Archive for Hitchcock

Don’t Look at the Camera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Since I’ve been writing about those moments when characters can’t quite help but look at the machinery observing them, and by so doing make eye contact with the audience, documentarist Harry Watt’s memoir Don’t Look At the Camera fairly leapt off the shelf at me in Edinburgh University Library.

It was a short loan, so I just skimmed — school days, NIGHT MAIL and a surprise entry on Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN.

Schooldays at Edinburgh Academy — I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that Watt was an Edinburgh man. He talks about being both sporty and academically bright, and says he joined the rugby players in their unmerciful bullying of the swots. This struck me as in bad taste. Not only is he saying he was a bully at school, he’s proudly admitting it as an adult. I award extra points to anyone confessing and repenting childhood misdeeds. If the tone isn’t repentant, I think silence is best. British public school graduates should stay as quiet about their bullying as they usually are about their homosexual experiences. In fact, if our Tory leaders were more frank about those, some social good might be done.

NIGHT MAIL — Harry wants us to know that he directed the damn thing, though thanks to John Grierson (another mean Scotsman) the credits don’t say so. But he gives Cavalcanti fair credit for his revolutionary editing and sound design (revolutionary for Britain anyway) and says he doesn’t remember who thought of getting W.H. Auden to write a poetic commentary, but it wasn’t him. So the best aspects of the film aren’t his idea, but he did preside over them.

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And then it turns out that H.W. had a brief turn as assistant director for Hitchcock and producer Erich Pommer. I’ll let him tell the tale in his own words. It’s funny, and then finally rather melancholic, and it’s probably useful to bear in mind that Watt is a bully and a dick, by his own confession (well, he doesn’t come right out and say “I’m a dick,” but he boasts of having been a bully which amounts to the same thing) and that he was a fairly unsuccessful director of fiction films for Ealing. His description of his own directing technique makes him sound pretty hopeless, if you’ve ever done it. If you haven’t, it sounds like he’s doing every reasonable thing a director could do to get a performance, which is obviously how he viewed it…

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When I got on the set it all seemed easy. Nice set, good bunch of boys, pretty young actress. I do remember being irritated because she kept eating buttered toast, which dribbled and spoilt her make-up, but, what the hell, it was only one shot. I showed Maureen the hole in the wall, checked she knew the scene and what was supposed to be happening next door, and tried a rehearsal. She ambled up to the crack, stuck a huge violet eye against it, uttered the sort of squeak a girl makes when she’s been goosed at a party, and disappeared from the frame in the wrong direction. I wasn’t too discouraged. I had spent years handling amateurs, so I gave her a little chat, and tried again. It was worse! Now it was up to me to show what I could do. I gave her the works–that the man there next door, hanging by his neck, was the man whose touch she thrilled to, in whose arms she would lie naked, who would father her children, AND HE WAS CHOKING TO DEATH! I even did a choking act. ‘Right, in you go, kid, and remember, take a moment to realize the whole horror of it. Then, your eyes wide open, you hold the look for, say, two seconds, then you turn your head slowly towards camera, remember, towards camera, as though you are hardly able to grasp what is going on in the next room, and then try and let us see your sudden decision to rush off and get help. But don’t move until you have made that decision. Do you understand that now?’ Maureen understood perfectly, moved up to the hole, and gave an impression of someone watching ‘What the Butler Saw.’ She got the giggles! It was my choking act, she said. I think the camera crew watched carefully to step in before I did it to her.

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I filmed that one goddam shot all afternoon–twenty odd takes, and then rushed off to Pommer: ‘Mr Pommer,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t get a performance out of that O’Hara kid. I know why, mind you, she’s a virgin, and until someone gives her a good roll, she’s got about as much animation as a piece of wet cod. But I’m afraid I’ve let you down.’ Pommer, chewing nervously on an empty cigarette holder, as he always did, agreed with me, but speaking from his experience, cheered me up by saying she was so lovely that people would not worry about her performance.

At the end of the picture, it was discovered that she had been secretly married to an assistant director all the time. So much for my sixth-sense about actors.

