“Hitchcock/Truffaut” – An Homage to the Master

14 12 2015

Today’s top film directors – including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, tumblr_no6ty0GSHi1r6ivyno1_1280David Fincher and many others – pay tribute to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in the very engaging new documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” directed by Kent Jones.

The film uses the historic 1962 weeklong interview sessions between Hitchcock and French film director Francois Truffaut as its starting point. The two men were on the same page from the beginning when it comes to the language of film: Both saw its potential as an art form, and as a medium for self expression; Truffaut may have been the first film theorist to recognize Hitchcock as more than a genre specialist.

The modern day directors featured in the film sing Hitchcock’s praises too, pointing out his skills as a visual storyteller, frame composer and planner of shots, using some of Hitchcock’s best movies, like “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “Sabotage” and others to make their cases. At the same time, they trace Hitchcock’s use (and reuse) of thematic elements: Falling, imprisonment and obsession; fetishized objects like keys and doorways; and meaningful camerawork that reveals things even someone on the scene might miss.

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Left to right: Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock and translator Helen Scott

The film also contains a run of rarely seen home movie footage of Hitchcock, bringing his energy and playfulness to life in a  way one rarely sees, particularly in some of the recent films that have illuminated certain times in his life.

For anyone interested in Hitchcock’s work, this is a master class, and the directors are the guest lecturers who explain just what the Master of Suspense was really doing in his best films.

Here’s the trailer to “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”

 





“Night Will Fall” Uncovers the Grim Realities of Concentration Camps

28 04 2015

HBO and the British Film Institute delve into the grim realities of German atrocities during World War II in the recent documentary “Night Will Fall,” directed by André Singer. The film tells the tale of the British Government’s efforts, under the direction of Sidney Bernstein, to capture for posterity what happened in the German death camps, so that the deeds carried out by the Germans would not be forgotten.

Bernstein took on the overwhelming job of filming the scenes at the camps using Allied cameramen. Both the cameramen and the soldiers who captured the camps were unprepared for what they found: dead bodies of the Germans’ victims piled like cordwood, the gaunt figures of surviving prisoners, the defeated but unbowed officers who ran the camps, and, perhaps worst of all, the ordinary townspeople who lived outside the camps and ignored the overwhelming stench of death that filled the air. The survivors greeted their rescuers with joyful tears, but these same rescuers made the shocking decision to punish the Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, by forcing them to dig mass graves and bury the bodies of the dead.

As the Allied forces moved further into German territory in the days after the war, more camps were discovered and more reels of film were exposed – so many that Bernstein’s job grew to be completely unmanageable, presenting far more footage than could ever be used. Bernstein, an original member of the Film Society of London, called in his friend Alfred Hitchcock for help. They had last worked together in 1944, when Hitchcock directed the short propaganda films “Aventure Malgache” and “Bon Voyage.” Although Hitchcock was only available for a brief consultation, he made a few valuable suggestions about how to approach the project so that future generations would not be able to doubt the film’s veracity. Unfortunately, the project dragged on so long that it had to be shelved. In the early days of the Cold War, the Allies put their efforts into rebuilding Germany as an ally against the Soviet Union; a lengthy documentary reminding the world of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity was no longer considered useful. Some of the footage wound up in other, shorter films that were shown in the United States, but for the most part it was lost to history; some of it went on to be presented in the 1985 as the PBS film “Frontline: Memories of the Camps.” 

“Night Will Fall” reassembles much of that film, and presents it with tearful testimony from both concentration camp survivors and the former soldiers who freed the camps. For Hitchcock fans, it presents a look at a lost chapter in the life of the Master of Suspense, but most importantly, it is a stunning, clear-eyed look at one of humanity’s darkest hours, one that must never be forgotten.





Recent Acquisitions at The Hitchcock Report

30 03 2014

It seems there’s a never-ending supply of books about Alfred Hitchcock, both new and old. Here are a few of my recent acquisitions of books about Hitchcock and his collaborators.

