Archive for November, 2010

Week 47: ‘The Birds’ – 1963

November 27, 2010

This is truly one of the strangest of all Alfred Hitchcock’s movies – undeniably great but very odd. It’s such a weird premise, the idea of birds randomly and inexplicably attacking the human population, that it quickly becomes compelling and intriguing to watch. It’s great for precisely this reason: it’s not explained at the start and not resolved at the close, the main characters simply drive away very slowly through the thronged birds.

Right from the start, with its strange light blue Universal logo and bird flapping graphic titles, you know you’re in for something special. Robert Burks is back behind the camera, Edith Head sorting out ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s costumes as Melanie Daniels. As she first appears (black clothing) she is wolf (or bird?) whistled by a passer by, and casts her eyes skywards to the busy birds.

I like the feel of the relationship between Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and Melanie. He is a gad about town, smooth and well dressed and confident. She is a rich socialite – seemingly a bit airheaded but actually very tender and ready to love. Their dialogue is immediately flirty and clever as they spar playfully over bird related dialogue – all attractive stuff to watch and a light surround to a film with a raven black centre. Their flirtation and romance speeds along very nicely – Melanie zooming up to Bodega Bay to deliver two love birds for Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Hitchcock does a lovely little thing as Melanie’s sports car banks along the roads, the camera above and showing the two little lovebirds leaning from side to side. Neat and funny and irresistible.

Suzanne Pleshette is very good as the schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Immediately she meets Melanie and they talk of Mitch she conveys her past (and present) love for him very adeptly. A couple of looks away into the distance and you get the picture, really economical. Annie has dark hair, and Melanie is blonde – just so it’s established who’s who in the pecking order. When the two women sit and have a glass of vino and a ciggie late in the evening, Mitch rings and Hitchcock cuts to a lovely composition, Annie large in the foreground, Melanie in the background – but it’s Annie’s expression your attention is focused on.

This scene ends with the thump of a dead bird and Melanie’s foreboding line ‘but it isn’t dark, Annie, there’s a full moon’

The first tiny attack could be accidental. An enticing romantic moment – Melanie having quietly dropped off the lovebirds for Cathy then Mitch speeding around the bay to meet her – is rudely interrupted by the swooping beast, and Melanie’s gloved finger is spotted with bright red blood. As Mitch cleans the cut, there is a very discreet camera move – it pulls out and does a subtle rotation to balance the shot around the pair of them, very neat.

There’s also a very telling closeup as Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) comes into the diner and sees Melanie for the first time. If it had stayed on a two shot with her son, then fine, but the cut to her full frame shows her expression and her shackles rising protectively. Mrs. Brenner is a Mrs. Bates figure with more skin on her bones – but just as protective of her ickle boy and those floozies who want to clip his wings.

The violence in the film is something to behold. After the first Melanie swoop, Cathy’s birthday party really sees things taking off, the kids pecked and terrorized by the creatures with really convincing effects. Later, the chaos that ensues when the Brenner’s house is invaded is great, the special affected birds swirling around as Mitch tries to get rid of them. There’s an admirable discipline in not having the women howling and screaming – it literally is just the sound of the birds. In the aftermath, Melanie observes Mother tidying as Mitch talks to the cop – it’s the start of some kind of bond between the two women and a really subtle character scene. Another great shock scene comes straight after the house attack as Mrs. B. discovers  the farmer Mr. Dan Fawcett (uncredited actor here) with his eyes bloodily plucked out. Hitchcock pulls out a dramatic cut sequence, this time three increasingly close up images that reminded me of Truffaut’s ‘Tirez Sur La Pianiste’ and prefigures Scorsese’s image of the shooting range Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’*.

The scene is very creepy, Mrs. Brenner afterwards literally being unable to speak or communicate what she has just seen. It’s very unexpected as we’ve just experienced another attack, the warning signs already there as she notices a cracked tea cup hanging up (Hitchcock planting the idea of broken crockery in the previous scene). Again, it’s the silence of her discovery that is truly great – such discipline to stick to this. Tandy is great also in her portrayal of paralysed shock.

By this point, the film starts to ramp up the attacks and the violence in one great set piece after another. The school attack is great, Melanie sitting quietly and not noticing the winged masses behind her who then go for the kids full force. Nice use of sound again here, the kids’ repetitive song acting as a distant soundtrack as birds gather. Hitchcock points his camera at the birds until we hear the sound of the children running – then all hell breaks loose. It’s very convincing and distressing.

By the time of the diner/Bodega Bay town centre attack (fantastic under siege group of individuals cowering within the restaurant) and then the attack on Melanie in the upstairs room the appearance of birds is both sinister and extremely unnerving. The diner scene brings together a great array of townsfolk, including the ornithologist old girl Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Grifies) singing the birds’ praises and coming out with helpful lines such as the world having ‘…100 billion birds…flock together? If that happened, we wouldn’t have a chance’. ‘It’s the end of the world’ chimes in the cliched but entertaining Bible bashing booze artist propping up the bar/counter (played by Karl Swenson). This sequence also features a great quadruple cut to Melanie watching a guy’s dropped cigar flame burning its way to the gas station: an audacious jump cut sequence culminating in an almighty bang – wonderful, experimental stuff.

