Friday, October 2, 2009

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Alfred Hitchcock Part III

Alfred Hitchcock: A Period of Grace

You cannot broach the subject of Alfred Hitchcock and his films without the touchy subject of the women in his films. A clerk noticed I'd bought a Hitchcock DVD and remarked "Oh, my mother won't watch these with me--she thinks he's too dark and mean to women." Well, as the line goes, he's not all that easy on men, either! One can certainly look at the films of Hitchcock and see him as a misogynist, using women as victims, if that's what you're looking for. But it's not that simple, tempting as it is. So many of his female characters are strong, lively, and capable of handling what life, or the director, dishes out. Hitchcock was an incurable romantic,* forever pining, forever falling in love or lust, then his Catholic upbringing would rear its ugly crown-of-thorns ringed head, making him feel guilty about it and desiring it all the more because of its forbidden nature. He would see a woman and see a glimmer of the perfect woman in his mind, and then manipulate his power to complete the picture. It's no wonder he was attracted to "Vertigo," it must have seemed like "second-nature" to him. There were many women he was particularly fond of--Ingrid Bergman, Carole Lombard, Vera Miles, but towering above them all was Grace Kelly. She must have seemed like a god-send to him: blonde, cool, stylish, but secretly randy as hell. Hitch did three films in a row with her and they're three of his best, in different ways, and each one is like a valentine to Grace. Hitchcock's camera plays over her face, moves in for enveloping close-ups, gives her flirting, outrageous behavior and the best clothes. It's clear how enchanted he was with her, and how disappointed he was when she left films to become Her Serene Highness of Monaco**--he kept trying to coax her back, most notably with "Marnie." And when he couldn't, he tried to mold 'Tippi' Hedren into her likeness. But he couldn't bring back Grace. And in the face of that frustration, maybe his love became bitterness and antipathy. Unrequited love can do that, and it might be why his later films are "mean to women." Certainly the Hedren films are. Certainly they are indicative of the frustration of pursuing the unattainable.

WARNING! SPOILERS ABOUND IN THESE CAPSULE SUMMARIES!! WHATEVER YOU DO, IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THESE HITCHCOCK FILMS, THEN DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER (By all means, go to the attic OR the basement, take a shower OR a ride on a carousel, wait in a corn-field OR the schoolyard, visit Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Bates Motel, OR the beach on the French Riviera, or for that matter, just sit in your room and watch your neighbors, but for the love of an omnipotent uncaring God...) I REPEAT, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER!!!

(Thank you and have a nice day)

Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" (1955) It takes one to catch one. And as cat-burglar John Robie ("The Cat") sees it, we all have a touch of larceny in our souls, as dark as the green of night (or that's how it appears with Hitchcock's Technicolor experimentsthe colors pop in this picture). Someone is snatching diamonds on the French Riviera and the local police and Robie's old resistance pals think he's come out of sunny retirement. He hasn't. And he knows he's never going to get any peace until said copy-cat-burglar is caged. So soon he's pursuing his own shadow, while also being pursued by one Frances Stevens, a spoiled-rich, very forward heiress on holiday ("To Catch a Thief," get it?) She thinks he's guilty, too, and like the Mark Rutland character in "Marnie," that only excites her more. The dialog is laced with double and single entendre's, (at a picnic: "Would you like a breast or a leg?" Grant double-take—there are lots of them: "You make the choice...") especially in a mutual seduction scene that features Technicolor fireworks in the background. It's a trifle, a bon-bon, a well-written (by "Rear Window" scribe John Michael Hayes) jolly-good time, and it must have been nice to go to a tony vacation spot as a location with friends and crew after two suceesful films of nothing but studio work. Kelly is never sexier than when, after giving Robie the cold shoulder during dinner, plants a smoldering kiss on his face for dessert.*** That's pure Hitchcock, enjoying himself. Certainly better than anything we've got back-home in Portland, Oregon ("Nearly everything is...")
Hitchcock is seen sitting next to Grant in the back of a bus 10 minutes into the film.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) A continuation of the filmmaker's obsession with making films in an enclosed space (like "Lifeboat," "Rope," and that same year's "Dial 'M' for Murder"), "Rear Window" takes place on a single setbut what a set it is. A complete New York brownstone with courtyard that allows the laid-up L.B. Jeffries, a confirmed bachelor and thrill-seeking photographer, to spice up his boring recuperation **** with some not-so-innocent spying on his neighbors. It's a hot summer week, and he's also sweating and feeling helpless because his gorgeous fashion-designer girlfriend finally has him trapped in his apartment, so she can press the subject of marriage. It's a brilliant stroke of the screenplay that all those windows open up on various stages of love stories, from a honeymooning couple to a dancer warding off unwanted advances to the childless couple throwing all their attention to their dog to the composer trying to write a love song, to "Miss Lonelyhearts" unlucky in love and life. Then there's the Thorwalds upstairs--she's an invalid, and he's a brusque angry man at the end of his rope. Then when Mrs. Thorwald goes missing one day and Stewart's character begins to suspect the worst. The police are skeptical so, soon, it's not enough to spy on Thorwald, you have to gather evidence, too. And that's when things get interesting.

