Thursday 31 December 2020

Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (USA, 1958) - Lifelong scholar of Hitchcock's work Ken Mogg presents some new thoughts on a masterpiece

Vertigo considerations


Thrasymachus To sum up, what shall I be after my death? Be clear and precise!

Philalethes Everything and nothing.

Thrasymachus As I expected! For the solution to a problem - a contradiction. That trick is very worn-out.

Philalethes To answer transcendent questions in language made for immanent knowledge is bound to lead to contradictions.


- Arthur Schopenhauer, "The Indestructibility of Being" 



'The metaphysical implications of the story … were more in Hitchcock's mind than in Coppel's treatment … So I rewrote the screenplay completely.'


- Samuel Taylor, quoted in Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock



'Perhaps I need to be frightened … to teach me to despise my petty existence …'.


- Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac, The Living and the Dead

I'LL START WITH AN asideAlfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) has a tenuous Australian connection: after Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail had submitted initial treatments, Hitchcock hired the Australian-born novelist and playwright Alec Coppel - he had attended Wesley College, Melbourne - to further shape a screen adaptation of Boileau and Narcejac's 1954 mystery-shocker D'Entre les Morts, destined to become Vertigo. Soon Coppel was given the go-ahead to write a full screenplay which, however, was not well-received by Hitchcock. Reports differ on just why. Whereas Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography is condemnatory of Coppel's efforts ('the results were soon perceived as woefully disappointing … unshootable …'), Patrick McGilligan is less harsh ('Coppel was improving on Maxwell Anderson's spadework, especially when it came to the love story … Hitchcock and Coppel parted friends'). McGilligan notes that in fact Coppel visualised one of the film's most famous scenes: Scottie (James Stewart) kissing Judy (Kim Novak) in her hotel room, 'a kiss that plunges him back in time to the moment when he [had kissed her] in the stables of San Juan Bautista' where she had been impersonating the mysterious Madeleine.


That elaborate shot, involving a revolving turntable combined with back-projection and a difficult track (giving the effect of a 360° circling movement) has been aptly called 'Pirandellian' - after the Italian playwright and poet Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) whose recurrent subject was the fluid nature of identity. With its hurdy-gurdy accompaniment, the shot can be interpreted in both a 'vulgar' way (sexual consummation) and in a more profound way, apposite to Scottie's sense of having entered into Madeleine's secret (what used to be called the world-riddle, the secret of all space and time). This shot, at least as much as the equally famous (and again subjective) 'dizzying' shot inside the church tower (involving a simultaneous track-in and zoom-out), is the epitome of Vertigo's technical and metaphysical suggestiveness. For what it's worth, the Boileau/Narcejac novel goes out of its way to allude at one point to the mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) who claimed to have rediscovered the dialectical principle that 'in Yes and No all things consist'. Boehme taught that God is 'the abyss, the nothing and the all'. Accordingly, by entering a state of total surrender, Man may know God.1


For a fleeting time, Scottie feels exultant, telling Judy, 'These are the first happy moments I've known in years.' The abyss, over which he had hung suspended at the start of the film, seems dispelled. Cinematography, musical score, and performances all combine to signal an upbeat, carefree mood. One sunny morning, the pair stroll beside a lake in Golden Gate Park and pause at the so-called 'Portals of the Past', a memorial to the earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906. How well Hitchcock employs that city's iconography in Vertigo! We cannot forget that San Francisco's 'gay old bohemian days' came to a sudden end, and that the city - which originally grew around the site of the Mission Dolores which Scottie visits early in the film - had to start over. The Mission Dolores itself was unscathed by the earthquake. For Scottie, that long-ago era represents an 'excitement' and a 'freedom' he thought he had lost, along with his virility, and which he now feels is returning to him. Love is very much the up-side of this film: Judy had fallen in love with Scottie even when, as Madeleine, she was deceiving him as part of the monstrous Gavin Elster's plan to make Scottie think he had seen Madeleine commit suicide. Not yet aware of the deception, Scottie believes Judy can offer him his 'second chance' of happiness.2For her part, such is her love, she allows herself to 'walk into danger'.




