Archive for L’Age D’Or

The Sunday Intertitle: Strike a Light

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by dcairns

It would be so good to become warm again from the light of a match.

The first Renoir short film I saw, SUR UN AIR DE CHARLESTON (1927), was memorably odd, mingling bizarre and very non-modern comedy (an African character is a blackface actor who dances the Charleston — because black people like jazz) with science fiction — a genre Renoir would not revisit until LE DEJEUNER SUR L’HERBE, with its talk of artificial insemination and “the European presidency” in 1959. CHARLESTON is really peculiar, brilliantly danced, and not exactly offensive, since it’s done with such naivety and affection.

A year later, with another feature film under his belt, Renoir adapted a Hans Andersen story, The Little Match Girl, as LA PETITE MARCHANDE D’ALLUMETTES, and made a masterpiece. While neither of these shorts necessarily evokes the Renoir we get to know later, both show stylistic curiosity of an insatiable kind, a love of performance, and a devotion to crafting beautiful filmic objects, all of which certainly inform the mature JR. This one also seems to enter Andersen’s sentimental concern with the problems of poverty via Chaplin, which seems altogether appropriate and proves extremely effective. And did I mention the beauty of it?

The movie stars Renoir’s wife, and his father’s model, Catherine Hessling, who is unsubtle in just about every way, particularly her makeup, but succeeds because the whole film is built around her excesses. And when the girl, dying in the snow, hallucinates being shrunk down to interact with the dolls in a toyshop, Hessling’s abilities as a dancer really lift the fantasy.

Here’s a bit in motion:

It’s altogether an extraordinary work. Renoir is experimenting, he’s telling a time-honoured story, and the balance of the two things is perfect. Plus a moment where a stray hair from the little match girl’s head gets caught on Death’s tunic, and Death plucks it loose and lets go and the hair becomes entangled on a wooden cross — this seems to be parodied in the last image of Bunuel’s L’AGE D’OR. in fact, both Renoir and Bunuel dissolve from falling objects (petals and feathers) to falling snow, making this film a pretty major influence on Bunuel’s, even though the two films’ purposes could not be more different.

Friends of Carlotta

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2009 by dcairns

THE DESCENT

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“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”

In its final form, VERTIGO doesn’t feel like it could be called anything else, even if the hero’s acrophobia is only an occasional plot point — the film inspires all kinds of dizziness, and is perhaps finally about the fear triggered by standing on the brink of eternity.

But the source novel was called D’entre Des Mortes, (Wikipedia suggests Sueurs Froides: D’entre des Mortes, or Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead) translated into English as The Living and the Dead, which served as the first working title for the movie. Maxwell Anderson produced a draft called DARKLING, I LISTEN, a title which nobody could take seriously. Hitch suggested DOUBLE TROUBLE, as a joke, in a letter to Anderson. When his WRONG MAN co-scenarist Angus MacPhail bowed out of script duties due to alcoholism (sadly, the inventor of the MacGuffin never wrote again), Alec Coppel was hired to write a new draft, titled FROM AMONG THE DEAD, which included the dream sequence much as it appears in the final film, but did not satisfy the demands of Jimmy Stewart for believable characterisation.

Samuel Taylor was hired to solve this issue, producing a draft whimsically named FROM THE DEAD or THERE’LL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU, credited to “Samuel Taylor and Ambrose Bierce.” (Bierce, a great author of ghost stories and supernatural mysteries, longtime resident of San Francisco, vanished off the face of the earth in 1900. Fans of VERTIGO’s warped and death-defying love might like to try his necromance Beyond the Wall.) Taylor’s other joke title was TO LAY A GHOST.

As the film moved into production, Paramount execs started offering up titles: A MATTER OF FACT was suggested by Arthur Kram (what a pathetic title that is!) and Sam Frey drew up a list of seventeen alternatives, including such zingers as TONIGHT IS OURS, POSSESSED BY A STRANGER and THE MAD CARLOTTA. Six titles including the word “face” — FACE IN THE SHADOW was Hitch’s favourite — were thrown out when Warners started making A FACE IN THE CROWD.

Dan Auiler’s otherwise exhaustive Vertigo, The Making of a Hitchcock Classic doesn’t say where the title VERTIGO comes from, but it instantly became Hitch’s choice, and he defended it against stiff studio opposition. Very possibly it was his own idea.

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From the start, Hitchcock seems to have been intent on following the novel’s two-part structure, which translates in the movie into the Madeleine half and the Judy half. The novel sets these sections of story in France before and after World War II, with the doomed romance blossoming amid the misguided confidence of France’s entry into the conflict. After the war comes a truer understanding. This loose mirroring of the personal and the political doesn’t really form part of Hitchcock’s scheme, and he doesn’t seek to establish the events of his story in relation to any real-world equivalent. This probably assists the dreamlike quality of the movie.

The hero of Boileau & Narcejac’s novel, the gloomy, introverted and cowardly Gevigne, clearly needed work to become a Jimmy Stewart character — although by the end of Hitchcock’s film, Stewart has come as close as he ever came to demolishing utterly his nice-guy image. The novel’s protagonist even fails in his role as patsy: hired to stand witness to a fake suicide, he flees the scene and never appears at the inquest, causing a cloud of suspicion to settle on the Gavin Elster character. Hitchcock and Taylor wisely have Stewart play his unwitting part in the murder quite faithfully, getting blamed for Madeleine’s death from sarcastic coroner Henry Jones (whose snide, wheedling performance sparked libel fears among the censors, since the county coroner was a real individual).

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FALLING DOWN

Run the movie!

Enter Saul Bass: the graphic genius brought into movies by Otto Preminger here contributes a truly hypno-romantic dream descent, aided by avant-garde filmmaker John Whitney, who had been working separately on the question of how to animate Lissajou spirals (graphic visualisations of mathematical formulae). The nameless woman in Bass’s opening sequence adds another blurring to the identity of the woman in VERTIGO — Carlotta-Madeleine-Judy are all, in a sense one person. Midge paints herself as Carlotta-Madeleine at one point. Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie, spots several false Madeleines before finding Judy (one of these is Lee Patrick, Effie in THE MALTESE FALCON, another San Francisco detective story about “the stuff dreams are made of). The real Madeleine, glimpsed in the murder flashback, is played by Kim Novak’s stand-in. And the nun at the end is dubbed with Novak’s voice…

Feeling dizzy yet?

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DOUBLE TROUBLE

Gripping stuff! The hand grasping the rung is such a strong opening, and then we’re into an exciting rooftop chase! The process shots in VERTIGO are generally of a very high standard, and there are a hell of a lot of them. Perhaps Hitch’s reputation for sloppy effects shots stems from the fact that quality control is bound to slip somewhere if you do so many effects. Anyhow, this sequence is notably unreal but still effective and convincing, in its unreal way.

James Stewart, as John “Scottie” Ferguson (“A good strong name,” says Kim) slips on a loose slate and dangles. “Give me your hand,” hollers a cop, before plunging to his doom. Do you mind if I don’t? The exponential zoom yawns before us, a miniature alleyway constructed by FX man John Fulton and photographed sideways for ease. (No photographic record — besides that in the film — exists of the miniature alley and church tower interior.)

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This exciting opening is only referred to in the novel by way of memory, but Hitch wisely avoids flashbacking for now, and gets a cracking opening scene out of it, which leaves Scottie cliffhanging over an urban abyss. If anything, it runs the risk of setting too exciting a pace for the film to follow, since this is one of Hitch’s slowest and most floaty films. “We never find out how he gets down,” observe the restoration team in the DVD commentary track. But we do — why does Scottie need a walking stick and a support garment in scene two? Because he’s fallen four storeys shortly after the end of scene one. How come he didn’t die? Maybe Conductor 71 missed him in the fog. (But cinematographer Robert Burks — on top form — doesn’t use a fog filter until we get to the graveyard scene…)

Thinking of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH reminds me of my late friend Lawrie, with whom I last watched this movie. “Oh, I’m sure I’ve seen it at some point,” he said, airily. Either he hadn’t, or he’d forgotten it in the last forty years, because it was all new and wonderful to him. He would shoot glances of amazement at me all through it. “The most interesting thing Hitchcock ever did!” he proclaimed. Lawrie did like his hyperbole, but he’s not actually wrong.

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Midge is Samuel Taylor’s invention, and one we can be grateful for. She grounds the movie, without totally earthing it and letting the energy escape. Apart from her scenes, it’s surprising how closely the action of the first half mirrors that of the book. Even Madeleine’s grey suit is there. Barbara Bel Geddes, who also acted for Hitch in Lamb to the Slaughter, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode based on a Roald Dahl story, gives the film added humanity. The other masterstroke is Jimmy Stewart, who is Mr Credible. Oddly, the script insists they were at college together, except he’s 50 and she’s 36. The cantilever bra on her drawing board is described as the invention of “an aircraft engineer” — a Howard Hughes reference? Recall that BBG played opposite a Hughes surrogate, Robert Ryan as Smith Ohlrig in her other big movie, Max Ophuls’ CAUGHT.

Midge is, I think, the last Hitchcock character who draws. Artists figure obsessively in his work, and often use their drawing and painting to woo, as Midge does later. Think of the sleazy painter in BLACKMAIL, the stick figure courtship in RICH AND STRANGE, or John Forsythe trading his abstracts for a double bed in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. (The painter of those abstracts, John Ferren, also designed VERTIGO’s “Special Sequence.”) And after all, Hitch had used his art to snare Alma, in a way.

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Hitch, perhaps returning his French horn to the Friends of the Evergreen Society?

I enjoy how, learning of Elster’s dockside address, Midge and Scottie speculate that he may have fallen on hard times. Love how the nonentity Elster is assumed by his old friends to be a washed-up failure, implying that if he hadn’t married money, that’s just what he’d be.

“Power and freedom” — the first CLUE in the movie, a refrain introduced by Gavin Elster (another college chum of Stewart’s, even though he’s English) and soon taken up by Pop Liebel in the Argosy Bookshop and finally Kim Novak herself. Although VERTIGO’s status as a twist-ending tale is arguably it’s least interesting attribute, it’s still quite satisfying to follow the breadcrumbs when rewatching the movie, seeing how the hocus pocus works. Of course, the idea of Madeleine being possessed by a reincarnated ancestor is, if anything, MORE plausible than the Rube Goldberg assassination scheme used to “explain” it — maybe that’s why the hero strangles the heroine in the book, because she’s ruining a perfectly good supernatural story.

(It was just after this film that Hitch seriously tried to make MARY ROSE, his JM Barrie ghost story adaptation. He went as far as obtaining the original score of the London stage production he saw in his youth, to inspire Bernard Herrmann in his Wagnerian soundtrack for VERTIGO. Incidentally, the star of that stage show was Fay Compton — owner of Hill House in THE HAUNTING, and co-star of Hitch’s WALTZES FROM VIENNA.)

Exactly as in the book, Elster uses a trip to the opera to bring his detective and wife-impersonator together (Kim Novak’s great roles always cast her as wife-impersonators: cf Polly the Pistol in Billy Wilder’s KISS ME STUPID). Herrmann brings on the love theme for its first outing, and proceeds to show us how many changes he can ring on it in the course of the story. Madeleine is seen for the first time in profile, a recurring motif — Judy is also introduced this way.

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Following Madeleine: the long, slow, obsessive sequence, which started life much longer (until Hitch instructed editor George Tomasini to ignore San Francisco geography) and was to have VO dialogue between Elster and Scottie. The black wipe opening up on the flower shop. The museum (source of all those DePalma Steadicams). The cemetery, which it’s curiously localised fog effect (Burks’ fog filter doesn’t really try to suggest actual fog, it’s the mist of dream — and very effective, in spite of Hitch’s SPELLBOUND ruling that dreams are always quite sharp).

Madeleine checks into the McKittrick Hotel, and vanishes, without explanation. Hitch apparently shot a section of Judy’s later flashback that shows the hotel receptionist being bribed to facilitate this vanishing act, but he cut it — perhaps realising that he was replacing an old mystery, forgotten by most viewers, with a fresh one — why enlist the receptionist unnecessarily? Why vanish at all? The scene has a direct ancestor in the book, but Madeleine doesn’t vanish there. Here it’s just a bit of enigma to spice up the slow part — Hitch was acutely aware that he had nothing but slight intrigue to hook his audience here, and then only a love story to snare them with until Madeleine does a Waring Hudsucker.

Now both Elster and Hitchcock need to move their plot to the next level, so Madeleine jumps in the bay. Stewart rescues her, dragging her up a set of steps that don’t, in fact, exist at the at location — nicely prefiguring the belltower at San Juan Battista, which likewise doesn’t exist.

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Novak speaks — in a strange posh quasi-English accent, perhaps modeled on Tom Helmore’s Elster-speak. In fact, she sounds a bit like Dr Evil. Novak’s performance here only really works if we see her as Judy playing a role, not too skillfully. Even the muttering in her sleep — I can just make out “The house, my child…” — is in character as Madeleine/Carlotta. I listened to it very carefully, because it was amusing to think that if Judy talked in her sleep for real, and Scottie heard her, she might give away the whole plan before it’s really started.

As meet-cutes go, it’s pretty memorable. The censors objected to everything here — the underwear drying in the kitchen, Novak being nude, Novak being embarrassed, and Stewart’s pause in the next scene with her: “I enjoyed… talking to you.” Hitchcock ignored their concerns, and Stewart really milks that pause for maximum suggestion.

