Editor's Week 2010

December 18 - 2010
Today a note on Grand Guignol. As noted on our FAQs page, the Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode called "An Unlocked Window", filmed using the Psycho house, may owe something to Grand Guignol theatre, specifically a play by André de Lorde, who wrote at least a hundred Grand Guignol plays between 1901 and 1926. (To read a translation of the play I have in mind, 'Au Téléphone'/'At the Telephone', (To download an English translation, go here: Au telephone.) Actually, "An Unlocked Window" was based on a short story by Ethel Lina White, who wrote the novels on which Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase (1946) were based: as I've noted here recently, White specialised in 'woman in peril' stories. Actually, too, closer to the climax of 'At the Telephone' is surely the climax of the radio play 'Sorry, Wrong Number' and its 1948 film version, in which a husband, at one end of a telephone line, listens helplessly as his wife is killed by an intruder at the other end of the line. And actually, again, because Grand Guignol typically involved onstage depiction of extreme acts of horror and violence, such as beheadings, electrocutions, mutilations, even eye-gouging (a Grand Guignol specialty), certain filmmakers more than Hitchcock come to mind: the Italian Dario Argento, say, or even the genial American showman William Castle (whose The House on Haunted Hill, Homicidal, and Strait Jacket I have looked at lately). On the other hand, the first film version of 'At the Telephone' was apparently D.W. Griffith's one-reeler The Lonely Villa (1909). We know that Hitchcock was a huge admirer of Griffith's pioneering filmmaking: another early Griffith film that Hitchcock liked was The Avenging Conscience(1914), part-based on Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and which Hitchcock felt anticipated and inspired some of the great German films. Poe was a big influence on the Grand Guignol playwrights, with adaptations of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether' (the one about the inmates taking over the asylum) being two of its staple productions. Another Grand Guignol production was itself based on the classic German film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920). Altogether, you could say that there was Grand Guignol and there was Grand Guignol - one type more reliant on indirection and atmosphere and psychology, the other on outright shock and graphic simulation of violence. It was the first type that Hitchcock mainly drew lessons from for his own filmmaking. (As for Hitchcock's alternation in his films of suspense and moments of comedy, that was partly an English tradition - think Shakespeare and Dickens - but it's interesting that Grand Guignol theatre also typically alternated in an evening plays of terror and of comedy, usually sex farces. The idea was that one intensified the other. The technique was called 'hot and cold showers'.) Another of André de Lorde's Grand Guignol plays was 'Un crime dans une maison de fous'/'A Crime in a Madhouse'. Someone has commented that any use of music in the play 'is strictly diegetic, such as the chapel bell and nuns singing'. Maybe, but clearly it also serves as a broad form of counterpoint to the bizarre goings-on inside the madhouse. I'm reminded that the very theatre in Paris in which Grand Guignol plays were mounted between 1894 and 1962 was a former chapel, whose boxes looked like confessionals, and with angels over the orchestra. Hitchcock would have appreciated that. Perhaps such counterpoint explains the considerable 'angels' imagery to be found in Psycho, and about which I have written elsewhere. Very pointedly, there's the proleptic moment during the parlour conversation between Norman (Tony Perkins) and Marion (Janet Leigh) in which the camera lingers on a picture of angels ascending towards Heaven, a picture literally overshadowed by a black bird with a knife-like beak. Now, for perspective, here's a thoughtful quote to end on, from Rick Worland's book 'The Horror Film: An Introduction' (2007): 'The Grand Guignol's method of intense visceral shocks and disturbing amorality would not be fully adopted by Hollywood horror films until after the end of formal censorship in 1968.'

December 11 - 2010
Hitchcock knew his authors and their works. According to entries in the very useful 'Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers' (Macmillan, 1980), Mrs Belloc Lowndes's 'finest work' is 'The Lodger' (filmed by Hitchcock), 'probably [Winston] Graham's finest novel' is 'Marnie' (filmed by Hitchcock), and of all Arthur La Bern's writings, 'the best' is 'Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square' (filmed by Hitchcock as Frenzy). Something else I took away from reading these various entries is how the individual writers fertilised Hitchcock's own approach to the suspense and thriller genres. For example, we are told that Mrs Belloc Lowndes's 'novels reproduce court scenes effectively, realistically, and accurately'. 'The Terriford Mystery' (1924) may be especially typical, 'in its cynical treatment of law and justice; a scandalmongering press, gossiping villagers, a rich, womanizing lawyer, and unimaginative police [all] condemn an innocent man. The experienced and the amateur detectives are ineffective, and only an accidental meeting with a dying man prevents a miscarriage of justice.' As we know, Hitchcock's recurring 'wrong man' theme had basis in both real life cases (such as the Adolf Beck and Oscar Slater cases at the turn of the century) and suspense fiction by authors like John Buchan and, yes, Mrs Belloc Lowndes. Or again, the entry on Ethel Lina White, the author of 'The Wheel Spins' (filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes), notes that she always 'wrote about the defenceless female', invariably isolated and placed in a situation where totally unable 'to communicate her fears' (very like several Hitchcock heroines, at least in early scenes of their respective films); moreover, White's books nearly always emphasise 'a desperate need for a permanent home ... a home where the heart is in permanent residence, where a shelter may be taken from the world's critical eyes, and which serves as a place to hide during attacks of hysteria or demonic behaviour'. That's interesting because not only did Hitchcock sometimes emphasise a theme of 'home' (as in The Trouble With Harry, with its song about 'Flaggin' the Train to Tuscaloosa', or Frenzy, where Rusk quotes Robert Frost's lines about home being 'where they have to take you in') - but he no less honoured the theme in the breach rather than the observance. Most of the later films from Psycho onwards (and some earlier films like Rebecca) take their irony from the fact that 'home' has effectively been rendered unlivable-in, or is the very place where 'hysteria or demonic behaviour' threatens to take control (as again in Rebecca, where the mad Mrs Danvers burns Manderley to the ground). Of course, Hitchcock was adept at using sleight-of-hand to conceal the full implications of some of his supposed 'happy endings'. (Cf Orson Welles quoted on November 20 above: a happy ending depends on where you stop your story.) The entry in 'Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers' on Cornell Woolrich is by Woolrich expert Francis M. Nevins, Jr. Nevins says this: '[Woolrich's] most characteristic detective stories end with our realization that no rational account of events is possible, and that his suspense stories tend to close not with the dissipation of the terror but with its omnipresence.' Hitchcock's films seem at times to encourage such pessimism (Caldicott's line in The Lady Vanishes, 'I'm half inclined to believe there's a rational explanation for all of this', is delivered jokingly, but ultimately refers to the gathering stormclouds of war beyond the film), and even the 'happy ending' of Rear Window (based on a Woolrich story) only 'works' if you disregard all the signs of everyday struggle and marital discord that remain in the offing (and which the film's wife-murder was a symptom of, writ large). In other words, that ending is ambiguous, and doesn't contradict the spirit of Woolrich. As in so much suspense and thriller fiction, Hitchcock makes life seem precarious - yet he also manages to make it seem very bearable. (Thanks, Hitch.) More on his sleight-of-hand another time.

December 4 - 2010
There's a moment in The Lady Vanishes when Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) clambers out of one carriage window and in at another. It's an echo of The 39 Steps (1935), and at first I thought it was done simply by a bit of back projection (of railroad tracks and a passing train) plus some live action in the foreground. But now I'm almost convinced that it was done for real, with a stunt-double for Gilbert/Redgrave (see frame-capture below). When the train approaches from the opposite direction at a bridge, we can see both trains in the frame at once, and the shadow of one train is thrown on the other. Meanwhile, the figure of Gilbert has been hanging on for dear life at the left of frame (his face averted from the camera), and then appearing to start forward towards the next carriage. But in fact he makes hardly any progress at all, no doubt to allow time for the approaching train to turn up (the filmmakers definitely wanted him to be still outside the train at that moment!). We never do see him make the actual journey between one carriage window and the next, as the film soon cuts to the interior of the next compartment as Gilbert arrives there (the compartment containing the bandaged-up patient) and clambers inside, watched by the supposedly deaf-and-dumb 'nun'. Hitchcock loved to pull off formal coups like this: action moving from inside to outside and maybe back again. There are matching moments, not only in The 39 Steps but, for example, Young and Innocent (1937) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) with their respective mill scenes, where the hero and/or heroine escape by clambering down the outside of the mill. Opposing 'inside' and 'outside' became a regular thing with Hitchcock, as in Marnie (1964), where it constitutes a whole theme, even entering the dialogue (as when Mr Rutland Snr remarks that 'the best thing for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse'). It's all part of the 'satisfying texture' of a Hitchcock film, to which he gave much attention. Subliminally, audiences feel that they are getting their money's-worth, and that settings and scenes have been more than adequately 'covered'. Now, speaking of The Lady Vanishes, it's interesting to note that the antecedent for its story of someone who disappears is Mrs Belloc Lowndes's novel 'The End of Her Honeymoon' (1913), in which another old lady not only 'vanishes' but everyone seems to want to deny that she ever existed. The story is set during the Paris Exposition of 1889; it turns out that the lady had died of bubonic plague ... Over the years the story became an urban myth. (Something similar is the case with the Australian story, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock', filmed in 1975 by Peter Weir from the 1967 novel by Dame Joan Lindsay. Dame Joan was astute enough not to deny that her story of vanished schoolgirls actually happened, and many people still think that it's true ...) Mrs Belloc Lowndes's story even reached Germany, and in fact, in the very year of The Lady Vanishes, director Veit Harlan filmed the novel as Verwehte Spuren/Covered Tracks. Nonetheless, the movies had already taken advantage of the basic mystery plot. Film historian William K. Everson ('The Detective in Film', 1972) notes that it was used in Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (Roy Dell Ruth, 1934): the suddenly changed room, the denial from all sides that the heroine ever had an uncle (rather than a mother), the implication that she is imagining everything. Subsequent versions of the Belloc Lowndes story included the British film So Long at the Fair (Terence Fisher, 1950) and a 1955 episode of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' called "The Vanishing Lady", which starred Patricia Hitchcock.

November 27 - 2010
It's often instructive to note when Hitchcock borrows from himself. Typically, you get a better sense of his belief in 'pure cinema', in how the content of a scene can be reduced to abstract movement and sound and to what 'works' with audiences. Take the scene at the inn in The Lady Vanishes in which Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) invades the bedroom of Iris (Margaret Lockwood) because she has had him thrown out of his own room upstairs for making a 'noise' and keeping her awake. Because the inn is full, he has decided - apparently - to move in with Iris, whom he has never met until now! The scene begins, after a quick shot of Iris asleep in bed, by showing us Gilbert's almost sinister figure silhouetted in the doorway as he enters unannounced and switches on the light. Iris sits up, startled, and asks, 'Who are you? What do you want?' Instead of answering her question directly, Gilbert plays a few bars on the flute he is carrying. 'Recognise the signature tune?', he asks. He then comes further into the room and moves arc-wise around her bed. At each bedpost he disburdens himself of one of his worldly possessions that he has brought with him and hangs it there in place of whatever personal item of clothing Iris has hung up - see frame-capture below. Next he sits on the bed and asks Iris to hold his flute-case - but she throws it on the floor. Unruffled, he proceeds to open his suitcase and take out his pyjamas ... Reader, do you recognise what scene in a later Hitchcock film this broadly anticipates? The answer, of course, is the audience's introduction to Lisa (Grace Kelly) in Rear Window (1954). The tone is totally different but the content is practically identical. Remember? Jeff (James Stewart) is asleep in his wheelchair in his darkened room when suddenly a silhouetted figure arrives in his doorway and crosses to him. As her shadow falls on Jeff, she bends and kisses him. Awakened, and still pleasantly sleepy, he can only ask, 'Who are you?' Instead of answering him directly, she moves arc-wise around the room, turning on lamps. At each one, she gives one of her names: 'Lisa - Carol - Fremont.' In their different ways each scene is (or represents) a 'meet cute' scene, but my point is that each is also an example of 'pure cinema' in which the emotive effect on the audience is what counts and could be called 'formulaic' in the sense that there's an almost musical progression from the dramatic opening through the rhythmic build-up to the neat pay-off: Iris and Gilbert's antagonism is established, Lisa and Jeff's closeness is no less established. (In both films, though, there will be some reversals as the respective stories unfold.) Incidentally, reader, are you aware that when Gilbert proceeds to further 'take over' Iris's quarters by going into her bathroom to brush his teeth and ostensibly prepare for bed, he sings a variant of the 'Colonel Bogey March', from the First World War? The same tune would of course be famously whistled by Alec Guiness's men in David Lean's 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai. Both films were being a bit cheeky, very probably, as audiences would have known that the immensely popular tune often had mildly obscene lyrics put to it. During the 1930s and 1940s those lyrics often referred to Adolf Hitler's rumoured possession of just one testicle. I have no doubt that Hitchcock knew that! More on The Lady Vanishes next time.

November 20 - 2010
Concurrently with preparing some notes on Hitchcock's delightful The Lady Vanishes (1938), I happened to read an article by Stefany Anne Golberg on the 'Snow White' fairy tale. Golberg notes that Walt Disney's feature-cartoon version (1937) departs in some respects from the Grimm tale, but is deservedly considered a classic: her memory of the film, she says, 'is so palpable for me, and for most Americans, that one might believe Snow White an American invention'. Golberg particularly stresses the optimistic side of the tale and how Disney 'glommed on to' this aspect and took possession of it. She notes such elements as Love's First Kiss, Whistle While You Work, and Some Day My Prince Will Come. Given that I see Hitchcock's films as simultaneously pessimistic and anti-pessimistic, I'm going to talk about The Lady Vanishes and also Disney. We know that Hitchcock admired Disney, both from his (Hitchcock's) interviews and, obviously, from his inclusion of a clip from one of Disney's 'Silly Symphonies' in Sabotage (1936). The Hitchcock scene is masterly, showing a theatre-full of children laughing at the rather sinister event on the screen: one of Cock Robin's rivals shooting him with a bow and arrow in order to supplant him as the next Cock Robin (with the implication that this isn't the end of the killing-chain). The laughter comes from the power of film to transmute painful matters into temporary pleasure, drawing on the sheer facility of the filmmakers, such as their use of caricature (note: the female robin looks like Mae West). Another implication is that the darker aspects of the film, if they don't exactly elude the audience, are sufficiently ignored by them as to only make the pleasurable aspects the more piquant. The same goes for The Lady Vanishes. Always present in the background is the likely War that is approaching and also the vulnerability of, in particular, the story's rather isolated and as-yet-unmarried heroine, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) - a vulnerability much emphasised by the original novel, 'The Wheel Spins' (1936), by Ethel Lina White, who specialised in 'woman in peril' stories. Incidentally, one of the film's most original scenes is the baggage-car episode. In its profusion of incident - some of it threatening, such as the shock arrival of the knife-wielding magician Signor Doppo, and some of it charming, such as an impersonation of Sherlock Holmes by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) - the film's enjoyable facility is on show. Adding to its 'optimistic' side is the fact that the story involves a train journey back to England: we just know that there will be a 'happy ending.' (Nonetheless, Hitchcock will add some 'stings in the tail', such as the news that the Test Match at Manchester has been washed out, to the chagrin of the cricket-mad duo, Charters and Caldicott.) The very last sequence was apparently dreamed up by Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville: at the Foreign Office, Iris and Gilbert are welcomed back to England by Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), our spy who 'vanished' but who has 'come through' (see frame-capture below). Finally, on this matter of the 'happy ending', here again is Golberg: 'In fairy tales, "good" triumphs over "evil,", but how this happens isn't simple. ... What Disney did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ... was give us what we really want ... an ending with no guilt, no loose ends. An ending where hope is resolved. ... Orson Welles said that a happy ending depends on where you stop your story. Walt Disney's genius was that he knew just when, and how, we like our endings. Not with hope but satisfaction.' My point is that The Lady Vanishes works like that, too, nicely balancing optimism (e.g., Iris and Gilbert will likely get married) with Hitchcock's latent pessimism (note: the threats of War and loneliness are simply not brought up again). That is, the film's darker aspects, as with Sabotage, are still there but now only latent, implicit. It's a Hitchcock methodology that would be applied in practically all of his films to come.

November 13 - 2010
[Sorry, Ken is not able to 'do his blog' this week but will return next time. Have you read our tribute in News & Comment to the English director Roy Baker, who worked with Hitchcock? KM]

November 6 - 2010
As a follow-up to last week's item about "Voice in the Night", the episode of 'Suspicion' that Hitchcock wanted to direct in 1958 - but finally let Arthur Hiller direct - let's talk about Vertigo, and specifically Hitchcock's cameo there. Much of "Voice in the Night" is set in a fog, which only adds to the mood and the symbolism (touched on last time). In Vertigo, the famed San Francisco fog is forever imminent, you could say. Hitchcock even told Truffaut that he dressed 'Madeleine' (Kim Novak) in a distinctive grey suit in order to suggest that she had just materialised from out of the fog. And now we know that the mysterious object that Hitchcock is carrying in his Vertigo cameo is ... a foghorn! See frame-capture below. For years, people kept guessing what the object could be. (I used to think it might be a coal scuttle!) Finally, in 1995, Jane Sloan appeared to clear up the mystery by reporting in her book 'Alfred Hitchcock: A Guide to References and Resources' that the object is a horn case. Well, she was nearly right. But it's a foghorn, all right, a manual foghorn. The breakthrough came about a year ago when Dr Frank P. Tomasulo, who is writing a chapter on Hitchcock's cameos, asked on the Web what the object is, and one of his correspondents, Matt Parks, answered, 'a foghorn'. Matt even provided a photo of a similar foghorn. In any event, this is exciting news for Hitchcock fans and scholars, giving us new information about the actual content of one of his best films! We can even surmise with a fair degree of likelihood how Hitchcock hit on the idea, apart from its thematic and symbolic relevance to his film (to which I'll come back shortly). Round about the time Vertigo was being filmed, an episode of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' starring Barbara Bel Geddes was shot. It was called "The Foghorn" (airdate: 16 March, 1958), and, presumably, may have included a foghorn like the one Hitchcock is carrying in his Vertigo cameo. In fact, the foghorn Hitchcock is carrying may be the very one from the show! Now, what significance can we give this particular cameo? Well, I don't want to push this too hard. The first thing I would note is the touch of possible humour. A small, manual foghorn to introduce the scene coming up at Gavin Elster's shipyard where mighty ships are being readied for the ocean: talk about a contrast of scale! A nice, self-effacing cameo on Hitchcock's part (like missing the bus whose doors close in his face at the start of North by Northwest). I dare say the character he plays here - the man with the foghorn - is contemplating a short trip on the Bay and wants to be prepared for the likelihood of fog. Of course, there are several fog references in the film. At least once we hear a foghorn's mournful sound. In turn, taking our cue from "Voice in the Night", we can say that fog in this film symbolises isolation and the possibility of getting lost - something that is talked about when 'Madeleine' calls Scottie (James Stewart) 'a wanderer'. All right, that will do. (Suggestions for other possible significances are welcome.) To conclude now: notice the 8 miles-per-hour sign on the left of frame. It was part of a permanent back-lot set at Paramount. Two years earlier, it had turned up in the Martin and Lewis comedy, Hollywood or Bust, directed by Frank Tashlin. (Postscript: I trust Dr Tomasulo will forgive my mentioning the foghorn cameo here; and I, for one, look forward to reading his chapter on Hitchcock.)

