“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.


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.”


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 – Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

7 12 2011

Since the start of 2011, there’s been talk about Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Sir Alfred Hitchcock in a big-screen adaptation of “Writing with Hitchcock,” Anthony De Rosa’s fantastic book about Hitchcock’s 1950s collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. (I blogged about this book here.)

Now, it looks like we’ll have our pick of Hitchcocks. And Alma Revilles, too.

First, the BBC has announced plans this week for the movie “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s difficult relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of “The Birds.” The movie will star Sienna Miller as Hedren, with Toby Jones as Hitch and Imelda Staunton as Reville. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto will serve as a consultant on the film; no word yet on when it will air, but it’s a good bet that it will be sometime in 2012.

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, slated to play Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren

Today, the Anthony Hopkins Hitchcock project got an update, with Fox Searchlight announcing that the movie would be about the making of “Psycho,” with Helen Mirren as Reville. Reports say that the film’s story will focus on Hitchcock’s decision to make a horror film, and his struggle to finance it when he could not get the studio backing he had expected. It looks like this movie may start production in the spring.

Helen Mirren to play Alma Reville

Anthony Hopkins IS Alfred Hitchcock!

So, film fans – who do you like better as Hitch? And who will be the better Alma: Helen Mirren or Imelda Staunton? I think it all sounds pretty amazing – but Helen Mirren may be a little too glam for  Alma – but we’ll have to wait and see.

“Birdemic: Shock and Terror” Pays Homage to an Alfred Hitchcock Classic

21 08 2011

Visionary writer/director James Nguyen pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film “The Birds” with “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” his own homegrown “romantic thriller™.” (We know he’s a visionary because the trailer for “Birdemic” says so. And yes, the phrase “romantic thriller™” appears with that ™ in the trailer.) Released in 2008, “Birdemic” has taken wing as more than a mere tribute, though. It’s come to stand for all that is great – and delightfully terrible – about inept, low-budget filmmaking.

Like “The Birds,” “Birdemic” takes its time in unleashing its true horror upon the audience. The first half of the movie is mostly about Rod, a young software salesman, and Nathalie, a hot model he meets. After spying her in a diner, Rod realizes they’ve met before. They went to high school together…they sat two seats apart in English class in eleventh grade…but he never made a pass at her. When Nathalie asks him why – in those words – he says he was too shy.

Both of their careers are going great, fortunately, and they make a great couple, as they quiz each other on their interests and ideal mates over Italian food. Rod closes a million dollar sale from the comfort of his open-air cubicle – the biggest deal he’s ever made, so high fives all around! – while his company is bought for a billion dollars (“A billion!” the CEO keeps repeating to his assembled staff of about 14 people.) Meanwhile, Nathalie’s agent at “Dream Models” informs her that she’s been selected to be the cover model for the next Victoria’s Secret catalogue – although her mother would feel better if she would get a real estate license, you know, in case that modeling thing doesn’t work out. Because, yeah, landing the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue is no guarantee of anything.

After a double-date with another couple, Rod’s friend from work and his girlfriend, who happens to be Nathalie’s best friend, things start to go bad. That’s not just because after watching “An Inconvenient Truth” at the local multiplex, the other couple excuse themselves to go to a meeting: “A sensual meeting,” as the dude explains. Yeah, that movie is quite a turn-on. No, while Rod and Nathalie make tender love without undressing in a motel room they inexplicably check into even though he lives alone, the little town of Half Moon Bay changes. After long panning shots of the local scenery – the quaint streets, the English pub, the pumpkin patch – the town is savagely, suddenly attacked by flocks of birds that somehow seem able to (a) hover, (b) spit acid and (c) explode.

The birds even find Rod and Nathalie in their motel room, banging on a window and waking the still-dressed couple. They manage to escape and knock on a nearby door where another couple is hiding out. Since Rod has lost his keys, they join forces, escaping the motel room by brandishing coat hangers against a flock of hovering birds in one of the film’s most harrowing scenes. They then speed off in the guy’s beat-up Ford Aerostar minivan. And since he’s an ex-Marine, he has lots of assault rifles in the vehicle, enabling them to shoot at the birds as they drive away, taking out some of them in graphics that are about two steps up from the video game “Duck Hunter.”

Word of the attacks has spread; “forest wildfires” threaten the countryside, and gas stations gouge desperate drivers with $100 per gallon prices. After saving two frightened kids, they pick up snacks and a case of bottled water, but that doesn’t keep them from stopping by a stream to refill some empty bottles with fresh water. While in the forest, a self-professed “tree hugger” wearing a terrible wig explains that he’s safe in the forest, so…good for him! They also encounter a roadside bandit who steals their gasoline can at gunpoint, but is viciously slashed by a bird.

