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.

“Vertigo” Tops “Citizen Kane” as World’s Greatest Movie

6 08 2012

Last week, the British Film Institute revealed its new list of the 50 greatest movies of all time, as selected by a panel of 846 critics, scholars and distributors — and Alfred Hitchcock, perennial also-ran in the world of film awards, hit the top of the list with his 1958 masterpiece “Vertigo.” Longtime critical darling “Citizen Kane” was bumped down to the number two spot after decades at the top.

 I admit to having mixed feelings about this choice. “Vertigo” is an intense movie about obsession, identity, paranoia, guilt and so much more, and it features powerful performances from James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. Hitchcock shows a masterful command of his art, with his team of experts, including composer Bernard Herrmann, costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, credits designer Saul Bass and others paying spectacular attention to costume, lighting, hair, makeup, music… Hitchcock and his team exploit every conceivable aspect of the craft. It utilizes the famous dolly zoom (sometimes called the “Hitchcock zoom” or even the “Vertigo zoom”), inducing a momentary feeling of vertigo in the viewer by having the camera zoom in while pulling away. It even has a fairly experimental nightmare sequence that utilizes animation, symbolism and color. If Hitchcock could have come up with a way to include smell, he would have.

There’s a dark sexiness to the film that lends the film an air of mature and serious art. Barbara Bel Gedde’s tragic Midge practically throws herself at Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson, while Novak’s “Madeleine Elster” seems rather matter of fact when she realized that Ferguson had completely undressed her after saving her from death. Later, as Judy Barton, her real identity, she shows a frank knowledge of pickups, sizing Ferguson up as a masher. Judy, it seems, has been around the block once or twice. Where earlier Hitchcock movies played coy with sex, here he tackles the subject head on, and it adds to the film’s mature atmosphere.

Although “Vertigo” does not go to great lengths to analyze Ferguson’s paralyzing condition, it is far more subtle than Hitchcock’s earlier attempt at tackling psychoanalysis, “Spellbound.”

So why am I not entirely thrilled with the results of the BFI’s survey? Perhaps it’s because “Vertigo” is not my favorite Hitchcock film. Despite its amazing technical achievements, there is something cold about it. Ferguson is simply not a very sympathetic character. We never learn much about him, and what we do learn, such as the fact that Midge broke up with him because she realized he wasn’t in love with her, just makes him seem like a cad. And his obsession with Madeleine/Judy, while perhaps earned via his perceived failure to save the former, makes him seem pretty creepy. It is, in fact, an uncomfortable film, and Hitchcock was counting on James Stewart to bring an identifiable, everyman quality to the role.

Stewart is much more winning in “Rear Window,” which I sort of wish were at the top of the BFI’s list. Here, we learn all we need to know about L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, our immobilized hero, as he sits in his sweltering apartment. His pictures tell us about him, as does his relationship with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). While not as extravagant a movie as “Vertigo,” “Rear Window” has the wonderful subtext that casts it as a movie about movie watching and voyeurism. It has the sexy banter between Jeff and Lisa, as well as the disarmingly dark commentary from Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s nurse. It is not so nakedly introverted a story as “Vertigo.” In “Rear Window,” Jeff avoids the soul-searching he so badly needs to do and focuses only on what’s outside his apartment, which, of course, turns out to be murder.

On a technical level, surely “Rear Window” is equal to “Vertigo.” The elaborate set, the use of New York City street noise, Grace Kelly’s costumes, the red glow of the flashbulbs at the film’s climax, all compare favorably with the achievements of “Vertigo.”

Why, then, is “Vertigo” at the top of this list and not “Rear Window” (or “North by Northwest” or “Psycho” or any of several other Hitchcock films)? I’m guessing that it is the focus that “Vertigo” maintains on Ferguson’s inner turmoil. This is a man grappling with his demons and very close to losing; there is no room for humor in this story. Jeffries, on the other hand, is doing his best to ignore his own issues. And frankly, dark obsession beats fear of commitment any day.

In some ways, the lack of humor in “Vertigo” makes it an unusual film in the Hitchcock canon. Virtually every other successful Hitchcock film has its moments of humor, and those moments are the mark of a Hitchcock film. In a way, the BFI panel has chosen as its top movie of all time a Hitchcock movie that is not a typical Hitchcock movie.

You can look over the whole list of the BFI’s top 50 here. And here you can read my original blog post about “Vertigo.”

Alfred Hitchcock Auction at New York’s Swann Galleries

26 03 2012

On April 4, Swann Galleries in New York City will auction “Property from the Estate of Filmmaker Gary Winick.” Winick, a producer and director who died in 2011, left behind a substantial collection of photographs, books, posters and other items, including more than 30 posters from films by Alfred Hitchcock.

I had the opportunity to talk with George Lowry, Chairman of Swann Galleries, on March 23 about the collection. We focused on the Hitchcock portion of it, naturally, but I encourage you to check out the online catalogue or visit the gallery in the coming days and see this collection, which includes photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Eadward Muybridge, Alfred Eisnestaedt and Cindy Sherman; illustrations by Andy Warhol and Garth Williams; animation art from Disney cartoons, “Fantasia” and “Yellow Submarine,” and, besides the Hitchcock material, movie posters from “All About Eve,” “The 400 Blows,” “Some Like It Hot,” “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and more.