October 30 - 2010
Am changing the subject this time to talk about a couple of Hitchcock's favourite films or stories. During the week, I happened to order a DVD of a Maurice Tourneur film from 1919, Victory, based on the Joseph Conrad novel set in the East Indies. That reminded me that Tourneur soon afterwards made The Isle of Lost Ships (1923), a work which Hitchcock once included in his list of favourite films. Unfortunately Tourneur's film has been lost. But one can read a description of it: 'Crittenden Marriott's vivid story formed a wonderful basis for the atmospheric filmmaking talents of Tourneur. The "isle of lost ships," at least in Tourneur's interpretation, isn't an island at all, but a cluster of derelict ships, from ancient to modern times, floating together on a bed of seaweed in the Sargasso Sea.' Against this melancholy background a love story takes place involving an escaped convict - wrongfully convicted, it turns out - and a millionaire's daughter. The couple end up getting married and returning to civilisation. Which is more than can be said of the married couple in another of Hitchcock's favourite stories, "The Voice in the Night", also set in the Sargasso Sea (or a variant of it), which Hitchcock was going to direct for his 1958 television series, 'Suspicion'. In the end the episode was beautifully directed by Arthur Hiller, starring James Donald and Barbara Rush. In the frame-capture below, the happy couple have not yet set out from England on the fatal voyage. When they do, their ship will be wrecked and the couple will find themselves alone, first on a derelict ship and then on a gloomy isle nearby. Terrifyingly, both the ship and the isle are infested by some sort of creeping fungus ... So why was Hitchcock attracted to these particular tales? My guess is: (a) for the love story, and (b) for the counterpoint and symbolism of the wrecked ships and ominous infection. In a way, both tales look forward to Hitchcock's The Birds. I would make a guess about the fungus in "Voice in the Night" (which I watched again yesterday) that it symbolises everything from mortality to the inability of humans - even the best - to attain lasting happiness and pure knowledge (cf Vertigo). Of course, Hitchcock was happy to use counterpoint purely for its rhetorical value. Of the lovebirds in The Birds, which many people found ominous, he gave a grin and noted, 'It just goes to show that, with a little effort, even the word "love" can be made to sound sinister!' The counterpoint, of course, is with the film's emphasis on the true value of love. Now, I have told the following anecdote before (it's published in full in 'Backstory 3', edited by Patrick McGilligan) of how screenwriter Stirling Silliphant met with Hitchcock at his house to discuss "Voice in the Night" - producer Joan Harrison having previously assured Silliphant that the story was Hitchcock's absolute favourite. What Silliphant wasn't prepared for was his encounter with Hitchcock's genius. Silliphant: 'The man was BRILLIANT. He fucking dictated the script to me - shot by shot, including camera movements and opticals. He actually had SEEN the finished film [in his head].' Ruefully, Silliphant remembers how so much of the story was conceived visually by Hitchcock that only occasionally did he require dialogue - and then only in small amounts. Hitchcock would hold up his hand, thumb and forefinger two inches apart, to indicate the precise amount. Silliphant dutifully jotted down, 'Dialogue, two inches.'

October 23 - 2010
We were talking last time about E. McKnight Kauffer's art-deco title-designs for Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926), and how one of them was based on a scene earlier in the film involving a cuckoo-clock (which goes off just as the lodger arrives at the Buntings' house, thus seeming to mock both the newcomer and Mr Bunting who has just fallen off his chair - which of them is the more 'cuckoo'?!). Note how closely the title-design resembles the cuckoo-clock while imparting a 'surreal' quality which manages to suggest a house under threat - surrounded by darkness - although, on the other hand, it includes a quantity of whiteness and fluffy clouds, so maybe all will be well, after all. Typical Hitchcockian ambiguity - something very pronounced in The Lodger (which the director later called 'the first true Hitchcock film'). But, talking of typical Hitchcock matters, the cuckoo-clock incident looks forward to several Hitchcock films to come. Think of the start of The Lady Vanishes (1938), at the alpine inn, where another cuckoo-clock erupts into action, emitting a clarion-call on a trumpet, just as a whole flurry of action occurs (arrival of guests, the hotel manager talking on the phone). (In turn, that clarion-call echoes the start of Waltzes From Vienna, five years earlier, which begins with a fire-wagon tearing through the streets of Vienna and using a trumpet-player to warn traffic of its approach - while meanwhile a couple of men on the speeding wagon try to make themselves heard as they shout directions to each other.) Hitchcock wasn't fazed by this sort of 'pandemonium' scene, but (I suspect) positively enjoyed depicting it - not least for when he could end it and let the serious dialogue take over! Note how in The Lodger, so much happens when the lodger arrives: the gas has just gone out and the entrance-hall is in darkness; the lodger appears in a muffler at the door and looks quite sinister; Mrs Bunting reacts; the lodger enters and gestures that he would like rooms upstairs; Mr Bunting in the kitchen climbs on a chair and puts a coin in the gas-meter; the hall-light goes on and we get our first good look at the lodger; Mr Bunting falls off his chair; the cuckoo-clock goes off. Another example of this sort of thing occurs in Spellbound (1945) straight after, or including, the first-kiss between 'J.B.' (Gregory Peck) and Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman). No sooner has the kiss begun than a 'dream image' is superimposed of doors opening leading to a bright radiance (cf the Lodger title-card above). Then, suddenly, 'J.B.' recoils violently, seemingly because he has just seen the lines on Constance's night-gown, setting off a 'phobia' he has. (As mentioned previously - October 9 above - similar moments of sudden recoil from a love-scene occur in The Lodger and Marnie, due to a character's severe disturbance, although clearly Hitchcock was as much interested in the 'narrative rhythm' as in the 'psychological' explanation.) No less suddenly, the telephone starts shrilling: 'J.B.' and Constance are being summoned to the hospital operating-room because a patient, Mr Garmes, has run amok and tried to cut his own throat. Talk about 'cuckoo' again! So this entry has been about some of Hitchcock's recurring preoccupations in his films, starting with The Lodger. Notice, finally, that the 'pandemonium' episodes will be carefully balanced by other episodes in the respective films involving quiet, lyrical or suspenseful passages (e.g., Mrs Bunting in The Lodger doing the housework while Bunting reads his newspaper nearby and they discuss events involving Daisy and the lodger).

October 16 - 2010
We have been discussing ways in which The Lodger anticipates ingredients in later Hitchcock films. It will be convenient this time to consider one of the art-deco title-designs for the film by the American E. McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) - see frame-capture below. As Hitchcock himself had been a film title-designer, it's reasonable to think that he may have worked in conjunction with McKnight Kauffer, suggesting to him things he wanted. For example, note a few of the ingredients in the title shown below: the window from an earlier scene (note: it appears here twice, in a 'day' and a 'night' rendition), whose cross-piece had thrown its shadow on the lodger (Ivor Novello), making him appear like a Christ-figure; the outline of a house, which echoes the cuckoo-clock in another earlier scene; converging lines centred on the house, which anticipates how the film's main action moves closer and closer to the Buntings' house in West London, which may or may not contain the murderous Avenger in the person of the lodger; an open door which looks a bit like a similar design by Salvador Dali in Spellbound, but may here be reminding us of the lodger's arrival at the Buntings' front door one foggy night; and another house roof and its eaves, 'enclosing' the first one (thus maybe suggesting multiple viewpoints, or 'worlds within worlds'). The overall design uses angles and circles and straight lines to suggest a comprehensive 'gestalt', as if the design were summing up the film for us. Hitchcock loved to conceive of his films that way, often with a geometrical motif associated with each of them (e.g., triangular compositions in Rope) and would famously employ Saul Bass to impart a unifying design to films like Vertigo (spiral designs) and Psycho (horizontal and vertical lines). So, where are we? I'm suggesting that each of the individual elements was significant when it occurred in the film, and that the design by McKnight Kauffer is a way of bringing them back and meaningfully juxtaposing them. Take the Christ-symbolism associated with the lodger. Such symbolism may derive from the novel (1913) by Mrs Belloc Lowndes where the lodger is called 'Mr Sleuth' and tells Mrs Bunting, 'Think of a hound, Mrs Bunting, and you'll never forget my name.' (Chapter II) Readers of the novel would have been reminded of the well-known poem by Francis Thompson, 'The Hound of Heaven' (1893), whose title refers to God pursuing sinners and reforming them. In other words, in the novel the lodger apparently sees himself as engaged upon a God-like mission - but it turns out to be that of the mad Avenger himself (that is, the lodger proves to be the serial-killer of blondes known as The Avenger, who has been terrorising London). The film simply gives him a Christ-complex instead (which I have discussed elsewhere, relating it to the film's 'incest' motif - echoed in Shadow of a Doubt - and to what Albert Mordell, writing in 1919, called the Brother and Sister Complex). Accordingly, the cuckoo-clock which attracts attention just as the lodger arrives at the Buntings' front door (and appears to startle Mr Bunting [Arthur Chesney] so that he falls off the chair he had been climbing on to put a coin in the gas-meter) is an apt indicator of the possible mental state of the caller! (As for his possible 'holiness', well, the light does come on just at the same moment, anticipating a parallel effect in Vertigo when Scottie first sees the ghostly 'Madeleine' in Ernie's restaurant. An increase in the intensity of light will be used to suggest 'edification' elsewhere in The Lodger, after the flashback which the lodger narrates to Daisy [June Tripp] under a street lamp.) As for the converging - or diverging - lines in McKnight Kauffer's design, and what looks like a bull's-eye at the centre of it, associated with a white radiance (again as in Spellbound), that is suitably ambiguous. Do they represent illumination flowing outwards (deliverance) or flowing inwards (exposing the mad Avenger at the centre of things, or, alternatively, bringing true love between the lodger and Daisy?). And could the 'bull's-eye' represent the eyes of the audience, so that the whole film is really about 'us'? (There is another scene early in The Lodger, where a careering street van appears to roll its 'eyes' [back windows], which suggests London itself coming alive and/or the film's spectator.) That, too, is an effect Hitchcock would employ again. Readers' suggestions about the McKnight Kauffer design are welcome. Next time: more on the cuckoo clock.

October 9 - 2010
My thanks to a couple of correspondents who have reminded me that Laurent Bouzereau (noted maker of DVD documentaries on filmmakers) has a new book out called 'Hitchcock: Piece by Piece'. Not really a scholars' book, it is described by one correspondent as 'disappointing' but by my other correspondent as worthwhile for its photos and memorabilia (e.g., reproductions of letters and storyboards). Now, let's return to The Lodger which, as I said last time, prefigures Hitchcock 'touches' and effects to come. (Actually, Hitchcock was already repeating himself: both an emphasis on handcuffs and a scene with a bloodthirsty mob had already featured in Hitchcock's previous film The Mountain Eagle, filmed in the Austrian Tyrol - but in The Lodger Hitchcock adapted these things to a film specifically about the police and about London, so that they were now more integrated with the setting and story, which would become a Hitchcock trait in itself. Hitchcock's films are typically very well-integrated, to a point where every detail is 'organic', as Robin Wood long ago said. Note that in The Lodger the character Joe is a detective who twirls a pair of handcuffs as if they represent his virility; also, note that the infamous London mob had featured in that city's chronicles and stories since at least the 18th century - see, for example, Dickens's novel 'Barnaby Rudge' [1841] and its depiction of the 'anti-Papist' riots of 1780 - and that something like the mob still existed at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888, when a citizens' vigilante group was formed.) The controversial big close-up of a kiss in Marnie was nothing new: it was prefigured in The Lodger (see frame-capture below). As the lodger (Ivor Novello) advances towards Daisy (June Tripp) to kiss her, the camera takes her point of view: in effect, Hitchcock was allowing Novello's legion of female fans to share the experience as directly as possible! The scene has extra intensity anyway because, earlier, under the lamp post that recurs in the story, the lodger had been about to kiss Daisy when they were interrupted by the arrival of Daisy's detective boyfriend Joe, who is clearly jealous - and a bit obnoxious. Daisy is angered and tells Joe that she never wants to see him again. Now, upstairs, it is the lodger's chance to finally prove himself and his love to Daisy. And yet, as in Marnie - and Spellbound - the matter isn't plain-sailing. For clearly the lodger is a very disturbed individual. After a brief but passionate kiss, seen in profile, the lodger pulls himself away. The view behind him shows where the pictures of blondes had been hanging on the wall, which the lodger had asked to be removed. We sense a clue here to his disturbance. But we don't have a chance to dwell on this. For now Joe turns up again, and he is full of suspicion. His jealousy has led him to suspect that the lodger is The Avenger, and he has brought a couple of other detectives with him to search the lodger's rooms. The moment is a bit like that in Spellbound at Gabriel Valley when just as we think that John and Constance have cleared everything up, and can soon be married, the police arrive and announce that a body has been found with a bullet in its back - and that John is the suspected murderer. Of course, John is eventually cleared - thanks to an alert Constance - and so is the Novello character in The Lodger. Yet for alert viewers, a 'shadow of a doubt' can remain. More next time.

October 2 - 2010
[Sorry, Ken is doing some catching up this weekend. More on The Lodger and perhaps The Lady Vanishes next time. Meanwhile, check out the News & Comment item/s. KM]

September 25 - 2010
Having just finished a 4,000-word piece on Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926), I find that I have a lot of material that I didn't get to use. (The piece was mainly about 'ambiguity'.) So I'll share some things with you here. For example, there are bits of The Lodger that appear to have gone missing. My notes show that the respected film historian William Everson once interviewed Hitchcock, and that the interview was recorded on videotape as 'The Illustrated Alfred Hitchcock' (I think I have a copy). There, Hitchcock says that the opening of The Lodger showed a body on the ground and then the reflection of a 'Tonight "Golden Curls"' sign in the Thames, followed by a pan up to the Embankment to get the reactions of onlookers. (A variant of this opening occurs in Frenzy, of course.) Well, Hitchcock may have been mis-remembering the actual succession of shots. In the print I have watched lately (part of the 'Hitchcock: The British Years' set of discs), the film opens with a girl screaming, a cut to the flashing sign, then another cut to the girl's body on the ground - with the Embankment lights visible in the distance - and then a shot of a horrified elderly lady. What intrigued me was the mention of the sign reflected in the Thames. Maybe it's due to the imperfect quality of the prints that have survived, but I had never realised before that we are supposed to be seeing a reflection, as well as the sign itself. Yet, there it is in the print I watched recently (see frame-capture below), though you would still be hard-pressed to recognise the Thames! What is definitely not in any surviving prints of The Lodger is the shot recalled by Hitchcock's screenwriter friend Rodney Ackland in his book 'The Celluloid Mistress' (1954), pp. 35-36. According to Ackland, when Hitchcock was directing his star Ivor Novello, 'he deliberately, in one scene, shot the star so that he appeared to be wearing on his head a small flower-pot - which had been strategically placed on a shelf immediately behind him. I asked Hitch why he had done this and he said with a grin: "It was just too tempting - I couldn't resist it."' As I interpret this anecdote, Hitchcock was making fun of his famous gay star (famous ever since he wrote the anthem "Keep the Home Fires Burning" at the start of the First World War) by appearing to give him a lady's hat. Well, as I say, the shot is definitely gone - I would guess that it was edited out by Ivor Montagu when the film received last-minute trims, including an excess of title cards (reduced from 400 to eighty!), and some re-takes ordered. Yet even though this was only Hitchcock's third film, there is plenty of concrete evidence - individual shots and scenes, for example - that show that the young director was prefiguring his work to come. I'll list some of these here and next time. Here's one. When the Lodger (Novello) attends the mannequin parade in which Daisy (June Tripp) is featured, he only has eyes for her. A couple of ladies on either side of him make a play for this handsome young 'gent', and one asks him to light her cigarette. Without averting his gaze from Daisy, he reaches into his jacket, produces his cigarette lighter, and flicks it on. Talk about cool! Never once does he look aside. The moment, though, is clearly an early version of another such moment years later, namely, the famous sight-gag in Strangers on a Train (1951) where Bruno (Robert Walker) at a tennis game only has eyes for Guy (Farley Granger) - he gazes straight at Guy while all the other spectators nearby are turning their heads from side to side to follow the play. (Remember that the Lodger may be a fanatic killer, and that Bruno is an obsessed psychopath.) More next time.

September 18 - 2010
When Hitchcock wanted a 'happy ending' for his 1926 film The Lodger, because his studio, Gainsborough, insisted that star Ivor Novello couldn't be the serial-killer known as The Avenger, Mrs Belloc Lowndes's novel wasn't any help. There, the lodger indeed proves to be The Avenger, finally going off into the night, never to be seen again. (Hitchcock would remember that ending and use it for his 1940 radio production of the story, starring Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn.) So Hitchcock turned to a comedy stage version of the story, by H. A. Vachel, which he apparently saw performed at age 16 at the Haymarket theatre. Playing the lodger in that production was the actor Henry Ainley, described in one contemporary review as 'one of the most satisfying character-actors on our stage'. Two years later the play reached New York, and Lionel Atwill (later to feature in such films as The Mystery of the Wax Museum and To Be or Not To Be) was now the lodger. In the film's 'happy ending', you'll recall, the young lodger (Novello) is redeemed by the love of Daisy Bunting (June Tripp). After it is shown that he isn't The Avenger, they are free to marry. He summons her and her parents to his Park Lane mansion - which he had previously neglected to mention - and, yes, all ends happily (or so it seems). See frame-capture below. This wasn't to be the last time that Hitchcock borrowed an ending from a source that wasn't the original novel or play. I'm reminded that in the denoument of The Trouble With Harry (1955), it turns out that Harry died 'from natural causes', a heart seizure. I've always suspected that here Hitchcock had remembered the ending of Charles Bennett's play 'Blackmail' (1928) in which Alice is exonerated of killing the artist who had tried to rape her when a post-mortem shows that he died of a heart attack. (Hitchcock of course adapted the play to film shortly afterwards - it was the first British full-length talkie - but with a different ending.) And then there was the ending involving the out-of-control roundabout so memorable in Strangers on a Train (1951). No such ending will be found in Patricia Highsmith's original novel, where Guy is tricked into confessing how he murdered Bruno's father. (Bruno has already committed suicide by drowning, after he killed Guy's wife Miriam.) The roundabout ending works seamlessly as a worthy and spectacular climax for the film, and it actually comes, little changed, from the comedy-thriller novel 'The Moving Toyshop' (1946) by English mystery writer 'Edmund Crispin' (who moonlighted as the film composer Bruce Montgomery). In the film Guy and Bruno fight out a showdown on the rapidly-whirling roundabout, while a fairground employee risks his life by crawling under it to reach the roundabout's brakes at its centre. The novel is practically identical (Chapter 13: "The Episode of the Rotating Professor"), as its hero Professor Gervaise Fen battles with the villain named Sharman. Meanwhile, Fen's friend Cadogan and a fairground employee push 'their way under the roundabout towards the controls in the middle'. Moments earlier, a wild shot from Sharman had killed the man in charge of those controls, who had fallen lifeless to the ground near a sign saying, 'There is no limit to the speed of this machine'! Incongrously, the roundabout's music blares on: 'Honey-love, honey-dove, I'm cryin' for the moon ...' (cf the film's use of 'Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde'). Another little detail that would have appealed to Hitchcock - though he obviously couldn't use it in the film - is how, while all of this is going on, Professor Fen decides to sing to himself and chooses the finale of the Enigma Variations by one of Hitchcock favourite composers, Sir Edward Elgar! Anyway, notice how Hitchcock again chose what is essentially a comedy to help him out when he needed an ending for his film that is basically not a comedy but a psychological drama (The Lodger, Strangers on a Train). It surely tells us something of how his mind worked!

