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Sunday, 19 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Five - Chalk and Cheese - NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO

Cary Grant, North by Northwest
After the personal revelations of Vertigo, Hitchcock returned in North by Northwest (1959) to relatively lighter and more customary ground albeit with a vengeance. This is a flawlessly executed chase narrative, virtually the apotheosis of a form largely identified in film with Hitchcock. Exhilarating and unendingly rich in performance detail, this espionage thriller clearly benefits from the presence of Cary Grant in top form, beguilingly charming but with an edge, in the last and best of his quartet of outings with Hitch; James Mason and Martin Landau (another openly gay character) are fruitily malevolent as the villains; Jessie Royce Landis (the mother who stubs her cigarette butt into an egg in To Catch a Thief ) reprises her acerbic star turn as Grant’s mother, aiding and abetting his abductors in an hilarious sequence where she just cannot help sneering in disbelief at his cries for help; and Eva Marie Saint finally gets a role befitting her talents as a morally ambivalent glacial blonde really and truly in the Grace Kelly mould who generates suitably edgy erotic tensions with Grant.

Literally traversing a great deal of territory, this sharply written (Ernest Lehman), witty, cross-country pursuit becomes a peg on which Hitchcock hangs one intoxicating location set-piece after another.  These episodes are set in train by a richly comic episode of Grant’s being forced by his abductors to drink a bottle of whiskey then drive around hairpin bends and plunging cliff faces culminating (by way of a very funny star turn tailor made for Grant’s gestural skills) in a totally incoherent explanation of these bizarre activities which confounds the police and delights the audience.

The attention to formal architectural patterns in Hitchcock films, undoubtedly arising out of his early training in film set design, serves North by Northwest well and has been much raked over by Hitchcock scholars. The credits sequence with its criss-cross directional grids, the showy vignette at UN headquarters involving overhead shots of the building and grounds, the fascinating Frank Lloyd Wright-like house jutting out of the edge of Mount Rushmore all attest to Hitchcock’s meticulous planning of the kind of visual detail that makes North by Northwest such a thrilling and memorable roller-coaster ride.

The auction sequence and, more especially, the celebrated crop duster episode are further exercises in Hitchcock’s knowingness in juxtaposing terror with the most mundane details of daily life. In the latter case an isolated rural bus stop, a field of corn and a plane “crop dusting where there ain’t no crops” turns into a sustained nightmare in broad sunlight for the hapless Grant and his unsuspecting cinema audience. Like Saboteur (1942), the film’s climactic scenes are built into a national monument; in Saboteur its the Statue of Liberty  which serves as the backdrop to the final struggle between victim and victimiser, Mount Rushmore in this film. Hitchcock is nothing if not perversely manipulative in the visual connotations he sets up for his audiences.

Grant, Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest
North by Northwest is really a compendium of Hitchcock’s spy thriller obsessions: the search for identity (Will the real Kaplan and Lester Townsend please stand up?); romantic betrayal and divided trust (all of the ambiguity built into the paradoxical behaviour of Eva Marie Saint towards Cary Grant at various points of the film represents the most complex and extended exploration of this theme in a Hitchcock work); victimization of the innocent; the interchangeability of good/evil, heroes/villains, and so on.

The "Frank Lloyd Wright" House, Eva Marie saint, James Mason, Martin Landau
North by Northwest
After the expansiveness of North by Northwest with its breathtaking colour visual design, flamboyant use of landscapes, and extroverted Herrmann score came Psycho (1960), an extraordinarily radical departure from any of Hitchcock’s previous work. Photographed significantly not by Robert Burks but in stark black and white by John L Russell, whom Hitchcock had used in his TV series, Psycho gives us the darkest side of Hitchcock’s genius, a Hitchcock in extremis.

John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Psycho
Instead of the usual trappings of the thriller, Hitchcock moved directly into out and out of horror film territory, complete with an imposing Gothic mansion, a swamp full of nasty secrets, some very distressing violence and a monster. In many respects Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. The film, uncharacteristically shot on a shoe-string, has had a detrimental long-term effect on the genre it exploited (it really spawned the splatter movie and encouraged lesser film makers increasingly to substitute skill in evoking terror through withholding rather than revealing detail-a la Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur-with graphic in-your-face explicitness).