The effects here are wonderful too, the cigar man convincingly being burnt up and then a good old petrol explosion, cutting to a high shot over the town as the birds start their approach.

The build up to the climactic attack on Melanie in the upstairs room is just brilliant, the bird sounds increasing until all merry hell kicks off. The Melanie attack has famous rape undertones, and is all the more questionable for this (she does seem to be uttering orgasmic sounds as the attack progresses – she certainly is writhing about in a very strange way that evokes the grip of passion, occasionally muttering for Mitch to boot). The cutting here reminded me of the shower scene in 1960’s ‘Psycho’ – jagged editing to hammer home details and strengthen the feel of chaos and desperation, also present in the preceding scene where she is trapped in the phone booth.  Melanie is left catatonic by the attack, and understandably so.

The overtones of expected violence run riot through the film – the gradual landing of the birds outside the kid packed school is tremendous. When Annie looks out and sees the creatures out there you know she’s going to have to get out of there but how to tackle such a throng of winged mayhem? She later buys it herself – this poor woman with her unrequited Mitch love. Mitch’s mom is also a classic Hitchcock mother/creation, her disapproval of Melanie the same ire that must have greeted Annie and many other female suitors. You have to hand it to Melanie for standing up to the old battleaxe so defiantly. Melanie is undeniably a tough lady, but also tender – the scene at the Brenner’s house where she and Mitch wander up the hill together sees her soft side, very emotionally stating she doesn’t know where her mother is – turned away from camera, her voice cracking. She relieves the sadness by stating that she better go and ‘join the other children‘. She feels like a kid next to the manly Mitch – it did occur to me how old each one of the Brenners is meant to be – the mum must be in her 50’s, Mitch in his 30’s – but the little sister can only be 12 or 13 – interesting age ranges to figure out how the family works. Mitch is the father substitute, the deceased Dad’s portrait looming over the piano in their house. Mitch calls his mother ‘darling’ and gives her little kisses of reassurance of his love.

‘The Birds’ has no music, but instead uses Bernard Herrmann as sound consultant in the bird sounds and songs that serve as a soundtrack. Again, this is a bold and clever move – the action/suspense scenes not giving you the usual soundtrack pointers about how to feel  – the silence of expectation ramping up the terror as much as the subtle growing of bird sounds. Wonderful, subtle, clever and different use of sound – a preoccupation of the director since the start of his career in the silent 1920’s.

In my notes, I simply finished with the word ‘wow’. ‘The Birds’ is absolutely cracking stuff – clever and intriguing, scary and thought provoking. It’s an undeniable cinema classic and even though the ending could be seen as disappointing (they just drive off slowly through the massed creatures) I think it’s great – they don’t get to flamethrower the whole lot of them and beat them into feathered dust: the threat remains.

It’s a dark, dark film and worthy of its reputation. It is character based, the relationships developing logically as the story progresses. The figure of the mother slowly opens up to the rival to her son’s affections, Mitch slowly falling for Melanie also, Annie sympathetically portrayed. Join these good characterizations with this weird story and great action and it’s an incendiary combo. The director refuses to cop out with a pat ending but holds his nerve beyond the close of the picture. ‘The Birds’ is a nihilistic masterpiece, genuinely chilling and unpleasantly thought provoking. It’s absolutely superb.

Miscellaneous notes

‘Tippi’ Hedren went on the star in ‘Marnie’ (next week) and is the mother of the much more irritating Melanie Griffith.

Hitchcock comes out of the pet shop two minutes in, walking two little doggies.

*Truffaut, of course, published one of the most famous of interview books with Hitchcock. The link to Scorsese is Bernard Herrmann, whose last film ‘Taxi Driver’ was. Scorsese clearly a Hitchcockophile (check on YouTube for ‘The Key to Reserva’ plus umpteen other touches in his movies).

Rod Taylor – like him a lot especially from the great George Pal movie of ‘The Time Machine’ that I watched growing up. He’s still around too – popping up as Winston Churchill in Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’. He doesn’t have quite the hunky physique any more and his looks seem to have been drunk out of him, but he’s Rod Taylor for heaven’s sake!

This was the third and last Daphne Du Maurier story adapted – after ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘Rebecca’ all those years earlier.

The movie was presented in cinemas @ 1.85:1 although I have read it was shot open gate so is meant to work 4:3 for televisions at the time. I think this is correct – the ‘1000 Frames of Hitchcock’ project shows the 1.85:1 image and you see less top and bottom of frame than you do on the 4:3. – so it’s not pan and scanned. This is a relatively rare occurrence – Stanley Kubrick used it a lot (so on the DVD version of ‘The Shining’ for example you are seeing more than you would in the cinema. Interesting the recent Blu-ray versions go back to the theatrical 1.85:1 cropped version. Bizarre choice).



Week 46: ‘Psycho’ – 1960

November 20, 2010

Where do I begin? This is without doubt the tricksiest Hitchcock to approach as it comes with so much attention and acclaim and verbiage and baggage that has sprouted in the past fifty years – all justified and legitimate as the movie is another stone cold classic and, in many ways, the greatest film the director made.

