Archive for Hitchcock

Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

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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.