Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

BOOK REVIEW: “MADELEINE E.” (2016, GABRIEL BLACKWELL)

“…the forger… [produces] what the archaeologist or historian is already looking for, artifacts or documents quite familiar and a little strange. The familiarity makes the work meaningful, and the strangeness makes it valuable.”–Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy, quoted in Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E.

“It’s clear that Vertigo isn’t really about what it appears to be about. But, what it really is about isn’t entirely clear.”–G. Smalley

Madeleine E.

This is a book about a writer named Gabriel Blackwell who is writing a book about Vertigo. Just as he begins, he learns that his contract as an associate professor of creative writing will not be not renewed. He finds himself distracted and anxious, suddenly dependent on his wife’s income to survive. After he has already started working on the book, the 2012 Sight and Sound poll unexpectedly naming Vertigo the critics’ favorite film of all time comes out. His agent insists that he needs to take advantage of the fact that he has a head start on the flood of books about to come out on the film, which makes him even more nervous about the project.

But the writer still does not have a handle on what he wants to do with the material. While doing his research he has collected a tremendous amount of quotes about the movie, direct quotes from Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak, interpretations from critics, and indirectly related thoughts from writers discussing themes that also appear in Vertigo. He intersperses these quotations with his own reflections about the film, but the result still does not seem right. In a stroke of inspiration, he invents (or does he?) a story about a double; about seeing another Gabriel Blackwell’s name pop up on the Internet, a man who is also a writer but who has written books our Gabriel Blackwell did not write. He travels to San Francisco and is shaken when he sees a man there who looks exactly like him. He talks about the stress his marriage is under, and admits to following his wife and spying on her from a distance when she leaves for work. Sometimes, the autobiographical parts of the book appear to contradict each other. At times he has a wife, at times a girlfriend, and we are not entirely sure if these sets of memories come from two different times in his life, or if they are written by two different Gabriel Blackwells, each of whom is working on a book about Vertigo. He includes several synopses of a book called Madeleine E. (sometimes titled Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo), sketches of novels that were never written, mysterious stories about detectives and screenwriters and mistaken identities and deception, tales that read like magical realist parables. In the end, Blackwell abandons writing and becomes a paralegal.

Or so he tells us. The whole thing could be made up. Or true.

Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is a bravely experimental work; a Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: “MADELEINE E.” (2016, GABRIEL BLACKWELL)

CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary was one of 2014’s best films, with  a central performance that is authentic in the rarest of ways.  Brendan Gleeson is a welcome throwback to a specialized breed of cinematic actors: big, erudite men (Robert Shaw was such an actor). Gleeson began his acting career  at a young age, appearing in the plays of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. He was an English teacher for over a decade before embarking on a film career. Naturally, he has specialized in playing Irish patriarchs, mentors and historical figures, which makes his casting as Father James, a potential martyr, shrewd.

Traditionally, the role of a Catholic priest has been thought of as an actor’s plum. It is easy to see why, especially in the contemporary world. The Roman Catholic priest, with his vows of  poverty, chastity, and obedience, has willfully chosen a subculture that is shockingly in direct opposition to the precepts of modernism’s worldview. The priest believes, whether he inevitably lives up to it or not, that he has an existential calling. He does not take the honor unto himself. Rather, he regards that his is a vocation called by something inward. His rejection of materialism is, hypothetically, inclusive. Capital, desire, and ego, theoretically are tenets of a status quo path that he has chosen to reject. The priesthood is the quintessential revolt against all that which is temporal.

Still from I Confess (1953)‘s I Confess (1953) features a performance by Montgomery Clift, as Father Michael Logan, which takes the psychology of the priestly vocation to an icy extreme. Clift’s performance, born of primordial method acting, parallels the film’s inert aesthetic.

Robert Burks’ shimmering cinematography exudes a Genesis-like potency. This, combined with Clift’s acting achievement, rendered I Confess a cult favorite among New Wave filmmakers and French critics.

American critics and audiences found it a more curious affair. It is akin to Gabriel Fauré’s music. Its appeal is primarily provincial; so subtle that invoking its aesthetic content proves to be a task.  Critics deemed this theological drama from the Jesuit-schooled Hitchcock too inaccessible, an inside affair amidst the director’s populist oeuvre. With introverted themes of Eden-esque transgressions, annihilation of carnality, and dogmatic devotion, I Confess was too bound in the interior of an orthodox landscape. Had Hitchcock’s film taken a more commercial approach, Western reception would have been considerably broader. Local critics predominantly panned Continue reading CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

174. VERTIGO (1958)

“If Vertigo remains, unchallengeably, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, this is surely because there the attitude to the unknown and mysterious is not simply one of terror but retains, implicitly, a profound and disturbing ambivalence.”–Robin Wood, “Hitchcock’s Films

“Only one film had been capable of portraying insane memory, impossible memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”—Sans Soleil

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Stewart, , Barbara Bel Geddes

PLOT: During a rooftop pursuit of a fleeing suspect, John “Scottie” Ferguson finds himself hanging from a drainpipe; the uniformed cop who tries to save him slips and falls to his death. Suffering from debilitating acrophobia and vertigo, as well as survivor’s guilt, Scottie quits the police force. An old college acquaintance offers him a job tailing his wife, and Scottie becomes obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious woman who believes she is possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor.

Still from Vertigo (1958)
BACKGROUND:

  • The source of Vertigo was the novel “D’Entre Les Morts” (translated in English as “The Living and the Dead”), by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had wanted to adapt the pair’s first novel, “Celle qui n’était plus,” but the rights were sold to a French company and it was made as Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Boileau-Narcejac would later write the screenplay for Les Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without a Face] (1960).
  • Hitchcock bought the rights to Vertigo back from Paramount (along with four other 1950s-era films), then willed them to his daughter. The film went out of circulation for many years. The rights eventually ended up with rival studio Universal, who restored and re-released the film theatrically (in 1983 and again, after a major restoration, in 1996) to great acclaim.
  • The dizzying “vertigo” effect (sometimes known as the “dolly zoom” or “trombone shot”) is the film’s most famous technical innovation: the camera tracks backwards on a dolly while simultaneously zooming the lens, resulting in  a disorienting visual experience of moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.
  • Abstract Expressionist painter John Ferren designed the dream sequence.
  • A controversial flashback scene reveals the “twist ending” about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Before the film’s release Hitchcock decided to remove this sequence, over the strenuous objections of his producer, Herbert Coleman. After preview audiences were unimpressed by the flashback-free cut, the studio ordered Hitchcock to return the film to the way it was originally shot.
  • Vertigo, which was exceedingly dark compared to the average Jimmy Stewart vehicle, was not as successful as Hitchcock’s previous hits such as 1954’s Rear Window, and barely broke even at the box office. The scale of its initial failure is often exaggerated, however, for the sake of a good story: it qualified more as a minor disappointment than a flop. The contemporaneous reviews were also mixed (leaning towards positive with reservations about plausibility and pacing), rather than universally negative, as is sometimes implied.
  • In the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane, the top vote getter every year since the poll’s inception in 1962, as the greatest movie of all time. (It ranked #7 on the director’s poll, where Tokyo Story took the top spot).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to come from the dream sequence. Although we chose Jimmy Stewart’s head floating against a shifting kaleidoscope background to illustrate this review, the most thematically significant image is the male shadow falling, first onto a terracotta rooftop and then through a white void (this figure is incorporated into the original Saul Bass-designed poster, where it combines with the movie’s other significant motif, the spiral).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Vertigo may be one of the most subtly strange movies out there. It’s entirely possible to watch it and see it as no more than a conventionally (if implausibly) plotted mystery. But peer into its vortex closer and you’ll see why this brightly lit but oddly dreamlike tragedy has fascinated generations of moviegoers: in its depths hides madness, illusion, necrophilia, sexual domination, a perverse longing for death, guilt, and the grinding gears of merciless fate. There’s a reason Vertigo is a cult movie. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Watch it again, with your weird eyes.


Re-release trailer for Vertigo

COMMENTS: Did any movie produced under the Hollywood studio system ever torture its protagonist as mercilessly as Vertigo torments Scottie Continue reading 174. VERTIGO (1958)

CAPSULE: THE BIRDS (1963)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Hitchcock

FEATURING: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, , Veronica Cartwright

PLOT: Without explanation, birds begin attacking the quiet seaside town of Bogeda Bay, interrupting a burgeoning love affair between a socialite and a lawyer.

Still from The Birds (1963)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A great movie, but only the raw inexplicability of the avian attacks makes this Hitchcock worthy of any particular weird notice.

COMMENTS: The crow has long been an omen of death, but never have our fine feathered friends been so conspicuously thantatotic as in Alfred Hitchcock’s first true horror (as opposed to suspense) film. Hitch’s typical plotting trick—beginning with one situation, then springing a twist in the movie’s first half that makes the opening irrelevant—has never worked as well thematically as it does here. Melanie and Mitch’s coy flirtations, cultured as they may be, are rendered ridiculous midway through the film in light of the raw realities of the assault from above. And yet, by the time the first wave of pecking finches swoop through the chimney, we’re invested in the pair. The birds—natural, inexorable, and inexplicable, brooding on their makeshift roosts—are the perfect images of death, looming for all of us. Thoughts of romance may occupy the early reels, but as the story moves on, the birds’ inevitable victory over our heroes becomes clear, and the tale turns to the desperate, if doomed, fight for survival.

Incredibly, you will sometimes hear people complain that the movie is flawed because it does not explain why the birds are attacking. Providing an explanation would have turned The Birds into the silliest type of B-movie fare. How unsatisfying would it be if  it turned out the birds had gone mad from drinking water contaminated with waste from an experimental nuclear reactor? The heart of The Birds‘ horror is the incomprehensibility of the attack, which reflects the incomprehensibility of our own mortality. The inconclusiveness of the scene in the restaurant where the townsfolk debate the cause of the catastrophe is the centerpiece of the film, dramatizing the residents’ utter failure to come to grips with the situation and the futility of their plight. One citizen theorizes that, unmotivated, the birds have suddenly declared war on humanity; a scientist absurdly spends her time explaining why what is happening can’t be happening; the crazy old coot in the corner warns that it’s the end of the world. (That last guess is probably the closest to being correct, though there’s no Biblical element to the story).

One woman assumes that, because there were no bird attacks before Melanie came to town, the disaster is the interloper’s fault. Perhaps; Melanie’s reaction (slapping the woman) suggests guilt. Melanie’s arrival stirs the Freudian pot between Mitch and his widowed mother, and brings schoolteacher Annie’s buried feelings back to the surface—she’s a destabilizing sexual force. (Curious that almost all the major roles in the film go to females, with Mitch alone at the center of a web of women). Besides those psychological teases, there’s also an inevitable Cold War subtext the film. When the birds strike and the family is holed up in their homes, seeking any news of the disaster on the radio, it surely must have struck a cord with American audiences still on edge from 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. The chilling final shot of a bird-strewn pre-dawn landscape is like a post-apocalyptic world covered in feathered fallout.

Universal’s 2014 Blu-ray release is essentially the single disc version of The Birds disc from the “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” 15-disc box set. It’s packed with extra features too numerous to list here; there are actually more minutes devoted to the bonuses than to the two-hour movie itself. Hitch’s blackly ironic trailer where he “lectures” on humanity’s historical relations with his fine feathered friends is typically droll and brilliant.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Few films depict so eerily yet so meticulously the metaphysical and historical sense of a world out of joint.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker