Archive for Vertigo

Scottie Ferguson Investigates

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2018 by dcairns

To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to investigate Park Circus’s release of Universal’s new 4K restoration of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, a dazzling sight. Not only does the painstaking work turn back the clock on the wear and tear the film suffered before its previous restoration, but it undoes some of the less thoughtful decisions of that controversial face-lift — gone are the shockingly modern-sounding, ricochet-heavy gunshots from the opening chase scene, replaced with more period-appropriate BLAM-BLAM FX I don’t know if they’re the ones Hitchcock originally used (whereas the Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz job junked all the original FX and added all-new foley, this one was reportedly able to salvage about half the original footsteps, doors, guns, etc).

When Hitch walks by with his horn, and Scottie (James Stewart) turns in at the entrance to visit his shady friend, you can actually read the headlines on the news-stand here. I don’t have the film on Blu-Ray, nor do I own a massive TV or projector, but I’m uncertain anyone ever saw these before. There’s a story along the lines of COMPANY DIRECTOR AND SECRETARY FOUND MURDERED. The secretary might be Marion Crane, from Hitchcock’s next again feature, I guess. The company boss might be Brenda Blaney, director of the marital agency in FRENZY. Fanciful, I know. But the headline sounds a note of warning right before Scottie meets Elster, and the warning includes a company director, a woman, and murder.

That’s the kind of thing that’s so on-the-nose it SHOULD be small, otherwise you get the hilarious LUCKY TO BE ALIVE headline in EYES WIDE SHUT, the dumbest thing I’ve ever read off the screen.

A little over halfway through the film, when Scottie is reduced to wandering the streets (like sad, mad Carlotta in the story), he keeps thinking he sees the departed Madeleine. And he does: even in this giant longshot, in 4K you can see that it’s genuinely Kim Novak coming out of the building and chatting to the doorman. But, after a brief reaction shot of Scottie, the figure appears subtly different — Novak has been replaced by Lee Patrick (associated with another San Francisco detective — she was Sam Spade’s secretary, the estimable Effie, in THE MALTESE FALCON). On my DVD I can kind of see this, but I could never be sure.

(I’m told that the tiny Novak in this shot, hovering above the hedgerow on the right, is also quite identifiable if you have the 2014 Blu-Ray and a biggish screen.)

This substitution trick was first played by Hitch in SABOTAGE, when Sylvia Sidney thinks she sees her slain little brother in the street — cutting quickly, Hitch first shows the boy we know, then replaces him with a stranger. A heartbreaking and uncanny moment in a film Hitch was never really satisfied with. So he replays the effect, multiple times, here.

VERTIGO is constantly mirroring itself — replaying scenes from earlier. Scottie revisits the places he associates with Madeleine, and each time he thinks he sees her, and Hitch pulls the same gag. Returning to Ernie’s, where he first saw Madeleine, he sees her again, and it’s definitely Novak. One reaction-shot later, and she’s been switched for a pod person.

Only in the gallery scene does Hitchcock resist the temptation to slip a Novak in: the young woman studying the Portrait of Carlotta remains stubbornly herself.

But, obedient to the Rule of Three, Hitch has another spectral walk-on by Novak later, AFTER Scottie has met up with Judy, who really is (sort-of) Madeleine ~

Fiona: “Her arms are MASSIVE.” (Not criticising, just impressed.)

Back at Ernie’s, Scottie looks past Judy and sees Madeleine — two Kim Novaks in the same shot. The fact that Hitchcock routinely uses rear projection stops this effects shot seeming that out of the ordinary. But though Scottie clearly registers surprise, I’m not sure I’d ever seen what was surprising him before. If I had, I’d forgotten it, and seeing the film so much sharper made me feel I was seeing it anew. Madeleine, in that familiar grey suit, enters Ernie’s (in the distance, to the left of Judy)

There’s a reaction shot of Scottie — he notices Judy has noticed him looking — and he furtively looks at his plate. Judy looks over her shoulder, and in Scottie’s POV we see that her doppelganger has been replaced by the shiny-faced intruder from the previous Ernie’s manifestation.

So, Scottie, having found Judy, is still satisfied. His subconscious is still seeking Madeleine as she was. And he knows these visions are hallucinatory, he knows he’s still crazy, but he knows he has to act sane and not admit to them…

Maybe I never caught this moment because I was too fascinated by the sight of Novak eating.

And then he starts the creepy makeover thing with Judy. And this time, I formulated a new theory (or so I thought) about what he’s up to. I call it the second murder plot.

You see, according to this theory, Scottie is not just trying to make Judy look just like Madeleine so he can have sex with her and pretend Madeleine’s alive. That’s part of it, the part he can admit to himself but not to her. But I think there’s another scheme, that he can’t even consciously recognize.

In the first half of the film, Scottie, a natural sceptic (a Scot, like the hero of MARY ROSE, Hitch’s unmade ghost story), has become convinced that the dead can possess the living. And the way this happens is when the living first become obsessed by the dead. When Madeleine wears Carlotta’s jewellery, gazes at her portrait, styles her hair with that vertiginous whorl, visits Carlotta’s home and her grave, she gradually gives herself up to Carlotta’s spirit.

So it would make sense that, styling Judy after Madeleine, Scottie is preparing a new body for Madeleine’s spirit to inhabit. Judy, who doesn’t matter to him, can be replaced by the departed loved one, an inversion of Elster’s replacing wife Madeleine with lover Judy (everything in VERTIGO seems to get replaced, repeated, mirror-flipped at some point).

It’s a frightful scheme, perhaps worse than Elster’s. But maybe we’d all do it, if we thought it could work.

NB: Novak is brilliant as Judy. If we study her performance as she walks through the green fog effect, we can see that she’s definitely still Judy as she emerges.

Counter-arguments: if this interpretation is wrong, it’s because of two things. One (1), there isn’t an obvious moment where we can see Scottie hatching this plan. It’s more like a series of increments, with Scottie fixating on Judy’s clothes, then her hair, etc. I would normally expect Hitchcock to crystallise the moment the scheme comes into focus, but here it kind of doesn’t, because Scottie never admits it to himself. Two (2), after the big motel room special effects love scene, Scottie seems content to be with Judy, even though she’s still talking like Judy, evidently hasn’t been taken over by Madeleine’s spirit. He seems content with his makeover. But something hallucinatory/supernatural happened to him in that green fog. Like he thinks Madeleine took over just for the sex (Judy was smart enough to keep her mouth shut) and he can get her back anytime.

And now that I reread my piece from Hitchcock Year, I find that I was onto Scottie’s scheme back then, and that it’s spelled out in the novel. I forget many things. But this one was worth rediscovering and spending some more time on, I think.

 

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Vertigo Views of VistaVision

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2018 by dcairns

Having been blown away by the new 4K of VERTIGO, I called up Nick Varley of Park Circus, who are releasing it in the UK, for an interview — after all, he’s only over there in Glasgow, that other, darker city. But I learned the hard way that the audio recorder on my phone doesn’t record phone calls, apparently, so I can’t give you any direct quotes. But I learned lots of things of interest…

The first thing I learned is that the restoration is by Universal, not Park Circus. Universal went back to the original Vistavision negative and scanned it at 4K, so what we’re seeing is 100% new. And, since prints formerly would be several stages removed from the negative, via interpositive etc, we’re able to see more than even audiences of the original release could see. Fortunately, in this case, I can attest that this doesn’t show up anything that wasn’t visible before that the filmmakers didn’t mean for us to see. Nick cited the wires suspending the Wicked Witch’s winged monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ as a major example of a not-entirely-welcome discovery. The line where Martin Balsam’s makeup ends on his neck in PSYCHO is a less glaring one from Hitchcock’s work.

I asked about the sound — it feels much more authentic than the 1996 job, which threw out the foley tracks and replaced them with modern stereo recordings, so that the gunshots at the opening had a jarringly contemporary quality — the metallic sound of the hammer coming down that you get in DIE HARD, the gratuitous ricochets on bullets being fired into the air. They now just go BLAM! as they should. Nick spoke of the tendency to sometimes want old films to sound and look like new films, a misguided approach I hope is finally going out of fashion.

I asked what Park Circus are up to next, in terms of restorations they’re doing personally. THE APARTMENT just got a 4K restoration, fixing one damaged reel and some problems with the main title. The results played in Cannes, and are different from the Blu-Ray Arrow just released (with a video essay by me). They’re now at work on SOME LIKE IT HOT, which could be very exciting, and next up will be John Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE, for Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.

I mentioned meeting the film’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, in Bologna, and it turns out she’s a good friend of Nick’s. We paused briefly to marvel at the life and career she’s had.

The standard problem with MOULIN ROUGE as a 3-strip Technicolor film is that often the film shrinks, and as there are three negatives (red, blue and green), if they shrink at different rates, when you combine them you get the colours out of register, like in a cheaply printed old comic book, with characters and objects acquiring luridly coloured halos around their forms. In the digital age, this problem can be 100% solved, so that’ll be one result of the restoration.

The more unique problem comes from the film’s unique look. Huston loved experimenting with colour (MOBY DICK, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE) and Oswald Morris was doing things with diffusion and the palette to emulate the look of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. And there seem to be no original 35mm prints extant to show what the results were supposed to look like. All we have as an authentic guide is the negative, and a 16mm dye-transfer print in Scorsese’s collection, which will be referred to.

It’s going to be exciting! I think in this case, possible the false noses will look falser, but they already look pretty false. The main result will be that a gorgeous looking film that exists only in tatty dupes, will suddenly look many times more gorgeous. Ossie Morris is the man.

Ways of Seeing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2018 by dcairns

Watched two film documentaries — SIDE BY SIDE and DE PALMA.

Christopher Kenneally’s SIDE BY SIDE (2012) is the better show, exploring the pros and cons of digital vs. film. Hosted by the affable Keanu Reeves, it’s a;ready wondrously dated: they’re talking about digital “largely” taking over from film in the next ten years. The budget seems to have been impressive — whenever they want a clip, there it is, whenever they want to talk to somebody, there they are. Great cinematographers and editors, several of them no longer with us (Michael Ballhaus, Vilmos Zsigmond, Anne V. Coates), top directors on both sides of the debate (Lucas, Lynch, Nolan, Cameron, Soderbergh, Scorsese), key figures and early adopters of digital shooting (Von Trier, Anthony Dod Mantle), all contribute engaging bits, and Keanu is so likeable he can get away with saying “Yeah, but it looks like shit.”

The most worrying thing covered is the issue of storage — digital files on drives are potentially MORE vulnerable to being lost than silver nitrate ever was. Someone cheerfully says this problem will be solved if we want to solve it, and since we have to, we will. But in the history of cinema, we’ve ALWAYS solved our preservation problems too late, and substantial amounts of important work has slipped through the cracks/crevasses.

Overall, a very relaxed, enjoyable experience — educational and interesting. It might trigger some more blog posts from me…

DE PALMA (2016), from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, would benefit from other voices. The directors are occasionally heard asking questions, but De Palma dominates so utterly that we never learn, for instance, why the documentarists are interested in him. He just takes us through his career, film by film, and we learn that BDP thinks all of his movies are good, even WISE GUYS and BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES — he admits the late Tom Wolfe’s book is better, but he has a solution: “Just don’t read the book.”

We open with VERTIGO and De Palma talking about how the movie shows the film director at work. And one thinks, Uh-oh. I’m not convinced we’re supposed to take the film as an instructional video, and Jimmy Stewart’s make-over of Kim Novak as a lesson in how to do it, which Brian is basically saying we should and he does. BDP has undoubtedly learned from Hitchcock, but has he learned the right things?

Fascinating to watch De Palma with Scorsese on Dick Cavett in the seventies (which I can no longer locate on YouTube). In those days, De Palma was an ebullient, goofy guy, and Scorsese was intense, detached, aloof. De Palma was clean-shaven and Scorsese had a beard. Today, De Palma is a growling, surly bear in a beard, and Scorsese is clean-shaven, charming, avuncular. Does this say something about the psychological effect of beards, or the psychological meaning of beards? Of the effect of forty years of De Palma being beaten up critically for his bravura depiction of graphic violence, and Scorsese being lauded critically for his (admittedly very different) bravura depiction of graphic violence?

DE PALMA could work as the gruff maestro explaining his rules of filmmaking — he’s good at this, and his rules make sense, though of course they aren’t everybody’s rules. Or it could work as a psychological exploration of the peculiar obsessions driving his cinema — De Palma is happy to supply all the clues, including the personal stuff about bugging the girl’s sex ed class when he was a schoolboy, and stalking his father’s mistress, and so on. We definitely get material that helps bring his work into focus. And these twin prongs of the movie do work in parallel, to an extent. But De Palma isn’t remotely interested in discussing meaning — understandably, I guess, since throughout his career these discussions have come back to accusations of misogyny, exploitation, which are perhaps harder to bear than the stylistic conversations which always come back to ripping off Hitchcock.

The solution to De Palma’s reluctance to delve deep and actually think about what his films are exploring — ironically, he wants to be considered an artist, but resists anyone finding anything to think about in his work, beyond the level of “cool Steadicam shot!” — would be to talk to someone else. Scorsese might have been helpful, but he’s not really one for deep analysis either — his appreciations of cinema are strongest when focussed on technical achievement. I think whoever you got, it would be helpful if they were female. Misogyny is the rampant bull elephant in the room. Two guys are making a documentary about a third guy, and THIS is their closing image ~