“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 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.

Alfred Hitchcock Runs into “The Man Who Knew Too Much” Again

27 12 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock did something few, if any, directors had done before. He remade one of his earlier works, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” updating it in many ways from its original 1934 version. Hitchcock committed to this remake to fulfill his contractual obligation to Paramount Pictures, but it’s also easy to imagine him rising to the challenge of how best to update the story while preserving what worked so well in the original.

The second “TMWKTM” is in color and VistaVision, and features James Stewart as the hero, Dr. Ben McKenna, with Doris Day as his wife, singer and theatrical star Jo Conway. With their son, Hank, the McKennas are on vacation in Marrakesh, when they meet Louis Bernard, a Frenchman of mysterious means, on a bus heading into the city. Bernard befriends them, but begs off dinner when something comes up. Meanwhile, Jo is convinced that a British couple from their hotel is watching them.

The McKennas cross paths with the British couple, the Draytons, at a restaurant. They say they recognize Jo from the stage, and the foursome end up eating together, although the appearance of Bernard at another table nearly disrupts dinner.

The next day, the Draytons and the McKennas visit the market square together, where violence erupts when a man in a white caftan is chased by police and others. The man ends up with a knife in his back at Dr. McKenna’s feet, and as he falls, McKenna’s hands touch his face, rubbing off dark makeup. McKenna sees that the dying man is Bernard, who whispers a few words before it’s too late.

The police insist on taking in the McKennas for questioning, accompanied by Mr. Drayton, while Mrs. Drayton offers to take Hank back to the hotel. While they are talking to the police chief, insisting that they barely knew the victim, McKenna gets a call saying that if he wants to see his son alive again, he must say nothing to the police about what Bernard told him.

After being released, the McKennas go back to the hotel, only to find the Draytons gone. Dr. McKenna finally tells the hysterical Jo that the Draytons must have taken Hank. Following Bernard’s dying message, they fly to London to contact someone called Ambrose Chappell and stop an assassination. After fending off some old friends, Dr. McKenna locates Ambrose Chappell, a taxidermist who has no idea what he’s talking about. Meanwhile, Jo realizes that Bernard meant Ambrose Chapel, a place. The McKennas go there and find Mr. Drayton leading a church service. Convinced that Hank is on the premises, Dr. McKenna stays behind while Jo tries to get help from the police, but he is knocked out while the Draytons escape again.

The McKennas follow the clues to the Royal Albert Hall, where a gunman is preparing to kill a foreign diplomat during a concert welcoming him to England. Jo spots the hitman in the audience and screams when she sees him taking aim, saving the diplomat’s life. The diplomat thanks the McKennas, inviting them to visit him. The Draytons, meanwhile, are ordered to kill Hank by the diplomat’s assistant, who has been pulling the strings all along. The McKennas are sure that Hank and the Draytons are in the embassy, but the police are powerless to help. However, the McKenna’s wangle an invitation to that night’s reception, where Jo is called upon to sing – and sing she does, belting out “Que Sera Sera” at the top of her lungs so Hank can her it.

Dr. McKenna slips away and finds Hank upstairs with Mrs. Drayton, but is cornered by Mr. Drayton, who walks him and Hank back downstairs at gunpoint. As they turn a corner on the staircase, Dr. McKenna trips Mr. Drayton, pitching him down the stairs and causing his gun to fire. The guests crowd around the now dead kidnapper while the McKennas are reunited.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” features Hitchcock’s most exotic location, with colorful scenes filmed in Morocco. As American tourists, the McKennas marvel at what they see, and also struggle with local customs. (Hitchcock makes his cameo during the market scene, his back to the camera as he watches acrobats perform.) The strangeness of Marrakesh helps increase the tension in comparison to the original, which was set in relatively familiar Switzerland.

The second half of the movie, set in London, replicates the original version more closely than the first half did. The scenes at the church and the Royal Albert Hall are very close to the original, although the taxidermist scene is new, and the finale at the embassy replaces the shootout from the original. Of course, Jo’s singing career provides are more subtle way to save her child than the original version, in which the sharp-shooting mother, Jill, guns down the last of the kidnappers to save her daughter.

