“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’s “Dial M For Murder” Takes on a New Dimension in 3D

25 06 2011

This week, New York’s Film Forum is screening Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” in its original 3D. Shot in a format called “Natural Vision,” the movie takes on new dimension when seen this way, and it was a distinct pleasure to watch it with an audience.

Hitchcock used 3D to great effect, but also sparingly. Mostly, it adds depth to the action, rendering scenes so that some objects seem to be very close to the viewer, creating an effect that’s almost like watching a movie in a lenticular. Hitchcock shot most of the movie in the single set of the Wendice’s tiny apartment, looking up at the action from a low angle to amplify the feeling of dread. Lamps and other objects sit in the extreme foreground, creating barriers between various characters.

Only a few times does Hitchcock deploy 3D for that “it’s coming right at you” effect, in scenes when Margot (Grace Kelly) reaches for her scissors to fend off her attacker or, later, when her husband puts a key in the lock to try and open the door. It also allows the credits to stand out during the opening sequence.

It was also a revelation to watch the movie with an audience. When I wrote about the movie here, I felt that its humor took a back seat to suspense. Seeing it this week, though, I laughed along with the crowd at Wendice’s insanely convoluted scheme and his pretense of innocence and at the too-convenient reunion photo on his wall. John Williams’ hammy acting broke up the crowd as well, particularly his moment of preening at the end, after he’s solved the case.

“Dial L for Latch-Key” – An Absurdist Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

15 04 2011

Scott Fivelson performs a mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock movie tropes in his charming one-act play “Dial L for Latch-Key.” As the title suggests, the play takes “Dial M for Murder” as its starting point, then spins out in some very funny and strange directions.

“Dial L” features four main characters: Raymond, the scheming husband who looks like Ray Milland; G, his wife, awaiting execution for a murder committed in self-defense; Bob, a cocky American, and G’s boyfriend; and the Inspector, investigating the crime before it’s too late. In “Dial M for Murder” the inspector was played by John Williams, and Fivelson captures Williams’ tongue-in-cheek performance as a seemingly bumbling but actually razor-sharp detective.

The references to Hitchcock films fly fast and furious in Fivelson’s witty dialogue, as characters discuss notorious plans, family plots, proving someone’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt and more. It’s a treat for Hitchcock fans, replete with appearances by the hired killer who tried to kill G, a know-it-all film critic who resembles Peter Bogdanovich, and Hitch himself, who arrives in time to berate the cast for their inept attempts to catch the real criminal.

But “Dial L for Latch-Key” is more than a tribute to the Master of Suspense. It’s a full-on trip into absurdism, beginning with the steamer trunk in the first scene that’s decorated with travel decals boasting of trips to Sing-Sing, Leavenworth and the Old Bailey. G’s time in prison, awaiting execution, has changed her; as she puts it in a newly acquired accent, “I went in British, I came out Russian.” The shifts in identity seem to be catching; Bob is secretly an FBI agent, and the Inspector, too claims to be Russian – with the name Latchky.

“Dial L for Latch-Key” recently had a successful run at the New End Theatre in London. It’s published by Hen House Press, and you can order it from Amazon here.

And you can revisit my article on “Dial M for Murder” here.

Alfred Hitchcock Visits the Continent “To Catch a Thief”

1 12 2010

“It was a lightweight story. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to end up with a completely happy ending. That’s why I put in that scene with the tree, when Cary Grant agrees to marry Grace Kelly. It turns out that the mother-in-law will come and live with them, so the final note is pretty grim.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Sometimes, Mr. Hitchcock, lightweight stories have a way of translating into wonderful movies. Such is the case with “To Catch a Thief,” released in 1955 and starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, two stars who are like twin diamonds in this dazzling movie, undoubtedly the most glamorous Hitchcock every made.

Grant plays John Robie, formerly a jewel thief called “The Cat,” now living in the south of France. When a new string of robberies resembles his work, the police are quick to assume that Robie is once again up to his old tricks. They attempt to corner him at his villa, but Robie escapes their clumsy efforts. He finds his old gang from the French Resistance, all working at a restaurant run by another of their number, Bertani, who gives him some clues and sends him off to elude the police with the help of beautiful Danielle Foussard. Although young, Danielle is infatuated with Robie; she’s also convinced he really is the thief, and even tries to get him to make her his apprentice.

Bertani’s clues send Robie to H.H. Hughson, played by John Williams. Hughson is an insurance man, and Robie gets his help in concocting a plan to catch the Cat in the act. While Hughson dines with his wealthy American clients, Jessie and Francie Stevens, at a posh hotel, Robie joins them, charming Jessie, the mother, but arousing Francie’s (Grace Kelly’s) suspicions that he intends to steal their jewels.

After spending a romantic evening with Robie, kissing while fireworks explode outside, Francie awakens to find her jewels stolen. Robie goes on the run again, hoping to catch the thief in action again the next night. Instead, he is attacked, but in the struggle his attacker falls to his death. It is Mssr. Foussard, father of Danielle, who blames Robie for his death. The police decide that Foussard must have been the thief, although Robie points out that he had a wooden leg.

Francie and Robie make up and formulate their next move after a high speed car chase with Francie at the wheel – a scene that is more than a little reminiscent of the drunken drive Ingrid Bergman takes Grant on in “Notorious.” They decide that the Cat is sure to strike again at the upcoming masquerade ball that Francie and her mother are attending; the two women, dressed in spectacular gowns, are accompanied by Robie in full disguise as a moorish servant. Robie gives away his identity to the watching police, then slips away momentarily, coming back moments later to dance with Francie. Of course, this is Hughson in Robie’s costume; Robie is now on the roof, awaiting the Cat.

Before long, the Cat arrives – and it is young Danielle, who admits under duress that she worked with her father, under the orders of restaurateur Bertani. Later, back at Robie’s villa, Francie and he profess their love, and Francie tells him how much her mother will love Robie’s home.

There is so much to admire in “To Catch a Thief,” which is like Hitchcock’s homage to France. The beaches, the villas, the marketplaces are all lovingly photographed in widescreen in warm, sun-drenched color and cool shadow, all of which helped cinematographer Robert Burks win an Academy Award that year. You can almost smell the flowers when Grant and Williams are chased through the marketplace, in a very funny scene. And then there’s the spectacular color of the masquerade ball…

Grant and Kelly share a rare chemistry on screen; it’s a shame this is their only film together. Danielle, played by Brigitte Auber, is portrayed as a young woman, barely more than a girl, although she is very attractive. Francie is more mature, and more of a match for Robie. The scene in which they swim at the beach club in Cannes is delightful, as Danielle playfully suggests they find shallower waters so she and Francie can compare physiques. The screenplay, by John Michael Hayes, handles this racy suggestion as an innuendo. The script is full of these bon mots, such as when Jessie suggests that Robie stole more than diamonds from Francie – meaning not her heart, but her virtue.

The costuming by Edith Head also plays an important part in the film. Grace Kelly carries off her elegant wardrobe like no one else could, especially a black and white outfit that turns heads in the hotel lobby, and then in the famous gown that Hitchcock asked to have designed so she would look like she’d been wrapped in gold. Grant, meanwhile, picked out his own wardrobe, making smart choices for his casually elegant former thief.

Hitchcock appears early in the film, sitting at the back of a bus Grant has boarded; Grant gives him a look, but Hitch seems not to notice. Now fifty-one years old, Grant is well into his dour, later years, although he does turn on the charm during his early scenes with Francie and Jessie Stevens.

Here’s a look at the trailer for “To Catch a Thief,” capturing a bit of the French scenery:

Next, Edmund Gwenn returns, along with newcomer Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe, for the black comedy “The Trouble with Harry.”

The famous birthday celebration where Hitchcock's secretary said, "Mr. Hitchcake would like you all to have a piece of his cock."


Alfred Hitchcock Invites Us to Peer Through His “Rear Window”

22 11 2010

“It was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Mr. Hitchcock has an excellent point: “Rear Window,” released in 1954 and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, is a sublimely told tale that can be viewed on multiple levels. Its suspense, wit, sexuality, and mature themes make it one of Hitch’s greatest and most satisfying films.

Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich and featuring a sparkling screenplay by John Michael Hayes, “Rear Window” is the story of L.B. Jeffries (Stewart) a photographer and man of action who’s stuck in his New York apartment during a summer heat wave, thanks to a broken leg. His entire world has been reduced to what he can see across his courtyard, a narrow view that’s like a camera’s viewfinder. Bored as he is, he’s gotten to know his neighbors in a strange way: by watching their comings and goings, he’s learned about their lives. From his wheelchair, Jeffries can see a desperately lonely woman; a energetic dancer; a struggling composer; an abstract artist; a middle-aged couple; and a traveling salesman with a nagging, sickly wife.

Jeffries is kept company by a visiting nurse, played with frank wit by Thelma Ritter, and his girfriend, Lisa Fremont (Kelly), who works at a fashion magazine. While they seem to love each other, Jeffries keeps her at arm’s length, claiming that his whirlwind lifestyle would clash too much with her world of cocktail parties and glamor. Even their accents keep them apart; he sounds down-home, while she has an educated, upper class accent.

