Posted in: Alfred Hitchcock, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Guest Contributor

‘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

Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor

Arch Oboler’s ‘Bewitched’ and its Alter Egos

Matthew Rovner follows up his career overview of radio pioneer and film director Arch Oboler, published in 2009 on Parallax View, with this study of his 1945 film Bewitched.

By Matthew Rovner

Arch Oboler’s intriguing noir, Bewitched (1945), is a dark thriller about a woman with multiple personality disorder, now termed dissociative identity disorder (DID). Oboler adapted his film from one of his most popular and critically acclaimed radio dramas, “Alter Ego,” which was in turn inspired by the true story of Christine Beauchamp, one of the first persons diagnosed with DID. Briefly, Bewitched details the plight of mild-mannered Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter) as she is besieged by the voice of her evil alternate personality, Karen (the voice of Audrey Totter), and driven to murder. This article examines how Oboler adapted both the Beauchamp case and his own radio play “Alter Ego” into Bewitched.

Christine Beauchamp was treated by American neurologist Morton Prince, who wrote about her in his book The Dissociation of a Personality: A Biographical Study In Abnormal Psychology. The following passage from Dr. Prince’s book may have inspired Oboler’s imagination:

Miss Beauchamp is an example in actual life of the imaginative creation of [Robert Louis] Stevenson, only, I am happy to say, the allegorical representation of the evil side of human nature finds no counterpart in her makeup. The splitting of personality is along intellectual and temperamental, not along ethical lines of cleavage… Each personality is incapable of doing evil to others.

By contrast, in both Oboler’s radio play and film, Joan Ellis’s alternate personality is capable of evil, specifically murder.

Oboler’s “Alter Ego” is a considerably darker work than Bewitched. In “Alter Ego,” Joan Ellis willingly goes to the gallows in order to kill off her evil personality (named Carmen in the radio adaptation). In Bewitched, Joan is cured by kindly psychiatrist Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn). In what critics considered one of the film’s more contrived scenes, Dr. Bergson cures Joan through hypnosis, separating out her evil personality and shaming it into oblivion. In this scene, Oboler shows us a visual representation of this separation [through the use of multiple exposures, we see the good Joan and the evil Karen emerge from Joan’s hypnotized body]. In real life, Dr. Morton Prince cured Christine Beauchamp through hypnosis by reconciling her disparate personalities with her original personality. Oboler’s idea is not as hokey as it may appear.

Read More “Arch Oboler’s ‘Bewitched’ and its Alter Egos”

Posted in: Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Guest Contributor, Roman Polanski

Review: Tenant

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
Macbeth

In The Tenant Roman Polanski explores again the psychic terrain of guilt, dread, paranoia, fears of sexual inadequacy and hysteria he made so familiar in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown. Much of The Tenant bears residual traces of Repulsion‘s treatment of insanity and the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary’s Baby. The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering. A bit of lace drifting in the breeze becomes an omen of dread; sidelong glances from normal faces acquire an insidious grotesqueness. Is there in fact a conspiracy against M. Trelkovsky (Tchaikovsky? Porchovsky?—everyone seems to pronounce it differently), the new young tenant who takes over the apartment of Mlle. Schoul, the victim of a suicide leap from her window? Are the other tenants in league to drive T. into jumping as well? What about the burglary of his apartment? The human tooth he finds hidden in a hole in the wall plugged by cotton? The Egyptian postcard? The hieroglyphics in the toilet? Are they all elements of a vast conspiracy to drive him mad?

Read More “Review: Tenant”

Posted in: Contributors, Documentary, Guest Contributor, Interviews

Screening Los Angeles: An Interview with Thom Andersen

By E. Steven Fried

One of the great pleasures of SIFF 2004 was the opportunity to see Thom Andersen’s 169- minute video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Utilizing hundreds of unauthorized clips of obscure and well-known films [you will never see this on DVD] Andersen poses the question:why is the most filmed city in the world rarely faithfully portrayed in movies? Surveying a filmography from A Muddy Romance to The Million Dollar Hotel, Andersen explores the way Los Angeles has been used as a location, as a metaphor and as a subject in motion pictures. He questions the ‘histories’ presented by Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as well as the future depicted in Blade Runner. He critiques the use of architecture, examines the evolving portrayal of the police and appreciates the aesthetic of L.A. Rebellion directors Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry. After three hours, you will know more about Los Angeles and film than you did before.

Thom Andersen

Beginning March 26th, the NWFF will be showing most of Andersen’s work. In Addition to Los Angeles Plays Itself there will be screenings of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer and Red Hollywood, a documentary on the blacklist featuring interviews with the late Paul Jarrico, Abraham Polonsky and Ring Lardner Jr. (Click here for the complete calendar and information on showtimes and tickets.)

A native-born Chicagoan, Andersen studied film at USC in the early 60’s. During that decade he made several short films, three of which will be screened. — —–, an 11-minute montage of the music scene in downtown Los Angeles, intersperses shots of bands groovin’ at The Trip, Pandora’s Box and the Whisky A Go Go with the manufacturing of records and juke boxes; Olivia’s Place captures the long-defunct Santa Monica diner and Melting has something to do with a strawberry sundae.

Andersen has been a programmer at the LA Filmforum and currently teaches film theory and history at CalArts. His most recent film, Get Out of The Car will be shown on the 29th. A 30-minute tableaux of billboards, murals and the ghosts of vanished landmarks, it will be followed by a lecture from the director. Indeed, Andersen will be in attendance at every screening. In addition, he’ll be presenting Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles on the 27th, followed by a discussion of the film.

I had my own brief chat with Andersen, in which I asked a few questions about Los Angeles as a place and as a location.

E. Steven Fried: I think to the extent people think of Los Angeles they think of movies or the entertainment industry. And they think that’s all there is to the place. But when I read about the history I was surprised to discover that at one one time one of the main industries was oil production and there was a slew of industries that came and went through the region from the mid 19th century on.

Thom Andersen: Right.

What I find interesting is that it’s been a nexus of so many things that have played an important role in America. Not just entertainment, but defense, aerospace and manufacturing.

I guess the motion picture industry is what’s unique to Los Angeles. Other things have been equally or more important to the economy of Los Angeles. Motion pictures or entertainment… record companies started moving here in the 60’s. Television started moving here in the 50’s as well, from New York. But, of course, that is the way it looks from the outside. When you live here it’s different, I guess. You take that for granted. I guess there’s this idea in the United States that New York is a prototypical city. But New York is quite exceptional. There are not too many cities like New York, that are so vertical. Great cities like Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, London, didn’t have that vertical growth. Didn’t have it till quite recently. So Los Angeles is more of the prototype of 20th century American cities.

Read More “Screening Los Angeles: An Interview with Thom Andersen”

Posted in: Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Guest Contributor, Max Ophuls, Melodrama

Houses, Phones and Cars: Domestic Spaces in Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment”

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.

James Mason and Joan Bennett pose

While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—The Reckless Moment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.

By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.

Read More “Houses, Phones and Cars: Domestic Spaces in Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment””

Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor

Getting What You Need: Changing Surrealist Vision in Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” “Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie,” and “That Obscure Object Of Desire”

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

by Julie Ahrens

Seeing ants crawl from a hole in a man’s hand, we don’t need to ask, “Is it a dream or is it real?” It’s surreal. That one creepy, iconic image is the essence of surrealism.

In 1928 Luis Buñuel, the man with the razor, opened his viewers’ eyes to middle-class amorality, complacency and sexual frustration with his first film, Un Chien Andalou. This film, made at the height of the Surrealist movement in France with Salvador Dalí­, is representative of surrealism in its overt use of dreamlike images – and ants – presented without rational order or meaning. Born out of 19th-century Romanticism and influenced by Freud’s investigations into subconscious mental processes, the images of surrealist art were intended to pass directly from the subconscious mind of the artist to that of the viewer with a minimum of logical reasoning. Un Chien Andalou consists wholly of bizarre, unreal images, and the viewer is continually aware of being suspended in a dream landscape.

The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"
The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel’s 1972 attack on the inane privileged classes, does not appear as purely surrealistic as his first film. Here Buñuel divides the world into the “reality” of six friends’ attempt to have dinner together, and the twisted tales of dreams and dreams-within-dreams that interrupt and underlie their outward social niceties. Although we are not quite able to distinguish where it lies, we know there is a dividing line between the dream and the reality in The Discreet Charm. This barrier is crossed every time a character begins a story of a dream he has had, or is suddenly awakened to reveal that a preceding sequence was actually a dream. Buñuel punctuates the outwardly placid, yet inwardly violent, bourgeois aims with timeless shots of the group walking along a road. At first there seem to be clear divisions between fantasy and reality, yet it finally becomes apparent that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.

Read More “Getting What You Need: Changing Surrealist Vision in Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” “Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie,” and “That Obscure Object Of Desire””