• “The Alfred Hitchcock Story,” by Ken Mogg. Published by Titans Books, originally published in 1999. With a foreword by Janet Leigh, “The Alfred Hitchcock Story” looks at each of Hitchcock’s films in chronological order, with contributions by noted Hitch scholars including Dan Auiler and Stephen DeRosa. In this lavishly illustrated book, Mogg and his contributors find qualities to praise in even the least interesting Hitchcock films, which is something to celebrate.

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• “Torn Curtain,” by Richard Wormser. Published by Dell, 1966. “Based on a screenplay by Brian Moore – Now a sensational Alfred Hitchcock movie!” the cover says. Yes, it’s a novelization of Hitchcock’s cold war thriller “Torn Curtain,” starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews that promises, according to the cover, “Nerve-shattering intrigue, volcanic passions—an espionage drama that plays East against West…lover against mistress.”

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• “Pocket Essentials: Alfred Hitchcock,” by Paul Duncan. Published by Pocket Essentials, 1999. A slim paperback that really could fit in your pocket, this title is another guide to Hitchcock’s films, rarities and themes—this time without any art. The same author wrote a similar title (it might even be the same text) with many colorful illustrations for a recent Taschen hardcover on Hitchcock.

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• “David O. Selznick’s Hollywood,” by Ronald Haver. Published by Knopf, 1980. Coffee table book about Selznick, his independent studio, and the golden age of Hollywood, with beautiful pictures, personal letters from Selznick’s archives and, of course, memos from David O. Selznick. Features fold-out pages with metallic inks and embossing, plus beautiful sketches of Manderley from “Rebecca,” probably the most successful of Hitchcock and Selznick’s collaborations.

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• “Selznick,” by Bob Thomas. Published by Doubleday and Company, 1970. This is a critical biography of Selznick, so of course it delves into the contentious relationship between him and Hitchcock. At a testimonial dinner held in Selznick’s honor in March, 1965, Hitchcock said, “When I first arrived in this country, David Selznick sent me one of his famous memos. I wanted to make it into a film titled ‘The Longest Story Ever Told.'”

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• “A Year of Hitchcock,” by Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan. Published by Scarecrow Press, 2009. Another overview of Hitchcock’s ouevre, this book adds helpful details and insights that make it a good introduction to The Master of Suspense.

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Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman

9 12 2013

Alfred Hitchcock with Ingrid Bergman, star of “Spellbound,” “Notorious” and “Under Capricorn.” One of Hitch’s favorite female leads, Bergman pulled back from Hitch’s Hollywood-style thrillers at the end of the 1940s to star in films directed by her new husband, Roberto Rossellini. These films were in the Italian neorealism style, like “Europe ‘51” and “Journey to Italy.” Bergman eventually moved back toward roles in Hollywood movies. She never worked with Hitchcock again after “Under Capricorn,” but they remained close friends. This picture is probably from the American Film Institute tribute to Hitchcock in 1979. ingrid





Alfred Hitchcock and Myron Selznick

9 12 2013

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Alfred Hitchcock (yes, with mustache) in about 1924, with Myron Selznick. In the late 1930s, Selznick would be instrumental in Hitch’s emigration from Britain to Hollywood, CA, where the director had signed a long-term contract with Selznick’s younger brother, producer David O. Selznick.





Breaking the Silence on BAM’s Showing of “The Hitchcock 9”

27 07 2013

945616_10151595414878713_1239777943_nThe Brooklyn Academy of Music recently ran its “Hitchcock 9” series, in which they screened restored prints of silent movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock: “The Pleasure Garden,” “The Lodger,” “The Ring,” “Easy Virtue,” “Downhill,” “Champagne,” “The Farmer’s Wife,” “The Manxman” and “Blackmail.” Each film was accompanied by live orchestral music created for the films, which made this a really memorable event. (No “Mountain Eagle,” of course.)

On the weekend of June 29-30 I went to screenings of “The Lodger” and “Blackmail.” As you may recall from my blog post on “Blackmail,” here, this was Hitchcock’s first sound film, and he wasted no time in taking advantage of this newly added asset. I had seen the sound version, but knew that “Blackmail” was made in 600445_10151686404218713_934287928_nboth sound and silent versions, since very few theaters in England had sound equipment at the time.