This version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” focuses primarily on the family endangered by what they’ve learned; the villains are not terribly interesting, and certainly pale in comparison to the 1934 version’s charismatic international criminal played by Peter Lorre. On the other hand, the McKennas’ desperation to find their son is far more convincing than the parents from 1934. James Stewart’s Dr. McKenna is forcefully American, expecting rights that may not be his in a foreign land, while Doris Day is every bit as clever as her husband. (Day, unsure of her performance, had to ask Hitch whether he was pleased with her work, as he never made any comment. Suffice it to say that Hitchcock was indeed happy with her.)

There is much more humor in the 1956 version, too, including the absurd fight that erupts at Ambrose Chappell’s taxidermy shop, and the utter cluelessness of Jo’s London friends, who are left for hours in the McKenna’s hotel room till the end of the movie.

Hitchcock creates numerous arresting visual moments in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” from the chase in the marketplace, during which Louis Bernard’s white caftan is covered in sky blue paint, to Dr. McKenna’s escape from the church by climbing the church bell’s rope, ringing it repeatedly and attracting a crowd. Hitchcock also preserves great touches from the original, like the chilling sight of the assassin’s gun peeking out from behind a drape to take aim at the ambassador.

Bernard Herrmann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

Hitchcock works again on this film with composer Bernard Herrmann, who after only one film with Hitch had gained the filmmaker’s trust. Background music is used sparingly in this film, and Herrmann decided to keep the original film’s classical piece, Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata,” during the Royal Albert Hall scene. It’s a delight to see Herrmann himself in the film, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

This is the final film Hitchcock made with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who brings his usual wit to every sparkling line of dialogue. Hayes was not allowed to screen the original, forcing him to create entirely new characters. Tensions between Hitch and Hayes had been growing, and they would never work together again. (I’ll be writing more about the relationship between Hitchcock and Hayes soon.) Cinematographer Robert Burks captures the colorful bustle of Marrakesh in spectacular detail.

“Que Sera Sera,” originally won an Academy Award for “Best Original Song,” although it is listed in the credits as “Whatever Will Be.” Doris Day was not a fan of “Que Sera Sera” at first, preferring the film’s other original song, “We’ll Love Again,” although it is barely heard during the movie. “Que Sera Sera” has an emotional resonance in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” as it is first heard early in the movie when Jo and Hank sing it together while he gets ready for bed.

Here’s the trailer for this version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which James Stewart talks directly to the audience, describing their trip to Marrakesh, “right in the middle of that whole trouble area…”:

Next, Hitchcock adapts a real-life story that fits his greatest theme with “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda.

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.”

The Golden Age of Alfred Hitchcock

10 11 2010

I’ve been working on a list of the ten best Hitchcock films to run on my Hitchblog in the future. So far, most of this work has taken place in my head; since I’m only up to “Dial M for Murder,” and I have not yet seen anything beyond “Psycho,” I don’t want to feel like I might be prejudiced against Hitch’s later films – the ones with the less than stellar reputations, like “Torn Curtain” or “Topaz.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that any of Hitchcock’s many decades as a filmmaker could place more pictures on my list than the 1950s, which leads me to dub this era the Golden Age of Alfred Hitchcock.

I realize I’m not going very far out on a limb with this, but let’s look at it based on more than just the overall superior quality of Hitch’s 1950s film output, shall we?

In the 1950s:

  • Alfred Hitchcock made three consecutive films with Grace Kelly, arguably his greatest female star, as well as two movies with Cary Grant and three with James Stewart.

  • He made one movie each with the stars Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and Henry Fonda, as well as giving Shirley MacLaine her first role in a film.

  • The 1956 movie “The Man Who Knew Too Much” featured the debut of the hit song “Que Sera Sera,” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
  • He promoted himself from his usual cameo appearances to do a serious introduction to the 1956 film “The Wrong Man.”

  • In 1955, he debuted the TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which ran seven seasons and led to three seasons of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” He directed 16 episodes of “Presents” and one of “Hour.”
  • He filmed introductions to every episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” catapulting him from a fairly recognizable director to one of the most distinctive and captivating host personalities in the world. His drawling “Good evening,” his brilliant self-caricature and his morbid sense of humor are still recognizable today.

  • Music from the TV series was released on the popular 1958 album “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Music to Be Murdered By,” with Hitch on the cover. It’s still available on CD, along with the follow-up album, “Circus of Horrors” – and you can order it from Amazon here.

  • “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine” launched in 1956, and is still running today, putting Hitch’s face on newsstands every month through much of its run. Although Hitchcock was not personally involved with the magazine, it featured original fiction and adaptations of TV episodes. It’s still running today, and you can subscribe to it here.

Now, as to the Silver Age…

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