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.


Which Hitch Do You Prefer?

28 04 2012

Recently, both of the upcoming films about Alfred Hitchcock – “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones, and “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins – have released images of their respective stars made up and outfitted as The Master of Suspense. Here they are…so now the question is which one looks more macabre to you?

Toby Jones (with Sienna Miller) in "The Girl"

Anthony Hopkins in "Hitchcock"

Of course, neither of them looks quite right in these shots, although they do look very good. Our Hitch was an unusual looking person, and finding a double for him would be nigh on impossible. Still, both of these actors have a knack for impersonation: Hopkins made a convincing Richard Nixon in “Nixon,” and Jones channeled Truman Capote in “Infamous.”

I first raised some questions about casting on these movies in this post – but now that we’re seeing images from the movies, I’ll ask again: What do you think of this casting, and who would you like to see playing Sir Alfred?

Alfred Hitchcock by Those Who Knew Him Best

2 08 2011

With the book “It’s Only A Movie,” writer Charlotte Chandler presents an intimate portrait of Alfred Hitchcock through interviews with his family, friends, colleagues, and Hitchcock himself.

Published in 2005, the book provides perspectives on Hitchcock’s moviemaking genius from dozens of sources, especially Alma Reville Hitchcock and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, and so many others as well: stars like James Stewart, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Marlene Dietrich, Martin Landau, James Mason, Jane Wyman, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Fonda, Tippi Hedren and more, who discuss Hitchcock’s delight in finding new ways to call actors cattle, usually just to get a rise out of them; his on set personality that veered from bawdy to bored; and his attention to every last technical detail.

But it’s in the interviews with the behind the scenes people that Chandler digs up new gold. Former writers and cameramen, for example, have less reason than a movie star does to speak discreetly, and while the book does not air much dirty laundry, there is some frank discussion from Hitch’s early screenplay collaborator, Charles Bennett, cameraman Jack Cardiff, production designer Robert Boyle, or actor/collaborators like Hume Cronyn and Norman Lloyd.

By going straight to the source – Hitchcock himself – Chandler reveals some interesting tidbids, like the fact that Hitchcock’s very first cameraman, Gaetano di Ventimiglia, sometimes credited as “Baron di Ventimiglia,” really was a baron. She also provides insights into Hitch’s relationship with Alma; although intensely private in his marriage, we learn that in their early years, Hitchcock called Alma “kitty,” but by the 1970s, he referred to her somewhat ironically as “the madame.”

Chandler goes beyond Hitchcock in “It’s Only a Movie.” In describing Hitch’s one outing with Marlene Dietrich, “Stage Fright,” she neatly delineates Dietrich’s entire career, from screen icon to chatty recluse, including a lengthy digression on Dietrich’s affair with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

While not as in-depth a biography as some, “It’s Only a Movie” is rightly subtitled “A Personal Biography.” A such books go, they don’t get much more personal than this one, and it’s as close to Hitchcock as most readers as likely to get.



A Hitchcock Rarity: “Elstree Calling”

8 12 2010

Filled with singing, dancing and comedy, “Elstree Calling” is a ninety-minute revue that has roots in the past while looking to the future. Released in 1930, the movie is not officially available at this time, although you can find quite a few clips from it on youtube. It is, however, an interesting, if minor, piece of Alfred Hitchcock’s career.

Hitchcock co-directed this early British talkie with André Charlot, Jack Hulbert and Paul Murray; Hulbert appears in the movie, and Charlot certainly must have been related to the Charlot Girls who also appear in it.

Filmed at England’s famous Elstree Studios, the film apes the early Hollywood revues that were staples of the 1930s, like the “Broadway Melody” films. It consists of three types of segments, starting with a master of ceremonies who introduces the various acts, speaking into a microphone as though it was going out on radio and making silly jokes, such as referring to “the greatesto studio in Europo.” Then there are the acts he introduces – mostly singing and dancing acts, but a few comedians as well, all pulled straight out of England’s music hall tradition.