Adam Philips: Tell me a little about Mr. Winick and his collection.

George Lowry: Gary Winick became a very prominent movie producer and director at an early age. He died at the age of 49, he was a lifelong New Yorker, and he began his career with digital films, basically small films with a handheld digital camera. He ended up becoming a reasonably well known Hollywood producer/direct, and one of his last films before he died was “Charlotte’s Web,” which got pretty good reviews. He died of a brain tumor, I believe, and he had become a serious but small collector in the short time he had money and the time to collect, and he collected photographs, important photographs by important photographers, miscellaneous works on paper meaning things done by artists, including a very nice Warhol drawing. Some of this is quite valuable. He collected books and memorabilia including Hitchcock posters. As far as your readers are concerned I think the most interesting thing is the lot of about Hitchcock posters, which represent every movie Hitchcock made since 1940, I think excepting only “Rebecca.”

AP: There are probably some movies that have two, even three posters in this collection. And these are all first-run movie posters, right?

GL: From the little bit of research we were able to do, because we’re not experts on movie posters, not yet anyway, we believe that these are all first edition posters. We’re not guaranteeing them, but all the posters are illustrated in our catalogue, our printed catalogue, and they’re illustrated in our online catalogue. We’re available to answer questions, so that if there’s a particular issue point on a poster that you’re curious about, all you have to do is call us and we’ve got people who provide that kind of information. If there’s a particular catch or mark in the lower right hand corner, we’ll take a digital picture and email it to you.

AP: And can you tell me about the overall condition of the collection?

GL: We have graded these posters on the basis of how we would grade product posters from the turn of the century. For example, we have “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Paramount Pictures, published in 1956. We say, condition B+, folds and pinholes in corners. That’s a paper poster. If you take that to a restorer, for a hundred or a hundred-twenty dollars, they will mount it on linen and those pinholes and the folds will disappear. And I would say that generally, all the posters are in that sense in excellent condition. There are some posters that are mounted on linen which have some problems with them, so they’re not all perfect, but the ones that are on paper, if you spend a hundred dollars on them, they’d come out looking like new.

AP: Modern movie posters are printed on two sides, so they can take advantage of the lights behind them. Is that the case with some of these?

GL: First, there are a few posters that are not Hitchcock posters. There’s a French poster for “All About Eve,” there’s “Au Revoir Les Enfants,” there’s “The 400 Blows,” there’s a Marilyn Monroe poster for “The Misfits,” but these are all printed on one side. Because don’t forget, the latest posters would have been from the 1960s, into the 1970s. Those are all one-sided posters.

AP: I’m looking at the website as we speak…do you know if there are lobby cards as well?

GL: There are window cards, but most of them are regular posters. There are a couple of three-sheets, and “Foreign Correspondent,” for example, is a half-sheet poster. There are a couple of half-sheets and a few three-sheets, but most of them are one-sheets. Lot 95, which is “Rear Window,” is an insert, which is a tall skinny poster.

AP: How did you get involved in this particular sale, since, as you said, you don’t usually handle movie posters?

GL: We were called in because his collection included watches, prints and paintings, books, movie posters and memorabilia. And none of it was of extraordinary value. It’s good, middle-range valued material. There aren’t too many auction houses that handle across the board. We don’t handle furniture, we don’t handle watches and clocks, but we made a proposal and said, ‘listen, the things that we specialize in and that we’re known for are photographs and books and prints and posters, and I guess we made a good case for it. They sent the furniture someplace, they sent the jewelry someplace, they sent a couple of very, very important primitive paintings someplace, and the rest of it came to us. There’s no mystery about it: Auction houses compete for material.

It’s an amazing collection. If you look at number 45, which is an Andy Warhol shoe design, estimated at $15-20,000. And there’s a photograph in here, number 6, which is a major, major photograph (by William Eggleston), estimated at $30-40,000. In a sense, the movie posters may be the most interesting for you and the most interesting for me, but they’re not the most valuable items for sale. I’d be surprised if any one of the posters brought more than maybe $5,000 or $6,000.

AP: I wouldn’t mind having a few of those myself, of course.

GL: Listen, you’re welcome to bid, you know that.

AP: Thanks, I appreciate that.

GL: To me, the biggest curiosity is number 99. This is a 24-sheet horizontal poster which, if it were opened up, would be almost twenty feet long and nine feet high. It’s called a 24-sheet, and it’s also called a billboard. It may sell for a lot of money, and it may not sell, because nobody has the space to display it, except that it’s a curiosity piece. And we’ve never opened it because – I believe it’s never been opened – because it’s very brittle. We opened it just enough to see what it was. Anybody who gets it probably would have to professionally have it opened, and you do that by putting it in a damp atmosphere so the paper softens, so it doesn’t crack when it gets opened. It’s a spectacular poster.

It’s also possible that as a result of this sale, we’ll be getting into more material of this kind. Look at number 100, which is for the Polish release of “Spellbound.” It’s very interesting. For me, I’ve been with Swann’s since before 1970, and it’s very sad to see a young man who apparently had great promise in the movie business die so young. In fact, he was mentioned at the Academy Awards as an important figure who died during the year. So, here’s a guy who really was very talented and had a great sense of aesthetics judging from what he collected. You can make that my final statement. (laughs)

GL: Thanks, I appreciate your time today.

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.



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