September 11 - 2010
My thanks and congratulations to author Paul Newman who has written the first full-length biography of the man, Frank Baker (1908-1983), who wrote the novel 'The Birds' (1936) which Daphne du Maurier certainly saw many years before she penned her short story of the same title - and which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Paul Newman's book is accomplished and insightful about the (mainly) Cornish landscape and literary circle in which Baker moved. Here is the book's blurb: 'In 1963 the world of cinema was galvanised by the terrifying movie The Birds, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. But what many people do not know was that the same story had been written thirty years earlier by a brilliant young writer called Frank Baker who depicted the city of London falling apart as it was mercilessly attacked by a mysterious and savage flock of birds. This novel had been forgotten and Baker was smarting in penury as he watched what he thought was his own creation go on to reap thousands of dollars. Isolated and neglected, bisexual and devoted to alcohol, he felt very much a literary leftover, hiding away mainly in the duchy of Cornwall, about which he wrote with tremendous passion in his first novel, the brooding, melodramatic "The Twisted Tree" in which a mother sacrificed her son. But he was actually a writer of worldwide renown whose classic supernatural comedy "Miss Hargreaves"' was adapted for the London stage with his friend, Margaret Rutherford, taking the leading role. And yet, although he'd been saluted by critics and a film had been made [by Charles Frend in 1954], starring Robert Donat, of his heart-rending novel "Lease of Life", the greater body of his work remained unknown. Now, in this pioneer biography, the story of this remarkable man is set down for the first time and Frank Baker is presented as a literary phenomenon.' Paul Newman's book is available online. Click here for more information from the Frank Baker website: The Man Who Unleashed The Birds. May I just add that if you haven't yet read my monograph on Hitchcock's The Birds, which includes analysis and appreciation of Frank Baker's novel, this recent short review by a European economist, Martin Westlake (whom I thank), may whet your appetite: The Birds. KM

September 4 - 2010
I'll probably sign off on Strangers on a Train after today's item, as my attention is currently shifted to Hitchcock's The Lodger for which I have to prepare some notes. There are connections between the two films (and respective novels), of course, so I'll start today's entry by mentioning some of those connections. You could almost say that Mrs Belloc Lowndes, author of the novel 'The Lodger', was the Patricia Highsmith of her day. (Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel 'Strangers on a Train'.) Both women were concerned with the psychology of their characters, and how that psychology extended into society. True, Mrs Belloc Lowndes isn't subversive in the way Patricia Highsmith is, not at all. Belloc Lowndes hardly questions society's institutions nor a basic morality. On the other hand, Highsmith, arguably starting with 'Strangers on a Train' and extending particularly to her Tom Ripley books, 'confirmed the possibility of a protagonist who is amoral yet still a figure with whom to identify', and that 'in more than a merely "Evil be thou my good" fashion' (as H.R.F. Keating puts it in his 'Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense and Spy Fiction', published in 1982). Perhaps one can say that Belloc Lowndes spoke to the anti-pessimistic side of Hitchcock while giving him many of the devices he would later use in his films (see below), while Highsmith spoke more to the outright pessimist in Hitchcock (who would probably agree with Winnie Verloc in Joseph Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' that 'things [do] not stand much looking into'). Now, there's an amusing moment in Strangers on a Train when a ticket-seller at Pennsylvania Station utters the single word 'Metcalf!' to two detectives who are trailing Guy Haines and ask the man for Guy's destination (see frame-capture below). The man is excited by his momentary importance - a variant on the scene earlier with the same two detectives who commandeer an old lady's chaffeur-driven car and tell her that they are 'chasing a man'. She responds: 'Really? How exciting!' Both scenes are good-natured on Hitchcock's part because animated and believable. Nonetheless, there are deeper implications. I thought of a brilliant inquest scene (Chapter XIX) in Mrs Belloc Lowndes's 'The Lodger' (and even more of a motif in the Ernest Raymond novel 'We, the Accused', which I discussed here in June). The inquest doesn't figure in Hitchcock's The Lodger yet foreshadows the intense and nuanced courtroom scenes in such later Hitchcock films as The Paradine Case and I Confess. Mrs Bunting (the Lodger's landlady) looks at the witnesses waiting to give their evidence and starts to feel pity for them. Then she realises that it would be wasted: 'Each woman witness looked eager, excited, and animated; well pleased to be the centre of attention and attraction to the general public ... of all London - it might almost be said of the whole world.' Even the Coroner warms to his moment in the spotlight. Mrs Bunting overhears an old gentleman sitting near her whisper to another: '"Drawing it out all he can; that's what he's doing. Having the time of his life, evidently!"' Here is more evidence, then, for how Hitchcock's 'pure cinema' is deep down about giving audiences 'more life' even as it implies (like the 'mob' sequence in The Lodger) the danger of losing one's bearings. To recognise this may be the beginning of wisdom. Speaking of which ... how well Hitchcock could depict, by 'typage', seniority among his policemen, from The Lodger to Strangers on a Train and beyond. In watching both films this week, I was struck by the dignified older policemen, both with a touch of grey hair, in those films. See, respectively, the scene in The Lodger where detectives come to the Lodger's house to question him, and the final fairground sequence in Strangers on a Train where the police close in on Bruno.

August 28 - 2010
Still on Strangers on a Train, some bits and pieces this time. First, we noted last time how the initial fairground sequence has two little incidents that comment on each other: Bruno's bursting a child's balloon and Bruno's helping a blind man cross the road. (They tell us about Bruno's different mind-sets, before and after the murder.) Hitchcock liked such symmetries. Another instance occurs in the scene where Ann visits Mrs Anthony to ask her to turn her son in (and thus get Guy off the hook). In the first half of the scene, Ann talks to the giggly Mrs Anthony and soon finds that she is at least as crazy as Bruno, in denial about her 'irresponsible' son's actions ('He gets into all kinds of escapades'). Very soon Mrs Anthony excuses herself, pausing at the door to give a little shrug (see frame-capture below). But Bruno has been eavesdropping. As soon as his mother has gone out, he emerges and tells Ann, 'I'm afraid Mother wasn't much help'. (He is wearing his long dressing-gown and a silk cravat.) Quickly he begins to tell Ann a lie about how Guy murdered Miriam and how Guy has been asking Bruno to go to the fairground and recover his lighter which he had dropped there. 'But that would make me an accessory', he adds. Poor Ann can say nothing. Bruno speaks of 'an urgent appointment' and starts to leave the room. However, at the door he pauses to give a little wave from the waist. This weak gesture is, of course, the equivalent of his mother's shrug moments before, and it nails the point about 'like mother, like son'. The whole scene is bold and succinct, and clarifies Guy's (and Ann's) predicament before the vital tennis match, which immediately follows. The second item I want to note this time concerns the initial fairground sequence again. Readers of Robin Wood's fine essay on Strangers on a Trainin 'Hitchcock's Films Revisited' may have been puzzled, as I was, by a comment Wood makes there on Miriam's dropped glasses with one cracked lens: '... the murder is shown to us reflected in the other lens, inverted and distorted. The lens itself recalls lake and tunnel and is a further sexual symbol. The shot is one of the cinema's most powerful images of perverted sexuality ...' In 2006 I was emailing Wood's colleague, MW, and asked him if he understood exactly what Wood was getting at here, including the reference to the spectacle lens as a sexual symbol. MW's answer clarified the matter for me beautifully, and I'm taking the liberty of passing it on. MW: 'Insofar as I can answer for him (and perhaps I'm being presumptuous) I'd say Robin was seeing the whole sequence as like a chain of suggestive Freudian imagery, in which the journey through the "Tunnel of Love" is a "penetration" to the Magic Isle (where one goes for sex) and the lens as symbol is only significant within that chain. I guess he means it's vaginal, but is not penetrated ... .' For my part, I have always found the way the whole fairground sequence builds to a 'climax' - including the 'false climax' when someone screams in the Tunnel of Love - to be literally Freudian inasmuch as the scene's narrative mechanism matches that described by Freud for telling a 'tendentious' joke, i.e., one that has a sexual payoff: you start by building a general mood of acceptable good humour, and 'permissiveness', and then move to the punchline. Also, I have written in 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story' of how 'The murder reflected in the glasses is like a love scene, and as Bruno lowers Miriam's body to the ground it looks like he is gently putting her to bed [lowering her into bed], or perhaps drowning her' - the water symbolism again. 'Of course, Hitchcock probably had two very pragmatic reasons for photographing the murder like this. Firstly, he needed to emphasise the cracked glasses, which still have an important part to play in the story. Secondly, in a favourite phrase of his, he needed to "take the curse off" the murder, which is very sordid, so he photographed it as if in a mirror.'

August 21 - 2010
In Strangers on a Train, the first (but not the second) funfair sequence is drawn essentially from the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Bruno is aroused but relaxed, and accordingly is set in his purpose. He stalks his prey - Miriam - through the fairground. All the details speak of alert senses and pursuit of a sexual quarry. Hitchcock follows the novel very closely, as here: 'They [Miriam and her companions] all bought frozen custards. Bruno waited boredly, smiling, looking up at the ferris wheel's arc of lights and the tiny people swinging in benches up there in the black sky. Far off through the trees, he saw lights twinkling on water. It was quite a park. He wanted to ride the ferris wheel. He felt wonderful. He was taking it easy, not getting excited. The merry-go-round played "Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde ...".' (#12) (Hitchcock incorporated this very tune into his film, no doubt remembering his symbolic use of the 'Merry Widow Waltz' in Shadow of a Doubt. Conveniently, Warners held the rights to the tune after using it in Strawberry Blonde [1941] and One Sunday Afternoon [1948].) Even when Hitchcock doesn't incorporate a detail from the novel directly, he evidently notes it for possible use elsewhere in the film. (I have always thought that Hitchcock was potentially a very fine literary critic, alert to an author's every nuance or symbol.) The passage just quoted continues like this: 'Grinning, he turned [his attention] to Miriam's red hair, and their eyes met, but hers moved on and he was sure she hadn't noticed him, but he mustn't do that again.' Far from transposing this particular detail straight into the film, Hitchcock boldly reverses it: in the film, Bruno does catch Miriam's eye and effectively gives her the come-on - unnoticed by her companions - thus making the sequence even more sexual. In turn, that moment provides motivation for why, on the Island of Love, Miriam momentarily slips away from her companions and literally into Bruno's clutches - whereupon he strangles her. On the other hand, Hitchcock isn't finished. In the film's second funfair sequence, in which Bruno goes back to plant Guy's cigarette lighter at the scene of the crime, Bruno does indeed want to avoid attracting attention. So he is understandably discomforted when he suddenly realises that he may have been recognised by the fairground employee (an Ernest Borgnine look-alike) in charge of the boats that go to the Island of Love. Bruno looks away and retreats into shadow, but too late. It's a memorable moment (see frame-capture below), and Hitchcock almost certainly took it, as I say, from the Highsmith novel. Now back to the earlier fairground episode. Before the murder, there is the business of the test-your-strength sideshow, the merry-go-round ride, and the river-caves attraction, and all of them Hitchcock includes in his film. At one point, Bruno impulsively buys a toy bird with a swallow-tail ('It made him feel like a kid again'). Then: 'A little boy walking by with his parents stretched his hand towards it [the toy bird], and Bruno had an impulse to give it to him, but he didn't.' Bruno's meanness here is the inspiration for the incident in the film where he uses his cigarette to burst a small boy's balloon (one of several reminders of his fixity of intention - something not to be messed with except at one's peril!). However, after the murder, just as Bruno has left the fairground, he has another encounter with a small boy. He leaps onto a passing streetcar. 'A wriggly little boy sat across the aisle, and Bruno began chatting with him. ... In a burst of well-being, he ruffled the little boy's hair.' (#12) So now Bruno can afford to be nice, and this is surely the inspiration for how in the film, after the murder, he helps a blind man cross the road. (Robin Wood notes how the blind man's dark glasses echo Miriam's spectacles, and how the incident suggests Bruno's need, however partially, to blot out the crime.) Of course, the film has many nice touches of its own during the fairground sequence. One I like is the use of voices on the soundtrack straight after the strangling, as Bruno is hurrying to leave the island. Miriam's two companions are already beginning to look for her. Someone is heard asking, 'Lost your girl, George?' The companions call out in succession such phrases as 'Miriam, where are you?', 'Here she is', and 'Look, she's fainted!' A great deal of Strangers on a Train proves, on examination, to depend on exact timing of lines and conviction of delivery to mask the outlandishness of what we are asked to believe!

August 14 - 2010
Our discussion group this week has focussed on the lighter-down-the-drain sequence in Strangers on a Train. The sequence memorably intercuts Bruno's attempt to retrieve the lighter (which he needs to incriminate Guy by planting it at the scene of Miriam's murder) with Guy's desperate attempt to win a tennis match at Forest Hills so that he can hasten to intercept Bruno. Such cross-cutting, of course, goes back to D.W. Griffith - Hitchcock has 'merely freshened it up a little' (as they say in North by Northwest). For one thing, the whole film is about its 'criss-cross' motif, first stated in the cross-cutting of Bruno's and Guy's footsteps in the opening sequence. For another thing, the criss-cross motif is ubiquitous in the film, accruing meanings like the references to 'vertigo' in Vertigo. In the frame-capture below, Bruno has just retrieved the lighter and is hastening away. Note the railway-crossing sign behind him, which has been present throughout the sequence. Also note the presence at centre-screen of Guy's luggage-handler friend: the intersecting lives of various people constitutes a further part of what the criss-cross motif stands for. (Another matter of interest in this shot is the sign in the far distance saying 'Metcalf Diner': as Metcalf was a fictional town, Hitchcock clearly had taken pains to make sure details like this were 'right'.) But I want to hark back for a moment to last time, when we discussed Hitchcock's 'outflanking technique'. As part of our group's discussion this week, we noted how 'identification' in Hitchcock can be with both 'good' and 'bad' characters. My contribution was this: 'Notice that the cross-cutting emphasises how both men - Guy, Bruno - are [literally] stretching themselves. That effort becomes the paramount thing and is not given any moral emphasis. Just the audience-identification with the effort, the Willing, is what matters here.' (The cosmic Will, said Schopenhauer, is a blind, amoral life/death 'force'.) DS had this to say: 'I do not believe that the primary criteria for rooting interest in a character is moral. We identify with aspects of characters, some of which are moral and some immoral.' SR reminded me in an email that screenwriters and other working professionals regularly speak of 'space work': 'To draw-in an audience, to engage them in a character's "world" (and it's a trick Hitchcock employed masterfully), bring the camera very close to the actor as he does something arduous and physical.' That of course is what the lighter-down-the-drain sequence is about - doubly! (As Bruno reaches down the drain to try and grasp the lighter, Hitchcock cross-cuts to Guy pushing himself beyond his 'usual watch-and-wait strategy' as he hastens to finish the tennis match.) But here's where Hitchcock may also 'outflank' us. MP noted that the film is a veritable 'roller-coaster of emotion [and tones]'. 'Identification in this context is [ultimately] with the director rather than with the characters ... as he sets us up, or lets us in on a joke, or horrifies us, using ... character identification to talk to us about larger ideas.' In effect, Hitchcock himself 'identifies' with both 'good' and 'bad' characters, as he takes pains to portray them with human qualities and with a degree of compassion, and we in turn identify with Hitchcock identifying with those characters and the 'larger ideas' they embody! Of course, too, there are other technical resources the film can use to encourage identification. As Bruno stretches his arm and hand those last critical inches, prior to grasping the lighter, hear Dimitri Tiomkin's empathic tuba register his effort! (This unmelodic sound is a far cry from the solo violin that briefly played so sweetly at the outset of the film's credits-sequence!) More next time.

August 7 - 2010
What I call Hitchcock's 'outflanking technique' goes to the heart of his filmmaking method (as I suggested last time). At one level, it involves simply the play of opposites Hitchcock said he used in The Trouble With Harry where he 'took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it out in the sunshine'. (Compare his description of the sunlit crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest as the reverse of the hackneyed gangster-movie ambush with its 'cobblestones at night washed by recent rain and a black cat slinking by'.) Mind you, even in The Trouble With Harry, the result isn't so simple! The play of opposites, or use of counterpoint, serves to 'elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level'. Those are again Hitchcock's words, but they are close to what Arthur Koestler said about the artist's - or the scientist's - need to bridge the gap between the tragic and trivial planes of existence. At such a time, the cosmic mystery is humanised while 'humdrum' human existence is seen in a new light. That's 'outflanking' of a kind, all right, and it resembles the idea of the sublime: an experience that defeats everyday thinking, that defies everyday norms of scale or magnitude or what is graspable, and arouses feelings of awe and reverence. (The Trouble With Harry, correctly understood, is a hymn to the life/death force. The very burying and unburying of Harry's corpse, over and over, is an essential part of its - in every sense, earthy - effect.) But now to the specific contrast in scales I mentioned last time in the image from Strangers on a Train of Bruno at the Jefferson Memorial. I said it was roughly the equivalent of the image implicit in Psycho, of a young Norman Bates playing Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony on a gramophone. I would also mention the moment in The Wrong Man when Manny (Henry Fonda) gives a piano lesson to his two young sons (see frame-capture below). The eldest boy, Robert, remarks of the music: 'It says here Mozart wrote it when he was 5, so I should be able to play it - I'm 8.' To which his brother, Greg, responds: 'I'm 5, so I should be able to write it.' What do these three moments have in common? Just this. There's a simple contrast between the small and everyday and something that is its opposite, grand and sublime. Remember that Bruno is characterised as a dreamer, the wealthy playboy (and mother's-boy) who already feels that he isn't going to achieve much, despite his talents, and so turns to hare-brained schemes like an invention for being able to smell a flower on Mars - or a bright idea for the perfect murder. That's one implication, then, of Bruno on the steps, corresponding to how he is shown in the Patricia Highsmith novel to be envious of Guy's genius as an architect. Also, this at-times likeable man begins to dog Guy's footsteps and threatens to corrupt him (see last time). He is like a blot on Guy's otherwise near-perfect landscape, and we see that too. Then, beyond both those subjective views (Bruno's of himself, Guy's of Bruno), there are other dimensions again, roughly corresponding to what is at stake for the viewer. The Jefferson Memorial is like a shrine erected to the democratic ideal. Suddenly the story we are watching may seem to become nothing less than a story of ourselves and our - individual and collective - places in the world and in history. (A correspondent on our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group this week wrote how enthralled he was by the film's use of the 'criss-cross' motif to express precisely this larger dimension of our shared involvement in the world.) Now, there is much more to be said, such as how Hitchcock would deliberately tap the particular zeitgeist of the period (as I touched on last time). But I've space left to just clarify a couple of things. First, the image containing a deliberate contrast-of-scale is of course recurrent in Hitchcock's work, going back at least as far as Blackmail (the pursuit and flight of the wretched blackmailer into the British Museum where he falls to his death). It is part-and-parcel of the sequoia-forest scene in Vertigo. It is evident in such other films as To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Birds. Second, there are other instances of, specifically, musical references to make a point that may involve pathos but is also elevating (to use Hitchcock's word again). Think of the moment in The Birds in Annie Hayworth's house where we glimpse the record-cover for Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde' and sense a connection of that classic legend of frustrated love to Annie's and Mitch's own story (as seen by Annie, anyway). More next time.

