Archive for Mary Rose

The Death of Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by dcairns

Get out your handkerchiefs, this could get pretty emotional. I’m not kidding.

Filming in England again for FRENZY, Hitch remarked, “When I enter the studios — be it in Hollywood or in London — and the heavy doors close behind me, there is no difference. A salt mine is always a salt mine.”

I’m fascinated by this turn of phrase, equating the Master’s life work with a penal sentence, and tying the image of the movie studio to the central image of the police cell, Hitch’s primal scene, harking back to the time he was locked in a cell as a small boy with no idea of when he would be released. I happen to believe that story, which is mentioned by a character in MURDER long before Hitch seems to have told it to the press as a simplistic Freudian explanation of why he was fascinated by crime and suspense.

We shall return to that cell later…

After FAMILY PLOT was completed and had been publicized, Hitch started work on THE SHORT NIGHT a spy thriller he had acquired ten years before. He worked on a treatment with Norman Lloyd for a time, then snubbed him when Lloyd balked at the idea of jumping straight into a screenplay. Hitch tried writing by himself, but he’d always used collaborators, and nothing got done. It must have been lonely and depressing. Then came Ernest Lehman again, despite Hitchcock’s having been rather tired by Lehman on FAMILY PLOT. Work went well, but Lehman resisted a rape-murder scene from Ronald Kirkbride’s source novel, and Hitch decided he needed another writer.

Universal fixed him up with David Freeman, who wrote about the collaboration later in The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the fact that the action played out in England and Finland, they proceeded as if the film would get made: Hitch would simply have a second unit shoot background plates and he’d make the thing in the studio. Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s old agent and now head of Universal, let it be known that Hitch had made a fortune for the studio and if keeping him happy in his declining years cost them a couple of million, it was money well spent.

Hitchcock was arthritic, overweight, had a heart condition and a pacemaker, but the thought of making another film kept him going.

Meanwhile, Alma’s health was in decline: strokes left her disabled and confused. She resented Hitch’s going to work and  leaving her, and some mornings she would spew obscenities at him as he left the house. A stroke can have a disinhibiting effect on language: even little old ladies often say “Fucking hell,” as their first words upon recovering the power of speech. Robert Bolt though this was because the words sound so good, but it’s also due to the internal censor being knocked out of action. Alma Reville’s brain was behaving like Hollywood after the collapse of the Hays Code.

Charlotte Chandler’s “personal biography” of Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie, ends in this unbearably moving fashion:

‘Near the end of his life, Hitchcock said that when he and Alma realized they couldn’t travel anymore, it was then that they really felt old. “We could have traveled,” he said, but it would have been like trying to make movies when you really can’t.

‘Hitchcock was a romantic, as was his wife. They had spoken about just one more trip to the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, perhaps for Christmas, their favourite time to be there to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

‘”Neither of us wanted to disappoint the other,” he said, “by admitting to not believing the possibility existed. Then, Alma and I stopped talking about our next trip to St. Moritz. Each of us had come to understand that it wasn’t a place we wanted to return to, but a time.

‘”The worst thing, you know, is when you cannot go back to a place where you have always been happy,” he said, “because you are afraid that if you go back, you won’t be happy–not because the place has changed, but because you have changed.”

Finally, Hitch called a producer in and asked him to tell Lew Wasserman that THE SHORT NIGHT was off. “I can’t face him.” Within a day, Hitch’s office had been cleared. His staff were resentful that they’d had no warning of their approaching redundancy, but Hitch hadn’t known himself. For a while he still came into the empty office and had his haircut. Then he stopped coming.

Hitchcock went to bed. He refused food. If visitors came, he swore at them and drove them out. Hitchcock, whose brother had committed suicide, willed himself to die. His doctor said later that his system was still basically strong, and he could have gone on a few years, but he didn’t want to. It wasn’t exactly suicide, Hitchcock didn’t do anything to bring about his death. He just avoided doing the things that would keep him alive. If there was no movie, there was no point.

Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for MARY ROSE, perhaps the most fascinating of Hitchcock’s unmade films, ends with a slow pull-back from a remote, magical, and sinister island, with this voice-over, quoted in Bill Krohn’s seminal Hitchcock at Work:

Well, that’s it. Let’s go back home now.

(ironically)

There, of course, it’s raining…

THE CAMERA begins to retreat. The Island grows smaller, smaller.

…as usual. And there’s a naughty boy waiting for punishment and an old villager who had the fatal combination of weak heart and bad temper. He’s waiting to be buried. All the usual, dependable, un-islandy things.

(He sighs deeply.)

You understand.

I think I do. It’s raining back home because it always seems to be raining when we leave a movie, doesn’t it? (Plus, the movie is set in Scotland.) The naughty boy awaiting punishment (in a police cell?) and the old man with the weak heart are both Hitchcock, at opposite ends of his life, aren’t they? (The Tralfamadorians see human beings as long centipedes, with baby legs at one end and old arthritic ones at the other). On the Island That Likes to be Visited, imagination rules. It’s a frightening, mysterious place, and Hitch had the power to go there in his mind and return at will.

Alma lived on for two years, “as happy as a clam,” according to daughter Pat. Although she attended Hitch’s funeral, she had no idea he was gone. “Hitch is in the next room,” she would whisper, confidentially.

I wondered what 2010 would be like now Hitchcock Year is done — odd, not having him around. But Hitchcock is always around when you’re talking about film.

“Hitch is in the next room.”

Best wishes to all Shadowplayers in the New Year!

The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2009 by dcairns

Nearly done, old boy…

My inhalations and exhalations sound like the sand whirling around in a hula hoop, my chest is constricted as if there are elastic bands wrapped round my lungs, my head has the thickness of lagging and throbs like a Rick Baker bladder effect, while my nose… it’s simply better not to touch upon my nose.

I have a cold.

Which may not have been a bad way to finally watch TORN CURTAIN, one of those Hitchcock films that had always politely resisted my attempts to watch it. Fiona, too, would drift off within minutes of its starting. Having finally obtained a widescreen copy (Universal, worthless organization that they are, having issued all Hitch’s 1:1.88 movies in 1:1.33 ratio) we determined to give it a fair whack.

A nice Edward Hopper shot, and as close as I want to get to Julie in that repulsive outfit.

It’s not that bad: the right aspect ratio immediately sharpens up the filmmaking, which appeared lackadaisical when pan-and-scanned. Hitch’s mise-en-scene is as crisp and thoughtful as ever, and is sometimes inspired — whenever Julie Andrews isn’t around, he seems to perk up. But Andrews is a massive problem — you simply cannot watch this film without somebody saying, about three minutes in, “She really has no sex appeal at all, does she?” I remember trying to watch the film with my Dad, decades back, and him saying that, and now Fiona said it. “Or warmth,” she added, damningly.

“She’s perceived as being warm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, isn’t she?” I ask. But then, Andrews’ big roles are both nannies, rather than mothers, which may be significant. She offers professional care. It’s her main quality as an actor. And I bet she can create warmth on stage. But in this movie, Paul Newman must be sexy enough for two: in fact, that’s easy for him, but Julie is like a damp rug thrown upon his smoldering embers.

Well HELLO, professor!

Welcome to the cinematic world of Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now studio head at Universal, who basically cast this film, pressing Hitch to take two big box office stars. But of course, Andrews was only a hot property in a particular type of family film. The audience for gritty espionage thrillers surely would have been put off by her presence. How do you solve a problem like Julie Andrews?

Nifty opening montage of name-tags to introduce our protags in the sack, Hitch trying to sex up Julie’s image, which is like strapping a dildo to Mickey Mouse. Edith Head lets the side down with a horrible outfit for our heroine. “It’s not even green. What is that colour? Mustard?” asks Fiona. I liken it to baby shit.

Hitch and his Mini-Me.