With its stark black and white photography courtesy of John L. Russell* and its all time classic score from Bernard Herrmann, with its simple and stylish Saul Bass opening captions and the performances of all the actors, ‘Psycho’ stands as the absolute peak of Hitchcock’s career.

From hereon in he will produce one more classic (‘The Birds’) a bizarre but enthralling curio (‘Marnie’) and a final few rather more patchy pictures.

What to write about this too oft scribbled about film? There’s loads – and this time I may do it in a more listy way – the things I love and admire about Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’…

1.    the photography – worth watching just for the images, the film looks great and could run as a silent movie for whole sections of it. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) moving aside his office picture to gaze at the undressing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her (black) bra (her previous disrobed scene with John Gavin as Sam Loomis saw her wearing white underwear, before the fall from grace of the $40k theft from her boss).

The murder of Marion and the slaying of the detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam)  – both shocking and sudden and beautifully handled.

Check out the wonderful photo book by Richard J. Anobile which presents the whole picture in stills with dialogue**.

2.    the performances – Perkins is just great as Norman, ostensibly kind but bristling with under the surface mania. The early dialogue between him and Marion is superb, he ramping up the tension and intensity of his performance. Leigh also shines in her doomed role, as does Balsam (see note below).

3.    the music – right from the start, Herrmann’s score is urgent and compelling. The famed ‘violin stabs over windscreen wipers’ is a wonderful touch also. The score has a great authority to it – it has discordant elements (as you’d expect from the story of a complete nutzoid) married with gentler themes. The perfect marriage of music to mood and narrative.

4.    profile shots galore – a Hitchcock trademark, they’re all over the place right from the one of Marion in the opening post coital hotel scene, later Norman profiling and her as they first enter her room. Later, Sam and the local Sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire) also heavily are featured in profile, talking out of frame as they try to suss what the heck is going on.

5.    sex – oozing out all over the place. The opening 2:43pm hotel scene with Marion and Sam; the lascivious – almost drooling – Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson) who plants his fat acre on Marion’s desk and unwittingly sets her off on her thieving of his $40k and eventual death; Marion’s forwardness with Norman (she seems to sense he’s very naïve and ramps up her own sensuality – thus causing Mother to get extremely irked and rise up against this female threat); the whole Marion death by stabbing scene, of course.

6.    sound – married to the score is some wonderful sound play as per many Hitchcock releases. Especially good is Marion imagining the conversation back at the office when they rumble that the cash has gone. Her expression whilst driving here is quite bizarre – she looks almost mad herself with her slightly stary eyes and half smile: she’s clearly enjoying the thrill not only of seemingly gotten away with it and having a fair old chunk of change but also the sheer excitement of the running away and possible future with loverboy Sam.

That dark glasses wearing cop who spots her and keeps popping up ain’t helping though (she acts so suspiciously when trading her car in it’s a wonder she doesn’t get called in for questioning right then and there).

Other audio fun – the sound of Marion’s ablutions covering Mother’s entrance to the bathroom; Mother’s slightly echoey voice berating Norman.

7.    the birds – the stuffed ones positioned behind Norman in the parlour/sandwiches scene. He is backed by calm birds to match his mood – as he gets agitated or upset Hitchcock repositions his camera low, looking up at Norman and having big threatening birds of prey behind him.

He tells Marion that she ‘eats like a bird’ as she pecks away at her food. Marion’s name, of course, is ‘Crane’ – plus the obvious presaging of the director’s next picture. Norman has a bird-like quality to him generally – you can see it as he plunges Marion’s car into the swamp, he seems to be pecking and twitching as the car temporarily grinds to a halt.

He then allows himself a satisfied smile once the vehicle disappears from view. Tellingly, when he dashes into her room to view Mother’s handiwork, he knocks a frame picture of a bird to the floor –oooh! When Arbogast is checking the register, Norman leans in in a very unusual under-the-chin image which is really great and has, again, a looming bird-like quality. ‘…sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds’ says Mother at the close of the film…

8.    dialogue –  wow, there’s some great stuff: ‘we’re all in our private traps’/ ‘she might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother’/ ‘well if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who’s that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery?’ and on and on. Even with lots of great dialogue, it’s interesting to note that much of the film plays silent and is all the better for it.

9.    voyeurism – Hitchcock is clearly fascinated with the naughtiness of watching where you shouldn’t be and ‘Psycho’ is laden with the forbidden, ultimately making his viewers voyeurs.

10.    circles – of course the murder of Marion needs no further comment, aside from the wonderful derailing it gives the audience. She’s our heroine – this temptress/slut/thief – and the only person apart from Mr. Bates we have come to know. When she’s gone, you’re left with a sense of ‘where’s this movie going to go now?’ and in the presence of laughing boy Norman and his non existent Mother – not a nice place to be. It’s also sad that Marion has decided to go back, return the cash and face the music – just at the point of death. That’ll learn her. Fantastic correlation of circular images here – the shower head/the plug hole/her eye in gentle rotation like the space station in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.

11.    time – the clean up sequence is pretty convincing and accurate, Norman taking care to cover up for Mother’s outburst. There’s a good few minutes of it and it feels like pretty much real time as he takes the trouble to dispose of all her stuff and remove any trace of her – of course, forgetting her signature in his register. The newspaper shrouded money adds another tone of suspense – will he forget it? Will he find it? Checking one last time, he bungs it in the car’s trunk and sinks the vehicle in his bog. From the twitchy individual we have seen before, Norman is cool personified here – meticulous and organised, the suggestion being he’s covered up for Mother before.

12.    Martin Balsam – as the Private dick Arbogast. Balsam’s a great character actor (see ’12 Angry Men’ and the great ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’) and wonderful in this. He has that great cops insistence and directness, cutting through all the crapola that everyone feeds him – including Norman (whom he runs rings around, leading to his savage stabbing). Norman becomes increasingly hassled and discombobulated as Arbogast (what sort of name is that, by the way?) keeps hammering him with questions. It’s a wonderful scene, both actors at their absolute peak, the camera positioned low and high where needed to emphasise the scene’s meaning.

13.    murder – both killings are superb, Marion’s obviously being the most feted and celebrated. But the killing of Arbogast is also superb – really out of the blue and terrifying as he mounts the main staircase (hello!) and Hitchcock cuts to a shock above the action shot as Mother appears and takes him out. There’s a great trick shot as the detective tumbles backwards down the stairs and is then pounced on and stabbed into oblivion. Wow – it’s actually more shocking than the previous murder as Arbogast seems to operate with such authority it’s a surprise he is bumped off so fast and savagely. The same high shot pops up again as Norman lugs Mother down to the fruit cellar, again to disguise the fact that she’s a stuffed 10 years dead corpse.

14.    the oh-so-subtle ending – after all the psycho(analytical) fireworks, Norman stares straight at camera and smiles, seemingly copacetic but inwardly a raging mess of walking contradictions. Hitchcock pulls off a wonderfully subtle double dissolve – ostensibly he is transitioning to the car being dragged from the swamp, but there’s just a really quiet double exposure of Mother’s skeletal face right over Norman’s. Really great little detail.

The watching of ‘Psycho’ is a near reverential experience, there’s so much in it and it’s so wonderfully done. It’s all fantastic stuff and stands alone in all of Hitchcock’s work as being a truly scary and shocking movie. Yes, there are surprises in so many of his other movies but here it’s the raison d’etre for the whole damn thing – and he pulls it off fantastically. Top five with a bullet (or a big old knife…).

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock positions himself outside Marion’s office wearing a grand stetson in true Phoenix, Arizona style. Nice little cameo from Pat Hitchcock also, working in Marion’s office as Caroline.

*his only Hitchcock feature as DoP, Russell would go on to photograph most of the director’s TV work.

**Anobile seemed very taken with this photo book thing – you can get ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Casablanca’ and loads of others (a 1970’s/early ‘80’s phenomenon). The artist Douglas Gordon put together a film in 1993 called ’24 Hour Psycho’ which projected the entire film at two frames per second to fill the entire day. That’s how great this movie looks!

Got through this one without mentioning the word ‘shower’ once! Oh, bugger…

The picture was, fairly bizarrely, remade by Gus Van Sant (who should know better) pretty much shot for shot, in 1998 – with Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche and Julianne Moore. A strange curio, but worth a look.

Week 45: ‘North By Northwest’ – 1959

November 14, 2010

Following on from a stone cold classic, Hitchcock pulls out another one – the lighter innocent-man-on-the-run cross country caper ‘North By Northwest’. Pulling Cary Grant out of semi retirement, the director casts him in the smooth and debonair role of Roger O. Thornhill (his monogram: ROT – ‘What does the ‘O’ stand for?’ ‘Nothing’) – a mature bachelor gad about town who finds himself the victim of mistaken identity after a murder is committed. Soon he finds himself on a criss crossing country escapade as he is repeatedly mistaken for one George Kaplan – an identity that it then transpires does not exist and is an invention of the government, who are pretty mystified themselves as to who this guy is who seemingly has become their non existent agent.

Saul Bass’s titles are cool – flying up and down on the exterior windows of the United Nations buildings like lifts.

The pace of the picture is set from the start  with Bernard Herrmann’s racey theme, the office workers bustling in and around their workplace. A lovely dolly shot introduces Roger and his secretary as they pass through the business lobby with many peeps passing them by – it’s as elegant as Roger’s fantastic grey suit (if you had to nominate which of his pictures Cary Grant was smoothest in, you’d be spoiled for choice, but NXNW is right up there*). In the beautifully constructed opening bar scene (where Roger is first absconded) it’s curious that one of the guys drinking martinis seems to permanently be holding his ear – is he deaf or just distracted by the constant calling for George Kaplan?

Along the way to clearing his name, Roger encounters some bad old sorts in the shape of the sinister  ‘Lester Townsend’ (James Mason, giving Grant a run for his suave money as the actually named Vandamm) and the repressed homosexual Leonard (the now venerable Martin Landau in an early role). The whole scene in Townsend’s library sets the picture up fantastically, Roger repeatedly reiterating his innocence and the pair of them ignoring his protestations. The pair of villains try to bump off Thornhill/Kaplan by plying him with a tsunami of whiskey – pouring the stuff down his throat and then setting him off to drive off on some treacherous mountain roads.

The scene is handled very well – good rear projection and great editing (in fact the rear projection in the film is of a high standard, not nearly as jarring as TMWKTM). Grant’s gurning face is pretty funny also as he desperately tries to keep control of his vehicle.

His drunk act at the cop shop is good also and is a good summary of the tone of the film, light and humorous whilst having a dark and deadly underbelly.

The scenes in the United Nations building are interesting – when Roger comes into the lobby it looks like a matte shot, but a really good one – he walking through in a long shot with the vast architecture of the building above him.

Great cut to when he then approaches the reception desk, completely seamless. As with previous features, Robert Burks’ photography is something to behold – you could watch this movie silent and get loads of enjoyment from it. The ensuing set piece murder of the real Lester Townsend…wow! You have this funny situation where Roger has to actually be George Kaplan in order to get hold of Townsend and it turns out the latter is a totally different guy – mistaken/false identities galore. A deft thrown knife takes out Townsend and it’s run, Roger, run. Hitchcock loves a high shot and there’s the best one ever as Roger legs it from the building – a trick shot waaaaay up high as his tiny figure dashes for sanctuary, the enormous perspective looming building in the right foreground. This is beyond bravura, this is pure Hitchcockian classic cinema.

A nice little role from Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll as the boss at the government agency (known simply as The Professor)– not seen since ‘Strangers on a Train’. The authorities are pretty pleased with the predicament that Roger is in, deciding to do nothing rather than help the hapless innocent. ‘Goodbye Mr. Thornhill, wherever you are’ they say wryly.

Profile shots abound as Roger ‘bumps’ into Eve Kendall (the very beautiful Eva Marie Saint), as does a whole bundle of innuendo – cigarettes being lit/matches being blown out/trains powering along and some lovely flirty dialogue. Of course, the beyond innuendo end shot train-into-tunnel tops it all – the audacity to think of an idea like this and then go for it is only to be admired. Eve and Roger make a stupidly attractive couple – both immaculate, stylish and with a similar light attitude to life – then betrayed by Eve’s loyalties to Vandamm and her duplicitous (or triplicitous?) role (a great look from her over his shoulder as they hug gives her away to us viewers). The elongated kissing scene between them is slightly odd – Grant obviously directed to hold his hands behind her head in a very hands off manner as if he doesn’t want to muss her hair, it looks very strange onscreen and seems like he’s holding back all the time.

His inspection of her toiletries is cute also – he pleasantly mystified at her tiny shaving brush and razor.

Later, having evaded the cops at the station by disguising himself as a station red cap (porter) in an amusing scene where they start grabbing all the guys in red caps, Roger has to shave with this minute piece of kit. He stands next to a big guy with a cut throat piece and the two give some good quizzical looks – Roger unable to resist carving a Hitler moustache in his shaving foam. Perfect disguise also as he is lathered up when the police come in.

The set piece out in the middle of nowhere is justly praised and celebrated, the director depositing Roger on a pretty deserted road with no cover and having him attacked by aeroplane gunfire. ‘That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops’ says a bystander and the scene accelerates in danger and threat as the plane swoops in and blasts away at the hapless Roger. It’s a scene that’s been watched to death and is very good – although I don’t quite buy that a pilot/assassin would manage to not avoid a big old gasoline lorry parked on the road and conveniently fly straight into it.

An auction scene – always entertaining (see the lovely one in ‘The Skin Game’). Here, there’s a fantastic one, ripe with tension as Roger realizes Eve is in cahoots with Vandamm and Leonard, the strong arm guy ready to attack – what does he do? He derails the proceedings by floating out random and ridiculous bids and get himself hauled out by the cops. The whole thing observed by the benevolent eyes of The Professor who will then step in to clear Roger’s name. It’s a great scene – dark and dangerous and threatening whilst simultaneously being light, silly and perfectly played. In a movie with astonishing set pieces, this one is not as famed as the crop dusting or Mount Rushmore climax – but just as clever and well handled. Grant is second to none at this kind of play acting comedy – what a wonderful actor he is.

‘FBI, CIA – we’re all in the same alphabet soup’ – says The Prof. as he escorts Roger to a private plane, the two of them clearly against rear projection (but looking good) and perambulating on a treadmill of some variety. Playing with sound has always been a Hitchcock habit and here he has a plane start up to mask their dialogue as Prof. explains all. Very neat. What is revealed is that Eve is actually an agent of the government and thus Roger agrees to the plan that is proposed. A good big close up of Grant gives way to the first shot of Mount Rushmore, equating the star’s iconic face with the venerable stone Presidents. As usual, there’s an interesting mixture of rear projection and location shots in the Rushmore sequences.

It’s a bit odd that when Roger is ‘shot’ by Eve and pronounced dead by The Professor, he’s taken to the ambulance without his face covered – I would have thought it de rigeur to cover the deceased in this way. Good plan though, Professor. A lovely composition follows as Roger and Eve meet in the (studio built) woods – two cars diagonally parked and the pair of them positioned on the sides of each frame – as far apart as a couple can be**.