July 31 - 2010
In a moment, continuing our discussion of the remarkable Strangers on a Train, I'll talk about what I have often called Hitchcock's 'outflanking technique', which in many ways goes to the heart of his filmmaking method. But as I particularly want to refer to the haunting shot (or two) of Bruno on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. (see frame-capture below), I'll begin with that. Robert Corber, in his intense and informative book on Hitchcock and homophobia, 'In the Name of National Security' (1993), suggests that Hitchcock was very aware of how the American public had lately been conditioned to see homosexuals as a security risk, and as a threat to the very fabric of the American democratic way of life. Understandably, Corber puts this emblematic image of the gay Bruno on the cover of his book. And he comments on how 'the film positions the spectator as "the heterosexual" of contemporary juridical discourse who is supposedly threatened by the homosexual menace' (p. 73). It's an interesting view, and accords with how Hitchcock typically sought to appeal to a particular zeitgeist, in each of his films. (I see Spellbound, made when World War II was ending, with all the mixed emotions of hope and uncertainty then in the air, as representative; its references to things like war neurosis and amnesia caused by witnessing something unbearable were very timely, as was its tone of general optimism, unusual for Hitchcock.) Bruno, then, is like a stain on the public landscape, and not just a personal threat to Guy whom he is effectively blackmailing (though note: the image of Bruno on the steps is subjective, from Guy's point-of-view in his taxi). Now, Patricia Highsmith's novel has no reference to Washington D.C., and much of it is set in Texas and New Mexico. Nonetheless, the filmmakers surely took inspiration for the Jefferson Memorial scene, in particular, from a couple of Highsmith's observations. For one thing, Guy in the novel is an architect (in the film he's a tennis-player). After Bruno has begun to haunt Guy (and eventually Guy's marriage to Anne), Highsmith writes: 'The creation of a building was a spiritual act. So long as [Guy] harboured the knowledge of Bruno's guilt, he corrupted himself in a sense.' (#18) Architecture, then, is retained as a motif in the film, and particularly in the Washington D.C. scenes (the Capitol Building, etc.) which express, amongst other things, the stability that Guy seeks and which his marriage to Miriam hasn't given him. (Bruno's presence threatens to bring everything crashing down. Interestingly, Strangers on a Train was made the same year as Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still which literalises such a calamity.) Even more specifically, the novel tells us that Guy is something of a genius whose 'main building [for a golf club] ...had been called "The American Parthenon" ... .' (#47) So there you have a direct inspiration for the film's scenes featuring the Jefferson Memorial, whose Grecian columns, etc., speak of the democratic ideal. But also you have a whole contrast of scale, or several such contrasts, and that brings me to Hitchcock's 'outflanking technique'. I originally coined that term to refer to how Hitchcock would always seek to stay ahead of the film's viewers in terms of anticipating possible objections, or difficulties, they might have. For example, I cited how the ornithologist Mrs Bundy (Ethel Griffies) in The Birds is established as very knowledgeable in her field, and then made gentle fun of. When someone asks what the birds were trying to do, and eyewitness Melanie (Tippi Hedren) answers plainly, 'To kill them [the children at the school]', Mrs Bundy responds, 'Impossible - the whole concept is unimagineable!' Nonetheless, she proceeds to cite statistics showing that birds far outnumber humans on this planet (and have been around since archeopteryx) - all very humbling and scary. And we believe Melanie, now that the issue of the birds' intentions is out in the open. (There's a similar moment in Rope when Rupert finally voices his suspicions of murder, and the film moves to its focussed showdown with the two killers.) Hitchock's deliberate use of contrasts is another aspect of his outflanking us. For example, I see Bruno dwarfed by the shrine of democracy that is the Jefferson Memorial, as a deliberate and tendentious contrast by Hitchcock, one comparable to the image implicit in Psycho, of a young Norman Bates playing Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony on the gramophone. That, and analogies elsewhere in Hitchcock, will be my topic next time.

July 24 - 2010
Watching Strangers on a Train (1951) on a big screen in a friend's theatrette last weekend, I was struck by, first, the engaging performances given by Robert Walker, as spoilt rich-boy Bruno Anthony, and Farley Granger, as the slightly naive tennis-player and would-be politician, Guy Haines. Also very good was Laura Elliot as Guy's trampish wife Miriam, from whom he is expecting to get a divorce. However, whenever the camera cut to Ruth Roman playing Guy's new girlfriend, Ann Morton, daughter of a US Senator in Washington D.C., the emotional temperature would fall. I don't attribute this just to Ruth Roman's performance, as the very mise-en-scène of shots associated with Ann is itself relatively uninteresting and barren. (The frame-capture below shows our first glimpse of her.) What I think Hitchcock was doing is twofold. First, he wanted to suggest the rarified atmosphere of Senator Morton's household. The Senator (Leo G. Carroll), the very opposite of someone like the irresponsible Bruno with his grandiose schemes, seems ultra-cautious, ultra-conservative. He seems to be a widower (like Guy, he may be currently between wives). Of course, Hitchcock gives us the outspoken younger sister of Ann, Babs (Patricia Hitchcock), for some comic relief and a break to the formality of the household. Patricia Hitchcock is another fine performer in this film. But I think Hitchcock had something further in mind. By the time Guy first rings Ann, he has spent a long conversation with Bruno on the train - a would-be seductive conversation by Bruno - and also he has learned from Miriam that she has had second thoughts about the divorce. Guy, in short, is already a man pre-occupied and not entirely sure of his future with Ann. And that fissure between them will only widen for a time. After Bruno decides to go ahead with his wild scheme of 'swapping murders' that he had proposed on the train - to Guy's polite amusement - and strangles Miriam at a funfair, Guy is faced with his guilty knowledge of a murder that he can't talk about because he is the obvious suspect. No matter that it was committed by a madman, a psychopath, and that Guy did nothing knowingly to encourage or condone it! (Nonetheless, he has said to Ann on the phone that he had felt like strangling Miriam - exactly what happened.) I'll talk in detail about Strangers on a Train in coming weeks. I have also lately re-read Patricia Highsmith's intriguing novel, and will comment on that. For example, the title can refer not just to the initial Bruno-Guy meeting but to the relationship of Guy and Ann(e) who marry during the novel (though Guy continues to be haunted by his doppelgänger, Bruno, and indeed reciprocates Miriam's murder by killing Bruno's hated father). At one point, Anne tells Guy that there are moments when 'you make me feel we're complete strangers' (#21). Later, a key passage describes the marriage as a 'condition' in which Bruno is always coming between them, 'something that had always been and always would be. Bruno, himself, Anne. And the moving on the tracks. And the lifetime of moving on the tracks until death us do part, for that was the punishment.' (#31, my emphasis) Bruno, then, you could say, is the embodiment of Guy's guilt. Guy is guilty of murder but also of a susceptability to indulge his 'shadow' side, including a dissatisfaction with the constricting 'rules' and ideals of straight, patriarchal society. It is in part a homosexual view of life, but is more than that. (Scottie in Vertigo may be seen to hold a similar dissatisfaction with the everyday.) Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train crams much of this into one stunning image - of Bruno haunting Guy, watching him from the sunlit steps of the Jefferson Memorial - and it is that image that I'll talk about next time.

July 17 - 2010
My regular readers know how I admire the writings of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and his positive - in every sense - influence on Hitchcock. Not least, he was a master of paradox. Here, this week, are just some passing observations. I'll start with a clever distinction made by, of all people, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Speaking broadly, Gramsci thought he detected an essential difference between the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Father Brown stories of Chesterton. Gramsci: 'Father Brown is a Catholic who mocks the mechanical habits of thought of Protestants ... Sherlock Holmes is the Protestant detective who unravels the tangled skein of a crime starting from the outside, using scientific and experimental methods and induction. Father Brown is the Catholic priest who uses the subtle psychological experience gained from the confessional and from the vigorous moral casuistry of the Fathers, depending particularly on deduction and introspection while not totally ignoring science and experiment.' ('The Picador Book of Crime Writing', 1993, p. 203.) Hmm. That rather squares, does it not, with Hitchcock's stated disdain, as a filmmaker, for whodunits, which he saw as intellectual puzzles? And remember Hitchcock's phrase to himself, 'logic is dull!' Another of Chesterton's admirers was, of course, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. He saw Chesterton as 'Poe's great successor' ('The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986', 2000, p. 498), certainly not meaning that Chesterton was just a ratiocinator. He astutely noted: Chesterton always performs a tour de force by proposing a supernatural explanation and then replacing it, losing nothing, with one from this world.' (Ibid, p. 114.) Shades of Hitchcock's Vertigo, there. For an example of Chesterton's own disparagement of some intellectuals, and for his capacity to spot the real meaning in a situation, I might attempt to distill what he wrote in his essay "Cockneys and Their Jokes". Mother-in-law jokes, and similar 'perpetual jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands' are 'all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood. If you read even the best of the intellectuals of today you will find them saying that in the mass of the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or his bed. But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape from the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact but it is much nearer the truth. Every man who is married knows quite well, not only that he does not regard his wife as a chattel, but that no man can conceivably ever have done so. The joke stands for an ultimate truth ... [that] even if the man is the head of the house, he knows she is the figurehead.' For how the people live, suggests Chesterton, 'we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.' If nothing else, one may feel such sensible thinking on Chesterton's part to be refreshing, and I think it is like Hitchcock's own Cockney good sense and direct observation evident in much of the humour and visual gags of his 1930s films. Speaking of which ... I like a point made by Gavin Lambert that in the Father Brown stories 'Chesterton's high points are nearly always visual rather than narrative' ('The Dangerous Edge', 1975, p. 74). One example Lambert gives is this, which surely inspired Hitchcock: 'A photographer with a black cloak over his head apparently focuses his camera - only the unnatural posture of his leg reveals that he was murdered hours ago and propped up against his tripod.' Surely that inspired the scene in Secret Agent (1936) in which Ashenden (John Gielgud) and The General (Peter Lorre) wait upon an organist in a Swiss alpine church - and wait and wait, because the organist (who is actually dead) seems intent on playing a particular chord that is never-ending. (See frame-capture below.) Note: the gag in question is also a variant on the 'One Note Man' (H.M. Bateman's cartoon in 'Punch') that helped inspire the clash of cymbals in the Albert Hall climax of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)!

July 10 - 2010
Okay. The embassy sequence that resolves The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is an impeccable sequence in its own right. Following hard on the Albert Hall sequence, it features another solo vocalist but this time it is Jo McKenna (Doris Day) acting in tandem with husband Ben (James Stewart) to locate and rescue their kidnapped son Hank (Christopher Olsen). Note that it's likely that Hitchcock intended the monumental quality of the Albert Hall sequence and the 'Storm Cloud Cantata' to comment on Jo's ambitions as a pop singer - all very fine, but hardly more than the proverbial 'hill of beans' in the greater scheme of things. (As for Ben's abandoning his patients at the Good Samaritan Hospital, Indianapolis, and moving to New York, as Jo had half-seriously proposed, I suspect that Hitchcock saw that as roughly the equivalent of the Robert Donat doctor in The Citadel selling out his Welsh mining-village patients and moving with wife Rosalind Russell to Harley Street. King Vidor's film clearly influenced a key scene in Hitchcock's Mr and Mrs Smith.) Now, in the frame-capture below, note the Ambassador on the left, next to his wife (who could almost be his mother - something I'll come back to), and then the Prime Minister slightly behind them. And against the wall on the right is Ben, waiting his opportunity to duck out and locate Hank. The pov is that of Jo at the piano. Once Jo starts to sing - loudly, to give Hank the best chance to hear her and respond - she ignores the shocked glances of some of the audience and keeps on belting it out. Whereupon, as if wafted on wings of song, the camera moves out and progressively upwards, landing by landing, until it arrives at the room, two stories above, where Hank is being supervised by Mrs Drayton. Slowly, he rubs the sleep from his eyes, and runs to the door, asking to be let out. 'That's my mother's voice.' (Earlier, at the Ambrose Chapel, he had heard his father's voice calling his name.) Nobly, Mrs Drayton lowers herself before Hank and tells him to 'whistle as loud as you can'. Thereafter, whenever Hitchcock's camera returns to Mrs Drayton, it is careful to centre her or keep her prominent in the frame. Her mother's instinct, like that of Jo's in the Albert Hall, is being valorised. Nonetheless, Ben is given equal weight in this sequence. Back in the room where Mrs Drayton waits nervously with Hank, all of a sudden there is relative quiet again. Aware that Ben is on the job, Jo has switched to the quieter 'We'll Love Again' number. We hear echoing steps on the stairs and know that it could be either Mr Drayton coming to dispose of Hank or it could be Ben. The effect echoes the climax of Rear Window (Thorwald's approaching footsteps) and also picks up on the 'echoing footsteps' scene in Camden Town earlier. The footsteps prove to be those of Ben who bursts into the room (as Mrs Drayton, fearing it's her husband, screams 'No!'). Mrs Drayton urges father and son to leave immediately, but even as Ben turns momentarily to acknowledge her words, a disembodied gun appears at Hank's head. (Cf the disembodied gun in Albert Hall.) Mr Drayton now speaks of using Ben and Hank as hostages in order to make it past the plain-clothes police who surround the embassy. Ben tells Hank to lead the way as Drayton has requested. For one-and-half flights the trio proceed slowly to the accompaniment of Jo's singing coming up the stairs. Then, as she performs a couple of piano trills, and the music seems almost spent, suddenly Ben is able to pull Hank back and simultaneously deliver an upper-cut to a startled Drayton who is spun downwards. A couple of cut-ins of Drayton's head-and-shoulders show that he's not doing himself any good physically on the stairs. Then the gun, secreted up his sleeve, goes off. He lies still. Mrs Drayton appears at the head of the stairs and takes in what has happened. Significantly, she is thus shown exactly as the Scotland Yard dignitary Buchanan has been shown at the Albert Hall - the parallel further 'valorises' her. Next moment, Hank is in his mother's arms. As for the Ambassador's wife who looks like she could actually be his mother - and suitably dowager-like - you can't help feeling that, out of ambition, she may have put her husband up to the attempted assassination in the first place. She would thus be like, say, Mrs Sebastian in Notorious. At any rate, her husband now faces a long spell 'up the river' (in England, or back home), so she may as well get used to feeling like a dowager.

July 3 - 2010
Owing to indisposition, the entry this week is held over ...

June 26 - 2010
(revised) I had occasion tonight to post on our 'advanced' Hitchcock group my dissatisfaction with an article that Laura Mulvey wrote on Psycho for 'Film Studies', Spring 2000, and reprinted, with few changes, in her book 'Death 24x a Second' (2006). The article (on "Death Drives" - that's a Mulvey pun) seems to me 'seldom attentive to the film itself but only to a broad abstracted description of it that I find dulling-down', not opening the film up to the full scope of Hitchcock's imagination and Symbolist conception. I must add that many academic articles on Hitchcock strike me the same way (would you believe, some of my best friends are academics?!), and attempts to grapple with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which we have started to discuss here, aren't an exception. In 'CineAction' #50 (1999), Robert K. Lightning argues at length for TMWKTM as pro-feminist, with Jo and Ben in competition for the love and guidance of their son Hank who represents 'the phallus'. There's some truth in that, but the film as a whole has been overlooked. The characters in this (and many another) Hitchcock film are at the service of, not ideology, but an imaginative conception and an effect. For a start, I can't repeat too often that the overall tendency of a Hitchcock film is to affirm nothing except the life/death force itself, which is neutral. In turn, I believe Hitchcock represented what the poet Keats called 'the poetic character', capable of turning one way, then another - even almost the contrary way - as it suited the particular effect the occasion required. Author Charles Dickens was the same. Now, last week I suggested that both he and Hitchcock were interested in exploring in certain scenes (e.g., the taxidermist's scene in TMWKTM) the boundary between the animate and the inanimate, thus 'obliquely reminding us of how important real life is - it's there to be seized'. Laura Mulvey notes similar moments in Psycho (e.g., its climax with the skull and the swaying light bulb), and says that they mark 'the boundary that cinema itself blurs'. True enough, confirming what has often been noted (e.g., by Taylor Stoehr), that Dickens was one of the most (pre-)cinematic of novelists. But that can scarcely have been Dickens's intention, nor do I think it was entirely Hitchcock's. Both of these entertainer-artists maintained a very special attitude to their respective audiences, an attitude which I can inadequately suggest by using words like 'goood-humoured' and 'responsible'. I hold to my point above that in the scenes mentioned they were sharing with us their sense of their personal endowment with 'life' (Dickens indeed described himself thus) and in turn energising us. Note that Ben's 'wild goose chase' in the taxidermist's scene fires him up for what is to come, even as it readies him to work with Jo to finally rescue Hank. 'Sweet are the uses of adversity', as Drayton tells us. Somewhat differently, in the 'Storm Cloud Cantata' scene (frame-capture below: note the contingents of both male and female singers plus both a female soloist and a male conductor) everything combines to speak of how the life/death force (emblemised by the storm and its passing) can at best be fleetingly 'mastered' by a composer's genius wedded to his instruments. (Hitchcock's favourite composer was Wagner ...) Finally, with no time this week to fully comment on the embassy scene, I'll just single out the line in Jo's lyrics: 'Now I have children of my own ...'. This picks up on the scene in the Marrakesh marketplace where Jo had asked Ben, 'When are we going to have another baby?' I see little reason to think that she has now changed her mind and wants to resume her pop-singer career - though such a course is not ruled out. She may well have originally asked her question out of boredom or 'pain' (her expression). Here, think of the climax of North by Northwest where Thornhill, clinging to Mount Rushmore, recalls that his previous wives had divorced him because he 'led too dull a life'. An implication is that he may finally be ready to try raising a family. (I'm reminded that Buddhism plays on this secondary meaning of 'birth' superceding 'ignorance' in its Twelve Links of Dependent Origination ...) On the other hand, there are exceptions to every rule, especially for genius. Next time: I'll try to tidy up!

June 19 - 2010
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a Hitchcock paean to marriage (ending with Doris Day singing "We'll Love Again"), and I can't do better, for starters, than refer readers to Catherine Blythe's article Why marriage matters posted on the BBC News website this week. Quote: 'With a spouse who has sworn to support you, it's easier to take decisions that are difficult in the short run ... But [the] magic only works if you believe in it, if you don't simply work at marriage, but play at and relish it.' TMWKTM begins by showing a mildly dysfunctional family, the McKennas, who have the usual quota of strains and resentments (see last week's entry) but are basically a loving, intelligent couple who are prepared to do what it takes to make their marriage succeed, insofar as that is in their power. (There is an element of grace incipient in TMWKTM, as in several Hitchcock films, given a pragmatic basis by the sermon on 'adversity' delivered by, of all people, Mr Drayton, the kidnapper of Hank. At Ambrose Chapel, in Bayswater, Drayton dons a clerical collar and tells his drab congregation that 'the average life is often harassed and perplexed by disappointments and cruelty beyond our control' which, however, may work to 'make better men and women of us'. The sentiment itself is unassailable - vide a famous passage in 'As You Like It' - but Drayton's hypocrisy recalls that of the Cornish villagers in Jamaica Inn who pray for profitable wrecks, or like that of the treacherous Milly in Under Capricorn who recites Cowper's hymn about how 'God moves in a mysterious way/ his wonders to perform'.) That Jo McKenna is prepared to knuckle down to continued married life, and motherhood, is shown by her question to Ben in Marrakesh, 'When are we going to have another baby?' Unfortunately, Hank is kidnapped shortly afterwards, and for a time wife and husband find themselves at cross-purposes (shades of Rich and Strange) emphasised by both Hitchcock's cutting (e.g., in the fiacre on the way back to the hotel from the police station) and by events themselves (e.g., the separate excursions in London by Jo and Ben in search of Hank). Wife and husband finally come together as a team in the foreign embassy, even as their opposite number - the Draytons - are separated for good. (Lucy Drayton's disgust at her husband's actions has been developing gradually. In this respect, she is like Nancy, mistress of robber Bill Sikes, in the Dickens novel 'Oliver Twist': both women finally take pity on the respective kidnapped children, Oliver and Hank, and facilitate their escapes.) I'll discuss the remarkable embassy scene next time, but here's a thought or two on the earlier London scenes. As I note in 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story', the taxidermist's sequence in Gulliver/Camden Town may have its own 'Dickensian' inspiration, namely, the taxidermist's shop of Mr Venus in 'Our Mutual Friend', crammed with stuffed animals, preserved babies and articulated human skeletons. At one point, someone slams the street door, and the whole grisly population is shaken into momentary 'life' ('paralytically animated' in Dickens's phrase). Such an effect, obliquely reminding us of how important real life is - it's there to be seized - is central to both Dickens's and Hitchcock's respective tales. Ambrose Chappell Senior (Hitchcock's equivalent of Mr Venus) pointedly isn't keen to 'rest' when his son, Ambrose Junior, suggests he go and do so. 'I've centuries of rest ahead of me, thank you', he responds. Mind you, both Dickens and Hitchcock were masters of what Siegfried Kracauer ('Theory of Film', 1960) calls 'psychophysical correpondences' - roughly, making the very stones (or brickwork or house-fronts ...) speak. Furthermore, Hitchcock always knew how to set up such effects. Ten years before Antonioni's Blow-up, set in London, with its celebrated painted trees and paths, Hitchcock in TMWKTM was doing the same thing. In the frame-capture below, showing house-fronts opposite Ambrose Chapel, he uses a drab palette of just greens, greys, and browns. His Camden Town and Bayswater (the latter actually Brixton!) exteriors are all like this, until, for example, Jo must make an urgent phone call from a brightly painted red London phone-box. I'll suggest next time that such effects contribute to the film's emphasis on the value of marriage. Meanwhile, here's Catherine Blythe again: 'Married couples can ... widen each others' worlds and reap the benefits of shared meanings and memories.'

