Editor's Week 2012

December 29 - 2012
I'll start by following up my speculation of last week about how legitimate it is of Tania Modleski to claim that the dinner table scenes in Frenzy connote 'feeding off the "carcass" of the dead woman' - where 'the dead woman' must mean (for Modleski) a generalised view of Woman allegedly held by men who want that Woman dead. Modleski justifies her position by writing: 'The association of women with defilement, with filth, is as strong in Hitchcock as it is in the "savage mind" analyzed by Lévi- Strauss.' (p. 108) First, is Modleski forgetting that Hitchcock had long wanted to film twenty-four hours in the life of a city, beginning with fresh produce (animal and vegetable) arriving from the country, and ending with shots of drains and sewers - thereby illustrating the theme of how civilisation reduces good things to waste matter? Nothing particularly 'sexist' about that, is there? (I have speculated elsewhere that the Symbolist Hitchcock was here drawing 'an analogy of war, or a picture of the human condition generally'.) In turn, I'm reminded that the Hitchcock film Rope (1948) has its own 'cannibalistic' motif whereby a murdered youth's - not a woman's - dead body is concealed inside a coffin-like chest and then food is served off that makeshift 'grave'/'table' to the victim's unwitting friends and family. Any 'defilement' here is surely associated with death itself - as counterpoint to Hitchcock's pro-life stance that his films typically evince from their opening scenes (e.g., the city waking up at the start of Rear Window). Now here's an excerpt from something I posted on our 'advanced' Hitchcock group recently about Frenzy after I had quoted the Modleski passage beginning, 'The scenes at the dinner table ...'. (Note: I wanted to be forceful at this point.) 'Only a theory-obsessed academic could write about Frenzy's eating scenes in this narrow, polemical - and distorted? - way, it seems to me. Hitchcock is surely concerned with the much bigger Schopenhauerian/Dickensian/Freudian/Bunuelian picture of civilisation being hypocritical towards appetite and of pretending that it isn't all [a matter of] the ambivalent Will, of dust returning to dust, of there seemingly being only sex and excrement, life and death. And yet with something else left over.' (That 'something else left over' is the true 'message' of Hitchcock's films, not least Frenzy, it seems to me.) Here I reminded our group of the passage from the poet Emerson alluded to in Marnie: 'So nigh is grandeur to our dust/ So near is God to man.' Of course, I haven't actually disproved Modleski's allegation against Hitchcock - of his supposed misogyny - and I recognise that even in my above illustration from Rope Hitchcock's alleged prejudice may simply have been turned inside out - that for him, at some level, a murder of a youth by homosexuals was the equivalent of women killing women! In the revised 2005 edition of Modleski's book she discusses recent 'queer theory' and comments on how a whole lot of people - male and female - want to avoid being seen as 'feminised'. 'Let's face it,' she writes, 'a lot of people are loath to be in the woman's place, including ... a not insignificant number of women themselves.' (p. 137 of 2005 edition) However, I still insist that Modleski, for all her show of fairness to Hitchcock's position (see December 15, above), has not sufficiently appreciated his 'objectivity' - nor dwelt sufficiently on the beauty and textual richness of individual scenes in a film like Frenzy. On that note, I'll just make a couple of further points this time. First, last night I watched Robert Fuest's And Soon the Darkness (1970), described - surely way too enthusiastically - on the Britmovie website as 'one of the scariest, most suspenseful films of all time'. (I have seen Fuest's version of Wuthering Heights from the same year, 1970, and I remember it as execrable!). It's about two attractive English nurses on a bicycling holiday in France who become separated, and one of them - the blonde - is horribly murdered. (Incidentally, there's a Hitchcock nod in the opening minutes as the girls cycle past a cornfield at a crossroads.) The sunlight blazes down in most scenes, invoking the contrast implied by the film's title, and Hitchcock would have appreciated that. I do think that he may have looked at Fuest's film while researching Frenzy. What he would also have appreciated is how the film's post-1960s emphasis on sexual frankness - visually and in the dialogue, plus the fact that the murderer is a sexual predator who has killed before - made it one of the many factors telling him that Frenzy could not simply be a return to the Hitchcock tale of old. In sexual matters, the ante had definitely been 'upped'. Nonetheless, there is exquisite feeling and sheer first-rate craft in nearly every moment of Frenzy, not least in the 'dinner table scenes' between Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan) and his wife (Vivien Merchant). For correspondent Christopher D, here's a frame-still from one of those scenes, in which the foregrounded lamp first sweeps into view (nice piece of rhythmic emphasis as the meal begins) and then serves (like the reference at that point to the Oxfords' eight-year marriage) to remind the audience of a certain estrangement in the marriage. Call it jaded Will. More next time.



December 22 - 2012
'Man's inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn', wrote Robert Burns - lines which Hitchcock liked to quote. And while Frenzy is specifically about men (one in particular) killing women, you may well feel that Hitchcock's point is broader than that - closer to Burns's 'humanist' concern than to Tania Modleski's 'feminist' one (in her book 'The Women Who Knew too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory', 1988/2005). Nonetheless, Modleski goes out of her way to ask why it is that 'women are the exclusive objects of rape and mutilation in [Frenzy]' and 'why it is their "carcasses" that litter the film's landscape and not men's' (p. 114 of 1988 edition). She even lambasts fellow-critic Donald Spoto for his 'blindness' in referring to how 'food in Frenzy is a ... metaphor for the devouring abuses of man-against-man' (rather than against woman). But why shouldn't the rape and killing of women in Frenzy stand for misanthropy of all kinds - thus constituting the figure of speech known as synecdoche (where part represents whole)? That would certainly be consistent with Hitchcock's usual Symbolist (or expressionist) mode, in which he strove for the widest possible signification. And remember that at least one character in Frenzy - the hotel porter in Bayswater - does refer to how 'sometimes the appetites and lusts of men make me want to heave' - thus at least turning the spotlight back onto the perpetrators of misanthropy rather than merely indulging it uncritically for 'entertainment' - or, as some critics allege, to give Hitchcock 'kicks'! The very fact that, in film, and melodrama, it was traditional for women to be victims (although, like the heroine tied to the railway tracks, she was usually rescued at the last minute) may sufficiently explain why in Hitchcock's 1972 film about contemporary man-woman relations, he chose to focus on the work of the 'Necktie Strangler', a serial-killer of women, based on the real-life 'ladykiller' Neville Heath. (Elsewhere, e.g., Psycho, The Birds, both women and men are shown killed - the farmer's death in The Birds is particularly horrendous, and we are not spared close-ups of the details.) It is actually part of Frenzy's design that the film moves freely between stereotypes (e.g., the blowsy barmaid in the Nell of Old Drury pub - she might be modelled on one of the women in Hitchcock's 1927 film The Farmer's Wife) and stark realism, notably the rape-murder of Brenda Blaney. Hitchcock very readily explained to 'Newsweek' just why 'you need a frank [i.e., detailed] approach to the rape scene'. Without such frankness, Hitchcock said, 'something very crucial would have been lost: you would never have seen the killer at work.' (Quoted in Raymond Foery, 'The Last Masterpiece: Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy', 2012, p. 139.) In other words, you must bring the audience inside the very mind and motivation - the psychology - that drives the film. And again, discussing Frenzy on our 'advanced' Hitchcock group a few weeks ago, I noted that Hitchcock may well have decided to show audiences a reality they were still not facing up to in the 'liberated' post-1960s era. (For some cinema-goers, the 'Carry On' films - which Frenzy evokes at one point - epitomised the height of 'daring' and frankness.) In a way, he was seeking to raise the consciousness of audiences much as Fritz Lang had done in 1931 with his film M, which took some of its inspiration from the Lustmord murders that occurred in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. (For more on those murders, click here: Lustmord murders.) I see little reason, then, to support Modleski's claim that 'Frenzy undoubtedly shares some of the contempt for and fear of women exhibited by the men in the film'. She isn't sufficiently respecting Hitchcock's genius-level objectivity. And certainly she can't prove her claim, which surely proceeds from her feminist 'bias'! I am sometimes bemused by an apparent difference between the disciplines of philosophy and film criticism. In the former, you must be able to prove your argument or else remain silent. But in the latter, it almost seems that if you can formulate a possibility, and cite some broader theory as backup (as Modleski does, for example, by citing Lévi-Strauss's 'The Raw and the Cooked', 1964), then you have done all that is required. A key passage in Modleski's description of Frenzy is this: 'The scenes at the dinner table, flirting as they do with connotations of cannibalism and hence of extreme pollution - i.e., the idea of feeding off the "carcass" of the dead woman - are the culmination of the motifs of food and filth pervading the film.' (p. 109) Hmm. I have no argument with the existence in the film of the two motifs mentioned. What I do question is whether it's legitimate to attribute to Inspector Oxford the wish to feed off a woman's carcass - at any level of his (or Hitchcock's or our) unconscious! More next time.



December 15 - 2012
Back in the 1970s my feminist friend Freda F attended a talk in Melbourne by Hollywood screenwriter Casey Robinson (Now, Voyager) and was appalled by his unconscious sexism, racism, and conventional attitudes to sexual preference. Freda professes to be similarly appalled by Hitchcock's film Frenzy (1972), saying, 'That is a dreadful film in its attitude to women.' She finds particularly upsetting both the opening scene when a woman's nude body washes ashore in the Thames (see frame-capture below) and, not surprisingly, the rape-murder of Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) by the Cockney fruit-monger and serial-killer Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). To a large extent, Freda is supported by Tania Modleski's chapter on Frenzy in her highly-regarded book 'The Women Who Knew Too Much' (1988; 2005) where Modleski writes: 'Frenzy undoubtedly shares some of the contempt for and fear of women exhibited by the men in the film' (p. 112 of 1988 edition). But at least Modleski concedes that 'it also portrays the main female characters more sympathetically than most of its male characters'. And, more broadly, she says: 'I have argued in previous chapters [of the book] that Hitchcock's fear and loathing of women is accompanied by a lucid understanding of - and even sympathy for - women's problems in patriarchy.' Drawing on psychoanalytic theories involving a 'cannibalism motif', Modleski believes that her book demonstrates Hitchcock's 'profound ambivalence about femininity'. Well, I'll question (some of) Modleski's findings later. But here's how I attempted to refute my friend Freda's antipathy to the film. First, I said, it's crucial to realise that the film is told subjectively, most notably from the viewpoint of a soured ex-Squadron-Leader, Dick Blaney (Jon Finch), who was once lionised by society but is now almost penniless, especially as - at the start of the film - he loses his job as a bartender. The violence we see on the screen isn't so much Hitchcock's as it is part of a depiction of how Blaney feels about society's apparent uncaring and unjust - and otherwise preoccupied (following the 'sexual liberation' of the 1960s) - ways. Moreover, and crucially, Blaney is denied love and sex himself, apart from one happy moment with his occasional girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) in a Bayswater hotel. That is indeed a lovely moment, with honeyed light that Hitchcock sometimes used for 'idylls' (however transitory or only hoped for) - see discussion of Torn Curtain on November 24, above. But as the song has it, 'When love goes wrong, nothing goes right' - more subjectivity, you see. Now, I said to Freda, you admire and appreciate the novels of Dickens, don't you? Well, are you aware of how closely Dickens used an identical approach in, notably, 'Our Mutual Friend' (1865) - which Hitchcock had clearly read and was imitating? Like Frenzy, Dickens's novel draws on an 'excremental vision' as it both depicts a story of a strained, would-be marital relationship (of John Harmon and Bella Wilfer) and attempts to portray a cross-section of a London society with which Dickens had become disenchanted. ('Our Mutual Friend', Dickens's last completed novel, is arguably more bleak than 'Bleak House' itself.) And do you remember how 'Our Mutual Friend' begins? Anticipating Frenzy, it opens with a body being found in the Thames! We learn that the unsavoury riverside-dweller Gaffer Hexam actually makes his living this way, by scrounging whatever the Thames throws up (including suicides and other dead persons, sometimes with valuables on their bodies). This is all part of Dickens's significant imagery - of society as a 'wasteland', built on dust - whose principal symbol in the novel are the London 'dust heaps' themselves (rumoured to include human excrement), from which another character named Mr Boffin ironically makes a fortune (from re-selling their contents). The equivalent of those 'dust heaps' in Frenzy, I suggest, are the contents of its potato-truck destined to be ploughed back into the soil (but not before Rusk has had to immerse himself in them in a scene that is further redolent - when you think about it - of outlandish moments in Chaucer and Boccaccio!) I have described Frenzy's 'excremental vision' here before (and see also, for example, David Sterritt's book on Hitchcock). So my next point to Freda is as follows (I did, in fact, put it to her): in scripting and filming Frenzy in 1972, Hitchcock had to contend with many kinds of 'competition' if he was going to make his film seem 'relevant' to contemporary audiences, who had supposedly become more 'liberated' since Psycho. For example, Hitchcock himself noted that he and scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer actually had to 'clean up' the recently-published novel on which Frenzy was based. More next time.



December 8 - 2012
To follow up on last week's item, I want to note that Hitchcock's American films, i.e., from Rebecca onwards, are indeed demonstrably about 'growing up' or sometimes not 'growing up' (which may explain Hitchcock's interest in the plays of J.M. Barrie, such as 'Mary Rose'). Time and again, in these American films, a character has become 'blocked' or has simply failed to comprehend - rather like a child - some significant, but at the time incomprehensible, event or set of circumstances. Yes, there's frequently an Oedipal motif here, but critics and scholars would be foolish to stop at simply pointing out such a motif: the implications, or possibilities, are many. For example, even adults may need to 'grow up', something which can be defined not so much in terms of libido but rather self-knowledge. True, in the case of the pastoral comedy-fantasy The Trouble With Harry, the final rewards are very bountiful, far exceeding the material gifts bestowed on artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsyth) and his circle of friends by the elderly millionaire (Parker Fennelly). By the end of the film the principal characters have grown from alienation into wisdom, a non-fearful acceptance of their mortal lot, and two new couples have formed; they have arrived at what Hitchcock's favourite artist Paul Klee called a condition of being 'at one with the universe' - as the film's celebratory autumnal golds and russets announce, loud and clear, if not without a touch of melancholy, a mood akin to the Japanese aesthetic term mono no aware. The Trouble With Harry can indeed be interpreted aesthetically, from its credits sequence onwards, and that was the point being made last time: the nexus which so fascinated the Romantics (whose descendants included Klee and Hitchcock himself) between the creative process and the growing-up process, or even the very life-force (as Klee pointed out). So when Hitchcock's films refer to art and artists (as many of them do, including Harry) or incorporate aspects of cinema-going (e.g., Rear Window), that's an aspect of the wider motif; and what is also significant is the overlap with someone's development or lack of it: for example, Norman Bates's infantilism in Psycho is represented by his abuse of art objects (e.g., a kitschy old painting concealing a spy-hole) or his parody of art in the form of his taxidermy. In turn, Hitchcock films invariably and knowingly seek to offer a generous simulacrum of 'life', including a spectrum of emotions and points of view, even in films where the principal character (e.g., Roger Thornhill, Norman Bates, Marnie) is precisely lacking in exposure to rich stimulation, at least initially. (As the film proceeds, art and art galleries may figure in the plot, as in Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Torn Curtain, and of course it's significant that we finally hear Thornhill say, 'I never felt more alive' - although art is only a part of the process that he - and we - undergo. More on this in a moment.) Now, so many films, on examination, feature the growing-up process or a significant lack of it. I was discussing with a friend this week Graham Greene's novel 'Brighton Rock' (1938) and the John Boulting film version (1947, curiously enough, also the year of Great Expectations). The film stars Richard Attenborough as young thug Pinkie Brown (see frame-capture below), and ostensibly Greene's story is that of a youth who is stunted and damned. His under-privileged upbringing has made him what he is, and that includes his misogyny which is scarcely alleviated when, for calculated reasons, he marries the waitress Rose, a fellow Catholic. Of Pinkie's childhood, Greene writes, 'Hell lay about him in his infancy' - employing the same phrase to describe it as Greene had once used to describe his own childhood. So I would argue that 'Brighton Rock' is, in a sense, a disguised, or inverted, picture of Greene himself. 'There, and may God forgive me, goes myself', Greene wrote of his approach to all of his characters (in 'Why Do I Write?', 1948). Hmm. I haven't space to elaborate, but I see the ambiguity with which Greene surrounds Pinkie's fate as not dissimilar to that attending the last shot of Norman Bates in Psycho. The latter is definitely more subtle, thus supporting Greene's own comment that his discussion of divine mercy in 'Brighton Rock' was 'far too obvious and open for a novel'. Maybe I'll return to this. What I wanted to end on this time was a further astute observation by McLuhan & Parker: 'The idea of a work of art as a direct manifestation of the creative process exerted wide influence among the Symbolists [in turn, a major influence on Hitchcock]. It remained only to devise means to include the audience in this creative process in order to reach that stage of aesthetics that is familiar in Expressionism and in the speculations of the twentieth century.' Q.E.D.



December 1 - 2012
The last thing I want to do tonight, as I reflect on the opening scene of Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955), is to impinge on a friend's special territory. AS, in Melbourne, is an authority on the depiction of children in film, having written about that topic for his PhD. I've been chatting with him this week. So I'll largely confine my remarks to drawing a parallel between the opening of Hitchcock's film, showing the boy Arnie (Jerry Mathers) patrolling the woods - see frame-capture below - and the famous opening of David Lean's Great Expectations (1947), showing the boy Pip (Anthony Wager) hurrying home across the marshes. The tone of the respective scenes is quite different, of course - one set in New England in autumn, the other set in a rather wintry-looking Kent - but both place the boy and his small 'world' literally at the front of the film, which is as it should be. For in both cases the boy, it's implied, stands in for the artist whose story is being told. (Great Expectations was based on the 1862 novel by Charles Dickens - which, not incidentally, Hitchcock had read.) Don't take that last statement altogether literally, as one can't of course say that either Hitchcock or Lean is telling his own story, but only, I think, strongly identifying with a general 'vision'. What we do know is that the original short novel of 'Harry' was set in the Hertfordshire woods where author Jack Trevor Story lived for a while; also that his novel, like the film, does have an artist among its characters, and that the artist first comes into view singing the song 'Jerusalem' from the poem by William Blake ('And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England's mountains green ...'). Similarly, we know that Dickens, who knew his Blake (see the book-length study of Dickens by F.R. and Q.D. Leavis), included in his moral tale of Pip growing up some autobiographical elements: for example, Dickens himself lived in Kent for the latter part of his life. Which brings me to this. In their remarkable book, 'Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting' (1968), Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker draw attention to a phenomenon about Romantic artists and writers: that they 'developed a deep concern with the creative process in both art and life. It is especially familiar in J.J. Rousseau's Emile [1762].' And the authors add: 'Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience are familiar as part of this new interest in the growing child and the effects of established institutions on human potential ...' Well, I would follow Hitchcock in describing The Trouble With Harry as 'a nice little pastorale', though of course he well understood that such a description wasn't the whole story (cf August 11, above). And I find significance in, for example, artist Sam Marlowe's disdain for 'city people ... people with hats on', for clearly Sam prefers to live in the relatively uncorrupted (and un-corrupting) countryside - pity about the body of Harry turning up there! (This is the same gag, pretty much, with which Hitchcock opens Frenzy, seventeen years later, when the body is that of a murdered girl floating in the Thames near the Houses of Parliament, a body which disrupts the complacent speech-making of a politician praising the return to the almost 'halcyon' condition of the newly cleaned-up river.) Equally, I would call the opening chapters of 'Great Expectations' - describing Pip's boyhood and youth before he is suddenly summoned to London - a relative 'idyll', despite the sometimes bleak weather on the marshes and the boy's oppression by some unpleasant adults (including both Pip's guardian, his step-sister, and the egregious Uncle Pumblechook). Both works, though, start with a symbolic prolepsis (foreshadowing) which suggests the boy is, in a sense, dreaming and unaware of the pitfalls which reality - both outer and inner - will further bring. Thus The Trouble With Harry has hardly begun before Arnie in the woods hears shots and then - from perhaps a different direction - a man's raised voice saying, 'Okay, I know how to handle your type!' Moments later the boy stumbles on Harry's body lying in a glade. So much for what we thought might be a gentle 'pastorale' without complications! Similarly, Pip, hurrying home at the start of Great Expectations, stops momentarily in the graveyard of a lonely church, and starts to put some flowers on his parents' and siblings' graves. Suddenly, a fearsomely ugly man in chains - an escaped convict - rises up and terrifies the boy. In effect, the convict is both a symbol of evil and a real person with a name - Magwitch - who will figure ambiguously in later parts of the novel, reflecting an ambiguity in Pip (and human nature). I would argue that The Trouble With Harry makes similar suggestions about the world.



November 24 - 2012
About the murder of Gromek by asphyxiation in Torn Curtain, Hitchcock said that he fully intended the farm house's gas oven to evoke Auschwitz. (He didn't say why he intended it, but we may guess. Probably he was remembering how it was in just such tranquil surroundings as those of this German farm that some of the extermination camps operated.) Equally, he clearly intended the nice irony that Michael and Sarah's escape from East Berlin on board a 'fake' bus is engineered by a Jew, Mr Jacobi (David Opatoshu), working for the resistance organisation called 'Pi' (after the Greek mathematical symbol). Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is evoked several times in Torn Curtain, with an irony of its own. It represents one of Hitchcock's 'Golden Age' or 'Lost Paradise' symbols (compare, for example, the ironic evocation of Wordsworthian 'bliss' at the start of Hitchcock's Frenzy). Very possibly, on this occasion the filmmakers were thinking of George Orwell's '1984' (1949) with its oppressive regime and, for a time, the characters' dream of 'the Golden Country'. (For a frame-capture from Torn Curtain showing the use of golden light for the East German scenes, see entry for November 3, above.) Now, it's the bus scene itself that I want to focus on this time. Many of my readers may not agree with me, but I find the scene immensely satisfying - far more so than the comparatively crude, and even insulting, bus scene in Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) with its constant cutting-away to shots of clocks (there's a bomb on board, timed to explode at 1.45 p.m.) and then back to the boy Stevie playing with an 'adorable' puppy (both Stevie and puppy will shortly perish). I first watched that scene with an audience of undergraduates many years ago, and still remember being embarrassed by how 'obvious' it was. On the other hand, the Torn Curtain bus scene is a triumph of Symbolist content. If the farmhouse scene is all about the life/death 'force' (the One, Schopenhauer's 'Will') made palpable, the bus scene is its complement, the depiction of life's diversity (everyday appearance, the Many, Schopenhauer's 'Representation'). In other words, it shows 'democracy' in action, what we are like collectively and need to feel ourselves part of. Although nearly all of the people on the bus are members of 'Pi', they are a motley lot. They include a little man with a cold, a student and his girlfriend, identical twin brothers, and the hysterical Fraulein Mann. ('Doubles' figure suggestively in this film, a reminder that no one is an island. Even the bus has its 'twin'.) They are all ordinary-enough people - yet capable of heroism - and thus represent those from whom Michael and Sarah have been shielded by their ivory-tower existence back in Washington, D.C. With particular irony, Sarah is a Senator's daughter, as the film's novelisation notes. Collectively, too, the people on the bus represent us, the film's audience. Twice they burst into applause for their efforts in the face of danger. On the first occasion, it's Jacobi's quick-thinking, and that of the man with the cold, that saves the day. Significantly, on the second occasion it's Michael who is the hero - by leaping up to press the emergency door-release when an Army deserter has become trapped on board just as security guards approach (see frame-capture below). Michael's quick-thinking will figure again later, during the theatre scene. But of course 'democracy' is an imperfect entity, something that is personified by Fraulein Mann's increasing nervousness and anger until, finally, Jacobi orders her from the bus - but not before she has rounded on Michael and Sarah, telling them she hopes they'll be caught 'for causing everyone so much trouble'. Clearly, the film takes a pessimistic view of short-term progress (it's worth noting that the fall of the Berlin Wall was still over twenty years away), not to speak of beyond that. Indeed, the novelisation, based on the screenplay, has Michael wondering in Schopenhauerian terms about perennial human selfishness and whether he 'would be more willing to risk his life for fellow Americans than for foreigners' - and concludes that he would: 'it was hopelessly built into the human frame, and too damned bad, but what were you going to do?' Still, the film gives Sarah a moment of compassion - when she asks Michael to consider helping the Polish countess (Lila Kedrova) - although her suggestion comes to nothing as events pan out. But the audience has been challenged, and that was always part of Hitchcock's agenda. Note, by the way, that the countess describes herself in the novelisation as 'an old woman. But there is la vie left in me. Lots of la vie.' That, too, was always Hitchcock's ultimate hope - la vie itself.