After running out of gas, our heroes make their way to a beach, where Rod catches a fish and Nathalie gathers seaweed for a delicious dinner, although both children express a preference for Happy Meals. Before Rod and Nathalie can cram the seaweed and fish down the kids’ throats, the birds attack! Again! This time, they are saved by another flock of birds: Peaceful doves that drive off the awful eagles and hawks. As the little band watches the two flocks of birds very very slowly fly off in the distance, the credits roll.

I knew “Birdemic” was going to be special from the word go. The film opens on local traffic, as a white minivan waits at a traffic light to make a left turn. “Ah ha,” I thought. “Whoever is driving the car must be our hero.” But we never see the white minivan again. After it turns, we cut to a blue Mustang, which we follow for a long time while the credits roll, never seeing who’s driving. For a minute or two, the Mustang is followed by a bright yellow tow-truck which is towing another car, so I thought that might be something, but no. We see Rod at last, for the first time, when he reaches his office and gets out of the car.

Also, quick pointer for would-be filmmakers out there: When you shoot through the windshield of a beat-up Ford Aerostar, it’s okay to clean the windshield.

In many ways, the high point of “Birdemic” may be the scene in which the CEO tells Rod and the rest of the staff that the company has been bought out for “a billion dollars! A billion!” It’s a chilling indictment of greed in corporate America, as the staff applauds the buyout. Director Nguyen films the staff, seated at a table, two at a time; as each pair finishes applauding, we cut to another pair, who are still applauding, until we see the full horrific effect of the applause. Or, in other words, “A billion!”

Or it could be the terrifying scene in which Rod and his Marine friend, Ramsey, rescue some people trapped in a double-decker tourist bus by hovering turkey vultures. Rod and Ramsey aim at the birds and bus, but manage to kill the birds without causing any apparent damage to the bus or the people inside. Who all get killed by more birds the minute they make their escape.

Nguyen does an admirable job combining his love of Hitchcock with an environmental message. Because, as Dr. Jones says, “It’s the human species that needs to quit playing cowboy with nature. We must act more like astronauts, spacemen taking care of Spaceship Earth.” and he should know. He’s a scientist.

This fall, Rod returns in “Birdemic II: The Resurrection 3D,” as the marauding birds attack Hollywood! It’s sure to be every bit as good as the original “Birdemic,” because James Nguyen is a visionary.

Here’s the official trailer for “Birdemic.” There are lots of clips from the movie on YouTube, so be sure to check them out!


The Persistence of Hitchcock: For the Win!

27 04 2011

Tonight let’s take a look at another aspect of “The Persistence of Hitchcock,” namely, Hitchcock’s continued popularity and influence.

Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most revered and studied directors of all time. Movies as recent as 2010’s “Shutter Island” and “Inception” are called “Hitchcockian” for their suspenseful plots.

Hitchcock’s presence in film and on TV continues to this day in other ways as well. Anthony Hopkins is currently in talks to play Hitchcock in a film version of the 2001 book “Writing with Hitchcock,” by Stephen DeRosa.

More than 30 years since his death, Hitchcock’s films still dominate best-of lists.

  • Roger Ebert lists “Notorious” as one of the “10 Greatest Films of All Time.”
  • The American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies,” compiled in 2007, lists “Psycho” as the #14 film of all time.
  • AFI’s “Top 10 Mystery Movies” list includes:

#1 – “Vertigo”

#3 – “Rear Window”

#7 – “North by Northwest”

#9 – “Dial M for Murder”

  • AFI’s “100 Years…1000 Thrills” list includes:

#1 – “Psycho”

#4 – “North by Northwest”

#6 – “The Birds”

#14 – “Rear Window”

#18 – “Vertigo”

#32 – “Strangers on a Train”

#38 – “Notorious”

#48 “Dial M for Murder”

#80 – “Rebecca”

  • AFI’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” list includes

#2 – Norman Bates from “Psycho”

#31 – Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”

  • The New York Daily News list of “The Top Ten Best Spy Movies Ever Made” from June 2010 includes:

#2 – “North by Northwest”

#4 – “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934 version)

#8 – “The 39 Steps”

  • The British Film Institute’s “Top 100 British Films” includes:

#4 – “The 39 Steps”

#35 – “The Lady Vanishes”

  • The Time Out London list of “100 Best British Films” includes:

#13 – “The 39 Steps”

#44 – “Sabotage”

#59 – “Blackmail”


A Short Knighthood: Alfred Hitchcock’s Final Years

7 04 2011

As a consummate professional, Alfred Hitchcock followed the success of “Family Plot” in 1976 by moving on to a new project: An adaptation of “The Short Night,” a novel by Ronald Kirkbride that was based on the case of George Blake, an Englishman convicted of spying for the Soviets.

