Archive for John Russell Taylor

The Pattern is Complete

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2009 by dcairns

Here it is — the end of Hitchcock Year, as far as the films go. What an odyssey it has been. From THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925) to FAMILY PLOT (1976) — exactly fifty-two films in fifty-two years, watched and reviewed by me in fifty-two weeks. And yet I can’t think that Mr Hitchcock’s achievement in making the films is a bit more substantial than my achievement of watching them. And the numbers stack up so nicely one might almost have think he’d planned it.

A lot of facts conspired to make FAMILY PLOT an unlikely film to actually happen. Hitch was unwell. He had arthritis in his knees, which made walking agony, and he was treating the pain with vodka, among other things. His weight, more or less stable since LIFEBOAT (the wonders of Reduce-O!) was ballooning again. He was fitted with a pacemaker, which he delighted in showing to all and sundry (well, the scar and the bulge where it was embedded). I also recall Karen Black saying he showed her that he didn’t have a belly button. Or did I dream this? If true, it suggests that either Hitch was a clone, not of woman born (perhaps in some way explaining his dislike of eggs?) or that he’d had part of his gut taken away. At the time, I assumed this was some kind of primitive tummy-tuck op, but no — it seems more likely that his navel hernia, corrected by surgery around the time of VERTIGO, might have resulted in his buttonless condition. I remember an Oliver Reed interview in which the legendary wild man talked about his belly button turned inside out one day when he was lifting something or someone he shouldn’t have lifted. It hung down his front, a long flesh-tube, and he just left it there. For years. The only inconvenience he said was he couldn’t wear tight tops. But eventually he had it taken away because he was worried it was upstaging his penis.

Yeeuuuuch!

Meanwhile (if we’ve all recovered), Alma’s condition was still more depleted. A stroke around the time of FRENZY had temporarily disabled her. She seems to have had good days and bad days. Hitch had to start cooking for her. He seems to have delayed the end of filming of FRENZY, taking his time over the trailer (the night shots of which show him clearly flagging), perhaps afraid to return home. Although she recovered well enough to join Hitch on location, bringing the dog, a further stroke after FAMILY PLOT was in the can disabled her permanently and affected her mind.

Vincent Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern attracted Hitchcock with its symmetry, the flow of the fake medium and her boyfriend searching for the long-lost nephew, while the nephew is engaged in a kidnapping spree with his girlfriend. Canning’s dark tone and downbeat ending was jettisoned, while Hitch aimed for “a Noel Coward flavour,” aided by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who had scripted NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hitch found Lehman’s demands for plot logic and character beats rather a trial, and shut him out of the production once filming began — but then he returned to him to collaborate on THE SHORT NIGHT, his final, never-filmed, project.

FAMILY PLOT is as light and charming as FRENZY is dark and distasteful. If it lacks the tense moments that make FRENZY ultimately worthwhile, it adds sweetness and charm, making it a far nicer note for Hitch to end on than the sick psycho-thriller. There are two actual loving couples here, a reverse of the universal castration/homicide on display in FRENZY. True, Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern bicker about food and sex and seances, and William Devane pushes Karen Black towards murder, but they are nevertheless good teams, happy together. And death is almost pushed offscreen altogether in this film, unusually for any thriller.

After the pleasingly old-fashioned titles, which could have come from a 1940s movie, and which are blessed with lovely SNOW WHITE witch colour schemes, the opening scene is Hitch’s miniature version of JM Barrie’s MARY ROSE, his pet unmade project. Cathleen Nesbitt, the actress playing the old Mrs Rainbird, had appeared in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, co-written by Alma, back in the 30s, and Hitchcock likely saw her on stage in London in another Barrie play.

Shimmering within their green matte-lines (against his better judgement, Hitch had been talked out of using rear projection), Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris bicker lovably. Everybody warned Hitch that Harris was method and difficult and he wouldn’t like her. He didn’t — he loved her. She found his direction “Brechtian,” which was fine with him, as long as she followed it.  Dern, of course, played a small but key role in MARNIE, and though he didn’t get very close to the Master on that occasion, he’d played several roles in Hitch’s TV show. “I never know what you’re going to do next,” said Hitch, admiringly — as long as Dern stayed within Hitch’s predesigned frame, that was fine.