November 17 - 2012
Any discussion of the farmhouse murder scene in Torn Curtain (1966) should embrace the preceding 'echoing footsteps' scene in the art museum. The two scenes are integral, in much the same way as an 'echoing footsteps' episode in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) relates - if in lighter vein - to the free-for-all in a cramped taxidermist's workshop that follows. Both times, there's an ambiguous death-and-life opposition (cf entry for September 1, above). Michael (Paul Newman) visits the museum to try and elude Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling). Significantly, the scene is introduced by an exterior view from a tourist-information brochure, followed by a dissolve which effectively allows Michael to walk into the photograph. (He's about to leave behind, perhaps for good, the 'tourist-y' shallowness of the earlier scenes back in Denmark.) The museum's Graeco-Roman facade dwarfs him, and the effect is then accentuated once he enters the building. (In fact, the film's second half is full of moments when Michael seems 'out of his depth'.) A high long-shot shows him crossing a tiled floor inlaid with a magnificent mandala, symbol of wholeness - which is ironic in this film about division, both personal and collective. In the very middle of the mandala, Michael suddenly pauses, listening. All around him are classical columns and artifacts, although the building seems strangely deserted of people (except for one audible set of footsteps besides Michael's own ...). We sense (1) the oppressed East Germans have no time for art, and (2) the Graeco-Roman heritage of Western civilisation, something which the film touches on several times, awaits re-discovery, both by Michael himself (a narrow scientist, as Richard Wormser's novelisation of Brian Moore's screenplay notes) and by the modern world in general. (Just before Hitchcock's film appeared, Carl Jung's 'Man and His Symbols' had noted that the contemporary world was divided into Communist and non-Communist spheres, 'like a neurotic', with the Berlin Wall emblematic. Incidentally, Torn Curtain is full of images of walls, and war ruins, although the Berlin Wall itself is never shown.) Rounding a corner - cf the Vertigo sequoia forest, which this scene also draws on - Michael takes a few more paces and then pauses again: see frame-capture below. Included in the shot is a magnificent black marble statue showing the torment of Prometheus by an eagle. Prometheus, you'll recall, was chained to a rock in punishment for stealing fire for humans from the gods; to further punish and torment him, Zeus sent the eagle to peck at Prometheus's liver, which each evening grew back (and so the torment continued indefinitely). Here, then, Michael's heroic aspect - in risking his life to steal a vital secret from the Communist scientist Lindt (Ludwig Donath) - is being signalled. As partly noted last time, the film contains repeated allusions to fire (and also coldness). Some are almost subliminal: e.g., the Norwegian ship at the start is 'M/S Meteor', while the name of the Elmo Bookstore suggests St Elmo's fire. At it's most basic, the multiple allusions keep the general motif of fire before us, in preparation for the climactic scene in the theatre. (Something similar happens in Saboteur where, between the tragic aircraft factory fire at the start and the film's climactic scene on the Statue of Liberty - which holds aloft the torch of Liberty - are passing references to fire, such as the fire extinguisher in the driver's cabin when Barry receives a lift from a lorry-driver. And of course the saboteur's name is Fry.) But now we may come to the farmhouse scene. In contrast to the echoing tile floors of the spacious museum, the farmhouse adjoins green fields and an earthen farmyard where hens scratch (and Michael identifies himself to the farmer's wife - Carolyn Conwell - by making the sign of the Greek letter 'pi' in the dirt, foolishly forgetting to erase it). For a few moments, all seems peaceful, but then Gromek turns up. It will be his last day alive. For in the celebrated scene that follows, Michael and the Frau must combine to kill Gromek who was about to turn Michael in for spying. I simply want to emphasise how protracted and powerful - i.e., affecting - the scene is. As Hitchcock himself said, he designed it to show that 'it takes a very long time to kill a man' (in another version, how difficult it is to kill a man), which is in keeping with the film's motifs, noted last time, of drawn-out time and of human physical striving (here exemplified when Michael and the Frau are straining to drag an already-wounded Gromek towards the gas oven to asphyxiate him). Harrowing stuff - but absolutely relevant to the film's depiction of the life/death force (call it Will) that underlies the film, as it also underlies (or underpins) all notions of democracy - whose birthplace of course was Greece - the real subject of Torn Curtain. Next time: about the organisation called 'Pi'.



November 10 - 2012
As noted last time, Torn Curtain draws on a 'suffer in silence' motif that was once the staple of many films and stage melodramas (such as Madame X and the Australian film The Silence of Dean Maitland - both filmed more than once, which may say something). It is, besides, a very 'human' motif - that is, it provides an example of the Symbolist content that informs so many Hitchcock films. At some level, we all 'suffer in silence' - and Donald Spoto's biography of Hitchcock shows that the director himself was such a sufferer. Also, the motif provides yet another instance of how Hitchcock's work generally is 'Schopenhauerian' (Schopenhauer taught that the cosmic Will = suffering), with Torn Curtain a particularly analytical example of the Reality (Will) versus Appearance (Representation) theme that runs through Hitchcock's work (see end of entry for October 27, above). Not Thomas Aquinas, not David Hume, not Slavoj Zizek, but Arthur Schopenhauer is the single philosopher who has the most light to throw on the films of Hitchcock - though all of the above are relevant to those films, undoubtedly. But now let's get practical! Watching the Ben Afleck political thriller Argo this week, I enjoyed its pacing and humour and suspenseful realism (re-creating events in Iran in 1979), but found it one-dimensional. When all was said and done, and the rah-rahing was over, and the literally flag-waving last shot was faded from the screen, it left me unsatisfied. (To a correspondent I wrote, 'Several Hitchcock films, by contrast, raise the subject of patriotism in order to show how it - patriotism - conceals or encourages affronts to individual life or well-being. Think of Alicia's line in Notorious, "Patriotism. That word gives me a pain". Hitchcock was always a thinker!') Though Hitchcock admitted that Torn Curtain ended up a film of compromises, its basic compassion for humanity is evident. As I've analysed at length before, the very titles sequence - see frame-capture below - is about precisely Will versus Representation. Forget the Laurent Bouzereau piece of trivia that the flame on the left of screen is that of a (Saturn) rocket being tested. The important thing is that the image of fire is like that of the Sun, in other words, life itself, or singular Will. Meanwhile, on the right of screen, seemingly struggling to emerge through swirling grey mist, we see a succession of faces, many of them clearly in pain - human life as multitudinous Representation, endless suffering. Such imagery of Fire and Ice (as Spoto calls it) will recur throughout the film, accruing rich meaning. (Nothing like it in Argo, note.) Initially, the sequence may stand as evoking the birth of the cosmos. As Camille Paglia writes in 'Sexual Personae' (1990): 'Mythology begins with cosmogony, the creation of the world. Somehow out of the chaos of matter comes order. The plenum, a soupy fulness, divides itself into objects and beings.' Which is exactly what happens during the Torn Curtain titles sequence (and whose significance Bouzereau misses). But during the film, the Fire and Ice imagery becomes pronounced in its own right, culminating in the performance of Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem 'Francesca da Rimini' ('staged incongruously as a ballet', notes Wikipedia), with the flames of Hell palpably present onstage. Equally, rather like a ballet itself, the film constantly choreographs the struggles of its characters as strivings and desperate reachings-out for help (as during the audience panic in the theatre). A long analysis of Torn Curtain in 'The MacGuffin' specifically noted how one scene is essentially 'about' Will - the murder of Gromek - and another scene specifically 'about' Representation (call it people-power), namely, the scene with the two buses. More about that next time. But I began by referring to the 'suffering in silence' motif. What is masterly is how Hitchcock gives both Sarah and Michael such suffering - and them re-unites them in the hillock scene (which is weak photographically, but otherwise splendidly ambiguous - for the couple is not out of the woods yet, nor have they awakened to the suffering of others which is all around them ...). In turn, the motif is linked to another type of silence - extreme reticence - as when Sarah, questioned at the faculty interrogation, is silent for fully thirty seconds and then insists, 'I have nothing to say!' Such stylistics make Torn Curtain a film ahead of its time - as one of our 'advanced' Hitchcock study group insists - or at least far more experimental than is often noted. (I'm not forgetting its experiments with indirect lighting, as reported in 'American Cinematographer'.) To be continued.



November 3 - 2012
A recurrent Hitchcock narrative involves a gifted but errant person (or two) plus others who may only figure in 'the small stuff of history' yet clearly are decent achievers (if I may call them that). The main part of the story is given considerable psychological weight (often involving ego), but at stake behind that story is something bigger again. I think, for example, of Rope (1948), of Vertigo (1958) - and of Torn Curtain (1966). The latter, which I watched this week, is about the apparent defection of US physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) to the Communists at the height of the Cold War. He calls himself 'Wrong Way Armstrong' because he effectively started at the top (in Washington, D.C.) and now, denied US funds, must venture elsewhere, professing that his concept of an anti-missile missile makes 'the terror of nuclear war' obsolete. But is that his actual motivation? (His press conference on arrival in East Berlin is one of the film's set pieces - featuring one of several masterly crane shots - but whose emphasis on behind-the-scenes jostling carries a sense that power is the issue here.) Next, I find the depiction of the East German escape organisation known as 'Pi' - with parallels to wartime underground movements - one of several ingredients that round out the film for me, emotionally. Not only is 'Pi' up against the 'infamous' East German Security (no doubt meaning the feared Stasi), headed here by the urbane Heinrich Gerhard (Hansjoerg Felmy, one of several fine performers in Torn Curtain), but it carries on the democratic spirit in its own special way - one antecedent in Hitchcock is clearly the circus troupe in Saboteur (1942). Further, the film shows the bravery and selflessness of most 'Pi' members: for example, Mort Mills (the policeman in Psycho) as The Farmer has a pivotal role, turning up a second time late in the film to help point Michael and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews), now on the run, towards escape, but disclaiming special merit: 'We're nobody, ma'am, just city folk out for a stroll.' (For some intangible reason, 'Pi' makes me think of a community radio station I know: there's a superb government classical music station, and there's the station I'm referring to, run by dedicated volunteers, which does comparable work, if occasionally you can detect a relatively untrained voice announcing the discs!) What I'm suggesting is that there's plenty of 'Symbolist' content in Torn Curtain - it's not just about the bare story. Unfortunately, that story strikes many viewers as hackneyed, which I don't think is entirely fair. For one thing, if the film looks, first, too jaunty, and then, at times, old-fashioned (one scene in an East German hotel room reminds me of a shot from a silent film by Tod Browning or E.A. Dupont), I think those 'effects' are largely deliberate. The Copenhagen scenes at times resemble the popular "Look at Life" or "This Colourful World" featurettes that used to support the main feature (such as Torn Curtain) in cinemas - here John Addison has even attempted to imitate the 'canned' music from such featurettes! As for the relatively sombre and 'old-fashioned' look when the film goes over to East Germany, the momentary evocation of a silent film (which Berlin churned out by the hundreds each year) is expressive and surely a permissible 'in-joke' by Hitchcock. Moreover, that scene is another of several in which the film draws on real basic emotion, in this case Sarah's anguish after following Michael 'by instinct' to East Berlin and hearing him give his defection speech. (Yet another such moment may be the last shot of the dispossessed Polish countess, played by the wonderful Lila Kedrova from Zorba the Greek, lamenting, 'My sponsors, my sponsors from the United States of America ...' I'll unpack Kedrova's performance later.) Note the frame-capture from this scene below. It's filmed in as flat a manner as possible, imitating a stage (as silent films often did). But the real point is in the dialogue that Michael delivers, telling Sarah that he simply 'can't explain' his actions to her - just as another Michael, in I Confess (1953), based on an 'old-fashioned' stage play, also 'can't say' what the Crown Prosecutor wants him to say. (Hitchcock's own 1929 silent film The Manxman, from the already old novel by Hall Caine, also has such a scene - a staple of stage melodrama and not less effective for that.) An interesting touch this time is the inclusion of the old-fashioned lamp bracket above Michael's head. It intimates the main reason he 'can't tell' Sarah the truth about his recent actions: the room may be bugged. To be continued.



October 27 - 2012
I keep referring here to G.K. Chesterton's tale 'Manalive' (1912), the first such reference being perhaps that on August 25, above, where I bring it into a discussion of Absurdity (including Hitchcockian Absurdity). I believe that it had a big influence on Hitchcock's 'vitalist' imagination, and it even contains the 'missing link' I had long sought where Chesterton acknowledges that his extravagant tales are aimed squarely at the reader, to make him/her think positively. (Chesterton's Father Brown may be the author's most popular representative in that respect.) In one key passage, the tale's 'saviour' figure, Innocent Smith, teaches the importance of living life to a stuffy academic, whose two 'bad habits' are described as having been 'to sit up all night and to be a student of Schopenhauer'. (Yes, in 1912 Schopenhauer's influence on British intellectuals was still considerable. Cf the Schopenhauer-like philosopher, Professor Huvelius, who may be behind the German invasion - and the attacks by birds and other wild creatures - in Arthur Machen's 'The Terror', published in 1917. Further reading: The Day of the Claw) Chesterton's tale opens and closes in a London boarding house whose residents are transformed by Smith's sojourn among them. But the actual broad narrative has at least one antecedent. English humorist Jerome K. Jerome ('Three Men in a Boat') had first written a short allegorical tale of his own and then adapted it to the London stage, where it played as 'The Passing of the Third Floor Back' in 1908 - and later was adapted into two film versions, the second in 1935 when it was directed by Berthold Viertel from a script by Alma Reville (Mrs Alfred Hitchcock) and Michael Logan (who went on to write the adaptation for Hitchcock's Rebecca). It starred Conrad Veidt (so another German connection) as The Stranger who comes to live among the inhabitants of a London boarding house. And his arrival prompts this very clear visual homage to Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926): see frame-capture below. Note the church over the road, hinting at the character's 'religious purpose' in what follows. Now, not only did I watch The Passing of the Third Floor Back (again) recently but I was prompted by memories of Pasolini's Teorema (1968) to order the latter in a nice BFI DVD copy. Sure enough, it, too, though set in a household in Milan, has structural affinities with the Jerome and Chesterton and Viertel works. Pasolini, I read, has said that The Visitor (played by Terence Stamp) in his film 'isn't Christ but either God or the Devil', leaving it to the viewer to decide. Which I find very Hitchcockian of Pasolini! Indeed, I see more clearly now how Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) also fits the mold. How masterful of its director to make Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) a clear Devil-figure but also, if you care to take up Pasolini's hint, a possible emissary of God (despite Uncle Charlie's crimes) sent to bring 'life' back to the incipiently moribund Newton household that we first see! I recall that at one point, as Uncle Charlie lies on a bed, the bedhead appears to give him angel-like wings - much as one image of Stamp in Teorema appears to give him such wings, too. All very teasing! Or, as they say in Under Capricorn (1949), 'The Lord moves in mysterious ways/ His wonders to perform.' Of course, Hitchcock might have explained that he merely wanted to keep his film as multi-valent and life-like and non-dogmatic in as many, non-mutually-exclusive ways as possible, taking advantage of the built-in 'ambiguous image' (as Roy Armes called it) that cinema offers, and another facet of 'pure cinema' (so akin to Schopenhauer's amorphous cosmic Will), after all. It would be easy to extend this reading to other Hitchcock films such as Psycho (Norman Bates as the audience's saviour) and The Birds (where the saviour-figure is the birds themselves - something that a writer in the UK journal 'Movie' once noted, 'a whole Christ population of birds!'). I further discussed this matter recently with Hitchcock-authority TL. We agreed that it helps to understand Hitchcock's genius if you think of him drawing on 'scraps' of remembered storylines - a bit of Chesterton here, a bit of Thornton Wilder there - and as having, in TL's words, 'a magpie eye for sharp individual motifs, moments, and scenes', thus revealing how he assembled his films in a bottom-up (non-theoretical) way rather than an imposed top-down way. Nonetheless, I ventured, the result is not a meaningless 'nothing' (which someone like Penelope Houston thought she detected and chose to deride in her essay "The Figure in the Carpet") but a reality at least analogous to Schopenhauer's Will, 'which has its complement, Representation, and that when you realise that the two go together, and can't be separated, brings you to a very special understanding of the experience that a Hitchcock film offers.' Especially one like, say, Vertigo, I added.



October 20 - 2012
The following may serve as a follow-up to the matter of Hitchcock's sexual harassment of Tippi Hedren (see previous two items). Actually, though, it comes from a discussion I had this week with Bill K about a different matter. Knowing that I see G.K. Chesterton as a major shaping influence on 'the Hitchcock paradox' (Hitchcock's films, when analysed, are typically both pessimistic and anti-pessimistic), Bill suggested that at one point in Donald Spoto's 'The Dark Side of Genius' its author 'uses Chesterton to beat Hitchcock the Puritan Witchfinder General over the head with'. Well, I said, let's analyse that. The passage, in the section on Shadow of a Doubt, is in fact comparing Hitchcock with R.L. Stevenson - about whom Chesterton wrote a biography in 1927. Both Hitchcock and Stevenson were alike, suggests Spoto, in distinguishing Good from Evil but as 'exchangeable: the disclosure of human failings taints the cherished sense of propriety'. Chesterton wrote that Stevenson 'knew the worst too young; not necessarily in his own act or by his own fault ...' And Spoto comments: 'Both Stevenson and Hitchcock endured puritanical repressions: both conjured up images of the late puritan-Victorian wasteland that was inhospitable to maintaining an honourable public life and a happy private one at the same time.' In other words, we're talking about a classic tension between public morality and repression. In just two or three paragraphs, Spoto brilliantly describes the split in Hitchcock between his belief that all social life is a giant hypocrisy and his own rich imaginative life - which in turn, via his filmmmaking, might be used to shock audiences. 'The paradox of Alfred Hitchcock was that his delight in his craft could never be liberated from a terrible and terrifying ... guilt.' Spoto then refers to how Shadow of a Doubt is a dramatic illustration of what Carl Jung called 'the shadow' in all of us and which artists and writers had long drawn attention to. Both the film's two Charlies and Hitchcock himself were 'a walking illustration of Montaigne's observation, "We [...] cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn."' Hmm. For my part, I once referred to how young Charlie's adolescent fascination - until the film's mid-point - with her glamorous uncle exactly reproduces what religious philosopher and proto-psychologist, Sören Kierkegaard (1813-55), called the 'dread' (or vague awe) that arises in an individual when his/her sexuality is first posited - a state Kierkegaard described as innocent dreaming that awakens a thirst for the prodigious and the mysterious. Such 'dread' is a psychological form of suspense, and is, I suggest, what both Stevenson and Hitchcock drew on for some of their effects. For example, in Shadow of a Doubt, it is very evidently behind young Charlie's rush to the local library where she removes the ring her uncle had given her (one passage in Kierkegaard even anticipates this precise moment, I believe!), and Hitchcock films the scene as a metaphor of The Fall (see frame-capture below). Or again, Spoto's phrase 'the late puritan-Victorian wasteland' to describe the psychological legacy that is implicitly targeted in many of Hitchcock's films is surely accurate. I think of Arthur Machen's celebrated horror tale 'The Great God Pan' (1890; 1894) hinting at precisely the 'unmentionable' things - and people's reactions to them - as Spoto's phrase implies: I have suggested that the character Helen Vaughan in Machen's tale is the prototype of Daphne du Maurier's character Rebecca (see June 23, above). There's an excellent and succinct account of the tale here: Pan. Each of the tale's paragraphs, we're told, carries a 'cumulative suspense' leading to 'ultimate horror'. The tale's 'misogynistic' content is also noted. But let's return to Hitchcock himself. You could say that he was indeed sexually repressed from boyhood both by his Victorian and Edwardian environment in general and by his Catholic upbringing in particular, not to mention the effect of his endomorphic body-type, which would at least have restricted his opportunities (and invitations)! Even so, 'Hitch' seems to have quickly become something of a 'gregarious loner', supporting team sports and social activities literally and metaphorically from the sidelines but also able to amuse himself by going off to read a book or attend a film or play. In turn, already showing signs of genius, he was cultivating a degree of (non-puritanical!) free-thinking, including various kinds of self-formation (call it dandyism) and the use of humour - sometimes at his own expense, sometimes at the expense of others! I see here the influence of both Nietzsche and Chesterton (vide 'Manalive', 1912). To Bill K I mentioned something I found in Spoto's 'Dark Side'. Once, at the time of The 39 Steps (1935), Hitchcock summoned to his office his attractive blonde secretary, Joan Harrison, and, in front of screenwriter Charles Bennett, embarrassed both of them, no doubt, as he coolly read aloud one of the dirtiest passages from James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. Hmm. Tippi Hedren, you came late to the Hitchcock party!



