Archive for Saul Bass

The Ben Gazzarra Memorial Barn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 8, 2012 by dcairns

You can still visit this barn, although I believe by now the lettering is quite faded.

Yes, we watched A RAGE TO LIVE, from the novel by John O’Hara. Suzanne Pleshette is the principle reason for watching, as she’s so damn watchable, but Bradford Dillman and the Gazz are also very good. But this film seems to have no reason to be. It’s dull soap opera and the story demonstrates nothing. Director Walter Grauman is best known for LADY IN A CAGE, which at least is memorably nasty, but equally pointless. Both stories seem like carefully designed torture devices to make their heroines suffer, only this one is a melodrama and the other is a home invasion horror piece.

This also suffers from being 1965′s idea of “racy” — an idea that would rapidly be overtaken just a year or so later when Hollywood discovered that costumes could actually be detached from actors. Still, whoever so carefully positioned the titles did a fine job — usually only Saul Bass fits his lettering so neatly within the compositions.

Bad Business

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by dcairns

psycho2-1Drawing by Alfred Hitchcock.

PSYCHO of course was very good business, and intended as such. Inspired by the cheap and morbidly cheerful exploiters of William Castle, which were in turn inspired by Hitchcock’s TV show, Hitch wanted to make a film fast and cheap, promote the hell out of it, and make a killing. In parallel to this, he wanted an interesting artistic experience. Perhaps the gigantism of his last two productions, where everything was expensive — the stars, the sets, the locations — and everything took a long time, and was pursued with a considerable degree of perfectionism, made him ready for a change. PSYCHO was certainly a change. And Hitch made two million dollars from it, personally, in the first quarter of its release.

My parents had shunned the movie on its 1960 debut, despite the fact that NORTH BY NORTHWEST had been a spectacular success as their first date movie. So I thought it was time they caught up with it: after dining with the family, I hung back after the others left and watched it with this unprepared audience. Of course, in the intervening 49 years, they had encountered a few significant “spoilers,” but it was still as reasonable facsimile of watching the movie “fresh.”

After the trippy green MGM lion image that began NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Saul Bass turns the Paramount logo into a kind of woodcut-effect of horizontal b&w lines, leading into the animated slashes of the title sequence, which play like an abstract visualization of the screeching, spasmodic score.

Saul Bass’s titles and Bernard Herrmann’s score immediately grab the attention. Bass is so desperate for attention he plays a couple of tricks with both his credits: his “pictorial consultant” title remains onscreen for a beat longer than everyone else’s while his “titles” credit scoots off in the opposite direction to all the others. Cheeky.

(I give Gus van Sant points for staging the opening titles of his remake in green — that favourite Hitchcock hue.)

In fact, Bass’s insistence that he directed the shower scene may have had something to do with him not being asked back to work on later Hitchcocks. Or maybe the fact that he wasn’t asked back accounts for his making that (inflated, I think) claim. I believe he was sincere in his belief that he was responsible for that scene (and the other murder scene). Hitch doesn’t seem to have commented on the shower scene claim (he didn’t need to, with Janet Leigh supporting his cause), and tartly remarked that he had to reshoot part of the Arbogast killing because Bass made it feel like a sinister man climbing the stairs, rather than an innocent man climbing sinister stairs. Certainly Bass, as storyboard artist, had much to do with laying out the visual plan for these key scenes, and the unique credit accorded him for his work reflects his considerable contribution, but the drawing reproduced above shows that Hitchcock had plenty of ideas of his own.

Herrmann, by claiming that he rescued Hitch from a post-production funk during which the director was convinced he had failed and contemplated cutting the film to an hour for TV, may have sewn the seeds of his eventual falling-out with the master. Certainly John Michael Hayes had already discovered that Hitchcock disliked sharing credit with anyone, and the idea that Herrmann’s score rescued the movie, or was half of its success, may have displeased him.

Nevertheless, these guys do indeed contribute a colossal amount to the atmosphere of the movie. So does John L. Russell, who began his career with MOONRISE and MACBETH, but had laboured in B-movies and TV ever since. Hitchcock brought him in from his TV show, as part of the economy drive. Goodbye perfectionist Robert Burks (for now), hello expediency and speed. But the process nevertheless yielded indelible images, from the American Gothic Bates house rearing its back against the louring  sky, to the water droplet hanging from Janet Leigh’s eyelash, her dilated pupil fixed and staring past it.