June 12 - 2010
Let's examine the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Quite early in the film, the significance of the title is felt when suddenly Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) must carry a terrible burden. On holiday with his family in a foreign city, Marrakesh, he learns that his son Hank (Christopher Olsen) has been kidnapped. In the frame-capture below, he hasn't yet told his wife Jo (Doris Day) what has happened, and is insisting that she take sedatives before he breaks the news. That fact, in itself, should inform us that relations between husband and wife are somewhat strained. In a line cut from the script, Ben wonders how Jo can bear 'sleeping with a man who always smells of ether'. He is not always at ease in social situations and is given to outbursts of impatience; Jo, deep down, harbours some resentment that marriage to a dedicated Indianapolis doctor has stopped her resuming her career as a musical comedy star. Such is life, and watching again the first half hour (or so) of the film has shown me how well it depicts the, yes, beauty of a typical bourgeois family in all its complex interactions - and strains. (The Wrong Man would follow.) As for Ben's occasional social maladroitness, and his impatience, these are traits that we can readily believe stem from the demands made on him by his profession; but they are precisely the things that will work for him at the climax when he hits on an unorthodox way for him and Jo to rescue Hank (where Scotland Yard fears to tread). But I was talking of how Ben suddenly feels weighed down. Hitchcock gets this right too, not just in the chilling line delivered by a hotel employee about how the Drayton couple (Bernard Miles, Brenda De Banzie) - entrusted to look after Hank - have 'checked out' (a line good enough for re-cycling in North by Northwest), but in the dissolve-shot of Ben's bowed head against the gardens of the Hotel Mamounia. (Aside: the dissolves and fades in The Man Who Knew Too Much are, as always in Hitchcock, exactly timed and organic to the film; some Hitchcock scholar should study several of the films to reveal the aptness, and intelligence, of the use of such devices, and their contextual 'meanings'.) Of course, later in the film, at the Albert Hall, it is Jo's turn to be placed in a similar position where the weight of the world seems to be pressing on her shoulders alone. As the 'Storm Cloud Cantata' nears its climax, she must wrestle with her terrible dilemma: should she intervene to save a statesman's life when doing so must jeopardise the life of Hank, who is being held hostage? The music itself speaks of the life force in all its terrible - sublime - indifference. As the philosopher Schopenhauer said, music 'parallels the world'. And as in Lifeboat, the life force is the very subject here - indeed of the film - and now it is Jo's turn to feel it, and shudder - and scream. (Readers may like to recall what I said above about the manhunt novel 'We, the Accused', and how it is a key to Hitchcock's films and their compassion.) Aptly, in this film about marriage, a further climax follows at the foreign embassy, one which allows husband and wife to act in concert, and thereby to save Hank. But notice one other thing. As I say, the film is about 'life', and systematically exhibits it to us as different forms of (notably) religion, music, and social class. Thus the real 'man who knew too much' is Hitchcock. He has seen the way of the world and shown it to us. From reports, he was a lonely genius. More next time.

June 5 - 2010
Hitchcock told Charles Thomas Samuels that he would have loved to have filmed 'We, the Accused' (1935) by Ernest Raymond, which I started to describe here last time. It is as good a key to Hitchcock as any text I know. (Raymond, although born in Switzerland or France - reports differ - soon found himself in West London where, without a birth certificate, he was raised as an orphan in a middle-class household and eventually attended St Paul's School. For a time, the adult Raymond was an ordained Anglican priest. I have seen it said of his novels that they carry the loving message of St Francis of Assisi. I can well believe it. I was also not surprised to learn that, as a boy, Raymond had read 'Pickwick Papers'. At a late stage in the otherwise very realistic 'We, the Accused', a genial Pickwick-like figure named Mr Hanks attends to the welfare of Myra, girlfriend of the about-to-be-executed Paul Presset.) I fully agree with the reader ('Morganalee') on Amazon.com who described 'We, the Accused' as written 'with unfailing insight into the human psyche'. That person continues: '[Raymond] sets out to write a story of how anyone ... might, in the "right" circumstances, commit a premeditated murder. He then causes the reader to feel that the murder was inevitable, that in the same circumstances he [sic] cannot be sure that he would not have done the same ... (The novel indeed is credited with helping to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Britain.)' Next, here is a passage from early in the novel, in which the nondescript schoolteacher, Presset, one morning watches workers streaming towards London: 'they gave him sometimes a moment of vision (for there was always incipient vision behind his thoughtful eyes): he saw that he and they were only so much tossed spume, created and driven by unseen winds, and that this was a position lacking in human dignity: one should not be driven along by a momentum other than one's own; one should create, and not be created.' Had I read Raymond's book sooner, I would definitely have quoted that passage in an article I wrote recently on "Hitchcock's Literary Sources" in which I show how North by Northwest reprieves Thornhill (Cary Grant) from his uncreative state at the beginning of the film, where the imagery sets him in a literary tradition of 'the afflicted city'. (By the end of the film, at Mount Rushmore, he will be saying, 'I never felt more alive!') Both Thornhill and Paul Presset are candidates for the 'mind-forged manacles' of William Blake's poem 'London' (1794) while, at a different level, they are potentially Mr Pooter types from the satire 'Diary of a Nobody' (1892) originally published in 'Punch' (favourite reading-matter of Hitchcock). Nor, for the record, is this just a literary tradition. Four years before North by Northwest, Australian painter John Brack created his celebrated study, "Collins St, 5 pm", of home-bound workers reduced to a uniform drabness (cf the washed-out shots of workers pouring out of buildings and down subways at the start of Hitchcock's film): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collins_St.,_5_pm . Now, here's my conclusion. Despite, or because of, his nondescriptness, the plight of Paul Presset is made to seem like 'the universal human condition' (giving the lie to facile optimism, although, as I always insist, a Chestertonian 'anti-pessimism' has its legitimate place in Hitchcock's films, and makes them the bigger). That's partly what I was getting at last time when I invoked Joseph Cotten's tear-stained face at the end of "Breakdown" - a moment that also reminds me of the end of Marnie where Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) says, 'It's time to have a little compassion for yourself'. Hitchcock is the most compassionate of directors. As for Ernest Raymond, I would say that in 'We, the Accused' he out-Orwells Orwell. Raymond in 1935 writes beautifully, and forgivingly, of a sort of universal sadism; moreover, he looks unflinchingly at the very process of official death. When, therefore, in 1945 the author of "A Hanging" (1931) and ""Raffles and Miss Blandish" (1944), which has its own keen passages on 'the power-instinct', criticises Raymond's novel (see last time), I wonder if Orwell was not feeling just slightly piqued ... Reader, judge for yourself. The good news is that 'We, the Accused' is now re-issued by Capuchin Press.

May 29 - 2010
'We, the Accused' (1935), by Ernest Raymond, is one of the most remarkable novels I have read in a long time. Initially it's about quiet despair in London suburbia but develops into a description of the flight and pursuit, and capture and execution, of its chief character, Paul Presset. It's based very remotely on the Crippen wife-murder case of 1910 which had always fascinated Alfred Hitchcock. We know that Hitchcock thought of filming Raymond's novel, but was finally defeated because it was too 'downbeat'. Nonetheless, he patently appreciated the novel's qualities. For one thing, see the astute comments about it he made to Charles Thomas Samuels ('Encountering Directors', 1972), notably on how terribly polite the English prison system is to its victims, right up to the moment the hangman enters the condemned cell. 'Good morning, old chap', Raymond has his hangman, Crompton, say to Presset. 'Just put your hands behind your back, will you?' - as he proceeds to truss him up. 'That's right, thank you.' For another thing, some of the finest qualities that inform Hitchcock's film and televison work - and which some of us labour to convince a cynical or casual viewer are really there - will be found in the Raymond novel, which I can well believe was a major influence on Hitchcock's filmmaking from the day he read it, presumably in the 1930s. Judith Tingley, a veteran bookseller, calls 'We, the Accused' 'a work of extraordinary power and compassion', and she is right - more right, I think, than George Orwell who gives it a paragraph in his 1945 essay "Good Bad Books". Orwell's praise is qualified: he thinks that 'a peculiarly sordid and convincing murder story ... gains a great deal from the fact that the author only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them'. I find that a surprising comment from Orwell, of all English writers, and think that he has missed the capacity of Raymond to enter into the minds of people at different social levels while withholding final judgement of them (something which most people engage in all too readily). Raymond has more of what Buddhists call 'karuna' (compassion) than Orwell, I feel. A couple of passages near the end of the book wink at the capacity of the Cockney to speak his/her mind, even in the face of 'the system', and I wonder if Orwell the novelist could have been as (a) observant and (b) willing to let the respective Cockneys get away with it. (Actually, one of them, a cab-driver in a street near the Old Bailey, is 'for it' anyway, since he has been told by Sir Hayman Drewer, ruthless barrister, that he will be reported for ill-treating his horse. Cab-driver: 'All right ... I shall lose my job, and the nippers'll go hungry, but that don't matter. Nah, not a bit. Nah, we like it.') Ultimately, the novel is deep-dyed with a compassion informed by detailed observation from the field, the sort of detail that Hitchcock always insisted on - not least in his tales of extreme personal duress, whether The Paradine Case or Frenzy or the first of the 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' episodes to be filmed, the almost minimalist "Breakdown", starring Joseph Cotten (the frame-capture below shows the final moment, in which the paralysed protagonist is reprieved from death by an involuntary tear). Along the way, there has been character-based suspense as two lonely people - the ageing schoolteacher Presset and his girlfriend Myra - go on the run across England, from London and Brighton in the south to the Lake District in the north, the police net gradually tightening around them. Above all, throughout the book, we are made aware of the (sometimes) involuntary enjoyment of power (as by Detective Inspector Boltro, whose background we are given as part of the full tapestry), and its embodiment in institutions contributing to the oppression of masses of people. To be concluded.

May 22 - 2010
Here, in sum, is how I understand Topaz. In 1969, Hitchcock looked at the world and saw, as ever - only more than ever - flux. He saw that there may be no absolute morality (cf April 24, above) - whether in matters of politics or sex or many other areas of life - and that traditional loyalties and modes were out the window. I thank Richard M of our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group who this week reminded us that the 1960s had been an exceptionally politicised decade (e.g., the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, the global anti-war movement), leading many people to distrust all government rhetoric and its professions of moral integrity. The Topaz film doesn't mention it, but Leon Uris's novel (Part V, 4) has one character say, 'Democracy in France is dead.' (Allegedly the President, named La Croix, is 'destroying political opposition by the use of the Secret Service' - shades of the coming Nixon era in the US!) However, as we have seen (May 1, above), the film does evoke the 1968 French student demonstrations aimed at just such corruption and ultra conservative bureaucracy. Also, I thank Inge P, who was in France at the time, for reminding me tonight that most of the French intellectuals were extreme leftists of one persuasion or another - and that seemingly 'they all hated each other'. That's something I'll come back to. Here's a different observation of my own, which I have already shared with our discussion group, and it concerns sport. In Melbourne, Australia, in 1965, a certain Ron Barassi became the first football captain-coach to change sides (from the team he had originally played for) and then over the years change sides twice more! He was criticised (if not reviled), as well as celebrated, at the time. My point is, today nobody even blinks at such 'disloyalty' - it has become the 'realpolitik' of professional sport. Now let's come back to film. Joe McElhaney's interesting book, 'The Death of Classical Cinema' (2006), shows how, in the 1960s, directors like Hitchcock, Lang, and Minnelli suddenly found themselves faced with big challenges posed by alternative art cinema in Europe and modernist filmmaking practices everywhere. (And remember that in about 1967 Hitchcock had been stopped by his 'friend', Lew Wasserman, of Universal Studios, from making a couple of films that he dearly wanted to make, namely, a film of J.M. Barrie's 1920s play 'Mary Rose' and an Antonioni-influenced film about a sex-killer on the eastern US seaboard.) Now, I would relate most of the above to the character of Jacques Granville, Topaz's 'villain'. He is 'Columbine', the French head of a Russian spy ring, and clearly somebody of ability and with an eye to the main chance. He is less than honourable, betraying both his country and his close friends, and cultivating a lifestyle of luxury and women and wine. And yet, by 1960s standards, he is progressive and in many ways, admirable. Put it like this. First, I'm sure that Hitchcock saw something of himself in Jacques. Next, if only Jacques had kept his amoral 'realpolitik' out of both politics and inter-personal affairs, and had instead turned to either art or academia, he might have been hailed as a genius or a leading French intellectual (Jacques Lacan, say!). And up to a point, Hitchcock did try to be someone like Jacques. He did always seek to be a progressive filmmaker while honouring his obligations to the studios that financed his features - unfortunately he came a buster in the case of the two films I've mentioned. And he certainly did cultivate a taste for fine living in most things. Also, I have noticed that Hitchcock could hardly be said to have lived by a rigid moral code. He, too, could be opportunistic. Although he was an animal lover (recall, for example, the anecdote told by Pat Hitchcock about her whole family sobbing one evening after watching the 1966 film Born Free on television), he didn't think twice about ordering the culling of wild deer that were raiding the grapes on his Santa Cruz estate. Moreover, recall that he told Truffaut that no considerations of morality could have stopped him making Rear Window, such was his love of cinema. In the end, Jacques Granville is shot dead by his own side (in the Charléty stadium ending - see May 1, above), and I think it is ultimately because he never took a stand against the tide of opportunism that was sweeping the world in the 1960s. To me, that is Hitchcock's almost guilt-ridden 'statement' in Topaz. But here he is, still almost sprightly, despite his doubters, making his significant Topaz cameo as a not altogether gout-ridden gentleman ...

May 15 - 2010
(revised) Hitchcock knew that there never was a Golden Age, and that notions of such a time may be no more than extrapolations from individual 'memories' of uterine or pre-Oedipal states, or may simply be parables illustrating religious or political myth. The Lodger and its American 're-make', Shadow of a Doubt, are finally about the need not to retreat into 'incestuous' cosiness and stagnation. I'm reminded that Bernardo Bertolucci's early films Before the Revolution (1964) and Partner (1968) are also about disillusion with Golden Age notions. It was the French politician Talleyrand who said, 'Only those who lived before the [French] Revolution know how sweet life can be', but Bertolucci would question the complacency underlying those words. In any case, British critic Tony Rayns once summed up: 'In all of Bertolucci's movies, there's a central conflict between the "radical" impulses and a pessimistic (and/or willing) capitulation to the mainstream of bourgeois society and culture.' Coming back to Hitchcock now, we recall the opening of Frenzy and the mocking there of the politician's use of Wordsworth, 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive' (lines again referring to the French Revolution). More complacency. (Nonetheless, for how Hitchcock might have realistically, and sympathetically, shown English bourgeois life, read a remarkable 1935 novel by Ernest Raymond, 'We, the Accused', which the director had wanted to film.) Likewise, Topaz is a Lost Paradise film. In that respect, my point this week is that although the central Cuban episode is about an island or garden despoiled, Hitchcock knew that realistically change and suffering are both inevitable. All that most of us can do is work to ameliorate the human condition as our circumstances allow. The constant depiction of flowers and art in Topaz reminds us of this, sometimes ironically, as in the frame-capture below. Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli), the film's 'villain', has just admitted into his house on the South Bank fellow spy Henri Jarré (Philippe Noiret), remarking, 'My wife wants to buy me a new painting for my collection.' He gestures Henri to a chair next to a vase of flowers - yellow ones of course, reminding us again of the film's spy ring which takes its name from the precious stone. In the scene that follows, Jacques callously sends his colleague to his death. So much for civilised values in the face of 'realpolitik'. Later, in the ending Hitchcock wanted, Jacques would himself have been killed off. The wintery football field in that scene serves as another Lost Paradise symbol, a variant on the despoiled garden like, say, the snowfield at Gabriel Valley in Spellbound. In Hitchcock, as in much art and literature, many visual variants on the garden or island or walled city or other life/death space (prison, ocean, etc.) can serve as Lost Paradise metaphors. Ditto, by synecdoche (part substituted for whole), the flowers and fountains that recur in Topaz from its Copenhagen opening onwards. And I thank Bill Krohn who this week reminded me of another nuance of the football field scene. In Hitchcock's notes, the sniper's viewpoint is described as being like that of Lee Harvey Oswald shooting JFK. Shades of Sabotage where Verloc's political bosses are said by Scotland Yard to be shadowy figures 'whom we'll never catch'. In Topaz, that's surely part of Hitchcock's comment on the ultimate 'uncertainty' of the modern world. Which brings me back to Hitchcock's realistic outlook. If it's true that art, especially modern art, can be described as 'whatever you can get away with', I think Hitchcock was happy to accept such a maxim about art - his own tastes that way were very 'catholic' (see May 1, above) - but he understandably had qualms when people (e.g., Jacques Granville) tried to live their lives that way. (Cf Rope.) I think that Hitchcock tended to live by another maxim, that of the English poet, and Catholic, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who wrote in his 'Essay on Criticism': 'Be not the first by whom the new are tried, / Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.' In other words, use responsible discretion. Certainly he, Hitchcock, knew that civilisation needs some basic morality rather than simply the veneer provided by art, flower arrangements, and haute cuisine - though he valued all of those things too. Yet, like most of us, he could be inconsistent. I'll conclude next time.

May 8 - 2010
A couple of the things I'll mention this time, apropos Topaz, evoke revolutionary periods. (In the entry for April 17, above, I suggested in passing that at times the film's Cuban scenes may indeed echo other revolutions, such as the French.) First, in our Hitchcock discussion group this week, RM pointed out a famous precedent for a pistol duel where one man, known to be the superior marksman, had appealed to his opponent's sense of honour and when his challenge to a duel was accepted, had subsequently shot his opponent dead. (Compare Jacques Granville and André Devereux in Topaz.) The challenger in this case was Aaron Burr who had served on George Washington's staff during the War of Independence, otherwise known as the American Revolution. His opponent was Alexander Hamilton who had both fought in the War and had been Washington's aide-de-camp, 1777-81. Burr came to bitterly resent Hamilton because the latter, in 1801, voted against Burr and in favour of Jefferson for the tied presidency. In 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and fatally wounded him. Reportedly, Burr then became a social outcast and had to leave the USA for some years. I thank RM for this information and feel that Hitchcock may well have noted parallels with Topaz. Now let's look further at the Cuban scenes. In that regard, I'm wondering whether Hitchcock's research (or his own general knowledge) hadn't pointed him to the famous Englishman Edmund Burke (1729-97), author of important studies of both 'the sublime and the beautiful' (1756) and of the French Revolution (1790). Burke used his earlier aesthetic ideas to liken the French Revolution to something 'beautiful' that had gone wrong, a 'false sublime', destructive and terrifying. Such a trope, I suggest, was in Hitchcock's mind when filming the Cuban scenes of Topaz, which is one of its director's 'Lost Paradise' films (see below). Burke personalised the French Revolution as the humiliation of the beautiful in the figure of Marie Antoinette and the corresponding masculinisation of femininity by the women of Bastille. (In 'A Tale of Two Cities', Charles Dickens would condense those women into Madame Defarge and cronies, knitting steadily at the foot of the guillotine as the heads rolled.) Revolution, noted Burke, transforms the beautiful (Marie Antoinette) into the sublime terror of disorder. Now consider the frame-capture from Topaz below. A masterly sequence has concluded with the shooting of the beautiful Juanita (based on Castro's sister) in her villa - a virtual 'palace' - by the Castro look-alike, Rico Parra. Offscreen, Parra's rowdy henchmen are shouting, epitomising chaos and terror (some of them have just tortured Juanita's staff for information). Their exaggerated masculinity is roughly the equivalent of the masculinised women of Bastille. Some other things to note ... Juanita's purple robe is unmistakably 'royal'. Before shooting her, Rico had told Juanita that she would have to be tortured: 'There are things that will be done to your body'. The 'humiliation of the beautiful' here is rendered by Hitchcock in terms of art: the frame-capture might be based on one of the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux's canvasses of nudes reclining on purple couches (e.g., 'The Night Train', 'Venus Asleep'). But there is nothing limited or closed about the scene ideologically, inasmuch as Rico had asked Juanita to explain her motives and she had said, 'You make my country a prison', to which he had replied, 'No, you cannot judge.' As I have said before, Hitchcock's films endorse only one thing, and that is the Schopenhauerian Will, the life/death force. (Schopenhauer's own understanding of 'the sublime', I have argued, is close to Hitchcock's depiction in The Birds of human complacency versus the ineffable, the Kantian Idea, which that film's birds effectively represent.) In terms of 'Lost Paradise' imagery, Cuba in Topaz is an island or garden despoiled. More about that next time, but note how apt would have been the bleak setting for the Charléty duel that Hitchcock had wanted to end the film (see frame-capture for April 24).