October 13 - 2012
'Give them an inch and they'll take an ell.' The public - but also the media - is guilty of the sort of 'urban mythmaking' about Hitchcock that I started to describe last week and which, I fear, will continue to gather momentum, especially with the imminent screening of the slanted TV film The Girl on HBO in the US (on 20 October) and BBC2 (in December). That film is based on what Tippi Hedren and others told Donald Spoto and which he wrote up in his 2008 book 'Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies'. (For a recent 'New York Times' interview with Tippi Hedren which gives the essence of her allegations against Hitchcock, go here: Revenge of the Muse) Note that I hardly question the alleged facts themselves, for I greatly respect both Ms Hedren and Dr Spoto. The latter's Foreword to 'Spellbound by Beauty', summarising his position, is very plausible. Nonetheless, I remind everyone that all human perception is fallible and subjective. I'll come back to this matter. Meanwhile, I want to illustrate my point about the public and the media. Both of those entities will take far more than an ell, it seems. According to a friend, one afternoon last month on a Melbourne commercial radio station, 3AW, the program's host was talking to a guest film critic (name unknown). Hitchcock had been mentioned earlier and now the host, apparently with an idle moment to fill at the end, suddenly asked, 'Is it true that Alfred Hitchcock drilled holes in walls to spy on his actresses?' Well, that seems typical of the phenomenon I'm referring to. In this case, Kenneth Anger's fantastical embroidering on Rear Window and Psycho (see last time) was clearly having its effect. A lot of people are unable to distinguish between film and real life, and soon start to run the two together in their conversation and gossip (unless checked). A related matter is described in an article based on a recent interview with actress Kim Novak (Novak tells all). 'As part of the PR campaign for Vertigo, Paramount leaked rumours of a feud on the set between Novak and Hitchcock, according to the book Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic [1998] by Dan Auiler. Over the years, this marketing mischief has gelled into a legend of a fraught relationship between a dictatorial director and a wilful star. Nothing, Novak insists, could be further from the truth.' Hmm. That reminds me of how, for years, I kept hearing the rumour that Hitchcock delighted in ill-treating Novak on Vertigo by demanding endless re-takes of the scene in which she is rescued from San Francisco Bay (meaning, the studio tank). According to the rumour, up to 24 takes of the scene were shot - with no mention of how James Stewart would also have been required to dive back into the water each time! The rumour was finally scotched when the notes of Hitchcock's long-time assistant Peggy Robertson were examined. In fact, the scene was re-shot just four times, for perfectly valid reasons (see Robertson's obituary in the 'Los Angeles Times': Peggy Robertson PA). Even Dr Spoto himself has facilitated some anti-Hitchcock attitudes through his own negligence. His accusation that Hitchcock was cruel to his daughter Patricia, then appearing in his film Strangers on a Train, by ordering her held for half an hour on a stationary ferris wheel, seriously distorts what was just innocent fun, as described in Warner press release #3HO 9-1251. But now I come to The Girl. As I say, the basic facts concerning Hitchcock's sexual harassment of Tippi seem incontrovertible to me. Sad. But the new film distorts them, perhaps unforgiveably. In an article by Tony Lee Moral, due to be published in the 'Daily Telegraph' on 19 October, he reveals, for example, that the filmmakers allege that Hitchcock was angered when Tippi rejected an attempted kiss by the director while they were being driven around Bodega Bay during shooting of The Birds. Back at the studio later, while filming close-ups for the telephone-booth scene (see frame-capture last time), Hitchcock is alleged to have ordered a prop man to send a dummy bird crashing through the telephone booth's wall, 'shattering glass all over Tippi without any warning. The make-up people had to spend the rest of the afternoon picking tiny pieces of glass from her face.' The implication by The Girl is that Hitchcock was maliciously 'punishing' Ms Hedren. But how could anyone know that? (Besides, the scene called for a bird to strike the glass.) Those on the set are adamant that the broken glass was an accident. Very reasonably, hairdresser on The Birds and Marnie, Virginia Darcy, asks, 'Why would Hitchcock endanger his lead actress on a $3 million film', putting both film and actress at risk? Now, I have scarcely space left to make my main point. It would go something like this. The Hedren matter (as I call it) is a very small part of the total picture of Hitchcock that some of us have built up over the years. (I value this assessment by composer John Addison: 'Hitchcock was the most civilised man I have ever met.') Furthermore, as philosophers concerned with the 'big picture' tell us, all humans are flawed, often driven and misshapen against our wills by the cosmic Will itself (of which the sex-drive is a major manifestation). So maybe reflect a while on Hitchcock own words, 'Everything's perverted in a different way'. (My thanks to Tony Lee Moral for permission to quote from his forthcoming article. His exemplary book on Marnie is being revised for 2014 publication, and two other books by him on Hitchcock are coming shortly: Making of Hitchcock's Birds. Also, my thanks to BK who accessed the Warner files on Strangers on aTrain at UCLA.)



October 6 - 2012
If you didn't give Hitchcock love, loyalty, or at least intelligent attention and appreciation, you were likely to find yourself cold-shouldered by him. That was your 'punishment'. Accordingly, I think there's more than a grain of truth in William Rothman's claim that the films themselves are 'punitive', designed ultimately to win an audience's 'acknowledgment' that Hitchcock was benignly - or anyway wisely - present all along. I reach this somewhat paradoxical conclusion about Hitchcock after studying him and his films for more than half a lifetime. And I believe that one crucial result of how Hitchcock presented himself, onscreen or offscreen, was that there were always at least two different Hitchcocks - the public and the private. The former was likely to be, of necessity, a superficial Hitchcock. The 'real' Hitchcock was something else again. At this point I would like to cite what is one of my favourite anecdotes in Stephen Rebello's fine book, 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho' (1990). It's the one told by costume designer Rita Riggs, referring to the carton of French strawberries that Hitchcock sent her. She notes his sense of fun and how she always thought of him as the prince locked in the frog: 'He loved beauty so much and set out to create it. I think his perversities and his frustration with his exterior were part of his wonderful creativity.' (p. 99) Add to this Hitchcock's Englishness and the sort of instinctual élitism he picked up from mixing in privileged circles in England between the wars (a phenomenon superbly analysed by John Carey in 'The Intellectuals and the Masses', 1992). Even in the US, Hitchcock might refer to 'the moron masses', causing John Steinbeck to tell a friend privately, 'Hitchcock really is one of those incredible English snobs who consider themselves superior to the working classes'. So, again, I think you have the two Hitchcocks - the rather superficial one and the one known to his friends and close acquaintances. The first of the Hitchcocks was capable of making enemies, including anyone who felt rebuffed by him (more on that in a moment). The second was much more likely to amuse and amaze, for there are countless testimonies to the depth and richness of Hitchcock when in relaxing company. The most glowing yet rounded of such testimonies is probably John Houseman's (for which, see my profile of Hitchcock on the 'Senses of Cinema' website). But Joan Fontaine's is also very nice: 'Hitch had a good ear [for dialogue and delivery]. He had patience, authority. He had taste. Most of all, he had imagination.' And Fontaine adds that 'We liked each other and I knew he was rooting for me' - although she was aware that Hitch did, indeed, want 'total loyalty'. ('No Bed of Roses', 1978, pp. 106-07.) But, yes, Alfred Hitchcock could make enemies. I'm reliably told that many industry people were bitterly offended when he 'foisted' an unknown actress named 'Tippi' Hedren on them, and seemed to take her star-quality for granted, without their say-so. This resentment of Hitchcock - and to some extent Hedren - still lingers on, I'm told. Keep that in mind. Then there were the mischief-makers. I'll single out filmmaker Kenneth Anger, author of 'Hollywood Babylon', volumes I and II. In the latter, Anger included a scurrilous - because untrue - account of how Grace Kelly performed a striptease for Hitchcock who was watching her by prior agreement through binoculars from the other side of Laurel Canyon. The chapter, called "Closely Watched Blondes", is rounded out with a coloured account of Hitchcock's relations with Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and Marnie. More soon on the Hedren matter - in which, as we've often heard, Hitchcock was not on his best behaviour. But how do I know that the story is untrue? Apart from its obvious air of the fantastical, that is? Because I'm told that it was in fact made up by journalist and film writer David Del Valle, who spoke to an audience at the American Cinematheque, Los Angeles, on March 24 2004. There, he revealed that he had fabricated several stories for the second volume of 'Hollywood Babylon', including both the Grace Kelly one and the story about actor George Zucco going crazy and claiming to be pursued by H.P. Lovecraft's fictional entity the Great Cthulhu! Del Valle explained that the publisher of the first 'Hollywood Babylon' had commissioned a sequel but that Anger had largely run out of old-time Hollywood gossip and so needed to pad out the new book with made-up stories. The trouble is, in the case of the Hitchcock entry, which also drew on the recently-published Hitchcock biography, 'The Dark Side of Genius' (1983), by Donald Spoto, it contributed to what I'll call 'urban mythmaking' about Hitchcock - albeit the superficial 'Hitchcock', which is what the public, compounding an error, further confuse with the real person. And now, to again distort matters, comes the slanted, made-for-TV film about Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren - The Girl - due to screen on HBO in the US on 20 October, and on BBC2 in December. I'll preview it here next time. The frame-capture below from The Birds will form a crucial part of my case. (My thanks to RM for information about David Del Valle's talk at the American Cinematheque.)



September 29 - 2012
First, I've slightly abridged and simplified last week's entry, which should make clearer what I intended to say there about the painter Edvard Munch and the filmmakers Peter Watkins and Alfred Hitchcock. Second, I attended this week in Melbourne a talk by Dr Francis Macnab on the 'other' side of Munch, the positive, life-enjoying side of the painter. Returning to Norway after spending time in Dr Jacobson's clinic in Copenhagen in 1908, Munch eventually settled on a farm. The subsequent period produced some nice paintings of fruit trees, horses, etc. Dr Macnab felt that Munch maintained an 'existentialist' self-awareness throughout much of his life (1863-1944). So that rather confirms what I noted here last time, about Munch's mature detachment and witty acceptance of life. (However, I note from the 'Columbia Encyclopedia' and other sources, the following, which sums things up: 'His painting became brighter of palette and less introverted until the 1920s, when he again was moved to portray his dreadful anguish.') Third, I began last time to suggest that both Munch and Hitchcock were attracted to 'the primitive' - whether in subject-matter or technique or both. Both kinds of 'the primitive' are on show, for example, in The Trouble With Harry (1955), whose titles are modelled after paintings by Hitchcock's favourite painter, the faux-naïve Paul Klee, and whose 'pastoral' subject-matter simplifies the elements of life to roughly the same as Munch's 'Frieze of Life' cycle: Angst, Love, Sex, and Death. (Call it 'Symbolism'.) Now let me bring in Peter Watkins again. I said last time that his 3½-hour film Edvard Munch puts the audience inside Munch's intense subjectivity in a way that reminds me of how Hitchcock involves us in Marnie. Marnie, like Munch, comes of a repressive, religious upbringing, full of pain, and, again like Munch, she is affected by bloody images that she, at any rate, doesn't understand but which have to do with events in her childhood. Watkins shows Munch drawing on memories whose trigger is the pain of a love affair with a promiscuous married woman. True, Marnie is in denial of what is happening to her for much of Hitchcock's film, whereas Watkins shows Munch engaged in an ongoing process of self-discovery and self-shaping, but the basic trajectory of both films is still close, and is one in which the respective audiences are invited (even forced) to share, as if that process or trajectory were expressive of some universal condition. Which brings me to this. Munch scholar Sue Prideaux, in her book 'Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream', notes that the painter's most famous painting 'is often linked with Schopenhauer's concept of dread'. Citing the latter's 'Philosophie der Kunst' (which I confess I don't know), she notes a passage in which Schopenhauer claims that the expressive potential of pictorial art is limited by its inability to represent a scream. In other words, pictorial art can't convey the absolute nature of the cosmic Will itself. But Munch certainly rose to the challenge (while claiming that he didn't come across the passage in Schopenhauer until much later in his life) - as did the master of 'pure film', Hitchcock. As I have often said, the Albert Hall scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where Jo McKenna gives expression to the 'ineffable' with her scream, epitomises just how closely 'pure film' and the working of invisible Will are near-allied. In turn, there is an expressive affinity of 'pure film' (film-as-flow) and suspense. I'll conclude by coming back to the excellent article on Peter Watkins's Edvard Munch I mentioned last time, posted on the World Socialist Web Site. There, Joanne Laurier writes: 'The relationship between the objective and subjective in art is obviously a complex one. Watkins' film succeeds in demonstrating that Munch's ability to penetrate into the subjective, an ability itself that has an objective component, generates an immense ... tension.' Hmm. Substitute 'immense suspense' for 'immense tension', and Laurier could be talking about Hitchcock. For example, her remarks put a fresh perspective on why Hitchcock always emphasised that suspense requires giving the audience information that the characters don't have. The suspense, or tension, proceeds from our superior knowledge, or objectivity, compared with the characters'. Indeed, I would say that what Hitchcock called the 'God's-eye view' of Bodega Bay in The Birds has its special role in giving that film its cosmic suspense. Interestingly, in the pre-planning for The Birds, Munch's 'The Scream' was at the forefront of Hitchcock's and art designer Robert Boyle's thinking ...



September 22 - 2012
Critics and scholars are frequently guilty of being blinkered and having favourites, including favourite styles and subject-matter - much like the rest of us, no doubt. We're all bound in subjectivity, after all. An apparent exception, said Schopenhauer, is the artist of genius who may approach 'the most complete objectivity'. I thought of the foregoing this week after watching the full 3½-hour version of Peter Watkins's remarkable Edvard Munch (1974), about the famous Norwegian artist (1863-1944) who pioneered 'intense subjectivity' in painting and is best known for 'The Scream' (1893, etc.) - which, however, was just one work among the series of paintings which Munch referred to as his 'Frieze of Life' and which spanned subjects depicting Angst, Love, Sex, and Death. (Note. Even that is quite a limited range! But as Munch put it, for many years he had to feel and cling to pain and anguish - of which his life had at least its full share - because, 'without anxiety and illness, I would have been like a ship without a rudder'. I'll come back to this.) Now I'm going to declare myself. I see many affinities - and some relative differences - between Munch, Watkins, and Alfred Hitchcock; and if Watkins's film is a remarkably complex treatment of a 'subjective' painter, no less is it 'subjective' about the filmmaker himself (Watkins acknowledges feeling an affinity with Munch) just as some Hitchcock films are themselves remarkably complex in depicting 'subjectivity' (e.g., that of the character Marnie in Hitchcock's 1964 film) even as Hitchcock himself sought to involve the audience in a collective 'subjectivity' of our own. I discussed this and related matters with our 'advanced' Hitchcock group this week. I noted how Watkins pays much attention to the various versions of 'The Sick Child' (1907 version shown below) - and draws on film editing to make his points superbly - to show how that work is not just about the death at a young age of Munch's sister Sophie but also concerns his own suffering, both in a recent love affair (with a married woman) and in earlier memory, including both the death of his mother and his own near-death experience from a childhood illness. (I told you this gets complex.) And I suggested that there is definitely something 'pre-Hitchcockian' here. I mentioned both the still under-appreciated The Lodger (which links the neurasthenic lodger's present suffering with memories of the death of his beloved sister, this in turn conflated with the lodger's memory of his mother, whom we see on her death-bed) and Marnie, with its complex rendering of interacting past and present suffering. I went into detail about this, and may do so here next time. But I want to keep to broad points for now. For example, researching Munch, I found that one of his artist friends in Berlin described his intense inner preoccupation thus: 'he need not make his way to Tahiti to see and experience the primitive in human nature. He carries his own Tahiti within him.' How close, in essentials, that is to what Hitchcock once told 'Newsweek': 'James Jones travelled to Hawaii, but with me it's imagination, it's supposin'. Once my front door is closed, I can be anywhere.' Of course, Hitchcock, the commercial filmmaker, liked to disavow 'deep' intent in his movies, claiming simply that their 'deepest logic' was 'to put the audience through it', and in Marnie even including a joke about 'the primitive in human nature' by having Mark tell Lil, 'We'll bring you back a noble savage'. As for 'anguished' artists like Munch, there's a joke at their expense in The Trouble With Harry where artist Sam Marlowe nonchalantly mentions, 'I've been in a tortured mood lately!' But don't be fooled! Hitchcock was one of the great empathisers, who felt the emotions of all his characters intensely. And that brings me to my final point for now. As we've discussed previously (e.g., June 16, above), Hitchcock with his wit and genius could be both 'subjective' and remarkably 'objective'. And an excellent article on Munch, on the World Socialist Web Site, makes a similar point about that painter. I just want to go a step further. The fact is that once Munch got past his 'mad' year, 1908, when he entered the clinic of a Dr Jacobson, he started to heal, and became quite the upstanding citizen in later life. Eventually he settled on a farm and continued to paint mainly rural subjects, often using his horse named 'Rousseau' (!) as a model. (Whether the horse's name refers to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who once said, 'nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state', or to 'Naïve' painter Henri Rousseau, it's likely that the 'noble savage' is again being valorised!) The only trouble is that critics and scholars aren't so impressed by things like mature detachment and witty acceptance of life. So Munch's later work goes relatively unremarked. A pity. To be continued.



September 15 - 2012
On our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group this week I recommended David Bordwell's latest blog, about Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954). I hadn't actually read the piece at the time, but I knew that our members would appreciate it. My own reaction, though, proved to be mixed. I know I'm not alone when I sometimes find Bordwell to be too much the dry, formalist analyser of film - I can't imagine him satisfactorily treating, say, Hitchcock's compassion (in all its ambiguity and detachment ...). But specifically, in his Dial M piece, Bordwell isn't even especially insightful about Hitchcock's canniness, although he certainly presents himself as being that. Hmm. Clearly I should qualify what I've just said! First, I still highly recommend Bordwell's piece (it's here: Film Art). Second, Professor Bordwell is a friend of a friend, and I've not the slightest doubt that he's a most pleasant guy - just as I've heard that Slavoj Zizek is the sort of guy you'd like to be drinking with if you found yourself snowed in for a few days! But now, that said, I want to consider the item with which Bordwell opens and closes his piece, the moment in the film when Margot (Grace Kelly) in effect protests her innocence by holding out her latchkey (see the two frame-captures below). She holds the key towards the left of frame and then, in a reverse-shot, we see husband Tony, (boy)friend Mark, and Inspector Hubbard, reacting. Margot's hand now occupies the bottom centre of the frame. Bordwell comments: 'This cut makes you say: Huh? Margot’s hand is shamelessly out of proportion and, judging by the men’s stares, we’re somehow looking through her torso.' And he suggests that he - Bordwell - 'can still be shocked by the old guy's [Hitchcock's] sheer bravado'. (Hitchcock was 55 at the time.) But why, exactly? For one thing, Margot's hand holding the key in the reaction-shot is now centre of frame rather than left or right of it because, after all, the key is the thing. Also, it is in fact correctly shown in alignment with Margot's line of vision and, besides, looks about the right size to me. (We're all used to how wide-angle lenses in pov shots can distort perspective by foreshortening, which is something Hitchcock has largely avoided here.) But that's not all. Note next how each of the three men, reacting, is caught looking anywhere but directly at the key. Tony is - understandably - looking at Hubbard, Mark - the lover - in the background is looking in Margot's general direction, and Hubbard is looking - literally - askance. This shot has been absolutely thought out by Hitchcock, and is subjectively right. But there's still more. Hitchcock often used the phrase, 'taking the curse off'. If those men were shown all looking directly at Margot and/or at the key she is (supposedly) holding out, the effect would be, at best, obvious, and might even border on the comic. ('That's snapped all those guys to attention, hasn't it!') Yet, as I say, the subjective effect for the audience is in fact absolutely right. By its almost imperceptible 'wrong match' with what we might have expected, it implants and emphasises the idea of how Margot is having to contend with a lack of credibility and that she is now very vulnerable ... Okay. Today I want to comment on just one other thing in Bordwell's piece. A couple of times he notes shots which don't do the 'obvious' thing (a long-shot of Tony slipping the key under the stair carpet, without a close-up; a medium-shot of Tony indicating where he'll slip the key under the said stair-carpet, again without a close-up). What Bordwell doesn't note - although he's of course right in saying that Hitchcock respects our intelligence - is that in both cases the view is from the general pov of a watching third party - Mark, Swann - and that this fact determines why there's no close-up. (Both times, the watching third party's head is just visible in the corner of the shot.) In the first case, Mark isn't even aware of what Tony is doing (but we are); in the second, Swann gets the general idea without any pedantic dwelling on which particular step is involved (and we'll find later that he wasn't necessarily going to follow Tony's exact directions anyway). Also, Hitchcock is saving up the close-up for later ... Bordwell's piece with its multiple frame-captures is very helpful in noting specific recurring shots that mark key points in Tony's murder plan (e.g., Margot's exiting the bedroom to go to where the murder is to take place beside the phone in the living-room): these shots help us feel oriented as the complex plan unfolds (and then starts to go wrong). Finally, I especially appreciated Bordwell's true remark that by staying essentially on one set, and then allowing his camera to roam within it, Hitchcock gives us a result that 'feels both theatrical and cinematic - a concentrated stage piece heightened by the tools of cinema'. Enjoy the article!



September 8 - 2012
Some thoughts this time on Hitchcock and animals - and birds. This week I had occasion to read an essay by Marian Scholtmeijer, "The Power of Otherness: Animals in Women's Fiction" (in Adams & Donovan, 'Animals and Women', 1995), which includes some observations on Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds". Scholtmeijer notes that Du Maurier's vision is 'much more apocalyptic than' the one in Hitchcock's film version. But there are resemblances, nonetheless. I was struck by this: '[Du Maurier] sides with the birds even to the extent of denying both humans and readers that most human of needs: explanation.' And Scholtmeijer adds: 'the denial of explanation imitates the animal's perspective under the assaults of humankind. Du Maurier puts humankind in the role of the victimized animal: helpless, disorganized, and completely confused.' It's a good point, I think - and when Hitchcock transposes the same situation into his film it becomes one more example of what I call his 'subjective technique'. That is, in his films, in all kinds of ways, Hitchcock seeks to make the audience actually think and feel as a character or characters onscreen. So if the characters in The Birds feel at times like caged birds, so, too, do the film's audience. Maybe I should have thought of this example when explaining to someone recently about how the McKittrick Hotel scene in Vertigo is another good instance of 'subjective technique': when 'Madeleine' inexplicably vanishes from her upstairs room, the audience is bewildered in precisely the same way as Scottie is bewildered. ('Subjective technique' can work in many different ways. For example, we may see things from a particular character's viewpoint in a broad sense: roughly the first half of Torn Curtain is shown from Sarah's point of view who wonders, like us, at Michael's behaviour and whether he has really decided to work for the Communists.) Mind you, it's doubtful if Hitchcock was particularly concerned with making us experience bird-like suffering, although the trailer for The Birds certainly reminds us of our culpability in avian suffering down the ages, and Hitchcock pretends to be quite put off his food - a chicken dinner - by the thought. True to what Keats called the 'poetic character', Hitchcock could be ambivalent in his sympathies - certainly towards animals - both in his films and in real life. On the one hand, he was a professed animal-lover, no doubt about that. Pat Hitchcock tells the story of how the whole Hitchcock family one night stayed home to watch Born Free (1966), and were all reduced to tears by the end. My files mention two instances, years apart, of Hitchcock at the studio seeing animals - a cat, and one of his own dogs - run over, and being hardly able to talk to his staff for days afterwards. There's also a story told by his assistant, Peggy Robertson, about how she selected a new film for him to watch in his private screening-room at the studio. As they were watching it together, Hitchcock, disturbed, said, 'That animal is going to be killed'. Peggy responded, 'Oh, I don't think so' - but Hitchcock proved to be right. Whereupon, he angrily left the screening-room, saying, 'I told you never to select a film for me with animal cruelty in it.' (Hitchcock sometimes quoted Scots poet Robert Burns: 'Man's inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn.' I'm sure he also had a soft-spot for Burns's famous poem "To a [Field] Mouse", which includes the lines, 'I'm truly sorry man's dominion/ Has broken Nature's social union, / An' justifies that ill opinion/ Which makes thee startle/ At me, thy poor earth-born companion, / An' fellow-mortal!') On the other hand, I can think of two instances where Hitchcock proved indifferent to the fate of animals. The publicity for The Paradine Case made a splash of how the large white rug in Mrs Paradine's bedroom at 'Hindley Hall' was composed of pelts from a rare animal - the arctic fox (I think it was). And (at least) once, when wild deer invaded the Hitchcocks' property at Santa Cruz and ate the grapes in the vineyard, Hitchcock issued orders that the deer be shot. So it may be fair to say that Hitchcock - like many of us, probably - could be contradictory in his attitudes, which as we've seen here recently was exactly what he often put into his films: opposites running together. He was an artist, not a saint. (The same goes for the philosopher Schopenhauer, in scores of ways the equivalent of Hitchcock - and who professed sentiments similar to those of Robert Burns, quoted above. Schopenhauer, a meat-eater, once said, defensively, 'It is no more necessary for a philosopher to be a saint than it is necessary for a saint to be a philosopher.' Hmm.)



September 1 - 2012
Hmm. Don't know if I can round off this discussion of Hitchcock and The Absurd (with particular reference to The Birds) in just one more post! But anyway I'll start with something I claimed last time. I cited the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica': 'The English novel contains a rich vein of the comic grotesque that extends at least back to Dickens and Thackeray and persisted in the 20th century in such varied novels as Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall (1928), Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954).' Fair enough, up to a point - such a 'comic grotesque' tradition is certainly present in Hitchcock. For example, the taxidermist's scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which becomes a wild melée - a 'life' and 'death' affray amidst the stuffed carcasses (see frame-capture below) - clearly owes something to the scenes in Dickens's 'Our Mutual Friend' (1865) featuring the taxidermy shop of Mr Venus. That shop is crammed with stuffed animals, preserved babies, and articulated (assembled) 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). And Mr Venus himself is a comic character, a Cockney, whom Hitchcock would have delighted in reading about. Listen to Mr Venus talk: 'If you was brought here loose in a bag, to be articulated, I'd name your smallest bones blindfold ... and I'd sort 'em all, and sort your vertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you.' But does the scene remind you of anything? Well, for one thing, we were speaking of cluttered shops, such as the Bodega Bay general store in The Birds, and one can see how its clutter is a metaphor for advancing time and encroaching old-age - mortality again. There are several such shops in Hitchcock. Think of Pop Liebel's crammed bookshop in Vertigo (where Scottie and Midge listen to stories about 'the small stuff of history' while darkness descends), of the Copenhagen bookshop in Torn Curtain (whose proprietor with a hearing-aid, Freddie, ticks off a young assistant, saying, 'Them religious books is in a 'ell of a shambles, Magda'), and of the stone mason's establishment in Family Plot (where the mason consults his extensive file index after telling his young assistant, a girl named Marsella, to turn down her transistor radio whose noise seems disrespectful to the dead). But those 20th-century English novels mentioned by the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' are notable not just for their broad grotesqueries but for their uproarious depictions of whole tranches of English society containing many hypocrisies and absurdities - something which Hitchcock's films, by the restricted nature of cinema, can't really match. So that's another reason why a film like The Birds is finally closer to the Theatre of the Absurd and to the relatively contained, pessimistic - and generalised - observations found in plays by, say, Ionesco. (I'm not saying that Hitchcock didn't relish the sorts of things he may have read in, for example, Angus Wilson's satiric 'Anglo-Saxon Attitudes'. His friend, the writer V.S. Pritchett, whom he consulted about the script of The Birds, reviewed Wilson's novel more than favourably, and may well have told Hitchcock about it. A description of the novel refers to its 'vivid cast of characters that includes scheming academics and fading actresses, big businessmen toggling between mistresses and wives, media celebrities, hustlers, transvestites, blackmailers, toadies, and even one holy fool' - the sort of colourful stuff Hitchcock reportedly loved hearing about! Oh, and another description of Wilson's novel calls it 'Dickens for the smart set', and Wilson himself, an academic and one of England's first openly gay novelists, also wrote the excellent book 'The World of Charles Dickens' (1970).) So where are we, apropos The Birds in particular? Well, I suggest that both Hitchcock and Ionesco were influenced by the pessimism of the philosopher Schopenhauer: Hitchcock would have acquired such an influence via his love of the Symbolist painters, and we know that Ionesco read both Schopenhauer and Plotinus (both philosophers were key influences on the Symbolist movement and its pessimism). In any case, I believe that both Ionesco and Hitchcock sought not to 'shirk the realities of the human mind with its ... fear and loneliness in an alien and hostile universe' (that's a description of Absurdist subject-matter by Martin Esslin, Introduction to Penguin Plays edition of 'Amédée', et al., p. 23). Sure, they both sought to practice their stagecraft or filmcraft, and to 'lighten up' the general pessimism with - precisely - comic and 'absurd' emphases. (For example, both saw how people readily succumb to regimentation. In Family Plot, parishioners watch with 'religious politeness' as their archbishop is kidnapped before their eyes, and fail to move until it's too late. Similarly, Hitchcock obviously relishes the polite drolleries in The Trouble With Harry - such as Miss Gravely's famous line as she greets a possible murderer, 'What seems to be the trouble, Captain?') But that's enough! Sufficient clues may be found above ...



August 25 - 2012
Two weeks ago I wrote here: 'If there is one Hitchcock film that I think is indebted to [the "Absurdist" plays of Eugene] Ionesco, it's The Birds (1963).' When you think about it, the only things that stop The Birds from being obviously Absurdist are its surface 'naturalism' (including the acting) and its 'portentous' tone (from the credits sequence onwards). Change those two things (say by introducing an 'amusing' and 'sardonic' score, and by asking the actors to play in a broadly comic style), and you already have the increasingly out-of-control situation which recalls various Ionesco plays. (I looked up this week Ionesco's 1953 'Victims of Duty' which immediately preceded his 'Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It', which we've been discussing. It, too, is about a petit bourgeois couple, Choubert and Madeleine, living a life in which 'nothing ever happens' - until the arrival one day of a detective who has a literally absurd obsession about the correct spelling of the name of the previous tenant of the couple's flat. To help the couple remember what he wants to know, the detective insists that Choubert eat stale bread. Other people are drawn into the matter and eventually the detective is stabbed to death, proclaiming, 'I am ... a Victim ... of Duty.' Whereupon, everyone echoes his words - 'We are all Victims of Duty' - and then order each other to chew and swallow stale bread!) But also this week I was in touch further with my correspondent DF (see last week's entry), and I thanked him again for his observations. I noted that Hitchcock had long been pre-disposed to a general idea of The Absurd by his appreciation of the fiction of G.K. Chesterton, such as the Chesterton story "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" in 'The Club of Queer Trades' (1905). (For much more about Chesterton's influence on Hitchcock - a topic to which I'll come back - see my long profile of Hitchcock here: Master of Paradox.) In turn, DF reminded me that 'Chesterton himself stands in a long [English] tradition' of the absurd and the grotesque, including works by Laurence Stern, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll. DF is right, of course. An article in 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' on comedy and The Absurd notes: 'The English novel contains a rich vein of the comic grotesque that extends at least back to Dickens and Thackeray and persisted in the 20th century in such varied novels as Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall (1928), Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954).' (Note that the last two roughly coincide in time with the onset of the actual Theatre of the Absurd. The same article points out: 'It is only in the mid-20th century that the savage and the irrational have come to be viewed as part of the normative condition of humanity ...') DK added that other pertinent influences on Hitchcock were probably 'a bit of music hall fun ... and let's not forget the absurdity of the best silent comedies, either'. Hear, hear! (Significantly, Buster Keaton was chosen by Samuel Beckett to appear in his 20-minute Film, made in 1965.) But I want to come back to Chesterton and Hitchcock. Last week, in this context of The Absurd, I suggested that Hitchcock's philosophy of 'pure film' and specifically of 'thrillers' was aimed at bringing audiences 'alive', at the core of their being. I had forgotten that Chesterton actually wrote a comedy-mystery novel called 'Manalive' (1912), which seems circumstantial evidence for the sort of Chestertonian influence I'm claiming. The novel's plot-line actually sounds a bit like Pasolini's film Theorem (1968) in which a moribund household is transformed after being visited by a Christ-like figure. Is it too hard to see how such a plot-line could be adapted by Hitchcock into both Shadow of a Doubt (where the Christ-like figure is actually a Devilish one) and The Birds (where the Christ-figure is the birds themselves - something that a writer in the UK journal 'Movie' once noted, 'a whole Christ population' of birds!)? In any case, here now are a couple of things I found out when visiting the website of the American Chesterton Society (Chesterton Society) recently. First, 'Manalive' has just been filmed. Second, a paper read to the 28th Chesterton Conference at Seattle University in 2009 by its author David Deavel was entitled "Chesterton and Alfred Hitchcock". Reportedly, after referring to the passage in 'The Club of Queer Trades' in which Chesterton writes, 'A man should feel he is still in the childhood of the world' (on this, cf. my own 2005 profile of Hitchcock, already cited) and noting that both Chesterton and Hitchcock wrote chase-stories, Deavel added that he thought that the nearest thing by Hitchcock to 'Manalive' was his 'little-seen' film The Trouble With Harry, and that there may have been an influence. However, if both artists 'explored the collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary' (as they attempted to 'find the flaw in the universe'), Deavel felt that they also diverged. 'In a film like The Birds, inconvenience turns to horror. "An inconvenience," Chesterton maintained, "is only an adventure wrongly understood, while an adventure is an inconvenience rightly understood." Perhaps needless to add, I don't agree with Deavel that there is necessarily a divergence of the two artists revealed here. I'll seek to conclude this discussion of Hitchcock and The Absurd next time.



August 18 - 2012
First, compare the frame-capture from The Birds above, showing the cluttered general-store in Bodega Bay, with the frame-capture below, from the start of the film, where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) arrives at Davidson's Pet Shop in San Francisco, which is much less cluttered - spacious in fact - and whose clientele appear to be typically well-to-do matrons, seeking animal companions. There are many such lonely matrons in Hitchcock, such as Mrs Van Hopper in Rebecca and Mrs Stevens in To Catch a Thief, not to mention the (seemingly) 'merry widows' in Shadow of a Doubt. 'Loneliness' or its prospect may be the most basic of all Hitchcock themes, and permeates many of his films - not least The Birds. Next, note the pet shop's 'gilded cages' which are likened by the film to the very ego (e.g., Melanie's) that the dynamic of the film effectively challenges before the end. (Even the proprietor of the general-store has his 'cage', where he performs his Post Office duties.) Now, schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) calls Bodega Bay 'our little hamlet ... a collection of shacks on a hillside', and Melanie is forthright when she initially says that she 'despises' it. But Melanie will learn to weep for humanity before the end, and to recognise that all creatures are bound in their shared creature-liness (what the philosopher Schopenhauer called Will). Marnie will have a similar theme, and Marnie in the novel will articulate her lesson, learned through suffering, that there is only one loneliness, 'the loneliness of all the world'. But we were talking last time about the Absurdity on display in certain Hitchcock films such as The Birds. Clearly that Absurdity relates to what I've just said about loneliness, etc. The sub-title of Ionesco's play 'Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It' (see last time) only ostensibly refers to the dead body in the Paris apartment, and has much more to do - mockingly and ironically - with the bourgeois mentality of Amédée and his wife that is being satirised. Likewise, the ever-increasing number of birds that turn on humans in The Birds are drawing attention to the perilousness of the human condition, its 'causes', and what is to be done to alleviate that condition. All this, in the form of a 'thriller' (but which Ionesco himself said was the form of all plays anyway - see last time). The detectably Absurd element is both sardonic (like Schopenhauer could be, when describing the way of the world) and helps make palatable the 'lesson' on display (which is otherwise shown realistically). And merely surrendering to clutter, or doing the opposite - shoring oneself up against it - will not solve the basic problem. (How often in Hitchcock a principal character's trajectory - say Scottie's in Vertigo - may be seen in retrospect to have been misguided and skewed from the outset.) I'm reminded of how the poet Keats advocated 'negative capability' (a wise passiveness) though he could also see the benefits (and not only to poets) of its opposite, the active pursuit of rational knowledge. So often, seemingly every avenue in human affairs has its opposite - equally valid or invalid - running nearby! One frequently advocated 'solution' is to abide by the Golden Mean. But maybe it needs to be more 'intuitive' than just the compromise between opposites that notion seems to imply. I like this description (in 'Encyclopaedia Britannica') of an aspect of Ionesco: 'There is something undeniably farcical in Ionesco's spectacles of human regimentation, of men and women at the mercy of things [e.g., 'Amédée', 'The Chairs' - see last time]; the comic quality here is one that Bergson would have appreciated.' But of course Bergson not only commented on the 'mechanical' basis of much comedy but showed, in a profound essay, influenced in all probability by such forerunners as Schopenhauer and Proust, how 'intuition' might yield a superior knowledge, if not freedom. I have often suggested that such a concept is reflected in Hitchcock's philosophy of 'pure film' and the 'therapeutic' effects of a good thriller (e.g., The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, The Birds) on audiences, who are 'brought alive' by exposure to it. I'll apply this idea to The Birds next time. Meanwhile my thanks to DF, a linguist, who this week emailed me about the idea of opposites-running-together in a film like The Trouble With Harry and how, I had suggested, 'you disregard one or the other at your peril'. 'By gum, you've hit the nail squarely on the head ... as far as Hitchcock is concerned ... this seems to me the most important aspect of the [Hitchcock film's] content ... one might say [that this describes] Hitchcock's semantic level'.



August 11 - 2012
A couple of things spur me to discuss the Absurd in Hitchcock. First, Peter Bradshaw in 'The Guardian' recently suggested that 'the nearest comparison to Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry is probably with Eugene Ionesco's play "Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It" (written in 1954, the same year) about a playwright and switchboard operator who have to deal with a dead body in their apartment that is continually growing'. Second, Michael Gould in the revised version of his 'Surrealism and the Cinema' (see last week) suggests that in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) 'a procession of mishaps culminates in a scene of Ionesco-like absurdity, with Thornhill standing at the edge of a highway by a cornfield ... being targeted by a low-flying crop-dusting plane' (p. 124). (For my part, I have previously compared the crop-dusting scene - especially the humorous moment when Thornhill and a taciturn farmer confront each other - with Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot', and cited Hitchcock's own remark at the time, 'The fact is, I practise absurdity quite religiously'.) There can be little doubt that the Theatre of the Absurd would have appealed to (an aspect of) Hitchcock's sensibility. Authority on The Absurd, Martin Esslin, notes that one of its playwrights, Jean Genet (no less), 'regards his plays as attempts at re-capturing the ritual element in the Mass itself' (Introduction to Penguin Plays edition of 'Amédée', et al., p. 16) - though I shan't go into the ramifications of that just now. Here I want to talk mainly about the plays of Ionesco in relation to the films of Hitchcock, bearing in mind something that Ionesco once wrote: 'All the plays that have ever been written, from ancient Greece to the present day, have never been anything but thrillers ...' ('Victims of Duty', 1953). All plays involve some sort of investigation, suggests Ionesco, which surely goes for Hitchcock's films too. I also note that both Beckett and Ionesco read the philosopher Schopenhauer, an influence on the Symbolist and later art movements (and thus on Hitchcock). Even more, Ionesco was influenced by another pessimistic thinker, Plotinus, whom the Symbolists often turned to. And at one point, still in pessimistic vein, Ionesco wrote his own version of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' ('Macbeth', 1972), because he felt an affinity with its lines about how the world is 'full of sound and fury ... signifying nothing'. Perhaps there's a hint of such a position in Sam Marlowe's remark in The Trouble With Harry, about his disdain for 'city people - people with hats on' (and even more, of course, in Psycho where poor Norman Bates can only conclude, 'We're all in our private traps ... and never budge an inch'). I do appreciate Peter Bradshaw's comparing Harry to 'Amédée' but now that I have read the latter, I think that the comparison only works up to a point. After all, Harry is at one level the 'nice little pastorale' that Hitchcock called it (with echoes of the deceptively sunlit Young and Innocent, made nearly two decades earlier, even though the Second World War was fast approaching) - which shouldn't stop us remembering the lesson we learned here just two weeks ago (see July 28, above), how 'it is possible and proper for a poet to mean two differing or even opposing things at the same time'. That is, yes, there are 'absurd' things in Harry but, equally, the film works well as a simple pastoral (with indebtedness to classic models). On the other hand, perhaps the best way of saying what I mean is that you have to appreciate both forms as you watch Harry - disregarding one or the other at your peril. (On our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group this week I suggested that, even today, 'The majority of critics/scholars still don't seem able to read Hitchcock in terms of deliberate paradox ... opposites yoked non-judgementally together, and the like!') Hmm. If there is one Hitchcock film that I think is indebted to Ionesco, it's The Birds (1963). The body in 'Amédée' grows and grows, eventually forcing the couple out of their apartment. (You may also think of the multiplying pachyderms in Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros' and the proliferating chairs in 'The Chairs'!) In the same way, the bird attacks in The Birds start out with just one single gull attack on Melanie, and gradually become more massive and threatening. Also, as a commentator on Ionesco (in 'Encyclopaedia Britannica') once noted: '[Ionesco's] plays build on bizarrely illogical or fantastic situations using such devices as the humorous multiplication of objects on stage until they overwhelm the actors.' The moment early in The Birds when Melanie arrives in Bodega Bay and consults the proprietor of a cluttered general store (see frame-capture below) hints at the greater Absurdity to follow, undoubtedly! Explanations next time.



August 4 - 2012
I trust that my regular readers have by now examined - and very possibly bought - the revised edition of Michael Gould's 'Surrealism and the Cinema' (1976; 2011), which was mentioned here on April 14 and is available for download: Open eyed Screening. Gould has a sound appreciation of painting in general and the work of the Surrealists (inspired by Dadaist and Symbolist principles) in particular. I like how he notes that paintings by Edward Hopper and Grant Wood are related to such Hitchcock films as Psycho and The Birds. (See the illustrations of Wood's 'American Gothic' and 'Young Corn' below.) But as this week has seen Hitchcock's Vertigo voted by international critics the greatest film ever made (Greatest film of all time), I want to talk about that film and in particular the scene in the redwood forest where 'Madeleine' (Kim Novak) points to the rings in a cross-section of a felled tree. 'Here I was born and here I died [she says]. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.' Gould's description of the forest scene is not quite accurate, for he only approximates what Madeleine says. He claims she says, 'That is where I came from', which removes most of the line's nuance. However, he continues: 'Intriguingly, as [Madeleine] pinpoints a moment in time she is, by omission, raising the issue of death.' This is in keeping with Gould's suggestion earlier that Vertigo is metaphorically about 'the simultaneous fear of and attraction to death', and that Judy/Madeleine's 'fear of returning to the church [is] ... a fear of being totally subsumed by her Madeleine persona' (rather than simply a fear of being revealed as an accomplice in a crime). What struck me about that formulation in relation to the forest scene is how Gould's avoiding of an important nuance typifies how critics in general (I've noticed) appear to avoid facing the 'meaning' of what Madeleine says there - which is very like Judy's own avoidance of her fear of 'being totally subsumed'. For consider this. If you care (dare?) to ask yourself whom Judy/Madeleine is addressing in the forest when she says 'It was only a moment for you', there is only one possible ultimate answer - distasteful as it may be to a lot of critics (apparently)! As I wrote long ago: Madeleine/Judy is here apostrophising God himself (and the total submission to something/someone greater than oneself such a notion implies)! But if you can't stand to acknowledge those implications (and the strong Catholic iconography on show in Vertigo, although not without ambiguity - as I have also often noted), then you may simply not take in the daringness of the scene. (Ironically, Gould emphasises in his book the audacity of Surrealist modes and methods.) I'll try to be clear. Judy/Madeleine is not principally addressing Scottie (James Stewart) who is standing alongside her, or an ancestor, the husband of Carlotta, in her past, or even the felled tree itself - though the latter is the most likely, and plausible, candidate for her address apart from 'God', as Hitchcock would have been well aware. In a film filled with a score of references to paintings, films, and works of theatre and literature (see "The Fragments of the Mirror" on this site), it's very likely that Hitchcock had in mind apropos the redwood forest scene the lyrics of the recent hit Broadway musical, 'Paint Your Wagon' (1951-52), in which a character sings, 'I talk to the trees/ But they don't listen to me.' That would have been perfectly in keeping with his method of ambiguous reference which he had long used in his many-levelled films, as something that would help make those films acceptable to diverse audiences and points of view. (Similarly, he knew that he had to literally spell out at the start of the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much the word 'cymbals', lest some audiences wouldn't know what was being referenced and might later get confused by the homophone with 'symbols' and be distracted or put off.) Of course, Vertigo also works (like the voyeuristic Rear Window) as an analogue of cinema itself (cinema-making, cinema-viewing), a situation in which the director and the spectator both up to a point are placed in a God-like position. That explains part of the force of the climactic line in Hitchcock's Rope where Rupert (James Stewart) finally rounds on his two protégés and asks, 'Did you think you were God?' But Hitchcock knew that neither he nor anyone else was God. Vertigo is both a humbling film and yet boldly (audaciously) is about the possibility of a 'transcendent' (superior) view of how things are. In that, too, as Gould can remind us (see his Introduction), Vertigo has a surreal tendency.