Hitchcock’s cameo is nice, but Richard Addison’s rather quaint score offends me by quoting Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, AKA the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Here’s my problem with it: in an interview, Elmer Bernstein once noted that in 1930s Hollywood scoring, if you saw a French ship, the soundtrack would be Max Steiner’s version of La Marseillaise. “An intellectual idea.” The man who undercut all that corn, scoring only the emotion of the scene, was Bernard Herrmann.

Here I should correct one of the few serious errors in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. McGilligan imagines Herrmann playing Hitch a recording of his score for TORN CURTAIN, and Hitch stopping the recording partway through, followed by the argument which ended the two great artists’ collaboration forever.

The truth is more dreadful and dramatic — it was at the recording session that the bust-up took place, before a full orchestra. Hitch didn’t switch off a tape player, he cancelled the score midway, even though Herrmann argued that as the orchestra was already paid for, they might as well complete the recording and Hitch could think about it. Instead, Hitch fired his composer in the most public and humiliating manner.

The seeds were sewn by Universal, who seem to have pressured Hitch to record a more popular kind of score, perhaps with a song for Julie Andrews (which at any rate they never got). Hitch telegrammed Herrmann early on to warn that the modern audience was “young vigorous and demanding” and that successful European filmmakers had “sought to introduce a beat and a rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of said audience”. This slightly vague concern was answered by Herrmann with assurances that he could produce something suitable. Perhaps unable to grasp what Hitch was driving at, the composer trusted in his talent to come through. And his score is excellent — you can see the scenes he recorded as extras on the DVD.

John Addison’s music at times seems appropriate for a 1930s-set caper, and insofar as it shows a coherent musical strategy, it would seem to be striving to lighten the picture’s tone. This was probably Hitch’s trouble with Herrmann’s music: he had made a glum, monochromatic film, and Herrmann had produced a dour, unmelodic score to go with it. All through preparing the project, Hitch had tried to inject some lightness, but his subject (cold war armaments and espionage), his settings (Helsinki, East Berlin, Leipzig), his writer (Brian Moore, author of the tragic The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) and his mismatched stars had deferred any lilt or zing to the last possible stage of post-production.

Moore himself hadn’t wanted to write a film, but was persuaded by his lawyer that he needed the money. Hitchcock pitched him an original story, Moore developed it into an outline, introducing the idea of the painful, drawn-out murder, which Hitch then acted out with relish (I would love to see film of this impromptu performance, but none was taken). All the while Moore was aghast at what he saw as Hitchcock’s lack of character insight. Moore only really invested himself in the character played, like a demented elf, by Lila Kedrova, a Polish émigré hoping to escape to America. Her character, and that of Gromek the security man killed by Newman, are the only really living people in the film.

It is worth mentioning Newman’s cab driver, though — Peter Lorre Jnr. No relation to the real Lorre, this was a semi-crazed fan who changed his name in honour of his hero, and was sued by the original. I wonder if Hitch knew he’d hired a fake?

The scene where Gromek stalks Newman through an art gallery is the first striking set-piece, although the development of Newman’s defection and Andrews’ following him to East Berlin are interesting enough. Since Hitch’s two stars between them cost more than half his budget and dictated his shooting schedule, the film was almost entirely shot in California, mainly on the Universal lot (it shows), and so the gallery is a series of Albert Whitlock matte paintings. Only the floors were built. They’re very beautiful, and since the whole scene is composed of these artificial settings, they don’t pop out as distractingly fake. It’s like a chase through a virtual reality. Later, some of Hein Heckroth’s phony Leipzig exteriors will look like cast-offs from OH… ROSALINDA!!!! and not in a good way.

The Whitlock Gallery recalls Hitch’s reconstruction of the British Museum way back in BLACKMAIL.

Ah, Gromek! How I long for an entire film detailing your brief period in New York (“corner of 88th Street”) which you recall so nostaligically. Gromek is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the German voice of Bert from Sesame Street. We must thank the IMDb for its little nougats. Gromek, with his black motorcycle and crappy East German cigarette lighter, is wildly endearing and formidably sinister, and although his murder is the highlight of the film, I do wish it came an hour later so we could enjoy him for longer.

“I didn’t order this!”

The skirmish starts when the farmer;s wife (Carolyn Conwell, another great character, actually) interrupts Herr Gromek’s phone call with a sloppily-aimed bowl of rice pudding. He tries to get his lighter to work. Newman tries to strangle him. Years later, Hitch’s summary of the scene’s premise, “It’s very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time… to kill a man,” became the slogan for the Coen brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE. The farmer’s wife takes up a carving knife, which memorably breaks in Gromek’s chest — for some reason, that detail is nastier than all the successful stabbing in PSYCHO. The shovel to the knees is next — ouch — then the long haul to the gas oven, with Gromek gamely strangling our hero all the way. His head stuffed within, Gromek’s chubby little hands begin to flicker and dance, like fleshy butterflies, then lie still.

Note that, as Dan Auiler discovered, Hitchcock’s original notes requested music for this scene, which Herrman duly provided, and very powerful it is. The scene is still a stand-out with no score, but one wonders what else Herrman might have done for the plodding thriller. At any rate, the silence augments the risk of discovery that prevents our heroes using a gun to off Gromek.

Newman picks up the dead man’s lighter, which now sparks into flame on the first try. He leaves the farmer’s wife to bury the body and the motorcycle. We rather wish she’d entombed him astride it, like Nicky Henson in PSYCHOMANIA.

Despite working without his regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitch achieves consistently striking shots.

By contrast with the effulgent Gromek, Professor Lindt is rather a stock figure, a bearded physicist with a brusque manner. Professor Littleoldman! And here the film reaches its fatal flaw, one Moore and Hitchcock apparently missed, and script polishers Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse (BILLY LIAR) weren’t authorized to address. After the incredibly long and uninteresting diagrams on a blackboard scene, in which case the need for a simple MacGuffin becomes blindingly obvious, Newman and Andrews must flee back to the west. Their lovers’ misunderstanding resolved, and the secret information now secured, they have basically won. Of course, apprehension would still mean utter defeat, so we expect a further climax of suspense, but instead we get a long journey back to Berlin by bicycle and bus, then Kedrova and a long wait in a post office, which is not as exciting in this film as it would be in real life, and a trip to the ballet, where at last Hein Heckroth can do what he does so well.

This is why the film seems so overstuffed. It should be called BURST CUSHION. The third act is practically half the film, and the suspense sequences don’t quite come off (Herrmann would have helped immeasurably), so it’s not only structurally malformed but ineffective on a scene-by-scene basis, apart from the incidental pleasures.

The prima ballerina looked familiar until I realized I knew her from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The subliminal freeze-frames Hitch pulls on her pirouettes are amazing — he must be reprinting the last frame of each shot just two or three times. I’ve no idea why nobody seems to have copied this striking effect.

The ballet, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of a character featured in Dante’s Inferno, climaxes the story’s metaphorical arc, which Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders rightly describes as Dantean: Newman embarks on a journey into the underworld, in this case, the Eastern Block. Even the refugee/spy organisation’s name, π, suggests the circle of Hell. Newman’s quest, to steal missile secrets, is Promethean, and the film’s opening titles, a montage of anguished faces amid blue and red clouds of smoke, seem like an analog of Hell.

Conrad notes that the film begins and ends with its characters huddled under blankets, but doesn’t quite make the obvious point that the film could thus be read as a shared nightmare. Hitchcock may have aimed to make “a realistic Bond,” but realism was never his preferred mode, and it seems more profitable to judge the film, with its grey-filtered, shadowless monochrome (shot using reflected light), for its successful expressionism rather than its doubtful authenticity.

Conrad is also excited to see Hitchcock following Paul Newman into the gents’ lav to decode his secret message onto a square of toilet paper. Sometimes a critic’s work is done for him.