A fantastic array of grey suitage proliferates – Roger has the best one, but Vandamm looks pretty good, plus Leonard and The Professor. Even Eve is dressed in a dark shade of grey – is this the point, that the Cold War that is referred to is not black and white but different shades of grey? Regardless, they look cool as heck.

Good punch to camera by a burly ranger to take Roger out also – well done!

Visions of Grant as cat burglar Robie come to mind as he gets himself out of the hospital/prison – finding his way into a young lay’s room – ‘stop!’ she says passionately, seeing the face of the intruder. He then deftly scales the exterior of Vandamm’s elegant Frank Lloyd Wright style home – lucky he had that practice a few years before in ‘To Catch a Thief’. The tension among the crooks rises as Leonard pulls out Eve’s gun and shoots Vandamm – with the blanks that supposedly killed Roger. Vandamm is genuinely anguished whilst Leonard is pretty pleased with getting shot of the woman so he can have his boss to himself.

Another fist smack straight to camera – this time on Leonard, with Vandamm regaining his composure fast. ‘This matter is best disposed of from a great height – over water’, as Hitchcock’s camera elegantly cranes above the two men (an irresistible camera move).

The closing of the picture (high drama atop the perilous Rushmore monument) is justifiably famous – all technically good rear projection footage and day for night shots. What a magnificent structure Rushmore is, by the way – who else but the Americans would see a mountain and decide to blast massive sculptures into it?*** As we have come to expect, after extremes of tension, a pounding Herrmann score, baddies leaping out all over the shop and a final saving of Eve the ending is pretty fast – but great fun. As Roger pulls her up, Hitchcock cuts to her being pulled onto the top bunk on a train, a lovely little idea as she is the new (the third) Mrs. Thornhill. The final train into tunnel shot is cheeky and fun – nothing wrong with that.

‘North By Northwest’ is Hitchcock royale – the absolute peak of storytelling, style, location hopping, set pieces and star driven immaculate entertainment. It lacks the depth of ‘Vertigo’ and the technical challenges of ‘Rear Window’ but is squarely part of this all conquering Technicolor triumvirate. If you haven’t seen it…what the heck are you doing reading this?

Miscellaneous notes

Interesting MGM logo on the front – a black and white Leo on a light green background, tailor made for this – the green matching the colour of the striking main titles.

Hitchcock appears just missing a bus two minutes in – getting his iconic appearance over early so as not to distract later.

*although his grey trousers are a tad high up his tummy for my liking, I suppose the fashion of the day. He does look fantastic.

**it reminded me of the classic shot in ‘West Side Story’ where Maria and Tony face each other at the dance on opposite sides of the widescreen frame. When they show ‘WSS’ pan and scanned they always go to full letterbox for this one shot as it would make no sense otherwise and lose the point.

***I went to Mount Rushmore a few years back and it’s pretty amazing. From about 20 miles away they’ve cleared whole swathes of trees so you can spy the monument as you approach. It’s pretty mind boggling. Lesser known is that a few miles away they’ve been building a similar monument to the great Native American chief Crazy Horse: four times the size of Rushmore! One guy – who has since died – started it about 60 years ago and it’s still going on. Wowee, pretty scary.

Week 44: ‘Vertigo’ – 1958

November 6, 2010

Some Alfred Hitchcock movies are tough to write about for the simple reason that so much has been written before and they have been analysed and dismembered to death. ‘Vertigo’ is clearly one of these and there’s a clear reason: it’s very, very good.

The story follows the acrophobic John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson whose feelings of guilt over a cop he couldn’t save lead to his retirement. He is tempted out of this state by an old acquaintance (Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore) who asks Scottie to follow his wife, Madeleine, who has been behaving strangely, obsessed with a long dead tragic woman called Carlotta Valdes. The plot thickens and twists and double crosses you – the Madeleine Scottie follows (played by the luminous Kim Novak) is not the real Madeleine (the real Mrs. Elster promptly killed by Gavin by being bunged off a clock tower) but by then he has fallen in love with this stand in. Seeing the double again in her normal clothing he then proceeds to rebuild this girl (Judy Barton) in the image of his love…his obsessional recreation of the woman he lost ending in disastrous consequences.

Saul Bass’s opening titles are justifiably feted. He seamlessly melds graphic shapes (a la Spirograph) with big close ups of eyes and mouths in primary colour washes.

It’s wonderful and, linked with Bernard Herrmann’s striking and hypnotic score, it provides a fast and concise opening to the picture. We’re straight into the rooftop chase with the beat cop plunging to his death – it’s handled fast and expertly.

Within the first minute or so of action Hitchcock has thrust Scottie into his predicament – off the job and unable to do much of anything he is good at. Interesting that it’s never explained how on earth he manages to get off the roof/gutter he is desperately clinging to at the start, but I suppose you have to go with that.

