Archive for Hitchcock

Essay Time

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2022 by dcairns

Essays by other people. The magical appearance of The Community Bookshop on my nearest main thoroughfare (Great Junction Street) has affected me much as the brief flowering of the All-You-Can Eat Bookshop slightly further away on Ferry Road did — I go in and feel obliged to buy something, and it leads to me picking up things I might not otherwise have tried.

There’s almost never anything worth getting in TCB’s film section, but it has everything else a growing boy needs. I picked up Tom Robbins’ Wild Ducks Flying Backwards, a collection of the novelist’s short writings, and will now be seeking out his longer works. This one, in an ode to Leonard Cohen, produces the finest poetic image I’ve ever read, in a completely throwaway fashion:

“Now, thirty years later, as society staggers towards the millennium, flailing and screeching all the while, like an orangutan with a steak knife in its side […]”

A grisly, hilarious image that imposes itself on the mind’s eye and also still seems like THE image for our times, almost another thirty years on.

Robbins includes panegyrics to Diane Keaton (“a kachina, a wondernik, a jill-o’-lantern”) Jennifer Jason Leigh (“I want to tell you about the Lizard Queen.”), Debra Winger (“She’s walked a tightrope between fire and honey.”) and the films of Alan Rudolph (“Horizontal layers of lust and angst crisscross with vertical layers of wit and beauty.”)

Terrific, terrific.

I’m an unfaithful follower of the wrings of Todd McEwen, who lives in Edinburgh but whom I have never knowingly met. How Not To Be American is a bunch of essays not so much loosely as falsely grouped, though I guess everything in there has something to do with than unwieldy continent. There’s a nice appreciation of HARVEY, in which all the comments apply equally to the film and the source play, but the one that wowed me is Cary Grant’s Suit, which views NORTH BY NORTHWEST from the standpoint of Grant’s grey Madison Ave. attire, once voted the finest suit in film history. McEwen views the suit as a kind of superhero, invulnerable and godlike, and Grant’s heroic quest is to be worthy of it. The suit starts the film empty, with Grant as a vapid streak of hype occupying it undeservingly — by the end he has shown the right stuff and after losing both suit and girl, gets them back in the much-celebrated final scene transition.

Imaginative, funny, and mostly completely CORRECT. He’s not reaching here, about everything he says is accurate and insightful and opens up the movie in fresh ways, even though the movie and the suit have invited a great deal of commentary.

There’s a bit about Godzilla coming up and also a chapter proposing how to film unfilmable books, with suggested cast and crew, eg.

Civilisation and its Discontents 1940 dr. Rene Clair. Fred MacMurray, Greta Garbo, Robert Benchley (as Jung). A timid European doctor is haunted by his own penis.

But I haven’t read those bits yet.

Granta 86, the film edition, is the odd one out, since it came from a charity shop in Stockbridge. They had a stack of Grantas and were selling them at £1 each. I’ll buy almost anything for a quid so I grabbed this one. Some of the literary types weighing in on an alien medium are not as enlightening or amusing as Robbins and McEwen, but Karl French produces a section on Art by Directors, featuring Hitchcock prep sketches, Kurosawa painting-storyboards, Takeshi Kitano’s fun canvases, Mike Figgis’ photographs and sketches, Satyajit Ray’s really gorgeous art in various media, Greenaway abstracts and John Huston paintings and sketches, finishing up with Scorsese’s childish storyboards which don’t really belong in such august company. They’re undoubtedly useful for MS, and so we can be glad of their existence, but it puzzles me that he doesn’t even draw in the right aspect ratio. Never mind the human figures (carefully shaded, blindly staring dwarfs), he can’t draw the right rectangle.

But, as Kurosawa put it, explaining his weakness as a self-pitying golfer, “It is enough for a person to be good at one thing.”

The best article, of those I’ve read, is Atom Egoyan’s Dr. Gonad, documenting the career of Paul Thomas, who played Peter in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, then went on to act in and/or direct over three hundred pornos. it’s an amusing piece, even if most of the hilarity comes from simply naming the films Thomas has been mixed up in. Beautifully structured, too, reminding me that Egoyan used to be quite good at structure.

The piece really calls out for a sequel, though, in which Thomas would consider Egoyan’s equally skew-whiff career (or, as we Scots sometimes say, squee-hook). Whereas Egoyan simply quotes from the Thomas filmography and pseudonyms, and that’s enough to get the laughs, Thomas would have to actually sit through WHERE THE TRUTH LIES and CHLOE. Since I assume he earns a decent living doing what he does, nobody’s likely to be able to pay him enough to consume the Armenian-Canadian eroticist’s oeuvre.