Hitchcock had maintained for many years that once the scriptwriting and storyboarding of a film had been completely, the rest was a bore. But writing “The Short Night” gave him trouble. He had been considering the project since the late 1960s, giving it his full attention only after “Family Plot” had wrapped. Despite his declining health and stamina, Hitchcock moved ahead on the screenplay, working with, among others, his old collaborator Norman Lloyd (star of “Saboteur” and associate producer of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”) and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (“North by Northwest” and “Family Plot”).

Neither writer was able to produce the work Hitchcock wanted, and so The Master of Suspense asked the powers that were at Universal to find him another writer: a younger man, whom he could direct. Hitchcock was teamed with David Freeman, a relatively green writer who had been doing some script doctoring.

In 1984, Freeman wrote about working with Hitch in “The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock,” in the 70-page essay that opens the book. Freeman paints a vivid, if sad, picture. Hitchcock is easily distracted, rambling through old stories and focusing only intermittently on the project, as though he hopes to prolong the writing phase while he can. His physical pain, caused by arthritis, seems to increase greatly in the six months Freeman worked with him, leading Hitch to drink more and more heavily. Only occasionally does his brilliance shine through. Exhaustion dogs him constantly, and their work progresses slowly.

If anything, the one meeting with Alma Reville that Freeman recalls is even sadder, as Hitch struggles to act out the story for Reville, who herself had suffered two debilitating strokes.

Freeman’s book includes the full script for “The Short Night,” although it is only a draft. Still, it’s clear that had it been made, this would have been another strong story of love and espionage, and a worthy successor to Hitch’s many spy tales. There are faint echoes of “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes” in the story, which Hitch hoped would star Sean Connery and Liv Ullman.

The script opens with a typical Hitchcock flourish, as a man sits in a car near a prison, speaking into a walkie-talkie hidden in some flowers. Inside the prison, Gavin Brand waits anxiously for the signal to move, but his rescue is delayed over and over by distractions. Finally, Brand gets the sign and makes his escape, meeting the man with the flowers. But when a young woman who’s supposed to drive Brand to another location refuses his advances, he strangles her, seemingly making him a fugitive from both the British authorities and the Communist sympathizers who allied themselves with him.

We then cut to Joseph Bailey, a rugged man whose brother was among those killed by Brand. An FBI agent tries to recruit Bailey to hunt down Brand, but Bailey refuses – until he is nearly killed in a street scuffle with someone close to Brand. Bailey learns that whatever else he is, Brand is devoted to his wife and sons, and so he finds his way to the wife in Finland, pretending to be interested in her to learn more about Brand.

Of course, Bailey’s feigned interest soon becomes real, and he and Brand’s wife fall in love. Then, in an erotically charged scene, the couple have sex while out the window they can hear the sounds of Brand’s approaching boat. Brand shrugs off his wife’s betrayal, but kidnaps his sons, intending to take them behind the Iron Curtain. In an old-fashioned train chase, Bailey catches up with him, and with the unwitting help of some Soviet soldiers, Bailey is able to grab the boys and escape back into Finland.

The script is full of typical Hitchcock touches: The inept Finnish police; the lengthy, highly focused chase scene in which Bailey traces a package in transit; the charming, sympathetic villain; the sexual overtones of Brand’s lesbian caretakers. It also bears the stamp of late-period Hitchcock: the heightened sex and violence, and the increased use of profanity. Knowing that Hitch wanted Sean Connery for the lead, it was very easy to hear his lilt in the dialogue.

In a commentary on the screenplay, Freeman explains that this was just a draft, and that there were scenes Hitchcock had planned to work on further. For example, the scene in which an FBI agent attempts to recruit Bailey would have been reversed, so that Bailey, having read in the newspaper about Brand’s escape, would instead have insisted that the FBI do something about the situation. The agent would have shrugged it off, leading Bailey to take matters into his own hands – as the agent had hoped he would.