Scottie in (approximately) the second half of the film shows himself to be a man possessed, intent on re-creating in Judy his lost Madeleine, and therefore is far from exemplifying 'a state of total surrender'. At no point do we feel that Scottie has known God! On the contrary, in his pursuit of the secret that he senses in Madeleine, he visits missions and art galleries but seems not the slightest bit interested in their 'content'. (At the Mission Dolores he simply follows Madeleine in one door and out the other - no genuflecting at the alter for him, although he does take off his hat; similarly, at the Palace of the Legion of Honour art gallery, he shows little interest in studying the gallery's paintings - except one, 'Portrait of Carlotta', at which a rapt Madeleine gazes. Incidentally, there's a near-variant on these moments in the art gallery scene in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, 1966.) Fortuitously or not, the metaphysical truths of Vertigo emerge seamlessly from the drama. There are several more. At every turn - and Vertigo has many of those! - there is ambivalence, as in a tension between worldly and spiritual. It might be described as a necessary coming to terms with the hollowness of most ambition, albeit ambition is often what motivates people in the first place. Perhaps the most likeable person in Vertigo is Scottie's friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), but who exemplifies the film's 'failed artists'. (Scottie is another such.  In the novel, after Madeleine's apparent suicide, Scottie chastises himself for being someone too self-preoccupied: 'Gévigne had chosen the wrong man for the job …  He should have chosen someone very charming, brilliant - an artist perhaps …'.) Scottie reprimands Midge for 'wasting [her] time in the underwear department', for being content to expend her talent on commercial art. His own ambition, which she notes, had turned him from being simply 'the bright young lawyer' towards joining the police force, hoping one day to become chief-of-police. However, his guilt over a colleague's death has compelled him to quit. As for Judy, a country girl from Salina, Kansas, she had moved to the big city, presumably hoping for a lucky break, perhaps marriage to a wealthy husband. It hasn't happened. Only the film's villain, Gavin (Tom Helmore, who had appeared in two Hitchcock silent films), has 'made it', and that by means of a loveless marriage that has seen him 'marrying into the shipbuilding business'. Hoping to gain quick access to the proceeds of his ambition, he comes up with his ingenious plan to murder his wife, using Scottie as dupe. Altogether, the ambivalence of Vertigo might be said to indirectly invoke the 'ninth beatitude' coined by poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), 'Blessed is he who expects nothing' - by showing the double-mindedness of the majority of people who, all their adult lives, are looking out for the main chance - or, figuratively, their second chance! In non-highfalutin terms, this is the stuff of very human drama.



Not only Gavin's plan is ingenious. So, too, is Hitchcock's film. Actually, the word I would apply to both is 'audacious'. Once you look past the - in every sense - sheer beauty of Vertigo, you see how much it relies on the outlandish Boileau/Narcejac plot and, in turn, on Elster's audaciously-conceived - and implausible - murder plan! Hitchcock saw Vertigo as his opportunity to make his own film of a Boileau & Narcejac novel, as French director Henri-Georges Clouzot had already done with Diabolique (1955). My dictionary defines audacious as 'daring' or 'bold' or 'impudent' - I would apply them all to Vertigo! My point is, the film needs to be appreciated for that quality, perhaps its most outstanding one. It clearly shows Hitchcock's confidence to lead the audience where the plot needs to go, without alienating them and maintaining their interest at every turn. Now ask yourself this. How long had the evil Gavin been planning his audacious murder scheme with its backstory about Madeleine's ancestor Carlotta Valdes, designed to fool Scottie into his unwitting participation? Presumably the answer is: ever since Scottie and those who knew him had learned that he suffered from acrophobia - fear of heights - when a police colleague had fallen to his death. Yet while Gavin may have had a 'eureka!' moment here, the broad idea could have been gestating from the time he married. Moreover, there would have been multiple details to be worked out. Like, getting the complicity of Judy, his mistress at the time. (Surely he didn't seduce her just so that he could use her in his plan?) Also, there would have been others whose co-operation he needed, notably the landlady (Ellen Corby) at the McKittrick Hotel, where the suicidal Carlotta Valdes had once lived. How had Gavin known that a room for Judy/Madeleine to 'sit' (the landlady's word, with its connotation of an artist's model) had become vacant, or would soon do so? And again, presumably the landlady's preparedness to lie to Scottie, an ex-detective, would have required a hefty bribe? Incidentally, it was doubtless fortuitous - and therefore not exactly audacious on Hitchcock's part - that a long-time favourite novel of his, namely, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), had provided him with an excellent rationale to make VertigoAt one point in Wilde's novel, someone says of San Francisco, 'It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world … every one who disappears is said to be seen [there] …’!


Madeleine is forever appearing and disappearing, whether around corners or behind a tree trunk (in Muir Woods) or at doorways, such as that in Scottie's apartment when she emerges from his bedroom. These moments are also rhymed more specifically, as when Judy in her hotel emerges from herbedroom after disappearing inside to put on Madeleine's clothes that Scottie has bought for her. (Soon afterwards, she asks anxiously, 'Oh Scottie, I do have you now, don't I?') But this example may also draw attention to other splendid instances of Hitchcock's production design and direction. I'm thinking now of how people walkin Vertigo.  Gavin at his club tells Scottie that when Madeleine has one of her trances 'she even walks in a different way' - and it's true! Gait, vocal inflections, facial flicker, are all marvellously modulated in this film - congratulations must go to the actors, especially Kim Novak - and overseen brilliantly by Hitchcock who misses no nuance while at the same time ensuring that nothing is superfluous. In Robert J. Yanal's book Hitchcock as Philosopher (2005) a production still shows Hitchcock directing the group of actors who play the shopgirls seen by Scottie in the street when he first spots Judy and her resemblance to his lost Madeleine. The caption specifies that this is Hitchcock on location in San Francisco, demonstrating to Novak 'and several bit players the walk he wants'. Just that, nothing else!



