Sunday, 19 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Five - Chalk and Cheese - NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO

Cary Grant, North by Northwest
After the personal revelations of Vertigo, Hitchcock returned in North by Northwest (1959) to relatively lighter and more customary ground albeit with a vengeance. This is a flawlessly executed chase narrative, virtually the apotheosis of a form largely identified in film with Hitchcock. Exhilarating and unendingly rich in performance detail, this espionage thriller clearly benefits from the presence of Cary Grant in top form, beguilingly charming but with an edge, in the last and best of his quartet of outings with Hitch; James Mason and Martin Landau (another openly gay character) are fruitily malevolent as the villains; Jessie Royce Landis (the mother who stubs her cigarette butt into an egg in To Catch a Thief ) reprises her acerbic star turn as Grant’s mother, aiding and abetting his abductors in an hilarious sequence where she just cannot help sneering in disbelief at his cries for help; and Eva Marie Saint finally gets a role befitting her talents as a morally ambivalent glacial blonde really and truly in the Grace Kelly mould who generates suitably edgy erotic tensions with Grant.

Literally traversing a great deal of territory, this sharply written (Ernest Lehman), witty, cross-country pursuit becomes a peg on which Hitchcock hangs one intoxicating location set-piece after another.  These episodes are set in train by a richly comic episode of Grant’s being forced by his abductors to drink a bottle of whiskey then drive around hairpin bends and plunging cliff faces culminating (by way of a very funny star turn tailor made for Grant’s gestural skills) in a totally incoherent explanation of these bizarre activities which confounds the police and delights the audience.

The attention to formal architectural patterns in Hitchcock films, undoubtedly arising out of his early training in film set design, serves North by Northwest well and has been much raked over by Hitchcock scholars. The credits sequence with its criss-cross directional grids, the showy vignette at UN headquarters involving overhead shots of the building and grounds, the fascinating Frank Lloyd Wright-like house jutting out of the edge of Mount Rushmore all attest to Hitchcock’s meticulous planning of the kind of visual detail that makes North by Northwest such a thrilling and memorable roller-coaster ride.

The auction sequence and, more especially, the celebrated crop duster episode are further exercises in Hitchcock’s knowingness in juxtaposing terror with the most mundane details of daily life. In the latter case an isolated rural bus stop, a field of corn and a plane “crop dusting where there ain’t no crops” turns into a sustained nightmare in broad sunlight for the hapless Grant and his unsuspecting cinema audience. Like Saboteur (1942), the film’s climactic scenes are built into a national monument; in Saboteur its the Statue of Liberty  which serves as the backdrop to the final struggle between victim and victimiser, Mount Rushmore in this film. Hitchcock is nothing if not perversely manipulative in the visual connotations he sets up for his audiences.

Grant, Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest
North by Northwest is really a compendium of Hitchcock’s spy thriller obsessions: the search for identity (Will the real Kaplan and Lester Townsend please stand up?); romantic betrayal and divided trust (all of the ambiguity built into the paradoxical behaviour of Eva Marie Saint towards Cary Grant at various points of the film represents the most complex and extended exploration of this theme in a Hitchcock work); victimization of the innocent; the interchangeability of good/evil, heroes/villains, and so on.

The "Frank Lloyd Wright" House, Eva Marie saint, James Mason, Martin Landau
North by Northwest
After the expansiveness of North by Northwest with its breathtaking colour visual design, flamboyant use of landscapes, and extroverted Herrmann score came Psycho (1960), an extraordinarily radical departure from any of Hitchcock’s previous work. Photographed significantly not by Robert Burks but in stark black and white by John L Russell, whom Hitchcock had used in his TV series, Psycho gives us the darkest side of Hitchcock’s genius, a Hitchcock in extremis.

John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Psycho
Instead of the usual trappings of the thriller, Hitchcock moved directly into out and out of horror film territory, complete with an imposing Gothic mansion, a swamp full of nasty secrets, some very distressing violence and a monster. In many respects Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. The film, uncharacteristically shot on a shoe-string, has had a detrimental long-term effect on the genre it exploited (it really spawned the splatter movie and encouraged lesser film makers increasingly to substitute skill in evoking terror through withholding rather than revealing detail-a la Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur-with graphic in-your-face explicitness).

In other respects, Hitchcock’s decision to follow this path has been well and truly vindicated. Psycho retains its awful, unsettling, gruesome power in spite of its lesser imitators over the last four decades. It may be read as a very black comedy (Hitch himself publicly stated “it was fun”) or as a “raging, murderous shout”. It’s actually a lot of both. It pushes Hitchcock’s voyeuristic techniques and subjective camera stylistics to the edge. Its sensual violence was upfront and shocked many of his admirers. Even the mischievously ironic dialogue so typical of Hitchcock’s playful winks at his audience (“Mother’s not quite herself today”) skirted the boundaries of accepted taste in 1960.

