Mary (1931)

Mary – 1931 – British International Pictures/Sud-Film – ★★

B&W – 82 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Alfred Abel (Sir John Menier), Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring), Paul Graetz (Bobby Brown), Lotte Stein (Bebe Brown), Ekkehard Arendt (Handel Fane), Miles Mander (Gordon Moore).

Screenplay by Herbert Juttke and Georg C. Klaren, from a scenario by Alma Reville, based on the novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson.

Cinematography by Jack Cox.

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In the early days of sound films many studios shot multiple versions of the same film in different languages, with different casts, utilizing the same sets.  This was most famously done by Universal Pictures, which shot the English language Dracula with Bela Lugosi by day, and a Spanish language version at night on the same sets.  Fox shot 5 different language versions of The Big Trail.    This practice did not last long, because film dubbing became a common practice just a few years into the sound era.  But it did last long enough to produce this oddity in the Hitchcock canon, a German-language version of Murder!

For those interested in plotting and film technique, please refer to my review of Murder!   Here I will just provide a brief breakdown of major differences between the two films.   Mary is twenty minutes shorter than its English counterpart, so clearly it is not a shot-for-shot remake.  So what is different?   Most scenes are intact, although many exist in an abbreviated form.  The jury deliberation sequence, which occupies a larger portion of the English language film, is shortened here.  Also shortened is the scene with the children and kitten in the boarding room.   Hitchcock did discuss with Truffaut that he had a basic understanding of the German language from his time working in Germany, but did not fully grasp the idiom.  The result is that much of the charm and humor of Murder! is absent in this version.

Another difference between the two films is the secret for which Handel Fane committed murder.  In the English language film, he is a half-caste, which is both a commentary on the racism of the times and arguably symbolic of his sexual identity.   Fane’s secret is much more cliched in the German film;  he is an escaped convict on the run.

Hitchcock did retain the most technically challenging scene in both films, which is the protagonist’s interior monologue as he is shaving.  Although in Mary he has the monologue occur after Sir John has had a conversation with his assistant in the other room.  It would be very interesting to hear Hitchcock discuss his motivation for this and other subtle changes in the film’s structure.

In a couple of montage sequences, Hitchcock was able to use the same footage for both versions.  For instance the opening shot of the film, which I believe is a model shot, is identical in both films, as is the shot of the black cat slinking down the street.

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The montage of images at the very end of the film, after Handel Fane leaps to his death, also uses many of the same images, including a memorable clown’s face and a restless horse.

Performance:  It is difficult to gauge the performances in this film without comparing it to its English counterpart.  Perhaps that is unfair; the screenplays differ in many subtle ways, and the tone is quite different.   Alfred Abel is certainly adequate as Sir John, but he lacks the warmth and charm of Herbert Marshall.    Separating the two films, I can say that the performances in Mary are well-suited to the more serious tone of this version of the film.  That being said, there is no truly engaging performance to be found for this viewer.

Recurring players:  There are actually two actors that played the same role in both versions of the film:  Miles Mander as Gordon, and Esme V. Chaplin as the prosecuting counsel.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock did not shoot a cameo for Mary, despite doing so for the English-language version.

Definitive edition:  Mary is included as a bonus feature on the Kino Lorber blu ray for Murder! released in 2019.   The German film is not nearly as clean a print as its English counterpart, but it is watchable.

MARNIE Deconstruction of a Scene: Marnie steals the money

Marnie is the first film in what I refer to as Hitchcock’s problematic trilogy.   This is a frustratingly flawed film, which nonetheless has many great moments and sequences.   I would like to break down the sequence in which Marnie (played by Tippi Hedren) steals the money from the safe at Rutlands.

The sequence runs just a couple seconds over five minutes, and contains 29 editorial cuts.  This averages out to 10.4 seconds per shot, which is a high number for a Hitchcock suspense sequence.   Sound is just as important as vision in this sequence.  Let’s see how Hitchcock did it.

If you’ve read my deconstructions before, you may have noticed that Hitchcock often opens sequences with a dissolve.  In this case the preceding scene fades to black, and he holds the black for two full seconds before fading in on this scene.

It is the end of the workday at Rutlands, and employees begin to file out.  Marnie heads to the ladies restroom.  Hitchcock does this in one shot lasting 26 seconds, tracking behind Marnie as she walks to the bathroom door.  The office is a hum of activity.

 

We next cut to the restroom interior as Marnie enters, and goes in a stall.  There are several women at the sinks, freshening their makeup and talking over each other in a constant murmur.  This shot lasts 10 seconds.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to the interior of the stall, which is impressively lit.   In many ways, this is the most important shot in the sequence.  Hitchcock holds this scene for 54 seconds, which is a long time for a scene which is visually static.  The key here is the sound.  As Marnie waits and listens, the sounds gradually diminish as the other women leave the restroom.  Finally there is complete silence.   This silence is important; there is no musical score in this scene either.

 

We then get an 11 second shot of Marnie leaving the stall, listening quietly, and exiting the restroom.   Hitchcock next cuts to the reverse with an exterior shot of Marnie coming out the restroom door.  This 3 second shot is the first quick cut in the sequence.

 

Here Hitchcock gives us the first subjective POV shots of the sequence as we see Marnie glancing around the office, and then cut to what she is looking at.  These are brief shots lasting only a couple of seconds.   We then get a 28 second shot that tracks with Marnie back to her desk, showing her getting a bag from her purse, and walking to the desk with the safe combination.  The emphasis here is on the key in her hand.

 

Next we get a close-up insert shot of the safe combination.  Generally insert shots of this type are very quick, a second or two at most, but Hitchcock lingers a bit here, giving us time to read the specifics of the safe combination, and to realize that Marnie is doing the same.

 

Next comes another 28 second shot which begins with the camera above Marnie’s head, one of Hitchcock’s favorite places to put the camera in a moment of tension.  The camera stays on her as she opens the door behind her and walks to the safe

 

Next up comes another fabulous shot:  a long shot showing both the office with Marnie on the right, and the corridor on the left.   The effect of the staging is rather like a split screen.  As Marnie takes the money out of the safe, we can see the cleaning lady mopping the floor on the right.   Hitchcock heightens the tension here by giving us knowledge that the characters on the screen do not have, and also by keeping us farther away in a long shot.   This shot is held for 47 seconds without a cut.

 

We then cut to a medium shot of Marnie at the office door.   We get two more subjective POV shots, as she looks first at the cleaning lady, and then at the stairwell, which is her means of escape.  We then see a medium shot of her feet as she slips out of her shoes, then slips the shoes in her coat pockets, one on each side.   It is important to point out that this sequence is still silent.  There has been no noise since Marnie left the bathroom stall.

 

Hitchcock then cuts on movement, as Marnie begins to slowly walk across the floor.  Here the cutting increases as the tension increases.  Hitchcock gives us a medium close of Marnie’s feet on the floor, then a close up of the shoe starting to slip from her left pocket.  He follows this sequence a couple more times, cutting from her feet to the shoe, with the cleaning lady now visible behind her.  These shots are all short, averaging around 2 seconds each.  Finally the shoe falls and hits the floor with a loud smack.  It sounds like a minor explosion.  Why?  Because it is the first sound we have heard in over three minutes.   This moment is why Hitchcock drained the sound from the sequence.  Surely the cleaning lady must have heard it?  Nonetheless, she keeps on mopping, her back to Marnie.

 

Marnie bends down, picks up the shoe, and quietly heads to stairs.  Here we get another brief split screen effect;  as she is starting to descend the stairs on the right side of the screen, yet another employee is approaching on the left.  And this employee comes up to the cleaning lady to speak to her.  We learn her name is Ruth, and we also learn that she is hard of hearing, which explains why she didn’t turn at the loud noise of the shoe hitting the floor.   What a great way to relieve the tension at the end of the sequence, with a slightly comic touch.  (Hitchcock buffs may be interested to note that this brief role of Ruth the cleaning lady was played by Edith Evanson, who had played the more substantial role of Mrs. Wilson in Rope 16 years earlier).

 

This great sequence then ends on a dissolve.   So in this case, Hitchcock created tension by employing all three of his favorite camera techniques:  the long take, montage, and the subjective POV.  But more importantly he used sound, or the absence of sound, to great dramatic effect, making this one of the most memorable moments in the film.

PSYCHO Deconstruction of a Scene: Arbogast questions Norman Bates

Psycho contains one of the most deconstructed and talked-about sequences in film history.  I’m referring to the shower scene, of course.   There is an entire documentary film devoted to this one scene.  The murder of Arbogast has also received a lot of attention.  I am going to go in a different direction and focus on  my own personal favorite scene in this movie:  Arbogast’s questioning of Norman Bates.

To set the scene:  Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is visiting all the hotels in the Fairvale area, looking for any sign that Marion Crane has stayed there.  This is set up with a brief montage.   Our scene opens on a dissolve to the Bates motel, with Norman sitting outside, eating candy corn and reading.  This sequence will run 8 minutes and 13 seconds, which comprises 7% of the entire film.  That’s a pretty long sequence for a two-person dialogue.  And yet it seems to pass in much less time.  There are 99 editorial cuts, which averages out to about one cut every 5 seconds.  Lets look at how the master did it.