Further, how people walk and talk in films can characterise them, often subtly. In a Jungian sense, Madeleine in Vertigo is an Eternal Feminine figure, i.e., an archetype created by men, no doubt wishfully. Accordingly, Scottie seems to load Madeleine with qualities that even he doesn't wholly grasp, and whose allure draws him on. Hitchcock once said that he dressed Madeleine in grey to suggest that she had just materialised from the San Francisco fog (and might be swallowed up by it again). Which figures! The content of Vertigo is over-determined. One of the forerunners of the Vertigo story has to be Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva, A Pompeian Fantasy (1903) which was inspired by the ancient bas-relief showing three women walking (Gradiva's name means 'the woman who walks') and whose association with Pompeii in Jensen's novella seems highly apposite to earthquake-prone San Francisco in Hitchcock's film. The young archaeologist in Gradiva, one Norbert Hanold, becomes obsessed by the woman in the bas-relief. One day, visiting the ruins of Pompeii, the woman materialises before him, whereupon he follows her, unsure whether he is dreaming. No doubt Boileau and Narcejac were familiar with Gradiva, if only by reputation: Sigmund Freud had analysed the story in his "Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva" (1906). (For another antecedent of the Vertigo story, see the 1892 Symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, about a dead woman lost and found again in her double. Inter alia, it depicts the bridges and canals of Bruges in Belgium in an evocative manner akin to Hitchcock's deployment of the sights and streets of San Francisco.)


Aspects (multiple)

Kim Novak's great performance in Vertigo is up to the requirements of every twist and turn of the story. Vertigo is a film about performances, after all, with the wily Gavin as producer/director. Again it is audacious of the film to suppose that Judy could actually have played Madeleine - that is one of the film's Pirandellian conceits. Take it or leave it, Hitchcock seems to assert, almost loftily, while he unfolds the narrative in such a hypnotic way that his challenge may pass unnoticed. I haven't yet specifically praised the sheer vocal versatility of both main actors. But think of how Novak gives Madeleine a calm, measured and infinitely 'feminine' vocal tone; whereas, as Judy, her voice takes on a high, often clipped and even whiny note befitting a 'common' shopgirl who tells Scottie that she has been 'knowing' since she was 17. (It's worth fast-forwarding the film on Blu-ray or DVD between an early scene and a later one to readily appreciate the differences.) Similarly, in early scenes Stewart as Scottie is understandably subdued after losing his police colleague (though Midge tries to perk him up), then is rapidly taken out of himself by the enigma of Madeleine, then becomes near-catatonic after Madeleine's death; next, on meeting Judy, he briefly regains his accustomed self ('the first happy moments I've known in years'), then suddenly - when he realises that he was set-up (as a 'made-to-order witness') - his voice and manner become steely and/or peremptory and stay that way until he forces Judy to ascend the belltower for the last time. Here note the contrast between the grimly resolute Scottie and the increasingly fearful and resistant Judy. Incidentally, I would contest Robert Yanal's characterisation of Scottie in the first half of the film: 'Scottie's police instincts should have allowed him to see through the illusion of [Madeleine] … but he willingly suspends his disbelief …'.  In fact, his resistance is palpable, and he keeps telling Madeleine that she has simply forgotten places she had seen when she was a little girl. 'You see, there's an explanation for everything!' he says, trying desperately to perform his expected role of, in Gavin's phrase, 'the hard-headed Scot'. Still, admittedly it's not that simple! The audience, like Scottie, is torn between rationality and succumbing to the mysterioso of Madeleine, and part of us hopes that somehow Scottie has missed something! Again this is the stuff of very human drama, or anyway the power of film.