It's a perfect screenplay (by John Michael Hayes), especially for Hitchcock—everything clicks and resonates with the characters, and our identification with them is complete: we're just as much voyeurs as Jeffries is...and just as helpless when bad things happen to good people (Hitchcock always liked to tell the story of Mrs. Joseph Cotten at the premiere grabbing her husband during a particularly scary scene and telling him "DO something! DO something!"). Stewart and Kelly are marvelous (as is Raymond Burr's scary but oddly sympathetic knife salesman), and Thelma Ritter, who has all but been forgotten, shows again why she was the perfect sounding board/comic relief/greek chorus of films. All the themes and techniques that Hitchcock has been experimenting with over the last couple of decades comes together in this story. With so much single-set experience already under his considerable belt, Hitchcock's direction is seamless and full of clever touches that always maximize the situation and is never confined by it. The entire movie seems to adhere to the Look/See/React strategy of movie-making that Hitchcock excels at. Despite the one location and a protagonist (you can't really call him a "hero") who is restricted in his movements, it is the perfect Hitchcock film...and one of the most thrilling.

Hitchcock can be seen winding the clock in the composer's room at 30 minutes into the film. That composer, by the way, is Ross Bagdasarian, who, as David Seville, would create hits with "Alvin and the Chipmunks."

Kelly, as seen through Hitchcock's lens in "Rear Window."
He gives her one of the best entrances in movies,
although it's shot
like she's an approaching murderer.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial 'M' for Murder" (1954) One of Hitchcock's most popular films, he decided to direct it when another project fell through. Still, it seeems like a perfect pairing. Frederick Knott's play was an international hit, a macabre tale of deceit, blackmail, murder and double-cross that buttoned up everything in a nice, neat audience-satisfying package. Hitchcock made no attempt to "open up" the play—everything basically happens in one room (there are some cutaways to the lead's "alibi"). And something else is peculiar, too. Hitchcock shoots everything from a fairly low angle. The reason is simple and clever. "Dial 'M' for Murder" was shot in 3-D, and the low angles allow furniture, lamps, telephones to loom into the picture to give it depth. But the highlight effect must have been Grace Kelly's hand reaching out to the audience as she's being strangled by an unseen assailant. I wouldn't be surprised if people grabbed for it in sympathy given the 3-D imagery. Ray Milland is another of Hitchcock's sophisticated bastards, although the illicit affair between Kelly and Robert Cummings (from Hitchcock's "Saboteur") doesn't make them more sympathetic. And mention should be made of British actor John Williams (not the composer) recreating his Tony Award winning role. He would appear again in "To Catch a Thief" and many times on "Alfred Hitchcock presents..." A journey-man actor who could pull off drama and comedy, Hitchcock used him when he wanted his policemen to be non-threatening. The source is one of Hitchcock's least cinematic projects, all talky exposition and not much action, but Hitchcock, through clever camera placement, keeps it interesting.
Hitchcock can be seen in a photograph of the conspirators' college reunion 13 minutes into the film. Clever.

Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess" (1953) It's probably the best idea for a suspense gimmick that a Catholic boy could come up with: a priest hears confession about a murder, but when suspicion for the crime falls on him, he cannot break the Seal of Confession and reveal the truth, even though it may cost him his life. A good idea, based soundly on priestly vows, but audiences didn't buy it. If he was going to his death, why doesn't he just SAY something? What good will his vows do him if he's dead? And the murderer will go free to kill others! They didn't buy it back in '53, and given the recent clergy scandals, it especially rings hollow now. I'm a recovering Catholic, so I understood the theory, but what I never bought was Father Logan's sudden conversion to the priest-hood, and old flame Anne Baxter's stalker behavior towards him. Baxter's always been a "moony-goony" kind of actress, but her situation here is frustrating...especially considering the object of her affection is Montgomery Clift. I mean, c'mon, lady, get a clue!