July 28 - 2012
In the frame-capture above (entry for July 21), from Rebecca's superb boathouse scene, note that Maxim is smoking a cigarette. It goes with the territory. A close-up will show us an ashtray full of cigarette stubs at the exact moment Maxim refers to the sordid goings-on that occurred when Rebecca and Favell used to come to the boathouse. But we know that Maxim has avoided the boathouse since Rebecca's death - so in all likelihood those stubs are the actual ones left by Rebecca and Favell. They help evoke the sordid reality of that time. (The fact that Maxim has come to the boathouse now, on the night that Rebecca's boat has been found, indicates he knows that he must finally face what happened when Rebecca died.) As the camera pans around the boathouse, it also takes in an empty birdcage, signifying happier times (cf a similar shot in Sabotage), and other, cobweb-covered objects, confirming that the boathouse has been largely unvisited since Rebecca's death. (The ashtray filled with cigarette stubs is also a subtle echo of Mrs Van Hopper's unpleasant way of disposing of a spent cigarette - grinding it out in a jar of cold-cream! As already noted, Rebecca has a complex but meaningful tapestry, down to even the smallest details.) Maxim is never more sympathetic than in the boathouse scene, it seems to me. But we were looking at Robin Wood's 2001 article on Rebecca (The Two Mrs. de Winters). There, Wood suggests that we feel antagonism towards Maxim - but I don't see it. Wood and the feminist author 'Bidisha' both construct anti-patriarchal arguments about Rebecca that may be largely in their own minds. Certainly, in Daphne du Maurier's novel, Maxim is a murderer, having been maliciously goaded by Rebecca after she has learned that she is already dying (of cancer). For censorship reasons, the film had to change that, and Rebecca now has died after falling and hitting her head on a piece of ship's tackle. So Rebecca's death, the film tells us, was 'an accident'. Wood suggests (fifth paragraph of his article) that this 'creates a serious problem for the viewer' - but again I'm not so sure. In watching the film again lately - and guided by what our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group seemed to think - I was impressed by how well the screenplay, and Hitchcock's direction, work to keep us both sympathetic to Maxim and convinced that he is telling the truth. (Wood himself allows that the film does not support an hypothesis that Maxim is lying - although note that the film has dwelt more than once on Maxim's 'temper', as Favell refers to it.) I told our group: 'I don't see a problem here. At first thought, we might suppose that good, upright Maxim [he of the noblesse oblige mentioned on July 14, above] would not have panicked, as he says he did [and that therefore this is a weakness of the screenplay]. But the screenplay has carefully established how Rebecca's licentious behaviour with Favell - and the fraudulence of the marriage itself - have long been eating away at Maxim. [On this, see also last week's entry.] So when Rebecca in the boathouse taunts Maxim ... he would have been less than human not to entertain murderous thoughts at that moment. This is roughly the equivalent [I went on] of the Oedipal flashback in Spellbound (1945). There, Ballyntine has not actually been responsible for his brother's death on a sharp spike, but he may well - such is the nature of sibling rivalry during the Oedipal phase at about age 4 or 5 (when Freud said that thoughts of rivalry are very fierce) - have assumed guilt for what had happened. ... In short, Maxim at the time of Rebecca's death "went mad" for a bit [cf July 7, above], and may understandably have felt himself to be her actual murderer. Hence [I concluded] his panicked behaviour immediately afterwards. I don't have a problem with this, in terms of the film's narrative.' Right, that's about it. And yet, having written all of the above on the film's 'obvious' nature, I can't forget that I, too, have often argued (like Wood and 'Bidisha') that the 'real' narrative of Rebecca, inherited from Du Maurier's novel (and deepest intentions), is secretly sympathetic to Rebecca! It wouldn't be the only time, I told our group, that a Hitchcock film can imply two opposing meanings at once! Interestingly, in writing about the world of espionage ('The New Yorker', May 10, 2010), Malcolm Gladwell had occasion to cite the famous New Criticism (circa 1920-1950) which, someone observed, was propelled not just by the idea of 'close reading' but by 'the discovery that it is possible and proper for a poet to mean two differing or even opposing things at the same time'. QED?



July 21 - 2012
Before returning to Rebecca, here's an insight into Hitchcock that you probably haven't seen before. (It comes from the journal kept by esteemed English novelist Arnold Bennett, an excerpt from which, dated 1929, is included as an Appendix to the just-published scenario-plus-'novel' by Bennett of 'Punch and Judy' which Hitchcock was asked to film - but turned down. My thanks to editor John Shapcott for alerting me to this new publication, which I'll probably review here soon.) A director, clearly Hitchcock, told Bennett: 'I can never begin work until about eleven-thirty in the morning. I have a glass of sherry then, and that starts the flow of ideas. You must have the flow. The film must move rapidly, and so your ideas must come rapidly.' (p. 218) As serendipity would have it, I have just argued in an article on "Hitchcock's Ingenious Adaptations" that it was precisely Hitchcock's imagination, working flat-out, that accounts for the 'holistic' or 'objective' view of life in his films and the accompanying 'sympathy' for the people in those films. Watching them, we actually sense the flow of 'life' itself - to which all of us are subject - analogous to the 'flow of ideas' which Hitchcock described to Bennett. Such a 'Bergsonian' insight informs many turning-points in Hitchcock's films, including Rebecca. Let's come back to that film. Last week I ended by referring readers to Robin Wood's short article on it (The Two Mrs de Winters). I suggested that the article has an element of 'special pleading' that is both its strength and its weakness. Here's a relevant passage. In the second paragraph, in arguing that patriarchal males fear powerful women, Wood claims that someone like Maxim cannot tolerate 'the sense that another male might be "better" [in a woman's eyes] than he was'. But this is wrong-headed of Wood, surely, and ultimately ignores the universal sympathy which I'm saying is the bedrock of the films. Maxim (Laurence Olivier) is not fearful that he will be shown up by Favell (George Sanders), whom the film characterises as an upstart opportunist (although the characterisation itself is superb, and I love Favell's aggrieved riposte to Maxim and his cronies such as Colonel Julyan that they're like a little trades union). The film is specific that what hurts Maxim is that Rebecca will have a child who is not his, who may therefore grow up in front of him and effectively taunt him, day after day, with the prospect of eventually inheriting Manderley which has been in Maxim's family for generations. Simultaneously, the marriage itself will continue a sham, 'a rotten fraud' (as Maxim calls it) - and we can well understand that all of this is enough to slowly drive Maxim mad. (However, Wood, a Gay Liberationist, is playing sexual politics in his article - like feminist author 'Bidisha' in her 'Sunday Observer' piece recently: see June 23, above - and makes Rebecca sound like a single-minded attack on patriarchy, which is to seriously under-appreciate the richness of this complex, humane film.) Incidentally, speaking of Hitchcock's relative objectivity, today I heard critic Richard Schickel use the term 'moral objectivity' to describe Hitchcock (this was on the Commentary for a DVD release of Rebecca); it was apropos Hitchcock's well-known comment to Schickel that a painter like Cezanne didn't care to ask whether the apples he painted were sweet or sour, and how Hitchcock felt the same about the 'content' of his films, provided those films succeeded as 'pure cinema' (which I argue is analogous to the aforementioned flow of 'life' - where 'life' is understood holistically). Now back to Wood's article. I do think that he distorts matters at times. For example, when he writes (third paragraph) of '[t]he antagonism toward Maxim we feel today (in the aftermath of the Women’s Movement)', I start to wonder what happened to Wood's acuity and broad compassion (sympathy). At no point in watching the film do I feel antagonism towards Maxim. Early in the film, we are told that Maxim has lost his paragon of a first wife, drowned at sea. And when, in the boathouse scene (frame-capture below), there's a total reversal (peripeteia) of our understanding about what had happened that day, the effect is surely only to renew and endorse our sympathy towards Maxim, especially as 'I' (Joan Fontaine) now throws her whole being - suddenly grown up - into trying to advise and help him. Granted, there have been a couple of moments when Maxim has shown himself unaware of what 'I' is up against ('Can't Mrs Danvers help you?') and other moments when his moodiness has been very apparent. But these - it seems to me - only give our essential sympathy towards Maxim something to grip on, they dramatise his distraction and vulnerability. I'll conclude my argument next time.



July 14 - 2012
The last part of last week's entry (now revised) was written separately from the rest, late in the evening. It didn't make a lot of sense - my apologies! But the idea expressed there, of civilisation (or its structures) threatened by subversive individuals or even a blind natural force (cf. The Birds, adapted by Hitchcock from a short story by Daphne du Maurier) can lead straight to what I want to note this time about Hitchcock's Rebecca (adapted from a Du Maurier novel). Recall that intriguing stone object we see outside the lodge when Maxim and his new bride drive through the gates of Manderley after their honeymoon (frame-capture, June 30, above). It represents, of course, what Maxim's aristocratic family, who have inhabited Manderley for generations, stands for. That is, noblesse oblige ('nobility obliges'). A triangular, shield-like shape rests on round balls, with an even larger 'ball' balanced on the apex of the triangle (the entire structure in turn mounted on a columned pedestal). The large ball is like the burden of office, the weight or obligation that aristocracy should respect and uphold, including towards those who serve under it. The small balls can be interpreted as standing for those 'lesser' individuals and their institutions while clearly there is a suggestion that the whole edifice is a 'precarious' one, dependent on both a top-down and a bottom-up 'co-operation'. Now, by one reading of Rebecca - and that the most obvious - Maxim de Winter is a tragic hero, if a distracted one. True, after his first wife's death, he had thought of never going back to Manderley, and only his whirlwind courtship and marriage to 'I' changes his mind. But he does return and he does appear to do his best to both uphold his family obligations and to make a success of his second marriage despite the shadow cast over it by the influence of the baleful Rebecca (whom everyone else except Maxim believes to have been a paragon - foreshadowing an aspect of Shadow of a Doubt, where serial murderer Uncle Charlie is revered by the unsuspecting people of Santa Rosa). True, too, the effective functioning of Manderley and all it stands for - English civilisation itself? - has now been overturned. You could draw parallels with 'Hamlet' ('the time is out of joint') and Arthurian legend (with its 'dolorous stroke' and Waste Land). The fact that Manderley is effectively dominated by Rebecca's acolyte, Mrs Danvers, is symptomatic. Everything in this patriarchal 'world' is proceeding upside-down, whatever surface appearances may suggest. Maxim himself, as I say, is distracted, and merely going through the motions of running things. Another literary work that certainly may have been in the mind of Du Maurier when she was writing her novel is the celebrated poem, 'The Second Coming' (1919), penned by W.B. Yeats after the First World War. It begins with an image drawn from falconry (which would have appealed to Du Maurier), then continues: 'The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.' There are plenty of Rebecca foreshadowings there (not least the reference to drowning), and I have shown previously how truly 'literate' in her borrowings Du Maurier could be (including borrowings from Charlotte Brontë, Arthur Machen, and E. Phillips Oppenheim). What I have called the 'most obvious' reading of Rebecca is just that - obvious - with Maxim being essentially a good man wounded and eventually brought low because of his marriage to his first wife who appears to have lacked all appreciation of the 'social contract' on which noblesse oblige (precariously) rests. ('I always knew Rebecca would win in the end', Maxim laments.) Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Daphne du Maurier could be heterodox in her thinking. As I wrote in 1999: 'Rebecca herself may be "a foe to society", but the novel captures well the sort of subversive questioning that was quite commonplace in England between the wars, at least in the circles in which Daphne du Maurier moved.' My thanks to NP who this week drew our Hitchcock group's attention to a 2001 article by Robin Wood (online at The Two Mrs de Winters) in which Wood notes, 'it's possible to sees Rebecca as the film's real heroine'. The article does have an element of 'special pleading' which is both its strength and its weakness; I'll say more about that next time.



July 7 - 2012
I begin to wonder if, seen aright, Rebecca isn't Hitchcock's finest film, so satisfying is it at many levels of achievement and insight. I have always rated it above Psycho, for instance. (Other viewers than me, probably younger ones, who rate a film mainly by its 'thesis' or its capacity to thrill or its closeness to perceived modern attitudes, including sheer iconoclasm, are free to differ, obviously.) I began last week to note and discuss some of the purely formal qualities of Rebecca. To me, these qualities are perfectly valid as givers of aesthetic satisfaction, bearing in mind that a definition by Hitchcock of 'pure film' is: 'like how notes of music make a melody'. If you can see the 'pure film' behind the individual components (the 'notes' and even individual melodies), everything else is, in a sense, secondary. Nonetheless, it strikes me that many of the formal elements in Rebecca contribute in a meaningful way to the film's general depiction of the world. They are stylised, but they aren't wholly abstract. I briefly discussed last week the stylised use of shadow-effects to give 'tone' to this very Selznick film. Another instance is the slanted bars seen shadowed on a staircase wall behind Maxim, Frank, and Colonel Julyan after the three men have attended the mortuary where Maxim identified Rebecca's body. Besides fitting the 'stylised shadows' motif generally - and thereby 'reinforcing' that motif - the image carries a vaguely 'forensic' suggestiveness (and the men's ascent of the staircase tells us that the mortuary itself is located in a basement, which is also suggestive). In turn, the bars are of course redolent of prison bars, reminding us of the possible fate awaiting Maxim after the forthcoming inquest. Now, speaking of that inquest, consider again what I described last week as 'the amorphous shadows above the row of caps on the wall behind Ben' (seen being asked for his evidence). I was wrong to write: 'There is no way of knowing what exactly the shadows represent' - they are in fact the shadows of the caps themselves, lit improbably from below (see frame-capture two weeks ago). If the effect is supposed to represent firelight, it is extremely stylised, for there is not the slightest sway or flicker. As noted last week, many of these stylised effects in Rebecca 'are designed to work "subliminally", and not to be questioned'. (And in fact a different viewpoint a moment later shows that the shadows of the caps have gone!) So why have the effect here at all? One answer: just to fill or soften an otherwise large area of wall behind Ben, while keeping up the 'stylised shadows' motif. But there's also another possible answer: the film has many shots where light suddenly comes from below, and thus this shot fits such a 'bottom-lit' motif too. In the frame-capture below, from near the end of the film, we see a mad Mrs Danvers carrying a candle through the darkened rooms of Manderley (which she is about to burn down). Also, earlier, we had suddenly seen an enraged Maxim lit from below - the light ostensibly coming from a film projector on which he is running movies of his recent honeymoon - and again there's a connotation of madness (as also with Ben). 'Anger is short madness', as the saying goes. Maxim will explain his possible madness by attributing it to 'living with the Devil' (i.e., Rebecca). So these shots all contribute to a certain pattern. In turn, there are innumerable shots (including the stylised ones of leaf-shadows on walls) reminding us of the elements of water, fire, wind, and of Nature generally, which is very much in keeping with what Hitchcock took over from Daphne du Maurier's novel. In the film's opening narration, adapted from the novel, we hear the words: 'The drive wound away in front of me ... [But] Nature had come into her own again, and, little by little, had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.' Round about here, and elsewhere in the novel, there's a sense of an inimical force threatening civilised society. In the case of Rebecca, whom I have described elsewhere as 'a sort of female Ubermensch', she is identified by film and novel with the very sea itself (which she, an expert yachtsperson, had sought to 'master'). Rebecca looks forward to Rope (with its two would-be 'Supermen'), not to say The Birds (which Hitchcock said shows 'how catastrophe surrounds us all'). My point this week, though, has been mainly how the very texture of Rebecca acts like a subliminal reminder that every moment is part of an unfolding pattern, and fraught with difficulties and dangers. To be continued.



June 30 - 2012
Revisiting Rebecca on DVD this week, it was impossible not to be impressed by the enormous craft of the filmmmakers. Of course, Rebecca is a Selznick film, and clearly Hitchcock learned a great deal from working with the memo-monarch on this, Hitchcock's first American film. It's to his credit that he didn't falter when Selznick chastised him for an unsuitable early draft of the screenplay, involving seasickness. The eventual film still has plenty of light and shade (quite literally), and Hitchcock 'touches', but they are raised to a new level of viewer-satisfaction because the filmmakers have respected certain constraints, both formal and to do with matters of characterisation. In no particular order, here are some observations. In terms of cinematography and design, the film is fascinating for its new professionalism, associated with the studio that had just made Gone With the Wind. Cinematography was by George Barnes, sets by Lyle Wheeler. When Maxim and 'I' arrive at Manderley after their honeymoon, they drive through an arched gateway which is part of the lodge-keeper's house (see frame-capture below). Both the architecture and the dappled light are suitably 'English' (Manderley, of course, is Maxim's ancestral home in Cornwall), and Selznick would have been well aware of such matters after producing Little Lord Fauntleroy (d. John Cromwell) four years earlier. But notice also that intriguing object in the background which looks like something that belongs more in a Peter Greenaway film than in one by Hitchcock! I have never found out just what it signifies - I even asked an author-friend in Cornwall about it once - but what I noticed this time around is how the object certainly isn't there randomly. When Maxim and 'I' arrive at the main house, there's a similar design - but larger - beside the steps leading up to the front door. And later, inside the house, the design is there too, incorporated this time into the pillars of Manderley's staircase. Another, related matter of cinematography and design I noticed this time is the film's almost 'subliminal' use of shadow-effects, again no doubt to give 'tone'. In the frame-capture from last week, notice the amorphous shadows above the row of caps on the wall behind Ben. There is no way of knowing what exactly the shadows represent - which is almost certainly intended. They are merely 'suggestive' (of people looking on, perhaps). Elsewhere in the film, similar effects are used. Sometimes they imply leaves on trees, though they aren't moving. (As I say, they are designed to work 'subliminally', and not to be questioned.) At other times, they are just 'interesting', perhaps filling a space or balancing a composition. Selznick seems to have loved such tapestry-filling (as Hitchcock himself would later call it), even when it became almost rococo in its elaborate use. In the brief scene where Maxim and 'I' are seen in a street outside a marriage bureau in France, do we really need the rows of pigeons near the doorway (both at ground-level and on the doorway's awning)? Answer: probably not, but they constitute a 'realistic' touch and give a further note of 'class' - and Hitchcock himself would later use the same 'effect' in Rear Window. Hitchcock's unique sense of what will entertain a viewer gets plenty of exercise in Rebecca, despite Selznick's wise insistence on fidelity to both the letter and spirit of Daphne du Maurier's novel. For example, Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) is well characterised - she isn't just a gargoyle - and her grotesque loneliness is, after all, a pertinent variant on the loneliness of 'I' herself (an orphan) and that of her husband-to-be, Maxim (whose first wife had reportedly drowned). Well, on the DVD of Rebecca that I watched this week, actor Bruce Dern (Marnie, Family Plot) remembers Hitchcock telling him that Joan Fontaine (who plays 'I') and her sister Olivia de Havilland bitterly disliked each other. According to Dern, Hitchcock would have liked to have cast De Havilland as an extra in Rebecca, without telling her sister, and then to have brought them together unexpectedly while the cameras were rolling. Such 'mischief-making' on Hitchcock's part was part of his filmmaking mentality! It works perfectly for him in the scene where Mrs Van Hopper suddenly learns who Maxim intends to marry - namely, 'I'. Here the camera tracks into Mrs Van Hopper's face and the effect is almost as memorable as the first seagull attack in The Birds! Moreover, Maxim must suddenly hurry away. Immediately, Mrs Van Hopper shows another side of her personality, that of the injured viper. She tells 'I' what she thinks of her ('Mrs De Winter, indeed!'), then departs with as much dignity as she can summon up. Yet because the characterisation is convincing - and human - you almost feel sorry for her. As I say, I think Hitchcock learned a great deal from his time with Selznick, and especially when they were making Rebecca. To be continued.



June 23 - 2012
Speaking of 'objectivity' ... here begin some thoughts on Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). My thanks to AK for referring me to a brief article on it by 'Bidisha' in the 'Sunday Observer' last week (My favourite Hitchcock film) and also - once again - to our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group for trying to keep me honest about how the film actually works. I'll be criticising Bidisha's article, even though it describes Rebecca as 'a riveting satire about the toxicity of the gentility', which is pretty much how I initially presented the film to the group. But they persuaded me that, first and foremost, Rebecca works as a straightforward tale, with Gothic trappings, of the love of 'I' (Joan Fontaine) for Maxim (Laurence Olivier), and so it does (work) - palpably and affectingly! No doubt about it. I just re-read Robert Sherwood's magisterial screenplay, and it is full of insight (such as when it describes 'I' as adopting a position of 'armed neutrality' against the designs of the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers). Bidisha starts out badly by describing 'I' with would-be humour as 'a twitchy waste of space'. Such phrasing is a distaff equivalent of alleged male arrogance, which is what Bidisha does allege against Maxim and his cronies (e.g., Colonel Julyan, played by C. Aubrey Smith) even though, in both the writing and in the performances, those persons come across as admirable. Actually, too, 'I', for all her initial timidity in the presence of the formidable Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates), is clearly both sensitive and intelligent. At the start of the film, when she calls out to Maxim, 'Stop!', as he appears bent on suicide, her intervention is both quick-thinking and courageous - and roughly the narrative equivalent of Scottie's intervention to save the life of 'Madeleine' in Vertigo. ('Once you've saved a person's life, you're responsible for it forever', we hear him say.) Sure, it is very easy to interpret Rebecca in the light of author Daphne du Maurier's admission that she felt a perverse affinity with Rebecca (whom Maxim reviles as 'incapable of love, or tenderness, or decency'). But you have to remember that Du Maurier, of the famous family, was herself an aristocrat and saw well the strengths and virtues of the gentility into which she was born. That is the other side of this alleged 'rivetting satire'. In short, Du Maurier is far more objective than Bidisha. Yes, Du Maurier sensed that patriarchy had become rigid, and needlessly puritannical, and she drew on some literary prototypes to portray Rebecca from a 'threatened' patriarchal point of view: one such 'prototype' for Rebecca is the woman Helen Vaughan in Arthur Machen's horror story "The Great God Pan" (1890/1894). There, Helen's husband recalls how, on the very night of their wedding, the beautiful Helen sat up in bed and 'spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in blackest night ...' - a line that Du Maurier gives, little changed, to Maxim to describe Rebecca. (Curiously, Machen's 1917 "The Terror" may well have influenced Du Maurier's 1952 short story "The Birds", filmed by Hitchcock.) Before I describe Rebecca in some detail (next time), here's something that came up in discussion this week. The character 'Barmy' Ben, who frequents a boathouse on the Manderley grounds, appears at the inquest when Rebecca's body is discovered. But he doesn't reveal much, insisting, 'I didn't see nothing. I don't want to go to the asylum! Them're cruel folks there.' (See frame-capture below.) His words of course anticipate imagery from Psycho ('the cruel eyes studying you'). It emerges that Rebecca had used the boathouse for trysts with her lovers, such as Favell, and one night had caught Ben peering through the window, when she had threatened him with the asylum. But at least benign patriarchy like Maxim's manages to accommodate unfortunates such as Ben - whereas Rebecca threatens him with being locked up - and that now seems to me one more indication that Rebecca isn't the sort of 'toxic' satire that Bidisha sees it as being ...



June 16 - 2012
My thanks to JG who on our 'advanced' discussion group this week suggested how apparent contradictions in Hitchcock's films are evidence of their director's objectivity and of Hitchcock's 'dualistic approach to character and story, his ability to explore and blend numerous viewpoints'. JG added: 'Once you get past the technical & creative mastery of the man, I think this more than any other single element is the reason people are still pulling apart this body of work after all this time.' Yes! Now, in describing John Patrick Shanley's film Doubt (2008) here last week, I was seeking to move the focus to what Hitchcock's objectivity may owe to his Catholic sensibility. At every turn of Shanley's story, we are subtly shown evidence for and against the viewpoints of the characters; equally, we are inculcated with the idea that 'doubt' can be healthy, forming a bond of right-minded people who know that certainty is elusive. (Not coincidentally, a central scene of the film is a denunciation of 'gossip' - admittedly preached by Father Flynn who stands to lose his reputation if certain gossip starts up, or maybe he is thinking of the boy Donald.) Arguably, this is a more sophisticated version of the paradigm of Hitchcock's Suspicion, where we can never be certain that Johnnie's crimes aren't mainly in Lina's head. Yes, Johnnie admits to being insensitive and to having a gambling weakness, even to a little embezzlement along the way, but he surely isn't a murderer, is he? And he does love Lina, doesn't he? Part of us is relieved when she finally accepts his explanations and they return home. On the other hand, Hitchcock 'playfully' leaves an ambiguity: who, if not Johnnie, did give Beaky the brandy that killed him, and in any case what if Beaky were absolutely right when he once said, 'Johnnie can lie his way out of any situation'? The ending of Suspicion is ambiguous, and it thus points the way to the aptly-named Shadow of a Doubt of two years later. (Note, however, that at a surreal level, Suspicion isn't about crime at all but rather about marriage and the strains that a marriage must endure.) As for the latter, here's something I find interesting. Hitchcock finally does make a 'joke' of the local Santa Rosa pastor and his laudatory sermon about the late Uncle Charlie: 'The beauty of [such people and] their souls lives on for ever', we hear the pastor say. Little does he know that Uncle Charlie was a serial killer! On the other hand - and maybe only a Catholic would have handled the matter like this - the film never actually condemns Uncle Charlie. It even hints that he was mentally unbalanced after his bicycle accident at age ten (based on a real-life killer, Earle Nelson). And the mysterious 'flashbacks' that show waltzing couples, and are associated with Uncle Charlie's psychopathology, are just that: mysterious, hypnotic, ultimately inexplicable (whatever Freudian significance may attach to them). They represent a 'lost paradise' of nostalgia and unregainable happiness. And we, the audience, have experienced them with Uncle Charlie during the film - just as, later, watching Psycho, we will identify with Norman's 'problems' without knowing that he, too, is a serial killer. Shanley's Doubt is rather more cerebral - it ends with a brief scene (see frame-capture below) in which Sister Aloysius finally acknowledges that she has doubts of her own (whereas she had concealed them previously); thus there's a sense in which all is not lost, despite Father Flynn's expulsion to go elsewhere. But now here's a final thought for this week. Doubt is never finally explicit about anything, in keeping with its title. It does have 'issues' at the centre, such as whether Father Flynn may be a paedophile. But nothing about those issues is resolved. What occurs to me is that Hitchcock would never have made a film about such 'controversial' matters (Doubt even 'defends' paedophilia up to a point - see last week). In Hitchcock's films, murder is always incontrovertibly wrong. Sure, Bruno in Strangers on a Train is allowed to ask, 'What's a life or two, Guy?', but individual murders in Hitchcock always remain morally wrong. In Hitchcock, life is essentially good, death is essentially bad, and grey areas aren't considered. No one in Hitchcock is ever suffering from painful cancer, for example. (Well, Rebecca had cancer but that's not relevant here.) Death must figure as the ultimate touchstone to condemn anyone who inflicts it on others. Hitchcock, looking around, said that he agreed with Robert Burns, 'Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.' Shanley's Doubt just reaches a similar conclusion from a slightly different direction, I think.



June 9 - 2012
Quite a few scholars think that Shakespeare was a Catholic, which is interesting in the context of the topic of 'objectivity' (primarily Hitchcock's) I've been discussing here. The poet Keats didn't refer to Shakespeare's possible Catholicism, but he did use Shakespeare as his supreme example of 'negative capability', by which Keats meant the capacity to enter imaginatively into the very being of a fellow-creature. Showing his own objectivity, Keats contrasted Shakespeare with some other outstanding poets, such as Milton and Wordsworth, whom he said exemplified 'the egotistical sublime', the opposite of 'negative capability'. Arguably, then, Shakespeare was and remains the most objective English poet and dramatist, precisely because of his capacity to enter sympathetically into his many characters and show them from the inside, so to speak. ('Shakespeare', said Walter Murdoch, 'was a sort of universal counsel for the defence'.) Which brings me to why I recently sought out a DVD of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (2008), starring Merryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (see frame-capture below), for what it might tell me about Catholicism's capacity to be open-minded (roughly, objective) and what doubt has to do with the matter. The Catholic Hitchcock made a film called Shadow of a Doubt and, even more to the point, I (for one) have increasingly detected in his films a paradigm of ambiguity and paradox that actually helps make the films more life-like and, well, more fair, than many. I'll return to this. Now, Shanley's Doubt, adapted by him from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is set in a Catholic primary school in the Bronx run by the Sisters of Charity and is about, you could say, a power-struggle between the principal, Sister Aloysius (Streep), and a priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman), who preaches in the adjoining church and takes the school's boys for gym classes. The time is the 1960s when winds of change are blowing through the Church after Vatican II. The school has lately taken in its only black student, a boy named Donald, who has had problems at his previous school. But Sister Aloysius, something of an old biddy, begins to suspect that the popular Father Flynn is paying undue attention to Donald. In an outstanding scene - one of several - Sister Aloysius summons the boy's mother (Viola Davis) and is startled to learn that Donald is probably homosexual and that his father regularly beats him; the mother actually says, 'So what if Father Flynn has befriended my son in the way you suggest, isn't that better than the boy having no close friends and a father who detests him?' Wow! Bold writing! But the film never confirms Sister Aloysius's suspicions that Father Flynn may be a child-molester - suspicions which may be all in her mind - and instead, admirably, concentrates on the very issue of doubt itself and how human goodness is put at risk if doubt isn't allowed its place in human affairs. (Note. Keats defined 'negative capability' as the condition 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason'.) Australian film critic Father Peter Malone wrote on the Web: 'The confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Fr Flynn become quite desperate for [the latter] when he realises that the nun is so certain and dominating and has taken investigations into her own hands rather than respecting him as a person, let alone a priest. We see the conflict between the old authoritarian style and the new, more personable style of interactions.' That's true as far as it goes but it still simplifies how the film actually works. At every turn, we are given evidence for and against Sister Aloysius's position, i.e., both for and against her authoritarian style generally and for and against the possibility that her specific allegation against Father Flynn is accurate. (She does indeed confront him with her allegation in another powerful scene or two.) Also, we are shown signs that priests still uphold a patriarchal self-serving camaraderie which may or may not extend to protecting their own, even in cases of paederasty, as history suggests has been the case. Understandably, Ella Taylor's review of Doubt in 'Village Voice' interprets the film as showing how 'there are limits to an open mind' - something, to be truthful, I had never thought was possible, but now I'm having doubts! But right to the end, ambiguity remains. When the priest resigns his position, is it because he is guilty as charged, or is it, as I've seen suggested, that he realises that Sister Aloysius is so set against him that she would stop at nothing, and would drag the boy Donald to a public trial if necessary, which Father Flynn, in his humanity, wishes to spare the boy? Now, I'm not aware that John Shanley has any special liking for Alfred Hitchcock's films - he doesn't seem to refer to Hitchcock in interviews - but I do suggest that the foregoing description of Doubt is quite Hitchcockian. Next time, therefore, I'll discuss Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Rope in this context.



June 2 - 2012
[No entry this week. Back next time. Thanks to correspondents. KM]

May 26 - 2012
Last week I began to talk about Hitchcock's objectivity - a huge and important topic apropos that director. I originally included something said by the philosopher Kierkegaard but deleted it because I didn't have space to relate it to The Wrong Man, as I had intended. Well, here again is what Kierkegaard said: 'Most people are subjective towards themselves and objective towards others - terribly objective sometimes.' (He added that the real task is to be objective towards oneself and subjective towards others.) Wise words. And I'm sure that Hitchcock would have agreed with them. His films show compassion towards nearly all of his characters but also an appreciation of their human fallibility. In both those respects, no character is more representative than Manny Balestrero in The Wrong Man. Three years before Psycho, Manny is your 'typical bourgeoise' (as Hitchcock called Marion Crane), but his plight is treated with great empathy by Hitchcock (here being subjective, just as Kierkegaard recommended). At the same time, it is very clear that Manny is indeed only human, and of limited understanding. Nowhere is this better summed up than at the end of the film, when Manny comes face to face with his 'double', the holdup man for whom Manny had been mistaken (see frame-capture below). Let me draw a contrast. The confrontation isn't like that in one of Hitchcock's favourite novels, 'Great Expectations', of blacksmith Joe Gargery with convict Abel Magwitch, where salt-of-the-earth Joe calls the convict 'poor miserable fellow creature'. Rather, Manny shows a marked lack of magnanimity and a total failure to have learned a moral lesson from what he, and his family, have just endured. All he can say to his double is, 'Do you realise what you have done to my wife?' In other words, he is making exactly the same assumption about the other man's guilt, and lack of probity, as he had himself experienced. This is Hitchcock being objective not about Manny so much as about what people in general are like. In the discussion on our 'advanced' discussion group recently about this matter, I called for other examples of Hitchcock's objectivity. Someone, quite rightly, suggested that Hitchcock was influenced by the 'New Objectivity' movement (return to documentary realism) in German art and film in the 1920s. But it's only half the story, at best. Hitchcock and Fritz Lang were two directors who combined German Expressionism and the New Objectivity in their subsequent films, thereby making them even more expressive, at least potentially. Also, both Lang and Hitchcock were members of the Roman Catholic Church, which has impressive traditions of both philosophical thought and compassionate doubt. (I would argue that in Hitchcock's case his Englishness provided him with further stimuli again, not least the all-seeing tradition of Shakespeare and Dickens. More on this later.) In sum, that's largely why a film like The Wrong Man takes the form it does, why it has the theme it does, why it combines expressionism and social realism the way it does, and even why it cast Henry Fonda as Manny Balestrero - the Fonda who had appeared in Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) where he was already playing a man falsely accused of a crime and trapped in a web of circumstance. Now, to repeat, Manny's saying, 'Do you realise what you have done to my wife?' is very human of him. You imagine Hitchcock smiling grimly at the line, knowing that many people expend great energy to justify what has happened to them (perhaps, as here, even playing the blame game) but avoid seeing the reality of their situation - perhaps because it would be painful. In this respect, The Wrong Man is almost surreal - which means 'objective' in the biggest possible way. Now, I want to take up next time - still in the context of Hitchcock's objectivity - the matter of Catholic doubt, mentioned above. I'll refer to the Merryl Streep film Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008).



May 19 - 2012
This item comes out of a discussion this week on our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group about something Alma Hitchcock said of her husband. In 1960 she told an interviewer that her husband had 'a wonderful gift for putting things into perspective', and added: 'He has the most completely balanced mind I have ever known and has a talent for total objectivity'. That's a wonderful assessment of Hitchcock, a real key to both the man and his films. For a start, put it alongside the philosopher Schopenhauer's remark about a great artist's 'gift of genius' which 'is nothing but the most complete objectivity' although 'imagination is needed, in order to complete, arrange, amplify ... all the significant pictures of life'. What, I asked the Group, are some examples of Hitchcock's objectivity? Among the answers was the finale of The Birds, 'with its serene, detached observation of devastating catastrophe as well as the power of catastrophe to bring out humanity's best ... and worst' attributes. I agree. I ventured that the endings of many of Hitchcock's films show a similar quality, citing Rear Window, a film with a wonderfully balanced tone and where Hitchcock never appears to take himself too seriously yet which has a constant aural subtext of 'life is a dream' (the recurrent motif in the snatches of song and music we hear). Someone also quoted Hitchcock himself, about how one should 'always try to look at things as though you were remembering them three years later'. This has more to do with people's actions in the world - social relations - of course. But let's come back to Hitchcock's films. I have always thought that many of them are like parables, with broader implications than meet the eye. For example, Hitchcock said of Lifeboat (1944) that it was designed to show the Allies the need to resolve their differences in order to cope with the single-minded Fascist threat (represented by the Nazi U-boat commander, Willi). You could apply that idea to several situations in the world today. Equally, I have always thought that The Wrong Man (1956) is not just about mistaken identity in the case of a few petty larcenies - though the effect of the police's allegations on the innocent Manny Balestrero, and his family, is devastating enough - but could be extended to mistaken identity in more serious cases, like murder, where the penalty is death, and irreversible. I'm sure that Hitchcock, in his objectivity, saw this very clearly. In recent years there have been several studies, some of book-length, published about such tragic mistakes. Also, there has been the very fine Errol Morris documentary, The Thin Blue Line (1989), about a case in Texas. I thought of it this week when a news item was published about another Texas case dating from 1983, now shown to have been definitely one of mistaken identity. (To read about it, click here: Wrong Carlos executed) But we were talking about Hitchcock's objectivity. Well, I went back to take another look at the book '"I Am Innocent!"' (2008) by Jay Robert Nash. (It has a couple of brief entries on the Balestrero case.) And I spotted something I'd overlooked before. In the Chronology of wrongful convictions, I noticed that the very first such case listed is that of Susanna (590 BC) of the 'Susanna and the Elders' story in one of the apocryphal books of the Bible. The attempted rape of the innocent Susanna has, of course, been depicted in paintings by many artists, including Rubens and Rembrandt - and including the painting seen in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) when Norman Bates removes it from his parlour wall to spy on Marion. (See frame-capture below.) Well, it now occurs to me that Hitchcock may originally have been interested in the story for precisely its wrongful-conviction aspect. I did some further reading. I see that the elders made up their accusation against Susanna to punish her for not yielding to them. She was falsely accused of adultery, brought to trial, and convicted. Fortunately, her accusers were found out (a good story in itself - look it up) and were themselves put to death. Next time: more about The Wrong Man and Hitchcock's objectivity.



May 12 - 2012
Hitchcock always liked to get things right. Here, then, are a couple of 39 Steps-related pieces of, well, trivia (or are they?). First, look at the frame-capture below. It represents Hannay's pov from a window of the famous Flying Scotsman at the moment he spots the pursuing spies alighting from their taxi at Platform 10 of King's Cross Station. (But the train is already moving and the spies just fail to board it, giving Hannay a few hours' respite.) All of the detail here is accurate, I think, including the fact that you could enter directly onto the platform without passing through a barrier. How do I know? Well, I just finished reading 'The Man in the Queue' (1929) by Josephine Tey, the author of 'A Shilling for Candles' (1936) which Hitchcock filmed as Young and Innocent. There, someone else is about to flee to Scotland but is worried about being spotted by the police. But his landlady re-assures him: 'There isn't a barrier at King's Cross. I haven't gone up and down to Scotland for nearly thirty years without knowing that. The Scotch platform is open to anyone who wants to walk on.' (Chapter 8) Moreover, that is definitely King's Cross in the frame-capture from Hitchcock's film because I just checked with Danny N in London. But then that raised a puzzle! In John Buchan's 1915 novel, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps', Hannay is described as catching the train not at King's Cross but at St Pancras, which is alongside King's Cross on the Euston Road. Hannay tells us: 'At St Pancras I had no time to take a ticket ... A porter told me the platform, and as I entered it I saw the train already in motion ... but I ... clambered into the last carriage.' (Chapter II) Hmm. Danny thinks that Buchan confused the two stations although, just possibly, there had been a change of station caused by the war. (As far as Danny knows, the Flying Scotsman has always departed from King's Cross.) Now another item. Not only did Hitchcock like to get things right but he liked not to waste anything! In Buchan's novel the tune that Hannay whistles at one point is 'Annie Laurie', which identifies him to intelligence boss Sir Walter Bullivant. But of course Hitchcock's film changed things so that the tune that Hannay can't get out of his head is the catchy one he had heard at the music hall in the opening scene - it sounds suitably like the 'Cuckoo' tune of Laurel & Hardy (as I noted in 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story'). It's use by the film is realistic and helps fill otherwise 'empty' moments. However, Hitchcock did use 'Annie Laurie' in a later film and that was The Paradine Case. We hear a whistled snatch of it echoing down a cell corridor after Mrs Paradine is first incarcerated, and its use is suitably mournful. (Note. There are versions of 'Annie Laurie' on YouTube.) The words of the song are about a failed love affair, based on a poem by William Douglas (1672?-1748), and the song's well-known refrain is this: 'And for bonnie Annie Laurie/ I'd lay me doon and dee.' Which is appropriate both to the prison and possibly the person whistling it, and certainly to Mrs Paradine herself who seems to have staked all on an unrequited passion for André Latour and who will eventually be found guilty of her husband's murder. Interestingly, Hitchcock at this time was toying with the idea of filming Heinrich Heine's mournful verse drama 'Ratcliff' (1822), set in the Scottish Highlands and again being about a love affair that fails, ending in tragedy. (Btw, it might have been Hitchcock's first 'ghost' film, something he also contemplated in his cherished project of filming Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie's 1920 play, 'Mary Rose.) Finally, to end on a lighter note, here's something that Danny N told me this week apropos the adjacent King's Cross and St Pancras railway stations. The robbery scene in one of Danny's favourite films, Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1955), 'takes place in the narrow streets between King's Cross and St Pancras'.



May 5 - 2012
No "Editor's Week" this time. Instead we've added some News & Comment items (and some updates, further down the page).

April 28 - 2012
We talked about the auction-scene in Hitchcock's The Skin Game last time. Another thing to note about that scene is how it is structured rather like a miniature version of some future Hitchcock plots in which two sides contend and then there is an unexpected resolution (in this case, a last minute bid by another party) followed by a startling twist which shows that all along we had been in the dark (e.g., because in this case the last-minute bid turns out to have been made on behalf of one of the original parties!). Compare, say, Rebecca, in which we soon think we understand why Maxim marries 'I' and then later learn that all wasn't as we thought - and then further learn that there was a cover-up which brings a fresh inquest and a surprise twist. Even then, the full truth may not be known (e.g., just how honest is Maxim's version of events?). Such an 'open' outcome has other Hitchcock occurrences. As Deborah Thomas notes in an article on Stage Fright (in the current 'Hitchcock Annual'), the character Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) makes a rather rambling 'confession' to the policeman Mellish who takes it down in his notebook - but then we hear her tell him, 'It's not all in there.' And Thomas points out how, likewise, at the end of Marnie, we hear Mrs Edgar say to Mark Rutland, 'You don't know the whole story and nobody does but me'. Hitchcock of course loved to repeat himself, with variations, in all kinds of ways. After the auction in The Skin Game, the Hillcrist family hurry out to their waiting chauffeur-driven car, content that their antagonist Hornblower has failed to buy the land he wanted. But Hornblower pursues them and, before the car can drive away, pokes his head in the door and proceeds to tell Hillcrist not just that the winning bid was his, Hornblower's, but that he pities Hillcrist for his inability to compete in the modern world (and some other home-truths besides!). (See frame-capture below.) It's a very effective scene and so Hitchcock repeated it, rather exactly, in Rebecca where, after revelations at the inquest, when Maxim and 'I' are sitting in their car, Jack Favell (George Sanders) pursues them and - putting his head in the car window - proceeds to tell Maxim that he suspects 'foul play' (and implies that Maxim is in big trouble!). The caddish Favell thus seems likened in Hitchcock's mind to Hornblower - whom we do indeed hear called a cad at one point! Note, too, the class antagonism in both cases: the aristocrat Hillcrist versus the nouveau riche industrialist Hornblower, and the aristocrat Maxim versus the car salesman (and ex-lover of Rebecca) Favell. Again, I mentioned last time how Hornblower's daughter-in-law, the unfortunate Chloe, is one of several women in Hitchcock whose past indiscretions catch up with them. The scene where a distraught Chloe talks to the camera at length is very moving. She says: 'My father went bankrupt. I had to make my living in all sorts of ways. And then I met Charlie. He thought I was respectable. It was such a relief.' Her speech is like a trial-run for the extended 'soliloquy' by Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) in Under Capricorn. Chloe even has the line, 'I've done him [Charlie] such a wrong', which is a pre-echo of Lady Henrietta's, 'I've done him many wrongs'. (In both cases the woman is referring to 'wrongs' done to her husband - interesting, because in other Hitchcock films, such as Young and Innocent and Dial M for Murder, and arguably Rebecca, it's the husband who is the villain of the piece.) I like The Skin Game very much, despite, for example, its over-use of pan shots (not so much in the auction scene as elsewhere), plus what sometimes seems carelessness in various departments. Incidentally, how many dogs does the Hillcrist family have?! I mentioned last time Jill's black terrier. In other scenes we see the Hillcrists with a black-and-white terrier and with an Alsatian. Maybe Hitchcock, a dog-lover himself, was trying to give extra sympathy to the Hillcrists!