As Scottie tells Madeleine early in the novel, 'You frighten me, but I need you. Perhaps I need to be frightened …'. (Hitchcock once said of his films, 'They give the audience good healthy mental shake-ups!') Fascinatingly, Maurice Nadeau in his History of Surrealism (English edition 1965) reminds us that the woman named Gradiva was the muse of the Surrealists. And again it figures! Scottie, like most people, needs to be taken out of himself, and shown that his 'petty existence', which is bound in subjectivity, is not all there is! Yanal's chapter on Vertigo at times leaves me in two minds. For example, it claims that Vertigois 'a masterpiece of cinematic tragedy' - I've no quarrel with that - yet it spends inordinate space (several pages) on some rather forced comparisons likening Scottie and Judy's story to that of Tristan and Iseult (Isolt, Isolde). Equally, I think Yanal is right to say as follows: 'A musical resemblance between Vertigo and [Wagner's] Tristan… ought not to be pushed too far. … [Bernard] Herrmann's score sometimes sounds like Wagner, but it also sometimes sounds like Tchaikovsky, sometimes like Dukas, and so on.' Thus, after overly narrowing down the focus of our Vertigo appreciation, Yanal does open it up again! Unfortunately, he condescends to say that Hitchcock's masterpiece stems from 'a piece of French pulp fiction'. Well, I happen to agree with my friend Freda Freiberg that D'Entre les Morts is a fine piece of sustained writing: in their dry, passionless style, two co-masters of a particular genre - call it 'the mystery-grotesque' - Boileau and Narcejac, have given Hitchcock much of the raw material of his film. That in itself is no mean feat. For example, the film's Muir Woods scene, with its ancient Sequoias, is a conflation of the novel's passing reference to the Forêt de Fontainebleau and a scene in the Louvre ('Soon they were sauntering among Egyptian gods in the coolness of a cathedral'). And again, Yanal suggests that Scottie's vertigo (and thus presumably the film's title) 'is a bit of a MacGuffin'. Surely that's inadequate? For one thing, Scottie's acrophobia obviously relates to his glimpse of 'the abyss' at the film's outset which haunts him thereafter - and arguably gives him a privileged perspective on our 'petty existence'. For another thing, nobody ever said that solving the world-riddle is easy! Solving, or even grasping, the world-riddle has exercised the best minds for more than 100 years: the term was coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, and is indeed a head-spinner! Not incidentally, note that the figurative first shot of the film is the close-up of a hand grasping as if for dear life onto a horizontal bar - something to hold onto - which proves to be the rung of a metal ladder leading to a rooftop high above the city.  


Another friend of mine, the late Richard Franklin (director of Psycho II), once enthused to me about all the small but masterly details that contribute to the texture of Vertigo. I recall his even pointing out that the decorative pattern on cups and saucers in Scottie's apartment is one of concentric circles! Or think of the glass pendants on the table-lamps when Scottie is dining out with Judy, recalling other suspended objects throughout the film, notably the magnificent chandelier over the stairs of the McKittrick Hotel. On inspection, the chandelier is made up of numerous glass pendants. Of course, a key motif of Vertigo is its tunnel imagery. Again and again, we see characters push into darkness, beginning with Scottie's entry to Podesta's flower shop, full of colourful flowers and bouquets, via an unused storeroom behind it. Such imagery culminates with Scottie and Judy's final trip to the fateful tower of the Mission San Juan Bautista, during which a tunnel of overarching Eucalypts speeds past. Hitchcock films it all subjectively, through the car windscreen. Madeleine's dream of walking down a long corridor will soon prove premonitory: 'I know that when I walk into the darkness [for the last time] that I'll die.' As Robin Wood notes, the view looking down from inside the tower is itself like a dark tunnel-image.

Into the dark …

To conclude these brief notes on Vertigo I'll mention other ways in which the final scene is so fitting. When the nun says, 'I heard voices … God have mercy!', her words, like an epigraph, could in fact apply to any of the characters, even the undeserving Gavin! Those characters will soon enough become simply 'the small stuff of history', to use Scottie's evocative phrase just before Midge introduces him to Pop Liebel, proprietor of the Argosy Bookshop. Vertigo goes out of its way to serve us notice of the characters' mortality, as in the Muir Woods scene. (Note: even one of the 'ever-living' trees has been felled.) The hypnotic San Francisco street scenes are paradoxical: absolutely substantial in one way, moodily 'phantasmagorical' in another. Briefly, the various characters pass across the screen: they're effectively just voices heard in the city's fog, or analogous to the fleeing felon on the rooftop at the start whom we never see again. Even Pop Liebel of phenomenal memory is starting to forget details of the 'juicy' stories of old-time San Francisco that he once knew perfectly. (As Pop talks to Midge and Scottie, the shop imperceptibly darkens. Similarly, Midge is last seen walking slowly away down a corridor that darkens around her.) As for Scottie, after he loses Judy when she steps back into space, startled by the black-garbed nun - one more 'apparition' - you can't say that his future isn't dark, notwithstanding that he still has Midge with whom to share a beer and to converse.  


When you think about it, it's fitting that a stern old nun becomes the deus ex machina with which to resolve the film's story - given that the film's subject-matter, indeed its very title, may refer to 'everything and nothing', the world-riddle! Any other resolution might be inadequate, failing to acknowledge that the riddle can't be solved in everyday terms! (Recall that Scottie had his own 'solution' when first confronted with Madeleine's story and background. Brandishing his drink, he had exclaimed, 'Boy! I need this!') The nun is suitably other-worldly; at the same time, her demeanour suggests that she has encountered human folly before now. As she tolls the mission bell, it gives small comfort, on a worldly plane, to the defeated Scottie who stands bereft, looking down. Hitchcock has suggested that Scottie may possibly throw himself after Judy, bringing the film full-circle from his narrow escape on the rooftop at the start. 3




1.  This essay argues that the viewer of Vertigo is vouchsafed such knowledge!


2.  The potent theme of 'the second chance' informs other Hitchcock films such as Spellbound (1945). I recall that Donald Spoto has noted that the theme is widespread in literature. Hitchcock's admirers among the French critics (e.g., Jean Douchet) linked it to the notion of Original Sin.


3.  The most substantial general essays in English on Vertigo may be the chapter in Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films Revisited (Revised Edition, 1989) and Donald Spoto's chapter in his The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (Second Edition, 1992). But there are countless articles and monographs out there.  The present essay has simply tried to add a few salient points to the mix, hopefully one or two of them original.


About the author

Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail'  (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War ((Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). There's a companion piece to the present essay, "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here.    

Ken Mogg's email address is

Monday 28 December 2020

Streaming on Amazon Prime - John Baxter recommends CITIZENS BAND/HANDLE WITH CARE (Jonathan Demme, USA, 1977)

Paul LeMat, Citizen's Band


       Citizens Band radio has joined the VHS cassette, 45 rpm record and six-track tape on the dusty back shelf of technological history. It flourished for about a decade from the mid-1970s. With a reach of about about two kilometres, depending on terrain, it was tqken up by truckers to exchange information on sources of cheap gas, warn of speed traps, and, in emergencies, summon help. 

       Each user needed a nickname or “handle”, the most famous being Kris Kristofferson’s “Rubber Duck” in Convoy. Peckinpah’s film, along with Smokey and the Bandit and its clones, had fun with trucker slang, but Jonathan Demme’s 1977 Citizens Band may be the only film to treat CB as more than a source of colourful jargon.

       As talk abhors a vacuum, it was inevitable that CB, making each person in effect an independent broadcaster, would attract abuse. Its wavelengths soon swarmed with political and religious demagogues, pornographers, gossips and plain old-fashioned bores. 

       After trucker “Chrome Angel” (Charles Napier) almost dies because interlopers overwhelm the local emergency channel when he is trapped under his 18-wheeler outside Union, California, public-spirited co-ordinator “Spider” (Paul Le Mat, above) sets out to close them down, only to discover, dismayingly, that those creating the religious ravings, erotic musings and political rants are his neighbours and even members of his own family. 

Candy Clark, Roberts Blossom,  Citizen's Band

       Some offenders are just pathetic. His father, former trucker “Papa Thermodyne” (Roberts Blossom), is sullen and monosyllabic until a CB greeting from some passing driver restores him, briefly, to garrulous life. Others are defiant, belligerent, even menacing. In a society where the right to free speech is interpreted in its widest and least social sense, to curtail it even for the common good invites disaster. 

       Citizens Band was produced by agent Freddie Fields, new to this end of the business, an inexperience he shared with director Demme and writer Paul Brickman.In hopes of emulating American Graffiti, Demme used Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark from that film, not to mention its rural Californian setting.

       There are echoes of his apprentice features Crazy Mama and Caged Heat, and such Roger Corman productions as Monte Hellman’s maverick Cockfighter. The breathy invitation of eroticist “Elektra” to “Undo a few buttons” recalls the slogan “Wet Dreams and Open Jeans” dreamed up by Joe Dante to publicise a Corman feature. (Startled despite himself, the Emperor of Exploitation queried “Can we say that?”).

Charles Napier, Alix Elias, Citizen's Band

       Perhaps to soften what risked becoming the blackest of comedies, Brickman fleshed out the role of “Chrome Angel” who, stranded in Union with a broken arm, is exposed as a bigamist, with a family at either end of his route. When both wives demand his undivided attention, a compromise is brokered by “Hot Coffee” (Alix Elias), the prostitute whose move to a mobile home has vastly extended her sphere of operations, giving new meaning to the road-sign “Services”.

       Brickman further complicates the story by delving into LeMat’s conflicting loyalties to the people with whom he has grown up and the strangers who need his help. Some banal confrontations with ex-girlfriend Clark and his brother (an almost unrecognisably slim Bruce McGill in his debut role) simply add to his confusion, and ours.

       Citizens Band suffered the fate of most uncategorisable oddities, satisfying neither drive-in nor art house. Renaming it Handle With Care didn’t help. Its failure contributed to Brickman’s professional decline. After the success of his Risky Business,he did little of note. “I squandered a really good career,” he said later. “What can I say? I could've done more.”A pity. This engaging little film, a legitimate original, deserves to be enjoyed, in trucker terms, “Wall to wall and tree-top tall.”

Sunday 27 December 2020

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison considers thievery at the movies via a viewing of THE HONEST THIEF (Mark Williams, USA, 2020)

Last week I saw
 The Honest Thief  at the George Street Event complex. 

About an hour in the fire alarm went off. Smoke was coming out of one of the restaurant concessions next door. We piled out onto the street where about twenty people (exiting from twelve auditoria) stood around waiting for the valiant firemen to go through their act.

I made a point of having the manager, who was ushering us about, assure me that the screening would pick up at the point we left and was told this was in hand. When we came back they started the digital file from the beginning again and I doubled out to find her and alert her to the problem. She phoned the box and reassured me that it was being fixed. Needless to say, the piece ran all the way through without any catch up. I’d heard of this problem. After we finished, the place was shuttered and there was no one to ask for information. 