May 1 - 2010
Before returning to the duel climax that Hitchcock wanted for Topaz, and which he carefully prepared and shot (see last time), it will be as well to remember that the theme of the film is the threatened loss of precious human values in the modern world. Perhaps that's a reason why the film is without well-known stars (as suggested on our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group this week by MP, whom I thank): audiences were thereby made to feel very directly something of the bereftness that the film is about. (Film historian Leonard Maltin on the Topaz DVD reports that he did indeed feel rather like that when he first saw the film and realised it lacked big stars.) Also, of course, Hitchcock goes out of his way early in the film to suggest 'old-fashioned' qualities and their fragility, as in the frame-capture below of a figurine depicting lovers - and which Tamara Kusenov drops on the tiled floor of a Copenhagen porcelain factory to create a diversion when she spots Russian 'heavies' following her family. Later, Tamara is seen practising the piano in a Vermeer-like setting at the 'safe house' in Washington D.C. where the Americans hide her defecting family. Now let's return to the duel scene. The old-fashioned 'sport' of duelling has become, not for the first time, a deadly affair, but at the service this time of a far-from-honourable man, Jacques Granville. His opponent, André Devereaux, has been virtually tricked by Jacques into the duel: knowing André to be an inferior pistol-shot, the ruthless Jacques quite happily plays on André's ingrained sense of honour when challenged (which is compounded by such things as André's knowledge that he has recently been cuckolded by Jacques). The fact that the arena chosen for the duel is a sports field compounds the frisson involved, suggesting that indeed this is 'no game'. (Cf. Vandamm's line in North by Northwest, 'that wasn't very sporting of you'.) A further irony, that Hitchcock would have relished, is that Charléty stadium had recently (May, 1968) figured in headlines around the world as one of the principal venues for the huge student protest rallies. Thus it functions in a similar way to other famous landmarks (e.g., the Statue of Liberty) employed at the climax of Hitchcock films. And again, the scene reminds us in another way that this is 'no game'. Suddenly, after all the rigmarole of the duel's preliminaries, such as the countdown (or most of it), the would-be killer, Jacques, is himself gunned down by a Russian marksman with a telescopic sight who suddenly materialises beyond the sidelines. Jacques's own masters, it seems, have no further use for him. Fascinatingly, it's fairly clear where Hitchcock got the general idea from: he had used just such a resolution for the climax of his second film, the lost The Mountain Eagle (1926) - except that there the corrupt Justice of the Peace, Pettigrew, had been only wounded, and thus able to come to his senses and shake hands with his would-be victim, Fearogod. (A variant of the same idea - the shot from the sidelines - informs the climax of John Ford's classic 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring James Stewart, which Hitchcock would have seen.) Finally, this week, let me at least begin to suggest how I think Hitchcock understood the 'realpolitik' aspect of his film. As indicated above, 'old-fashioned' values are here given an analogy in art works, which Hitchcock loved (Vermeer was a favourite). Nonetheless, he also appreciated much modern art (one such work from Hitchcock's own collection hangs on a wall in Juanita's villa). The trouble is, modern art has been defined as 'whatever you can get away with'. Next time, then, I'll talk about Topaz in terms of 'the false sublime' and Hitchcock's characteristic 'open-ended pessimism'.

April 24 - 2010
Screenwriter Samuel Taylor described the theme of Topaz as the way 'the Cold War, and spying, and power politics, destroy lives, destroy character ...' (Quoted by Bill Krohn in 'Video Watchdog' #74, August 2001.) A similar theme had informed such earlier Hitchcock films as Notorious and North by Northwest. (In 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story', I quote E.M. Forster: 'If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.' Such Hitchcock characters as Devlin and Thornhill are forced to ponder just such a notion.) Meanwhile, the Cold War, or its equivalent, proceeds as usual. In North by Northwest, realpolitik definitely wins out, and the defeated villain, Vandamm, is finally heard to complain, 'That wasn't very sporting ... using real bullets.' It's as if he were lamenting the passing of the era of the gentlemanly Great Game so basic to the literary thrillers of an earlier age by writers like John Buchan. (This point was first made, I think, by Tony Williams in an essay on "John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock" for the 'John Buchan Journal' #33, Autumn 2005.) Thornhill thus finds himself aligned with the 'right' side but, paradoxically, not before standing up to its callous officials and telling them a thing or two. That he also gets the girl, Eve, is his just reward. But Topaz goes to a whole new level of showing what the Cold War did to people, thus indirectly reminding us that there may be no absolute morality or set of values. Call that 'reality', if you will. More about it another time, but this week I want to discuss the ending Hitchcock sought for Topaz and which he did in fact film; indeed, as Richard Franklin (Psycho II) noted, Hitchcock lavished more care on this sequence than any other in the picture. He had seen a photo of a modern-day duel, by pistols, on a French football field, and decided to re-create it for the climax of Topaz. For one thing, he was intrigued by the counterpoint he could get by showing the modern-day advertising signs in the background. In the frame-capture below, an advertisement for Vichy water is directly behind André, who has been betrayed by his former Resistance buddy, Jacques: not only has the latter just been exposed as the head of Topaz, an organisation of Russian spies working within the French government, but he has lately committed adultery with André's wife Nicole (who also was in the Resistance and was friends with both André and Jacques). Ironically, it is Jacques who has called the duel, knowing that it was André who told the French about him (though the original information came from the Russian defector Boris Kusenov - see last week). The wording of the sign is, 'Votre sante est a VICHY'/'VICHY for your health'. In other words, cheers! (And we all know, don't we, that the so-called Vichy government during the War collaborated with the Germans.) That sign may be said to help 'universalise' the film's theme of betrayal. But I can think of other reasons why the duel scene appealed to Hitchcock. For one thing, its 'old-fashioned' quality suited Hitchcock's ironies, much as in North by Northwest. Jacques himself is far from being 'sporting', for he knows very well that he is a better shot than André. (André accepts the challenge partly out of 'honour' and partly because, like Mr Memory in The 39 Steps, he can't help himself. Note that he isn't the only character in the film who is hidebound by habit: another is Boris Kusenov. However, it was André's acceptance of the challenge that preview audiences probably found most 'confusing' and which led to the sequence being dropped from the film, to Hitchcock's dismay.) In other words, Jacques is definitely a man of 'realpolitik' rather than honour. But finally this week, notice the rugby goal posts in the frame-capture. As my regular readers will recall, from a blog here a few weeks ago, the confines of a rugby field had intrigued Hitchcock ever since his silent film Downhill, where they helped suggest, amongst other things, 'worlds within worlds'. I'll have rather more to say about the Topaz duel sequence, filmed at Charléty sports stadium in Paris, next time.

April 17 - 2010
Leon Uris was originally employed to write the screenplay of Topaz from his own fact-based, best-selling novel. Unfortunately, what he turned in, even after his 'pulp tendencies were toned down' (as Bill Krohn reports), made the Cuban military leader Rico Parra 'a cartoon sex maniac' who is eventually killed by his own side; the Cuban sequences would have climaxed in the torture of the beautiful Juanita de Cordoba (rings inserted in her eyes to force her to watch while Parra is beaten to death) and last seen 'with her breasts forcibly bared for carving by Havana's chief of police'. (Krohn's remarkable report on the restored version of Topaz appeared in 'Video Watchdog' #74, August 2001; it should be anthologised.) In the eventual film, scripted in a hurry by Samuel Taylor (Vertigo), and which most true Hitchcockians admire for its intelligence and human insight, someone naïvely describes the Cubans as 'wild'. That's one of the film's heavily ironic lines because, although both Rico Parra (John Vernon) and Juanita Cordoba (Karin Dor) are portrayed sympathetically, the military itself is shown to contain its share of hooligans. (Memories, perhaps, of other revolutions, such as the French.) Seen today, Topaz stands up as a wise and complex film, which could have been a masterpiece. It contains much that is admirable, despite the difficulties associated with its inception. It centres on the Devereaux family: French intelligence agent André (Frederick Stafford), who is based in Washington D.C., his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), and their young married daughter Michèle (Claude Jade). (It is Michèle who makes the naïve remark about how much she 'loves' the 'wild' Cubans. The film parallels her with the young daughter, Tamara, of the Russian defector Boris Kusenov; on first arriving in America, that starry-eyed girl is shown the White House and says 'it's nice'.) Actually, Nicole could easily have married another Frenchman, Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli). During the War, she and André and Jacques had been in the Resistance together and all three had been inseparable (shades of other Hitchcock 'triangle' films, such as The Manxman). Jacques is now a highly-placed French government official and will turn out to be the arch betrayer in a film about, precisely, betrayals. But let's concentrate on Nicole for now. A clue to how Hitchcock saw her is the scene where she brings pre-dinner coffee to André in his study where he is talking to US intelligence man Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe). Hitchcock films the scene - Nicole hanging on the door jamb - in such a way as to make it a virtual echo of a scene in The Paradine Case where Tony Keane talks to fellow barrister 'Simmy' Flaquer, and Gay Keane arrives with coffee just in time to overhear her husband reveal his growing infatuation with his current client, the beautiful Maddalena Paradine. (We will shortly learn that André has a mistress in Cuba, i.e., Juanita, and that Nordstrom wants him to go there to gather information the Americans have not been able to obtain for themselves.) Nordstrom asks Nicole to stay for a moment and he makes conversation by drawing attention to a carbine rifle displayed on the mantelpiece, which he understands is Nicole's (see frame-capture below, and note the gold miniature of the Arc de Triomphe). Yes, she confirms, the rifle is hers; she had used it during the Resistance. This of course is actually a point of difference from Gay in The Paradine Case, who has led a sheltered life; nonetheless, we infer that Nicole herself chafes at the narrow social circle of Washington diplomats and their wives, not to mention her awareness of why her husband makes frequent trips to Cuba. A bigger point of difference from the loyal wife Gay is that Nicole finally has had enough; and so, while André is in Cuba, she deserts ship and returns to Paris, where she is not slow in seeking out Jacques Granville. Granville, in turn, if I hear the film's dialogue correctly, has lately acquired a wealthy wife with homes in Paris, the Côte d'Azur, and Switzerland; but is still happy to receive Nicole privately in his hideaway house on the Left Bank. So what is Topaz really about? More next time.

April 10 - 2010
In a film like Psycho, Hitchcock is directing us even when some of us aren't aware of it! After the murder of Marion, and for the rest of the film, more than a few audience members are consciously thinking of only: where is the next scare coming from? I was amused when a person (Paul H, from Bracknell, UK) wrote to the BBC website recently (after an item appeared there commemorating Psycho's 50th anniversary) as follows: 'Seeing the film for the first time many years ago, I found the most frightening scene to be the slow close-up on Martin Balsam (the investigator) as he talks in the telephone booth. [See frame-capture below.] This was pure suspense - you quite simply didn't know what was going to happen. Would Balsam survive the call? Was anyone going to leap out and attack him? Trying to anticipate the violence was for me nerve-racking. This demonstrated to me the skill of Hitchcock.' Hmm. In one way, Paul H has pretty clearly misread that simple scene. He isn't a 'skilled' viewer! He has wilfully overlooked cues to the viewer that the scene is a 'breather' and that we should pay attention to what Arbogast (Balsam) is saying, not be wondering about whether a boogey-man might come leaping out! (That's childish thinking! You wonder how young Paul H was when he saw the film. Still a teenager, would be my guess!) The two main cues I'm thinking of are the familiar 'Gasoline' sign next to the telephone booth (not to mention the formal composition of that establishing-shot that includes Arbogast's parked car on the other side of the frame) and, even more, the reassuring tinkling sound a moment later as Arbogast's coin slides inside the phone and he begins to dial. Simultaneously, the bleak, swirling music on the soundtrack finishes, the better for us to hear what Arbogast says. (As he talks to Lila, we learn that he intends to return immediately to the Bates Motel; but first he tells Lila that he has found out that her missing sister had indeed spent Saturday night at the motel and that she had stayed in Cabin One - ensuring that Lila and Sam will eventually go there to look for both Marion and Arbogast, now also missing.) Still, you can scarcely blame Paul H for having felt scared even during the telephone booth scene! Hitchcock would have been pleased, and not exactly surprised, I think. For one thing, Marion's murder was a good half-hour ago in actual time, and an audience is naturally wondering where and when the next scare is going to happen. Moreover, Hitchcock had reminded us in the scene just prior to the telephone booth scene that the dreaded 'Mother' is (seemingly) still in residence at the motel: Arbogast had spotted her silhouette (not moving - Hitchcock plays fair) at the upstairs window after he walked away from Norman to the end of the motel verandah. Okay, speaking of 'breather' scenes, readers may like to check out John Fidler's enthusiastic review of Murray Pomerance's book 'The Horse Who Drank the Sky' on the 'Senses of Cinema' website, which includes reference to another 'breather' moment in Psycho (back at Sam's hardware store, earlier). Click here: Film Experience Beyond Narrative and Theory

April 3 - 2010
I have finally had a chance to have a good look at the masterly South Korean film Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) recommended in our News section several months ago (see "Some films recommended by our friends!" below). I quite agree that this may be 'the most profoundly (not superficially) Hitchcockian film made in several decades' (Dr Adrian Martin, Monash University). For one thing, it's as pure an example of the 'moral reversability' motif as you could find. Dopey-seeming Yoon Do-joon is 28 but still lives at home with his widowed mother who keeps an eye on him and who provides for the two of them by selling herbs and vegetables. In the course of the film, in which it seems that Do-joon may have killed a schoolgirl while he was drunk one night, he gradually recovers his memory and his wits (though how completely is left ambiguous). In contrast, his mother's life is turned upside down. In the last scene she is, to quote J. Hoberman, 'stranded in a moral netherworld' and happy to apply an acupuncture needle to the spot that eradicates troubling memories and 'unknots the heart'. In other words, mother and son have arrived at a new modus vivendi, recalling that of the two halves of Norman Bates in the last scene of Psycho. Actually, Mother echoes other filmmakers too - Claude Chabrol and David Lynch - as well as the 2008 BBC-TV production 'Criminal Justice' (a young man with amnesia accused of murder; incompetent or indifferent lawyers; prison violence; a strained mother-son relationship). The film makes its own knowing references to TV shows, such as CSI dramas, and adult and teenage mores and power-plays. Australian critic Geoff Gardner can therefore say: 'Mother is a story in Hitchcockian vein, tailored for audiences today that like their thrills to contain rather more explicit material and rather more down and dirty human foibles than even those revealed in the old master's most extreme displays of human nastiness.' Nonetheless, director Bong both includes several overt Hitchcock references (to Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, Marnie) and works at the deepest of Hitchcockian levels. He has also remembered lessons Hitchcock included in the celebrated Truffaut interview. In the frame-capture below, the mother watches her son urinating against a wall at a bus-stop near their home. (She has run after him with a bowl of soup he has forgotten to drink.) Hitchcock recalled being on a train and seeing out the window a girl holding onto her boyfriend as he peed against a factory wall; the entire time, she never looked away. Hitchcock thought it a remarkable visual illustration of love, and adapted it as the extended kissing scene between Devlin and Alicia in Notorious. What Bong has done, of course, is emblemise the bond between mother and son. Not content with that, he artfully integrates the episode into the film's narrative. After Do-joon boards the bus, his mother 'cleans up' after him (laying a stone slab over the puddle he has left). Much later in the film, another puddle - of blood - will feature (a cut to the sound of a scream will recall Marnie), and again the mother is on hand to 'clean up'. Now the whole thing mirrors Norman Bates in Psycho 'cleaning up' after 'Mrs Bates', and in both cases the implied filial, or maternal, love and loyalty is exemplary. Also recalling Psycho, madness of several people and several different degrees is included in Mother in such a way as to make a universal statement (about loneliness and community, for one). The look and sound of the film both reinforce it. The performance of Kim Hye-ja as the mother is superb. Altogether, Mother is a masterpiece.

March 27 - 2010
I emphasise that Betty in Hitchcock's Champagne (1928) stands for an accepting, if naïve, love of life. She thus stands, very largely, for what Hitchcock's films are essentially about. (When Truffaut suggested that the essence of those films is fear, sex, and death, Hitchcock responded, 'Well, isn't the main thing that they be connected with life?') Betty may be the first of many of Hitchcock's female protagonists descended from his favourite character in fiction, someone no less naïve, Emma Bovary. But I said that I would talk this week about The Boy. He appears to be French (played by Jean Bradin), perhaps from a faded-aristocracy background (so that Betty's father can suspect him of fortune-hunting), certainly well-bred and of good manners and values ('I always thought the essence of good taste was simplicity'), a little puritanical. In the cabaret, he refuses the champagne that a slightly tipsy Betty is drinking (The Man has just left, and Betty had been drinking with him). He tells her: 'It's bad enough finding you here, worse that you enjoy it!' Hitchcock emphasises the variety and gaity of the cabaret, things which The Boy isn't amused by. First, we see a lesbian couple dancing and Betty acknowledging them. Then, a solo number starts in the background and the spotlighted performer is a young woman doing the latest shimmy. (I'm unsure whether she isn't the young woman Betty saw earlier at the bar, doing a shimmy.) Her exuberance is in marked contrast to the staid attitude of The Boy at the table in the foreground with Betty. The latter, though, refuses to be cast down and defiantly breaks out into a shimmy of her own - aimed squarely at The Boy (see last week). Whereupon he leaves in a huff, to fetch Betty's father. When they both return, Betty cowers a little before the parental indignation, but truthfully explains that she did what she did for her father - he had told her that they had lost all their money, and Betty had determined to go out and get work. Her father in turn is abashed. He explains his deception, and Betty is at first naturally relieved at the news, but then accuses both her father and The Boy of deceiving her. (Actually, I'm not sure exactly how much The Boy had known of the deception.) She rushes upstairs. Now Hitchcock stages an exciting moment: see frame-capture below. From a balcony upstairs hurtles a body, and the father turns away, apparently fearing that Betty has thrown herself over. But in fact it's all part of the cabaret act, an up-to-the-moment Apache dance (cf the Ivor Novello film The Triumph of the Rat, 1927). Hitchcock holds on the dance for a moment, and everyone, including Betty upstairs, is engrossed in watching it. The dance is the film's emotional climax, symbolically bringing the characters to their senses. (Much earlier, on board the ship, a tango had been performed. It had been spirited in its way, but the wealthy passengers were quickly drawn from it when Betty had ditched her plane in the ocean nearby. The whole film is about living dangerously and coming to terms with life - and seeing the difference. In this, too, it anticipates Rear Window.)

