock called an Icebox Moment with the film’s conclusion. Hitch said that you can make a film and have the audience in the palm of your hand, then Audience Member #1 goes home and, as he takes a beer from the icebox, asks himself a key plot question he hadn’t thought of during the film’s fast-paced narrative whirl. Something like, say, “But why didn’t they just go to the police?” In between him selecting his beer and getting the cap off, the whole storyline falls apart in his mind, and the next morning at work when someone at the water cooler asks if that film was any good, he says “No, it was stupid.”

Understand me, though — I still think BORDER is really good.


I wanted the fate of the kidnapped human baby to be explained. The kidnapper was caught, but did he have the baby on him or around him, or not? It would be very easy to establish the status of that baby, and it was the main thing we could be expected to care about, to be honest.

The “villain” meets with a fate that would be fatal to most people. And we kind of think, Fair enough, he’s done some very bad things. He’s a damaged individual, you can have some pity for him, but he’s probably best off out of this world for all our sakes. But is he dead?

Earlier in the film we get a hint that he’s very comfortable in water for long periods of time. Clue #1

Clue #2 is that a baby, (not the kidnapped one) is mailed to Tina at the end of the film. The implication seems to be that this is his baby, and so it’s presumably come from him and he’s presumably alive.

The letter with the baby indicates that there are a group of character Tina will now want to seek out. So the letter seems to have come from them, or else he’s with them, which seems the only way to make sense of things. Tina is being invited to join them all. But then, why send her an undocumented baby to look after if they want her to join them in a neighbouring country, since that baby is going to make it very hard for her to travel. In a film that shows her working as a customs officer dealing with smugglers, we can’t be expected to never think of this issue, it’s literally a plot point.

The really big implausibility earlier is when Tina catches a criminal who is trying to smuggle a memory card with images of child porn on it. Which is just crazy, in this modern age. Digital info doesn’t need to be physically carried about to cross borders, and why would you do that when being caught with it would result in a hefty prison sentence? True, many criminals are dumb. But I’ve literally never thought about the best way to smuggle child porn, and these are people who have basically that one thing to think about in their professional lives. By the same logic, though, the filmmakers should have cracked at least some of the issues with the ending, because they had more time to think about it than me.

But, you know, I’m not a plausibilist at heart. It’s a very good film.