I used to watch movies round twice all the time but that was when I had a full head of hair. Doing it again now was a curious process. I found myself picking up on detail about which I didn’t really want to know - the girl who comes down the FBI corridor twice.

The Honest Thief  is presentable multiplex fare with Liam Neeson still a plausible action hero at an age when he should be playing the hero’s grandpa. It didn’t really repay the close scrutiny.

The moral of this story is buried in the fact that the staff had no control over the show. Something which would have been routine (if demanding) in a celluloid presentation, defeated them. 

At a time when theatrical film shows are under attack on any number of fronts, this wasn’t encouraging.

Friday 25 December 2020

Defending Cinephilia 2020 (9) - A belated report from David Hare on a cinephile Christmas Day farewell to a year that locked us down and opened up the vaults at the same time for much reflection of what was, would be and might be next.

Having woken this morning to some fucking dirge like religious ceremony on the radio, I snapped it shut and unwrapped a new Kino Lorber disc of Frank Simon's The Queen from 1968. Religion always makes me feel the need to cleanse the palette. 

The wonderful portrait above is the legendary New York drag queen, Fabulous Sabrina (born Jack Doroshow) who died not long ago in 2017 at 74 after a lengthy career in the New York avant-garde performance scene. 


Sabrina's movie debut was Frank Simon's ground breaking pre-Stonewall movie 1968 The Queen which would have been awarded a major gong at 1968's Cannes Festival if it hadn't been for the May riots. The new Blu-ray disc is a pearl, with not only the 66 minute feature of the girls and their show but several more short archival and retrospective pieces with Fabulous Sabrina, and a truckload of other priceless material. 


The sheer guts and activism of the 60s dragsters always comes to the fore when you begin to think historically about radical queer activism. But that's not to ignore also the seminal role of so many drag performers in the evolution of NYC's radical drag/meta-camp/off-off Broadway theatre and performance arts including the great Charles Ludlum, Lypsinka, Ethel Eichelberger, and filmmakers Jack Smith and George Kuchar among so many others. 

They're all dead now, as is every last player from Jenny Livingston's superb Harlem drag ball feature, Paris is Burning, originally released in 1990 and recently reissued from a new 4K restoration by Criterion. 


So I'm looking forward to a big dinner with like-minded souls later today with plenty of booze, and rock and roll where we can toast the dead, and their memories at a sublimely bucolic setting on a cliffside just above the Waiohini River near Greytown (aka Gaytown to the het tourist hordes.)


And I hope you all have a lovely day forgetting about what a shit year we've all (mostly) been through. cheer you up ... some more Christmas viewing...

Warner Archive's perfect new restoration of Lubitsch and Raphaelson's sublime The Shop Around the Corner (1940) which has been taken from one of MGM’s rare surviving O-negs from the nitrate era. It looks completely gobsmacking. 


The disc was released just before Xmas and is yet another essential purchase.

In the first screen above, Lubitsch finally directs DP Bill Daniels to cut to the picture's very first close up of anyone. Fifteen minutes in, here is the female lead, Margaret Sullavan, with co-star a devastatingly understated Jimmy Stewart just within the shot. And thus for the rest of the picture, Lubitsch never shoots them other than in medium to close two shot, all the way through this delicate ninety minute tragi-farce of their "mistaken identity" comedy within this tender, fragile piece of studio recreated prewar MitelEurop/Hungary that was in itself already in the process of disintegrating under the heel of Hitler and fascism.

Thus in Lubitsch's mise-en-scène the two shot celebrates and defines the couple not only before they're a couple but while they're far from a couple, and in the end, finally a couple.

Bill Daniels also photographed Stewart and Sullavan for Frank Borzage's greatest masterpiece at Metro, The Mortal Storm made the same year for the studio, and much against the will of that meddling bastard Louis B Mayer with an even more urgent cry to rise up to defend personal freedom from the rise of Hitler's fascists. 

In Borzage's great film, also released in a stunning new scan and transfer from original elements for Warner Archive last month, Daniels films the final shots of the now gone couple as some kind of sacred ghosts, and Borzage ends the film with a devastating montage of now deserted spaces and locations which the couple have inhabited earlier in the picture, into which the movie seems to be breathing life back into the shots. 

This magnificent coda (shots below) is one of the greatest endings in American cinema, and in ways that are even more profound than Antonioni's similar construction for the end of L'Eclisse, whose trajectory seems to be to elevate that film into a breathless post human world of photographed emptiness. Borzage's montage takes the spaces of Mortal Storm and fills them with life and blood, in the face of an overwhelming future assault on life in what is now history. The only other director to match him in this virtually supernatural level of enhanced being is surely Ophuls.

Again both of these discs are essential. 

