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.

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“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.”





A Thorough Look at The Making of “Psycho”

18 06 2012

As you probably have read here and elsewhere, the movie “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense, is currently filming. Set to hit theaters in 2013, the movie is inspired by the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello, and while I’m not sure how they’re going to make the book into a work of fiction, the book itself is a fantastically detailed account of how the film was made.

Originally published in 1990, the book looks at the story of the film in a very thorough, step by step fashion. It begins with the original, horrific killings that inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel of the same name, and moves on to Hitchcock’s interest in B-movie shockers, his struggles with the studio, the writing, casting and shoot, all of which culminated in a publicity campaign that continued to mushroom as the movie became a bigger hit than anyone could have imagined. Rebello paints a picture of a director at the height of his abilities, with a commanding knowledge of every aspect of his craft. As an example, Hitchcock would tell his cameraman what lens to use to get a specific affect – without ever looking through the camera himself.

The overwhelming success of “Psycho” had a down side, though. After years of making the movies he wanted to, often surprising the rest of the world with his filmmaking prowess, Hitchcock found that the scale of his little shocker’s success increased his studio’s expectations. For the first time, the studio viewed him as a cash cow, and with raised expectations came greater pressure to make films as products for a preconceived audience. Hitchcock would experiment again with “Marnie,” but would be forced to work with less than ideal stars or properties in subsequent films.

The book draws some fascinating conclusions for the film industry. Hitchcock’s edict that no on be admitted to “Psycho” after the start of the film paved the way to the idea that for the first time audiences would have find out what time a film began and get there at that time, rather than showing up whenever they wanted and sitting through the movie and other features until they felt like leaving. It’s also very likely that the new, enforced showtimes contributed to the end of short subjects, newsreels and double features. Theater owners must have quickly realized that greater turnover meant greater profits. “Psycho” also inured audiences to a new level of violence, preparing them for films like “Bonnie and Clyde.”

You can order your own copy of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” at Amazon and elsewhere, although it looks like it may be out of stock right now. Rebello has announced that there will be a new edition to coincide with the movie’s release, so it’s possible that the publisher has let the book go out of stock temporarily.





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.





A New Perspective on “Vertigo”

4 03 2012

Authors Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod provide a new perspective on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Vertigo” with their novel “The Testament of Judith Barton.” Where the events of “Vertigo” (which I wrote about here) are seen through the eyes of its hero, John “Scottie” Ferguson, this novel looks at one of the most remote women in the Hitchcock canon: Judith Barton, who portrayed Madeleine Elster, whose actions helped drive Ferguson to the brink of insanity, before falling victim to forces greater than herself.

Powers and McLeod ask the questions that Hitchcock ignored: Who is Judith Barton, and how did she become involved with Gavin Elster and, ultimately, with John Ferguson? The novel lays out a rich background for Barton as she grows up in Kansas, in the shadow of her older sister, worshipping her jewelry-repairman father and getting reluctantly drawn into the theater. But after her father’s death, the two sisters decide to strike out for California, with Judy heading for San Francisco, where she studies theater and struggles to make ends meet. A chance meeting with Gavin Elster at a jewelry shop sets brings her story into sync with “Vertigo” as Elster hires her to portray his wife to throw off the man who he claims is following her.

That man, of course, is Ferguson, and while Judy never gets a clear picture of Elster’s true plan – to use Ferguson as a puppet in a scheme to murder his wife – she falls in love with the former police detective. Anyone who has seen the movie knows that there is only one possible outcome for Judy, though, and it’s not a good one. But you may find yourself rooting for Judy to find a way to escape her fate in “The Testament of Judith Barton,” as I did. You can order the book from Amazon here.





Who Will Star in the New “Rebecca”?

11 02 2012

As Daily Variety reports here, Dreamworks and Working Title Pictures are looking to create a new adaptation of “Rebecca.” When I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation here, I called it “a gothic romance that drips foreboding and suspense,” and while Hitchcock himself was not entirely pleased with the film, it was the only one of his films to win the Academy Award for “Best Picture” – an award that producer David O. Selznick brought home. While it’s possible that Hitchcock’s contentious relationship with Selznick soured his memory of “Rebecca” – and you can read about that relationship in my review of Leonard J. Leff’s book “Hitchcock and Selznick” here – the film stands as a masterpiece. It was an important stepping stone for Hitchcock: His first American film, his first with Selznick, his first taste of Hollywood glamour…

The new “Rebecca” is being scripted by Stephen Knight (“Eastern Promises”), who will go back to the original novel by Daphne Du Maurier as the source for his adaptation. While Hitchcock remained faithful to the novel in his film, a Selznick’s insistence, there were some differences between the two, the primary one of which was that the film significantly toned down the lesbian overtones of Mrs. Danvers’ devotion to the first Mrs. De Winter. It’s easy to imagine that this as the first story element the filmmakers will reinstate, but beyond that, it’s hard to say.

Of course, the big question is who will play the second Mrs. De Winter. Selznick did his best to make the search for the right actress an event similar to his earlier quest for the silver screen’s Scarlet O’Hara, and as the unnamed star of “Rebecca,” Joan Fontaine was naive and tremulous as Mrs. Danvers undermined her confidence. So, who do YOU think should play the second Mrs. De Winter? I could see Michelle Williams or Jessica Brown Findley from “Downton Abbey,” but there are so many terrific young actresses out there, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And who could fill the shoes of Laurence Olivier as the charming but imperious Maxim De Winter, or  Judith Anderson as the obsessive Mrs. Danvers?





Hitchcock from Book to Screen: “Scripting Hitchcock”

1 01 2012

In the movies “Psycho,” “The Birds” and “Marnie,” Alfred Hitchcock presented tales with increasingly complex psychological underpinnings. The new book “Scripting Hitchcock” puts these films under the microscope, examining the process by which the Master of Suspense reshaped the source material for each into three of his most debated films. Using interviews with screenwriters Joseph Stefano (“Psycho”), Evan Hunter (“The Birds”) and Jay Presson Allen (“Marnie”), writers Walter Raubichek and Walter Srebnick reveal Hitchcock’s process of adaptation from the original stories.

The writers are both professors of English at Pace University, and they take a scholarly approach to the subject, with an appropriately scholarly tone. They dissect the underlying themes of the stories, which are largely Freudian, and Hitchcock’s desire to wrap these challenging themes in exciting stories that would hit audiences on a visceral level. The book looks at each screenwriter’s background and experiences in working with Hitchcock, the development of the story treatment as each compares to the source material, and how characterization, dialogue and camera work would bring the stories to life.

Like Steven DeRosa’s “Writing with Hitchcock,” “Scripting Hitchcock” looks at a rich vein in the Hitchcock oeuvre. Raubichek and Srebnick do an admirable job in explicating Hitchcock’s aims with these movies. This is no mean task, as two of the films had their themes candy-coated by fast-paced action, while the third failed to connect with audiences. With so much going on in each film, from the sensational publicity campaign of “Psycho” to the introduction of Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” and the lack of success of “Marnie,” which could be attributed to so many factors, it would be easy to examine so many aspects of these fascinating movies. Raubichek and Srebnick stick to their guns, however, and remain focused on the writing behind the films. Anyone who enjoyed “Writing with Hitchcock” would do well to order a copy of “Scripting Hitchcock,” which you can do here.








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