A Tumultuous Partnership Up Close

11 06 2011

Leonard J. Leff gives readers an intimate look at one of Hollywood’s most difficult partnerships in his 1987 book “Hitchcock & Selznick.” Loaded with detail culled from the filmmakers’ archives, the book creates a riveting portrait of the mismatched duo, including copious information on contracts, finances and memos, yet never loses sight of the very real men at the center of the story.

The story begins in the late 1930s, as Alfred Hitchcock struggled to secure a deal that would allow him to relocate to Hollywood. But due to Hitch’s uneven track record and the uncertainty of European markets during wartime, only independent producer David O. Selznick took the bait. Selznick, then neck-deep in work on “Gone with The Wind,” signed Hitchcock to a lengthy contract, beginning with the Academy Award winning “Rebecca.” Selznick, ever the micromanager, insisted that Hitchcock stick to Daphne du Maurier’s original, best-selling novel, resulting in a movie that won acclaim and strong box office appeal but ultimately did not please the director.

The balance of power slowly shifted over several years. As Selznick focused intently on one project at a time, he loaned Hitchcock out to other studios, including RKO, Universal and Twentieth Century Fox. Working for these companies, and for producers like Walter Wanger and Jack Skirball, Hitchcock was able to learn the Hollywood system at his own pace. Selznick turned a tidy profit by loaning Hitchcock to other studios, a fact that Hitch came to resent.

By the time Selznick at last found another project he wished to work on with Hitchcock, the director had gained an enormous amount of confidence, while Selznick had exhausted himself through his obsessive need to control every aspect of his own films – not to mention his use of pills to keep himself going, or his affair with actress Jennifer Jones. Hitchcock’s dislike of direct confrontations led to passive aggressive behavior; when it came time to sign a new contract with Selznick, Hitchcock would agree to the terms and but never sign the papers. By this time, in the late 1940s, Selznick needed Hitchcock more than Hitchcock needed him. Hitch continued to direct for Selznick while working with his new partner, Sidney Bernstein, to create their new endeavor, Transatlantic Films.

The four films Hitchcock made for Selznick are a mixed bag. Certainly “Notorious” is a classic, and “Rebecca” is a great film, if atypical for Hitchcock, but both “Spellbound” and “The Paradine Case” are seriously flawed. Hitchcock’s love of technical challenges clashed with Selznick’s need for character-driven stories, and it is in Hitchcock’s loan-out movies – “Foreign Correspondent,” “Saboteur,” “Life Boat” and “Shadow of a Doubt” among them – that we see Hitch exploring ideas that are of interest to him, not those foisted upon him by his employer.

After a few more missteps in the late 1940s, Hitchcock would go on to his greatest achievements in the following decade; Selznick would make produce only a few more movies. “Hitchcock & Selznick” tells the tale not only of one of Hollywood’s greatest, and most strained, collaborations, but also provides a startling level of detail on the inner workings of a film studio in the 1940s. It’s a compelling read, one that’s worth tracking down for anyone interested in these two titans of film


The Persistence of Hitchcock: Hitch Meets The Crypt Keeper

16 05 2011

Back in the good old 1990s, Alfred Hitchcock made an appearance in the opening to “Tales from The Crypt.” The Crypt Keeper is doing a riff on Forest Gump, which is ironic when you consider that they probably used Gump-style special effects to put Hitch on that park bench next to C.K. Here it is, in all its silly glory:

A Treasury of Hitchcock Images

8 05 2011

A cornucopia of behind the scenes pictures, the 2011 book “Alfred Hitchcock” (subtitled “The Complete Films” on the cover and “Architect of Anxiety” inside) lives up to the reputation of its publisher, Taschen, as a book that’s first and foremost a thing of beauty. Written by Paul Duncan, the book groups Hitchcock’s films by era and examines each – sometimes a bit too briefly – mining for theme and symbolism.

Duncan lays on the interpretations of these themes a bit thick, however; every time a film features a character in handcuffs, he points out the other instances of handcuffery in Hitchcock’s films in an effort to make the reader tune in on it as a theme – and yes, handcuffs do appear in several Hitchcock films, but to my mind, when one directs thrillers, they are a part of the larger milieu.

The still photography makes this book a treasure, though. These rarely seen

One of the many behind the scenes images in "Alfred Hitchcock"

images are often spectacular in their clarity, especially in the early films, where all we have to watch are scratchy prints. Many of the shots encompass the entirety of the set, including Hitchcock and his crew, and even reveal secrets of the Master’s technique. The sheer number of photos that include Hitchcock remind us that despite his weight, Hitchcock was an active, physical director. It was only as he grew older that he cultivated the image of himself as something of an immovable object.

At 189 pages, many of which are filled with photos, the book doesn’t delve into the movies nearly as far as one might want, though. And, for example, while Hitchcock’s propaganda films may not be very significant in the scope of his filmmaking career, dedicating a single paragraph to them hardly seems worth the effort. (By contrast, a photo featuring Hitchcock from a 1943 “Life” magazine takes up two pages.)

Still, there are many, many images here that most people will not have seen before, and they are reproduced so lovingly that “Alfred Hitchcock” is a book worthy of your Hitchcock bookshelf. You can order it here.



The Persistence of Hitchcock: “The Last Hungry Cat”

20 04 2011

Tonight I’m premiering a new feature on my blog: The Persistence of Hitchcock, in which we’ll look at the lasting impact Alfred Hitchcock has had on film and on culture in general.

To start things off, let’s take a look at “The Last Hungry Cat,” a Warner Bros. Merrie Melodie cartoon from 1961. Directed by Friz Freling, the cartoon features a bear caricature of Hitchcock, acting in his familiar role from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and presenting a story “about a murder.” Here it is:

According to Wikipedia, the not-very-good Hitchcock impression was done by an actor named Ben Frommer. Coincidentally, the plot bears some resemblance to the movie “Blackmail,” although it’s sort of a standard Sylvester and Tweety plot.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Triumphant Homecoming: “Frenzy”

15 03 2011

Alfred Hitchcock returned to London in 1972 to make the film “Frenzy,” based on the novel “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square” by Arthur La Bern. It was a nostalgic trip home for Hitchcock, and although parts of his previous two movies were filmed in Europe, this was his first full production in England since “Jamaica Inn” in 1939.

It was also a major return to form for Hitchcock. After the missteps of “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz,” “Frenzy” puts The Master of Suspense on familiar, comfortable ground, as it is a darkly comic movie about a serial killer and a wrongly accused man on the run, whose themes include food, sex and marriage, all set in his old stomping grounds. “Frenzy” is arguably Hitchcock’s best film since “Psycho,” and resonates all the way back to “The Lodger” from 1927.

The movie opens with the kind of black irony and horror that run throughout it. After a majestic opening sequence in which we view the Thames River and London, we move in on a politician making a riverside speech about cleaning up the river. A crowd – including Hitchcock, wearing a bowler hat – listens intently, until a scream interrupts the speech. Someone has spotted some rather unusual pollution in the form of the nude body of a woman floating facedown in the river. As the police move in, a man in the crowd notes this as “another necktie murder,” and starts comparing this killer to Jack the Ripper, and we’re reminded that Hitchcock’s London is a city that loves a good murder.

The story centers around Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), ex-R.A.F. squadron leader, who’s just lost his job at a pub. His friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a successful fruit and vegetable merchant in the Covent Garden Market, offers him support and advice; his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a matchmaker of sorts, takes pity on him despite his black mood.

What Blaney does not know is that Rusk is in fact the Necktie Murderer – and that, since Rusk is about to start killing the women in Blaney’s life, including Brenda and a perky barmaid called Babs (Anna Massey), the police will conclude that Blaney is the killer.

After Rusk murders the helpful Babs, Blaney unwittingly turns to Rusk himself for help, but this time, the killer uses Blaney’s situation to his advantage. Rusk takes Blaney’s bag and says he’ll meet him at his apartment. Rusk then loads the bag with the murdered women’s clothes, so that when the police arrive (tipped by our villain, of course), Blaney looks very guilty indeed.

Blaney is tried and sentenced, but his promise to get vengeance on Rusk makes Chief Superintendent Oxford (Alec McCowen) wonder if they collared the wrong man. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Oxford discusses the case with his wife, who’s been studying French cooking. Oxford is very grateful when he is pulled away from his nauseating dinner to chase down information on Rusk.

Blaney, meanwhile, gets himself put in the prison infirmary, then breaks out, steals a car and heads for Rusk’s apartment, intent on revenge. With the car’s jack in hand, he breaks into the apartment. He sees the shape of a body in the bed and begins beating it with the jack, but when he seems an arm fall out of the bed, he realizes that this is not Rusk but a dead woman, a tie tight around her throat.

Just then, Oxford enters the apartment. He signals Blaney to be quiet. We hear

"Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie."

someone thumping up the stairs; it’s Rusk, pulling a large trunk behind him. As Oxford says, “Mr. Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie,” Rusk drops the trunk. It falls, looking very much like a tombstone, as the closing credits appear.

Timing is everything in “Frenzy.” Blaney is constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time; Rusk, meanwhile, escapes over and over.