And in a final gong for the year 2020........ I salute Warner Archive and their MPI facility and the magnificent team under George Feltenstein (above) who in my view are doing perhaps the greatest mass preservation and re-distribution job in the history of world cinema with their ongoing rescue of the huge Warner/MGM/RKO library.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Streaming on YouTube - John Baxter excavates SANDERS OF THE RIVER (Zoltan Korda, UK, 1935) and the work of pulp novelist Edgar Wallace

Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks
nders of the River


            The fiction factory that was Edgar Wallace never wasted material. During a three-hour stop-over in Chicago transferring from the Twentieth Century to the Super Chief, he learned enough about gangsters to write On the Spot , a hit play and later film that launched the career of Charles Laughton.  It’s ironic that, among his many hundreds of novels, plays and screenplays, he’s best remembered for something that’s barely a footnote to his prolific career. -The Beast, the germ of what became King Kong.

            Before World War I, Wallace visited the Belgian Congo to report of the atrocities of its government under King Leopold.  What he saw inspired a dozen novels and short story collections devoted to the adventures of a British administrator in nearby Nigeria. With no more than a handful of Brits like himself and a company of African soldiers, the administrator keeps the peace in an area the size of Wales, chasing gun runners and slave traders, and settling inter-tribal feuds. Because he moves around his domain on an ancient steamboat, he’s known as Sanders of the River. 

            Browsing the movie streaming services – something most of us have done perforce this year – offers a crash course in a century of social progress. If you doubt that our lives are more just and compassionate, look no further than the casual way movie police in films of the thirties and forties barge into homes with no mention of a warrant and interrogate suspects without benefit of counsel. 

            One flinches too at their endemic racism that reduces tribal people to faceless stereotypes.  If the races communicate, it is as master to slave. We all know those scenes where someone in a pith helmet or cavalry Stetson remonstrates with a chief for having offended the Great White Father. Rudyard Kipling celebrated such people in an 1899 poem. “Take up the white man's burden,” it exhorted, urging the elite of Europe and America to join men  like Sanders in subduing “your new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child.”  

             It’s faint praise to concede that Zoltan Korda’s 1935 film of Sanders of the River is no more racist than other films of the time. It can even claim a certain spurious authenticity by virtue of two performers in central roles.  One is the bass baritone Paul Robeson. Among the great voices of his day, this son of a former slave was a vigorous and articulate campaigner for social and racial justice. What, then, can have moved him to appear as the tribal chief Bosambo, grovelling in a  leopard skin jockstrap to British imperial power in the person of Leslie Banks’ Commissioner Sanders?

            Admittedly the role is not as insulting as many in movies of the time. Bosambo is no cliche spear-chucker but a wily outsider who drifts into Sanders’ territory and becomes a sort of ally, helping keep in check its troublesome tribes and in particular the “Old King”, Mofolaba, lurking on the Congo border, just waiting for a chance to make trouble. 

            Robeson later disowned the film, as he did many of his acting appearances, but at the time he was hopeful.  “For the first time since I began acting, “ he said, “I feel that I’ve found my place in the world, that there’s something out of my own culture which I can express and perhaps help to preserve.” 

What he meant by “my own culture” was left vague. He never lived in Africa. The songs in Sanders of the River  were composed by Mischa Spoliansky, not a name that leaps to mind when one thinks of African tribal music, and rely heavily on the “Yo heave ho” refrain of sea chanties and The Volga Boatmen.   

            As for his characterisation, he was naive to expect even the British film industry to give up so easily. His exchanges with Sanders, while not quite  of the “white man speak with forked tongue” variety, fall into a quasi-biblical pomposity that removes any suggestion of equality.  “Is that not a lie, man?” demands Sanders sternly of one assertion. Bosambo meekly agrees “It is a lie, lord.” Before leaving his presence, he kneels before Sanders, abasing himself to those well-tanned knees below the starched khaki shorts.

Paul Robeson, Nina Mae McKinney

            Korda further distances Bosambo from the real Africa by giving him a wife, Lilongo, who is  as much an outsider as himself.  She is played by another African-American, Nina Mae McKinney, star of King Vidor’s Hallelujah and the Broadway Blackbirds of 1928. The cinema shunned African women as having, in Wallace’s words, “the bodies of Venus with the faces of  gorgons” but McKinney, like the mixed-race Josephine Baker, sufficiently resembled white actresses to be promoted as “The Black Garbo.” 

             The sole “real African” element of Sanders of the River,  unless you count some second-unit scenes of tribal life, is provided,  unexpectedly, by the actor who plays Mofolaba. He gives a performance of manic malevolence that puts Darth Vader in the shade. He’s none other than Jomo Kenyatta (billed on the credits as Tony Wane), later the first President of Kenya and the power behind the savage Mau Mau uprising.  A pity he went into politics. With a good agent he could have been really big in pictures.  

Jomo Kenyatta

Sanders of the River is available here at Youtube.