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Nice plotting when Stewart sets off to follow Novak the next day — the same places, inevitably, with Herrmann’s score adding heavy doom notes — and finds her stopping by his apartment to thank him. Which gets us to the first “date” (he’s already undressed her so it’s a backwards kind of relationship) and the giant redwood, referenced so beautifully by Chris Marker in LA JETEE. “Here I was born, and here, I died.” Novak starts to get more into her role. In the forest, she seems to disappear again, then is rediscovered. The sea! The first big Wagnerian love scene, and the problem of Madeleine’s possible madness is now stated. It’s Scottie’s task to cure her by proving she’s not mad, that there are reasons she remembers all this stuff — perfectly rational explanation. Some hope.

Scottie must now play detective-shrink, which is what leads him and Madeleine inexorably to the old mission house. Madeleine’s invented dream — which will soon become Scottie’s ACTUAL dream — provides all the clues. But although Scottie constantly does what a good detective and shrink should do, it never works out. My friend, the arch-genius Comrade K, suggests that VERTIGO can be seen as Hitch’s anti-Freudian story, where confrontation with the truth just leads to renewed trauma. Hitch WAS skeptical about therapy: after all, he was well aware of the source of his policeman phobia, but knowing its origins did him no good at all.

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Midge’s role continues to be essential for now — she represents the reality Scottie is drifting loose from. With her commercial art and her hanging bras, it’s been suggested that Midge demystifies sexuality, which is why Scottie prefers the unreal Madeleine. But I know a lot of guys who are crazy about Midge, and BBG is so sweet in the role…

Taking Madeleine to the site of her dream seems like a good idea, but it backfires rather badly. Note the very compressed editing as Novak flees — Alma objected to Novak’s run, and Hitch had George Tomasini cut the sequence to the bone. “She will just leap from one side of the square to the other, but nobody will notice it because we will cut from big head to big head.”

(I love Hitch’s use of “big head” instead of close-up. Reminds me of Put Money in They Purse, Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir of shooting Welles’s OTHELLO. According to Welles, an emigré director in Hollywood’s silent days had been in the habit of asking for a “Big Head of Pola” when shooting his star, Pola Negri. From then on, all closeups in OTHELLO are referred to as Big Heads of Pola.)

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More vertigo effect exponential zooms as Stewart chases Novak upstairs. Now, we’re told that no record of the model used exists. But I’m not convinced it IS a model. In the first shot, Stewart’s hands can be seen in the foreground — and the finger move. It’s not a GI Joe doll or something. If they can raise the camera vertically two flights, why not more? Indeed, there is a high angle of Stewart descending at the end, so they certainly COULD situate the camera up there, though lowering it while zooming would certainly be trickier. I’m wondering if they alleyway was a model shot and the tower shot real? The tower was built, it seems, full-scale, for the actors to act in. If I’m right, this would explode a major piece of accepted wisdom about the making of this movie…

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Great matte painting showing Madeleine’s body being recovered from the roof, while Scottie wanders off in a daze. The God Shot.

Now we get Henry Jones’s drolly vicious turn as DA, one of the few sequences of plodding prose left in the film — verging on the dreaded “photographs of people talking” — not a bad scene, just a necessary rather than an exciting one. Jones is delightful in Tashlin’s THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose nominal star, Tom Ewell, is excellent in The case of Dr Pelham, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the man himself, which deals with a Doppelganger, and is one of only a couple of Hitchcock films to avoid a rational explanation — the story’s nightmarish events are the work of an agency “more than human…”

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The Special Sequence! Fiona demands I prepare for her, somehow, a T-shirt bearing Jimmy Stewart’s Big Head flying disembodied through a Vortex of Insanity. Maybe I will, maybe I will. It’s the ruffled hair and little corner of neck that make it. Dig also the plunge into open grave — replayed in Gilliam’s BRAZIL, a decade before her recombined VERTIGO in 12 MONKEYS — and the splay-legged knock-kneed unstrung puppet figure of Stewart dropping bedazzled into an aerial landscape that bleaches out into the White Screen of Death — a cinema screen with nothing projected on it.

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And now the psych hospital scene, a recasting of THE WRONG MAN — even the nurse, with her professional smile, and the doctor, with his professional concern, seem the same. (In fact, Scottie has the same doctor as THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN — and he’s equally helpless in both cases.) Scottie sits zombified in the care home listening to exactly the kind of light classical music he objected to Midge playing in scene two.

From Chris Marker’s SANS SOLEIL.