There’s another framing sequence, though, which is credited to Hitchcock. In it,

Gordon Harker, right, with Carl Brisson in Hitchcock's "The Ring"

a man attempts to tune into the show on that new invention, the television. In about half a dozen brief sketches, the man tries to tune in his set, but he only succeeds in making things worse – as well as giving himself shocks and setting off an explosion. The man is played by Gordon Harker, who had only recently appeared in Hitchcock’s films “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “Champagne.”

The official directing credits for these sketches don’t exist anymore, but I do believe that Hitchcock directed them for a few reasons. First, Hitch obviously enjoyed working with Harker enough to do so again here. Second, these are the only segments with Hitch’s typical fluid camera work; virtually everything else in the film is shot head-on to capture the performers as they would have appeared on stage. And third, these are the only parts of the film that attempt to tell a story, however slim it is, rather than present a vignette. Harker’s tinkerer experiences progress and setbacks in his attempts to make his television work.

The music hall performers are a mixed bunch. There’s the rotund bandleader Teddy Brown, who plays xylophone and drums; the blackface tapdancers called The Three Teddies; singer Cecily Courtneidge, clearly a star in this crowd; the singing, dancing female troupe The Charlot Girls; the endearing if awkward singer-dancer duo of Jack Hulbert and Helen Burnell; homely-but-funny Lily Morris, who sings “Always a Bridesmaid”; and Scottish comedian Will Fyffe, who performs in a kilt. Nearly all of their appearances are on a stage, in front of backdrops. Without a story or even a clue about their personalities, many of these acts are hard to sit through, even if they are somewhat quaint.

There is one other running gag, about a Shakespearean actor played by Donald Calthrop, who played the villain in Hitchcock’s “Blackmail.” Calthrop is determined to get out on the stage and perform a scene from “The Taming of The Shrew,” against the wishes of the emcee. When he finally gets his chance, the scene is a disaster, although he does not seem to be aware of it.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Elstree Calling” is that a few of the

Cecily Courtneidge in color

segments were filmed in Pathécolor, an early color process that looks like it uses red and yellow but not blue. It’s a pleasant effect, if not entirely successful, reminiscent of early movie tinting from films like “The Lodger.”

The Three Eddies. Not cool.

And then there’s the racism. Besides the blackface dancers, Teddy Brown tells an anti-semitic joke, and of course Will Fyffe’s jokes are based largely on the idea that Scots are so very cheap.

Still, “Elstree Calling” provides a window into the world of the British music hall scene, which was then fading away, while looking ahead to the age of television. And yes, when TV finally became commonplace, viewers spent countless hours trying to adjust their pictures, so Gordon Harker’s futile efforts here do have some prescience about them.

Alfred Hitchcock Experiences “Stage Fright”

20 10 2010

“You wonder why I chose that particular story? Well, the book had come out and several of the reviewers had mentioned that it might make a good Hitchcock picture. And I, like an idiot, believed them!”

“Why are none of the people ever in danger? Because we’re telling a story in which the villains themselves are afraid. The great weakness of the picture is that it breaks an unwritten law: The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That’s a cardinal rule, and in this picture the villain is a flop!” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock launched his second quarter century of filmmaking in 1950 with the strange, and strangely entertaining, “Stage Fright.” Set in London and starring Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman, it’s a murder mystery that takes place in and around the world of theater, like his 1930 film “Murder!”

“Stage Fright” occupies a special place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, however. It is the first of his films to feature an original song, the first and, I believe, only, in which two female stars get equal billing. What’s most memorable about the movie is a major flaw, though: a red herring so large that it could have given viewers whiplash when they learned the truth.

