Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 24

Like so many other film sites, the new Senses of Cinema is in a Golden Anniversary mood, looking back at the films of 1967. Unlike most, it casts the net well beyond the expected subjects. There’s the expected pieces on Accident and PlayTime, but also Alexia Kannas on Branded to Kill (“Suzuki’s explosive treatment of the crime genre assumes you understand the formula’s conventions already: it dispenses with clear narrative continuity in favour of fragmentary impressions that are electrified by the film’s formal style”); Kat Ellinger on This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (“As he gnashes his teeth, delivering diatribe after diatribe—all strongly aligned with Nietzsche’s philosophy on The Superman–it becomes clear [Coffin Joe’s] anger stems from a hatred of the human race in its present form, regardless of gender”); and Anton Bitel and Emma Westwood on, respectively, student films by Lynch (“And so a filmmaker was born, and the sick men of this debut would lead inexorably—after an even more elaborate short, The Grandmother (1970)—to the sick baby in his extraordinary first feature Eraserhead (1977), revealed under its swaddling bandages to be all insides”) and Cronenberg (“According to Mr Silent Type, they need not be concerned about what goes down the drain but what will come up from it. Given Cronenberg’s forthcoming propensity for the viscerally morbid, this serves as possibly the first instance of ‘Cronenbergian’ horror….”). In addition, Dean Brandum crunches the numbers from Chicago exhibitions to get a sense of why British cinema couldn’t sustain its popular momentum after that annus mirabilis.

Elsewhere in the issue Jeremi Szaniawski traces the connections between Sukurov’s “power tetralogy” and Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (“In both Sokurov’s tetralogy and Serra’s unofficial sequel, the details (costumes and set design) are highly realistic, and serious research has gone toward documenting the facts portrayed (famous sources are quoted in the dialogues, etc.). But both directors also take poetic license in creating a universe of their own, giving us at once a compelling historiographic account, a pure work of auteurist vision, and a playful historical recreation, with touches of bizarre humour and an ineffable absurdist spirit interspersed throughout.”), Andrea Grunert salutes Toshiro Mifune (“Deeply rooted in the tragic hero narrative, Mifune’s heroes lack the general positivism of their Hollywood counterparts such as John Wayne, James Stewart or Gary Cooper. As Isolde Standish demonstrates, the tragic hero narrative, a well-known cultural pattern, provided Japanese cinema with a figurative context by means of which war and defeat and subsequent feelings of powerlessness and guilt could be explained.”), and Ventura Pons, Julien Duvivier, and Dennis Hopper get added to the journal’s Great Directors.

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Review: T2 Trainspotting

Danny Boyle loves his bag of tricks: the split-second cuts and the techno-pop and the crazy, strobing light show. Like a director of TV commercials who has only 30 seconds to sell a story, Boyle hypes everything. Take the gimmicky Who Wants to Be a Millionaire structure of Slumdog Millionaire, or Leonardo DiCaprio night-swimming through phosphorescent plankton in The Beach. Or, most notable, take Trainspotting, Boyle’s 1996 breakthrough. In bringing to life the junkies and reprobates of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle devised a carnival of jokes and pop anthems and sudden sadism. It might have been a wee bit soulless, but it hit a nerve—or certainly a vein.

Boyle’s career has been predictably restless since then, jumping from sci-fi (Sunshine) to Bollywood lite (Slumdog) to overbearing kiddie cuteness (Millions). Oddly enough, or maybe not, his opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games was possibly his most impressive achievement, a dazzling exercise in cramming all of British popular culture in a giant blender and spewing it back at an overstimulated yet grateful audience. Given his wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a little surprising that Boyle embraced a sequel. But here’s the hopelessly titled T2 Trainspotting, and a chance to see what’s happened to characters who held little promise of evolving much from the first film.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: ‘Our Man in Havana’ on Twilight Time

Our Man in Havana (1959) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the third and final collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene. In some ways it plays like a sardonic post-script to their great success, The Third Man, in others a transition film between the gritty but heroic espionage thrillers of the forties and fifties and the far more ambivalent and skeptical work of John Le Carre, as seen in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold just a few years later. (Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama spins an updated version of the same basic story of Havana.) The big difference is tone: Our Man in Havana is a lampoon of international espionage games and the gullible officers running Britain’s MI6 like an old boy’s club. Everyone on their honor and all that.