Beck #1: Inspector Kafka Calls

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2022 by dcairns

The first Martin Back novel, Roseanna, came out in 1965 (it’s set the previous year — the novels chart the changes in Swedish society over a decade). The film emerged in 1967. It’s pretty faithful to the story, but has notable differences.

ROSEANNA was directed by Hans Abramson, who also adapted the script. He came from TV, and would go back there just a few years later. A shame, he’s quite deft, stylistically. His movie begins, like CHINATOWN would later, with a series of b&w photographs in extreme close-up, and the images are shuffled before us. This time, though the images show a woman’s naked dead boy on a slab. She’s supposed to have been retrieved from a canal after several days, but of course she looks great. This is pretty near the beginning of the crime show trope of corpse porn, where nude cadavers are lovingly lingered over by the camera. The next example I can think of is Makavejev’s THE TRAGEDY OF/LOVE AFFAIR OF THE SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR, the same year.

Moviemakers have an unfortunate tendency to see the phrase “sex crime” and automatically translate it into “sexy crime.” On the page, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall’s stories are defiantly anti-erotic, with their clinical descriptions of pubic hair, and they’re at pains to point out that their murdered girl did not have appetising breasts. Nothing is glamourised.

I was immediately cheered by the sight of this gloomy Gus, and felt that at any rate Abramson had somehow found a perfect Beck. Our hero constantly has a cold or seasonal illness, is dyspeptic, smokes and drinks coffee too much, doesn’t eat, has no sex life. He’s a walking example of the unhealthiness of the policeman’s lot in the western world.

Unfortunately, this guy, Tor Isedel (what mocking fate named this glum grey accountant type, essentially, Thor?) is playing Gunnar Ahlberg, the local cop who helps Beck. Beck himself is played by the saturnine and suave Keve Hjelm (Zetterling’s NIGHT GAMES). This is all wrong. But he’s a good actor, so it still kind of works. It’s just a shame to make the character sleek like that. Beck in a Van Dyke beard? No no no. And having the right actor for the part standing right beside him the whole time just reminds to. It’s like Bronagh Gallagher having a small part in MARY REILLY beside the woefully miscast Julia Roberts.

Hjelm does eventually get the sniffles, which was good to see. Well, what actor can resist the opportunity to blow his nose in the middle of someone else’s line? (Donald Pleasence, stand up, and put that hanky away. And no, the nasal inhaler is no better.)

In the novel, Roseanna McGraw, homicide-victim-to-be, comes from the American midwest. Abramson evidently wasn’t lured by the fleshpots of Nebraska so he relocates her to Puerto Rico and gets Svensk Filmindustri to pay for his vacation. Maybe he is a cinematic genius.

One person who definitely is is Sven Nykvist, who shot this, in an airy, light, slightly washed-out summer style. A dark story filmed in a bright manner. The novel tells you about the summer, but you don’t feel warmed. The action of the book covers months, and so Sjöwall and Wahlöö get to write passages like “7 January arrived and looked liked 7 January. The streets were full of grey, frozen people without money.”

Now, I’m watching ROSEANNA without subtitles, because the Swedish DVD has none. But chunks of it are in English because Beck has the assistance of American detective Elmer B. Kafka (!), who interviews Roseanna’s lover and former flatmate. The latter is played by Diane Varsi, the film’s most familiar face (to me — PEYTON PLACE, COMPULSION, BLOODY MAMA). The English language scenes are NOT GOOD. The laid-back, informal style of the Swedish dialogue (dunno what they’re saying but it sounds l-b. and i.) yields to hilariously stiff, robotic delivery much like the English-speakers in Japanese movies who I always enjoy. Varsi is actually fine but Michael Tolan as Kafka is one for the ages. Blame the language problem (lack of direction) because he had a long, perfectly successfully acting career and was no just some bozo off the street as the performance would suggest.