MAD DETECTIVE

Long pan of San Francisco skyline, which stands in for any explanation of what’s happened to Midge or how Stewart has recovered. This odd transition actually backs up Chris Marker’s semi-crackpot theory that the whole last 45 minutes of the film are Scottie’s fantasy, rewriting part one in vain hope of making it come out better, rather like the second part of LOST HIGHWAY and the first part of MULHOLLAND DRIVE seem like fantasy attempts at rewriting the intolerable fact of death.

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Stewart now revisits the scenes where he saw Madeleine, behaving at once like a madman — since what can he hope to find? — and a detective (methodical, plodding). Lee Patrick’s scene as the new owner of Madeleine’s green Jag illustrates the dangers of the Hitchcock style — her voice trails off before Stewart cuts her off, an awkward bit of sound editing that reminds us of how pre-packaged and artificially assembled everything here is.

But then Judy’s entrance redeems all that — laughing with her friends, she seems like a figure from a parallel documentary, although Hitch takes care to catch her in profile, and her strange Groucho Marx eye-brows add a note of artifice. “She very obviously does not wear a bra,” observed M. Truffaut, and as a teenager reading that I thought, “What a typical Frenchman.” But now I find her breasts awe-inspiring and impossible to wrench my eyes from. What a dirty old man I have become.

Novak as Judy is a superb, natural and moving as she is stiff and weird as Madeleine, which totally works and is at least somewhat intentional on the actress’s part (although I’d favour playing Madeleine as a completely separate character with complete conviction, but that’s just me). As a big Vera Miles fan, I’m still curious as to what her casting would have been like (a Portrait of Carlotta featuring Miles does exist) — some will talk about the surprising qualities Novak brings to the role, but my own view is that a superior actress is ALWAYS better, whatever qualities you want to talk about. And Miles beats Novak hands down, BUT — Novak is utterly excellent in part two and I don’t know if anybody could have done it better.

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Now: the controversial decision to dispel mystery by explaining Judy’s resemblance almost as soon as she’s been introduced. Hitchcock actually argued for removing this scene just before the release, and got in quite a savage argument with his associate producer, Herbert Coleman (really, Coleman was the producer, but Hitch’s desire for sole authority was such that he preferred to leave that title unclaimed). The scene has one major effect apart from clearing up the confusion and focussing us more on suspense as to the outcome — it makes Judy into a more sympathetic character at the end. If we didn’t know of her role in the murder, we’d be shocked, I guess, to discover that this poor doormat had tricked Scottie and us, so the compassion we feel for her up until her unmasking would be broken, right before the conclusion. So I think the scene is defensible on those grounds. Seeing Judy write a confession to Scottie, we get to hear of her guilt and desire to do the right thing by him. On the other hand, treating the story as a typical Boileau-Narcejac twist-in-the-tale yarn would certainly work, and may have been more popular. The trouble with those movies is, I seldom want to watch them twice — the exception being LES DIABOLIQUES.

Judy’s flashback is anticipated in the scenes which suddenly switch to Midge’s POV earlier, as when she sees Madeleine leaving Scottie’s apartment late at night. Hitch always seems to do this — establish a clear POV character, then switch away for brief but telling moments — usually to the POV of a woman.

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Following the colours in this movie is fascinating. Stewart most often in brown, but he picks up the green from Novak’s car, and the Edith Head gown she wears at Ernie’s, and wears a green jumper after rescuing her from the bay. Judy is first seen in her green dress, which ought to be a clue. Later, a green skirt and brown top, harmonizing with Stewart’s suit (his blue eyes practically sear through the screen amid all these earth tones). The gray suit is useful because you can give it any colour value, so the green neon of the Hotel Empire sign hazes Judy into the ghost of Madeleine, and then Judy/Madeleine seems to walk THROUGH Robert Burks’s fog filter, without breaking it, like Bela Lugosi passing through the spider’s web on the stairs of Castle Dracula, or like Death walking through a mirror in Cocteau’s ORPHEE.

Stewart’s plan, to possess Judy with the spirit of dead Madeleine, as she was possessed by Carlotta (like Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY?), is quite crazy, and faithful to the book, leading to the famed obsessive makeover. It’s a very Poe idea — specifically, it’s the plot of Ligeia, where the narrator seeks to use his unloved second wife’s body as host to the soul of the departed, and still adored, first wife. It’s Judy’s desperation to be loved that Novak excels at, the emotion which causes her to allow Stewart’s attempts to erase her and replace her with a phantom — a woman she knows never really existed. It’s very much a film about a filmmaker and fantasist, in this sense, because Scottie does not, in the end, love a dead woman, he loves somebody who was an invention, an unreal construct. And his quest is to make her real. Whether Hitchcock tried to do this with Tippi Hedren or not, he certainly did something similar every time he made a film on paper and then attempted to actualize it.

Incidentally, Taylor and Hitchcock get over the weirdness of Stewart’s quest quite neatly — he never fully explains what he’s doing. What we see is the sinister makeover, which is disturbing enough, but the real goal is hinted at (and comes straight from the book). I don’t think there’s any way to deny that this is what Scottie’s up to.

As Arthur S helpfully pointed out yesterday, Stewart BECOMES Elster — the villain of the piece — making over Judy as Madeleine and dragging her to the old mission just as Elster had done. So there are multiple cases of possession going on here. Stewart, meanwhile, becomes truly terrifying towards the end — all the more so because he’s still Jimmy Stewart, still in some way making a claim on our sympathies. The scene where he decides he has to dye Judy’s hair — brilliant! He’s staring at her head EXACTLY like Gaston Modot stares at the statue’s foot in L’AGE D’OR. Oblivious to the suffering human being in front of him, fixated on the image of his fetish idol.

“It can’t matter to you!” The greatest line in cinema. Taylor denies any intention of provoking a laugh here, but it usually gets one (I’ve never heard anyone laugh at Judy’s place or origin, “Salina, Kansas,” although Taylor was convinced they’d be rolling in the aisles). And not, I think, a bad laugh — it’s the laughter of shock. It doesn’t take people out of the picture, and it isn’t an expression of superiority… well, maybe over Scottie. And it’s usually women who laugh most because the sentiment is more grotesque, and maybe more recognizable, to them, from their dealings with the male of the species…

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The rotating turntable shot of Scottie and Judy embracing in the hotel, with space-time melting around them, and Herrmann’s great score freaking out on the soundtrack, is one of the greatest moments of cinema ever, I contest. I particularly dig the moment when Jimmy Stewart looks up and NOTICES that he’s elsewhere, then kind of shrugs and goes back to kissing Novak. And the blue-green haze that engulfs them at the end is sublime, like an abstract space that isn’t the hotel or the mission or anywhere. The embrace of death.

Post-coital satisfaction, and a happy, charming, naturalistic performance by Novak, before Scottie’s detective side reasserts itself and he rumbles the deception, due to her extremely foolish error of putting on the Carlotta necklace. Off to the mission! The same shots used, though now day-for-night, emphasizing the  quality of hypnotic reenactment here. Recall Midge quoting the doctor who said Scottie’s vertigo could only be cured by another emotional shock…

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The mission, with its painting of a tower (the first time we see it, the Scary Nun of Death can be seen walking across the lawn, on her circuitous way to terrify Novak to her death). Stewart is now the detective explaining why he’s called us all here today, and reenacting the crime, he’s an Elster surrogate re-staging the original murder, a doctor treating a patient with vertigo (himself), and a betrayed lover confronting his mistress with the proof of her infidelity. He fails rather badly at all his roles, except in seemingly curing his high anxiety — which does him no good. He loses his fear, while discovering just what he had to be afraid of.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never wholly liked the nun. I like her better now that I’ve spotted her elsewhere (she’s at the inquest too), and now I know she’s dubbed by Novak. But despite her bringing in Hitch’s Catholicism, she always seemed a slightly unwelcome addition to a movie that’s practically a two-hander. I mean, Elster doesn’t count as human, and Midge, though very warm and real, has disappeared entirely from part two and we don’t actually miss her. So the Scary Nun of Death is a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. But as Sidney Lumet says, nothing has to be perfect.

In any case, the ending is more intriguing and satisfactory than that of the source novel, where the hero strangles the heroine — interestingly, because she’s explained the plot to him, and he can’t accept it. I guess a few audience members have felt that way. But the idea that our protag prefers to kill the woman rather than face the reality that his great love was based on an illusion is an interesting one. My problem with the nun is that she seems, on the face of it, arbitrary.

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If she represents a maleficent fate, she’s making a late entry into the story-world. If anything, she’s like the return of the numinous specters haunting part one, seemingly banished by the explanation of the murder plot, but still lurking in the belfry of the subconscious. “…someone within me, and she says I must die…” In the end, we are left with a man standing on the brink. John Boorman would probably suggest he’s imagined the whole story while hanging from a drainpipe at the end of scene one — like the hero of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Certainly, Scottie’s situation has spiraled back to the end of part one. How many more times does he have to climb this tower? The novel’s last line is superimposed across my mind’s eye — ‘I shall wait for you,’ he said.

UK purchasers:

Vertigo – 50th Anniversary Special Edition [DVD] [1958]

North By Northwest [Blu-ray] [1959]

US purchasers:

Vertigo (Collector’s Edition)

North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Book) [Blu-ray]

Alfred Hitchcock – The Masterpiece Collection

For B. Kite.

The Grand Delusion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2008 by dcairns

Remarkable how many filmmakers of world class have been attracted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And of course, how many dodgy ones too. Among the cinematic Jekylls we can count Rouben Mamoulian, Jerry Lewis and Jean Renoir, while Hydes might include Jesus Franco, Walerian Borowczyk and Terence Fisher. And then some solid middlebrows like Stephen Frears and Victor Fleming, equivalent to Stevenson’s sedate protagonist, Mr. Utterson, have had a bash too.

By a peculiar quirk of fate, the most respected filmmaker to have come near the book is Renoir, yet the film he made for French TV, THE TESTAMENT OF DR. CORDELIER, has traditionally been one of the most neglected and/or despised in his entire egg (or oeuvre, to give it its French name).

Also ironically, Renoir’s film updates and translocates the story to its own bizarre version of 1959 France, changing all the character names in doing so (but with more justification than I, MONSTER, where Jekyll becomes Charles Marlow and Hyde becomes Blake Edwards, sorry, Edward Blake, FOR NO REASON), and yet it’s by far the most faithful adaptation to Stevenson’s original narrative structure. This is kind of a perversity, since Stevenson’s story is in essence a mystery with a novel solution, which procedes on the understanding that the reader doesn’t know the central plot gimmick (that split-personality thing). By the time of Renoir’s version, of course audiences are going to be well ahead of the story, yet Uncle Jean procedes as if we were all complerely innocent. This sets the tone for the film’s overall peculiarity.

The film begins at the very apex of oddness with Renoir arriving at a TV studio to make some kind of broadcast to the nation. This he does, and we dissolve to the story he’s telling, which he seems to imply has been PLUCKED FROM THE HEADLINES, though this is not entirely clear. A prepared film begins to play, with Renoir’s V.O. running over it, and then we are into the story, with Dr. Cordelier’s unusual testament being presented to his lawyer Mr. Joly. As played by Teddy Bilis, he’s as staunch and dull as Stevenson’s Utterson, yet also brave, loyal and rather admirable — mostly. Cordelier/Jekyll is Jean-Louis Barrault, the mime from LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS, a brilliant casting coup. As Cordelier he’s as erect and crisp as Peter Cushing, with the severity and intensity of Georges Franju. Joly is baffled that Cordelier, formerly a successful psychiatrist, is leaving his entire fortune to somebody named M. Opale, a stranger to Joly. This altered will is the first titular testament, but not the last.

Faithfulness and tampering are kept in a constant dynamic by Renoir’s treatment of the story: when we first meet Hyde in the book, he’s carelessly trampling a little girl. But to show that onscreen, from the point of view of a distant onlooker, would be impossible without risking injury to a child: if you cut into close shots of feet and stuff in order to make it merely SEEM violent, you break the P.O.V. Today we could trample a C.G.I. child with abandon, but Renoir resorts to a different solution: Hyde wantonly attacks the little girl, swinging her around like a rag doll and attempting to choke her with his cane. This necessary change somewhat alters Hyde’s character, and Renoir runs with this idea, showing the villain as impulsively driven to wanton acts of cruelty throughout the story.

Barrault’s performance is remarkable: for some reason, Renoir apparently claimed that the actor worked without makeup, a blatant lie. What I expect he meant is that Barrault worked with a MASSIVE amount of makeup, all over his face and body. His nose and cheeks appear to be stuffed with cotton wool a la Brando’s Don Corleone, he has a dark wig and bushy eyebrows, ludicrously hairy hands, false teeth, and what are either weird sideburns curling under his eyes, or just very dark shading.

To be honest, it’s not the subtlest makeup. Stevenson says that Hyde has an air of deformity about him, without you being able to quite put your finger on it. Various attempts have been made at capturing this elusive idea, none entirely successful. Supposedly Lon Chaney Sr. used to remove the odd scar of deformity from each makeup, before he considered it complete (as a woman perparing for a night out should consider losing one element of her look — a necklace, a belt, or perhaps those underpants? — before leaving the house). Barrault might have benefitted from this advice. The hairy hands definitely seem like a mistake: pure sketch show comedy.

Of course, filmmakers who go for minimalism are usually screwed too: you get Clark Kent Syndrome, as in, “How come nobody notices it’s the same guy?” This is somewhat true with Spencer Tracy (but his film’s too boring to even talk about) and massively so with John Malkovich in MARY REILLY.

But Barrault has his physical skills, and here he excels as the best Hyde since Fredric March (who also had a slightly O.T.T. neanderthal/Fred West makeup). Dressed in a David Byrne type oversized suit, he’s the only Hyde to really work with the idea of a Hyde who’s smaller than his Jekyll. He’s also slouchy, loose-limbed yet somehow alive with nervous tension, his slender frame tortured by tics, some of which he disguises as jaunty little movements. When he first appears, swinging his cane, he seems like a circus clown.

Renoir omits one of Stevenson’s nicest twists: in the story, not only do the nice people fail to realise that Jekyll is Hyde, they don’t initially realise that Jekyll’s house is Hyde’s house. The respectable front of the good doctor’s residence is connected to a disreputable back, from which the schizoid malefactor finds egress. And the back of the house is described as “a great blind forehead” of wall, making explicit the link between house and head. In the nicest image of MARY REILLY, Jekyll’s lab is separated from his home by an inexplicable cavernous emptiness, bridged by a rickety catwalk, like the corpus callosum separating the two hemispheres of the human brain…

Joly calms the angry mob by handing money to the careless mother of the trampled child, a slightly cynical gesture motivated by his desire to protect Cordelier from scandal caused by Opale’s actions. The plot can now develop along lines following Stephenson more closely than usual, though with constant departures into humour or the bizarre.

Renoir adds a more dynamic opponent for Jekyll, a fellow scientist who savagely repudiates his views. Michel Vitold as Dr. Severin manages to be at least as entertaining as Barrault, with a frenzied performance of outraged reason. Smoking furiously (he does everything furiously), dissolving into bitter laughter at virtually everything anybody says, he’s a wonderful maelstrom with a great carpet in his office. “You’ve blasphemed against matter!” he bellows. You can’t help but like him. (The rational sceptic scientist is ALWAYS a bore in these things, so Renoir and Vitold’s feat in turning him into a pleasure is equivalent to Tom Hulce’s work in MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN, where the “moral voice” character actually emerges as someone it might be nice to have dinner with.)

Joly’s departures and arrivals at Vitold’s office must have all been filmed in one session (the film was made very economically and very fast), and Renoir seems to have been in a funny mood that day. Upon first arrival, Joly is scraping his shoe along the ground as if he’s stepped in something, then he trips on the step. Later, Hyde wanders past and randomly assaults a man on critches, and we are forcibly reminded of the identical scene in L’AGE D’OR — especially since Gaston Modot, the violent hero of that film, turns up later as Cordelier’s gardener.

Other departures from the book – 

1) The detectives investigating M. Opale pay a visit to a brothel where we meet M. O’s hapless whore, and see the whip he habitually uses on her. The lead flic also examines two haves of a bra — perhaps symbolising Cordelier’s sundered psyche.

2) Renoir does something quite strange in the second half, stopping the narrative progression entirely to show Cordelier throwing a lavish party for the Canadian ambassador. It’s a very Ferrero Rocher kind of shindig, and asides from showing that Cordelier appears to be feeling better, it achieves absolutely nothing in plot terms. But that very fact adds to the weirdness that is the film’s most pleasurable stock-in-trade.

3) And at the end, Cordelier’s second testament, a tape recording in which he explains his experiments and describes a sinful past unlike anything in Stephenson: as a hypnotherapist, Cordelier has raped unconscious patients. He’s really no better than Hyde, only he feels guilt and the desire to maintain a socially respectable front. Hyde is his excuse to be free of all that.

This probably is the most faithful cinematic adaptation, in that it follows Stephenson’s basic shape: a series of clues are laid out and we follow them to the “revelation”. The effect is different though, because while a reader is aware that the story was intended for a public that didn’t know what the story was about, Renoir is pretending that we don’t know where this is heading (although, as you see above, he has a few surprises up his sleeve). I would imagine that the film’s poor reception at the time owes a lot to public and critical bafflement at this bizarre but fascinating strategy.

In contrast to almost everybody from Mamoulian to Roy Ward Baker to Jerry Lewis, Renoir makes nothing at all of the transformation, when we finally see it, but allows Barrault to create some impressive spasms and paroxysms as one identity is ripped away and another emerges through it. A religious moral is ascribed to the events by Joly, and Renoir comes back in with a V.O. to wrap things up, leaving us a little uncertain whether what we’ve just seen is meant to be a re-enactment of a fake news story, or what?

And it’s not often one finishes a film so unsure of what one just saw.

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