Now having seen both versionf of it, I think “Blackmail works much better with sound than without. The silent version seems to be exactly the same film, but with added, rather lengthy title cards, and even the introduction of sound into Hitchcock’s film world is handled with great subtlety. The film begins with a mostly silent sequence in which the police from New Scotland Yard are seen capturing and bringing in a suspect. After he is fingerprinted, the cops go off duty, and it is only when they are in the locker room and getting ready for their evenings off that they begin to talk. This makes for a great, smooth transition in which the plot is first driven visually and then through dialogue; without sound, an element that enriches the viewing experience is lost.

1000192_585059604848630_1893416142_nAnother memorable scene also revolves around dialogue. It’s the one in which the nosy neighbor talks to Alice and her parents while they’re eating breakfast the morning after Alice was forced to stab her attacker to death. In the sound version, the neighbor seems to say the word knife about a dozen times in two minutes, and Hitchcock plays with the sound until all Alice hears clearly is the word knife. Without sound, Hitchcock must resort to title cards that say knife a few times – but it does not have the same impact as hearing it.

In fact, lengthy title cards are a problem all the way through the silent version of the film. Hitchcock always took great care to keep his title cards brief and few, but here, as they substitute for spoken exposition, they have to convey a lot of information.

The last place where the lack of sound hurts the storytelling is at the very end of the film. Alice enters the1003691_585775958110328_773615495_n inspector’s office to confess, only to find her detective boyfriend there already. The inspector receives a phone call, and the couple leave the office so Frank can tell Alice that the death of the blackmailer means she’s off the hook. In the sound version, that moment is followed by a voice (Hitchcock’s, in fact) saying that the inspector will see them now. As they head toward his office once more, the viewer must wonder whether she still will confess, which makes for a strong, ambiguous ending. Without sound, though, they merely walk off together; it isn’t even clear that where they are going.

Clearly, the sound version of “Blackmail” is more successful than the silent one. Yet it was the silent version that most people in the U.K. saw at the time, and it was very big hit, one that pointed the way toward Hitchcock’s mid-1930s string of thrillers.





Christopher Reeve Stars in “Rear Window”

16 06 2013

“Rear Window,” my contender for best Alfred Hitchcock film of all time, starred James Stewart as a photographer confined to a wheelchair while recovering from a broken leg; in this version, Reeve put his own paralysis onscreen as Jason Kemp, an architect who was injured in a car crash.

The movie spends a significant amount of time on Kemp’s difficult physical rehabilitation and his hope to one day walk again; Reeve clearly was inspired to air some of the issues he had been exploring in his own life, in which he had become an advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries. Confined to his own Soho, NY, apartment, Kemp attempts to get back to business as usual, but during the months he spent in recovery his pet project was handed over to a young architect played by Hannah. Together, they continue to work on Kemp’s building, but it is during the long stretches of time he spends alone and looking out his window that Kemp realizes the sculptor across the alley may have killed his own wife.

With help from Hannah, as well as his nurse, a philosophically inclined Jamaiacan man, and a crusty cop played by Robert Forster, Kemp uses his wits and his computer to unravel the mystery. And while he and Hannah begin to forge a relationship by the end of the film, the story’s conclusion disappoints, as the body is never found—and without that, the police can’t prove that a murder occurred.

rear-window-1998-1The film is very much a product of its decade: Email is considered fancy and new, and the murderer is a sculptor, reflecting Soho’s booming gallery scene. Also, Kemp’s voice-activated computer is so good it’s comparable to the computers on “Star Trek.” Still, “Rear Window” relies on suspicion of wrongdoing that builds to suspense, and here the suspense comes from Kemp’s seeming helplessness when he’s confronted by the killer.

Even in a wheelchair, Reeve remains boyishly charming, and it’s particularly poignant to watch “Rear Window” and realize that the cure he hoped for would not come in time for him. Christopher Reeve died on October 10, 2004.








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