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Friday, 17 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Four - Two 50s Masterpieces and more in between


After a relatively minor work in the Hitchcock canon, the enjoyable Dial M for Murder (1954) where he explored the possibilities of 3D, the master launched into his most creatively fertile years beginning with Rear Window (1954). With the exceptions of the lightweight romantic comedy/thriller To Catch a Thief (1955) which deliciously exploits its Riviera locations and the fascinating star combination of the mature Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at her sexiest; and The Trouble with Harry (1955), an enjoyable but minor black comedy centred on a corpse and set amidst a blaze of autumnal colours in a New England village, every film between Rear Window and Marnie (1964) represents Hitchcock in maturity at the height of his powers, exploring his obsessions and concerns with breathtakingly consummate film craft.

Rear Window is the ultimate refinement of Hitchcock’s fascination with exploring a closed situation and can be compared with Rope (1948), Lifeboat (1944). In this case a single set represents the courtyard and apartments viewed from James Stewart’s Greenwich Village window, where, playing a news photographer, he is stuck in his room with a broken leg. Bored because he is forced out of his customarily adventurous life in exotic locations through his present condition, and confronted with possible marital entrapment by his socialite girlfriend (Grace Kelly in a smug, unsympathetic role), Stewart becomes the compleat Hitchcock voyeur projecting his personal fantasies and obsessions onto other people’s lives. With his large binoculars blowing up every neighbour’s window like a projected screen image, a number of commentators have pointed out that Stewart becomes a metaphor for the cinema audience itself (as spectator living vicariously) and the film exploits the inherent dangers and morally questionable motives arising out of this relationship with wit, entertainment and intellectual complexity. Rear Window invites overt reflection on the film process, its deep links with the voyeur in everyone, and largely unthinking audience complicity in this process.  Part of the film’s success lies in Hitchcock’s felicitous teaming with James Stewart, who like Cary Grant, was ideal putty in the master’s hands.

In spite of the surface folksiness of his established screen persona, Stewart was able to demonstrate, especially in his work with Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, an unsavoury quality in his obsessiveness that both directors would develop and exploit. This is so to an amazing extent in Hitchcock’s and Stewart’s best film, Vertigo. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) presents an even more unsympathetic Stewart as an uptight, conservative Midwestern doctor. Stewart virtually plays God in his relationship with his distraught wife Doris Day by withholding information about their son, kidnapped while they are on holiday in Morocco. Ian Cameron wrote an excellent article on this film in an issue of the British magazine Movie, demonstrating how effortlessly Hitchcock manipulates his audiences through the mechanics of suspense. This remake of his 1934 film of the same name and in some ways superior to that film, is, like the minor film Torn Curtain (1966), an elaborate series of set-pieces involving the master’s toying with the elements of his craft. It includes a meticulously crafted and visually witty red herring involving the confusion around Victor Chapel. The film as a whole protracts the suspense elements to an excruciating degree, particularly in the lengthy Albert Hall sequence. Never have regular musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s contributions been so central and visible to a Hitchcock plot. (Great chunks of Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Cloud Cantata are one of the film’s many delights).

The Man Who Knew Too Much also contains some of the best work of its two stars: Stewart’s attempts to rip a chicken apart with his hands while dangling cross-legged on the floor of a Moroccan restaurant is rivalled in sublime awkwardness only by the sight of Cary Grant’s attempts to find a comfortable position in which to sleep in a bathtub in Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Doris Day is a convincing Hitchcock heroine, and the supporting cast includes sturdy English character actors Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie who play the villains with a perversely disorienting mix of the homely and the sinister-a Hitchcock specialty.

The Wrong Man (1957) is less entertaining but no less potent. Again it is Hitchcock in full throttle, reworking the sombre territory of I Confess (1953) in a more extreme minor key. Henry Fonda plays a jazz musician mistakenly arrested as a holdup man: this provides a starting point for one of Hitchcock’s bleakest and most nightmarish presentations of victimization. The New York location shooting is done in film noir style and the narrative proceeds with a spare documentation which avoids Hitchcock’s more characteristically devious manipulation of plot. The imagery has been described as Kafkaesque in its expression of a cruel, uncaring universe full of labyrinthine dead-ends. “The quiet Manny (Fonda) journeys through his modern hell with child-like awe…this is an unrelenting depiction of the desolation of existence”.

Complementing Fonda’s self-effacing, numbed performance is that of Vera Miles as his wife Rose. The film charts the course of her mental breakdown in distressingly graphic visual detail, while Fonda’s own dilemma makes him incapable of giving her the support she desperately requires. Miles was one of Hitchcock’s favourite blondes and he intended to groom her in the mould of Grace Kelly after the latter’s defection to royalty: but Miles’ natural warmth played against the “glacial blonde” image the calculating Kelly projected Hitchcock which seemed to favour. She exhibited a lot of vulnerability and some insecurity, and among Hitchcock’s leading women, these characteristics were only exceeded by Kim Novak in Vertigo.