Defending Cinephilia (8) - Simon Killen, another Melburnian, survives a lockdown year

Kelly Reichardt

Vidor and Reichardt in Berlin

The cinematic year started for me in Berlin as usual. Passing through Singapore airport, an elevated level of masking, and the first temperature testing sites being set up at various gates were ominous motifs for the year ahead. A very disappointing line-up at Berlinale but two fine highlights: The exhaustive King Vidor retrospective (I was able to see only STELLA DALLAS and THE REAL ADVENTURE, but reports from others were all pretty joy-filled). And what would turn out to be my final real life festival screening, both in Berlin and 2020 (gulp!) was Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW. And took place in the glorious jewel that is the Friedrichstadt Palast. Rarely has a screening venue been as incongruous – but what a beautifully made piece of cinema this film is. Later in the year I would shed a quiet tear at the notion of watching it on a small screen stream. 

Hear My Eyes

Shortly after Berlin, an even bigger screening: SUSPIRIA at Hamer Hall. A collective named Hear My Eyes had commissioned a new score which was performed live – and very large indeed. King Gizzard Wizard mini orchestra created a buzzing and tense score that gave the viewer an entirely new angle on the Dario Argento film. I had misgivings about the process before the experience – but am now a total convert. I would never miss a Hear My Eyes production in the future.


Gable, Colbert, It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night

These two mammoth screenings gave way to the smallest of the year – and in many ways the most enjoyable. At North Fitzroy library, a screening of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT with around 18 people of various ages was a complete joy. To my shame, I’d never seen the film. I’d heard how risqué it was over the years, but was still unprepared for just how sassy it is, how much it spits and fizzes – and shows a glimpse of a possible future for Hollywood that the code quashed. And to be sharing the laughs with a group of strangers was pretty joyous.


Jay Weissberg, Pordenone (top)
Guy Borlée, Bologna

Bologna and Pordenone

Festivals, so long the cinephilia anchor for many, were turned upside down. And for me, there was huge upside. The loss of Cannes is pretty incalculable, but at least there was a market on-line where a lot of content was screened. And there was even a bidding war or two that took place on Whatsapp and messenger. But the loss of Cannes opened up space to attend Bologna and Pordenone virtually. And thus my biggest surprise of 2020: which country provided the highest quality service and resolution in digital film delivery? Italy! Forza italia!! Bologna was excellent, but Pordenone took the on-line festival experience to the highest level. Jay Weissberg’s introduction to each night’s feature from a different part of Pordenone was passionate, knowledgeable and welcoming. Seeing him do this made me realise that we so rarely get to see a person synthesize all the elements of a festival so well. The Q & As that followed were equally as well run. 


Sandra Wollner

Remembering MIFF

Back at home, MIFF acquitted itself really well with a fine programme given the restrictions they operated under. But sadly it won’t be the excellent programming that MIFF 2020 will be remembered for in the world of cineastes – it will be the sad spectacle of Sandra Wollner’s THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN strange journey. Invited after its Berlin screening, and subsequently uninvited in a secretive process shortly before the festival opened. That the time-line of withdrawal took place in public without clear communications from the festival was unsavoury. Yes, it’s a small thing in the wider world. But for those with an intense interest in defending cinephilia, it’s a bad marker.


Eliza Scanlen,Babyteeth


Back at cinemas, I entered lockdown one with an excellent Australian film, and re-entered new normal after lockdown two with four well above par Australian films. IN MY BLOOD IT RUNS, BRAZEN HUSSIES, THE DRY, and BABY TEETH all present unique and thoughtful portraits of contemporary Australia and all do it with a strong eye to entertainment as well. And while on Australian cinema, no film was better for screening during the COVID period than Warwick Thornton’s THE BEACH. The timing for a gorgeously shot film about a man having a wise-crack speckled existential crisis in the most breathtakingly lonely and beautiful landscape in Australia could not have been better. And his son Dylan River continues to be a cinematographer whose work I’d crawl over broken glass to see. 


David Thomas

Vale David, Amree and Bill

Apart from being inherently depressing in and of itself, we all lost so many loved friends and families through the lock-down, so many people have thus not been celebrated in the way we might ordinarily have done so. I toast in the most virtual sense: Dave Thomas, projectionist at MIFF forever, solver of all problems known to humankind. When we can finally send him off as he fully deserved, the stories are going to be sensational. Amree Hewitt, as referenced by Adrian Danks in his summary - a woman of intelligence and effervescence who as Adrian said, could make a day better by being there. An energiser, a producer, a networker par excellence. She'll be hugely missed. And over in New Zealand, the man who was never entirely sure he was the longest serving film festival director in the world died - and I think we'll print the legend on this. Bill Gosden was a lightning rod for quality in all forms, cinema being the central one. Cheeky as a schoolboy until the very end, but as erudite and passionate about cinema - all arts - as anyone I've known. His notes for the NZFF programme were a year in, year out delight. And I'll pull them out every now and then to marvel at his fluent expression - I envied him that so very much. Vale Bill, Amree and Dave.