Those little titles that introduce the film proper: “Phoenix, Arizona” chimes with the film’s incessant bird imagery (as will the heroine’s surname) while also establishing a semi-spurious factual tone. Of course, given that novelist Robert Bloch was inspired by the Ed Gein case, which is even freakier than his invented monstrosities, the documentary gesture is quite apt.  I read somewhere else, years ago, the observation that the film carefully establishes the date of the opening scene as “December 11th,” then weeks pass after Marion Crane’s disappearance, but nobody ever mentions Christmas.

Move in on a hotel window, and attempt, clumsily enough, to pass through it to the inside in a single shot. I think this is the one thing Gus Van Sant’s remake improves on, with its smooth CGI-assisted float from helicopter-eye-view cityscape to intimate interior. It’s exactly the kind of thing we can do better, and easier, now. Apparently this starting point was screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s idea. Stafano and Block both got movie careers out of this film, naturally enough, but they don’t seem to have exploited them too successfully. And despite Stefano getting on really well with Hitch (following the Master’s usual procedure: meeting at the office, talking about everything BUT the script), they never collaborated again. Why? (see Comments section)

“The score is two string quartets,” I say.

“Fighting?” asks Mum.

My mum expresses some enthusiasm for John Gavin, then admits he’s not too great an actor (maybe I should loan her A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE THOUGH). Janet Leigh may not be a typical Hitchcock heroine but they seemed to gel and it’s a shame he didn’t use her again. But I think with her and Perkins there’s a sense that their work here was so instantly iconic, any further collaboration would have been overshadowed in advance.

The Return of Chubby Bannister Pat Hitchcock! Who almost gets to share a frame with her pop. The usual disparaging kind of role, made slightly worse by the fact that Pat is now mature, and being mocked as a frump. One of the more surreal things in the Van Sant version is that the Pat substitute, Rita Wilson, is more conventionally glamorous than Anne Heche (whom I like), so that when she muses that the drunken rich guy was flirting with Heche, and it must be because he saw Rita’s wedding ring, the line is literally true, and therefore a pointless line. Whereas when Pat says the same thing it’s a cruel ironic joke about self-deception. Potentially, if we see the remake as a piece of conceptual art, the rendering pointless of lines and scenes through miscasting is a good way to go: there should be more of that.

Weird line about Pat taking tranquilizers on her honeymoon — more of a Victorian thing, from Hitch’s childhood, I think. Sir Richard Burton (not the actor) wrote deploringly of the custom of the  groom finding his bride self-etherized on the bridal bed, a note pinned to her nightie ~ “Mamma says you’re to do what you want.”

The dirty old man is very good, isn’t he? I think on previous viewings I missed the importance of the fact that this is undeclared cash, so he can’t call the cops. Marion can steal it and the only consequence would be losing her job and having to avoid the dirty old rich man, neither of which seem like altogether heartbreaking sacrifices.

My parents were impressed with the amount of bra-work in the movie. Was there a sponsorship deal? James Naremore, in Psycho (Filmguide), observes that the change from white to black bra is Hitch’s playful way of suggesting Marion’s fall from grace after she steals the swag. Naremore’s book is the best there is, although Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is essential and Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look at “Psycho” has much to commend it.

My one problem with Rebello — he seems to imply that Janet Leigh was required to manually stimulate John Gavin in the opening scene in order to get him to seem “passionate.” I slightly disbelieve this — at any rate, I would rather hear it in Janet’s words, in order to understand what exactly she told Rebello. Rebello gives us a third-hand version using veiled, sniggery language which just leaves me scratching my head.

One More Mile to Go.

The Adventure of the Highway Patrolman. If you see the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode entitled One More Mile to Go, you will see David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M, a good casting choice for Bloch’s version of Norman Bates, the middle-aged schlub, had Hitch and Stefano not reinvented him as young and sweet) driving around with his murdered wife in the trunk, trying to reach a lake to dispose of her, continually hassled by a motorcycle cop giving him grief over a defective tail-light. The cop, the guilt, the body in the boot — it’s like a bunch of elements from PSYCHO misremembered in a dream. It’s also one of Hitch’s best episodes as director, since in milks a single suspense situation for all it’s worth.

We did a storyboarding exercise in class last year — a pro boarder from Denmark took a couple of pages of script from PSYCHO — the cop tapping on the window — and had several students breaks it down into shots. Interestingly, nobody identified the movie (!) and nobody came up with this shot –

– which is clearly the most effective in the scene. They lost the shock. Janet Leigh’s big eyes are very impressive here — think what Hitchcock could have done with Barbara Steele! Like shiny wrecking balls, those orbs.

