Archive for Hitchcock

Hitchpod

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.

Photogenics

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.”

“Wh-?”

“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.”