On a sweltering night, Jeffries is awakened from a restless sleep in his wheelchair by a scream. Looking across the courtyard, he thinks he sees some activity from the salesman’s apartment. Has the salesman done something to his wife? Jeffries realizes that the wife seems to have disappeared, while the salesman himself is acting suspiciously: leaving the apartment over and over in the middle of the night, making strange phone calls, bringing in contractors to paint the apartment and more. Using binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens, Jeffries tries to gather evidence. He talks it over with a friend from the police force, who says there isn’t enough evidence to act on.

Fremont, too, is skeptical, arguing that Jeffries is merely bored and imagining things, until, in mid-sentence, she looks out and sees the salesman tying up a huge trunk with heavy rope. Suddenly, the conversation is no longer about Jeffries; it’s about the salesman. That turn of attention, in which Grace Kelly stops acting like an annoyed girlfriend and begins acting like a witness to a crime, is one of the great moments of the movie.

Together, she and the nurse carry out Jeffries’ legwork. When a dog that had been digging in the salesman’s garden turns up strangled, the two women dig up the garden themselves. Finding nothing there, Fremont breaks into the salesman’s empty apartment; there, she finds the wife’s wedding ring, but does not manage to escape before the salesman returns. Watching the action from across the courtyard and unable to do anything, Jeffries sends the police to the apartment. They arrest Fremont, but not before she signals Jeffries. Unfortunately, the salesman sees the signal and, in a truly chilling moment, looks directly into Jeffries’ apartment.

Jeffries now feels he has enough evidence against Thorwald, so he makes a call to his police friend, but with the nurse off to bail out Fremont, Jeffries is alone in the dark when he hears the heavy footsteps of the salesman, Lars Thorwald, approaching. Thorwald breaks in, and Jeffries slows his approach by briefly blinding him with flashbulbs, but Thorwald reaches him at last. He attempts to strangle the photographer and, as the police arrive, hangs Jeffries out the window in an attempt to kill him. Jeffries falls into the courtyard – and out of the frame through which he’s watched so much – as the police grab Thorwald.

In the end, the small world of the courtyard is once again at peace; the couple with the dog have a new pet; the lonely woman has met the composer. Fremont sits near Jeffries, now nursing a second broken leg; for the first time, she’s wearing something simple, jeans and a blouse, rather than a gown. The adventure has brought them together. Jeffries has seen that she is tougher than he ever realized, and she is now convinced of his commitment to their relationship.

One of the hallmarks of “Rear Window” is Hitchcock’s manipulation of sound. Snatches of conversations are heard from across the courtyard, along with pop music, parties, arguments and traffic from the street beyond. The sound contributes to the movie’s overall theme of alienation; as is typical in New York City, the apartment dwellers barely seem to know each other. The movie was shot in Hollywood on an elaborately designed set. Hitchcock loved to know the spaces he would be working in, and few of his movies have a more well thought out space than this one. The lighting of the courtyard, which is seen at all times of day and night, help to bring it to life; as in so many of Hitch’s films, the setting is a character in the story. Shot in widescreen, the apartments and buildings divide and subdivide the screen into cubicle-like spaces.

From the start, the viewer is plugged into Jeffries’ voyeuristic view of the courtyard dwellers. Although we see less of the stories that don’t involve murder, we do get caught up in the loneliness and desperation of the dancer, the spinster and the composer. Each of their mini-stories has its own neat conclusion, like the end of a Shakespearean comedy, with everyone paired off.

Aside from the stars, Stewart and Kelly, the rest of the cast is a pleasure as well. Raymond Burr glowers and storms through the set as Thorwald; Thelma Ritter blurts out the things audiences didn’t want to imagine, like where Thorwald cut up the body. The other notable name in the cast is Ross Bagdasarian, who plays the composer; he previously co-wrote the hit song “Come On-a My House,” and would go on to fame as David Seville, cartoon impresario behind The Chipmunks. In an early scene, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen visiting the composer in his apartment.

There’s a new maturity to “Rear Window” that had only been hinted at in earlier Hitchcock films. While the murder is the central issue, the subtext is marriage and relationships, from Jeffries and Fremont’s to the killer and his victim, with side trips including the lonely woman and the composer, a newlywed couple, and even the dancer, who seems to be courting as many men as she can get away with, but is in fact waiting for the return of her husband from the army at the end of the film. Credit for this emotional core to the story must go to John Michael Hayes, who gave the script great depth and believability. This was Hayes’ first movie with Hitchcock; he would write three more for the director in the next two years, during an exceptionally productive point in Hitchcock’s career.

Here’s the trailer for “Rear Window,” although it seems to be from a rerelease, as it mentions “Psycho.”

Next, Grace Kelly makes her final film for Hitchcock, teaming up with Cary Grant for the ultra-glamorous “To Catch a Thief.”

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