I mock, but Clift is great in this movie. Enigmatic and haunted, he makes you think
his Father Logan would make a great martyr, and that lends some credence to the concept. And Hitchcock's direction is never less than assured and squeezes the last bit of suspense out of every situation, although I'm sure dealing with Clift's uber-method might have been frustrating for him.*****

Hitch can be seen crossing a hill above a long length of stairs just after the opening credits. During filming of "The Exorcist" the stairway in Georgetown outside little Reagan's window (and serves a useful purpose late in the story) was nicknamed "The Hitchcock Steps."

Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951) The best film Hitchcock made that people are unfamiliar with. First off, it's an adapatation of a Patricia Highsmith novel (she of the "Ripley" series) and her dark take on life and people's motivations must have appealed to Hitchcock a great deal. Raymond Chandler is credited with the screenplay, but he didn't do much of it, per Hitchcock. Two men "meet cute" on a train and through an extended conversation it is assumed that the two are going to switch murders--remove an obstacle in the other's life. "Criss-Cross," says the sociopathic Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker, revealing a savage wit previously unseen in his previous work--sadly, he died after making this movie—his son RW, jr., who is the spittin' image of him, played "Charlie X" on the original "Star Trek"), who murders the trampy wife who won't grant tennis player Guy Haines a divorce, and then sets out to stalk him to make sure he doesn't renege on the "bargain. The Antony character is so strong that only a slightly hysterical climax can be enough to snap the tension he creates and Hitchcock provides a spectacular one. Mention should be made of the wonderful Marion Lorne (she played dotty "Aunt Clara" on "Bewitched") as Bruno's mother ("She's as crazy as her son," said Hitchcock [1]) and also Kasey Rogers who played the targeted wife and also ended up on "Bewitched" playing Larry Tate's wife. She is far better than the studio-insisted Ruth Roman, who belongs to the "Loretta Young School of Acting" all eyebrow-arching and reflecting tension by using her REM skills. Then, in her first of many appearances in her dad's work, Patricia Hitchcock, who's terrific playing the cheerily morbid little sister--not unlike the daughter that appeared in "Shadow of a Doubt."
Hitchcock can be seen 9 minutes into the film, getting on the train as “Guy Haines” exits. In another of his musical cameos, he’s carrying a double bass fiddle.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Stage Fright"(1950) One would think this movie was a slam-dunk for Hitchcock. He had just come off the disappointing “Under Capricorn” and dove back into the suspense/mystery genre with a setting of back-stage intrigue. ****** But one can see why he was interested. The movie starts with Richard Todd running from the British police, and saved by wanna-be actress Jane Wyman. Todd tells her of a murder plot, and how he’s trying to protect the woman he suspects of being the killer (Marlene Dietrich). To help her friend discover the truth Wyman goes undercover, using her actress skills to secure a job as a maid to Dietrich. And as they say, the plot thickens.

"Congeals" might be a better word. Hitchcock got a lot of flack for this movie for using one character’s recollection of events as a smokescreen—in other words, an unreliable narrator. But Hitchcock had his own problems with the film, the first being Jane Wyman.
Wyman became disinterested in keeping her maid disguise consistent when she saw how unglamorous she looked, next to Dietrich. So she took it upon herself to change her wardrobe and appearance, quite destroying any credibility she had in the film. Hitchcock also felt the film broke as he put it: “the cardinal rule. The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture, and in this picture the villain was a flop!” [2]

Hitchcock can be seen 38 minutes into the film looking at a passing Jane Wyman—no doubt wondering if that really is the dress he asked for in wardrobe.

Alfred Hitchcock's “Under Capricorn (1949) The movie that inspired the line “Ingrid, it’s only a movie!” “Under Capricorn” was an uncharacteristic film for Hitchcock (after this, he'd never again make another "period" picture), but he secured the rights to entice Ingrid Bergman—then Hollywood’s hottest star—to headline it. It’s an overheated story of love triangles and betrayal ala “Wuthering Heights," although set among the penal colonies of Australia.
Joseph Cotten (a lifelong Hitchcock friend and star of "Shadow of a Doubt"--we'll get there!) is a former convict, now wealthy, and married to alcoholic Ingrid Bergman. Her cousin, the governor's nephew, comes to visit from England, and finds things very strange. The housekeeper, for instance, is in love with her master, and is psychologically torturing her weak mistress, shades of "Rebecca." It's the oddest blend of psycho-drama and bodice-ripping romance, and The Hollywood Reporter groused you "had to wait a hundred and five minutes for the first thrill of the picture." [3]

Things were thrilling on the set, however. Hitch decided he wanted to do a lot of those long-take scenes he'd tried with "Rope," which threw Bergman into tizzies (She told Truffaut she had "harrowing memories of the way large pieces of the decor would vanish into thin air" in some shots.)[4] It would be Hitchcock's last film with Bergman, and the last period picture he ever attempted. "Besides," he reminisced, "there wasn't enough humor in the film. If I were to make another picture in Australia today, I'd have a policeman hop into the pocket of a kangaroo and yell, "Follow that car!" [5]

Hitchcock can be seen, in period dress, at 3:00 and 14:00 minutes in the film.

Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948) Hitchcock is a master of montage, so what would ever possess him to make a film that has the conceit of being one continuous shot, that plays out in real time (from 7:30 pm to 9:15 pm)?******* The challenge of it, I suppose (This was also Hitchcock's first movie as an independent producer). There was another challenge, as well--it was also his first film in color. "Rope" is basically a stage play recorded to film. Based on the circumstances of the Leopold and Loeb "thrill-kill" case, its entitled sociopaths stuff their victim in a chest and turn it into a centerpiece for a high society party. The logistics for this experiment were daunting. The set had to be malleable enough for a camera to be able to negotiate doorways and around furniture. Invisible crew-members worked out of sight (it was ever thus) to maintain the illusion of reality. An elaborate backdrop invisibly changed from a late afternoon skyline to night. Even clouds of spun glass were made to move in the distance.

Playing the killers are two competent B-movie actors,
John Dall, best known for "Gun-Crazy" and "Spartacus," and Farley Granger, a callow actor of youthful earnestness—he would return as the hapless object of affection of the "Strangers on a Train." Headlining is James Stewart, in his first film role for Hitchcock. As with his other "Hitch" roles, his seemingly amoral college professor/mentor-to-the-murderers in "Rope" is complex and, when realizing his role in things, becomes extraordinarily agitated. The performances are fine (though Granger has a couple of scenes "off the rails"), the material is competent, but the stunt of the "continuous" shot distracts from the film. There is really no good story-telling reason to do it, which is unusual for Hitchcock. But he did learn how to use those continuous shots and where they could be used judiciously, and it would stand him in good stead on "Dial 'M' for Murder," "Rear Window," "Psycho," and throughout his career.
Hitchcock can be seen twice: Once at the very beginning of the film walking along the street, and again at 52:00 into the film. See that red neon sculpture-work? Look familiar? How about if it's blown up a bit?

* The love of his life and his silent partner/colloborator was the formidable Alma Reville, his wife and frequent continuity person, she had an equal say in his craft. More often than not, it was Alma who would write critical memos on specific subjects dealing with his films, finding ways to solve problems cinematically. Know that cutaway to the shower in the pull-back from Janet Leigh half on the floor after the "Psycho" shower murder? Alma spotted an imperceptible sign of life from Leigh --a pulse in her throat--when no one else did. She was that good, and indispensible to his art.

** Alfred and Alma did not attend her wedding to Prince Rainier although they were invited.

*** That kiss inspires a line that was made to roll off the tongue of Cary Grant: "Not only did I enjoy that kiss, but I was awed by the efficiency behind it." (There's also a great line poking fun at Hitchcock's star and friend: "You're just not American enough to carry it off.")

**** Very early on, Hitchcock tells the complete story of how Jeffries has a broken leg in a single pan across a sleeping Jimmy Stewart, down his cast, across the table to a broken camera, and up to several shots of mayhem, including a race-car crash with a tire coming straight toward the camera. No words needed or necessary.

***** The DVD tells the anecdote of a scene where Clift walks out of a court-house, and Hitch wanted him to look up at a steeple. Clift looked at him and said..."But I wouldn't look up there..." to which the director replied, "But I shot it. You HAVE to look up to it to make it MATCH."

****** In the Hitchcock/Truffaut book-length interview, Hitchcock explains that he did the movie because when the book came out, critics said it would make a good Hitchcock film. "And I, like an idiot, believed them!" he says [6]. But it might have been also something he purchased for his daughter, Pat, who was just graduating from RADA. What better role for his daughter than as a neophyte actress taking on a role in real life? (Truffaut even mentions that Wyman looks a bit like Patricia). But what studio would give the director's daughter a starring role over Marlene Dietrich, Richard Todd and Michael Wilding? Hitch's daughter does play in "Stage Fright" and made her supporting debut in her father's next film "Strangers of a Train."

******* It's not one shot, of course, but every "take" was supposed to last one roll of film--approximately 10 minutes, though careful examination shows there are a couple of cleverly disguised edits in it.

[1] HitchcockTruffaut ©1967 by Truffaut, published by Simon and Shuster, SBN 671-20346-0, p. 146
[2] ibid., p.141
[3] ibid., pp. 135-136
[4] ibid., p. 138
[5] ibid., p. 138
[6] ibid., p. 139

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