April 21 - 2012
Hitchcock's film of John Galsworthy's play, The Skin Game (1931) - there had been an earlier film version in 1920 - is a key work in the director's career. It ranks, in that respect, with Rope and the project We, the Accused (from the novel by Ernest Raymond), for all of these works are about the base side of human nature - and our blindness and hypocrisy concerning it. At the end of The Skin Game, the gentrified Hillcrist (C.V. France) tries to apologise for what has happened: 'With all my heart, I am sorry.' But his antagonist, the nouveau-riche industrialist Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), angrily responds, 'Hypocrite!' - and we know what he means (if we have been following the film correctly, that is). Let me be clear. The Skin Game is a very misunderstood film, from early in Hitchcock's career, and is often dismissed as 'boring'. That is quite wrong. It has its weak points, definitely, but any true Hitchcockian should be capable of seeing its tremendous sympathy for society's victims, especially female ones: the erring past of Hornblower's daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam) and her present suffering bracket her with Laurita in Easy Virtue, Henrietta in Under Capricorn, and Marnie in Marnie, amongst others. (I also think of the 'half-caste' Handell Fane in Hitchcock's previous film Murder!) Hitchcock admired Galsworthy's plays for their even-handed presentation of social issues, and indeed that Nobel Prize-winning playwright and author was a good model for Hitchcock whose wife, Alma, would later describe him as 'the most objective of men'. (However, there's an amusing anecdote in the Truffaut book about how the Hitchcocks dined one evening with Mr and Mrs Galsworthy and found the conversation taking a stilted and rarefied turn. Pity!) The film could have been a masterpiece, and remains, as I say, misunderstood. It isn't just about base human nature, it is the expression, in effect, of the universal existence of such a nature. It shows the influence of the Symbolist artists and writers on Hitchcock, such that you should feel, as you watch the film, that its real meaning exists on a higher plane than usual. In 'A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock' (2011), I wrote: 'The enduring quality of Hitchcock's work owes much to its general allusiveness. This bears on the films' Symbolist aspect, discussed [separately], but the following illustration is instructive. Hitchcock often told interviewers of his wish to film twenty-four hours in the life of a city, beginning with the arrival at market of produce fresh from the country. The theme would be defilement, how civilization reduces good things to waste matter. This could be an analogy of war, or a picture of the human condition generally.' (p. 35) I do think that The Skin Game works like that, and is very moving. Its central scene of a land-auction, in which Hillcrist and Hornblower bid furiously against each other, and thereby show their true natures (Hillcrist in particular forgets his customary dignity), works like an analogy of the amoral Will (Schopenhauer's term) that governs existence, including the most mundane and everyday actions. 'Man is a wolf to man', Schopenhauer quoted Plautus as saying. The auction scene is in Galsworthy's play, but that's part of my point. The Skin Game is an early Hitchcock film that became, in effect, a seminal text on which he drew later. Also in the play is the scene near the end in which the young people Jill Hillcrist (Jill Esmond) and Rolf Hornblower (Frank Lawton) meet up again. A bit like Romeo and Juliet (of the clashing Capulet and Montague clans), they fancy each other, despite the acrimony of their families. But in this case, it is plain that recent events have taken a toll. Jill appears almost indifferent to Rolf as she plays with her dog and whistles the Habanera from 'Carmen' (see frame-capture below). Which is apt, given the Habanera's association with the vicissitudes of love. Jill has become almost cynical, as she tells Rolf that 'We're all out for our own'. And next minute she dismisses him - for the time being at least - by quoting from 'Auld Lang Syne': 'If auld acquaintance be forgot ...'. To be continued.



April 14 - 2012
Books on film are being published by a variety of sources these days, including by publishers who cater for niche markets and small print-runs. I recently read independent scholar Ryan McBride's 'Fatal Spaces: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and the Art of Murder' (2007). The book is a mere 92 pages long. It was published in English by just such a publisher as I mentioned, 'VDM Verlag Dr. Müller' in Germany. Although I didn't always find McBride's claims convincing - for example, that we're supposed to think that Hannay in The 39 Steps might have murdered Annabella - I thought the book informative about some of Lang's films in particular. McBride had done the essential reading (including books on Lang by Tom Gunning and Patrick McGilligan), and as a survey of similarities and differences of the two directors I found it useful. Another book I'm looking forward to checking out soon is the revised edition of Michael Gould's 'Surrealism and the Cinema', originally published in 1976 and long out of print. I own a copy of the original book which is lucidly written and well-informed about a variety of films and filmmakers, with chapters on Bunuel, Sternberg, Hitchcock, and Sam Fuller, and I have many times found it helpful. The new edition - which I'll discuss here later - is currently only available by downloading. (Go here: Open Eyed.) Which brings me to the little book - just 25 pages - called 'Narrative Parameters in Psycho' by Daniel Roth. Like McBride's book, it is published in Germany by 'GRIN Verlag', although my copy is written in English. It came here this week, and describes itself (no doubt correctly) as a 'seminar paper'. I read it with interest. Although it hardly breaks new ground, it scrupulously sets out the sort of headings under which critics and scholars have written about Psycho: for example, structure, motifs and symbols, elements of genre. Roth names Vibeke Reuter's book 'Alfred Hitchcock's Handschrift'/'Alfred Hitchcock's Handwriting' (2005) as providing him with a structure for his paper. Here I'll just make a few more-or-less random comments about that paper. I confess that I was dismayed at the outset by reading what seems to me a snobbish, foolish put-down of Robert Bloch's novel 'Psycho', that it 'is basically a piece of pulp fiction with considerably low literary value' and therefore not capable of offering 'profound interpretations' to a student like Roth. (p. 1) And indeed Roth's paper has nothing to say about the novel, not even how it has entered with considerable imagination into the mind of a madman (based on Ed Gein), wrapped in his solitude and fortified by his reading of occult and pornographic books, nor how it makes some interesting observations about small-town American life. A few pages later, Roth virtually repeats the accusation: 'Another typical Hitchcockian motif is the gaze of madness - wide open eyes, an apathetic facial expression, a state of shock. There is no real correspondence in the literary original ...'. (p. 4) That may be so - for we're talking about two different mediums - but what I'm also wondering is where, exactly, do we see in the film such a 'gaze of madness' as Roth describes? Not even in the penultimate scene in the police cell is Norman's face especially 'apathetic' but rather, even here, his face is pursuing its wild thoughts about how 'they're probably watching me now' (see frame-capture below). Actually, I was very grateful for Roth's quoting of something Hitchcock once said, that 'casting is characterization'. (p. 19n) How true that is! But clearly the casting of Anthony Perkins as Norman was more about showing the rich continuity of a mad person's feelings with those of the rest of us (and vice versa!) than of strictly registering madness in its dulled-down, 'apathetic' mode. Roth knows that Carl Jung spoke of every (conscious) human being having a 'shadow' side: 'Norman drastically personifies the Jungian concept of the duality of man.' (p. 14) (Hence, Roth suggests, one reason for all the mirrors we see in Psycho.) He also quotes Stephen Prince's description of Psycho as a postmodern horror film where 'Evil is not so easy to demarcate or to exorcise'. (p. 21) In sum, Roth gives us plenty of material with which to hone our thinking about the film. I just feel that he himself hasn't always thought through the implications of his material.



April 7 - 2012
Last week I compared a couple of Hitchcock films to what biographer John Forster said about Charles Dickens: 'On the coincidences, resemblances and surprises of life [he] liked especially to dwell. ... The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought it: we were all so connected by fate without knowing it'. One of those films was The Wrong Man, which indeed is full of 'coincidences, resemblances, and surprises', most of them grim - in context, anyway. But my point was that such an effect is actually highly satisfying to audiences (as Dickens and Hitchcock both saw), and hence might figure in both a downbeat film like The Wrong Man and in a pleasant comedy like The Trouble With Harry (where the dead Harry brings everyone together, who all turn out to have some connection to him). But isn't this the same 'message' as I so often quote here: that the world is both One and Many, or what the philosopher Schopenhauer called Will and Representation? (Dickens, no philosopher, spoke in terms of a purely physical narrowing-down of the world, and of 'fate' linking us together - it took the thinker Schopenhauer to show how that state of affairs may actually be how things are in reality, if only we could see it, and as indeed art can help us to intuit.) But I was going to talk further about 'film editing' this week, and to do that I'll stay with The Wrong Man for now. My filmmaker friend PT has a huge admiration for the editing effects in that film. He cited to me the finger-printing sequence and Manny's-trip-to-gaol (in the police paddy-wagon) sequence, but today I'd like to report some things I noticed when I examined the editing of the final sanatorium sequence in which Manny (Henry Fonda) visits Rose (Vera Miles) to tell her the good news, that he has been exonerated of the hold-ups committed by his 'double'. Unfortunately, Rose is unresponsive, and remains immured for now in her sense of an implacable, overwhelming injustice that has left her (as her psychiatrist had said) 'on the dark side of the moon'. Throughout the scene she speaks in a low monotone, twice telling Manny about his news, 'That's fine for you.' Bernard Herrmann's plaintive oboe slowly rises and falls but keeps repeating itself (like Rose). She is not rebuffing Manny: he asks her, 'Is there something I've done?', and she responds, 'It's nothing you've done.' She is simply withdrawn, as is apparent visually: throughout the scene, she clutches herself as if to say, 'I'm self-sufficient.' All of this is kept simple, filmed in basically a succession of two-shots as Manny tries to reach his wife, but with little success. At one point he literally reaches out to her but she shrinks back from him and moves to the window. Then the last shot of the sequence begins with a cut to show the nurse arriving at the door which she opens, saying peremptorily, 'Your husband is leaving now, Mrs Balestrero.' (See frame-capture below.) The effect is almost startling - something I'll come back to. As I say, this is the last shot of the sequence. (Manny will leave, there'll be a shot of him and the nurse going away down a corridor, and then a printed title will announce that 'two years later' Rose was 'completely cured'.) The shot runs quite long, about 45 seconds, and in that time Manny moves away towards the door, saying, 'I guess I was hoping for a miracle.' The nurse smiles and comments, 'They happen, but it takes time.' The film has placed an inordinate emphasis on matters of time, and posits, I believe, its own power to 'transcend' our everyday understanding of time/space/causality: compare what I said above, following Schopenhauer, about how art may help us intuit 'reality'. But I want to stay with this particular shot. The fact that it runs so long helps tell us that the scene is about to end - together with the nurse's peremptory remark on entering the room, of course. That moment, when she suddenly appears at the door, is one of two or three things in this scene that anticipate - interestingly enough - Psycho. I was reminded of the latter's shower scene where suddenly, over Marion Crane's shoulder, a blurred figure enters the bathroom. In both cases, the cut, and the sudden appearance of an intruder, tell us that something is about to happen. Vastly different circumstances, of course, but the functional technique is the same. (Note: if the scene in The Wrong Man had been of a more upbeat mood, no doubt Hitchcock would not have filmed the moment in question so peremptorily. The cut is matched to the mood.) Another resemblance to Psycho concerns how Rose clutches herself throughout. The same gesture is given to both Marion Crane (during the 'parlour' scene) and, less obviously, to Norman Bates draped in a blanket in his cell at the end of Psycho. Ostensibly, the characters are feeling cold, but we know that there is more to the matter than that. In a way, Rose is equivalent to the 'withdrawn' but still articulate Norman, and their final scenes are, roughly, also equivalent. Well, the same-but-different, you could say. Or another case of the One and Many (different manifestations of one Will). And a fine instance of Hitchcock's psychological discernment.



March 31 - 2012
Have been working lately on 'editing' in Hitchcock. Here are some 'left-over' thoughts from the cutting-room floor, so to speak. First, re the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much ... I spent some time on the shots that 'ascend' the Embassy staircase to show us young Hank (Christopher Olsen), who has been kidnapped, being held prisoner in a room upstairs watched over by Mrs Drayton (Brenda de Banzie). That progression of shots eventually arrives inside the room and culminates in a close-up of Hank, with his American-style hair-cut, huddled on a sofa whose embroidered texture features a traditional view of a young European nobleman in outdoor costume. The subtle reminder is of both Hank's imprisoned state and, at another level, of the Embassy's 'foreign' status and of its modest grandeur - something oppressive in the circumstances but also maintaining the 'dignified' tone that the scene plays against (with its American 'invaders', i.e., Hank's parents, who have wangled admittance to the Embassy and are on the lookout for him). The plushness and polished woodwork of the room are something I'll mention again in a moment. Notable, too, are the lit lamps and candlebra, reminding us that evening is drawing on - an effect that Hitchcock often used for both 'atmosphere' and 'suspense'. Brenda de Banzie is magnificent in this scene. Realising that Hank's parents are in the building, and that the kidnapped boy's life is in danger if he isn't immediately saved, all of Mrs Drayton's unsatisfied 'motherly' instincts compel her to urge Hank to whistle as loudly as he can so that his parents will hear him. (Here I always think of Nancy in 'Oliver Twist' who finally betrays the bloodthirsty Bill Sikes to save Oliver.) Mrs Drayton is near-distraught, for she knows that her husband - Bernard Miles - has issued orders to have the inconvenient boy killed and will be returning at any moment. Desperate, she crosses to the window to see if help lies outside, or if escape could be effected that way. Then she reels back, realising that it would be hopeless - see frame-capture below. Hitchcock gives this moment a close-up, and what it emphasises, besides Mrs Drayton's emotional state, are the red plush curtains. Those curtains echo the red drapes at the Albert Hall in a previous scene, and we sense the parallel with the distress felt there by Hank's mother Jo McKenna (Doris Day) as she sought a way to save her son. Maternal feeling is the dominant emotion here too. More superb editing soon follows. The camera reverses its earlier progression and observes the slow descent of the stairs by Hank and his father Ben (James Stewart) at the point of Mr Drayton's gun. It seems that all is lost, and the rhythm is suitably slow and tense. Suddenly, Ben shoves Hank to one side and with a single punch sends Drayton flying ... Okay, speaking of Dickens, something else I didn't have space to say in my recent article on "Hitchcock's editing" concerned The Trouble With Harry (1955). I did suggest that Harry took some of its tone, and whimsy, from Dickens via Chesterton (cf above, March 17), but not exactly what was Dickensian about it. So here are two or three things. First, the tone is light and cheery, not too far removed from (much of) 'The Pickwick Papers'. When Harry's Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) repeatedly calls Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) 'Sammy', it's hard not to think of how Mr Pickwick likes to address his Cockney manservant Sam Weller as 'Sammy'. But rather more seriously now, and I would relate this to the editing in parts of Harry. A memorable passage in John Forster's 'Life of Dickens' reminds us: 'On the coincidences, resemblances and surprises of life Dickens liked especially to dwell. ... The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought it: we were all so connected by fate without knowing it' - and more to the same effect. Elsewhere I have related that passage to Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1957), but I suggest that it applies no less to the spirit of The Trouble With Harry, and that if you see this you will also see the true meaning of a passage early in Harry where, by editing, and Sam's singing of "Flaggin' the Train to Tuscaloosa", all of the characters are united in their common potential for happiness - even a passing tramp, who kicks up his heels now wearing the shoes of the dead Harry. (More on Hitchcock's editing next time.)



March 24 - 2012
For the music track at the climax of Saboteur (1942), set on the Statue of Liberty, Hitchcock appears to have drawn from the Universal studio library and such serials as Don Winslow of the Navy (1942), which, fittingly enough, concerns an all-American hero who stumbles upon spies and saboteurs near Pearl Harbour. But for the memorable (if confusing!) scene earlier in Saboteur, when gunman Fry (Norman Lloyd) finds himself at bay from the police inside a packed Radio City Music Hall, and fires shots from the direction of the screen that the audience in the film initially think are part of the onscreen story, Hitchcock realised that he would have to photograph the film-within-a-film himself. In other words, the 'comic gangster film' (as the Saboteur script describes it) that is showing in the Music Hall was not taken from the studio library; it was filmed by Hitchcock with the actors Emory Parnell, Margaret Hayes, and Vinton Hayworth. (Universal tried to persuade Hitchcock to use the new Abbott and Costello comedy Ride 'em Cowboy, but he refused - it didn't sufficiently fit his purpose.) Emory Parnell had earlier appeared in two Hitchcock films: Foreign Correspondent (as the 'Mohican' Captain) and Mr and Mrs Smith (in a small role, as 'Conway'). Here he plays the vengeful husband, Henry, who shoots his wife's lover. That's Henry's hand holding the gun in the frame-capture below: notice how carefully - melodramatically? - Hitchcock has lit the hand holding the gun. In the foreground are the film's audience and one of the detectives pursuing Fry in the Music Hall. A second earlier, we had seen a close-up of a hand going to a pocket - and it had looked like another shot from the film-within-the-film, as Henry is heard saying, 'What do you think this is?' In fact, it is Fry's hand drawing the gun that he will shortly use, wounding at least one member of the audience. No doubt Hitchcock enjoyed himself as he ingeniously constructed this 'Pirandellian' conceit in which 'reality' comes down off the screen into the audience (just as Pirandello had done with stage 'reality' in classic plays like 'Six Characters in Search of An Author'). In later films, Hitch would create such effects more subtly and viscerally, as with the 'out of the cold' motif in films like Marnie and Torn Curtain where the cinema audience's comfort matches, by implication, that of the onscreen characters (such as Michael and Sarah's love-making under the blankets at the start of Torn Curtain). Another very startling and effective shot in the Music Hall sequence shows Fry leaping down off the stage, so that his head momentarily almost disappears at the bottom of the frame, then rises up closer to the camera, his expression grim and desperate. Bill Krohn ('Hitchcock at Work') characterised this sequence by comparing it to a fantasy Hitchcock 'unknowingly shared with war movie maestro Samuel Fuller (who was fond of saying that the only way to make a realistic battle scene would be for spectators to be hit by flying bullets during the film)'. But besides the Pirandello parallel I have cited above, Hitchcock may have had something else in mind. In 1926 in England a silent film of Charles Dickens's 'A Tale of Two Cities', set during the French Revolution, was made under the title The Only Way. What particularly affected audiences was how, for its initial screenings in London, the film stopped just as it reached its climax when hero Sydney Carton is about to go to the guillotine. Suddenly the actor playing Carton appeared onstage in the flesh and proceeded to speak the character's famous last speech, 'It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done ...'. Hitchcock surely noted this device. For in the following year, during London screenings of Downhill, starring Ivor Novello as the young hero Roddy, exactly the same thing was done. More than once, at various climaxes, Ivor Novello, in character, appeared on the stage in front of the screen and proceeded to speak Roddy's lines - a bit like the soliloquies from 'Hamlet'!



March 17 - 2012
Some pleasant and fruitful correspondence this week with DF in Germany stemming from my remarks here last time about The Trouble With Harry. I said to DF that I really do think that, in its context, the line about 'a wonderful, deep, deep sleep' has poetic reverberations, of which Hitchcock would have been 100% aware, touching on a Buddhist concept like Nirvana (roughly: 'perfect equanimity', often loosely, or vulgarly, understood as 'death'). Naturally, though, the film also, or principally, explains the line at a mundane level. Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine) is overjoyed to see the last of Harry, her second husband, the opportunist brother of her first, and evidently a bit of a creep! And her line to young Arnie (Jerry Mathers) about making him some lemonade - 'better than no lemonade' - is in keeping with her downright and practical outlook, an outlook she naturally wants to instil in her son. She means, I think, that although Arnie in his naivety (which is also a child's intuitive wisdom) gets excited about such 'wonderful' sleep, lemonade is at least a worldly delight and therefore better than no lemonade! Mind you, adult wisdom may see through the concept of Nirvana (especially as popularly understood) as being itself a nothing, which is precisely what the philosopher Schopenhauer emphasised - although he was an admirer of Eastern thought in general. (For those who want to follow up on this, see the end of 'The World as Will and Representation', Volume 1, where Schopenhauer says that the word 'Nirvana' is meaningless, an evasion.) Which is exactly how I think Hitchcock saw the whole matter. Nonetheless, he himself was a pragmatist - like Jennifer, like Schopenhauer, and like one of Hitchcock's favourite authors, G.K. Chesterton. (I'll throw into the mix how, according to Ian Christie, Chesterton was also a big influence on the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In Hungary, Pressburger's homeland, Chesterton seems to have been revered at least as much as in his native England.) I mean that the term 'Nirvana' has a practical value as a goal, an ideal, and thus as a determiner of people's thoughts and actions. DF referred to the 'amorality' of The Trouble With Harry, which is a related matter. On the final page of Chesterton's whimsical 'The Club of Queer Trades' (1905), its retired judge - more than a little unorthodox - reveals that he has been conducting unofficial 'courts of honour' on purely moral issues, and that these secret courts have spread with benefit 'over the whole of society'. Then he adds: 'People were tried before me not for the practical trifles for which nobody cares, such as committing a murder, or keeping a dog without a licence. My criminals were tried for the faults which really make social life impossible. They were tried before me for selfishness, or for an impossible vanity, or for scandalmongering, or for stinginess to guests or dependents.' There, surely, you have the spirit of The Trouble With Harry, which is concerned - in a Symbolist or Surrealist way - with the 'social niceties' that must be eternally observed, and which goes to great length to emphasise those things: for example, in what DF calls its "old-fashioned" (even in 1955) romance that suddenly blooms, thanks to Harry, the bond-maker, between Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) and Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick). DF astutely pointed out to me that 1955 audiences might have been more than a little shocked by some things in the film, such as its valorisation of the unorthodox Jennifer: 'A woman with a child, living by herself? Good heavens above! Where is the husband?' (Somewhere this week I read again a report of how an audience of professionals were 'genuinely shocked' when Hitchcock told them his view that television had brought murder back into the home, 'where it belongs' - with a silent parallel to the virtues of indoor plumbing, of course! But what exactly were these professionals shocked by? Hitchcock's Chestertonian view of murder? The suggestion that television is some sort of dirty business cleaned up - like Harry? (Cf this week's frame-capture, below.) The further parallel of murder and television? A vague sense of a remark in bad taste? A lot is going on in the remark, and its effect is probably dependent on precisely how the full constellation of meaning eludes quick sorting out.) DF added: 'Part of the charm of The Trouble With Harry must surely be how we, the audience, even now, catch ourselves being "shocked" or at least surprised by the behaviour of the characters - without immediately realising that we ourselves behave in seemingly irrational [or self-serving or evasive?] ways, and do so constantly.' Yes, and as I replied: Hitchcock regularly probed the bourgeois mind, invariably with some implied taunt at our hypocrisy and double standards, or just our immersion in the mundane. He was never just joking! But nor was he just criticising! Hence DF's use of the word 'charm'. That charm, I suggest, resembles Chesterton's.