Although the story is similar to that of “The Lodger” – although, of course, the

The Necktie Killer strikes.

killer is actually on camera in “Frenzy” – Hitchcock is free to turn up the violence in this movie. “Frenzy” only shows one of the killings, though, and leaves the other to our imagination. Hitchcock did not shy from the brutality of the killing; both actors are covered in sweat and disheveled by the time the scene is over.

Rusk gets one of the movie’s funniest scenes, as well. After killing Babs off camera, he puts the body in a potato sack and dumps in the back of one of his trucks, but then notices that he’s missing his jeweled “R” stickpin. Realizing that it must be with the body, he attempts to find it among the potatoes as the truck pulls out. Rusk is kicked in the face by a loose foot as he tries to find the pin; finally, he breaks the fingers to get it out of her grip. As the truck makes a stop, Rusk hops out, brushes himself off and stops in at a café for a drink.

“Frenzy” made its debut with much acclaim, and the movie was a hit. Hitchcock had a great script to work with here – not quite on the level of “North by Northwest,” perhaps, but strong nonetheless – written by Anthony Shaffer, who had written the stageplay “Sleuth” (later a terrific movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine).

London’s theater provided Hitchcock with his cast as well. Avoiding established movie stars helped keep costs down; also, the cast did not have the concerns some movie stars did about portraying unsavory characters.

The fact is, while the plot of “Frenzy” is very engaging, particularly after the first half hour or so, when the characters and their relationships are established, there really isn’t anyone to like in the film. Blaney is moody and bad-tempered; Rusk is charming in his way but still a monster. Perhaps the most sympathetic character is Oxford, the Chief Inspector, struggling to smile as he attempts to swallow his wife’s outlandish menu and rethinking the entire case based on a bad feeling – but “Frenzy” is hardly his story.

As always, Hitchcock plays the audience, making us suffer as much as possible. He holds a long, silent shot of the exterior of Brenda’s office while the secretary returns for lunch; how long it will take for her to reach the office, find the body and scream, we do not know, but the wait seems interminable. The death of Babs, drowned out by the noise of Covent Garden Market and unseen even by the audience, seems pathetic. And, as Robin Wood might have written, Hitchcock titillates us with nudity, then makes us feel ashamed, even nauseated, by the violence that follows. In the potato truck scene, Hitchcock adds humor to the suspense, as Babs’ dainty toes smack Rusks’ face while he tries to find his stickpin in a bouncing truck full of dusty tubers.

The making of “Frenzy,” and Hitchcock’s return to London, was well documented, and his fondness for the city shows. There are lingering shots of the greengrocers’s stands in the Covent Garden Market, undoubtedly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s father’s own business in the area. The opening shots of the market seem a bit overplayed thanks to the bombastic music by Ron Goodwin that accompanies them; it’s one thing to use that music when showing the Thames River and the Tower Bridge, but implying a majestic quality to fruit and vegetable stands is bit much. Henry Mancini had been hired originally to score the movie, but Hitchcock was not satisfied with the results and fired him.

Hitchcock clowns with someone wearing the mask shown in the trailer.

“Frenzy” echoes “Psycho” both in its serial killer theme and in the carefully storyboarded and tightly edited murder scenes; in 1960, Hitchcock had to argue with the board of censors that he showed neither nudity nor a knife entering the body. Twelve years later, the world of film had changed enormously, and the new MPAA ratings system was in place. Hitchcock was able to show both nudity and graphic violence, at the cost of an “R” rating. This was not a detriment to ticket sales, however. On the contrary, the fact that The Master of Suspense had ventured into this territory must have piqued audiences curiousity. Along with the nudity and violence, the script is full of swearing, bringing the cast of working class characters to vivid life.

Of course, the viewer may have a few questions after the movie nears its end: If

Rusk's trunk, looking very much like a tombstone.

Blaney thought that the figure in bed was alive, wouldn’t he be charged with attempted murder? And wouldn’t he be also be charged for escaping prison and stealing the car? Hitchcock’s fast fade-out at the end helps to keep audiences from stumbling over those questions.

Hitchcock returns in his role as narrator of the trailer for “Frenzy,” and he seems to be enjoying every moment of it:

The body we first see is a dummy wearing a Hitchcock mask; there are production photos of Hitchcock mugging with the mask on set. The fractured “Frenzy” logo, not seen in the movie itself, reminds us of “Psycho,” as does the screaming response to a question from Hitchcock. The clumsy rear-projection behind Hitchcock does not seem important; this is Hitchcock having fun, making references to a “leg of lamb” – perhaps a reminder of his most famous episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” His drawled intonation of the line “How d’you like my necktie?” is the highlight of the trailer.

Next, Alfred Hitchcock returns with his final feature film, the black comedy “Family Plot,” starring Karen Black and Bruce Dern.

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