Twilight Time

Alec Guinness is Jim Wormold, the meek British everyman in Batista’s Cuba and a single father trying to keep his pretty, spoiled teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) safe from the wolves prowling the streets of Havana. Reluctantly drafted by a British Secret Service agent (perfectly droll Noel Coward), he finds he’s a lousy agent but a terrific author and, failing any legitimate intelligence, he spins a doozy of a secret agent yarn, complete with a cast of supporting agents (all in need of generous expense accounts) and a secret installation worthy of a James Bond villain. It’s a veritable cash cow but it also brings unwanted attention from the head of British Intelligence (a dryly officious Ralph Richardson) who sense him a staff to expand his operations (including neophyte secretary Maureen O’Hara). The satire of gullible intelligence officers and corrupt politicians (an oily, somewhat sinister Ernie Kovacs as the soft-spoken terror Capt. Segura) take a darker turn when the fantasies spun by Wormold take root in the spy community, leaving real victims in its wake. Our man in Havana a target of enemy agents and his apolitical best friend and drinking buddy, the world-weary German expatriate Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives), gets caught in the middle of the intelligence turf war.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Sicilian Clan

Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.

The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.

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Review: Private Parts

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Anybody out there remember, by any chance, Michael Powell’s 1959 flick Peeping Tom? (A disingenuous question, that: he who see Peeping Tom, he remember it, all right all right. Repress the mother, yes, possibly; but forget it? No—as they say—bloody way.)

Well, freak fans, it’s arrived at last, will you welcome please, a good hand now, folks, here he is, Son of Peeping Tom. No, correction: let’s try to get this right: Peeping Tomasina.

Not all that good a hand, though. We haven’t equaled the original yet, not in toto. For starters, the opening stinks. (The opening scene, that is, not the stylish titles.) And the ending is no rose, either; it smells, in fact, just a little like … bad faith. Well, bad judgment anyhow. Or plain laziness.

Still, Paul Bartel’s new feature Private Parts picks up one hell of a head of steam once it gets going. And if some (that word again!) freak of local distribution should cause it to drop suddenly (translation: “be dumped”) into an unsuspecting Seattle theater this year, you might do worse than soldier through that poorly-directed, -written, -scored and -acted opening for the sake of its later felicities.

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Review: The Last of Sheila

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, SleuthThe Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 17

“St. Stephen’s is known as the Hill, both for its steep topography and its aspiration to be an enlightened beacon (as in the biblical “city on a hill”), and Malick thrived in a culture that emphasized spirituality, intellectualism, and rugged individualism. ‘When I first got there, it was made known that he was the local genius,’ [longtime friend Jim] Lynch told me. Malick had the highest standing in the class his junior and senior years, served in student leadership positions like dorm council, played forward on the basketball team, and, with Romberg, co-captained the football team, playing both offensive and defensive tackle, an accomplishment of which he’s still proud. (‘He says that in football he was ‘the sixty-minute man,’’ Linklater told me. ‘[Malick’s wife] Ecky says that the only time he boasts is when he talks about his high school athletic prowess.’)” Terrence Malick’s increased presence in the public eye is one of the main themes of Eric Benson’s profile—and even the steps portrayed in the article were outstripped recently by the director’s willingness to participate in a public Q&A at the SXSW festival—but another is how large a presence he’s always had in his favorite city of Austin—a town he loves not least for the boarding school that allowed his voracious intellectual curiosity to flourish without his father’s heavy-handed demands.

“While Stevens may have wanted to assure Paramount a hit, it also seems that he was tugged by some strong, if inchoate, emotional need to reshape the story. His take was starkly Manichean, and he stubbornly resisted objections from cast members and others that he was unbalancing the plot by creating the strongest possible contrast between the story’s two women. Where Sternberg cast a cold eye on Clyde Griffiths, Stevens loaded the dice in favor of the antihero he renamed George Eastman, making him a victim rather than a fumbling, would-be villain. Ultimately, the director’s emotional connection to the romance and the impassioned filmmaking it inspired give A Place in the Sun its power, outweighing the sometimes heavy-handed and over-determined storytelling.” Imogen Sara Smith considers two adaptations of Drier’s An American Tragedy, both of which manage a fidelity to aspects of the novel despite massive changes, Sternberg’s by observing all with an eye even more jaundiced than the writer’s, Stevens’s by surrendering his film to a love powerful enough to lead to murder.
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Review: Beauty and the Beast