The story begins as Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) is driving her friend, Jonathan Cooper, (Richard Todd) out of London, as he is wanted by the police. He begins to explain the situation, and we flash back to his apartment, where his lover, Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) shows up wearing a bloody covered dress. She’s just killed her husband, she says, and she needs his help. Cooper goes back to her own apartment and gets a change of clothes, but is spotted by the maid. He drops off the clean dress, then contacts Gill to see if he can hide out with her father.

Gill takes Cooper at his word and brings him to her father, the eccentric Commodore, played by the very amusing Alistair Sim, who lives in a remote fishing village. Determined to save Cooper, because she loves him, Gill contacts Inwood’s maid and pays her to take a few sick days so she can get close to her boss and force a confession. She poses as a Cockney working girl, with Hitchcock getting in a great cameo, staring at Gill as she practices her accent while walking down the street.

Gill also crosses paths with Detective Wilfrid Smith (Michael Wilding), who is on the Inwood murder case. Gill struggles to keep up with the imperious demands Mrs. Inwood, while helping Smith and her father with the investigation, keeping Inwood’s real assistant from giving away the game, and continuing her own acting classes. Wyman jumps back and forth from middle class British accent to Cockney with the kind of stiffness you’d expect from a fledgling actor, while Dietrich commands the screen with amazing charisma. Half the fun of the movie is the contrast between down-to-Earth Wyman and diva Dietrich.

Things come to a head at a fundraiser fair. While Inwood is onstage singing, the Commodore pays a boy to hand her a doll wearing a bloodstained dress. (The suspense in watching the Commodore attempt to win the doll at a fairground shooting gallery before Inwood finishes singing is a highlight.) Inwood is shocked by the doll, but does not confess anything. Detective Smith, who’s been watching the proceedings, castigates the Commodore and his daughter for their interference with the investigation, but she convinces him to give her one more chance to get a confession out of Inwood.

Gill confronts Inwood in her dressing room at the theater, which the police have wired for sound. Inwood refuses to admit anything, saying that Cooper did commit the murder. Smith, meanwhile, has caught Cooper and brought him to the theater. On hearing Inwood, Cooper breaks free of the police and finds Gill, who helps him hide. He admits to her that he really did kill Inwood’s husband, but that she goaded him into it – and now, he’s going to have to kill her as well.

This is the point where audiences lost the plot, so to speak. Cooper’s entire explanation of events at the start of the movie, and the flashback that showed it all, was a fabrication. It’s almost too much to believe – that for the past hour and three quarters, we’ve been led in the wrong direction by Hitchcock. If the audience had known that Cooper was the real killer, Hitchcock might have gotten some suspense out of Gill’s attempts to help him.

Gill manages to escape Cooper, and he is killed by a falling safety curtain as the police try to trap him. The film ends as Smith comforts Gill, who is visibly shaken by Cooper’s betrayal and death.

Of course, despite this rather large flaw, “Stage Fright” is enormously entertaining. Hitchcock had long wanted to work with Dietrich, who is a phenomenal screen presence; she even sings an original Cole Porter song, “The Laziest Gal in Town,” halfway through the film. (It’s specifically what Madeleine Kahn was parodying with the number “I’m Tired” in “Blazing Saddles.”) Here’s a look at that song:

Michael Wilding, who had appeared in “Under Capricorn” the previous year, has a lot of fun with his detective character, who is both charming and dogged. His chemistry with Jane Wyman as their romance blossoms is a treat as well. Also, Patricia Hitchcock makes her screen debut with a minor role here as one of Gill’s actress-student pals.

“Stage Fright” was the first picture Hitchcock made in London since 1939, filmed in black and white, and it’s a pleasure to see those familiar places again. He would not work in England again until “Frenzy” in 1972.

Here’s the trailer for “Stage Fright.” It’s an odd one, as it first positions the film as a vehicle for up-and-coming starlet Jane Wyman, but then presents the story as being mostly about Wilfrid Smith:

Up next, Farley Granger and Robert Walker trade crimes with deadly results in the classic “Strangers on a Train.”

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