March 10 - 2012
I thought that the 'battle' for a true appreciation of the excellence of Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955) had just about been won - although Ed Sikov did note in a chapter of his 'Laughing Hysterically' (1994), that Harry 'is a far richer, more complicated film than even Hitchcock's most ardent defenders have so far been willing to acknowledge'. But that was nearly twenty years ago, for goodness's sake! (Hmm. I could have used another exclamatory phrase than that last one - something I'll come back to shortly.) This week, as I was working on an article that included reference to Harry, I got in touch with my filmmaker friend PT who promptly surprised me with the vehemence of his dislike of the film. Describing himself as 'a barbarian who has eschewed religious and spiritual values for 50 years now', he thinks Harry is 'boring' and 'silly'. (Not quite as vehemently, another friend, in London, DN, has problems with John Forsythe's and Shirley MacLaine's characters, and generally he finds the film's humour 'forced'.) Hmm. What do readers think? I don't intend to launch into a defence of the film just now - I've done that before, both here and in my book (1999, 2008) - except to say that obviously the film is stylised (yet beautifully photographed on location in New England during the Fall), and that it helps to see it as being in the Symbolist vein that Hitchcock himself pointed to. ('For a while, I even had Symbolist dreams.'). Put that another way. The film is what I would call Hitchcock's most gloriously 'ecumenical'! Although based on an English novel, by Jack Trevor Story, that has been much-translated, it carries a 'universal' outlook, of hope and warmth. Sure, suffering and violence are always with us - currently in Syria and the Sudan, say - but that's one of the points implicit in Harry, it seems to me. When the film's Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) comes upon Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) about to hide Harry's body after - as he thinks - accidentally shooting him with his hunting rifle ('Old Faithful'), and asks politely, 'What seems to be the trouble, Captain?', the eternal necessity of 'social niceties' is being valorised in a comical and aesthetically acceptable way. The Trouble With Harry is no "Guernica" (1937) by Picasso but more in the vein of a Symbolist painting like "The Strange Garden" (1903) by Joseph Mehoffer (note: the Symbolists were at times precursors of the Surrealists) and always with the work of Paul Klee (1879-1940), Hitchcock's favourite painter, another strong influence: the Harry titles, drawn by Saul Steinberg, are clearly based on the faux-naïf manner of Klee's work. (To view paintings by Mehoffer and Klee respectively, click on the following: Mehoffer and Klee.) Further, I'm practically certain that Harry would have been well received in a country like Japan, and not just because of its 'seasonal' emphasis. (Thomas Leitch, in his 1991 book 'Find the Director', has rightly and helpfully likened some of the establishing-shots, devoid of people, in Harry to the 'pillow-shots' of revered Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.) But all I really wanted to talk about this time were a couple of quite small matters in Harry. First, I've already noted in passing how Captain Wiles is given to using rather thoughtless expletives and other vaguely 'religious' nomenclature: for example, he calls his hunting-rifle 'Old Faithful' and he chastises the dead Harry, 'What in Hades were you doing here?' (Note: the ambiguous first-shot in Harry after the credits is of a church, the sound of whose bell rings out across the countryside and is heard again later - but is never commented on by any of the characters.) In addition, on first finding Harry, the Captain clearly intends to say, 'For Christ's sake, I've done him in!' - but to get around censorship, the actor in fact says, 'For rice scape, I've done him in!', and the audience understands what is meant (a typical example of Hitchcock's deviousness and sleight-of-hand!). Lastly, there's this (to me, at any rate) puzzler. Maybe readers can help? When young Arnie (Jerry Mathers) shows his mother, Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), Harry's body, she, unfazed, tells the boy that Harry is now in 'a deep, wonderful sleep' and - if Providence is to be trusted - won't be coming back! Next moment she suggests that she and Arnie return home where she'll make him some lemonade. 'Will the lemonade put me in a wonderful, deep, deep sleep, Mummy?', Arnie asks. 'No, Arnie, but it's better than no lemonade.' 'I don't understand that', replies Arnie. 'Never mind', says Jennifer (see frame-capture below). Well, what does she mean? I'm sure she doesn't want Arnie dead too! I guess she simply means that some lemonade is better than no lemonade. Or is there here a subtle, poetic reference to death as like Nirvana, the perfect tranquillity of the Buddhists? You tell me!



March 3 - 2012
No "Editor's Week" this time. But there are a couple of News & Comment items freshly added. Also, let me take this opportunity to mention that Tony Lee Moral's fine book 'Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie' (Scarecrow Press, 2002) is being revised and expanded for publication in 2014 to celebrate Marnie's 50th anniversary. Tony Moral tells us that the new edition 'will include 4 new chapters [covering] Hitchcock's cinematography, the influence of Antonioni on Hitchcock during the production of Marnie, and a whole chapter on the writing and pre-production of [Hitchcock's unrealised project] Mary Rose.' Moral adds: 'I will quote extensively from Jay Presson Allen's files which have never been published before since her death in 2006.' The total page count will exceed 300 pages. KM



February 25 - 2012
After watching again such Weimar-era German films as E.A. Dupont's Variety/Vaudeville (1925) and Fritz Lang's Spione/Spies (1928) recently, I went along to the exhibit 'The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37' at the National Gallery of Victoria, here in Melbourne. (I also looked again at my valued copy of 'Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences', edited by Païni and Cogeval, itself the product of a celebrated exhibit held a few years ago in Montreal and Paris. I'll refer to that catalogue below.) Not all of the paintings and other art works at the 'Mad Square' exhibit were by German-born artists and not all were by Expressionist artists, of course. (The era of the Weimar Republic was clearly for a few years, before the Nazis came to power, one of the most vibrant and varied artistically/politically that there has ever been.) For example, look at the b/w photograph below. It is "Berlin radio tower c. 1928" by the Constructivist artist/photographer László Moholy-Nagy who had emigrated to Berlin from Hungary in 1920. Naturally I recognised its likely influence on a striking moment in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, thirty years later: see the frame-capture included for comparison below. My guess is that Hitchcock saw the photo either in a book or at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is held to this day. He often visited art museums, we are told. Also, of course, he loved to draw on art works in his films, often at moments of transition or in establishing-shots. (Another example that comes to mind is the 'Vermeer moment' in Topaz, commented on previously here, showing the Russian girl Tamara Kuzenov playing a piano at a 'safe house' outside Washington D.C.) Now, a striking motif, among many, in the 'Mad Square' exhibit was that of carnivals and circuses. Looking at Max Beckmann's "The trapeze" (1923), I naturally thought of films like Variety and Hitchcock's Murder! (1930). Beckman's art merged both Expressionism (distorted angles, intense colour) and anticipated the New Objectivity (return to representational and traditional aspects of art). (He compiled a whole portfolio of drypoint drawings at this time, i.e., 1922, which he called "Carnival".) Such almost 'genre' pictures emphasised (and sympathised with) the outsiders of society, though the people depicted might appear alienated even from themselves. In "The trapeze", notes the 'Mad Square' catalogue, 'seven acrobats are assembled upon a trapeze-like contraption, poised and elaborately dressed for their performance. However, the figures are unable to move and appear psychologically distant from each other'. As I say, I thought of a film like Variety, which although a conventional triangle melodrama, was a huge success internationally. Its battery of techniques and devices was much imitated. (Georges Sadoul notes that it was shot by Karl Freund, who had also shot Murnau's The Last Laugh. 'The use of the subjective camera', suggests Sadoul, 'is derivative of this earlier film.' Interestingly, he adds: 'Dupont is more likely responsible for the sense of environment and detail in a manner that anticipated Pabst's "new objectivity".') And here's further perspective. The writers of 'Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences' don't mention the work of German artists like Beckman, but they do - very usefully - cite a couple of paintings by the Italian Antonio Donghi, including his "Equestrian Circus" (1927) showing a clown or tumbler in his harlequin uniform being introduced by a master of ceremonies wearing a tuxedo. (I looked up Donghi on the Web, and found that he 'participated in the important 1925 New Objectivity exhibition in Mannheim (Germany), and had solo shows in Paris, New York and Buenos Aires'. For more information, click here: Antonio Donghi.) I'm reminded of Lang's Spione for a couple of reasons, not unrelated to Hitchcock. First, the effectiveness and pathos of Donghi's painting resides in the contrast between the rather sad-looking clown and the dignified master of ceremonies. Likewise, much of the undoubted effectiveness of the climax of Spione, in which Haghi (Rudolph Klein-Rogge), dressed in his clown outfit, shoots himself onstage (or appears to do so), derives from how, moments earlier, we had seen him running a powerful bank (from where he had hoped to dominate the world). Second, several sensitive critics have felt that this scene anticipates, at some level, the death of Mr Memory onstage at the climax of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935). Just moments earlier, we had seen that rather sad-faced individual introduced by a dignified master of ceremonies. What I would add is this. I do feel that a prototype of the theatrical aspect of both Spione and The 39 Steps is Dupont's Variety, and a licence for a certain risquéness too. Also, the cuckolded husband (Emil Jannings) in Dupont's film, who finally can't help himself, even if it causes his own death, is arguably one of several forerunners of the ill-fated Mr Memory. But obviously there are others ...



February 18 - 2012
If Yves Lavandier discerns a structural weakness in Vertigo at the point where 'Madeleine' is supposedly dead and the film seems to have lost all its momentum (see February 4, above) - which corresponds to the same 'weakness' I know I once noted myself and which others have reported - the question arises, 'At what level is this passage in the film a weakness?' Obviously, it's no weakness at all for a percentage of viewers like DF in Germany who emailed me about it last week. He wrote: 'I was totally astonished when Madeleine was killed ... [but] then the film REALLY began. There was no dullness at all; Hitchcock, IMHO, managed the whole thing brilliantly. I remember ... absolute stillness [in the cinema] as the second half of the film started (coroner's inquest), and I remember the most intense curiosity about what was NOW going on (big question mark there). The dream sequence and the stay in the clinic were both logical and supremely puzzling ... then it all started to fall into place. At the real end of the film I was, as they say, "gob-smacked". ... Just thought I would report this memory of [my own] gut reaction - no blemish, nothing of the kind; the film was perhaps not suited to a 1959 audience, but by the 80s the film's time really had come, I think.' Thanks DF, and I don't disagree with anything you say above. The best audiences for Vertigo are wholly engaged with the film intellectually as well as emotionally. But Lavandier takes a different perspective, inasmuch as he isn't writing about the best - or ideal - audience: 'As a matter of fact [he claims] no film better illustrates the gulf between film critics and the general public than Vertigo. The critics, who tend to experience films with their head more than their heart and fall easily for anything that breaks with the norm, focussed on the film's themes and, as these were extremely interesting, rated Vertigo a masterpiece. By contrast, popular audiences who mainly - not solely, but mainly - appreciate a film for its construction and the emotion it creates were not unduly impressed.' (p. 189) Hmm. Although I'm not sure how true it is that many critics/reviewers rated Vertigo a masterpiece when it first came out, certainly there is something in what Lavandier says here. Some audiences, on a first (and maybe only) viewing of a film, do largely respond emotionally. And so the question may be put, 'Given that Hitchcock made his film for these viewers, among others, isn't he, in effect, papering over a crack, a structural weakness, that does exist - at some level?' It's a hard one. (On the other hand, as I tried to say last time, it's no problem at all. Vertigo, when re-visited, coheres and is meaningful throughout, and is full of invention and beauty. It may be the greatest film ever made.) Actually, Hitchcock's art and artistry always included ways of 'papering over cracks'. 'It must look real but never be real', he claimed. He once went so far as to tell screenwriter Rodney Ackland, when for a lark they made the outrageously experimental Number Seventeen (1932), '[Audiences will] stand for anything if you don't give them time to think!' 'Or if you distract them enough', he might have added as a corollary. If you truly want to appreciate Hitchcock, you need to appreciate in particular his 'distractions'. They are half of his art. Take those colourful or 'psychedelic' shots of the sleeping Scottie in Vertigo, mentioned by Lavandier. They function - as cues to the upcoming dream - at the very edge of the audience's story-preoccupied consciousness, just as they are indeed avante-gardish in quality and tone. (See frame-capture below, and compare the dream itself, with its rhythmic flashes and other effects.) In that respect they have a sensual quality - they work us over - in a way that has little to do with intellectual information and nearly everything to do with the film as an analogue of life itself, almost like sex. They are arousing. (Once again I am reminded of how Hitchcock's ability to think in terms of 'pure film' is like Schopenhauer's conception of the world as essentially Will, the life/death force, whose principal manifestation in humans and animals is the sex drive.) As I keep saying, Hitchcock is forever referring to a fundamental sado-masochism seemingly inherent in the nature of film, so often does he resort to its power to compel our attention (as in the inquest scene, a miniature of the courtroom scenes elsewhere in Hitchcock), even when all momentum seems lost. As in the act of sex, arousal may not happen all at once, but it is nonetheless building.



February 11 - 2012
[This week's item held over. But we have updated our New Publications page. See link here. KM]

February 4 - 2012
My thanks to French correspondent CV who wonders why, when I reviewed Yves Lavandier's book 'Writing Drama' (English translation 2005) some time ago, I didn't take the author to task for some slighting remarks about Vertigo. (CV notes that he was once a student in Lavandier's scriptwriting class and wasn't impressed by his 'contempt' for the auteur theory. Hmm. That's really a separate matter, but one that I'll be happy to discuss here another time.) Specifically, Lavandier asserts that there's a structural problem in Vertigo. He notes how, after 70 minutes, 'with Madeline [sic] dead, the suspense (which had been mild in any case) is over and we enter the third act. A court clears Scottie of legal responsibility and he ends up in a clinic receiving treatment for a nervous breakdown - a situation that enables Hitchcock to provide us with some psychedelic images.' And Lavandier continues: 'Logically, the film should end there, after 80 minutes. But this is not what happens. With our interest now waning rapidly, the writers ask us to become interested in a new story.' Well, I grant that there's a certain supercilious tone about Lavandier's description of an alleged 'uninteresting' period in this section of Vertigo (he certainly seems insensitive to the many fine things occurring there, such as Henry Jones's performance as the coroner who both clears and condemns Scottie of negligence in the matter of Madeleine's death - see frame-capture below). On the other hand, in all honesty, here's how I felt obliged to respond to CV about this: 'I agree with the basic criticism by Lavandier that Vertigo has structural problems ... I remember that when I first saw the film, in my student days, the passage where Judy appears (and for several minutes leading up to that) and Scottie follows her to her hotel room and then asks her out seemed to drag for a while; and I actually felt wearied at this point in the film. That was my "gut feeling" about the film, and it told me that there was a problem. I have never forgotten it.' And I added: 'We know that Hitchcock himself was in two (or more) minds about whether to save the revelation about Madeleine and Judy being the same person until the end of the film, or not. From what I've read, he was near-panicky about whether to put in the 'Dearest Scottie' note-writing scene or leave it out. Finally he put it in. I think he was right to do so. Apart from making for suspense because now the audience will wonder what Scottie will do when he finds that he has been tricked, the inclusion of the note-writing scene cuts short any further 'drifting' feeling by the audience.' (In any case, we can now see Vertigo as the masterpiece it is - 'the core structural problem [I suggested to CV] is no more than a blemish. Many classics - films, plays, novels, symphonies, et al. - are "difficult" and perhaps none is perfect! But one learns to love and appreciate them for their many qualities and insights and innovations, despite their blemishes!') Okay. Something that interests me is what Hitchcock learned from the structural problems he encountered and tried to solve in Vertigo. For example, I've already mentioned the inquest scene that follows the death of Madeleine. How, straight after this latter event (Madeleine's death), which leaves both us and Scottie devastated and seems to leave the film itself nowhere to go, does Hitchcock keep his audience engaged? One answer I've referred to: it's the oily performance of Henry Jones as the coroner and the suppressed frustration and anger of Scottie (James Stewart) as he squirms at the coroner's words. In a way, this scene is the equivalent of the oily (and/or smug) psychiatrist's summing up at the end of Psycho - see last week's entry. The revelation of the identity of 'Mother' in Psycho is roughly the equivalent of the shocking death of Madeleine in Vertigo. The inquest or official summing-up that then follows is necessary but potentially boring to an audience whose thoughts may be still in turmoil. Realising this, Hitchcock keeps his nerve. He scripts the scene to be as explanatory as it needs to be but he also injects touches of characterisation that - being somewhat sadistic and/or masochistic in their implication - are most likely to draw audience attention. (For example, as we watch the psychiatrist's scene in Psycho, we notice his almost callous indifference to Lila's feelings about her dead sister.) Equally, in Vertigo, in the scenes that flow from the inquest - first, Scottie's dream (preluded by what Lavandier calls 'psychedelic images' of Scottie's disturbed sleep), then the scene of Scottie's breakdown (where Midge tells the doctor that she doesn't think that 'Mozart is going to help at all'), then the gloriously upbeat panning-shot of San Francisco signalling Scottie's recovery - the momentum is kept going. The rough equivalent in Psycho are the successive scenes after the psychiatrist's explanation: Norman/'Mother' in the police cell, and the excavation of the car (and body) from the swamp. More next time.



January 28 - 2012
Am back. Just some passing thoughts on Psycho this time, perhaps ironically inspired by the News item below about the death of Israel Baker, the man who led the orchestra that recorded the film's unforgettable score. Early in Psycho Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is heard to say, 'Headaches are like resolutions. You forget them as soon as they stop hurting.' It's a brilliant line, of course - in a film of many brilliant lines - for both its general truth about much human 'forgetting' and for its relevance to Psycho in particular. We all have 'selective' memories, and congratulations to Marion for recognising it. She is here sounding the idea of how we fall into 'traps' of our own making (at least in part): we may resolve to change, but soon habit and indolence may see us falling back into those traps. Even the great philosopher Schopenhauer, who aspired to be as objective as humanly possible, clearly never quite extricated himself from the combative and pessimistic mindset that he brought to his dealings with his mother, a society hostess in Weimar, Germany. Consequently, in formulating his philosophy of the effects of the world's Will, he looked too little on 'the bright side' of things. But we all resort to our particular defence mechanisms. Note Marion in the frame-capture below. Her line about headaches is partly an act, a diversion, to avoid having to explain to Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock) how she has just spent her extended lunch hour. Nonetheless, her weary gesture also expresses an unconscious anguish at the 'trap' she is beginning to feel herself in with her impecunious boyfriend Sam (John Gavin). Caroline has her own limitations. Not as bright nor even as - relatively - liberated as Marion, she babbles about how her mother's doctor had prescribed her tranquilisers on the day of her wedding. (The mother's influence is very apparent, and the hovering presence of the family doctor suggests a certain unhealthiness of the family generally.) In turn, Caroline's observation about how her husband had been 'furious' when he found out his wife had taken 'tranquilizers' reminds us of a man's possible viewpoint in all of this, and again anticipates the working of fundamental 'drives' (cf Will) in the overall scheme of things, which Psycho is clearly about. 'Everything's perverted in a different way', Hitchcock once said. Much of the 'objectivity' of Psycho is inherent in an English fiction tradition that Hitchcock knew well, for it goes back to Mrs Belloc Lowndes. In the novel 'The Lodger' (1913), the Lodger is unambiguously a killer but escapes into the night. Mr and Mrs Bunting, the co-landlords of the house where the Lodger had stayed, take different viewpoints. Mrs Bunting retains a compassion for the escaped man, which she had begun to feel quite early. '"So you see," she said at last, "you see, Bunting, that 'twas me that was right after all. The lodger was never responsible for his actions. I never thought he was, for my part." And Bunting stared at her ruminatingly. "Depends on what you call responsible ---" he began argumentatively. But she would have none of that. "I heard the gentleman say myself [sic] that he was a lunatic," she said fiercely. And then, dropping her voice, "A religious maniac - that's what he called him."' (Chapter XXVII) Earlier in the novel, Mrs Bunting had begun to experience an oppressive feeling which is almost Schopenhauerian: 'For the first time in her life she visioned the infinite misery, the sadness and strangeness, of human life.' (Chapter XVI) This is certainly Belloc Lowndes's position, and not too far removed from Hitchcock's in his films, including Psycho. It is related to the grim humour of the hardware store scene where the lady customer professes concern about not inflicting suffering on 'insect or man' but soon - note - appears to have forgotten that she had held such scruples. Equally, the same theme of 'schizophrenia' and partial viewpoints is inherent in the male psychiatrist's over-glib, unfeeling summing up of the Norman Bates case at the end of the film. We sense an incompleteness here, including potentially in ourselves. As critic Robin Wood would note, there is an organic unity about Psycho whose function is to remind us of our limitations that we share with the film's characters.



January 14 - 2012
[Computer problems. This page/site will be updated asap, but it could be a matter of days, even weeks. Apologies. KM.]

January 7 - 2012
2012 Readers, welcome to the New Year! Today I'm going to recommend a film that at first estimation may not seem particularly Hitchcockian. It's the Swedish/Danish/German feature The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) from the novel by Stieg Larsson. (I have not yet seen the American remake, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig, but hear that it's excellent. Well, so too is the original film, whose correct title is actually Men Who Hate Women, the same as the novel's.) Essentially, it's about an investigation into the disappearance of a young girl named Harriet, some 40 years earlier. The girl's ageing, reclusive uncle, Henrik Vanger, one of a wealthy family living on a Swedish island, summons investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist to his home and tells him that he wants to make a last-ditch attempt, after so much time, to find out what happened to the girl, whom he believes was murdered by one of her family. (The frame-capture below shows the girl.) There's another element of the investigation. As he puzzles over a possible clue, an entry in young Harriet's diary, which he finds in storage, Mikael uses his computer to look up and record information - but gets nowhere. Then one day he receives a mysterious email and becomes aware that someone has hacked his computer and has been following his every move. Strangely, the person is not spying on him for sinister purposes but actually wants to help him, offering advice about what the clue in the diary might mean. In due course, the person will make herself known to Mikael as Lisbeth Salander, a troubled, highly intelligent young lady, aged 24, a 'Goth' (with a dragoon tattoo on her back), who rides a motorcycle and tends to dress in black. Part of the first half of the film is about how the respective paths of Mikael and Lisbeth converge and finally meet. (The second half is about how together they solve the crime and how, at one point, she saves his life after he has been trapped in a secret basement by a vengeful member of the Vanger family. The would-be killer will eventually perish when his car plunges over a cliff and bursts into flames.) The film is a darkly effective thriller in the modern Scandinavian manner (I also think of a novel like 'The Broken Shore' by Australian Peter Temple). It's fairly unrelentingly humourless except for certain grim touches - and yet, I couldn't help thinking of Hitchcock's Family Plot (1975). Perhaps the rough synopsis above begins to show why: for example, the two convergent strands of plot that finally meet, leading to a violent climax or two. The main lesson about Family Plot I learned (or was reminded of) was how Hitchcock had to be content with hints rather than graphic depiction, especially in sexual matters. (In Neils Arden Oplev's film there are, for instance, a couple of scenes in which the orphaned Lisbeth is sadistically abused by a sleazy guardian.) Nonetheless, Hitchcock clearly intended Family Plot to have its dark and/or modern touches, and in its depiction of kidnapper Fran (Karen Black) and her relationship with her partner-in-crime Arthur Adamson/Eddie Shoebridge (William Devane), who had once incinerated his foster parents, I see her as a rough precursor of Lisbeth Salander. Further, Fran admits, with a grin, that tonight she intends to 'torture' her partner sexually! She shows herself highly capable in several ways. After picking up a ransom diamond while disguised in six-inch heels, a stunning black outfit, and long blonde tresses (a wig), she wordlessly directs a helicopter pilot precisely where to head and where to set down, thus showing herself an experienced aerial navigator. Of course, Hitchcock's film has another couple, medium Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) and out-of-work actor George Lumley (Bruce Dern), with whom we at least partially identify as they investigate a dark family secret (that becomes even darker before the end) and make the final breakthrough that will see Adamson and Fran placed behind bars. Nonetheless, there's a sense in which the two couples are really related, more than Hitchcock cared (or dared) to suggest overtly. For example, when George, weary, tells Blanche that she has him 'by the crystal balls', we sense how everyone is driven by sexual needs, their own or a partner's (or someone else's), and that there's a continuity of such needs (and their associated mores) across society - with only a fine line, if we're honest, between 'nice' and 'not-so-nice' people. At least, as someone says at the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 'Everyone has their secrets'. In other words, though the tone is quite different, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a variant, nearly forty years on, of Family Plot, but made with the greater licence four decades have given.