Archive for Hitchcock

Show Me Nothing

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on February 8, 2021 by dcairns

LE HORLA (1966) is a pretty fine short film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s unique psychic parasite story, probably the first psychic parasite story ever written, unless you know otherwise.

I’ve never seen anything else by Jean-Daniel Pollet but he seems interesting. Great colours in this and Laurent Terzieff is a perfect embodiment of Maupassant’s neurasthenic protagonist. He’s not as eerily skinny in this one so his beauty is more conventional than in later features. Since the original story is in the form of diary entries, Pollet has Terzieff record his impressions into a tape machine, which is a simple but effective way of rendering the thoughts perceptible.

One criticism I would make concerns an early moment where Terzieff’s character is walking in the woods and hears a noise. He turns, but there’s nothing there. The camera stalking him from behind works well, and it then catches his reaction when he turns. But we never see what he’s looking at.

Well, there’s nothing there, so why shoot it?

I would argue that we need to SEE that there’s nothing there. We need to see the nothing. That empty space will be charged with mystery and menace. And when we cut back to Terzieff, his baffled expression with be charged with additional anxiety.

It’s Hitchcock: we feel what the character feels because we SEE what they see and also how they REACT. I’d argue that a really good actor could react to the presence of something in such an evocative way that we barely need to see the something, but no actor is good enough to react to nothing without us benefitting from seeing the nothing.

Weak direction is over-literal, shows us just the actors talking. Strong direction shows us what is dramatic and meaningful, and the performances become more effective when they’re only about 70% of what we see.

Pollet does actually show us lots of unpeopled scenes in this film, so I take my hat off to his empty rowboat.


Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 10, 2020 by dcairns

Fiona and I have been sluggish podcasters this year (my fault), but I couldn’t resist an invitation from Michal Oleszczyk and Sebastian Smoliński to chat about THE 39 STEPS for their Hitchcock podcast, Foreign Correspondents.

A fun evening was had!

The rest of the episodes are here.

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.