Anthony Perkins, Psycho
But mostly the film contains scenes of great formal power-even beauty-despite the nasty schlock/horror content. Some of the contributing factors to the film’s strong impact are: Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling score; George Tomasini’s razor-sharp editing; the calculatedly remote, gothic, Grand Guignol setting with its grotesque piece of Victoriana towering over twelve empty motel rooms; and especially, Anthony Perkins’ nervous, unsettling, bird-like presence photographed in bizarre angles amidst the “stuffed birds” d├ęcor of his parlour.

The atmosphere of Psycho is unsettling for its audience right from the opening establishing shot where the subjective camera (using the audience as its eyes) tracks forward and peers into a shabby Phoenix hotel room where a pair of furtive lovers (Janet Leigh and John Gavin) have been using their lunch break for a quickie and are now quarrelling about whether there is a future to their relationship. Desperate to escape her tawdry circumstances, secretary Leigh is drawn by chance into a crime while Hitchcock effortlessly controls audience complicity in her actions (there’s no contest: the scumbag on the make from whom she fleeces $40,000 under the anxious gaze of colleague Patricia Hitchcock richly ‘deserves’ his reversal of fortune). Hitchcock further compounds audience complicity in closely recording her flight into the night with a battery of subjective visual/aural devices-including such obvious suspense tactics as her tense, prolonged encounters with the creepy cop and the
garrulous used-car salesman; frames-within-frames suggesting she is being tailed by unknown forces or authorities; mirrors capturing her dualities as she fights with her dark side and her conscience; her mounting panic as the night lights become progressively blinding and unbearable, the audience sharing her terror via the eerie tracking shots of the car’s forward movement alternating with big close-ups of Leigh’s strained face and nervous hands with the soundtrack relentlessly recording her stream-of-consciousness fragments in voice-overs.

Heavy rain finally forces her into the Bates motel, isolated because the highway has been re-directed. There follow the famous encounters with Anthony Perkins and, remotely, his mother.

The parlour sequence itself is the only fully developed scene between Perkins and Leigh and serves as a model of how Hitchcock plays with his audience until it is squirming with discomfort and uneasy anticipation. Something is very out of kilter here-the bizarre angles immerse Perkins in and identify him with, his stuffed predatory birds on a visual level. The threat to Ms Leigh is not properly grasped by her (why would it be?) and she remains cool throughout the scene, handling Perkins’ strangeness with fine contrasting aplomb. The wonderfully edgy script by Joseph Stefano emphasizes Perkins’ halting, occasionally stammering delivery of his lines at length; his over-reaction to, and misreading of, Leigh’s humane suggestion that his mother be cared for really sets the alarm bells ringing for the audience.

The whole scene tips over into Perkins’amazing and deeply unsettling speech (“We’re all in our own private traps…we scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other and for all that we never budge an inch…”) which catches his unpredictability and frightening mood/tone shifts. This in turn paves the way for the shocks that almost immediately follow, Hitchcock seating his audience all the while on a knife edge.

Anthony Perkins is revealed, not unsurprisingly given Hitchcock’s carefully prepared preliminary planning, as a creepy peeping tom closely observing Ms Leigh’s body parts as she prepares to shower (clearly Ms Leigh is about to become the latest of a long line of victims in cabin one of the Bates Motel.). The audience’s only identification figure to this point in the film has been Ms Leigh and following Perkins’voyeuristic activities, “mother”saves him from himself by dispatching Ms Leigh into the hereafter in what is one of the most brutal, seemingly senseless, graphic and brilliantly filmed murders on celluloid. The disorienting effect on the film’s audience is total…where do we go from here without the key to our narrative point of view?

The Bates motel and its mysteries are, perversely, never fully revealed. Tthe swamp, it is hinted, contains much more than Marion’s car and the $40 000. Hitchcock’s imagery is endlessly resonating, ruminating as it does over the key rooms of the Bates mansion and Norman’s childhood, witnessing another pointless murder, and finally through the revelations in the cellar disgorging its human monster created through a family history rooted in troubled sexuality. In the final sequence, Norman has become his mother and, from his straitjacket, contemplates a fly on the wall. The very final image is breath-taking piece of visual sleight of hand. In a very fast lap-dissolve, Hitchcock merges Perkins’ now hollow eyes and his mother’s skeleton face with Leigh’s car being dredged up from the swamp. It is one of the most arresting and distressingly concentrated images in cinema history.

Anthony Perkins’ magnificently bizarre characterization unfortunately dogged him for the remainder of his career-no following act could ever have been halfway as impressive, although he was certainly capable of subtle and layered acting vide Pretty Poison, meeting his match with the irrepressible Tuesday Weld; Leigh also contributed a detailed, intelligent performance (watch closely what she captures through her hands on the wheel of her car during her flight into the night); Gavin and especially Miles are given excellent, fleshed-out roles as the audience identification figures attempting to unravel the mystery of the Bates motel; but some of the minor vignettes are equally in tune with the film’s off-centre mood, including Martin Balsam as the ingratiating private eye who meets his doom in the Bates house and John McIntire as the county sheriff whose commanding basso profundo adds its folksy observations about the dark doings chez Bates.

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