The pre-publicity for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast might have revolved around any number of subjects: Why make a live-action redo of a classic animated film? How would Emma Watson fare outside her Harry Potter world? Had Disney spent too much money (a rumored $300 million, including marketing costs)? As it happens, the actual conversation has mostly been about director Bill Condon’s recent comment that a character in the movie might perhaps be seen as gay. This idea, that something about an American musical had gay coloring, apparently came as a great shock to—whom, exactly? After a minute of fuss about whether or not Russian film censors would allow the movie to be shown in their country (they will, but only to people over 16), the issue seems to have died down.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act

Criterion

It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.

You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).

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Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

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Review: Child’s Play

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.

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Review: Paper Moon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Though hardly perfect, Paper Moon is more satisfactory than What’s Up, Doc? because this time Peter Bogdanovich has found, or conjured up, a comparatively rich setting for his comparatively modest comic sense to work in. Paper Moon may not be funnier than its predecessor, but it has more feeling for people and places: the result is fewer jokes but better comedy. An elaborate, richly detailed sense of period (the 1930s) and a half-dozen good performances succeed in making this lightly picaresque tale of a con man’s adventures with a precociously shrewd little girl (and orphan) quite appealing. A good deal of the humor comes from various surprises and reversals in the relationship of man and child—with the question of whether he adopts her or adapts to her being a subject for debate as well as amusement. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum play the lead roles, with the chemistry of the performances enhanced considerably by Tatum’s possession of a screen presence that is more genuinely self-assured than her father’s. The elder O’Neal still does a decent job, and the film’s populace gains from the presence of Madeline Kahn as a stripper whose flamboyance is balanced precariously between pathos and the ridiculous, P.J. Johnson as the stripper’s stubbornly illusionless black maid, Burton Gilliam as a flashy provincial hotel clerk, and John Hillerman in a dual role as a sheriff who is both menacing and neighborly and as his brother, a sedentary sort who runs the local bootlegging business from a small hotel lobby. Hillerman is probably the most accomplished of the players here—Tatum’s effect has more to do with sheer uniqueness as a movie child, and Kahn’s tour de force ends up seeming a shade too calculated.

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Meet the Trailblazers of Documentary Activism

We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.

Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)

In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 10

“These tropes cumulatively function as what philosopher Robert Pfaller has termed “interpassivity”: they cynically perform our annoyance at seeing the same old thing again for us. We can walk out of these films feeling satisfied, refreshed, and maybe even a little superior for seeing how the mechanics of movies work. And yet, this facsimiled dissent does not result in movies with original ideas, but instead in things like The LEGO Batman Movie, or, say, Miller and Lord helming the forthcoming Han Solo movie. Not unlike a punk buying a T-shirt with an anarchy symbol on it from Hot Topic, we fool ourselves if we believe this humor to be as subversive as it pretends to be.” Along with the death of cinema itself, the death of comedy is a constant in the world of criticism; Violet Lucca offers the latest iteration, with at least some words of praise thrown in for those modern directors who know how to build a joke.

“Once united, Phelps and O’Gaffney propel a series of semi-discrete set-pieces, starting with an inevitable Great Escape from the camp, facilitated by the white-on-white camouflage of wearing the Arabic prisoners’ white robes in the German snow. From there, Two Arabian Knights features high-speed train stunts, a second adventure for our hapless protagonists as naval stowaways, a romance with a shipwrecked Arabian princess (who else but Mary Astor?), a palace invasion, a gun duel, and a third and final getaway. However discontinuous in action and ambience, these rarely feel like loosely strung vignettes, mostly because Milestone’s hold on tone and his connection with his game, jovial actors tie things together.” Staying at Film Comment, praise for one forgotten comedy comes from Nick Davis’s appreciation of Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights. While Mark Harris doesn’t exactly excavate a forgotten film, he does remind us that Persona played so badly commercially in its ’67 release at least in part from Bergman fatigue, however much a break the film made with his past efforts. (“As Variety’s critic succinctly put it when he got his first view of Bergman’s Opus 1, ‘big themes are still his forte.’ The severity and rigor with which Bergman attacked these issues and his complete lack of interest in packaging them ingratiatingly for his audience both dates the movie and makes it enduringly fascinating.”)

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