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Alfred Hitchcock

Orson Welles Has a Daughter Named Rebecca

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.

Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while Citizen Kane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.

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Caliban in Bodega Bay

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.

At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.

Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.

‘The Birds’ – In the diner

Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.

And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.

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‘Family Plot’: A Diamond in the Rough

by Evan Morgan

Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.

Barbara Harris in ‘Family Plot’

But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.

The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.

Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.

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‘Notorious’ – Radioactive Love

by Evan Morgan

In Notorious, love is a weapon more corrosive than a heaping pile of uranium ore. And it has a longer half-life. This Nazi spy story slowly reveals the bruised, battered, but still beating heart pumping beneath its surface. As it does, it emerges as the Hitchcock love story par excellence, a bewitched romance wrapped—like Alicia herself—in shimmering black velvet. If Hitchcock’s films are often accused of coldness, Notorious proves a useful corrective. In Hitchcock’s world, love burns.

But it isn’t love that dominates most of the picture. Sex—at its most venal and transactional—is the driving force that moves the film along. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia drowns her moral agony in equal parts cocktails and coitus, a tonic perfectly suited for the job her government offers. But it’s not the government that shows up at her home; Cary Grant’s smoothly handsome Devlin crashes her party. Alicia and Devlin’s initial encounter encapsulates their relationship in a single image. Devlin—an almost too perfect name—sits silently in the corner of the frame, back to the camera, shrouded entirely in shadow. Alicia’s drunken come-ons appear to do nothing; he remains an unmovable black monolith. But as the partygoers leave or pass out, the world closes in on Dev and Alicia. Hitchcock swooningly swings his camera around from behind Devlin’s head to frame both of them in the shot. It’s a brief gesture, but it hints at Devlin’s depths. He is already falling in love.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

But Devlin has a job to do. Even Alicia’s tender embrace cannot break down his stoic resistance. Much has been made about the famous kissing scene, and Hitchcock’s clever circumvention of the censors. And yes, there is a playfulness to its kiss-dialogue-kiss structure. But that structure also has a thematic purpose. The scene, as Robin Wood notes, poses a “desperate sensuality, [which] betrays the underlying instability” of their relationship. Devlin continually pulls away from her; it is he who won’t utter the word love. He won’t—or can’t—give her the love they both want. And when duty calls, he runs to his boss and gives her up begrudgingly. Grant plays this scene out subtly, seething at his superiors beneath a cool surface. He leaves the room to sell Alicia’s body, but the brief shot of Devlin’s forgotten champagne bottle breaks your heart. It’s the cinema’s most succinct image of love abandoned.

No coincidence, then, that wine bottles come up again. Sebastian’s house is overrun with them—an image that becomes more profoundly sad when connected to Dev’s forgotten bottle. Years of heartbreak cellared away en masse. But these bottles aren’t filled with heartbreak, they’re stuffed with radioactive bomb material; it’s as disturbing an image of obsessed, curdled love as anything in Hitchcock’s filmography.

When Devlin returns to rescue Alicia from Sebastian’s jealous poisoning, finally revealing his love to her, she emerges like Sleeping Beauty from her slumber. Prince Charming has returned to claim his bride. But this is no fairytale ending. There is real pain in Sebastian’s loss. He has shown Alicia deep kindness and gained nothing in return. In love and in Hitchcock, obsession is a one-way street.

More than any other film—with the possible exception of VertigoNotorious most potently distills Hitchcock’s singular vision of love. But whereas Vertigo posits love as an ever-ascending staircase of obsession, Notorious inverses that image: love brings us back down to earth, away from notoriousness and Nazis, and envelops us in the warm pleasure of a lover finally returning our embrace. But Notorious’s final shot leaves Sebastian out in the cold. As he walks back up his own staircase towards certain death, we realize which weapon has truly killed him. Love burns, indeed.

Copyright © 2013 Evan Morgan

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Wake in Fright’ and Hitchcock’s original ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’

Wake in Fright” (Image), one of the seminal works of the New Australian cinema of the seventies, is a brutal, blackly funny thriller of an urban schoolteacher (Gary Bond) posted to the Australian Outback, which is a sun-blasted nightmare as far as he’s concerned. He can’t leave fast enough when his Christmas vacation arrives, but his veneer of culture crumbles when he gets stranded in the grimy mining town of Bundanyabba (or just “the Yabba,” as the locals call their little slice of hell), where he unravels in non-stop drink and nocturnal kangaroo hunts. The educated, well-spoken character looks like easy prey to the hard-drinking roughnecks and derelicts of the town but this isn’t an Aussie “Deliverance.” He’s a willing participant in his self-degradation in this lost weekend, and the darkly comic chain of events that keep him stuck the Yabba looks less like a cruel joke by a trickster god and more like a hard lesson in self-awareness. Under all that hubris and arrogance is just another animal acting on base instinct.