A word about pre-planning. Bill Krohn tells us that, just this once, after a few days following the storyboards, Hitch threw them aside and improvised his direction. Authorized biographer John Russell Taylor, who was present on location for some of the filming, reports a very orderly shoot with Hitch following his plans as usual. But he does report a couple of additional shots being taken, such as a very effective angle of Harris’s legs dancing in panic as she’s attacked in the garage near the film’s climax. So perhaps the truth is that Hitch followed his plan like a map, making little side-trips as inspirations truck? At any rate, it would be interesting to learn more, perhaps via a direct script/storyboard-to-screen comparison.

In Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, he writes, “Frenzy had a central character for whom love had gone absent; and in the subjective nature of Hitchcock’s films, the whole of London was shown as blighted. The central couple of Family Plot do love each other, and, despite obstacles, they muddle through.”

Furthermore, kidnappers William Devane and Karen Black have a rather successful relationship too, although he’s led her into a life of crime and will eventually persuade her to attempted murder. Black angled for the Barbara Harris part, but was put in her place by Hitch “You are going to be bad in this film,” and she becomes the movie’s one real iconic image in her sunglasses, hat and blond wig, an eye-less, bra-less criminal android. (Truffaut, rather comically, said that Kim Novak’s bra-free look in VERTIGO gave her “an animal quality” — I guess the same could be said for Black, whose tight white sweater is only revealed after she’s stripped off her kidnapper’s drag.

Devane was apparently Hitchcock’s first choice, but Roy Thinnes was cast due to his unavailability. Then, Devane became available and either Thinnes had displeased Hitch or he simply chose to reshoot a few days with his preferred choice. I’m reminded of Bunuel kicking Maria Schneider off THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, and Kurosawa firing his original leading man from RAN (or was it KAGEMUSHA?) — these septuagenarian filmmakers have limited stores of patience.

Devane proves himself a master of what Hitch called “negative acting,” where an expression slowly drains from an actor’s face. Check his grin in this shot:

Hitch’s cinematographer, Leonard South, had been Robert Burks’ operator, so he was around not for his style and talent, but for his competence and the fact that he made Hitchcock feel comfortable. FAMILY PLOT contains virtually no beautiful images, either because Hitchcock winged it or because he’d lost interest in that, or because South wasn’t capable of it. So the movie gets by on sweetness and a little intrigue.

John Williams contributes a nice score, occasionally perhaps too big for the film, but then the film does occasionally need lifting — it too often looks like a piece of Universal TV fodder. Unlike so many Hitchcock thrillers of the past, FAMILY PLOT does not seek to interweave music into its narrative, so that Williams was assigned the job after the film was already shot.

Henry Bumstead, a long-term collaborator, did the production design: a spiral staircase made in plaster added to the cathedral seems like a nod to the fictitious church tower in VERTIGO, and the outside of Devane’s house, reconstructed entirely on the soundstage so Hitch wouldn’t have to brave the cold, is impossible to distinguish from reality.

After the cisterns and toilet paper and full-frontal toilets of NUMBER 17, SECRET AGENT and PSYCHO, it’s nice to see Hitchcock getting up to date with a chemical toilet. Did Lehman add all the toilet banter between Devane and Black to please the smutty-minded Master, or did Hitch simply get fascinated by the practicalities of long-term kidnapping and insist on its inclusion?

(Pause to reflect on Hitchcock’s unmade “documentary” about food, beginning with the livestock and produce entering the city by train, ending with the excreta of the populace departing by sewer…)

Hats off to Katherine Helmond and to Ed Lauter, a most useful bad guy actor, audibly a New Yorker even though the film is set in and around San Francisco. Hitch tried to rob the film of obvious geographic signifiers, for some reason, although those Frisco hills are rather unmistakable. We do know that Hitch had tired of seeing car chases going up and down those hills, in the wake of BULLITT I guess. I wonder if Hitch was responsible for the street sign reading “Bates Ave,” or if he’d have preferred to avoid the reference?

FAMILY PLOT’s plot isn’t actually especially complex, with two procedural yarns — a kidnapping and a missing person search — interwoven loosely so they collide at the end. Character detail along the way is at least as important as narrative: my favourite moment was added by Devane, when he picks a piece of lint off a detective’s jacket, none-too-subtly asserting his mastery of the situation. Dern improvised a couple of lines, notably during the runaway car scene — after they whizz through a pack of Hell’s Angels, he gulps, “I gotta get off this road!” which cracked Hitch up.