What had been firmly decided upon by Hitchcock was that this scene, set in the restaurant “21,” would have a special sense of verisimilitude by having the place slowly fill over the course of the conversation. The camera would stay tight on Bailey and the agent, though, as the ambient noise of other diners increased, until, as Bailey angrily leaves the table, we see that the restaurant was now packed.

Of course, the movie was never made. In the spring of 1979, with Hitchcock’s progress on the screenplay slowing every day, the American Film Institute was preparing to honor him with a life achievement award. Hitchcock acted as though he was unaware of the ceremony, dreading it as though it were a sentence of death. He was nearly incapable of walking, and his wife was only vaguely aware of her surroundings. After delaying as long as he could, Hitchcock agreed to appear at the ceremony, which took place on March 7, 1979. Many of Hitch’s former stars were on hand, including Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, James Stewart and Tippi Hedren, Henry Fonda and Joan Fontaine. You can see Hitch’s lovely acceptance speech here:

The AFI ceremony took a great toll on Hitchcock, and he never really recovered what little strength he still had left. Although work on “The Short Night” had stopped, he continued coming into his office now and then; at the start of 1980, he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth.

Now eighty years old, Hitchcock at last decided that he could no longer carry on as though he might still make another movie. He told the head office at Universal that he was going to retire, and, unable to face his staff, left it to others, like producer Herbert Coleman, to give them the bad news. After a last run of publicity interviews following his knighthood, and with no office left on the Universal lot, Hitchcock stayed home and took to bed. He died on April 29, 1980, surrounded by his family.

Alma Reville lived till July 6, 1982. Having grown out of touch with reality following her strokes, she seemed unaware of Hitch’s death, telling visitors that he was on a set somewhere, and that he would be home soon.

Coming up, we’ll look at the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as books and movies inspired by The Master of Suspense.

A 21st Century Version of “The 39 Steps”

7 05 2010

The most recent film adaptation of “The 39 Steps” was produced in England by the BBC and broadcast on PBS in the United States earlier this year. Directed by James Hawe, the film stars Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay, and while it is still set in the days before World War I, our hero is in many ways a Hannay for the 21st century.

Things get off to a fast start as Hannay, bored and alone in London, is accosted by a freelance secret agent called Scudder (Eddie Marsan), who seeks refuge in Hannay’s apartment. Scudder explains that he’s being hunted because of the secrets he’s learned, but before Scudder can spill all he knows, he’s killed by a pair of German agents who have invaded the premises.

While Hannay tries to find help, the two agents disappear, leaving Hannay with the corpse on his living room floor and the police beside him. Hannay breaks away and quickly boards a train to Scotland, where, Scudder had said, some of the clues would lead.

The plot moves ahead quickly, as Hannay must abandon the train, is chased by the agents and shot at by a biplane. Tumbling down a hillside, Hannay narrowly avoids being hit by a car, and the driver and his passenger assume that Hannay is the man they’re looking for – a political spokesman come to speak on the driver’s behalf at a rally. Hannay plays along, but the passenger, who is the driver’s sister Victoria (Lydia Leonard), ends up at his side through the rest of the movie. She is introduced as a suffragette, and Hannay wins no points with her when, at the rally, she asks “Where do you stand on women?” and Hannay replies, “I try not to stand on women at all.”

Their initial antipathy turns to attraction soon enough, as Victoria reveals herself to be more than she seemed at first. They piece together Scudder’s puzzle, working out the coded notes he left behind and finding the 39 steps he hinted at – in this case, steps leading through a castle to a loch where a German U-boat waits. They foil the German plot, but at a great cost.

This Hannay is a somber soul; he’s restless and not sure what it is he’s looking for, and when Victoria shows up, he lets her lead him into danger. She is not embarrassed when they are forced to share a hotel room and undress in front of each other, and later, when she asks to stay with him for the night, it is he who says no in the hope that they can avoid falling in love.

This version of “The 39 Steps” also lays off the colorful Scottish characters of the original novel, putting the emphasis instead on Hannay and Victoria, with their German pursuers on their heels almost from the moment they meet. Hannay is knowledgeable, but not enough to figure out the final turns of the plot. He reacts angrily when he realizes that he’s been kept in the dark by Victoria. To some degree he reminded me of the Daniel Craig James Bond – he’s physically capable, but others underestimate his intelligence, which leaves him with a sour outlook on the world that needs him.

Still, it’s a fast-paced, exciting version of the familiar story, and the modernization of the characters, if not the plot, probably serve to make the tale more relatable to today’s viewers.

Here’s a look at the trailer… keep your eyes open, as it will probably show up on PBS again sometime.

%d bloggers like this: