SPELLBOUND: (1945): “Will you love me just as much when I’m normal?”

SPELLBOUND – 1945  – Selznick International Pictures  –  ★★★1/2

B&W – 111 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Petersen), Gregory Peck (Dr. Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne), Michael Chekov (Dr. Alexander Brulov), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), Rhonda Fleming (Mary Carmichael), Normal Lloyd (Mr. Garmes). 

Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Adaptation by Angus MacPhail from the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding.

Cinematography by George Barnes

Edited by Hal C. Kern

Music by Miklos Rozsa

Dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali

A film full of ideas:  When Alfred Hitchcock began production on Spellbound, he was in the fifth year of his contract with David O. Selznick, and yet they had only made one movie together  (Rebecca).  Selznick had loaned Hitchcock out to other studios on film after film, to the benefit of both;  Selznick made a tidy profit, while Hitchcock enjoyed a level of autonomy he would not otherwise have.  Now Hitchcock was coming home to roost, and while he might not have been perfectly happy being under Selznick’s thumb again, he brought a multitude of strong ideas to this film.

The plot is an interesting variation on Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme.   In this case, a man shows up at a mental hospital calling himself Dr. Edwardes, the new head of the facility.   Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has some peculiar personality traits.  Seeing the color white (particular with a linear pattern) makes him turn away in revulsion.   He also falls instantly in love with Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman).  Eventually we learn that Peck is not Edwardes.  So who is he, then?  And where is the real Dr. Edwardes?

Peck goes on the run, chased by the police while unaware of his identity.   He is helped in his quest by Ingrid Bergman, who tries to be Peck’s therapist despite the fact that she is deeply in love with him.   Over the course of the movie Peck discovers the truth of who he is, and the nature of his phobia.   The real Dr. Edwardes is found dead (after all, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock without at least one murder, would it?) and the culprit discovered.  What makes this film so different from Hitchcock’s other “man on the run” films is that the character’s journey is as much psychological as physical.   Let’s take a look at some of Hitchcock’s methods of visual narrative in this film.

Constance Petersen is presented as cold, sterile, virginal in her early scenes.  She is clearly the intellectual superior of her male colleagues, who view her as just a pretty woman.   It is no accident that in her first session, her patient (Rhonda Fleming) is a nymphomaniac, a polar opposite of Constance.

Constance begins to fall for “Dr. Edwardes” the moment she meets him, and after they spend an afternoon together she finds herself even more drawn to him.  She comes back to the manor in a state of physical and emotional dishevelment.  Hitchcock here employs one of his typical subjective POV shots, as Constance joins her (all male) colleagues for dinner.

Later the same evening, Constance and “Edwardes” kiss, and Hitchcock uses a clever visual motif of a series of opening doors.

Later “Edwardes” flees Green Manor when he is found  to be an impostor, and Constance tracks him to a New York hotel.  There is a funny scene here, where Constance first rebuffs a drunken man in the hotel lobby, then uses the hotel detective to help her find Edwardes.  He calls himself an amateur psychologist, thinking he is impressing this pretty young woman with his acumen, not realizing that he is being played.

The next sequence of the film takes place at the home of Constance’s mentor Dr. Brulov, a sort of stand-in for Freud, with a Germanic accent and European look.   During the night Edwardes has a fugue episode ( look for a deconstruction of this scene as my next post).   The following day, Brulov and Constance interpret Edwardes’ dreams.

Hitchcock and Dali:  Alfred Hitchcock wanted Salvador Dali to assist in designing the dream sequence for Spellbound and Selznick acquiesced.  After some negotiations, a deal was struck.  Dali initially created several paintings which he shared with Hitchcock and his creative team.

Two of Dali’s original design paintings for the Spellbound dream sequence.

There is a persistent rumor that the sequence was originally planned to run twenty minutes in length.   There is no evidence that it was ever intended to be that long, but it was initially going to be at least a couple minutes longer.  One sequence that was filmed was cut entirely.

Art director James Basevi, Hitchcock and Dali.

Scenes from the gambling house sequence:

The parallel perspective lines on the floor continue on to the painted backdrop with the eye, which is center frame. Also note that the table and chair legs are women’s legs.

The rooftop sequence, and conclusion:

Below are some scenes from the deleted sequence, which would have played between the gambling house and rooftop sequences.

Bergman and Dali on the set.

This sequence features an orchestra suspended from above, as well as several pianos.  The pianos are smaller than normal, so little people were used as background dancers to aid with the perspective.  Neither Hitchcock or Dali was happy with the result.  Next, the scene would show Bergman turning into a statue.  They filmed Ingrid Bergman breaking out of a statue-like shell, then planned to run the sequence in reverse to get the desired effect.

Dali and the Bergman “statue”.

Ultimately, David Selznick was unhappy with the dream sequence, so not only was a sequence cut from it, but the resulting sequences were chopped into smaller segments, with Gregory Peck’s narration bridging the gaps.  It would be interesting to see the sequence play out as Dali originally intended it.  Unfortunately the excised footage is believed to be gone.

Psychological resolution, story resolution:  Gregory Peck’s character has the breakthrough he has been seeking, with the help of Brulov and Constance.  He remembers who he is (John Ballantyne) and he also remembers that he accidentally killed his brother when they were children, a guilt he has been suppressing for years.

A brilliantly layered shot. Children sledding in the snow can be seen out the window (a foreshadowing of the revelation to come).
A powerful subjective POV flashback of Ballantyne accidentally killing his brother.

Finally Ballantyne gets to the bottom of his revulsion of parallel lines on a white surface.  (It has to do with skiing).  Unfortunately, just as the film looks like it will end happily, Ballantyne is convicted of the murder of the real Dr. Edwardes.  Just as Constance helped Ballantyne cure his psychological problems, she will now save the day again, playing detective and finding the real killer.

When Dr. Murchison is discovered as the killer, he trains his gun on Constance.  Hitchcock wanted a subjective POV shot, but he wanted the gun and Ingrid Bergman to remain in focus.  The only way to pull that off was to construct a giant hand holding a giant gun.

A very impressive (if anatomically improbable) visual.

Hitchcock was not quite out of tricks yet.  At the sound of the gun flash, Hitchcock insisted on two frames of red colored film.  Each negative had to be individually hand painted when they went out for distribution.  The timing is such that Hitchcock felt most people would not even consciously register it, but he felt it would have an emotional impact.

Performance:  Alfred Hitchcock expressed some displeasure with Gregory Peck’s performance in the movie.  I think Peck was just right for this part.   There are elements to his character that could not have been pulled off by Cary Grant, for instance.  Peck is solid and always believable.  Ingrid Bergman was already a big star by this time, and she looks and plays the part.  Exquisitely beautiful, but full of inner strength, she owns this role completely. Constance Petersen is one of the strongest female leads in all of Hitchcock’s films, and nobody could have surpassed what Bergman does with the part.  Michael Chekov, who is doing a variation on Freud as Dr. Brulov, very much deserved his Oscar nomination.  Even the smaller roles are memorable, as Hitchcock favorites Norman Lloyd and Wallace Ford make the most of small roles.  And Rhonda Fleming is unforgettable.  Leo G. Carroll is another in the long line of suave, sophisticated Hitchcock villains.

Source material:  Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1928 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders under the pseudonym Francis Beeding.   The novel is dramatically different from the resulting film adaptation.  In the novel, Constance Sedgwick is newly arrived at Chateau Landry, a mental asylum in the French mountains.  The man calling himself Dr. Murchison, the man in charge of the asylum, is actually a homicidal maniac who has switched places with the real doctor and imprisoned him in a cell.   The murderer, a man named Godstone, begins to exert a strong influence over the other patients, and the staff.  Godstone is a devil worshipper, who has crosses tattooed on the soles of his feet.   The book is pretty dark (including a couple of deaths), but retains a slightly comic tone at times.  The plot is far too ridiculous to take seriously.   I wonder if Poe’s story “The Tale of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” provided some inspiration, for it shares some general details of both plot and tone.  As long as one doesn’t attempt to take it seriously, it is an enjoyable if insubstantial read.

Enter the theremin:   Just as Hitchcock was full of visual ideas, he had plenty of thoughts about the music as well.  Composer Miklos Rozsa used the theramin as part of the musical score at Hitchcock’s request. The theramin (named after its inventor, Leon Theramin) is unique among musical instruments in that it is played without actually touching it.  It emits electromagnetic waves, which are “played” by moving the hands around two metal rods.  The theramin creates an ethereal sound that became popular in science fiction movies in the 50’s, but Rozsa pioneered its use in cinema.   Rozsa’s score was rewarded with an Oscar win.

Below you can watch theramin virtuoso (and third-generation relative of inventor Leon Theramin) Lydia Kavina play part of Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound score.

Recurring players:  Ingrid Bergman would later star in Notorious and Under Capricorn.  Gregory Peck would also star in The Paradine Case.  Hitchcock employed the services of Leo G. Carroll more than any other actor.  He also appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.  Norman Lloyd had appeared as Fry, the man who falls from the Statue of Liberty, in Saboteur.  Steven Geray (Dr. Graff) would later play a hotel desk clerk in To Catch a Thief.   Wallace Ford (man from Pittsburgh in hotel lobby) had played Detective Saunders in Shadow of a Doubt.  Irving Bacon (railway gateman) played a similar role in Shadow of a Doubt.  Constance Purdy (Dr. Brulov’s housekeeper) had played the landlady to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in the opening scenes of Shadow of a Doubt.   Clarence Straigh (secretary at police station) would later play a policeman in The Wrong Man. 

Academy Awards:  Miklos Rozsa won the Oscar for Best Musical Score for Spellbound.  The movie was also nominated in five other categories:  Best Picture (David O. Selznick), Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Black and White Cinematography (George Barnes) and Best Special Effects (Jack Cosgrove).

Where’s Hitch?   Hitchcock’s cameo comes at around 43:06.  He can be seen exiting an elevator in the lobby of the Empire State Hotel.

What Hitch said:  When Hitchcock spoke with Truffaut, he was fairly dismissive of the film.  I wonder if this is in part because Truffaut says he finds the film a disappointment.  Hitchcock says “Well, it’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis…Since psychoanalysis was involved, there was a reluctance to fantasize; we tried to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure.”

He added “The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 MGM/Fox blu ray is the best edition currently available.  Picture and sound quality are good, not great.  Included are a commentary track with film scholars Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg (probably my least favorite commentary track on any Hitchcock release), a 21-minute documentary on the Dali dream sequence, a 20-minute documentary on psychoanalysis, a ten-minute interview segment with actress Rhonda Fleming, a Lux Radio Theater version starring Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, a 15-minute audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich and Hitchcock, and the original theatrical trailer.

There is also a (now out of print) DVD version from Criterion, which features a strong, scholarly commentary by Marion Keane, an illustrated essay on the Dali dream sequence, an audio interview of Miklos Rozsa, a public radio piece on the theramin, hundreds of photos, the same Lux Radio Theater version that appears on the MGM/Fox blu ray, and the trailer.

 

 

 

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THE MANXMAN (1929): “I’ve promised myself to him, but I’ve given myself to you.”

THE MANXMAN – 1929 – British International Pictures – ★★

B&W – Silent – 81 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Carl Brisson (Pete Quilliam), Malcolm Keen (Philip Christian), Anny Ondra (Kate Cregeen), Randle Ayrton (Caeser Cregeen), Clare Greet (Mother).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the novel by Sir Hall Caine

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Welcome to the machine:  For much of his tenure at British International Pictures, Hitchcock felt like a cog in a machine.  While he made several good films during these years, he frequently had no choice in his assignments, taking whatever the studio gave him.  This was one of those cases.

The novel was very well known, so Hitchcock could not stray too far from the source material.  Even though this movie does not have much of Hitchcock’s signature style in it, there are still brief moments where he was able to incorporate some of his trademark visual flair.

The story set up is rather trite; a basic love triangle.  Pete loves Kate, but he is a poor fisherman, and Kate’s father says he’s not good enough.  So Pete heads off to South Africa to make his fortune, asking his good friend Philip to “look after” Kate while he’s gone.  Kate promises Pete she will marry him upon his return.  Philip is a deemster (a Manx judge) and very well off.   He is perhaps a little too good in his role of protector, and he and Kate begin to fall for each other.  Hitchcock employs a clever visual using Kate’s diary to show how she and Philip grow closer together over time.

Eventually a false report of Pete’s death arrives from South Africa.  Kate and Philip can stand it no longer, and they sleep together, inside the town mill.  This being a very early silent film, the sex had to be implied.  All we see is a kiss, shot from a distance and in shadow, then a cut to the mill wheel spinning, and a fade out.  The rest is left to our imagination.  But to an audience of the time, the implication would have been clear.

Despite Hitchcock’s dislike for location shooting, there are some beautifully lit and framed exterior shots scattered throughout the film.

Kate and Philip learn that Pete is not dead, and will return in a matter of days.  Kate also  discovers that she is pregnant with Philip’s child.  Philip cannot bear the thought of hurting Pete, even though he is in love with Kate, so he insists that she marry Pete.   They do marry, and she raises the baby as Pete’s.

Kate is unhappy, and eventually flees, leaving her child behind, and attempts suicide.  She is fished from the water and brought before the deemster, who is of course Philip.  During this courtroom scene, Hitchcock found an opportunity to use his subjective point of view, as Kate’s father pivots his head from Kate to Philip, and back again, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

 

The movie ends with Philip, Kate and baby leaving town, while being derided by the townsfolk.  And the last shot mirrors the first, as Pete heads back out in his fishing boat.

Hitch on the shelf:  John Maxwell, the head of British International Pictures, was so disappointed in the finished product that he shelved The Manxman.  After Hitchcock’s next movie Blackmail became a hit, and after a successful screening for the press, The Manxman was finally released, to moderate success in Britain.

Source material:  The movie is based on an 1894 novel of the same name by Sir Hall Caine.  Caine’s book was immensely popular in Britain and the United States, selling over half a million copies (a rather large number for those days).  The movie retained the general plot of the novel, involving the love triangle between Pete, Kate and Phillip.  The novel had a much greater depth of detail.

It is not an easy read by today’s standards, one reason being that it includes a lot of colloquialisms from the Isle of Man, which can make the dialogue tough to follow at times.  It is a very well constructed book, and an engaging if familiar story.  There are much deeper Biblical overtones in the novel.  Just before Kate surrenders herself bodily to Philip in the novel, she plucks an apple from a tree and offers him a bite (bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, there).  And poor, dear Pete is one of the most generous and long-suffering characters in fiction.

It is a little frustrating to read, because both Kate and Philip are presented with many opportunities to come clean at an earlier point, but they persist on their path until things are irreparably damaged for all concerned.  In the novel, Philip is to be named Governor of the Isle of Man at the end, and at the ceremony he confesses his relationship with Kate, and steps down from his position.

Recurring players:  Carl Brisson starred in The Ring as boxer “One Round” Jack.  Malcolm Keen had appeared in both The Mountain Eagle and The Lodger.  Anny Ondra would star in Hitchcock’s next film Blackmail.  Clare Greet, Hitchcock’s favorite character actress from his British period, also appeared in The Ring, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, and Jamaica Inn.

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo to be found in The Manxman.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the ensuing years.  Even in his conversations with Truffaut, he was quick to dismiss it.  Here is the sum total of his comments:

The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one…it was a very banal picture…the picture was the adaptation of a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine.  The novel had quite a reputation and it belonged to a tradition.  We had to respect that reputation and that tradition.  It was not a Hitchcock movie.

Definitive edition:  Like most of Hitchcock’s early British films, The Manxman is in the public domain, which means several different versions of varying quality are available for home viewing.  The best version currently available is to be found on the Lion’s Gate 3-disc “Alfred Hitchcock Collection” boxed set.  Also included are 4 other titles from Hitchcock’s early British period.  The picture quality is decent, and there is an accompanying piano score.  There are no extra features.

 

MARNIE (1964): “Why don’t you love me, mama?”

MARNIE – 1964 – Universal Pictures –  ★★★

Color – 130 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tippi Hedren (Margaret “Marnie” Edgar), Sean Connery (Mark Rutland), Diane Baker (Lil Mainwaring), Louise Latham (Bernice Edgar), Martin Gabel (Sidney Strutt), Alan Napier (Mr. Rutland), Bruce Dern (sailor).

Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Winston Graham

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Marnie has always been a somewhat divisive film in Hitchcock’s body of work.   The movie has ardent defenders, such as Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood, who goes so far as to say “if you don’t like Marnie, you don’t really like Hitchcock.”  There are also many Hitchcock fans, myself included, whose feelings are mixed at best.  It is a frustrating film;  there are many great sequences, but there are also moments that just don’t quite come together.  Much as Sean Connery’s character Mark Rutland played the amateur psychologist in the film, it is tempting as a Hitchcock fan to analyze the film, to ask “What is missing?  What is it that makes this film a ‘flawed classic’ as Truffaut called it?”

The story:  The plot focuses on a compulsive thief named Marnie.    She has an established a pattern of stealing from her employer, then changing her name and appearance, moving to another town, and doing the same again.  In between thefts, she visits her mother.  The mother/daughter relationship is strained to say the least.  Marnie’s mom is friendly, but there is no sense of affection.  Marnie also has a horse named Forio, apparently the only creature with whom she has formed an emotional bond.  Marnie finally meets her match when she steals from Mark Rutland, who tracks her down.  Instead of turning her over to the police, he basically blackmails her into marrying him!  We then learn that Marnie wants absolutely nothing to do with the touch of a man.  Mark begins to play amateur psychologist, trying to “solve” Marnie.  Finally, Mark forces Marnie’s mother to come clean with a story from Marnie’s childhood, which is the root of all of her problems.

The centerpiece of the movie is the so-called rape scene.  When Mark and Marnie are on their honeymoon,  Mark forcefully removes her nightgown, and she stands naked, cold and emotionless.  Later, he forces himself on her in bed.  Afterward he is apologetic.  Evan Hunter, who had written the screenplay for Hitchcock’s previous film The Birds, was initially hired to write this screenplay as well.  He struggled with the rape scene.  He felt that there was no redemption for Mark’s character after this scene.  Ultimately, he wrote the scene two different ways in his final draft;  one was the way Hitchcock wanted it and the other was the way he thought it should play out.   Shortly after submitting his alternate version of the scene, he was fired by Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s assistant.  The final screenplay was written by a woman, Jay Presson Allen, who claims she had no problem writing the scene whatsoever.

Ultimately, I think the problem with the scene is it goes too far.  When Mark removes Marnie’s nightgown, and sees her reaction, he immediately covers her with his robe.  If the scene had ended there, the impact would have been the same.  However, in forcing himself on her in bed, Hitchcock employs a subjective POV shot of Mark above, lowering himself down, as his face comes closer to the camera.  This shot is just too much.  Mark is violating the entire audience here.  It is uncomfortable to say the least.  While I don’t think this scene prevents the audience from liking Mark (after all, this is Sean Connery we are talking about), I do think the scene was not necessary.

Further, I question Mark’s motives with Marnie.  He claims to love her.  But the way he continues to try to analyze her does not play like a man trying to help the woman he loves.  Rather it plays like a man enjoying the role of armchair psychologist, trying to solve a problem that is vexing him.  This emotional disconnect is detrimental to the story.

The cast:  When this film was in the early writing stages, Hitchcock envisioned Grace Kelly in the lead role.  He went so far as to visit Grace, and actually got a verbal commitment from her to come out of retirement to play the role.  Ultimately though, Grace declined to appear in the film, which was a major blow to Hitchcock.   Had Grace appeared in the film, it almost certainly would have been a better movie.  But even Grace Kelly could not save a problematic script and some almost lackadaisical technical choices.  One wonders if Hitchcock was not already starting to lose interest when Grace Kelly bowed out.

Grace Kelly’s handwritten letter to Hitchcock, declining to return to the big screen.

Technical choices:  By the time Marnie was made cinema was changing in significant ways.  The French New Wave was helping to break down some of the staid stylizations that had been commonplace in movies.  Hitchcock loved to shoot on the lot, where he had complete control.  But many of the things that Hitchcock employed frequently, like back projection and matte paintings, were already starting to look old-fashioned.  For the street where Marnie’s mother lives, Hitchcock ordered a large matte painting of a ship to be placed at the end of the street.  This setting has a clear artificiality to it.  Some critics have called this a deliberate choice, implying that Hitchcock was returning to his German expressionist roots.  However, even Hitchcock himself admitted in an interview that the painted backdrop was “bad”.

The scene in Mark’s office, with the very expressionistic storm, and the tree crashing through the window, has a very artificial feel too.

Finally, every time Marnie sees the color red she has a strong emotional reaction.  For these scenes, Hitchcock colors the screen in a garish red, while a musical cue from Bernard Herrmann repeats.

Ultimately, these visual choices do not completely dampen the film’s experience, but they do give it a slightly tired, old-fashioned feel that is at odds with the emotional complexity of the story.

Hitchcock touches:  After focusing on some of the elements that are problematic, let’s look at what works.  After all, this is still a very solid film.  The opening sequence is great.  Marnie is introduced walking away from the camera, yellow purse tucked under arm.  An air of mystery is established.  Her change of identity is done in montage, showing only hands.  Finally she gets her big reveal as her head rises from the sink, and Herrmann’s score rises.    It’s a strong and memorable sequence.

All of the scenes at Rutland’s come off very well, employing many of Hitchcock’s trademark subjective shots, as Marnie and the viewer learn the ins and outs of the office, including where the combination to the safe is kept.  And the actual theft of the money is filmed ingeniously, with a “split-screen” effect, as the cleaning woman works her way down the hall on the left side of the screen while Marnie steals the money from the office on the right.

All of the scenes with Diane Baker as Lil work very well.  Hitchcock’s camera frames her face in many interesting ways.

Finally, the party sequence is fantastic.  Hitchcock borrows from himself, with a long, slow tracking shot down a stairway that reminds the viewer of a similar shot in Notorious, almost thirty years earlier.

Performance:   Tippi Hedren isn’t bad in the starring role, but somehow I just don’t quite feel as if she pulls it off.  Granted, it is a challenging role, but Marnie the character is not as good a fit for her as Melanie Daniels was in The Birds.  Sean Connery was well cast in his role, again a role that is very challenging.  The way the part is written, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for this guy.  The real stand out performances for me are Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother, and Diane Baker as Mark’s sister-in-law Lil.  Alan Napier is an always solid character actor, but he wasn’t given much to do with his part.

Source material:   Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham.  The is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is written in the first person.   Being a man myself, I won’t comment on how “womanlike” the voice may or may not be (I leave that to the experts) but it is a very engaging read.  So not only did Mr. Graham decide to write a book from the point of view of a woman protagonist, but he also made her a thief with a troubled childhood.   The basic plot of the story is the same as the movie.  The book takes place in Britain, not the States.   There is also a psychiatrist in the novel, who Marnie sees basically to placate Mark.  In the movie, Mark became the amateur psychiatrist himself.   Also featuring prominently in the novel is a character named Terry, a cousin of Mark, who puts the moves on Marnie more than once, and ends up betraying her at the end, as a way of getting back at Mark.  His character was eliminated from the novel, and replaced with the Diane Baker character Lil.

Here is a small sampling of Graham’s writing, in this case the rape scene:

He grabbed my other arm, and my frock slipped down.  I felt an awful feeling of something that seemed to be half embarrassment and half disgust.  I was fairly shivering with rage.  One minute I felt I’d let him get on with his lovemaking and be like a cold statue dead to every feeling except hate, and just see what he made of that.  But the next I was ready to fight him, to claw his face and spit like a she-cat that’s got a tom prowling round her that she doesn’t want.

Recurring players:  Tippi Hedren had just starred in The Birds.  Bruce Dern would later star in Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot.  Henry Beckman, who plays a detective, had earlier played a prisoner in The Wrong Man.  Edith Evanson, the nearly-deaf cleaning lady who doesn’t hear Marnie, had earlier played the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson in Rope.  Kenner Kemp and Bert Stevens (extras in the party scene) had earlier appeared as extras in The Paradine Case and North by Northwest.  Louise Lorimer, who plays Mrs. Strutt, would later play Ida Cookson in Family Plot.  And Hal Taggart (man at racetrack) would later play an ambassador in Topaz.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes just at the 5:00 mark in the film.  As Tippi Hedren walks down the hotel corridor, Hitchcock exits a hotel room in the foreground, looking somewhat guilty.   One wonders what he was up to in that room!  He then glances to his right, looking directly at the camera for an instant.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock’s feelings about Marnie were mixed.  He did say the following in conversation with Truffaut:

What really bothered me about Marnie were all the secondary characters.  I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background.  Mark’s father, for instance.  And I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman.  You know, if you want to reduce Marnie to its lowest common denominator, it is the story of the prince and the beggar girl.  In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than what we had.

I find these comments very interesting.  While this film has some issues, I certainly don’t think Sean Connery was not enough of a “gentleman”.

Definitive edition:  The 2013 blu ray release is the best version of the film available.  The picture quality on the Marnie blu ray is not great;  it is very grainy, and has some color issues as well.  This film could do with a proper restoration, which it probably won’t get, so this may be as good as it gets.  The 2 channel soundtrack is good.  Included is a 58-minute documentary, which includes interviews with Tippi Hedren, Diane Baker, Louise Latham, and Jay Presson Allen.  Also included are “The Marnie Archives” which includes production photos and vintage promotional material, and the original theatrical trailer.

THE BIRDS: Deconstruction of a scene – The death of a farmer

The Birds is full of scenes that are worthy of being broken down and analyzed.  Rather than the schoolhouse attack, or Melanie’s attack in the room at the end of the film, I wanted to take a look at one short but memorable sequence:  Lydia Brenner’s visit to Dan Fawcett’s farm.

I first became interested in Hitchcock at about the age of 10.  One of the local TV affiliates in Los Angeles used to air an “Alfred Hitchcock film festival” every year, with a different movie televised every night for a week.  I saw The Birds on television that week.  When it aired the next year, I watched again, and this is the sequence I was waiting to see.  At the time, I was fascinated by the image of the man with his eyes pecked out.  Later on, I realized how well structured the entire scene is, just like the rest of the film.

This sequence lasts around 2 minutes and 40 seconds, and features 21 editorial cuts, which means an average of 7.6 seconds per shot.  When you break it down to the individual shots, there is nothing average about it.

I call this a palindromic, or nesting doll sequence.  There is a series of shots that is later repeated, in reverse order, for a different dramatic purpose.

The scene opens on a dissolve from Melanie, into a long shot of Lydia’s green pick up truck approaching Dan Fawcett’s farm.  The camera remains static, forcing the viewer to follow the truck.  This shot lasts around 14 seconds.

Next the camera is set up in the driveway.  The truck passes in front of the camera, makes a counterclockwise half circle, and parks.  This shot lasts around 13 seconds.

Then Hitchcock cuts to a medium shot of Lydia exiting the truck.  The camera then pans left as she approaches George, a farmhand in front of a tractor.  They briefly converse in a perfectly framed two shot, then she walks up the path to the front door of the house.  This is all done in one shot with no cuts, in a shot lasting about 28 seconds.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a medium shot of Lydia on the porch where she knocks, looks in the window, and then enters the house.  This shot lasts around 10 seconds.

Next Hitchcock cuts to the home’s interior, as Lydia enters the front door.  She calls out for Dan, looks around, and then notices the broken teacups, which the camera zooms in on.  We see her reaction, then the camera pans left as she moves towards the hallway.  This scene lasts around 21 seconds.  Hitchcock described it this way:

Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body.  While we were shooting that, I said to myself, “This doesn’t make sense.”  She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer.  Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any farther; she’d walk out of the house.  So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.

Next the camera holds on Lydia as she walks down the hallway.  There is complete silence as she slowly walks to the end of the hall and looks left.  This shot last around 18 seconds.

Next the camera is inside the bedroom.  It cuts to a medium shot of Lydia moving her head into the room.  Now Hitchcock switches to the subjective point of view, as he so frequently did in his career.  We get a series of shots of Lydia looking, then we get a shot of what she is looking at.   The first shot of Lydia lasts maybe three seconds.  First she looks at the broken window, with a dead gull hanging in glass, for about two seconds.  Then we cut back to Lydia continuing to sweep her gaze from left to right.  After another three seconds, we cut to what she is seeing.  The general disheveled state of the room, with another dead bird on the bed.

After holding this shot for two seconds, we return to Lydia again.  The camera stays on her for about 4 seconds as she continues looking left to right, finally looking down.   We then cut to a pair of bloody feet, and torn and bloody pajama legs almost up to the knee.  The cuts continue to quicken;  this shot lasts only about a second.  Then we get the fourth shot of Lydia at the door, as she looks around it to see who is lying there.  This shot lasts maybe two seconds.  And then, we get the shot of Dan Fawcett propped against the wall, clearly dead, with his eyes pecked out.  Rather than zooming in here, Hitchcock does three quick cuts, taking us ever closer, until the last image is a close up of the bloody blinded face.  The three shots in total last around two seconds, with the last being the shortest.

Hitchcock calls this triple shot:

a staccato movement…I wanted a change from the zooming in…And another interesting thing about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.  I cut to the shoulder.  I never show her face.  I knew I couldn’t.  I knew very well I could never get an expression strong enough.

Next we get the series of reverse shots, mirroring the opening.  Just as the camera held on Lydia walking down the corridor, we now see her running from the room towards the camera, in a shot lasting five seconds.

Just as we saw Lydia approach George and walk up the path in one shot, we now get the reverse.  The shot opens standing just outside the gate to the house, with a little bit of George’s pant leg visible on the right.  Lydia comes out of the house, runs into a close-up two-shot with George, tries to scream but is inarticulate, then runs on.  This shot lasts around 11 seconds.

I would like to quote extensively from Hitchcock here, as he talks about the importance of both the sound and the visual, before we see our last mirror shot of the truck driving away rapidly in a long shot, leaving a trail of dust.

The soundtrack was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo.  The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside.  Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate?  There’s silence at that point.  Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image.  It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish.  We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would. 

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away.  The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that, moving at a tremendous speed, expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves.  In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through a violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck.  Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion.  It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry.  It’s as though the truck were shrieking.  

In a film full of technically challenging scenes, this sequence is fairly standard.   But Hitchcock devoted a significant amount of time to this sequence, and that devotion is reflected in the final project.

THE BIRDS (1963): “Birds just don’t go around attacking people without no reason.”

THE BIRDS – 1963 – Universal Pictures – ★★★★

Color – 119 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tippie Hedren (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitchell “Mitch” Brenner), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Bundy).

Screenplay by Evan Hunter, from the story by Daphne du Maurier

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Sound Consultant:  Bernard Herrmann

After the massive success of Psycho, Hitchcock took some much deserved time off.  He eventually decided that his next movie would be about birds attacking the residents of a small town.  This would prove to be one of the most technically challenging films Hitchcock had ever made.

The plot is rather simple on the surface, and can be described briefly.  In a San Francisco pet shop a wealthy socialite named Melanie Daniels meets Mitch Brenner, a very handsome lawyer.  She is rather taken with him, and after their chance encounter  drives from San Francisco to Bodega Bay, to leave a birthday gift of two love birds for Mitch’s sister.  She ends up spending the weekend with Mitch, his possessive mother, and young sister Cathy.  She also meets Cathy’s school teacher Annie, who used to date Mitch and still has feelings for him.   In the midst of this, common birds (seagulls, finches, crows) begin attacking the people of the town en masse, for no apparent reason.  Ultimately, Melanie and the Brenners are fighting for their lives.

What most people remember about The Birds are the attack sequences, but equally important are the quiet conversational scenes that act as a buffer between the moments of action.  This is one of the most carefully structured and choreographed films that Hitchcock ever made.  Let’s take a closer look at that structure.

A Hitchcock meet cute:   The opening scenes, which take place in a pet shop, are very cleverly constructed.  We meet Melanie Daniels, who is in the store to pick up a bird that she has ordered.   In walks Mitch Brenner, who mistakes Melanie for an employee and asks her questions about birds.  Specifically, he wants to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister as a birthday gift.   Melanie decides to play along, to comic effect.  Ultimately, we learn that Mitch, an attorney, knew who Melanie was all along and was playing her, and the audience.

At this early point in the film, we hardly pay attention to the titular animals, although they fill the scene.  For here they are all in cages;  pretty and innocuous.  That will soon change.  Hitchcock had this to say about the scene:

At the beginning of the film we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop.  He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says to Tippi Hedren, “I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.”  I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterization as a wealthy, shallow playgirl.

Melanie is first angry with Mitch for fooling her, but she is attracted to him as well, so she buys two lovebirds, and drives up the coast to Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends his weekends with his mother Lydia and sister Cathy.  Shortly after arriving, she meets Annie Hayworth, Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover.  This is the first of many scenes in the movie to feature only women characters, in extended dialogue.  These scenes don’t pass the Bechdel test, because most of the conversation centers on Mitch, but it is worth nothing that in this movie a majority of the dialogue is spoken by women, and all of the major characters, with one exception, are women.

The dialogue scenes in this movie have some of the most precise shot compositions in any Hitchcock film.  Perhaps because of the frenetic energy of the bird attack scenes, he wanted to counterbalance that with shots of impeccable precision.

Melanie crosses the bay in a boat to deliver the love birds in secret, but she is spotted by Mitch as she is recrossing the bay.  He races in his car to meet her, and at this point Melanie is hit in the head by a swooping gull.

The first hint of menace has been introduced.  But of course this is just one bird, one isolated strike.  After this attack, Melanie is invited to dinner at the Brenner home.   Again, the shot composition in sublime.  Every aspect of the scene, from the lighting, set decoration, costumes, and blocking of the actors is perfect.  The second hint of something brewing is dropped here, as Lydia talks about her chickens not eating their food.

While watching the dialogue scenes, you can freeze-frame the movie at any point, and the shot composition will be as precise as a painting.

Melanie leaves the Brenner house and returns to Susan’s, where she is staying the night in the spare room.  Here begins a fascinating scene.  Melanie and Susan have a long conversation, talking about Mitch, and more specifically, about his mother Lydia.  Hitch would normally shoot a scene like this in a two shot;  here, he keeps them across the room, diametrically opposed visually as they are emotionally.  He cuts back and forth, from one to the other, not allowing them to share the frame until Mitch calls on the phone.  When Melanie speaks to him, we get this wonderful image.

Once again, a single image that tells the entire story.  Even though they the screen, they couldn’t be farther apart.  And then, they hear a loud noise at the door.  It is a bird, who hit the door and fell dead on the porch.  Finally, the two women are brought together in unison.

We have now had our third hint of menace from the birds.  And also a foreshadowing;  it is the terror of the bird attacks that will unite these two women.

The next day is Cathy’s birthday.  Mitch and Melanie have a quiet scene together, drawing them closer.  This is followed by the first concerted attack of the birds on the children at the party.  Nobody is seriously injured, but certainly everyone is shaken up.  Later that evening, a swarm of finches flies down the chimney and swarms the Brenner living room.

Hitchcock the improviser:   Here we will hear from Hitchcock, about how he changed the next scene in the movie on the day of shooting.

After the initial attack on the room, when the sparrows came down through the chimney, the sheriff came to the house to talk it over with Mitch…I studied the scene and found that the treatment was too old-fashioned, so I changed the whole thing.  The scene begins with the whole group of characters, the sheriff, Mitch, the mother, and Melanie, in the background, and the whole scene that follows is a transfer from the objective viewpoint to a subjective viewpoint.

Melanie looks at the mother and the camera now photographs Jessica Tandy going around the room, in different positions, to pick up the broken teacups, to straighten the picture…

The reverse cuts of Melanie, as she looks at the mother going back and forth, subtly indicate what she’s thinking.  Her eyes and gestures indicate an increasing concern over the mother’s strange behavior and for the mother herself.

The vision of the reality belongs to the girl, even when she crosses the room to say to Mitch, “I think I’d better stay the night.”  To go up to Mitch she has to walk across the room, but even as she’s walking, I keep a big close-up on her because her concern and her interest demand that we retain the same size of image on the screen.  If I were to cut and drop back to a looser figure, her concern would be diminished as well.  The size of the image is very important to the emotion, particularly when you’re using that image to have the audience identify with it.

The next morning, Lydia goes to a neighboring farm and discovers the man who lives there is dead, his eyes pecked out by birds.  (I will do a deconstruction of this scene as a separate piece).  When she returns home, she and Melanie have a scene together, which bonds them emotionally.  Lydia asks Melanie to go the school and see that Cathy gets home safely.

Here begins perhaps the most iconic scene in the film.  As Melanie sits on a bench outside the school, listening the children sing a song, crows begin to gather on the jungle gym behind her.  First one, then three, and so on.   Melanie does not notice the crows until there are there are dozens, filling almost every available space.

The children run down the street and are violently attacked.  When the birds cease their attack the children are sent home.  Melanie ends up in the diner, along with Mitch and several other people.  Again, we get a long scene of conversation to catch our breath between attacks.  This is a masterfully constructed scene.  Every character fills a role.  Hitchcock said “That scene in the restaurant is a breather that allows for a few laughs.  The character of the drunk is straight out of an O’Casey play, and the elderly lady ornithologist is pretty interesting.”

Next comes another attack.  Each attack is larger and more violent than the previous one.  This one finds Melanie trapped in a phone booth, with birds striking all sides.  This is a reversal of the beginning of the film, when Melanie was surrounded by birds in cages.  As Hitchcock says:

…Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage.  This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery, and it’s also the beginning of her ordeal by fire, so to speak.  It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds.  Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside.

This attack sequence features an incredible “bird’s eye view” shot, which shows the entire village, a raging fire, then shows gulls as they begin to fill the frame.

Here is how Hitch described this scene:

I did that high shot for three reasons.  The first was beginning to show the gulls’ descent on the town.  The second was to show the exact topography of Bodega Bay, with the town, the sea, the coast, and the gas station on fire, in one single image.  The third reason is that I didn’t want to waste a lot of footage on showing the elaborate operation of the firemen extinguishing the fire.  You can do a lot of things very quickly by getting away from something.

After the attack subsides, a frantic mother in the restaurant accuses Melanie of bringing the wrath of the birds on the town.   The woman’s point is founded on post hoc ergo propter hoc logic.  The events didn’t start until Melanie arrived, therefore they must be tied to her somehow.  It is an interesting scene, which ends with the woman screaming the word “EVIL” at Melanie, and Melanie slapping her in response.

Next is the unfortunate death of Annie Hayworth, the teacher.  Hitchcock describes why he felt the need to have Annie die:  “I felt that in light of what the birds were doing to the town, she was doomed.  Besides, she sacrificed herself to protect the sister of the man she loves.  It’s her final gesture.”

Finally comes the last violent attack, as the Brenners are holed up with Melanie in their home.  They successfully keep the birds out. At the end of this attack, the power has gone out, and Hitchcock shows his German expressionist background as he shoots each of the three adults separately, with shots looking up at them, the ceiling visible behind them. 

Then, he brings them all together in a wide shot.

Later, as everyone is sleeping, Melanie creeps quietly upstairs.  She enters a room, only to find the birds have gotten in through the roof.   She is attacked violently.   Hitchcock shot this sequence in montage, in a deliberate evocation of the shower scene in Psycho.   This scene was shot over five days, with live birds, and left Tippi so emotionally drained that she had to take a week off from shooting to recuperate.  Watching the scene, one can understand why.

The movie ends ambiguously, with the Brenners and Melanie driving away, as seemingly thousands of birds sit quietly around them in an uneasy truce.

Performance:  As is typical of most Hitchcock films, the performances in this film are strong from top to bottom.  Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had some problems with Rod Taylor initially, but I think his performance is outstanding.  Equally good are Tippi Hedren, who was in her debut role on film.  Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright all give great performances as well.

Special effects:   When The Birds was released in 1963, it had more special effect shots than any movie in history.  Hitchcock knew that he would only be able to use live birds in select scenes.  He also has mechanical birds, cardboard cutout birds, and animated birds.  He also has several matte paintings employed in the films.  The technical aspects took months to achieve, beyond the practical photography.   The single shot of the birds descending on Bodega Bay has several distinct elements.  The fire and the people moving around it, were shot practically at Univeral Studios.  The remainder of that shot is a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  The birds were then added to the image in a process called rotoscope.  Hitchcock describes it:

Two old ladies spent three months copying each bird onto a plain background and then copying the silhouette.  When you double print you must have a silhouette first.  They used the travelling matte system.  It took them three months to do fifteen feet, ten seconds.  This footage was then printed into the scene.  You saw the birds going down over the town. 

Ub Iwerks and Hitch:  Alfred Hitchcock borrowed the skills of Ub Iwerks from Walt Disney studios for the trick shots of The Birds.   Iwerks was the pioneering animator who had invented a process for combining live action and animation called the sodium vapor process.  Indeed, many of the bird-in-flight sequences in the movie are animated birds, filmed using this process.

Hitchcock and sound:  Alfred Hitchcock chose to have no musical score for this film.  He felt that the absence of music would make the film more frightening, and he also had the idea of using the noises of the birds themselves as a type of score.  He did bring Bernard Herrmann in as a “sound consultant”, which shows how much Hitchcock valued his opinion, even in a film without music.   Hitchcock’s notes on the sounds of this movie are incredibly precise.  He has detailed notes on every single scene.  To provide one example, here is how Hitchcock describes the sounds he wants for the scene where the finches come down the chimney:

The overall sounds in this sequence should have a shrill anger as though the birds in their own particular way were invading the room and almost screaming at the occupants.  The quality of this sound should assail the ears of the audience to perhaps an almost unbearable degree.  It should not necessarily have volume, but the quality of the shrill notes should be something like the effect of the screech that you get if you scrape two pieces of metal together…Naturally accompanying this but in a much lesser degree, we have the sound of the little wings beating.  Perhaps there should be some sprinkling of thuds where birds hit the walls.

Trautonium:  Hitchcock did not want to just use practical bird noises, he wanted to manipulate and amplify them.  For this purpose, he went to Berlin and employed the skills of Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman on a device called the trautonium, a precursor to modern day synthesizers.   Sala was one of the original inventors of the trautonium, and he played the first one in 1930.  He continued to refine and alter it throughout his life.   So recorded sounds, in this case bird screeches, could be altered by the trautonium, which consists of resistor wires stretched over metal plates.  Sala was, in essence, playing the bird sounds.  Here is a clip of Oskar Sala playing this unique and fascinating instrument in the early 1990’s.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, a favorite author of Hitchcock.  This was the third du Maurier work to be adapted for Hitchcock (after Jamaica Inn and Rebecca).  The story is only about 40 pages long, and shares very little in common with the Hitchcock film beyond the premise of birds inexplicably attacking people for no reason.  The story’s protagonist is Nat Hocken, a farm laborer who lives in a cottage with his wife and kids.  The story is set in England.  The birds attack the family, who are holed up inside.  One small plot point that did make it to the screen is the death of a neighboring farmer.  The story ends ambiguously, with another attack beginning:

Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

Recurring players:  Tippi Hedren would star as the titular character in Hitchcock’s next movie Marnie.  Malcolm Atterbury (Deputy Al Malone) was the man in North by Northwest who pointed out to Cary Grant “that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.” Elizabeth Wilson (Helen Carter) had a small uncredited role in Notorious.  And Doreen Lang (hysterical mother in diner) had earlier appeared as one of the women who mistakenly identified Henry Fonda as the robber in The Wrong Man, and as Cary Grant’s secretary Maggie in the opening minutes of North by Northwest.  

Academy Awards:  The Birds received one Oscar nomination, for Best Visual Effects, losing to Cleopatra.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early, at about the 2:16 mark.  As Tippi Hedren is approaching the entrance of the pet store, Alfred Hitchcock walks out leading  two dogs on a leash.  These Sealyham Terriers are Hitch’s own personal dogs,  Geoffrey and Stanley.

What Hitch said:   I’ve already included a lot of Hitchcock’s thoughts on this film, I will conclude with a couple of general thoughts he shared with Truffaut:  “…I think that if the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey, I might not have wanted it.  The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds…there’s a lot of detail in this movie; it’s absolutely essential because these little nuances enrich the over-all impact and strengthen the picture.”   In a 1963 interview with Cinema magazine, Hitchcock said “All you can say about The Birds is nature can be awful rough on you…The Birds expresses nature and what it can do, and the dangers of nature, because there is no doubt if the birds did decide, you know, with the millions that there are, to go for everybody’s eyes, then we’d have H.G. Wells’ Kingdom of the Blind on our hands.”

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu ray is the best version of this movie available to date.  The picture quality on this one is spotty at times;  it just isn’t as sharp looking as most of the other Hitchcock blu rays.  But overall, the picture is good, particularly on interior scenes.  There are numerous extra features, including a detailed 80 minute making-of documentary, a 14 minute featurette, excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, script pages and story boards of a deleted scene and alternate ending, Tippi Hedren’s screen test, two short newsreels, production photos and storyboards, original theatrical trailer, and two featurettes celebrating aspects of Universal Studios 100th anniversary.

VERTIGO Part Two: Themes and Technique

In this entry we will continue our chronological look at Vertigo.  Please read Part One first if you haven’t done so (major spoilers ahead).

Scottie’s first sighting of Madeleine takes place at Ernie’s restaurant.  It is one of the greatest character entrances in movie history.   Kim Novak as Madeleine is strikingly beautiful.

Scottie is too intrigued to resist, as is the viewer.   And so the next day Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, in one of the most powerful and memorable sequences in the film.  Jimmy Stewart follows  in his car;  the journey is shown in considerable detail, with many POV shots.  The first stop is a florist, where Kim Novak buys a bouquet of flowers.  Next, he follows her to the old Spanish Mission Dolores in San Francisco, where he watches her visit a grave site.  Hitchcock shot the cemetery with a filter, giving the scene a hazy, almost dreamlike quality.   Next he follows her to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where she sits in front a painting, gazing trance-like at it.  This sequence is allowed to play out with meticulous detail, lasting over six minutes without a word of dialogue.   This was a deliberate choice by Hitchcock, allowing the viewer to silently spy on Madeleine just as Scottie is spying.  Hitchcock’s wardrobe choices for Madeleine (designed by Edith Head) are very deliberate, and very effective.  Hitchcock wanted her in gray, so she would appear ghostlike, as if she stepped out of the San Francisco fog.

The silence is finally broken when Scottie asks a question of a man at the gallery.   We learn that the painting is called “Portrait of Carlotta”, and clearly Madeleine has borrowed her hairstyle and bouquet from Carlotta.  From here, Scottie follows her to the McKittrick Hotel.  After an amusing conversation with the elderly hotel keeper, Madeleine seemingly vanishes, ghost like.  Just how did she get in and out of the hotel room without being seen?  Did she pay the hotel keeper to play along?  Another unanswered question.

Thus ends Madeleine’s day.  Knowing that “Madeleine” is really Judy playing Madeleine makes the performance even more amazing.  Her movements in this sequence are so precise and deliberate;  she is slowly reeling Scottie in.  One wonders, did Judy do a couple of dry runs to get her “performance” down so perfectly?

Next Scottie gets Midge to take him to a bookstore, whose owner Pop Liebel is an authority on old San Francisco.  Liebel tells the story of “the sad Carlotta” who later became “the mad Carlotta”, ultimately killing herself.  As Liebel tells his story, the bookstore darkens inside, as if a cloud has just obscured the sun.  This was a deliberate choice by Hitchcock, and makes the scene even more visually arresting.

There is no way that Judy, or certainly Gavin Elster, could ever have known that Scottie would end up talking to Pop Liebel.  Rather than just digging up Carlotta’s background in some old hall of records, Scottie found probably the one man in all of San Francisco who could have narrated Carlotta’s tale with such pathos.  So Liebel (and Midge) end up giving an unintended assist to the scheming Elster.

The evening ends with Midge trying to pry more information out of Scottie, who won’t tell her why he is interested in Carlotta.

Next we see Scottie reporting to Elster of his findings.  Scottie has already taken the bait, now Elster slowly begins to reel him in, with a tall tale about Madeleine having no idea that Carlotta is her great-grandmother.

Next we see Scottie following Madeleine again, only this time she ends up at Old Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Madeleine jumps in the water, and Scottie rescues her.  We cut next to Scottie’s apartment.

Hitchcock begins with one of his trademark shots, panning through the apartment, telling a story through visuals.  We see Madeleine’s clothing (including undergarments) hanging to dry in the kitchen.  We then see Madeleine in bed, wearing what must be Scottie’s robe.  So clearly he undressed her.   Did he avert his eyes, or did he take a peek or two?  What makes it even stranger is to remember that Madeleine is really Judy, who not only willingly jumped in San Francisco Bay but now allows herself to be stripped naked by a man she hardly knows.   Just how much does she love Elster?

This is one (of many) of the pivotal scenes in the film.  Kim Novak’s look here is so precise.  She has to look not only vulnerable, but incredibly attractive.  By the end of this scene, Scottie clearly has feelings for her.  Hitchcock needs the audience to feel the same way, so the coming plot twist will have a strong effect on us too.

The image above is so perfect in color and composition that it could be a painting.  Virtually every image in this film was crafted with the same precision.

The next day, when Scottie begins following Madeleine, he follows her right back to his own door, in a seemingly circuitous route.  Was Judy deliberately toying with Scottie here?   Now she is dressed in an exquisite black and white ensemble, that highlights her beautiful blonde hair.

They wander through the Redwood trees, Madeleine in a trancelike state gives a ghostly narrative of Carlotta’s past.  All the more impressive when one considers again that it is Judy, pretending to be Madeleine, pretending to be haunted by Carlotta.

Finally comes the ocean side kiss that we have all been expecting.  Is this still just Judy as Madeleine playing her part, or does she have feelings for Scottie by now as well?

Next comes Barbara Bel Geddes’  best scene, as Midge’s attempt to lighten Scottie’s mood with a painting of herself as Carlotta backfires miserably.  It is clear that Midge still loves Scottie.  What a cruel irony that Scottie in the end has the love of not one woman, but two.  And yet he is still chasing an illusion.

Finally comes the moment that the whole ploy has been building up to.  Scotty takes Madeleine to San Juan Bautista, where Madeleine will plummet to her death from the top of the bell tower.  Scottie could not make it to the top, due to his vertigo.

The vertigo effect:  The visual effect used to simulate the effects of vertigo was created especially for this film. It is known as a dolly zoom.  In other words, the lens zooms in, as the camera dollies back at the same time.  The invention of the effect is credited to Irmin Roberts, the second unit cameraman.  It has subsequently been used in many films.

The image above is a fascinating shot.  The church tower is a matte painting, while the rest of the image is real.   You can see a man about to ascend on to the roof to the left of the tower, and you can see Jimmy Stewart standing just outside the archway in front of the church.

Next comes the very long monologue of Henry Jones as the coroner.   The primary purpose of this seems to be to further emasculate Scottie, and compound his guilt, which it clearly does.

Nightmare, Hitchcock style:   Scottie has a vivid nightmare.  This is not the first Hitchcock movie to feature a nightmare sequence;  Hitch had hired Salvador Dali to design the nightmare sequence in Spellbound in 1945.  The Vertigo nightmare combines animation, matte painting, and a lurid color scheme, and is an effective sequence.

Next we find Scottie in a sanitarium, in a catatonic state.  But Midge is by his side, trying to nurse him to health.  She loves him, but he is blind to it.

Finally we get to the crux of the film.   Scottie is out of the sanitarium, and has been seeing reminders of Madeleine all over town.  But finally he sees a girl who looks eerily like her, although with different hair color and makeup.  He impulsively follows her to her hotel, and up to her room.  This is borderline criminal behavior, certainly by today’s standards.  Nonetheless, she agrees to go out with him.

To tell or not to tell:  Next comes the scene wherein Judy spills the beans to Scottie in a letter.  So the audience learns the truth;  that she was playing Madeleine for Elster, who ditched her and left.  That she had true feelings for Scottie, and both hoped and dreaded that he would find her.  There was much debate about whether to clue the audience in on this now, or save it until the end.  Hitchcock was always a believer in suspense over surprise;  he liked the audience having more information than his characters, so it seems only natural that it made the cut.

After their date, we get this haunting image.

She still has Judy’s brown hair, but bathed in the green light, she looks like Madeleine reborn.

Then begins Scottie’s obsession in earnest, as he slowly recreates Judy into Madeleine.  Imagine the psychology on the part of both people:  Scottie is in love with a woman who never even existed, and instead of accepting the love of the beautiful woman who stands before him, he will bend and shape her into the image of the woman he loved.  Scottie actually has the love of two women, counting Midge, but all he cares about is the one that didn’t exist.  And how about Judy’s mindset?  All she wants is to be loved for who she is, yet she will allow herself to be molded into the image of a woman that can only remind her of the most sordid details of her past.  To please Scottie she will become the accomplice of murder that she once was.

The transformation completed:   It is hard to imagine how the “transformation” scenes played in the late 1950’s, as Scottie obsessively changes every single detail of Judy, recreating her as Madeleine.  When he says “It can’t matter to you” in regards to changing her clothes or hairstyle, it is so dated as to by laughable.  Scottie’s obsession has caused him to lose a firm grip on reality at this point.

Finally the transformation is complete.  When Judy emerges from the bathroom as Madeleine, bathed in green light, it is one of the most emotionally resonant and visually striking scenes ever captured on film.

When Judy goes to Scottie, we get a 360 degree kiss, which cleverly shows the inside of the mission stable as the camera turns, showing Scotties’ complete obsession.

When the camera fades in, Judy is dressing for dinner.  The implication is clear here;  they just had sex.  The double bed on the right of the above image is not framed in the camera by accident.   And now, just after they have consummated their relationship, just as Judy looks truly happy, she loses everything.   It seems like a pretty clumsy slip up, putting on the necklace of Carlotta.  Would she really be that careless?  At any rate, Scottie certainly recognizes it, and forces her to return to the scene of the crime.

Here, Scottie regains his power, as he learns the truth, and finally beats his vertigo by making it to the top of the tower.  But he loses his illusions, as he now knows the woman he loved never really existed.  How much is Judy to blame for her death, and how much is Scottie to blame?

The last image of the film:  Jimmy Stewart as Scottie staring over the edge at the death of Judy, and the death of his illusions.

A personal film:  Vertigo is often described as Hitchcock’s most personal film.  Jimmy Stewart said “I could tell it was a very personal film even while he was making it.”   What makes it so personal?  Is it because Hitchcock saw himself as Scottie, a man who obsessively tried to recreate women into the image he wanted, telling them how to dress, how to style their hair?  That has to be part of it.  Kim Novak certainly saw it that way, although interestingly she cast Hitchcock into the darker role of the antagonist:  “It was almost as if Hitchcock was Elster, the man who was telling me to play a role…here’s what I had to do, and wear, and it was so much of me playing Madeleine…but I really appreciated it.”

A visual film:  Hitchcock, who came of age making silent films, was never afraid to let his characters keep quiet while he told the tale visually.  Vertigo has little dialogue for a two hour and nine minute film, and very few characters with speaking roles.  Four actors (Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore) speak 90% of the film’s dialogue.  Other than that, there are a handful of characters that have one small but significant scene:  (Henry Jones as the coroner, Konstantin Shayne as Pop Leibel, Ellen Corby as the McKittrick Hotel manager).   There are only 7 other speaking roles, most of them one line.   It is not only the amazing visuals that captivate the viewer when the dialogue is scarce, it is the haunting film score.

The perfect score for the perfect film:  The music is such an important element in this film, and it could only have come from Bernard Herrmann ( by way of Wagner.)  Many have noticed some similarities to the theme from Vertigo and the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  His reference may be deliberate, based on the subject matter.  But the score he created is not only unforgettable, it is perfectly married to the material.

VERTIGO (1958): “I need you to be Madeleine for awhile.”

VERTIGO – 1958 – Paramount Pictures – ★★★★★

Color – 128 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Kim Novak (Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster), James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Barbara Bel Geddes (Marjorie “Midge” Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry Jones (Coroner).

Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costumes by Edith Head

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

(My analysis of Vertigo will be divided into two parts.)

In 1956 Paramount purchased  two books as potential Alfred Hitchcock projects:  Flamingo Feather, and D’entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead).  He was planning to make Flamingo Feather first;  it was announced in the trade papers as his next movie, and he went so far as to take a trip to South Africa, scouting locations for the movie.  What he saw there discouraged him.  He felt the movie would be costly, and the political subject matter touchy.  So after returning to Hollywood, he scrapped this movie for From Among the Dead, the movie that would become Vertigo.  

Alfred Hitchcock sometimes chose his projects based on one particular scene or concept in the source material that intrigued him.  He wanted to make Psycho because of the shower murder; he wanted to make Marnie because of the honeymoon rape scene; and he wanted to make Vertigo because of the idea of a man remaking a woman into the image of another woman, now dead.   This idea of lost love and obsession was very intriguing to Hitchcock.

Vera Miles as Madeline?  Initially, Vera Miles was cast in the role of Madeline.  Hitchcock had signed Vera to an exclusive 5-year contract.  He had starred her in the pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, an episode that Hitchcock directed himself.  He then gave her the leading role in his film The Wrong Man, in which Miles gives one of the great performances in the Hitchcock canon, as a woman who loses her grip on reality when her husband is wrongfully accused of a crime.  Next on the agenda for her was Vertigo.  Hitchcock was convinced that this film would make her a star.  Below you can see a photo of an early costume test of Vera Miles as Madeline.

 

Shortly after this photo was taken, Vera announced to Hitchcock that she was pregnant.   He would now have to recast the role.   He ultimately settled on Kim Novak, borrowing her from Columbia Pictures.  Hitchcock was extremely unhappy with Vera Miles, although he did direct her two more times before her contract expired;  once more for television, and finally as Lila Crane in Psycho.

Titles by Saul Bass:  Alfred Hitchcock hired famous graphic designer Saul Bass to design the title sequence for Vertigo.  Saul Bass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.  Familiar logos designed by Bass are still used by many major corporations, and his movie posters are works of art.  Bass believed that a movie’s title sequence should not just be a dull scroll of names;  he thought the titles could serve as a sort of prologue to the film.  Bass said “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”  His work on Vertigo is arguably his best.

The sequence begins with a close up of the lower portion of a woman’s face.  The camera focuses on her lips, then moves up to her eyes, finally zooming in on her right eye.  The film title actually comes out of her eye.  This is followed by several spiral designs.  These spirals were created for Bass by a man named John Whitney.  Whitney had to use an early computer which would plot the graphs of 19th century parametric equations and draw them perfectly on paper.  What the audience is seeing here is one of the earliest uses of computer graphics in a movie.

Of course it is impossible to talk about the title sequence without mentioning the great score of Bernard Herrmann, which is perfectly married to Bass’ titles, creating an unforgettable opening to the film.

The film opens with a rooftop chase, the city of San Francisco acting as a backdrop.  Jimmy Stewart is police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, and he and a policeman are chasing a third man.  Who is this man and what is his crime?  We never learn.

An errant jump leaves Scottie hanging on for dear life.   The policeman attempts to pull Scottie up, but loses his balance and falls, presumably to his death.   Scottie discovers that he has vertigo, and if ever there was a bad time to learn that, it’s while you’re hanging from the side of a tall building.

The movie then cuts to an apartment interior, with San Francisco visible out the window.  Here sit Scottie and his friend (and former fiancee) Midge.  Scottie is holding a cane, and mentions a corset that is going to be removed soon.  How did he get injured?  Is the implication that he fell from the roof, and survived?  We never do learn just how he got down from there.

The expository dialogue here informs us that Scottie is now retired, because of his vertigo.  We can also plainly see from Midge’s looks that she still has feelings for Scottie.  He mentions that he is going to pay a call on an old college acquaintance that got in touch with him.

I could point how how perfect this scene is;  how the set design, costumes, dialogue and acting all paint such a perfect picture of these two characters, their current position in life and with each other, but I could say the same of any scene in this movie.  The technical construction of this film is near perfect.

Next (after Hitch’s cameo) we go to the interior of Gavin Elster’s office.  Elster is the old college chum who called up Scotty.  Once again, the set is exquisite.

Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife.  She is acting strange, leaving for long periods of time, and he wants to know why.  Scottie is reluctant, but Elster convinces him to go to a restaurant that night where the Elsters will be dining, so he can see her.

(For a continuing look at the film’s sequences, and the introduction of Madeleine, see Vertigo Part Two.)

Performance:   This film is very well cast, and every performance is great.  First notice has to go to Kim Novak, who I believe pulls off the greatest performance by a female lead in any Hitchcock film.   She is essentially playing two roles, both of them multi-layered.   There are rumors that Hitchcock partially blamed Jimmy Stewart for this film’s initial box office failings;  that perhaps he was too old to play the part.  I don’t know if Hitchcock truly felt this way, but I disagree completely.  Scottie Ferguson had to be older;  the fact that he is a seasoned detective makes the film all the more powerful.   Stewart shows us a darker, obsessive side seldom if ever seen on the screen outside of this performance.  Barbara Bel Geddes also shows her range in the part of Midge, Scottie’s friend who clearly still has feelings for him.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a French duo who co-wrote over a dozen novels together.  The film retains the basic plot of the novel, with some minor changes.  The book begins in France, during the Second World War.   A prosperous shipbuilder named Gevigne asks an old schoolmate named Flavieres to follow his wife.  There is a similar set-up as in the novel, with Gevigne telling Flavieres that his wife Madeleine (the one named retained for the movie) appears to be haunted by the spirit of her great-grandmother.   Just as in the film, the protagonist has vertigo;  he falls in love with “Madeleine”; and he watches in horror as she falls from a church tower.  At this point in the novel comes the German occupation, which makes a nice point to divide the story.  Years later, after the war, Flavieres sees a woman that reminds him of Madeleine.   Just as in the film, he courts her, dates her, and ultimately gets her to confess to the plot, which is the same as in the movie.   Although in the novel, Flavieres, consumed with rage, begins choking the woman (named Renee in the book), and without realizing what he is doing, strangles her to death.  An even darker ending than the movie.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart had earlier appeared in Rope, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Tom Helmore had appeared in a couple of very early Hitchcock films, The Ring and Secret Agent.  Paul Bryar (Captain Hansen) had uncredited roles in Notorious and The Wrong Man.  Bess Flowers (the Queen of the Hollywood extras) appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films.  Fred Graham (the policeman who falls at the beginning) earlier played a policeman in Rear Window.  Forbes Murray (one of the diners at Ernies) had earlier played the judge in Dial M For Murder.  Jeffrey Sayre (another diner at Ernie’s) also had small uncredited appearences in Saboteur, Notorious, and North by Northwest.

Academy Awards:  It seems shocking today to learn that Vertigo was only nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Sound) winning neither.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 11:40 mark.  He crosses left to right in front of Gavin Elster’s shipyard.   He carries a strange-shaped case in his hands.  People speculated for years that it must be a musical instrument; a trumpet, perhaps?  That is actually a case for a manual foghorn!  Very appropriate, considering the movie’s locale.

What Hitch said:   In summing up the plot, Hitchcock says to Truffaut:  “To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.”

He also says:

Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.  What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blond.  James Steward is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun.  What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off.  When he insists, she says, “All right!” and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside.  What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.

Definitive edition:  The 2014 Universal blu ray release (which is also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set) is the best version available.   Picture and sound are absolutely sublime.  The disc includes many extras, including a commentary track by filmmaker William Friedkin, a half hour documentary on the making and restoration of Vertigo, an hour’s worth of material on four of Hitchcock’s key collaborators, an extended ending shot to appease foreign censors, 14 minutes of excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, a nine-minute mini doc on Lew Wasserman, a multitude of production designs drawings and photos, and two trailers.   Left off unfortunately is the commentary track from the earlier DVD release which featured the film’s associate producer Herbert Coleman, along with the two men responsible for the amazing 1996 restoration, Robert Harris and James Katz.  Coleman was a long-time friend and collaborator of Hitchcock, and his memories are worth hearing.