While Hitch filmed Dern and Harris’s reaction shots in the studio, all forward-looking POV stuff was shot on location by the second unit. But this sequence was thoroughly planned by Hitch, who knew it needed basically two angles: Dern and Harris, shrieking in terror, and the road, zooming past them. The POV excluded all details of dashboard and windscreen to give an unimpeded view of the rushing road. It’s a classic example of Hitch’s use of the Kuleshov effect: high-speed version.

The car scene in some ways is old-fashioned or tame, compared to the colossal motorway mayhem being dished out elsewhere in the 70s, and the “sexy” banter between the two couples is likewise rather mild, though explicit for a Hitchcock film. But at least it’s in no way embarrassing, unlike the vulgarities of Billy Wilder’s unfortunate BUDDY, BUDDY. By contrast with that regrettable late work, FAMILY PLOT showcases a group of actors who are very comfortable with their roles, their colleagues and their story.

Of all the pleasing things in the film, I think the closing wink is my favourite — what a great way to go out! Of course, it was thought about long and hard. Lehman objected to the idea of Harris having real psychic powers (although the script establishes that she thinks she does, ergo she’s not a real con artist), so an overdubbed line allows her to just possibly overhear Devane telling Black where the diamonds are hidden. The overdub is a dicey moment, especially as he’s seemed reluctant to tell Black his hiding place earlier. But it passes OK. So now the wink seems to mean “I’ve convinced Bruce Dern that I have psychic powers, but me and my chums the audience know it’s all nonsense.” As Ken Mogg suggests, the film’s trailer (and poster) imply a sort of kinship between Harris and Hitch, so it’s really him winking at us.

Sitting halfway down the stairs, Harris resembles a cute little kid, and this return to childhood thing is important to Hitch, who in some ways remained childlike throughout his life. A slave to his appetites and anxieties, demanding to be in control, and playing with Welles’s “biggest toy train set,” he made of his life, as best he could, an extended playtime.

If the Devane overdub wasn’t in place, the meaning of the wink would be altered, but only slightly. Since Harris has apparently always believed in her powers, the ability to locate the diamond shouldn’t be a surprise to her, so she’s really stepping out of character to tell us not to take any of this too seriously. In a single movement of a single eyelid, she’s saying –

“It’s only a movie.”

The System

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The official story is that Hitchcock, under contract to Paramount, somehow felt that he hadn’t given Warner Bros full satisfaction during his time there, and made THE WRONG MAN for them for free as a sort of parting gift. I have a hard time swallowing that. If Hitch worked for nothing, it must have been because he really wanted to make the film, and he made it at Warners because the story, a true crime narrative “torn from the headlines,” was their property. Fortunately, he was able to take his team with him, including Bernard Herrmann and Robert Burks, as well as Vera Miles, whom he had used on TV and was grooming for stardom.

Sidebar — the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Miles, a grim little number called Revenge, also featuring the mighty Ralph Meeker, is a plainly-told little masterpiece of horror, serving as an illustration of the old adage, “He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves.” In both Revenge and THE WRONG MAN, Vera Miles suffers a breakdown, presented in a harrowing but realistic and un-showy fashion. But ultimately Revenge is a yarn, what Hitch called “an old-fashioned plot,” even if it ends in such a dark place that Hitch, appearing at the end to sum up, is forced to drop all his lugubrious jocularity and more or less apologise for subjecting us to this ordeal.

Hitch shot, but did not use, a cameo appearance for THE WRONG MAN, electing instead to introduce it personally, something he had just started doing on TV. But the High Expressionism of Robert Burks opening frame prepares us for a very different kind of Hitch — the shadow that elongates towards us is quite different from the chubby profile on NBC — and this has a more powerful effect than what Hitch is telling us: his lines about this being a very different kind of suspense thriller seem more like a showman’s come-on than adequate warning of the Bressonian blackjack we’re about to get slugged with.