There was a most unholy row when Maureen’s marriage became known. The Laughton-Pommer Company, Mayflower Productions, was proposing to go and make films in Hollywood, and one of their major assets was their dewy unspoilt Irish rose, who would no doubt be excellent bait for the financial tycoons. The whole matter was hushed up, and Maureen was shipped off to the States with assurances, I believe, to the boy that he would follow. But time went on, and by now immersed in the process of being groomed as a star, Maureen agreed to a discreet divorce to be arranged. I don’t think they ever saw each other again.

It always happens

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2016 by dcairns

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On a whim — I’m a whimsical fellow — I made a gif of a dummy Kim Novak falling past the mission tower window in VERTIGO.

Stare at it long enough and you will begin to get past the initial amusement. You will see that what is happening is not funny, but terrible.

The shot in the movie itself is bathetic rather than tragic, escaping a Bad Laugh only because it’s part of a powerful montage with good acting and music. What’s wrong with the shot?

I think Hitchcock is up against the fact that figures falling past windows are somehow comic. There’s a whole Monty Python sketch about this, and one also thinks of Charles Durning’s cartoony plunge in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Rigid dummies are also funny, though not as much as floppy ones. Did nobody think of manufacturing a realistically articulated dummy with a degree of stiffness in the joints? The expense of the exercise may have been a factor, but I bet I could knock up a better dummy in a day, if supplied with some mannikin parts and a wig and costume.

Are you actually reading this or have you become hypnotized by the perpetual motion falling Novak?

As often with Hitchcock’s less effective moments, the artificiality is an issue. He’s built a full-sized window and a big bit of background art, more of a cyclorama than a matte painting (we know this because it’s recycled in ONE-EYED JACKS). So there’s no reason I can see why the dummy has to be superimposed, but it appears to have been matted in afterwards. You could actually have placed a trampoline off the bottom of frame and dropped a real Kim Novak into it — it would have been hilarious when she bounced back into view, but George Tomasini would have cut by then. You could rely on George to get things like that right.

(Unlike Frank J. Urioste, who allows us to see a stuntman’s legs waving as he hits a crash mat just out of frame in ROBOCOP, even though he’s supposed to have been flung from a high window. Strange carelessness, in what’s otherwise a superbly cut film.)

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Then there’s the pose. Of all the possible angles of descent, head first seems to me the most potentially comical. Because it shows the ersatz Novak full-figure, in her most recognisable aspect (although we’re not used to seeing her upside down), Hitch may have thought it would be helpful for clarity, since we would only have an instant to recognize the plummeting figure. But I think the context he’s set up would allow him to get away with being less clear, and a less perfect angle would enhance the sense of glimpsed reality. Basically any angle that’s not upskirt would be better.

(See Polanski’s POV shot in ROSEMARY’S BABY of Ruth Gordon on the phone in the bedroom. The cinematographer was astonished that Polanski chose to obscure most of the actor with the door jamb, but that awkward framing is what convinces us we’re seeing something through the eyes of a real-life onlooker who cannot be expected to have a perfect view.)

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Anything else? Well, the dummy (and even in under a second we are in no doubt that it IS a dummy) seems to be falling at a very slight angle. I guess that’s possible if she stood on the edge and pitched forward, or did an Olympic-style dive, but it makes us wonder about things that aren’t relevant to the emotion of the scene.

Still, it’s been voted the best film ever made, so I guess Hitch was doing something right.

 

 

Back-drop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 25, 2016 by dcairns

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You may recall, a couple of days ago when I posted about ONE-EYED JACKS and certain Kubrickian aspects, Paul Clipson, San Francisco-based filmmaker and projectionist, commented that he’d always felt there was some connection between the jail tower set in that film and the mission tower in VERTIGO. Digging deeper, Paul learned that the film’s shared a set decorator, one Sam Comer. I suggested I might run a comparison to see what might be detected.

Paul saved me the trouble, and his instincts proved uncannily accurate!

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The thrifty Comer seems to have recycled the same backdrop view for windows in both towers, using the window frame to mask out inconveniently modern details in the Brando western. Wouldn’t we get a shock if a dummy Kim Novak fell past that window?

Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

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Since both films are set near Monterey, the economy is for once quite reasonable. It’s not like Skull Island standing in for the Everglades in CITIZEN KANE (which NEVER HAPPENED.)

Big thanks to Paul Clipson.