The opening shot is longest of the entire sequence, running about 64 seconds without a cut.  As Norman is sitting in his chair, Arbogast pulls up, gets out of his car, walks up to the porch, and introduces himself.   Arbobast is clearly a detective with good instincts.  He comments that the Bates Motel is the first place he’s seen that looks like it is hiding from the world.   This is a classic interrogation scene between a man whose job is to find the truth, and another man who will do anything to hide it.

 

As the two men walk into the motel’s office, Hitchcock cuts to the office interior, following the two inside.  This second shot of the sequence is the second-longest, running 36 seconds.  This establishes the men in a medium two-shot.

 

Now Arbogast hands the photo of Marion to Norman, and Hitchcock begins a standard back-and-forth cutting, keeping both men in a medium shot.  Arbogast asks Norman to look at the picture “before committing yourself”.  Interesting choice of words to use with someone who will literally be committed by movie’s end.   Note the mirror behind Arbogast, capturing his reflection, and Norman’s stuffed birds behind him in the parlor.   While the cutting here is fairly standard, Hitchcock often has the camera not on the speaker, but on the listener.  Reactions are very important in this scene, as Arbogast begins to suspect something is awry, and Norman’s attempts to dissemble become more uncomfortable.

 

At this point, Norman leans over and flips a switch, and Hitchcock cuts to the Bates Motel sign lighting up.  Both shots last about a second together, almost subliminal.   Martin Scorsese has suggested this quick shot is rather like a slash from Norman’s knife.

 

After a little more standard back and forth cutting, with the same framing as before, Arbogast asks to look at the motel register.  Hitchcock cuts to a closer side-view of Arbogast’s hands above the register.  Then comes the most peculiar, and interesting shot of the entire sequence.   As the camera remains static, Norman moves around to look at the name in the register that Arbogast has pointed out.  The camera is looking up at the underside of his chin and his neck.  This scene plays for 16 seconds with no cut.  Hitchcock did something similar in a few films, having a character move into a close-up rather than cutting to them, but he never did it in such an unsettling way as he does here.

 

And now Hitchcock returns to the back-and-forth cutting.  Only now, the men are in close-ups rather than medium shots.  and the shots themselves are shorter.  The close-ups and tightening shots heighten the tension on screen.  Arbogast has caught Norman in a lie, and begins to press him.   Norman begins to stutter, expressing his discomfort even more, especially when Arbogast asks if Norman slept with Marion.   Arbogast openly admits his skepticism of Norman’s story:  “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”  

 

Finally the tension is broken with a return to the medium two-shot, followed by the men walking outside.  Arbogast walks up to the left, and then we finally get a subjective POV shot (Hitchcock just had to sneak one in), as Arbogast looks at Norman going down the line of cabins, then looks up at the house, seeing “Mother” in the window.

 

Norman comes back quickly, and the two men finish the sequence with another series of back-and-forth shots, only this time framed “over the shoulder”.  Arbogast presses Norman about Mother, and Norman finally asks Arbogast to leave.  Finally Arbogast drives away, leaving Norman alone in the dark, and the scene ends as it began, on a dissolve.

 

For me, this sequence is absolutely perfect.   The writing, the powerhouse acting by two actors at their absolute best.  And of course Alfred Hitchcock’s direction.   As he did in most of his memorable sequences, he combined his three favorite techniques here:  the long take, the quick cuts (or montage), and the subjective POV.   Even when the cutting is standard, he breaks it up by cutting to the listener rather than the speaker, or cutting over dialogue mid-sentence.   And he inserts one of the most bizarre camera angles ever seen on film for a two-person dialogue shot.   Once again,  something that could have been quite simple became much more than that in the hands of Hitchcock.

Footsteps in the Fog – Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Levanthal

Footsteps in the Fog – Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Levanthal

2002 – Santa Monica Press – 286 pages

As Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat states in her foreword to this book, Hitchcock had a fondness for the Bay Area.  He thought of San Francisco as a very cosmopolitan city, which he enjoyed both personally and professionally.

This volume details the movies that Hitchcock filmed in the greater Bay Area.   There are chapters on Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds, as well as a chapter highlighting a few scenes from other Hitchcock films that were shot in the area.  The book closes with a chapter on Hitchcock’s personal connection to the Bay Area.

This book is a detailed pictorial representation of where the movies were filmed.  The authors go through the movies chronologically, and as the plot is outlined, they share the very specific location where every scene was filmed.  There are literally hundreds of black and white photographs, comparing the locations as they appeared in the movies, with their appearance at the time the book was being researched and written.

There are also several detailed maps and sidebars that offer more of San Francisco’s history.

For anyone who is planning a “Hitchcock tour” of Northern California, this volume is absolutely indispensable.  I had it with me when I traveled to Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Bodega Bay, and it came in handy more than once.

I also learned quite a bit about several Hitchcock films, such as the way Hitchcock altered the geography of the Bodega Bay area on screen to serve his narrative purposes.  Also, I never knew that Hitchcock filmed some scenes from Family Plot in San Francisco, or that a handful of the “Cuban” scenes from Topaz were filmed near Salinas.

My only quibble with this book is the layout.  It is a “coffee-table” style book, about 8 inches tall and 11 wide, which makes it a bit awkward in paperback form to hold and turn pages, especially when referring to it while travelling.   This is of course no slight against the authors, who clearly spent a considerable amount of time compiling their material for this book, and did an admirable job.

If you are from the Bay Area, or plan to visit, then this book is recommended.

Hitchcock on Hitchcock Volume 2 – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

Hitchcock on Hitchcock – Selected Writings and Interviews, Volume 2 – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

2015 – University of California Press – 274 pages

Those who read Sidney Gottlieb’s first volume of collected writings and interviews of Alfred Hitchcock may wonder that there was enough quality material for a follow-up.   As Gottlieb explains in his introduction, there was quite a bit of material that did not make the first volume for reasons of space limitations.  Further,  additional writings have come to light in the interval.

The origin and nature of the material in this volume is considerably varied, but the quality is consistently good.  The pieces range from the Henley Telegraph stories (brief sketches Hitchcock composed for his first employer while still a young man), to film periodical articles, to in-depth interviews.

As in the first volume, there is occasional repetition of ideas or anecdotes;  it is clear that Hitchcock had his “go-to” jokes or bon mot that he would trot out when appropriate.   But this is understandable considering the numerous interviews he consented to give over the years.

As with the first volume, the pieces are grouped thematically in sections, and chronologically in each section.  This volume has a few more pieces from later in Hitchcock’s career, which strikes a nice balance with volume one, that seemed laden with pieces from the British period.

One of the most interesting pieces in this volume is a transcription of a pre-production meeting for the film Stage Fright between Hitchcock and his production supervisor Fred Ahern.  For around twenty pages,  Hitchcock and Ahern go through the shooting script, discussing what the production needs will be for each set-up.  It is amazing what a clear idea Hitchcock already had in mind for each individual shot.  The reader can also get a sense of how much he enjoyed the planning phase of filmmaking.

Another great piece is a transcript of Hitchcock fielding questions from an audience after he has delivered a lecture.  He talks about several of his films, and film techniques.

For anyone who enjoyed the first volume in this series, volume two is a welcome edition.  I think I actually enjoyed the specific pieces in this follow-up work even more than the original.   One can only hope that there is enough material for a third volume some day.

For the die-hard fan who can’t get enough of Hitchcock this book is highly recommended.

 

VERTIGO Deconstruction of a Scene: Argosy Book Shop

Vertigo is one of the most discussed and dissected Hitchcock films of all.   Plot elements, technical elements, psychological undertones; this movie has everything.  I could choose to deconstruct almost any scene in the film.  There are also many unanswered questions.   Such as:  Just how did Scottie get out of his rooftop predicament at the beginning?  How did Judy (playing Madeleine) get into her room in the McKittrick Hotel unseen?  Was the old lady paid off to lie?  And just what is going on with the lighting in the Argosy Book Shop?

I chose to look at the Argosy scene; I think it is interesting for a couple of reasons, and I hope we can dispel at least one of the often mentioned myths about it.  Near the end of this scene, the interior of the bookstore becomes increasingly dark.  At the end when Scottie and Midge step outside, it suddenly becomes bright again. Some have questioned whether this effect was deliberate.  There is also much debate about the source of the sudden light at the end.  Let’s take a look.

To set the scene:  Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is beginning to get reeled in to Gavin Elster’s plot.  Scottie asks his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) if she knows anyone who is up on the sordid history of San Francisco, and she recommends Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne), owner of the Argosy Book Store.

Hitchcock shot this scene with an economy of cutting, using staging, camera movement, and lighting to control the emotion.  There are only eight editorial cuts in the span of just over three minutes, which means an average shot length of 22.5 seconds.

The scene begins on a dissolve of the front of the book store, which is identified on the window.  The interior is clearly visible (you can see Pop Liebel’s head and torso on the upper level of the bookstore).   This shot lasts about 4 seconds.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to the bookshop interior.  The camera is just inside the door, showing all three characters in a long shot.  We watch Pop Liebel and Midge walk down the stairs.  Pop offers cigarettes to the other two.  This lasts about 37 seconds.  

I would like to point out the three visible light sources in the room.  Two long lamps, probably with fluorescent bulbs, at left and center; and a white half dome-covered light about three-quarters right.  Note that none are illuminated, and yet the characters are clearly lit.  You can see the light reflecting on Pop’s bald head.  Obviously cinematographer Robert Burks lit the interior, but what is the intended source of the light, if the visible lights are off?  I believe it is supposed to be sunlight, coming through the windows.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to a medium shot of Pop lighting his cigarette and beginning to talk about Carlotta Valdez.  This shot lasts about 14 seconds.

 

As Pop continues to talk off screen, Hitchcock cuts to a medium of Scottie listening, with Midge in the background, browsing book titles.  This lasts around 12 seconds.

Hitchcock next cuts back to Pop, in the same medium close up.  This shot lasts around 11 seconds.

 

At this point in his narrative, Pop mentions a child.  The cutting changes here.  Hitchcock gives us a medium close up of Scottie which lasts about three seconds.  He is listening intently.  Hitchcock then cuts to Midge, giving her a medium close as she looks at Scotty.  She doesn’t understand his interest in this story, but she is concerned.   This shot lasts only a second.

Then comes the most important, and interesting shot in the sequence.  The camera switches sides.  We are now on the opposite side, facing towards the door.   Why would Hitchcock choose to swing the camera around 180 degrees here?  None of these are subjective shots.  I believe it was because this is the point when he begins to bleed the light out of the scene, with the intention being that a dark cloud is passing in the sky.  Why else show the exterior?  He could have kept the camera precisely where it was before.

This shot is going to last 80 seconds without a cut.  Hitchcock begins it in a very interesting way.  He starts on a medium 2 shot of Pop and Scotty.

At this point Midge walks into the frame on the left.  The camera actually pushes a bit, following her, until the characters are framed in the three shot which will finish the scene.  This is not a  zoom;  the camera is physically dollying forward behind her.

At this point, Pop’s narrative is taking a very dark turn.  Here is the closing dialogue:

Pop:  And she became the sad Carlotta, alone in the great house, walking the streets alone, her clothes becoming old and patched and dirty.  And the mad Carlotta, stopping people in the streets to ask “Where is my child?  Have you seen my child?”

Midge:  Poor thing.

Scotty:  Then she died.

Pop:  She died.

Scotty:  How?

Pop:  By her own hand.  There are many such stories.

Pop interjects a wistful chuckle into this last statement, which says a lot about his character.   He knows many sad stories beyond this one.

Now let’s take another look at the lighting.  We can say definitively that the darkening of this scene is deliberate for a couple of reasons.  First of all, there is no other reason for Hitchcock to move the camera to the other side of the set, facing the windows.   Even more importantly, we can watch the interior light diminish.  Look again at the light in the first frame.  You can see it reflecting on Pop’s bald head.   There is clearly a studio light source above the actors here, even though all visible lights in the book shop are off.

As you look at this sequence of images getting progressively darker, don’t just focus on the characters in the interior. Look at the red and yellow striped awning across the street.  (This was actually a transparency.  The bookshop interior was a set, with the filmed street scene projected outside).  You can see the awning, along with everything else outside, getting darker as well.  

 

Hitchcock also plays with the sound in this scene.  As Pop has been talking, there has been no  sound other than his voice.  When he gets to his last line “There are many such stories” a streetcar passes outside,  and the clang of the bell breaks the spell we have been put under by Pop’s story.

 

What a masterful and subtle way to create atmosphere.   Hitchcock relied on the long take here, holding this shot for over 80 seconds.   He then removed sound and light, which pulls Scottie (and more importantly the viewer) deeply into the story.  Imagine a cloud passing right as Pop is speaking of Carlotta’s sad end.  This is something that Gavin Elster could never have planned for, but it certainly works in his favor.  Scottie’s obsession is beginning to take hold at this point.

Now Hitchcock cuts to the exterior, and after Scottie and Midge begin to talk, the light comes up again.   Many people think this is the result of Pop turning on the lights in the store.  But if you look closely, you will see the visible lights are still off.  The only one we can’t see is the lamp with the white globe cover.  It is obscured by Scottie throughout this scene.  Yet there is a glow of light on Pop’s head, indicating the studio lights are lit again.   I believe Hitchcock’s intent here was to indicate a cloud had passed.  This is reinforced by the light not becoming bright in an instant, but over the space of a couple seconds.  And yet, the characters, both in profile, seem to be backlit.  (Look at Midge’s hair.  There is more light on the top than the side facing us). What is going on here?

This scene ends as it began, on a dissolve.  The next shot is a dusk shot of Scottie and Midge driving home, which could add support to the idea that they left at sunset, and the light is coming from inside the store.

At the very least we can say the lighting decisions were deliberate, and very effective.  Is it interior light or a passing cloud?  Or perhaps something else?  What do you think?

ROPE Deconstruction of a Scene: A trunk, a talk and a hat

When Alfred Hitchcock began production on Rope he set quite a challenge for himself in deciding to shoot the film without editorial cuts, other than those necessitated by changing film reels.  This meant that the actors would have to go 8 or more minutes without a single break.  While Hitchcock eliminated editorial cuts, he did not choose to have a static camera.  The roving camera became his substitute for cutting.

Let’s take a look at one segment, which lasts just a few short minutes, but has no cuts at all.  We will see how Hitchcock used the camera to create tension without editing.

At this juncture in the movie, dinner is wrapping up, and everyone is worried about the whereabouts of David Kentley.   The viewer knows that the body of David Kentley is just a few feet away in the trunk.  As Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) begins to clear the remains of the food, the camera stays on her, even though all the dialogue is happening off screen.

 

For two minutes of screen time, we watch Mrs. Wilson leave and return; once, twice, and a third time.  The other characters are all talking off-screen.  All we can see is a little bit of Rupert Cadell’s (Jimmy Stewart’s) back.   The dialogue is all about David.  Where is David?  Who last saw David?  Who spoke to David and when?  Hitchcock had to make sure that the dialogue was not essential, because he knew very well the viewer’s attention would be riveted by the on-screen action.  Will Mrs. Wilson open the trunk and expose the murder?  Finally she begins to open the trunk, and is stopped by Brandon (John Dall), who turns the two shot into a three shot.

 

Now the camera, which has been static for well over two minutes, pans right to show the others in the room.

 

The camera continues to pan right, stopping on Jimmy Stewart in a medium shot.  Clearly he is intrigued by the evening’s events.

 

Now the camera begins to track to the left, backing out of the room, as most of the characters head towards the door.  The camera lingers on Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) who is clearly distraught over his son’s absence.

 

As the camera pulls back to the entryway, we stop again as Kenneth (Douglas Dick) and Janet (Joan Chandler) create a two-shot.   This shot serves a couple of purposes.  It allows the characters a brief reconciliation, and it frames Hitchcock’s red neon “cameo” in between them.

 

Next Brandon steps into frame left, once again changing the two-shot into a three-shot.  This happens several times in the film.  Where a conventional movie would use cutting here, Hitchcock achieves his desired effect without needing to cut.

 

Now the camera will pan to the right, showing us two characters who did not leave the other room.  Cadell is still thinking, trying to put the puzzle pieces together, while he watches Phillip (Farley Granger) get increasingly drunker.

 

Finally, Rupert Cadell will walk in the other room to collect his hat and leave.  Now comes another piece of brilliant staging.   Cadell puts on the hat, realizes it’s not his, and looks inside the brim, seeing the letters “D K”.   In a conventional film, this shot of the hat would certainly have been a close-up cutaway shot.  But Hitchcock, by having Jimmy Stewart naturally lower the hat to look inside, allows the camera (and the viewer) to see it as well with no need to cut.

 

Rupert Cadell leaves, and Brandon closes the door, believing the evening to be a success.

 

So in these few minutes of screen time, Hitchcock has accomplished several things.  He starts with two minutes of tension building by keeping the camera static on the trunk.  He then uses the roving camera to show us every character in the film.  We see single shots, two shots, three shots, group shots.  We also get an almost casual glimpse of the final clue that will help Jimmy Stewart solve a murder.  And all of this is done with no cutting at all.     Some critics refer to this movie as a gimmick,  but Hitchcock clearly got the emotional effect he was seeking through the use of the camera, without the need for cutting.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT Deconstruction of a Scene: Signature Scenes

There are a lot of great camera moments in Shadow of a Doubt.  Rather than an in-depth look at one scene, I decided to do a more brief overview of several scenes.   Although there are several standard coverage shots in this film, they are interspersed with moments of ingenuity.  Hitchcock never let the camera set-ups become boring.

  1.  Charlie visits the library and learns a secret

When young Charlie (Teresa Wright) reads the newspaper at the library she discovers an article that both implicates her uncle in a series of murders and offers explanation for the inscription on her ring.   Hitchcock has the camera start tight in on the ring then pull back, and keep pulling back, until the camera is far above the library floor.  This bold camera move heightens Charlie’s shock, and her feeling of being alone with her knowledge.  This scene is incredibly well lit too.  Joseph A Valentine was the cinematographer on this film, and two others for Hitchcock.

 

2. Uncle Charlie’s monologue

It wouldn’t be a Hitchcock movie if he didn’t use subjective point of view at least once.   As the Newton family sit at the dinner table, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) begins to talk about widows.   As he speaks he becomes more passionate, and his choice of words more shocking.  We are watching Uncle Charlie in profile, from niece Charlie’s point of view on her uncle’s right.  As he speaks of “horrible, faded, fat greedy women” the camera slowly zooms in, until his face fills the screen.  Then young Charlie, off camera, mentions that these women are alive, are human beings.   Uncle Charlie whips his head to the right.  “Are they?” he asks Charlie, and us as well, looking directly into the camera.   This is a moment of considerable tension, and the first time we really understand just what a monster Uncle Charlie could be.

 

3.  Trapped in the garage

After Uncle Charlie’s plan to trap his niece in the garage fails, and she survives death by carbon monoxide, the family is gathered outside the house preparing to leave.  Hitchcock does something very clever here.  He wants to give Mrs. Newton a close-up as she contemplates her daughter’s close call, and he does so with staging rather than with a zoom.  The family are standing together.  As they climb in the taxi, Mrs. Newton gets in the back seat and slides over to the driver’s side.  At the same time, with no cut, the camera dollies down the driver’s side of the car, stopping on Mrs. Newton’s window.  She has just moved into a close-up!  After she delivers her line of dialogue, the taxi pulls away, leaving young Charlie small and alone.   Still with no editorial cut, she turns and walks to the house.

 

4.    The ring on the stairs

After the speech, Uncle Charlie is proposing a toast.  He is happy, believing he has won.  At first he smiles as his niece descends the stairs.  Then he realizes that she has stolen back the incriminating ring, which now rests on her finger.  Checkmate.  The smile drains from Uncle Charlie’s face.

 

 

None of these camera moves draw attention to themselves on first viewing.  They are all driven by the motivations of the characters, and contribute greatly to the emotional tension.   Hitchcock was ever the experimenter, looking for new ways to allow the camera to tell the story.   Shadow of a Doubt is one of his greatest achievements.

HITCHCOCK AND SELZNICK by Leonard J. Leff

HITCHCOCK and SELZNICK by Leonard J. Leff

1987 – University of California Press – 383 pages

In retrospect, Alfred Hitchcock’s triumphant arrival in the United States in 1939 seems like a fait accompli, something destined by the movie gods many years before.  Behind the scenes there was a considerable period of indecision by Hitchcock.  He certainly knew he wanted to come to the States, but he had offers from multiple studios to consider.   Ultimately he decided to sign with David O. Selznick, at the time the most powerful independent producer in Hollywood.

For the next eight years, the lives and careers of these two men would be linked together, in a relationship that was was often tumultuous.    Author Leonard J. Leff chose this intersecting period in the lives of Hitchcock and Selznick as the subject for his book.

Leff gives us some brief introductory material, setting the scene of precisely where these two men were in their careers at this time.  Hitchcock was a big fish in a small pond, and he knew he would have to sacrifice a little creative control, at least at first, in coming to Hollywood.  Selznick was riding high, a celebrated producer who was making what would become his greatest triumph, Gone With the Wind.

The meat of this book is the four chapters that focus on the collaborative projects between the two men:  Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious and The Paradine Case.    Leff has researched his subjects meticulously, and provides in-depth descriptions of how these films were made, from inception to release.  The reader gets a strong feel for the working relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick, the give and take that resulted in some high-quality films.

Leff also provides a chapter titled “Between Engagements” that covers all of the films Hitchcock made on loan-out for other studios while under contract to Selznick.  Finally, the book closes with a summation of the immediate aftermath of the partnership.

In most biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Selznick is cast as an antagonist of sorts, the meddlesome mogul who won’t give Hitchcock the creative freedom he desires.  This book, providing an impartial view of both men, shows us a different side of Selznick.   At his best, Selznick had wonderful ideas to contribute to a film’s story and structure.  He was often indulgent of Hitchcock, even when Selznick felt that Hitch might be taking advantage of him.   And yes, he could be overbearing and controlling, but there is no doubt that he cared passionately about the product being released by his studio.

Leff’s narrative is smart, insightful and a pleasure to read, and this book comes highly recommended.

 

 

 

SABOTEUR Deconstruction of a scene: The Statue of Liberty finale

Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for staging his film climaxes in high places, with a risk of falling posed to one or more of the central characters.  We see it in his early British films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Jamaica Inn, as well as later classics like Vertigo and North By Northwest.

One of the most striking early examples is the climax of Sabotuer, which takes place atop the Statue of Liberty.   Our hero Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings) has finally cornered saboteur Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), a man he has tracked from coast to coast.  Kane follows Fry out onto the arm of Liberty’s torch, which is where the sequence begins.

The sequence runs roughly 2 minutes and 38 seconds, with 47 editorial cuts.   This averages out to approximately one cut per 3.4 seconds.  One thing that makes this sequence unique is the amount of special effects work.  There is a life-size reproduction of the statue’s hand with the torch, a smaller mock-up of the statue, as well as matte painting effects and live action film.  For a black and white sequence shot in 1942, it holds up admirably.

 

Hitchcock opens on Barry Kane in a medium shot, opening the door and walking out onto the torch walkway.  He then pulls back to give the audience this establishing long shot.

 

After about 3 seconds, Hitchcock cuts to a standard medium two-shot, with Barry Kane holding a gun on Fry.

 

Hitchcock continues to hold this shot for about 9 seconds, as Kane backs Fry up to the railing, which Fry then flips over and falls.  Hitchcock wanted Norman Lloyd to do his own stunt here, so it could be done without a cut.  Of course when Lloyd flipped backwards over the railing, he was only a few feet from the floor, with a nice soft cushioned landing.  An impressive stunt for the young actor, nonetheless.

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot as Fry (now played by a stuntman) falls, grabbing on between the thumb and index finger on Lady Liberty’s hand.  Hitch then cuts to a medium shot of Barry Kane looking down, followed by this shot from Kane’s POV, looking at Fry (Lloyd again) holding on precariously. This scene was shot with the hand resting on its side, so the actor could rest against it without having to literally hang on.  The lower portion and base of the statue are matted in here.

 

Hitchcock next cuts back to Barry Kane, first in a medium shot, then a long in quick succession.  Then we get this shot, which holds for about five seconds.  This is what I call the God’s eye view shot.   Hitchcock loved to sneak one of these shots in to most of his films.  This type of shot can break camera logic (whose point of view are we supposed to be seeing?) but add to the viewer’s sense of helplessness and awe.   The composite pieces of film here all blend very well together.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot of Barry Kane climbing over the railing in an attempt to get to Fry.

 

As Kane lowers himself down, the pace of the cutting begins to pick up a bit.  Hitchcock also does something interesting here.  After showing us Fry from Kane’s point of view, he all of a sudden shifts to Fry’s point of view.  We are looking up at Fry’s hands holding on.

 

There are a few short shots here cutting between the two men, until Kane finally lowers himself closer to Fry.  “I’ll get your sleeve” Kane says, and we see his hand stretching down.

 

After shifting the point of view from Kane to Fry, Hitchcock is going to shift it back to Kane again.  But first he is going to “reset” the POV by giving us a neutral two-shot, which lasts a brief two seconds but serves its purpose.

 

Finally we are back to Kane’s POV for this shot, which lasts about 3 seconds.  Kane has grabbed a hold of Fry’s sleeve.

 

Hitchcock cuts back briefly to a medium of Kane, then back to Fry in close up.

 

Now we get the first close up of the shoulder seam in Fry’s suit starting to pull apart.  From here the cutting will become even more rapid.

 

Hitchcock will cut away from Fry’s suit, then back to it in a series of shots.  Every time he cuts away, he gives us a completely different view of the Statue, all of them emphasizing the height, as Fry’s situation becomes more precarious.

 

Finally we go back to a  POV shot, as Kane looks down at Fry.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close-up of the hands,which allows us to see the sleeve as it finally tears completely.

 

Next comes the incredibly dramatic fall, a shot of about 4 seconds, as Fry falls away from us crying “Kaaaaaaaane!”  This shot was done with Norman Lloyd sitting on a custom saddle-like chair, on the floor of the studio sound stage, against a black screen (the precursor of today’s green screen).  The camera pulled up from the floor to the ceiling rapidly, as Lloyd flailed his limbs, pantomiming falling.  Then the shot was run in reverse with the background matted in.  It holds up very well over 75 years later.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of Barry Kane’s reaction to Fry’s plummet to his death.

 

And finally, Barry Kane climbs back up to the torch where Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) is waiting for him.  The film ends here, rather abruptly, almost before Kane can climb into her waiting arms.

 

This sequence is relatively short, at just over two-and-a-half minutes, and it is thrilling from start to finish.  When you break it down, you can see that each of the 47 distinct pieces of film serves a very specific purpose.  Hitchcock knew exactly how to represent visually what he wanted his viewers to experience emotionally, a skill at which he would only improve over time.