In other respects, Hitchcock’s decision to follow this path has been well and truly vindicated. Psycho retains its awful, unsettling, gruesome power in spite of its lesser imitators over the last four decades. It may be read as a very black comedy (Hitch himself publicly stated “it was fun”) or as a “raging, murderous shout”. It’s actually a lot of both. It pushes Hitchcock’s voyeuristic techniques and subjective camera stylistics to the edge. Its sensual violence was upfront and shocked many of his admirers. Even the mischievously ironic dialogue so typical of Hitchcock’s playful winks at his audience (“Mother’s not quite herself today”) skirted the boundaries of accepted taste in 1960.

Anthony Perkins, Psycho
But mostly the film contains scenes of great formal power-even beauty-despite the nasty schlock/horror content. Some of the contributing factors to the film’s strong impact are: Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling score; George Tomasini’s razor-sharp editing; the calculatedly remote, gothic, Grand Guignol setting with its grotesque piece of Victoriana towering over twelve empty motel rooms; and especially, Anthony Perkins’ nervous, unsettling, bird-like presence photographed in bizarre angles amidst the “stuffed birds” d├ęcor of his parlour.

The atmosphere of Psycho is unsettling for its audience right from the opening establishing shot where the subjective camera (using the audience as its eyes) tracks forward and peers into a shabby Phoenix hotel room where a pair of furtive lovers (Janet Leigh and John Gavin) have been using their lunch break for a quickie and are now quarrelling about whether there is a future to their relationship. Desperate to escape her tawdry circumstances, secretary Leigh is drawn by chance into a crime while Hitchcock effortlessly controls audience complicity in her actions (there’s no contest: the scumbag on the make from whom she fleeces $40,000 under the anxious gaze of colleague Patricia Hitchcock richly ‘deserves’ his reversal of fortune). Hitchcock further compounds audience complicity in closely recording her flight into the night with a battery of subjective visual/aural devices-including such obvious suspense tactics as her tense, prolonged encounters with the creepy cop and the
garrulous used-car salesman; frames-within-frames suggesting she is being tailed by unknown forces or authorities; mirrors capturing her dualities as she fights with her dark side and her conscience; her mounting panic as the night lights become progressively blinding and unbearable, the audience sharing her terror via the eerie tracking shots of the car’s forward movement alternating with big close-ups of Leigh’s strained face and nervous hands with the soundtrack relentlessly recording her stream-of-consciousness fragments in voice-overs.

Heavy rain finally forces her into the Bates motel, isolated because the highway has been re-directed. There follow the famous encounters with Anthony Perkins and, remotely, his mother.

The parlour sequence itself is the only fully developed scene between Perkins and Leigh and serves as a model of how Hitchcock plays with his audience until it is squirming with discomfort and uneasy anticipation. Something is very out of kilter here-the bizarre angles immerse Perkins in and identify him with, his stuffed predatory birds on a visual level. The threat to Ms Leigh is not properly grasped by her (why would it be?) and she remains cool throughout the scene, handling Perkins’ strangeness with fine contrasting aplomb. The wonderfully edgy script by Joseph Stefano emphasizes Perkins’ halting, occasionally stammering delivery of his lines at length; his over-reaction to, and misreading of, Leigh’s humane suggestion that his mother be cared for really sets the alarm bells ringing for the audience.

The whole scene tips over into Perkins’amazing and deeply unsettling speech (“We’re all in our own private traps…we scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other and for all that we never budge an inch…”) which catches his unpredictability and frightening mood/tone shifts. This in turn paves the way for the shocks that almost immediately follow, Hitchcock seating his audience all the while on a knife edge.