Herrmann’s score, already showcased in the titles, gets to real work its magic in the driving stuff. In almost every Hitchcock TV episode, there comes a point where the protag starts either talking to himself aloud, or internally monologuing, often because the story comes from a piece of prose fiction and the screenwriter hasn’t found a better solution. Here, we get something more clever, Marion’s paranoid thoughts about what her boss and her sister and the guy she robbed will say. Stefano apparently wrote these speeches as full scenes, then agreed with Hitch that they’d work better as fantasies, because that way they characterize Marion too.

That’s some storm! I think the lighting makes the rainfall more opaque, so that it seems more dangerous than any real rainstorm. A welcoming motel sign! Better pull over. My parents know enough about the story to know this is bad. And the Bates Motel is indeed a Bad Business, since the highway moved away. Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies.

Hello, Norman. Hitch was able to pick up Anthony Perkins cheap, because Perkins owed Universal one film on an old contract — otherwise the low-budget thriller could never have afforded his services. Hitch actually dropped Perkins’ name in order to lure Stefano onto the film, suggesting that Bloch’s rather unappealing schizoid protagonist/antagonist would become, outwardly, a boy next door. With his intense round eyes under the dark, straight eyebrows, Perkins has an inherent talent for the unsettling stare — the only real similarity he bears to singer David Byrne, who once told the actor that their resemblance had been the bane of his life (hence “Psycho Killer”). Perkins is so bashful and sweet (Vince Vaughn CANNOT DO BASHFUL — he is DISGUSTING when he tries) that, although we notice his last-minute decision to select room 1 for Marion, we would not suspect at this stage that his decision has anything to do with a peephole looking through from the office…

Mrs Bates’ voice is heard. And it certainly isn’t Perkins’. A student asked me last week if Marion is crazy too, since she hears a woman’s voice. I don’t think that’s it. In another scene, WE hear the voice, when only Norman is around. It’s kind of like a shared delusion. Or a narrative cheat.

A standing set already on the Universal lot…

Norman brings dinner to Marion, since mother won’t have strangers in the house — “I suppose men don’t desire strangers!” Sandwiches — which look like unadorned white bread — and milk. The fatal glass of milk! Milk is even more sinister than eggs in Hitchcock’s films, and come to think of it, both foodstuffs are associated with the female of the species…

When Anne Heche hides the money in the newspaper, Van Sant and editor Amy Duddleston break the action into a series of jump cuts, unlike Hitch’s flowing single take. It’s neither better nor worse, just more modern — but isn’t it kind of breaking the rules of the exercise? What IS the exercise?

Compare frames from the Hitchcock and Van Sant films here — it’s notable that Hitch includes the corner of the bed, and we know that Norman is noticing this when he looks into the room. Then, when he looks back at Marion, there’s an intimation of seduction, which is all in his mind, but which we recognize. The shot of Marion absolutely reads as Norman’s POV, and it’s the beginning of the process by which he’s going to take over the next phase of the film.

In the remake, the bed is absent, and although we still get Norman’s thought, the medium shot of Marion looks like a simple reverse-shot, robbed of its power as POV. And Vince Vaughn doesn’t even look into the room. A shot-for-shot remake can still miss out on the whole point of something. Which may be the whole point of the remake, or at least it’s most interesting reason for existing.

Dinner in the office, with the stuffed birds. Hitchcock is in economy mode, keeping it static and letting the actors hold the scene, with repetitive shot/countershot coverage that keeps amping up, every minute or two, with an angle change that intensifies the mood. Stefano wrote this as a little play, a two-hander that could almost stand alone — without the backstory we already have for Marion it would be positively Pinteresque. Anyway, by the end of it, Marion has decided to return the loot, which is a pretty tragic irony. And Norman has discovered that she signed a false name on the hotel register, which makes him think… what? That she’s not a nice girl, presumably. This makes it OK, in his mind, to peep on her (except he was already planning on doing that, it seems) and presumably explains his later line “She might have fooled me but she didn’t fool mother.”

Toilet Alert! I think it’s the act of flushing which upset the censors. Were there really NO toilets in Hollywood movies before this? You can see the cistern of one in NO 17, and again in SECRET AGENT, where Peter Lorre goes berserk and nearly TP’s John Gielgud (now that would be a screen first). Hitchcock’s foregrounding of the lav in the famous trailer — the first time, I think, that he started treating his trailers like extensions of his TV show openings) strikes me as hilarious but puerile, almost unworthy of the Great Man. But Hitch’s sense of humour is irrepressible.

Hitch would make a great estate agent.

I didn’t think it was very funny,” laughed Saul Bass, when confronted with Hitch’s claim that PSYCHO was a black comedy. the grim little scene in the office deepens the characterization and intensifies the mood to the point where we’re forced to take things fairly seriously. I guess Hitch meant that the central set-up, of a man preserving his mother’s pickled corpse, and cavorting in her clothes, and carrying on conversations with her, had a comic side. I’m not sure my Mum agrees.