Needless to say I enjoyed greatly the ineptitude, which was all the more amusing since it would burst into the film intermittently, with everything else very professional and slick. I also enjoyed the film’s use o/f pseudodocumentary techniques grafted onto the police procedural form and looking like they were made for it: home movie footage, interviews with witnesses that play like movie interviews. Even the soft, reassuring purr of the camera motor, a near-constant presence on the soundtrack, brings a vérité vibe. Also, the most cups I’ve ever seen on a ceiling:

Someone once described my old acquaintance David McKenzie’s YOUNG ADAM as an “existential barge thriller” and at long last I’ve found another film that fits that sub-sub-genre. Oh, I guess Compton Bennett’s beautiful DAYBREAK (1948) is another.

Deciding to cast an angelic, baby-faced young actor as the killer is a nice touch — the book’s psycho seems a little harder. And it makes me think — around this time Hitchcock was planning his own sex killer pic, the never-made KALEIDOSCOPE, which would have borrowed much of its look and technique from European art cinema, notably Antonioni. Hitchcock remarked that it was hard to tackle this kind of story without falling into the convention of the police hiring a girl to act as bait, which is exactly what Beck does in this story. In the book, a chance traffic accident hinders the cops from getting to the scene: professionalism is continually undermined by the ridiculousness of happenstance in the Beck novels. That slightly conventional suspense device is jettisoned here, which is OK, but I feel they deal a blow to authenticity by having their decoy welcome the killer into her bed. Good luck getting a conviction against him after that.

ROSEANNA seems pretty fine, from what I could tell — it makes the shrewd decision to fragment time, as if were being shown a case file in cinematic form, full of stray bits. An early case of Resnais and Godard’s innovations getting pumped into more mainstream cinema. It allows Abramson to unfold a slow story without much looming jeopardy (detectives are rarely in danger in a true story) while keeping things lively and unpredictable. It’s just a shame they didn’t have the nerve to reproduce the book’s most radical elements, the uncharismatic hero and unglamorous victim. Maybe if they had, they’d have gotten a series out of it. That would have to wait…

Martin Beck will return in THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE — soon!

Village Fate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2021 by dcairns

OK, so having watched A WOMAN OF PARIS, it’s not at all clear why it should be called PUBLIC OPINION in Europe. The subject never comes up in the story. Chaplin went through numerous potential titles for the film, and I’m wondering if this was just one of them. I can’t confirm the claim that this was its title abroad.

We begin in a small village, “somewhere in France.” BE MORE SPECIFIC! I yelled.

On my previous viewing, I had perceived the film as beginning with restraint before nosediving into melodrama at the two-thirds mark. But no — it’s a melodrama plot from the start, just one that’s handled with a certain subtlety of narration. That’s my main comment on this film: the plot is a big blowsy melo, but the storytelling is cunningly indirect, delivered via small details.

It begins really well: Chaplin’s shots are unusually expressive, the lighting strong and atmospheric. Each new angle makes a dramatic point. Really good. And some stylish composition-in-depth to allow more than one strand of the story to develop at once, as Miller and Purviance walk away from her home, watched by her father from the window.

And the set design, by one-shot wonder Arthur Stibolt, instead of Chaplin’s usual man, Charles D. Hall, is lovely, including the ergonomic escape route from Edna’s bedroom.

“What’s wrong with these people?” asked Fiona, after meeting the second unpleasant father. I guess the answer is, They’re in a melodrama. It’s a little inelegant, the need for TWO censorious dads, and the need for one of them to drop dead at an inconvenient moment. And we’re never told why they object so strongly to the love affair between Edna Purviance and Carl Miller. My objection is that it’s a bit boring.

The smoking pipe on the floor leads to the dramatic reveal, which is told through a reaction shot rather than directly. All this indirection is very Lubitschian, but also can connect to Eisenstein — “the shoe on the floor” he writes of in The Short-Fiction Scenario) and to Hitchcock.

Chaplin gets credit for reversing stereotypes — Edna will become “a woman of fate” — a kept woman. Miller will be seen as weak, mother-dominated, and his mother becomes an oppressive force, telling him he can’t be with Edna as she’s fallen from virtue. None of this seems all that shocking to us, but it has a negative effect on the story’s dramatic interest: Edna struggling to decide between love and luxury isn’t very sympathetic; Miller’s pisspants floundering is alienating; his mom is a prude.

But, despite its depending on stock situations and unexplained hostility, the first act is pretty nifty. The railway station, with its invisible train shown only by the sliding light from its windows, is an impressive image of fate. And Chaplin’s uncredited cameo as a porter is a joy: the careless way he dumps the trunk he’s carrying is made even better by the fact that he never even breaks his hobbled shuffle. Pair it with his cameo in A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG.

TBC