Barbara Bel Geddes, playing Marjorie ‘Midge’ Wood, has a sweet role in the picture – her love unrequited for Scottie (although they were engaged for three weeks back in college). Scottie doesn’t seem to realize the effect he has on her and each casual remark about love lives and romance hits home, Hitchcock adjusting to close-ups and slightly high angles as Scottie dawdles through his chat (in that great James Stewart way where he seems to be making it up as he goes along). I like his use of the word ‘doo-hicky’ in referenced to the cantilevered bra Midge is developing, good word Scottie. On seeing Madeline leave Scottie’s apartment she resigns herself with a ‘Well now Johnnie-o, was it a ghost? Was it fun?’ but is clearly hurting. Her ill advised replica of the Carlotta Valdes painting with her own face causes consternation from Scottie (‘not funny, Midge’ as he stalks out) and she’s mad at herself.

She even gets her own profile shot at one point, and sees her reflection in her window for maximum double-ness.

Robert Burks’ Technicolor photography is up to the very high standard established in previous collaborations – beautifully vivid colours abound, you can see why the director repeatedly chose to work with him. The film uses really strong colours throughout (particularly reds and greens) and it’s a thing of beauty to behold.

There are profile shots in the film that seem to be the reason Hitchcock ever invented such a striking technique. He firmly establishes Judy-as-Madeleine’s profile in Scottie’s first sighting of her in Ernie’s bar and restaurant – the colours here again wonderful with her vivid green dress contrasting wildly with the red wall covering, the lighting almost glowing around her.

Later, when Judy is back to being Judy, the profile looms again to stamp home Scottie’s ever more confused thoughts and rising denial of his loss, reiterated in her hotel room in a black against greenlit silhouette. This is gold standard stuff, using a simple composition device to move the story forward and propel us into the next chapter of one poor, used man’s life.

The justly celebrated driving scenes in the movie are undeniably great. Long scenes of seemingly aimless tooling around, Scottie following Madeleine with a more and more confused and exasperated expression. Hitchcock has stated he wanted the audience to be as frustrated about what was going on as Scottie, and it works a treat. It takes some kind of guts to let these scenes run so long – but they’re very effective. When Madeleine enters the McKitttrick hotel, Hitchcock pulls out a lovely camera track which anticipates similar moves in Psycho – the hotel here a large and emposing Gothic structure that also prefigures the later movie, its lobby area and staircase similar to the welcoming reception you’ll get at the Bates’ place. When Scottie climbs the staircase it’s an almost perfect dupe for the Arbogast investigator scene in the 1960 movie, without the stabbing. And you get an itty bitty role for Ellen Corby, who will achieve worldwide fame as the granny in ‘The Waltons’.

The breathtaking – literally – near drowning scene at the Golden Gate Bridge is wonderful. By now, Scottie is fascinatedly following Madeleine, unknowingly slowly falling in love with her, and so does not hesitate to dive in to rescue her as she plunges into the water. The Bridge had been mentioned in dialogue previously and had also featured visually in backgrounds, but now it’s here full force with a beautiful and classic composition as Madeleine stands to right of frame, the bridge enormous and stretching into the distance to her left. I suppose an irresistible composition, it reminds of the equally iconic image from Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ (1979).

The longish dialogue scene with Madeleine back at Scottie’s apartment is beautifully acted. They both have secrets and tip toe around each other – she dressed only in his elegant red dressing gown, he in a really nice green v-neck. At one point he reaches for her coffee cup and touches her hand and the mood is electric between them. She is forbidden fruit as far as he is concerned (she is married) but both of them feel the attraction – Madeleine/Judy keeping it together to maintain the play acting. It’s a tender scene, quiet and sensitive but bubbling with emotion. It’s followed by them having a day out together with an inevitable kiss with crashing waves – I was rooting for them at this stage as they need each other badly, two people entangled in a tricksy web of deception and out of this comes real emotion and love that they can only deny.

As Madeleine lures Scottie in still further she describes the preserved 19th century religious mission location to him, knowing he will be aware of it. Hitchcock pulls of a great series of cuts – his two stars each positioned to the right of frame with a lamp to the left. The cuts place them onscreen in identical positions repeatedly – they are becoming as one. It’s a very subtle technique but very subliminally effective in bringing the two of them together**.

The film has a structure of two thirds and a third – the first part covering all the plot up to the point where Madeleine ‘kills herself’ (in fact, it’s the real Madeleine who plunges to her death). The last third covers the inquiry and Scottie’s haunted and obsessive recreation of her when he by chance spots Judy on the street. The coroner at the inquiry (played by Henry Jones) is smooth and fast talking in his sum up of the facts, and gives Scottie a pretty hard time. Jones is good in this role, you kind of want to punch him for giving poor old Scottie grief over his weakness, Hitchcock cutting repeatedly to his lead actor as he looks more and more uncomfortable.

There is a dream sequence in the film that is a stand alone in Hitchcock’s movies. It includes elements of animation and tinted images with Herrmann’s music the backing to Scottie’s nightmare. His staring face flies through frame and intercut with falling silhouetted bodies and animated images of Carlotta and her demon bouquet.

It’s astonishing and bold and bonkers – the 63 year old director pushing the boundaries and experimenting relentlessly. Not only does he have a big fat complex and intriguing story that is challenging and clever but he also throws in magisterial touches like this to lift it even beyond its already lofty heights. Wow.