Anthony Perkins is revealed, not unsurprisingly given Hitchcock’s carefully prepared preliminary planning, as a creepy peeping tom closely observing Ms Leigh’s body parts as she prepares to shower (clearly Ms Leigh is about to become the latest of a long line of victims in cabin one of the Bates Motel.). The audience’s only identification figure to this point in the film has been Ms Leigh and following Perkins’voyeuristic activities, “mother”saves him from himself by dispatching Ms Leigh into the hereafter in what is one of the most brutal, seemingly senseless, graphic and brilliantly filmed murders on celluloid. The disorienting effect on the film’s audience is total…where do we go from here without the key to our narrative point of view?

The Bates motel and its mysteries are, perversely, never fully revealed. Tthe swamp, it is hinted, contains much more than Marion’s car and the $40 000. Hitchcock’s imagery is endlessly resonating, ruminating as it does over the key rooms of the Bates mansion and Norman’s childhood, witnessing another pointless murder, and finally through the revelations in the cellar disgorging its human monster created through a family history rooted in troubled sexuality. In the final sequence, Norman has become his mother and, from his straitjacket, contemplates a fly on the wall. The very final image is breath-taking piece of visual sleight of hand. In a very fast lap-dissolve, Hitchcock merges Perkins’ now hollow eyes and his mother’s skeleton face with Leigh’s car being dredged up from the swamp. It is one of the most arresting and distressingly concentrated images in cinema history.

Anthony Perkins’ magnificently bizarre characterization unfortunately dogged him for the remainder of his career-no following act could ever have been halfway as impressive, although he was certainly capable of subtle and layered acting vide Pretty Poison, meeting his match with the irrepressible Tuesday Weld; Leigh also contributed a detailed, intelligent performance (watch closely what she captures through her hands on the wheel of her car during her flight into the night); Gavin and especially Miles are given excellent, fleshed-out roles as the audience identification figures attempting to unravel the mystery of the Bates motel; but some of the minor vignettes are equally in tune with the film’s off-centre mood, including Martin Balsam as the ingratiating private eye who meets his doom in the Bates house and John McIntire as the county sheriff whose commanding basso profundo adds its folksy observations about the dark doings chez Bates.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Godard for completists - Une Femme Coquette

I'm not sure how long this little title has been around but a burst of Facebook notifications say its recently discovered - the very first film by Jean-Luc Godard made way back in 1955. The titles say "Jean-Luc Godard presente"  and the director credit is coyly allocated to J-LG's critical pseudonym Hans Lucas. The great man himself makes an appearance beginning with a characteristic little skip out of the way of a car which rather reminds you of the way he buzzed and danced around as the assistant director in the rooftop scenes in Le Mepris.

But for completists and anybody else not reading Facebook posts at random, here it is on YouTube, an English subtitled copy of Une Femme Coquette.
  Thanks to all the cinephiles who leapt on this treasure instantly.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Four - Two 50s Masterpieces and more in between

After a relatively minor work in the Hitchcock canon, the enjoyable Dial M for Murder (1954) where he explored the possibilities of 3D, the master launched into his most creatively fertile years beginning with Rear Window (1954). With the exceptions of the lightweight romantic comedy/thriller To Catch a Thief (1955) which deliciously exploits its Riviera locations and the fascinating star combination of the mature Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at her sexiest; and The Trouble with Harry (1955), an enjoyable but minor black comedy centred on a corpse and set amidst a blaze of autumnal colours in a New England village, every film between Rear Window and Marnie (1964) represents Hitchcock in maturity at the height of his powers, exploring his obsessions and concerns with breathtakingly consummate film craft.

Rear Window is the ultimate refinement of Hitchcock’s fascination with exploring a closed situation and can be compared with Rope (1948), Lifeboat (1944). In this case a single set represents the courtyard and apartments viewed from James Stewart’s Greenwich Village window, where, playing a news photographer, he is stuck in his room with a broken leg. Bored because he is forced out of his customarily adventurous life in exotic locations through his present condition, and confronted with possible marital entrapment by his socialite girlfriend (Grace Kelly in a smug, unsympathetic role), Stewart becomes the compleat Hitchcock voyeur projecting his personal fantasies and obsessions onto other people’s lives. With his large binoculars blowing up every neighbour’s window like a projected screen image, a number of commentators have pointed out that Stewart becomes a metaphor for the cinema audience itself (as spectator living vicariously) and the film exploits the inherent dangers and morally questionable motives arising out of this relationship with wit, entertainment and intellectual complexity. Rear Window invites overt reflection on the film process, its deep links with the voyeur in everyone, and largely unthinking audience complicity in this process.  Part of the film’s success lies in Hitchcock’s felicitous teaming with James Stewart, who like Cary Grant, was ideal putty in the master’s hands.

In spite of the surface folksiness of his established screen persona, Stewart was able to demonstrate, especially in his work with Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, an unsavoury quality in his obsessiveness that both directors would develop and exploit. This is so to an amazing extent in Hitchcock’s and Stewart’s best film, Vertigo. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) presents an even more unsympathetic Stewart as an uptight, conservative Midwestern doctor. Stewart virtually plays God in his relationship with his distraught wife Doris Day by withholding information about their son, kidnapped while they are on holiday in Morocco. Ian Cameron wrote an excellent article on this film in an issue of the British magazine Movie, demonstrating how effortlessly Hitchcock manipulates his audiences through the mechanics of suspense. This remake of his 1934 film of the same name and in some ways superior to that film, is, like the minor film Torn Curtain (1966), an elaborate series of set-pieces involving the master’s toying with the elements of his craft. It includes a meticulously crafted and visually witty red herring involving the confusion around Victor Chapel. The film as a whole protracts the suspense elements to an excruciating degree, particularly in the lengthy Albert Hall sequence. Never have regular musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s contributions been so central and visible to a Hitchcock plot. (Great chunks of Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Cloud Cantata are one of the film’s many delights).

The Man Who Knew Too Much also contains some of the best work of its two stars: Stewart’s attempts to rip a chicken apart with his hands while dangling cross-legged on the floor of a Moroccan restaurant is rivalled in sublime awkwardness only by the sight of Cary Grant’s attempts to find a comfortable position in which to sleep in a bathtub in Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Doris Day is a convincing Hitchcock heroine, and the supporting cast includes sturdy English character actors Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie who play the villains with a perversely disorienting mix of the homely and the sinister-a Hitchcock specialty.

The Wrong Man (1957) is less entertaining but no less potent. Again it is Hitchcock in full throttle, reworking the sombre territory of I Confess (1953) in a more extreme minor key. Henry Fonda plays a jazz musician mistakenly arrested as a holdup man: this provides a starting point for one of Hitchcock’s bleakest and most nightmarish presentations of victimization. The New York location shooting is done in film noir style and the narrative proceeds with a spare documentation which avoids Hitchcock’s more characteristically devious manipulation of plot. The imagery has been described as Kafkaesque in its expression of a cruel, uncaring universe full of labyrinthine dead-ends. “The quiet Manny (Fonda) journeys through his modern hell with child-like awe…this is an unrelenting depiction of the desolation of existence”.

Complementing Fonda’s self-effacing, numbed performance is that of Vera Miles as his wife Rose. The film charts the course of her mental breakdown in distressingly graphic visual detail, while Fonda’s own dilemma makes him incapable of giving her the support she desperately requires. Miles was one of Hitchcock’s favourite blondes and he intended to groom her in the mould of Grace Kelly after the latter’s defection to royalty: but Miles’ natural warmth played against the “glacial blonde” image the calculating Kelly projected Hitchcock which seemed to favour. She exhibited a lot of vulnerability and some insecurity, and among Hitchcock’s leading women, these characteristics were only exceeded by Kim Novak in Vertigo.

The Wrong Man contains, like I Confess, overtly Catholic symbolism but the mood of the film’s resolution paradoxically suggests a skeptic’s rather than a believer’s point of view. The Catholicism is, however, strongly felt in the film’s austerity; this is an exceptional film for Hitchcock in being entirely devoid of humour.