Paul leads Julie up the garden path in what looks like Hein Heckroth’s take on INVADERS FROM MARS. One of the few bursts of colour is permitted for this happy moment of truth.

Hitch originally toyed with the idea of Newman discarding the formula he’d worked so hard to get, an idea only Alma liked. It wouldn’t have made sense, but it connects to Hitchcock’s consistent portrayal of espionage, in all his films, as a dirty business with a horrible cost. But the whole idea of Newman as amateur spy is unconvincing, as is the anti-missile missile plot — though it’s been suggested that it inspired Ronald Reagan’s expensive and unworkable Star Wars defense scheme.

TORN CURTAIN isn’t terrible, although it could at least be shorter (Hitch had just lost his usual editor), but we should recall that Hitch really wanted to make MARY ROSE, scripted by Jay Presson Allen and ready to go, a deeply personal film, a departure from his normal turf, and a fascinating story. It’s Universal who are to blame for this film, as they are to blame for TOPAZ, when Hitch wanted to make KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY. Their poor decisions, made with a view to protecting the Hitchcock brand, soured much of the last stages of his career, and his friendship with MCA-Universal boss Lew Wasserman prevented Hitchcock from fighting for his most promising subjects. In the meantime, years were wasted. As we shall see, Universal were very kind and considerate to Hitch during his last years, but in a way their concern was damaging to Hitchcock the risk-taking artist. At the end of TORN CURTAIN, the Universal logo appears ghost-like over an extreme close-up of a blanket, possibly wet.


The Hitchcock Murders
Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks

Minnie Q. Thief

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by dcairns

Like THE BIRDS, MARNIE was released by Universal on DVD in the wrong ratio at first. This was the first time Fiona and I have seen it in widescreen.

MARNIE has an unusually protracted history for a Hitchcock film. Hitch had acquired the novel by Winston Graham around 1960 as a vehicle for Grace Kelly, who expressed her willingness to take time off from being a princess in order to star in it. PSYCHO screenwriter Joseph Stefano began work on a script, but when he was halfway through it became clear that Grace would not be available that year, so he stopped work and Hitch threw himself into THE BIRDS. After completing that project, finding Stefano unavailable, he brought BIRDS scenarist Evan Hunter on board, and Hunter produced a complete script (from Hitch’s fairly detailed scene breakdown) but balked at the idea of the hero raping the heroine. Hitchcock removed Hunter from the project and hired Jay Presson Allen, fresh from her success adapting Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the stage. At some point during this gestation, the people of Monaco let it be known that they would not accept their princess playing a sexually dysfunctional thief in a Hitchcock picture, so suddenly Grace was out and Tippi was in.

Winston Graham’s Poldark novels have been adapted by the BBC, and decorated the airwaves in my distant youth (the 1970s): Cornish bodice-ripping yarns, they were. Hitchcock is strangely connected to Cornwall by all the Du Maurier stories set there, although the one time he filmed there it was doubling for the Isle of Man  in THE MANXMAN. With MARNIE, as with THE BIRDS, the English setting would be rewritten for America.

Three films had been made previously in Britain based on Graham stories, including one by Ronald Neame (TAKE MY LIFE), a former camera assistant on BLACKMAIL, and one by Launder and Gilliat (SHE PLAYED WITH FIRE aka FORTUNE IS A WOMAN), the screenwriters of THE LADY VANISHES. Although it doesn’t quite come off, the latter film does seem designed somewhat on the Hitchcock model.

As has often been pointed out, the Hitchcock film MARNIE most relates to is SPELLBOUND: it’s a psychological detective story or, as Hitch says in the trailer, “what one might call a sex mystery, if one used such words.” Role reversal makes the woman the psycho-neurotic character, and imaginative writing changes the investigator from a shrink to a businessman and amateur zoologist (Sean Connery).

A shame Connery didn’t work with Hitch again! They got on extremely well. Hitch said: “He came early, knew his lines, and hit his marks. I was pleasantly surprised. He directed himself and you could always find him.” Connery later recalled that Hitch only offered two pieces of direction: “When I’m listening to another actor I have a tendency to let my mouth hang open, so he would say, ‘I don’t think the audience is interested in your dentistry, Mr Connery.’ And when I’m excited I have a tendency to talk too fast, so he would say, ‘Let’s try that again, only with a few more dogs’ feet,’ by which he meant pauses.”

Since Hitchcock next planned to make MARY ROSE, for which Jay Presson Allen again write the script, and since he planned to star Tippi again, and since the story takes place entirely in Scotland, it’s hard to resist the suspicion that Connery would have been offered a major role. But the failure of MARNIE, and the benign-seeming but ultimately strangulatory control of Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s former agent and now his boss at Universal, put paid to all that.

Theory: I don’t think Universal was ultimately very good for Hitch. They meant well, but by their very benevolence they were more restrictive than another studio might have been. Rather than trying to protect the Hitchcock brand, they might have trusted this highly successful, talented and commercially astute man — a major shareholder in the company but unable to make at least two of his dream projects, KALEIDOSCOPE-FRENZY and MARY ROSE.

After another personalized studio logo, the credits unfold to Bernard Herrmann’s strenuous, strident and anxiety-laden theme, which plays like a love theme with a mental block, lurching to spasmodic halts when it seems to aspire to Wagnerian orgasm: the music of tormented frigidity and suppressed longing.

The superb, Langian opening, with the sexy yellow purse tucked under Tippi’s arm (hey, at least it’s not a pink purse) and the angular jut of the railway station, then the dependably beady-eyed Martin Gabel (see and admire his single directorial outing, THE LOST MOMENT) barking “Robbed!” and a helpful cut to the empty safe.

Now, Hitch was increasingly anxious, one can deduce from his comments, about being “old-fashioned” — he’d stayed with the times and even moved ahead with PSYCHO, though in films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST he’d pursued classical rather than current fashions  to avoid his films dating. In interviews at the time he said that montage was now an old-fashioned approach, so the major safe-robbing suspense highlight of MARNIE was staged in a single shot. His falling-out with Bernard Herrmann on his very next movie was based around his desire that the music should provide “a beat and a rhythm” to appeal to the “young vigorous and demanding” audiences of the 1960s. So MARNIE’s precise, formalist opening, which could come straight from a British thriller of the 30s or a Lang one of the 20s strikes me as an odd note to strike.

MARNIE — an excellent film — was, and often still is, terribly undervalued because it is a film out of its time. Older directors can often make the best films, but they seldom make with-it ones, and attempts to do so are frequently embarrassing. MARNIE succeeds best when it is removed from the fashions of 60s film-making.

Why else is MARNIE thought of as, in William Goldman’s words, an awful, awful film? The dodgy matte paintings and fake process shots are often cited, and there is much to be said against them, no doubt, but that’s a pathetic reason to dismiss an entire film. And indeed, if we accepted it as a valid excuse, we’d have to dismiss practically EVERY Hitchcock film. In fact, these minor flaws are more glaring because Hitch had survived into an era of filmmaking that had moved out of the studio and abandoned the special effect as a means of achieving an outdoorsy feeling. So the problem is one of old-fashionedness, and need not concern us anymore, since every other film from 1964 is now old-fashioned too, in one way or another. As the man says at the end of BARRY LYNDON, “They are all equal now.” Except in terms of quality.

In terms of its script, Jay Presson Allen was as harsh about her job of writing for Hitchcock as Evan Hunter had been about his. She felt she wrote long, linear scenes, and had there been more time, more compression could have livened things up. I tend to agree, but the problem isn’t severe. Hitchcock’s weakness for “quirky” humour is evident in the dialogue, and I do blame him, as filteur if not auteur, of the lines.

SPELLBOUND: “You have mogo on the gogo!”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: “He probably has his suits mended by invisible weavers.”

MARNIE: “I’m Minnie Q Thief!” and “I’m queer for liars,” and “The idea was to kill myself, not feed the damn fish.”

But these are all quibbles.

Marnie washes her hair, the basin fills with squid-ink, Marnie emerges blonde. Fiona scoffs. NO dye could achieve that effect and then just wash out. I ask if it’s bizarre, Hitch including a detail that half the audience would know was bogus. “Not that many women dyed their own hair back then,” mused Fiona. So maybe only the professionals would be scoffing in ’64.

Marnie’s mom’s house: Hitch was very specific about the whitewashed steps in front. Of course, the setting is utterly unreal, but this is intentional. Designer Robert Boyle, quoted in The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock by Steven Jacobs, said “Hitchcock was trying to get at something you couldn’t see. He was trying to tell a story of things that are not at all overt… He was trying desperately to really dig into the psyche of this woman.”

Having observed the surreal effect of ship’s masts jutting from above the rooftops with no sign of water, Hitch commissioned a painting of the background. To my way of thinking, the best way to achieve that surrealism would be by photographing the reality: I’d feel cheated in a modern film if the director resorted to CGI masts. But there’s something splendid about the painting, it has a primitive/naive quality, and the diminishing perspective with the ship’s hulk crammed in at the end mirrors the train station shot and adds to the film’s sense of constriction and confinement, forward movement but without a sense of freedom.

Again, a musical motif, the children singing in the street. The number of Hitch films WITHOUT some kind of recurring musical element that’s part of the plot is looking awfully small, as we look back on Hitchcock Year from December. Even some of the silents (THE RING, DOWNHILL) foreground source music.

Very bizarre perf from Marnie’s mom. And gray floral wallpaper: what a great design concept: all the patterns of nature, but with the life sucked out.

Casting: the allegation that the film is miscast in the only two roles that matter would be a devastating  fault if true. But Tippi has grown considerably in ability since THE BIRDS, and she has a great trick of letting her voice crack into shrill, little-girl panic when she yells. Connery is maybe the only man who could make Mark Rutland, the arrogant, over-privileged sexual blackmailer (and rapist) remotely appealing. Even more than the Bond films, MARNIE capitalizes on his ability to be both sympathetic and simultaneously a big swinging dick.

(I’ve been quoting plentifully from interviews in Charlotte Chandler’s It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A personal Biography, so here’s some more –)

Jay Presson Allen: “The casting of Sean was amusing. We didn’t know who to get for the part, an upper-class Southern man. [...] One day he said, ‘They’re making one of those Bond books, and I hear the guy who’s doing Bond is worth looking at. Let’s get some footage.’ So we got all this footage of this incredibly handsome young man with that thick Scottish accent. We looked at each other and just burst into laughter. ‘Let’s take him anyway.’ We had no regrets about that. He was darling.”

Fiona’s response to the young Connery: “Help!”

And Allen wasn’t fazed by writing the rape scene. She didn’t view it as rape, but as marital misunderstanding. Hunter worried about how to redeem the character of Mark for the audience. Allen decided to rely on star charisma. Hedren wondered how she could be frigid against Connery. “Fake it,” advised Hitch.

It’s quite a plot. It has been remarked, and perhaps with some justice, that having Connery’s character blackmail Marnie into marriage — so he can “tame” her by curing her psychological malady — opens up all this interesting stuff about how sick HE is (which Marnie helpfully points out: cue tiny eye-roll from Connery, as if to say “But of course, but we’re not talking about me.”) — which the film then doesn’t have time to get into. Marnie is cured, alright, but she’s now married to this controlling, twisted crazy man. Or has he been healed by helping her? He does find some compassion, I guess.

Hitch is actually somewhat evasive about whether Marnie is genuinely cured or just better informed at the end. And his treatment of the mother is very interesting — adding a touch of compassion here, then taking it away. She’s left alone at the end, a prisoner of her ideas of “decency.” There seems a real push-pull towards/away from sympathy.

Diane Baker sure is cute: again, as in THE BIRDS, I find the brunette more attractive than the blonde, but Tippi has come on as a performer  and isn’t threatened by Baker. And in fact, Baker, who regretted that her character didn’t really have an end note, just dropping out of the story, isn’t really necessary. She attempts to sabotage Marnie by inviting her former boss to a party, but he could easily have arrived by mistake, invited by Dad. Remove Baker’s character altogether and you could shave off ten minutes (the movie is excellent but perhaps a little long) without losing anything except some dull exposition where Baker has to overhear stuff, at enormous length, and become suspicious.

What else don’t I like? Not much. The suicide attempt is frankly absurd, and seems to suggest that Marnie isn’t that distressed and doesn’t really want to die, which is the opposite of the intended effect, as far as I can see. The problem with Mark raping Marnie is less that he does so — he’s something of a swine anyway — than that he’s promised not to touch her, and his motivation for this betrayal isn’t sufficiently clear.

Marnie crashing her horse is filmed by Hitch in a fascinating series of angles, the whole assemblage utterly artificial, and several of the shots containing blatant fakery. A real horse was photographed cantering on a treadmill against the rear projection screen, although in one early shot it seems to be standing still, looking around idly as the scenery scrolls past. If the sequence isn’t as electrifying as it ought to be, it has to do with George Tomasini’s cutting. He died shortly after this movie was released, and I wonder if he wasn’t ailing slightly already. Each shot seems to linger a few frames too long, performing its role in the sequence and then lingering on to break the flow and draw attention to its unreality. Even if the horse legs are stuffed and the rear projection is noticeable, the moment ought to work and be painful just by the power of montage. But it’s a little ungainly.

Against these flaws, and accepting the story’s dollar-book Freud, we have an intriguing story, strong leads, and some real cinematic frissons. The big safe robbery is exciting, with Hitch using a split composition to show the robbery and the threat of discovery in a single frame, and the various dream-psychosis effects are all fascinating.

The hand tap-tapping on the window — pan onto Tippi, who is DREAMING THE HAND — pan onto Connery in the doorway who is really there, but silhouetted to resemble the nightmare-mother. Exponential zoom tromboning the family home as if it were made of elastic. Red-outs flaring up along with surges of Herrmann’s freak-out music. Goofy zooming in and out on money, which is kind of daft, and reminds me of THE BURBS, which repeats the effect and also features Bruce Dern.

Marnie’s childhood hiome is located thanks to an unseen private eye named Boyle, a homage to designer Robert Boyle, who helped Hitch “find” all his houses.

That final flashback… one assumes, with symptoms like Marnie’s and a family history like Marnie’s, and the Freud angle looming over everything… one assumes a background of sexual molestation. Yet Bruce Dern seems like he’s trying to be a nice guy. It’s inappropriate, him fussing over the  daughter of the prostitute he’s just paid for, but he appears to mean well. Kind of odd — having seen THE NAKED KISS, I’m aware that Hitchcock could have implied sordid intent in the Dern character (and why cast Dern otherwise? Not meaning to be unkind, but… you know…) so it’s interesting that he makes the poor sailor basically innocent, and bludgeoned to death as a result of two unfortunate misunderstandings.

I found the ending moving, which is not something I’d say about many Hitchcocks. I think Jimmy Stewart achieves pathos via his concern for Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW and his disintegration in VERTIGO, but MARNIE aims for deep identification as one of its primary goals and I felt achieved it. Despite appearing outdated to audiences at the time, it also looks forward to developments in European art cinema, in its concern with subjective states of consciousness and the evocation of disturbed emotions through cinematic language. Hitchcock protects himself with a psychological detective story, but the memorable sequences remain mysterious despite the resolution.

Hitch and Horse and the recurring perspective.

The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock
Marnie

UK: Marnie [DVD] [1964]

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