The raw, sweaty 1971 film is not a pretty portrayal of life in the outback, where men are crude, hard-drinking mates with no ambition beyond rough-house fun, and it was a flop Australia, but it was critically well received and brought more attention to the nascent Australian film culture. Director Ted Kotcheff is Canadian, its two featured stars (Gary Bond and Donald Pleasance) British, and its producers an international collection, but the self-aware sensibility is unique and impressive and even a little affectionate — the locals (including an impossibly young and beautiful Jack Thompson) are as generous and accepting as they are coarse and raw — and it became an influence on the work of Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and others.

The film all but disappeared and was thought lost for years until a print was discovered in a film depot in Pittsburgh, and the film was restored by the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. Drafthouse Films picked it up for its American release, and they present the film Blu-ray and DVD with Image. Both formats feature commentary by director Ted Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley, a Q&A with Kotcheff from the film’s showing at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, the new retrospective featurette “To the Yabba and Back,” and archival clips about the film’s production and recovery, plus a booklet with notes on the film and its recovery and restoration. Also includes a bonus digital copy, which can be downloaded from the Drafthouse website.

The original The Man Who Knew Too Much (Criterion), Alfred Hitchcock’s first international thriller of innocents caught up in the intrigue of spies and killers, set the template for the romantic thrillers that made his reputation. It’s also the English language debut of Peter Lorre, whose childlike bursts of laughter immediately set him off from the British restraint and carefully wit of the rest of the cast. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are an ordinary couple whose sports vacation to Switzerland becomes a nightmare when a British agent dies in their presence and foreign assassins kidnap their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) to assure their silence. Hitchcock’s tone is odd, with clever set pieces and tightly-constructed and edited sequences interspersed with awkward scenes of emotional restraint (“Steady, old girl, steady”) and disconnected characters. It lacks the romance and the personality wrestling of his best films of the thirties, something he mastered in “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” But his pace is snappy and you can see Hitch working out his signature style in key scenes, from the startling assassination of the first act exploding in the midst of a practical joke to the building rhythm of the Albert Hall sequence, and he invites the wife to participate in the rescue of her daughter as only a female sharpshooting champion could.

This public domain film has been widely available in substandard versions, some of them quite terrible. Criterion masters the film from the BFI’s restored fine-grain 35mm print (the original negative no longer exists) for a special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. The source material is not pristine, but it’s been cleaned up and digitally repaired (both picture and sound) as well as could be hoped for, and mastered with a sharpness I’ve never seen in a print of this film. Features commentary by film historian Philip Kemp, a new interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, a 50-minute TV interview with director Alfred Hitchcock conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William Everson in 1972, and excerpts from filmmaker François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (audio only).

More DVD, Blu-ray, and digital releases at Videodrone

New on Blu-ray: Hitchcock, Huston and the First Oscar Winner

Hitchcock / Selznick: Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound (MGM)

Hindsight is 20/20, but teaming of British perfectionist director Alfred Hitchcock and American iconoclast producer David O. Selznick was doomed to conflict. Selznick, who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood with an exclusive contract, was a director in all but name. He micromanaged his pictures down to the shot, rewriting scripts, reshooting scenes, relentlessly tinkering well into post-production. Hitchcock plotted and planned his films in detailed storyboards from the outset. He had no use for Selznick’s interference or his barrage of memos, but he needed the entry to America and relished the generous budgets and access to technology. Their partnership makes a simultaneous case for film as a collaborator’s artform, and as the domain of the auteur. Three of the four films from that strained partnership between the perfectionist British director and the micromanaging producer arrive on Blu-ray and you can see the two creative personalities battle for control throughout.

Welcome to Manderlay

The gloriously gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940), a handsome marriage of the literate and the visual, remains their most financially successful collaboration and Hitchcock’s most studio-like film. Laurence Olivier delivers a fine performance as the haunted de Winter, still under the shadow of his controlling first wife even after she’s died, while Joan Fontaine’s naïve little girl in the big mansion is a bit precious but effective nonetheless. It’s an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. Ironically, Hitch’s only film to win a Best Picture Oscar winner, and the award went to producer Selznick; Hitch lost Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, screen tests, two featurettes, three radio play adaptations, and archival audio interviews with Hitch.

The tensions (and I mean creative, not psychological tensions) are far more fraught in Spellbound (1945), an ambitious psychological thriller inspired by Selznick’s adventures in psychoanalysis and mystery as ludicrous as it is intermittently stunning. Gregory Peck is the tortured doctor with a repressed secret that psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman helps him unearth, with the help of dream therapy. The push-me, pull-you relationship can be seen in Hitch’s attempts to visualize heady concepts in bizarre dream sequences (designed by Salvador Dali) while the dialogue drags it all back to literalness. With commentary, two featurettes, a radio play adaptation and an archival audio interview with Hitch among the supplements.