Vertigo is equally intense but quite different in tone and intention from The Wrong Man. It returns to the familiar Hitchcock territory of the thriller, but unlike his other thrillers, it is a highly reflective work whose rhythms are meditative rather than suspenseful, its imagery oneiric rather than dramatic. The film subjectively presents, from the James Stewart character’s viewpoint, a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory experience of San Francisco streets and locations. It’s one of the richest of 50s colour films in its original incarnation (the restored DVD version, unfortunately misses the original hues).

Vertigo is Hitchcock’s definitive exploration of voyeurism. It is also the most extreme expression of thwarted romanticism in his entire oeuvre. James Stewart as the ex-cop hired by his friend Tom Helmore brings an intensity to his role unparalleled even in his most neurotic forays into Anthony Mann westerns or in the darker passages of It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). In the first few reels of Vertigo, Tom Helmore engages Stewart to follow and observe his suicidal wife, Kim Novak. In the process, he becomes romantically obsessed with her and everything her ethereal image represents for him. The dream-like atmosphere this creates is reinforced in several ways: in the opening sequence, Stewart pursues a criminal, at night, across a San Francisco rooftop, slips and almost plunges to his death. A fellow cop then actually does fall trying to rescue Stewart and Stewart is left dangling on some guttering. Hitchcock craftily denies the audience any visible evidence of Stewart’s rescue, and the effect is to create in the audience mind not only a lack of a sense of closure but also the impression of a character who’s fallen into a state of mind somewhere between reality and dream. This almost surreal state is further extended in the imagery of mesmerizing drives around hilly San Francisco locations as Stewart tails Novak relentlessly. It is also developed by Novak’s somnambulistic screen presence (was there ever a shrewder and more precise piece of casting?-it’s hard to believe she wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice); by the haunting accounts of her ancestry; by fetishistic detail like the necklace and the hair curl; and by Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling and eerily beautiful score. It’s expressly imaged in Stewart’s intense gaze, insistently photographed during his drives and intercut with the stylistically familiar subjective forward tracking.

Halfway through the film, after rescuing Novak from a drowning attempt in San Francisco Bay, and after casting her in the role of heroine in distress with himself as her saviour, he drives her out to an old Spanish mission where she apparently leaps to her death from the mission tower. Stewart, whose vertigo renders him powerless to prevent this, sinks into a state of mourning-listlessly conveyed by this endlessly resourceful actor. Friend, wannabe lover and terminally earth-bound Barbara Bel Geddes attempts to rehabilitate him on a steady diet of mothering and Mozart but, surprise, surprise, it doesn’t help at all. He has elaborate surreal nightmares incorporating many of the haunting death-like images surrounding the mysterious Novak.

Eventually, he finds a girl (also Novak) with an uncanny surface resemblance to his lost love (dream? fantasy?) but with none of the ethereality or style. He obsessively repeats the process of trying to save her, mould her, and work over her working girl, Pygmalion-fashion, into her predecessor’s image. The two Novaks are, of course, one and the same and were part of an elaborate plot to rid Tom Helmore of his wife using Stewart as the ideal dupe because of his vertigo.

Once he realizes he has been deceived, Stewart’s angry passions are given full flight. His re-enactment of the mission tower episode with a terrified Novak is one of the cinema’s most frightening experiences. Stewart’s tortured and disappointed romantic ego, it has been suggested, may well be a surrogate expression for Hitchcock’s own. I suspect this is the closest the Master of Suspense ever came to revealing his own feelings on film if the accounts in Donald Spoto’s biography are to be believed. The disturbing thing is that the romantic obsession is here rooted in voyeurism, fetishism, anxiety and impotence. For surely Stewart’s fear of heights and subsequent powerlessness at the center of the film are metaphors for sexual inadequacy and/or impotence. Tragically in the film, such inadequacies are only overcome by Stewart ridding himself of the source of his passion, that is, Novak herself.

Never has a city and its locations been used so effectively as an interior as well as exterior landscape as they have in this timeless masterpiece. The great Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks surpassed himself in the colour, lighting and atmospherics (both interior and exterior) in this film.