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In THE WRONG MAN, Miles’s depression is triggered by her husband’s arrest for a series of neighbourhood stick-ups (he bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal). Fate conspires to rob him of a demonstrable alibi, and a chain of circumstantial evidence sends him clanking through the machinery of the justice system like an animal on its way to slaughter. The narrative proceeds with the deliberate, chilling pace of a conveyor belt. When Hitch films the police van conveying Fonda to court, it’s under a vast iron bridge, the world cut into mechanical pieces by the shadows of the girders. It suggests prison bars, but even more it calls to mind some vast unfeeling apparatus — and this is the film’s subject.

Fonda’s arrest is notably Kafkaesque: the cops drive him from one neighbourhood store to another, instructing him to enter, alone, walk the length of the store, and then exit. He does so, his perplexity and fear stamping him as suspicious from the moment he appears.

The cops are at once decent, unsensationalized professionals, and immensely cruel. Hitch does not criticize the authorities in anything anyone says, but we notice that Fonda doesn’t get his phone call, isn’t read his rights, and is deliberately thrown off-balance by the detectives, who obviously hope to make him crack. Fonda is such a good citizen that he goes meekly with them from his own doorstep, rather than insisting on telling his wife what’s happened (he hasn’t been formally arrested yet, so there’s nothing official to stop him doing as he pleases).

Hitch apparently found the real-life Manny Balestrero rather undramatic as a character — the man could not express to Hitch what his experiences felt like. I can see how in reality this would have made Balestrero’s plight worse: an inexpressive, emotionally inarticulate man would have had trouble both convincing the cops of his innocence, and reassuring his worried wife. It hardly matters in the movie — Hitch is recreating his own primal scene in its purest form — the terror of inexplicable arrest by the authorities. (Supermodel Jinks Falkenberg and her husband once pranked Hitch by sending a cop to ask for him — never mess with peoples’ phobias! This shit is serious.)

To solve the problem of dramatizing an undramatic man, Hitch worked with semi-regular collaborator Angus MacPhail (perhaps the originator of the term “MacGuffin”) and famed playwright Maxwell Anderson. The low-key but quietly passionate character devised for Fonda suits his performance style perfectly. And Hitch had always wanted to work with Fonda, I think he’s one of the few stars mentioned in Hitch’s 1930s essay, written upon his departure for Hollywood, that he actually got to direct. Gary Cooper and William Powell always eluded him.

bmailFirst arrest: 1929.

We’ve seen the arrest procedure before, in BLACKMAIL. But there, the hero was a cop and the suspect a thuggish career criminal, well-used to imprisonment. In Hitch’s original ending, we would have seen the process repeated with heroine Anny Ondra, which would have been powerful stuff. But being thrown into the strange rituals of confinement and judgement, seeing it through the eyes of our blameless hero (loving husband, brilliant father), with the most insistent use of extreme POV shots in all Hitchcock, that’s something else.

A witness places her hand on Fonda’s shoulder to identify him, and we see the shoulder as if from Fonda’s own eyes.

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As the cops drive Fonda around, we see his POV looking past each of them in turn, left, right, straight ahead, as the free world speeds past, unreachable, outside. Amusingly, this sequence was ripped off with perfect precision by Freddie Francis in THE SKULL: substitute Peter Cushing for Henry Fonda. Of course the effect is different: context is everything in the Hitchcock. The fear we feel (and this film is more genuinely uncomfortable and frightening than anything Hitch had made to date) is all to do with where we are in the story and how we feel about the characters.

In his little cell, Fonda looks around, and we get a succession of banal objects: a wash-basin; the corner of the ceiling — and the simplicity and solidity of everything is hellishly oppressive. Hitch then produces one of his few outright flourishes, a spinning camera that causes Fonda’s head to gyrate giddily about the frame: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

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Some, like official biographer John Russell Taylor, have remarked on the incongruity of Hitch, who declared “Some make slices of life; I make slices of cake,” doing a substantially location-set (the real Stork Club), documentarist piece of social realism. But there’s nothing incongruous about the experience of watching the film, since it all works so well. The few obvious directorial flourishes are well-chosen and are complimented by a wealth of intelligent detail that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the whole thing aims at a psychological effect rather than a social one. If Hitch uses a real place or a convincing replica, he does it not to show us what something looks like, but to inflict upon us the emotional impact of the real thing. And it’s all focussed through the central character, who acts as a kind of lens for Hitch’s personal terror, which is thus beamed into the viewer at concentrated strength.