March 20 - 2010
In Champagne (1928), heroine Betty (Betty Balfour) learns about human nature, and in particular about herself. Last week I mentioned the lengthy sequence at the cabaret bar in which she watches, first, two girls bicker when one starts to show off the latest shimmy: two or three things come from this episode, and I'll mention them below. Shortly afterwards, Betty watches, fascinated, as a barman prepares an elaborate cocktail, surpassing her own more amateur, hit-and-miss efforts at cocktail-making which we had seen earlier. This may be the first time a theme of 'amateur versus professional' is sounded in Hitchcock. Now, in several ways Champagne is a distaff version of Hitchcock's Downhill (1927) which is about a young man's education in the ways of the world. Like Betty, young Roddy (Ivor Novello) obtains work in a French cabaret - in his case, as a virtual gigolo. The manager there is a woman, whom a caption calls 'Madame, La Patronne, expert in human nature'. And Betty, too, may be in danger of prostituting herself, hinted at when one of her fellow 'flower girls' starts dancing - and flirting - with one of the cabaret customers, an elderly, bearded gentleman. Certainly Betty's boyfriend, The Boy (Jean Bradin), is not amused when he finds Betty working in the cabaret. Actually, this is a little strange - suggesting a double-standard - for earlier we had heard Betty say, 'I used to pay to come to places like this, now they pay me.' So she is no stranger to the cabaret scene (with the qualification I make below), and The Boy, likewise, knows it well enough, clearly. But what is he doing here just now? More on The Boy shortly. My point about the film's emphasis on Betty's looking is that not only is she seeing human nature more objectively and with more humility - since she apparently came down in the world, when her magnate father (Gordon Harker) told her that they were ruined - but that there is a further anticipation of Rear Window involved (cf last week's entry). In Rear Window, Thelma Ritter tells James Stewart that people should sometimes get outside their houses and look in. That's exactly what's going on here. Betty is learning about herself. Those two bickering girls at the bar are like a version of headstrong Betty and her boyfriend, The Boy, who have a tiff in an early scene and spend the rest of the film trying to get back together. (In the last scene Betty and The Boy are indeed reconciled and then immediately start a fresh argument!) Also, whenever we saw Betty early in the film, she was always feeling obliged to manage other people. Now at last she is free to look on, without intervening, and without her protective 'minders', to see what people are like when they are just being themselves. As I say, she learns that they are really much like herself, and vice versa. Also, they can change and can show different aspects - a theme of the film. The two girls who were bickering later turn out to be good friends, and also happy to be friends to Betty. In the frame-capture below they cheer Betty up after The Boy has walked out on her at the cabaret. Betty is quick to respond to their cheeriness. She is really a very quick learner all round. When The Boy had expressed his displeasure at finding her working in the cabaret, she had momentarily wondered how to react. Well, she didn't sulk - not then, not ever (except momentarily). Instead, she had expressed herself, and the convivial mood of the cabaret, to which The Boy is impervious, by suddenly doing her own version of the shimmy which she had seen demonstrated by the girl at the bar. By implication, she is comparing The Boy to the other girl, the one who had started to bicker - though of course The Boy doesn't know this. Quick-witted, resilient, thoughtful Betty is definitely the hero(ine) of this film, and the film is happy to show her many aspects, a bit like a painting by the cubist Picasso. I'll conclude these notes on Champagne next time by talking about The Boy, and about the film's 'dance' motif.

March 13 - 2010
Champagne (1928), which we started discussing last time, contains some of Hitchcock's most adroit technical and logistical work until Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954). The cabaret sequence, which occupies much of the second half of the film, contains pre-echoes of both those films. It is brilliant, working ultimately on a near-surreal level, not least because the story of The Girl and The Boy and The Man is partly about the film's audience (like Rear Window in that respect too). Early in the sequence a high long-shot shows us the layout of the cabaret with action occuring on three different levels: see frame-capture below. The way it anticipates the courtyard and apartments of Rear Window is fascinating. Note: it's early in the evening, so there are no patrons at the tables yet. Nor is the orchestra area in the middle of the top floor yet occupied by the five-piece band who arrive later. The shot shows Betty crossing the cabaret's dance floor to introduce herself to the maître d'hotel seated at his table on the right, surrounded by staff. She will ask for a job and be taken on - as a 'flower girl', who must offer a flower (and perhaps herself) to 'gentlemen in evening dress only'. Note the fashionable art-deco pillars. I'll come back to those. Another clever piece of technique follows shortly. Having been taken on, Betty is escorted by an elderly lady dresser (Hannah Jones, who made several films for Hitchcock) up steps on the right and back across behind the pillars to a corridor and a dressing-room offscreen on the left. This action is filmed in a single long-shot from ground-floor level with the panning camera travelling 180°. Meanwhile, the maître d'hotel has emerged directly from the cabaret floor and briefly meets up with the dresser and Betty again, when he appears to tell them that Betty should hurry up and get into a suitable flower-girl costume. His coming off the cabaret floor is thus perfectly timed à la a passage in Rope. (We have been carefully shown earlier why the dresser and Betty didn't simply go left themselves across the cabaret floor - the first diners of the evening had just arrived, and the fastidious maître d'hotel had signalled that Betty in her street clothes should be hastened away from them!) A few moments later there is an extended passage in which Betty stations herself near the cabaret's bar and simply watches everything that occurs. She sees, for example, one girl at the bar who suddenly shows off the latest shimmy while a girl alongside registers displeasure - we sense that the latter is actually envious of the first girl's lack of inhibition. (More on this next time.) Again, we watch with Betty as the barman, who is good at his job, mixes up a cocktail with dexterity and abandon - a lesson for Betty who earlier had been shown 'inventing' a cocktail of her own for her friends. Repeatedly, all during this extended passage, we see practically identical shots of Betty watching, watching - almost a try-out for Jeff's watching in Rear Window. It's typical of the basically good-natured Betty that she soon asks the barman in friendly tones, 'What do you call that?' Deadpan, he answers, 'A Maiden's Prayer.' This cues the panning camera to follow the cocktail carried by a waiter to its destination across the cabaret, and we see it being lifted to his lips by none other than The Man. We have effectively been given Betty's viewpoint here. Now, in turn, The Man is shown seeing Betty across the dance floor. Embarrassed, she skuttles behind one of the art-deco pillars. But The Man comes looking for her and soon her hiding-place is revealed. It's rather like the moment in Vertigo when Scottie loses, then finds, 'Madeleine' behind the trunk of a sequoia tree. So, the entry this time has been about the sheer technical prowess on display in this under-appreciated early Hitchcock film. More next time, and in particular more about Betty's 'education'.

March 6 - 2010
For something different this time, let's go back to one of Hitchcock's silent films, Champagne (1928). It stars comedienne Betty Balfour, and the screenplay was written by Hitchcock's regular writer at the time, Eliot Stannard - which is fitting, since in 1921 Stannard had written Balfour's first success, Squibs, a rags-to-riches story about a cockney flower girl (pre-'Pygmalion'!). In the case of Champagne, the story is slightly different, since the girl Betty starts out rich, the spoiled daughter of a Wall Street magnate (Gordon Harker), then is told by her father that they have been ruined (a year before the Wall Street crash, note), then is further told by him that he was only testing her boyfriend (Jean Bradin) whom he had suspected of being a mere fortune-hunter. In short, Champagne is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. If it all seems lightweight and frothy, like the titular substance - and a means of showing off Balfour's own bubbly personality (and her lively, sparkling eyes, especially in one memorable shot) - well, yes, it is that. But it is more. I have written elsewhere that Hitchcock's films almost invariably can be shown to have 'universal', very human meanings, and Champagne isn't an exception. It is about Betty's education in the ways of the world, including lessons in her own deportment (in the broadest sense) and learning to adapt and be wary yet kind and good. (Don't worry, the puckish Hitchcock shows us at the end that Betty still has some intractable qualities - he would use similar endings in Rich and Strange and Mr and Mrs Smith!) Also, don't think I'm being humourless if I quote a Buddhist lesson, that the causes of 'suffering' are 'the three poisons', namely, greed, anger, and ignorance, and say that Betty is shown coming to terms with those qualities in herself. Betty is indeed one of Hitchcock's 'ignorant' - if not quite 'innocent' - young ladies, anticipating in that respect Alice White in Blackmail. Betty's relationship with the mysterious Man (Theo von Alten) whom she meets on board an Atlantic liner in the film's opening moments, and who keeps turning up thereafter, looks for a while like it may lead her into Big Trouble, as does Alice White's flirtation with a lustful artist. In a way, The Man is a tryout for Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, but is actually neither a psychopath nor a murderer. (It turns out that he been sent by Betty's father to keep a watchful eye on her. At another level, I have argued elsewhere, he stands for the ambiguous feelings of the audience.) But speaking of Strangers on a Train ... let me conclude this week's entry by noting one of Champagne's many sight-gags. On board the Atlantic liner, the first morning after Betty has literally dropped in (using one of her father's aeroplanes), The Man is taking breakfast in the dining room. He is alone, because the ship is rolling heavily and most of the passengers are staying in their cabins. Hitchcock films the entire sequence with a rocking camera to remind us of the swell. Moreover, he compounds the gag by showing all of the waiters swaying from side to side as they stand on the far side of the room waiting for other diners to arrive. Only The Man seems unperturbed, eating a hearty breakfast. (In the frame-capture below, he is on the right of frame while Betty can be seen arriving in the left foreground.) Clearly, the gag here anticipates the memorable one in Strangers on a Train, in which a motionless Bruno watches Guy on a tennis court while all of the other spectators keep swivelling their heads from side to side as they follow a tense rally between Guy and his opponent. Clearly, too, the Champagne sight-gag anticipates the one with the swaying lovebirds in The Birds! More next time.

February 27 - 2010
The name 'Lackman' just glimpsable on a door at the end of Psycho (spotted by Joseph Smith III, no doubt when using the stop-frame device on his DVD-player) amounts to a throwaway gesture by Hitchcock, arguably pertaining to the lack of identity of Norman Bates after he becomes his own mother. (See end of last week's entry, above.) Hitchcock in full creative flight could be positively munificent in inventing such details and not striving unduly to ensure that they all register in the mind of the viewer. In other words, some of them may be considered Hitchcock's private jokes. Smith gives a couple of related examples in his book 'The Psycho File' (McFarland). It contains an excellent section headed "Emptiness, Absence, and Negation" (pp. 158-61) - though I question its author's claim that no one else has substantially dealt with such a motif in Psycho. Importantly, Smith is clearly right to say that the film's dialogue is full of words like 'no', 'not', 'nobody', 'nothing', and 'never', and that in fact 'never' is the film's first word ('Never did eat your lunch, did you?'). I see this as connected with the filmmakers' successful attempt to set a mood of 'despair and solitude' (Hitchcock's phrase to Truffaut) from that opening scene onwards. Hitchcock invariably strove for unity of mood in his late films: the bleakness of The Wrong Man (which I think owes a lot to Dickens's novel 'Bleak House') is another example, impacting on the viewer in all kinds of ways - consider, for example, the many dead-ends that Manny encounters during that film. Negation again. In the case of Psycho, Smith writes thus: 'The emptiness motif is ... so pervasive that the motel's "vacancy" notice could easily be taken as one of Hitchcock's grim private jokes, like the line about Mother not being "quite herself today." The motel itself is a locus of emptiness: empty chairs are everywhere [one is illustrated by the frame-capture below]; the safe in Norman's parlor is empty; the stuffed birds are empty of life, and have what has often been called a "vacant stare." The motel cabins are all empty as well ...' But as Smith notes, the strongest negative force in the film is 'Mother Bates' - witness Norman's final annihilation by her. She was always an absence even when we thought she was most overwhelming! Smith sums up: 'In other words, at the heart of Psycho Hitchcock has placed a dizzying void - an absence, a vacuum, a black hole.' This is something I have noted here before. I have compared it to the view down the bell-tower stairwell in Vertigo (and the vertigo-effect used in that scene), to the 'empty' prairie that nearly becomes Thornhill's nemesis in North by Northwest, and to the image of the swamp in Psycho itself - the swamp being an emblem of Norman's moribund condition in the same way that the prairie hints at Thornhill's vacuity and the vertigo-effect reminds us of Scottie's unbalanced state of mind. As for Hitchcock's 'playfulness' with such ideas, think of the many ramifications of meaning the word 'vertigo' accumulates in the course of its film (it even comes to stand for a metaphysical condition shared by Scottie and the viewer, and which needs a deep thinker like Schopenhauer to properly explain!) or of how, in North by Northwest, the 'emptiness' of Thornhill is mirrored by the irony of his being mistaken for a non-existent person. But here, finally, is Smith on the 'black hole' imagery of Psycho: 'this black hole, like the swamp and the shower drain, inexorably sucks everything into itself, leaving us at last with empty eyes in an empty skull in an empty room - a terrifying, almost apocalyptic vision.' (So now we have come full circle - I quoted the same observation by Joseph Smith III when I started discussing his book last January 2nd, above - and for now we may turn from Psycho to some other topic. I do recommend Smith's book, a McFarland paperback.)

February 20 - 2010
Of course, there's another possible reason for the filmmakers' choice of Spot Insect Remover in the Psycho hardware store scene (see end of last week's entry, above). (Btw, the label makes it sound like a stain remover, not an insecticide - thus a euphemism for killing, and one of several witty and pointed things about this brief episode, which I analyse in 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story'.) I'm thinking of what Hitchcock's father called young Alfred: 'My little lamb without a spot.' He meant that his son was 'without sin' (until, apparently, the day that Alfred committed a misdemeanour, and his father arranged to have him locked up for a few minutes at the local police station). When you think about it, this provides a clue to the whole artistic method of Psycho. I have often said that Hitchcock was a Symbolist, meaning that he made films with generalised meanings, often pessimistic ones (see especially January 9, above). The insecticide scene isn't just about insects or even homicide - it is really about the attempt to deny sin or anyway to 'spray it away'! In turn, the scene is about a common (in two senses) human trait, which the film constantly harps on, namely, our having 'dirty little secrets'! Marion, no spotless lamb herself, had told fellow-secretary Caroline that 'headaches are like resolutions - you [conveniently] forget them as soon as they stop hurting!' Caroline, seemingly a bit of a prude, had taken tranquilisers on her wedding night. The sheriff's wife feels constrained to whisper to Marion that Norman had found his mother and her lover dead 'in bed!'. (Mrs Chambers here seems to imply that the place of their death is more indecent and regrettable than the actual death.) Marion herself had taken her (unfinished) shower because she felt unclean: the shower had been another attempt to 'spray it away'! As for Norman, he is the absolute epitome of the syndrome of secret-and-denial, to the point of his schizophrenia and psychopathology and eventual madness. In sum, Joseph Smith III ('The Psycho File', p. 100) is right to quote Raymond Durgnat: 'the insect lady as a serial killer is a "normal" version of Mrs Bates ...'. (I would add that the equation of human sin with troublesome insects has something Kafkaesque about it - and perhaps a touch of David Lynch!) Now, let's stay with Joseph Smith III. Earlier, I noted how Norman gradually 'uses up' his obliging, social self until finally, in self-protection, he 'becomes' his own mother. 'Beyond reproach', you might say! (See January 30, above.) As Smith observes, the film more than once actually shows Norman lowering his mask. Smith writes: 'the pleasant, boyish shyness with which Norman first greeted Marion slowly erodes during the film, eventually usurped by hard-edged suspicion during his talks with Sam and Lila towards the end.' (p. 133) At one stage, down by the swamp after disposing of the body of Arbogast, Norman's face assumes a 'hardened, bitter, silent scowl ... the friendly young man has simply disappeared.' (p. 117) (See frame-capture below.) It may not be by chance, then, that on the door into the police chief's office in the county court house we glimpse the name of the deputy - one Lackman. (p. 133). Hitchcock generalising again ...

February 13 - 2010
What a pity writers on Psycho, such as Joseph Smith III (in 'The Psycho File', 2010), seem to be ignorant of - or reluctant to mention - most of the literary forebears of Hitchcock's film. Perhaps they feel that they would denigrate Hitchcock by citing them! An exception of course is made for possible echoes of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', as when Norman cleans away the blood in the bath: see Smith, p. 162. (I'll come back to this.) Another exception is Smith's mention, late in the piece (pp. 168-69), of the 1919 short story by 'Saki' (H.H. Munro) called "The Interlopers", with its shock ending involving wolves. (I am reminded of Schopenhauer's fondness of the adage of Plautus: 'Man is a wolf to man.') Smith is picking up here on Leslie Brill's term 'ironic' to classify the tone of certain Hitchcock films. But neither Smith nor Dr Phil Skerry, in the latter's new paperback edition of his book 'Psycho in the Shower' (Continuum, 2009), so much as mention, say, William Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily" (1930), which is very much a piece of American Gothic, being all about an old house and a mummified corpse. (I know that Dr Skerry is aware of this story, which Robert Bloch, author of the novel 'Psycho', certainly read. Maybe Skerry felt it wasn't relevant to his book which ostensibly is just about the Psycho shower scene.) Nor do Smith, et al., mention stories by the great English novelist and tale-teller Wilkie Collins (1824-89). This does seem to be from ignorance. We have cited here both "The Dream Woman", about a young man who stays at an inn one rainy night - though he is just 15 miles from home - and has a terrifying encounter with a knife-wielding woman; and "The Lady of Glenwith Grange" which features a creepy old house which its owner, for reasons of her own, has kept frozen in time. ('The prints hanging round the walls ... were all engraved from devotional subjects by the old masters: the music-stand contained no music of later date than the compositions of Haydn and Mozart.') Dickens certainly read his friend Collins's story before creating Satis House, abode of Miss Havisham, in his novel 'Great Expectations'. Next, Bill Krohn once sent me an email which I wrote up here on August 23, 2000. Here's what I reported: 'H.P. Lovecraft's "The Picture in the House", where a traveller caught in the rain stops at an isolated cabin whose inhabitant turns out to be insane and a cannibal, [is mentioned by Bloch] in an essay he wrote on Ed Gein (the murderer who was the model for Norman Bates) ... . "Incidentally," Bill concludes, 'Norman's hobby in ["Psycho"] is a Lovecraftian one - necromancy."' In turn, Bloch has revealed that in writing 'Psycho' he drew on two short stories of his own: "The Real Bad Friend" (about a young man named Roderick ...) and "Lucy Comes to Stay" (which has a nice line in scissors ...). (Both stories are printed in 'Murder in the First Reel' [Avon paperback, 1985], edited by Bill Bronzini, et al.) And just the other day we noted here, not for the first time, how a remarkable play called 'Right You Are! (If You Think So)' by Luigi Pirandello (1867-1934), is perhaps the closest work to Psycho in terms of its involvement of the audience's curiosity (which is characterised as 'cruel') in the fantasy-lives that govern its characters and their vital relationships. (See above, January 23 and 30.) Now, I said I would come back to the 'Macbeth' references in Psycho. I have often noted that the business of the lady buying insecticide in the hardware store, following hard upon the death of Marion in the shower and Norman's cleaning-up afterwards, has a comic note that marks it as like the celebrated 'knocking at the gate' business with a sleepy, disgruntled porter in 'Macbeth' (which follows hard on King Duncan's murder). For his part, Joseph Smith III astutely observes: 'Indeed, we might well wonder whether the insecticide purchased in Sam's store - in a can labelled Spot Insect Remover - is a reference to Lady Macbeth's famous "damned" and indelible spot of blood.' (p. 162) Indeed we might! See frame-capture below.

February 6 - 2010
Critics disagree about what the death of Marion in the Psycho shower (frame-capture below) signifies. Raymond Durgnat, we are told, 'goes so far as to assert that the scene evokes not so much lust and vice in the viewer as "tenderness towards the maternal body, first object of love to both sexes"' (Joseph Smith III, 'The Psycho File', p. 83). The maternal body? Well, it's true that Marion is a potential mother who had wanted a 'baby' (her envy and dislike of Cassidy is partly because he had spoken of his 'sweet little baby' for whom he was now buying a house as wedding present - and the $40,000 Marion steals is like an interim/surrogate 'baby' of her own). But Durgnat may be pushing it to speak of 'the maternal body' here. On the other hand, the conventional view of the shower murder as a 'rape' may not be the whole story either, as Gary Giblin insists on our New Publications page, reviewing David Thomson's new book on Hitchcock's film. As so often, when wanting to understand Psycho, I would go back to Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926). There, in this film of a 1913 novel, Victorian and Freudian notions meet and clash. (On the French and London stages, Freud had just arrived in plays by Lenormand and others; meanwhile Pabst's new film Secrets of a Soul brought psychoanalysis to the screen for the first time.) Two contrary attitudes to sex are apparent. At one extreme, I have argued elsewhere, the film's neurasthenic young Lodger is in almost total denial, to the extent that he may himself be 'The Avenger' who after murdering his sexy blonde sister at her coming-out ball, has lately taken to killing a blonde a week. And for why? Because, to some Victorian and post-Victorian minds (or unconscious minds), the family was literally sacrosanct, to the extent that any suggestion of sexuality (even that the mother had conceived her children in sexual relations with the father) was practically unthinkable. (Suggested reading: Albert Mordell's 'The Erotic Motive in Literature', first published in 1919.) The film shows the young man to have been very close to his mother, whom we see in an old-fashioned death-bed scene. At the other extreme, the film shows an attitude to sexuality newly become fashionable in post-War Europe, an attitude liberated and accepting (and espousing Freud as one of its prophets). The film's heroine, Daisy, is herself a bit of a 'flapper' and works in modelling which brings her into sophisticated circles where she clearly feels at ease (though her home is in East London with her shabby-genteel, old-fashioned parents). So what I am suggesting is this. Hitchcock knew both 'worlds' and in a way upheld both. He himself, a Catholic, venerated motherhood and things of the spirit (including art and literature), but equally, as an intelligent young film director, didn't close his eyes to the realities of the modern world, i.e., to what actually went on there. One result was described by playwright/screenwriter Arthur Laurents who wrote the screenplay of Rope (about two gay murderers), who said of Hitchcock that although he held himself 'above' actual sex - being celibate for much of his life - he was fascinated by all sexual matters, including so-called 'perversions', and anecdotes about sex, and loved to tell dirty jokes. Right, let's hasten back to Psycho. The film is about motherhood (see last week) and there is a kind of mordant pun when Marion makes literal Cassidy's intention that his $40,000 be a gift for a 'baby'. I suggested last week that Norman Bates is effectively all things to all people - which is very 'feminine' of him - and shortly I want to suggest that the shower scene is like that too. But first, let's note that even when Norman becomes so 'feminine' that he turns into his own mother, he is not really a 'good boy', being still a murderer (like, arguably, the Lodger) and thus 'bad', which is a word that Mrs Bates herself would apply to sex (or so Norman thinks). Aptly enough, some such divided attitude is also the nature of the shower scene, which may explain the critics' disagreement. Gary Giblin astutely argues that we find the shower scene both 'rewarding' and our punishment for accepting that reward. We had wanted something exciting to happen and we got it, including nudity. On the other hand, Marion had been effectively our identification-figure, notwithstanding that she stole $40,000 (which is significant, because it shows that she is 'bad' too, and so are we!). What I would add is that human nature is divided against itself (cf Schopenhauer's amoral Will or Freud's Unconscious), and that Hitchcock, out of his largesse, is mirroring it right back to us. More next time.

January 30 - 2010
I remember that in Dan Auiler's book on Vertigo, he made the good point that Scottie, for all his shortcomings, or because of them, is an Everyman figure. What if I were to suggest that the same might be said of Norman Bates in Psycho?! Last week I again mentioned my admiration for the plays of Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), which are often 'Hitchcockian' in the way they reflect aspects of their audience. Pirandello's 'Right You Are! (If You Think So)', is a predecessor of Psycho in many ways, not least in emphasising the fine line between sanity and madness and in building suspense on the sheer curiosity of both characters and audience to learn a 'truth' that is finally mysterious. (By the way, the first London production of 'Right You Are!', in 1925, starred Claude Rains, and I have argued elsewhere that Hitchcock saw it.) The play ends on the sound of mocking laughter from the character Laudisi, who has consistently questioned the nature of appearances. I think a similar function is performed by the scene with the psychiatrist near the end of Psycho whose 'explanation' arguably deepens our understanding of what has gone before but, next moment, appears inadequate when we are confronted by the mad Norman in his cell. Pirandello expert, Eric Bentley, has written splendidly about 'Right You Are!'. He has noted, for example, how Pirandello always 'retained Ibsen's image of modern man as neurotic sufferer' but emphasised 'not the theory of emotional disturbance, as with so many post-Freudian playwrights, but the concrete fact'. ('Life of the Drama', University Paperback, 1969, p. 133) Now, I haven't space this week to give Bentley's full argument for why the ending of 'Right You Are!' is so fine, but its essence is this: the mysterious 'veiled lady', Mrs Ponza, whom we have been dying to see, claims to have no significant identity of her own but only what particular individuals ask of her. Bentley writes: 'She plays the role each wishes her to play. Everyone would agree that this is most feminine of her, and Pirandello is adding that he considers it most human and right.' (p. 189) Well, I believe that the ending of Psycho is profoundly similar, that is, once you see that Norman - who has effectively become his own mother - is now no less the mother of us all! Norman, ever-obliging, has seen to that! In other words, the ending of Psycho parodies Norman's, and our, never-completely-abandoned wish to be mothered! Even more, it is Hitchcock's ultimate statement about our reverence for mothers, vide especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943), filmed when Hitchcock's own mother was dying in England. There, Emma Oakley/Newton is heard to say, late in the film, 'Sometimes you forget you're you.' (See frame-capture below.) Further, a related way of seeing Norman - though this may be easier for gays - is to see him as representing our desire to be the mother, to be exemplary, i.e., a superego figure. I shall take these matters up next time, but I want to end this week by quoting a further passage from 'The Psycho File' (McFarland) by Joseph Smith III. Here it is: 'More than one writer has observed that Perkins's Norman sometimes resembles Marion (when he looks feminine), sometimes Sam (dark and handsome), and sometimes Mother's corpse (thin and angular). Nicholas Haeffner adds that this odd blend is possible because Perkins himself was "a very complex, and inwardly conflicted, bisexual actor". Indeed, Perkins's bisexuality was "an open secret in Hollywood, and Perkins as Norman Bates couldn't help but draw on that subtext" (McGilligan).' (p. 56)

January 23 - 2010
Back to Psycho again this week, and thoughts occasioned by my reading of Joseph Smith III's sturdy new book, 'The Psycho File' (McFarland). I remember once reading about how Hitchcock showed a rough-cut of the film to its screenwriter Joseph Stefano and how Stefano's face fell as he watched it. 'Don't worry,' Hitchcock assured him when the lights came up, 'we'll fix it!' Well, Hitch was correct of course (though Stefano may also have had a point - there's not a lot there in the film's second half apart from the sheer momentum of the murders investigation, and some nice 'touches', plus the rather brilliant conception of the film itself - I would compare the latter to a play by the great Pirandello, whose studies in sanity/madness and illusion/reality I have discussed here and elsewhere previously, and am currently re-visiting with unflagged admiration, I must say). In the space of a few pages of Smith's book, I was several times reminded about the importance to Hitchcock, as to any author, of 'tightening' and revision. Thus on p. 43, Smith tells us that the film's scene where Marion is just setting off from Phoenix with the stolen money and is spotted by her boss and Cassidy at a street corner, was scripted rather differently. (It's not clear just when the changes were made, but no matter.) In the script, reports Smith, 'where Cassidy sees Marion first, [he] lets out a "cheery exclamation," and elbows Lowery'. Smith thinks that the filmed version is 'infinitely preferable' - 'Cassidy trudging blindly ahead while Lowery smiles and nods absently at Marion: she returns an automatic half-smile (also not in the script) and he [Lowery] then stops and gives Marion a puzzled frown' (she had complained of a headache and had said she would bank the money and then go straight home). Yes, it's much better as filmed. For one thing, the scene now avoids the cliché of the two men simply celebrating Cassidy's house-purchase by getting drunk together. As filmed, the scene tells a whole story in itself, about individual differences - something (subjectivity) the film is about, after all. Also, the scene now has a definite victim (Lowery) and direct interaction between Marion and him, rather than presenting a general 'young woman trumps older guys' situation. Next, on p. 44, Smith mentions how in the scene where Marion is spoken to by a traffic cop, the script went though various changes. 'Stefano's first draft had the policeman flirting with Marion - but Hitchcock told his writer to omit this. He also trimmed quite a bit from the revised draft, in which the policeman responds at length - and with some compassion - to Marion's assertion, "You're taking up my time"'. Hitchcock, I think, simply didn't want any 'softening' at this stage in the film, perhaps because he knew that the scene with Norman in the parlour was coming up, which is where the audience subconsciously relaxes with Marion after her long interstate drive. The parlour scene itself seems long, but is clearly of a different order from what had preceded it - we sense a deepening here (which will be explained in retrospect, as when the psychiatrist says that Norman had been 'touched and aroused' by Marion, as she herself had been touched - if not aroused - by Norman. Her thoughts had suddenly turned to the enormity of what she had done, and Norman's plight and talk of 'private traps' had brought her to her senses.) Another scene in which a lot of trimming was done (though again I'm not sure just when) was the scene where Sam and Lila drive out to the motel. As Smith notes, this was where 'the script gives Lila a chance to provide much of the otherwise-unknown background on the Crane family' (p. 116), but again Hitchcock obviously felt that the plot momentum was what mattered most (and that, in any case, I dare say, concerning characterisation, the film was principally about Norman and, even more, the audience). Finally - to come back to the scene with the traffic cop - Smith astutely notes a small matter in which time was saved and tension maintained. The policeman never actually tells Marion that she's free to drive away, he simply hands back her licence and returns to his car. (Frame-capture below.) By contrast, notes Smith, Gus Van Sant, in his 1998 version of the film, found 'it necessary to resolve the tension by having the cop say, "Have a nice day," as he hands back her license' (p. 46). To be continued.

January 16 - 2010
Actually, this week I want to interrupt our discussion of Psycho (and Joseph Smith III's excellent book on that film) and turn to the play 'Rope' now running at the Almeida Theatre in London (see News item below). Danny Nissim watched the play last week and 'thoroughly enjoyed' it. He has sent along his detailed thoughts on the production, and I'll incorporate several of them in this note. Here's Danny: 'The first thing to note is that the production is set in its original period and this is central to its main themes. We’re in the world of the "bright young things" of the English upper classes of the 1920s. Brandon and Granillo (Phillip in the film) are Oxford undergraduates of a type familiar to anyone who has read or seen the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s "Brideshead Revisited". This is a generation determined to throw off the outdated moral authority of their Victorian parents. And those with the money and connections are willing to push everything to excess and revel in the new amorality of the times where anything goes. The one great world-changing event in the background is of course the Great War of the previous decade, dramatically foregrounded in the character of [Brandon and Granillo's former tutor, the poet] Rupert, wonderfully characterised at the Almeida by Bertie Carvel as a slightly camp cynical aesthete who limps across the stage casting his spell simultaneously over the other characters and the audience. In a speech which is central to the whole play, he tells us that he lost his leg in the war (at one point he whacks it dramatically with his walking stick) and explains how the whole experience of that apocalyptic conflict has left him unwilling to condemn the act of individual murder when whole nations enthusiastically engaged in murder on such a grand scale.' Hmm. All of what Danny Nissim has just observed I find very helpful to an appreciation of Hitchcock's 1948 film version of Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play. For a start, readers may like to recall what we noted here on October 31 (above): that 'Hitchcock's films contain both "dandy" and "rogue" male characters, and that these two complementary types sprang to prominence from post-World War I historical circumstances'. Clearly, there is something of both the dandy and the rogue in at least two of Rope's main characters, and probably in all three of those characters, namely, Rupert himself (who delights in teasing, if not actually shocking, people), Brandon and Phillip. I imagine that Rupert's name is designed to remind us of the legendary English poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), symbol of World War I's 'lost generation'. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Arthur Laurents would have felt that Rupert's position on individual murder was no less apt after the mass-slaughter of World War II - and they probably took their cue from Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), as I point out in 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story'. Also, I have often remarked here and elsewhere, citing John Carey's outstanding book 'The Intellectuals and the Masses' (1992), how incredibly disdainful of ordinary people were the Nietzsche-influenced literary intellectuals in England between the Wars. D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) would happily have seen the masses gassed, as a passage cited by Carey shows. Brandon and Granillo/Phillip are part of that 'set', and in filming Rope Hitchcock was working out his own ambivalence towards what he called 'the moron masses'. All power, then, to Arthur Laurents's screenplay which has Rupert finally see the light. 'Did you think you were God, Brandon?', he asks at the film's climax - see frame-capture below. (No matter that the screenplay has had to play down Rupert's own gayness and his possible direct complicity in 'corrupting' Brandon with Nietzsche's ideas. As Laurents has said, once James Stewart was cast in the role, probably in part because of his own distinction as a pilot in the War, all shadings of gayness in his character had to be dropped.)

January 9 - 2010
Last time I talked of repetitions in Psycho, and suggested that ultimately they contribute to that film's Symbolist aspect. (Another example of such repetition, and Joseph Stefano's clever dialogue: Norman's alliterative remark about 'lighting the lights and following the formalities'. Hitchcock's films from the 1920s onwards loved to generalise about 'life' symbolised in some way by light - real or artificial. Read on.) Then, during the week, our 'Hitchen2' discussion group challenged me to spell out what I mean by Hitchcock's drawing on the Symbolist tradition. I replied at length, beginning like this: 'Well, in a nutshell, I'm thinking of whatever (largely by design) is generalisable from Psycho to what is true and representative of the human soul or psyche - a type of content, amounting to statements, that I do not believe is present in most other "slasher" or "horror" films. I would say that making such statements became second-nature to Hitchcock. The particular content might differ from film to film, but I believe there's a Symbolist dimension in most of Hitchcock's American films. They are microcosms.' I wrote a whole lot more, but here's how I concluded: 'Of course, it can be argued of Vertigo and Psycho and many other Hitchcock films, that they are purely subjective worlds, and that therefore no broad generalisations are implied. Yes, you can argue that - which is also part of Hitchcock's design!' Now, last week I particularly noted (or began to note) how Psycho and The Trouble With Harry are related Symbolist films, and both full of repetitions. Notably, in Harry, there's the constant interring and disinterring of Harry Worp's body by the two (doubled) couples, Sam and Jennifer and Captain Wiles and Miss Gravely. In Psycho, you have the film's two murders (with the mention or threat of several others, starting with the time young Norman poisoned his mother and her lover). On the face of it, where Harry is a joyous film, visibly celebrating (in Ed Sikov's phrase) 'the ongoing life-force', Psycho should be a downbeat film, far from exhilarating - but of course for most people it's the opposite of that. Further, research of mine (to be published this year) suggests that the original Symbolist movement (c. 1886-1905), which Hitchcock told Charlotte Chandler had greatly influenced him, was all about an attempt by certain artists and writers to penetrate workaday appearances in order to reveal 'eternal [timeless] meanings' - and to overcome German Weltschmertz (world-sorrow; thoroughgoing pessimism). Let's look this week at Psycho and Harry with all of that in mind. It will be convenient at this point to return to 'The Psycho File' by Joseph W. Smith III, an excellent new book which I mentioned last week. On p. 119, Smith refers to how the film's 'final voyage of discovery begins with Lila emerging behind the motel' and how '[t]he film is greatly enriched by ... brief but evocative shots of ... piled-up detritus: a discarded mop, heaps of broken crates, the bedsprings from an old mattress, and in particular, a broken-down automobile' (see frame-capture below). As Smith notes, this wreck deepens our sense of Norman's 'stagnant, dead-end existence, literalizing the notion that he is going nowhere' (pp. 119-20). Quite true! What it also can remind us of is how, in Harry, Calvin Wiggs, a puritannical soul (as his name suggests), passes some of the time by restoring old cars. I'll quote something I once wrote: '[Calvin's world-weary] mother is very astute in describing the nature of Calvin's work. Referring to his interest in restoring antique cars, she calls them "mechanical antiques"; and she says that his other job as Deputy Sheriff involves "piece-work". In short, there's something non-organic and isolated about Calvin. [In a sense, he is the film's Norman Bates.] The contrast is with the film's [two couples] whose combined energies are marshalled by the artist Sam. As he cuts [Miss Gravely's] hair, in a charming scene inside the Wiggs Emporium, Sam foresees that "the true Miss Gravely" will be "timeless with love and understanding".' That's a Symbolist aspiration, if ever there was one. Next time, I'll discuss the remarkable way in which, almost by tone alone, Hitchcock can turn a film's meaning one way or another - positive or negative, pessimistic or optimistic.

January 2 - 2010
2010 is the 50th anniversary of Hitchcock's Psycho, and several new books on that film are set to appear. But as we note on our New Publications page, few of them may be as good as 'The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock's Classic Shocker' (McFarland) by Joseph W. Smith III. Smith's book is as no-nonsense as its author's name, and draws freely on its predecessors, such as Raymond Durgnat's 'A Long Hard Look at Psycho' (2002) and Stephen Rebello's 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho' (1990). I hope to discuss several of its ideas here in coming weeks. I'll start with how Smith comments on some lines of 'Mother' in which she berates Norman for wanting to invite Marion up to the house for supper: 'And then what? After supper? Music? Whispers?' Smith notes, first, that there's an echo (repetition) here of Sam's similar assertion in the film's opening scene: 'And after the steak - do we send Sister to the movies? Turn Mama's picture to the wall?' Then Smith continues: 'Another notable aspect of these lines - one that hasn't been discussed in the written material on Psycho - is the curious doubling in Mom's dialogue, her habit of repeating words and phrases. It's apparent elsewhere in the film - for example, in her monologue at the very end: "Let them. Let them see what kind of person I am. ... They'll see. They'll see and they'll know and they'll say ....".' (p. 59; cf frame-capture below) Well, Smith is perfectly correct to comment on Mother's proneness to repetition. It's an excellent point, and (in my view) deserves even more attention than Smith gives it. For a start, I have several times commented both here and elsewhere on the 'cadences of madness' that screenwriter Joseph Stefano has invested in those final lines of 'Mother'. I would relate such repetition to Norman's own proneness, earlier, to stuttering, for both Mother's repetitions and Norman's stuttering are the product of psychological disturbance. But further, repetition (and doubling) is everywhere in the film, and it can suggest, for one thing, the banality of life - which is something I think Psycho is very much about. (Scottie in Vertigo was someone else who wanted to escape banality and pursued the woman Madeleine in quest of such escape; while in Psycho, Norman as a boy had listened to a recording of Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony and dreamed of glory - but now, he tells Marion, he is content to live in his 'private trap'.) Think of Norman changing the linen each week in all of the cabins regardless of whether the beds have been slept in (he doesn't like 'a creepy smell'!). Or recall what he says to Mother when (from a high angle) we see him pick her up and start carrying her downstairs to the cellar: 'Come now, mother! He [Arbogast] came after the girl and someone will come after him!' This conveys more than just Norman's increasing sense of persecution. In the Symbolist dimension of Psycho, it underlines the general sense of entrapment that Norman has referred to, the sheer overwhelming sense of life's pointlessness, when practically all hope has gone. (For more on Hitchcock's Symbolism, see December 19, above.) Marion, too, had felt persecuted when fleeing with the money she had stolen from her boss and encountering on the road suspicious policemen and used-car dealers - yet she was buoyed up with hope that marriage to Sam would solve all problems, which of course is itself a banal expectation. ('A perfectly ordinary bourgeoise', Hitchcock once called her, no doubt thinking of his favourite fictional character, Emma Bovary.) In truth, the repetition I have begun to describe in Psycho may recall key lines in the novel 'The Trouble With Harry', whose own repetitions foreshadow those of both its film version (Hitchcock, 1955) and those of the film Psycho. (The Trouble With Harry and Psycho are very much complementary films.) The artist Sam is inspired to paint the face of the dead man Harry because he suddenly sees there 'the millions and millions of dead faces of all the centuries ... the people of every day in every country, all standing looking and not knowing.' Finally, the repetitions in Psycho are not unrelated to Freud's 'death instinct' and the 'repetition-compulsion' (which were prominent also in such key 1940s films as Hitchcock's Suspicion and Spellbound and Otto Preminger's Laura and Whirlpool). Although it's precisely the Symbolist dimension of Hitchcock's films that I think Joseph Smith III may not fully appreciate - though he singles out the film's main motifs and begins to ask what they mean - yet his book does frequently allow us to feel that Psycho is a film about the ineffable, with 'a terrifying, almost apocalyptic vision' (p. 161). To be continued.