There is a sad shot as Midge walks down the corridor at the sanatorium where Scottie sits in acute melancholia at his new predicament. She has told his doctor that he was in love with Madeleine, and still is and as Midge walks down the corridor you feel her pain as she loves him also but can do nothing to help***.

Hitchcock does a cute thing as Scottie revisits all his Madeleine haunts, using Kim Novak in the Ernie’s bar/restaurant for a brief cut and then a totally different woman as she moves more into closeup. It looks like he does a similar thing when, shortly after, he’s having dinner with Judy  – a process shot with Novak as Madeleine entering the dining room, all clever stuff. Novak is great as Judy – very convincing as she pretends to be fairly outraged at this strange man following her to her room. As he leaves, we see the whole story in her memory with a telling dissolve through red and the rest of the picture plays out with ourselves being complicit to the lies, a clever technique as it makes Scottie’s ‘rebuilding’ of Madeleine all the more poignant, sad – and exciting. These scenes are perfectly pitched with both actors doing a wonderfully measured and subtle depiction of two people who want to be together but have been used and deceived for too long to trust.

‘It can’t make that much difference to you’ he says at one point! Because any woman would be flattered to be dressed and styled exactly as a man’s lost dead love. In the clothes store, the pair of them are tellingly reflected in a large mirror, suggestive of their dual personalities. He repeats this sentiment  (‘it can’t matter to you’**** [!]) when he gets her to dye her hair the same vibrant blonde of Madeleine. It’s all very dark and strange and obsessional – and of course Judy goes along with it as she loves him and he loves her (or Madeleine?) This is the real key to the film, this complexity, this strange darkness and undeniably weird obsessive drive to rebuild the dead.

Judy as Madeleine #2 is another lovely sequence. As she emerges with her new hair, her new clothes and styling, Hitchcock clouds the lens with a beautific mist from Scottie’s point of view – Herrmann’s score rising to further illustrate this most passionate of moments.

Scottie embraces her in an impassioned kiss and the camera circular tracks around them, showing the stables they previously kissed in and then back to her room. Just in his moment of triumph – as far as he’s concerned he’s recreated his lost love with a whole different woman for God’s sake! – his euphoria is shattered as he spots the fatal necklace. His love mania twists to anger in an instant and the denouement of the picture spirals itself out inevitably. The closing scenes are pretty rapid – within 5 minutes of the necklace being spotted the film is complete.

Stewart is remarkable in the film. He’s always good but here he emotes both a sense of Scottie’s humanity and goodness and then a depiction of close to crazy obsessiveness that I think pretty much anyone can relate to – but not to this extent. Novak is also superb in her double role. As the sophisticated and smart Madeleine she carries herself beautifully and elegantly, her sleek grey suit and beaming blonde hairstyle something to behold. Later, as the more down and dirty Judy, she pulls it off again – to the extent that when I first saw the picture (upon its mid 1980’s re-release) I was genuinely confused as to what was going on and if this could possibly be the same girl. The supporting cast – in particularly Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie’s painter friend Midge who suffers with unrequited love for him* – are all good and there’s really nothing particularly negative to say about the picture: it’s top drawer, sophisticated, refined, complex and thrilling. This is top three Hitchcock and repays repeated viewings. Stop reading this and go and watch it.

Miscellaneous notes

*It’s always fascinated me what happens to props in movies – where is Midge’s portrait of Carlotta Valdes with BBG’s face? Does someone have it out there or does it just get trashed? Famously, Steven Spielberg owns one of the Rosebud sleds from ‘Citizen Kane’ but where is all the acres of other stuff? Nowadays, of course, everyone squirrels away anything with the merest hint of value – thus guaranteeing that it will probably never be worth much of anything at all. But pre eBay there are millions of objects that must just drift off into the ether. Where is the Maltese falcon?

Hitchcock strolls across frame at about 10’40” carrying what looks like a music case for a cornet.

**I remember seeing a similar technique in Adrian Lyne’s fantastic 1989 movie ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, cutting between Tim Robbins and the angelic doctor character played by Danny Aiello, he framed by a halo of bright light.

***by this stage, the processing of shots started from the cut – so there’s not that big old picture clunk before a fade to black. What you do notice is a generation loss right from the start with this shot, hailing either a dissolve of fade to black. See Miscellaneous notes on ‘The Skin Game’ (Week 12).

****Personally I have a policy of never commenting on women’s hair as it always seems to cause problems. Even if someone is sitting there with a spiked up blue rinse I’ll just let it slide…

On the special edition DVD is included a very odd alternative ending that Hitchcock had to prepare for the British censors who could not have a villain get away with his crime – so, after the classic end shot of Scottie agog on top of the bell tower, we go to Midge’s apartment and see her listening to a radio that includes a report of Elster’s imminent extradition to the U.S.. Scottie then comes in, is poured a drink and…fin. It’s very odd and unsatisfactory and I’m very happy I’ve never seen it before. It seems also to give some suggestion of Scottie and Midge being together in their future, which is a kind of depressing settle-for-second-best option.