Balestrero’s job as bull fiddle player motivates the jazz-inflected score, which uses sparse instrumentation to create memorable soundscapes of slow anxiety. As always with Hitch, there’s some kind of motif at work, something woven into the narrative, although here it’s a lot more elusive than the two compositions that play key plot roles in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. When we first see Vera Miles with her husband, she says, “Sometimes I’m so frightened waiting for you to come home at night,” — and this is the first hint we get that she is more than normally insecure. The moment is underscored by a series of soft chimes, played on a triangle, which come out of nowhere and initially suggest a carriage clock or a musical doorbell, something diegetic, but are then joined by the double bass and sax. The chimes return later, only once, when Miles loses her mind and strikes her husband with a hairbrush. She retreats to a distant chair and murmurs, “It’s true, Manny, there is something wrong with me. You’ll have to let them put me somewhere.”

Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting.

The effect is chilling because it happens so utterly on cue and thus suddenly seems mechanical — this happens, so you hear this sound — part of the overall impersonal forces pushing Manny towards imprisonment and destruction.

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Fiona: “Was this film a terrible flop?”

Me: “It sure was.”

Nevertheless it’s profoundly impressive.

As hairy script guru Phil Parker is always saying, injustice is such a powerful event in our lives from childhood on (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be trusted.” ~ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) that it makes a powerful narrative hook. Hitch’s previous nightmare scenarios don’t exploit this as fully as TWM, because in the chase film the unjust suspicions of the authorities are mainly a spur for the character and plot, driving us along to the next situation and preventing the interference of reinforcements. In THE WRONG MAN we get Hitchcock with the mask of entertainer removed, and the story is this: even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night may be crushed by the impersonal forces of the world he lives in.

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When Fonda prays, and the real culprit appears before us and is apprehended by heroic storekeepers (how we cheer these plucky citizens!), Hitch pulls off a remarkable coup, foregrounding his Catholicism via a magnificent lengthy dissolve that literally supplants Fonda’s face with that of the actual stick-up artist (this is Hitch’s most Bergmanesque movie!) It’s presented as a miracle, and the beauty of the transition reinforces that. but, unbearably, when Fonda goes to tell Miles that he’s finally a free man, she’s too sunk in depression for it to mean anything. “I was hoping for a miracle,” admits Fonda, ruefully. He’s already had one.

Mental illness, by the way, is something movies nearly always get wrong, if what you’re looking for is either clinical accuracy or emotional insight. There are valid approaches to any subject that are not realistic ones, but most movies have a hard time being even truthful here, and too often demonize the mentally ill in a way that would be considered unacceptable with any other minority. So I applaud THE WRONG MAN’s portrayal of a mostly quiet, desperate slide into confusion and misery, which feels absolutely authentic and beautifully observed. Hitchcock filmed in a real psychiatric hospital with real staff (a rather nice-looking one) and, although the doctor’s description of Miles’ complaint is overly poetic and general, it’s not the dollar-book Freud of PSYCHO.

THE WRONG MAN is a tough watch — maybe the only Hitchcock film to attain this status through strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s intended to be hard on the viewer. All that stuff about it being Hitchcock’s most Catholic film — possibly true, but not an observation that’s necessary to in some way justify the film’s existence, which it sometimes seems to be used for. All that stuff about the oddness of Hitch doing realism — this is psychological realism. This is pure Hitchcock. And it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

wrong8Mr Right Meets Mr Wrong.

UK buyers: Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

US buyers: TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Suspicion / Strangers on a Train / The Wrong Man / I Confess)

Quote of the Day: The Man Who Wasn’t There

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2009 by dcairns

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“Certainly Hitch had a number of quarrels with Ingrid Bergman, with whom up to then he had got on perfectly. Once she was complaining so violently about the method of working, the long takes and the disappearing scenery, that Hitch, refusing to argue, just walked out of the room while her back was turned and went home, only to discover afterwards that she had kept up her monologue without even noticing his absence for another twenty minutes.”

From John Russell Taylor’s Hitch. Not sure how much I believe this one — Taylor’s source is clearly Hitch himself, who wasn’t there during the key part, so it’s hearsay. I suspect a little exaggeration, either by Hitch or his on-set informant.

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