The Wrong Man contains, like I Confess, overtly Catholic symbolism but the mood of the film’s resolution paradoxically suggests a skeptic’s rather than a believer’s point of view. The Catholicism is, however, strongly felt in the film’s austerity; this is an exceptional film for Hitchcock in being entirely devoid of humour.


Vertigo is equally intense but quite different in tone and intention from The Wrong Man. It returns to the familiar Hitchcock territory of the thriller, but unlike his other thrillers, it is a highly reflective work whose rhythms are meditative rather than suspenseful, its imagery oneiric rather than dramatic. The film subjectively presents, from the James Stewart character’s viewpoint, a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory experience of San Francisco streets and locations. It’s one of the richest of 50s colour films in its original incarnation (the restored DVD version, unfortunately misses the original hues).

Vertigo is Hitchcock’s definitive exploration of voyeurism. It is also the most extreme expression of thwarted romanticism in his entire oeuvre. James Stewart as the ex-cop hired by his friend Tom Helmore brings an intensity to his role unparalleled even in his most neurotic forays into Anthony Mann westerns or in the darker passages of It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). In the first few reels of Vertigo, Tom Helmore engages Stewart to follow and observe his suicidal wife, Kim Novak. In the process, he becomes romantically obsessed with her and everything her ethereal image represents for him. The dream-like atmosphere this creates is reinforced in several ways: in the opening sequence, Stewart pursues a criminal, at night, across a San Francisco rooftop, slips and almost plunges to his death. A fellow cop then actually does fall trying to rescue Stewart and Stewart is left dangling on some guttering. Hitchcock craftily denies the audience any visible evidence of Stewart’s rescue, and the effect is to create in the audience mind not only a lack of a sense of closure but also the impression of a character who’s fallen into a state of mind somewhere between reality and dream. This almost surreal state is further extended in the imagery of mesmerizing drives around hilly San Francisco locations as Stewart tails Novak relentlessly. It is also developed by Novak’s somnambulistic screen presence (was there ever a shrewder and more precise piece of casting?-it’s hard to believe she wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice); by the haunting accounts of her ancestry; by fetishistic detail like the necklace and the hair curl; and by Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling and eerily beautiful score. It’s expressly imaged in Stewart’s intense gaze, insistently photographed during his drives and intercut with the stylistically familiar subjective forward tracking.

Halfway through the film, after rescuing Novak from a drowning attempt in San Francisco Bay, and after casting her in the role of heroine in distress with himself as her saviour, he drives her out to an old Spanish mission where she apparently leaps to her death from the mission tower. Stewart, whose vertigo renders him powerless to prevent this, sinks into a state of mourning-listlessly conveyed by this endlessly resourceful actor. Friend, wannabe lover and terminally earth-bound Barbara Bel Geddes attempts to rehabilitate him on a steady diet of mothering and Mozart but, surprise, surprise, it doesn’t help at all. He has elaborate surreal nightmares incorporating many of the haunting death-like images surrounding the mysterious Novak.

Eventually, he finds a girl (also Novak) with an uncanny surface resemblance to his lost love (dream? fantasy?) but with none of the ethereality or style. He obsessively repeats the process of trying to save her, mould her, and work over her working girl, Pygmalion-fashion, into her predecessor’s image. The two Novaks are, of course, one and the same and were part of an elaborate plot to rid Tom Helmore of his wife using Stewart as the ideal dupe because of his vertigo.

Once he realizes he has been deceived, Stewart’s angry passions are given full flight. His re-enactment of the mission tower episode with a terrified Novak is one of the cinema’s most frightening experiences. Stewart’s tortured and disappointed romantic ego, it has been suggested, may well be a surrogate expression for Hitchcock’s own. I suspect this is the closest the Master of Suspense ever came to revealing his own feelings on film if the accounts in Donald Spoto’s biography are to be believed. The disturbing thing is that the romantic obsession is here rooted in voyeurism, fetishism, anxiety and impotence. For surely Stewart’s fear of heights and subsequent powerlessness at the center of the film are metaphors for sexual inadequacy and/or impotence. Tragically in the film, such inadequacies are only overcome by Stewart ridding himself of the source of his passion, that is, Novak herself.

Never has a city and its locations been used so effectively as an interior as well as exterior landscape as they have in this timeless masterpiece. The great Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks surpassed himself in the colour, lighting and atmospherics (both interior and exterior) in this film.

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