The shower scene — note that Janet appears to lock the bathroom door, yet the knife-wielding assassin will simply waltz in later. Maybe the door is fixed so it won’t lock? This makes Norman even more sinister and premeditative than we suspected. Or maybe it’s a joke. Anne Heche seems to turn a built-in key-handle type affair when she closes the door too.

Famously, the censorship committee sent the film back for recutting, saying some of them saw nudity during the murder. Hitchcock resubmitted the film, unaltered, and the ones who saw the nudity the first time thought it was gone, and the ones who hadn’t seen nudity the first time now thought it had suddenly appeared. I think there’s like one frame of nipple or something, but nothing in focus. Does out of focus count?

There may not be much more to say about this, but I want to clarify something in Durgnat’s PSYCHO book. I’m quoted as saying something about nudity in the murder scene which I didn’t say. Durgnat seems to have misunderstood the comment being about Janet Leigh’s breasts appearing in shot at the bottom of frame, which certainly doesn’t happen. I was talking about the aftermath of the murder, and this shot ~

The abstract shapes in the background are Marion’s breasts (absent in the remake), out of focus. Presumably Janet Leigh’s stand-in, a Playboy model. I thought it was sort of funny that Hitch got this past the censors, simply by directing their eyes elsewhere. The focus tells us it’s a shot of a hand. Rack focus, and it’s a shot of a rack. You just didn’t frames like this in 1960 movies.

Some interesting micro-detailed shot analysis here, but I dispute the guy’s interpretation of the torso-stabbing shot. To me, it’s clear that the knife IS penetrating the stomach, and therefor (one hopes), it’s an artificial stomach. A very good one, considering that in 1960 the manufacture of prosthetic rubber women had not reached the levels of technical perfection we routinely expect today. If it’s a fake tummy, then the shot probably isn’t in reverse, but the trail of droplets falling from the knife blade need not worry us — thrust a knife into a shower spray and water WILL fly off it.

Janet plays dead very convincingly indeed — eyedrops froze her pupils in a death-like stare, and she manages to remain unblinking even with a drop of water in one eyelash (lovingly placed there on Hitch’s orders, I assume). A cutaway to the shower head covers the moment, spotted by Alma alone, where Janet swallowed. But her eyelash CAN be seen flickering very slightly just ahead of the cut.

My parents are vaguely impressed that Hitchcock stages the whole sequence without any overt nudity, and without having to contrive his shots in a massively contorted way (no “trained furniture”) and then they’re more worried about the fate of the $40,000 than they are about the murder. “It’s our generation,” claims Mum. It’s fascinating to see Hitchcock’s strategies working so well on a small, reasonably unfamiliar audience.

Can we make sure Vince Vaughn never does THIS again? Some kind of face-clamp, perhaps.

Enter Vera Miles, re-enter John Gavin, and then enter Martin Balsam, in a scene which is, amusingly, a virtual remake of the Donald Calthrop’s entrance in BLACKMAIL. Here’s Donald:

Here’s Martin:

Both enter through glass doors, although Donald is opening a phone booth, as I recall. Both scenes are set in shops, and feature hushed couples discussing criminal matters, interrupted by an interloper who seems to know all about their private business. The self-plagiarism is appropriate to the scene, an amusing gag for me to uncover at this stage in Hitchcock Year, and proof of Hitchcock’s looong memory — I certainly don’t think the repetition is inadvertent. Ironic if Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, remade “shot for shot” by Van Sant, is already, in part, a shot-for-shot remake of BLACKMAIL.

I like Martin Balsam. I like the story of Eddie Izzard meeting him and complimenting him on his campy turn in THE ANDERSON TAPES, and Balsam being amazed that anybody noticed him, a mere character player, in that film. I even like Martin Balsam’s death. He arrived at his holiday hotel, told the desk clerk that this was his favourite place in the whole world, went to his room, lay down and died.

Martin’s conversation with a hotel clerk in this film is less pleasant, but equally final. Poor Norman Bates, the night man and the day man at the Bates Motel, must be getting very confused now that everybody’s hassling him for this money that he doesn’t know anything about. Another murder — my Mum screams, a little, at the shot of the door opening to release Mrs Bates. Gus Van Sant randomly cuts to a cow and a girl in a mask. I can’t decide if he’s breaking his own rules, or making something more interesting. Maybe he should have these random images all the way through the film, or not at all.

Balsam’s death scene is more surprising, in its presentation, than Leigh’s , because it hasn’t been so over-analysed, and because of the strange shot of Balsam sort of gliding downstairs backwards, and because the shot choices are so unpredictable — that high angle “God shot” when Mrs B attacks is there to stop us getting a clear look at the old bird, but it also works to disorient us.

Now Vera Miles has to drive the plot forward. John Gavin’s character really is a drip. But Vera shows real determination. The movie could just be over if she wasn’t so pushy. My parents are pleased to see the town sheriff, whom they remember from something or other (it turns out to be sixty-odd episodes of The Virginian), but he turns out to be no help, save to hint darkly at “that bad business” out at the Bates place, and to tell us that Mrs B is deceased.

Dig this image! Like a Catholic icon. My mother, a keen gardener, tells me that these tools are known as “scarifiers.” Seems appropriate.

The fruit cellar — introduced in that awesome twisting crane shot as Norman carries mom downstairs for safekeeping — leading to a slight reprise of the VERTIGO on-high view — the whole climax is staged totally differently in Van Sant’s version, which seems like an utter admission of defeat, really.

I remember replaying over and over Norman’s entrance in drag at the climax, because I’d read that you could hear him screaming “I am Norma Bates!” (an odd thing to say, admittedly), almost but not-quite swamped by Herrmann’s shrill strings on the soundtrack. I was listening to the wrong bit! The line can be heard, quite clearly, when John G wrestles him to the floor.

My Dad admires the swinging light-bulb effect, which takes him back to his days as an electrical engineer — his colleague used to swing a light bulb whenever anybody told a story that sounded a bit doubtful — he’d say “Just a minute,” then set the light swinging to and fro, then turn back and say, “You were saying?”

Of marginal relevance to PSYCHO, perhaps — my Dad once put in the wiring in a psychiatric hospital  (“someplace”). An odd sensation, being up a very tall ladder, while some in-patient had a fit of the screaming pazuzus down below… He met one chap who was getting released with a Certificate of Sanity. He thought, Wow, I don’t even have a Certificate of Sanity of my own.

The “old-fashioned expository scene” written by Stefano to supply all the information Bloch conveys in the novel via characters thoughts — a controversial bit of writing, to be sure. Kind of a pace-killer. I guess we do need the info, but maybe the scene could be shorter? You can see why filmmakers since then so often reach for the Madman’s Gallery — the collection of news clippings, photos, crazy drawings, designed to give a clue to the nut-job’s psychopathology. Fiona dates this trend back to THE HOWLING — blame/credit John Sayles and Joe Dante. It does beat having some windbag analyst huff up and down for five minutes.

And then everything is redeemed by Norman/Norma’s internal monologue, a new narrative device making an eleventh-hour appearance, but perhaps echoing Marion’s imaginary conversations in act 1. My Dad greatly admires John Russell’s lighting here — subtle modeling, and the impression of a white, clinical room, without actually any white. My Mum misses the neat-subliminal glimpse of Mrs Bates superimposed over Norman’s features as we dissolve to the car and the welcome return of Marion and the $40,ooo from the clammy embrace of the swamp…

A strange contradiction I just noticed — the shrink says he got the whole story from Norman’s mom, i.e. the part of his mind that thinks it’s her. But in the internal monologue, Norma blames her son for all the killings, which flatly contradicts the doc’s account. Further, Norma claims she can’t even move a muscle, although according to who you listen to, she’s either dead, or healthy as a horse but insane. Does Norma know she’s dead? Does Norman now believe himself to be his mother’s embalmed corpse? There’s that scene, earlier, where Norman says his mother couldn’t manage without him — “Her fire would go out…” Here he seems to have some intimation of the unfaceable truth.

My folks enjoyed PSYCHO, at last. “Bits of it were maybe dated, but it kept my interest,” said Mum.

Can’t end this without recalling an appearance by the late Mary Whitehouse, self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals, on a BBC2 discussion show. She was always on about sex and violence on TV, was Mary, and this time she started in on the screening of PSYCHO II, the better-than-you’d-think belated sequel directed by Richard Franklin, a genuine Hitchock fan. “We saw a gang of youths, beating up an old lady,” ranted Whitehouse. The interviewer intervened: “I believe it was one person, not a gang, and Anthony Perkins couldn’t really be called a youth… and besides, I think really the scene was played for comic effect.”

Whitehouse’s reply does kind of sum up the madness of the censor’s mind, so I think it deserves to be quoted: “Do you really think that old lady, as she lay dying, said to herself, ‘It’s all right, this is only for comic effect?’”

 

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.)

vert3A classic John Fulton matte shot.

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.

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