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Dinosaurs in the Age of the Cinemobile

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit'

WHEN BILLY WILDER’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, no one would give it the time of day – literally. In my city, though a cozy relationship with United Artists forced the local theater circuit to book the film into one of the few remaining downtown movie palaces, they had no expectation that it would attract an audience. If you called the theater, asked “When’s the next show?”, and acted accordingly, you would arrive to find yourself in midfilm. Telephone lines had been juggled so that the staff could handle incoming calls for the sister theater across the street, where Love Story was doing land-office business. It never occurred to them that anyone might be interested in “the show” on their own screen, so they automatically gave out the Love Story schedule.

This was an extraordinary case – even if we set aside the outré management practice (I have never heard of a comparable instance of procedural hara-kiri) and the eventual recognition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as at the very least an enchanting entertainment, and at best one of the summum masterworks of the cinema. (On that first weekend, the only one the film would have, I watched the evening show with seven other people in the auditorium.) Yet the film’s complete failure in 1970 was, in several respects, definitive of that moment in film history.

For one thing, Holmes was just the sort of sumptuously appointed, nostalgically couched superproduction that once would have seemed tailor-made to rule the holiday season. Only two Christmases before, Carol Reed’s Oliver! had scored a substantial hit, and gone on to win Academy Awards for itself and its director (a “fallen idol” two decades past his prime). Yet in 1969-70, the mid-Sixties vogue for three- and four-hour roadshows – reserved-seat special attractions with souvenir programmes and intermissions – abruptly bottomed out. Indeed, after witnessing such box-office debacles (and lousy movies) as Star and Paint Your Wagon, United Artists demanded that Wilder shorten his film by nearly an hour before they would release it at all.

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Death and the Detective: Vertigo Revisited

Once upon a time an 11-year-old boy went to see the new Hitchcock movie.
He came home crying, and didn’t understand why.
Fifty-two years later, he thinks he knows.

Scotty Ferguson, recovering from the suicide of Madeline Elster, and from his guilt at having failed to prevent it, quite casually encounters on a San Francisco street Judy Barton, a young woman who, despite profound differences, reminds him eerily of Madeline.

Kim Novak as Judy

Scotty can have Judy. She as much as tells him so: “To tell you the truth, I’ve been picked up before.” (Of course, we soon learn—though Scotty doesn’t—that she isn’t simply “easy”; she is actually Madeline, or the woman Scotty thinks of as Madeline, and she is still in love with Scotty, even as he is with her.)

So why does Scotty so desperately need to turn her (back) into Madeline before he can love her?

It is precisely because he can have Judy that he doesn’t want her. Among the many things Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is about is the fantasies of men (underwear fetishism; necrophilia and its more common image, the defenseless sleeping woman; the confusion of dream women with real women; the seduction of a younger woman; the seduction of a stranger; dressing-up games, and undressing ones; voyeurism; playing doctor-and-patient, which Hitchcock had earlier assayed in Spellbound). And what men want is what they cannot have.

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Hitchcock’s Topaz Revisited

“It is time that we start. Will you be kind enough to follow me? What Im going to show you will be mainly the traditional things. Up here let me show you details in the production, which were rather proud of showing. As you see, flowers are made petal by petal, and this is an art, which has been in our factory for almost two hundred years, and you will see that it takes two days to complete … As you see, the flowers are molded petal by petal and stamen by stamen; even in very small flowers you can find as many as ten to fifteen stamens. The figurines which you see being ornated with flowers were first made as a gift from Danish women to our late king. Please follow me farther up here …”

topaztitle
"Topaz" - The titles over a Soviet May Day parade

The first words in Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-first feature are spoken by an unnamed guide in a Danish porcelain works. One tends not to take great notice of them while watching the film because there is so much else to see: a high Russian official, his wife and his daughter, defecting while on holiday in Copenhagen, have been pursued since the beginning of the movie several minutes earlier. Yet here they are in cold print, such a clear outline of the entire film to follow. As ever with Hitchcock, the more you look and listen, the more you discover.

The picture begins, of course, at the very beginning, with the credit sequence. It is unlikely that Hitchcock could have secured permission to take nice crisp 35mm Technicolor images of a Soviet May Day parade, but the way he employs grainy color newsreels makes them his own. Huge red banners display history’s demigods. Crowds — perceptibly composed of individuals — watch columns of marching troops, then cars and tanks visibly bearing more fighting men. The shots get closer. Finally there is just the machinery of war, looming nearer and larger, crowding human beings right off the screen. The sole remaining crowd shot is distant, indistinct, grainily frozen; a title tells us that somewhere in this mass is “a high Russian official who disagrees with his government’s policy of force and what it threatens.”

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