Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hitchcock is THE master.

He has been hailed the master of suspense. He said that “Drama was just life with the dull bits left out.” And, despite the uber-elitist AFI hailing him one of the best directors of all time, I still greatly enjoy his work. For me to overlook that huge problem (I loathe AFI like I loathe They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?), is a true testament to his good work. I thought I'd revisit the master as part of Pasquish's blogathon.

There was a short space of time before my 14th birthday when I really started noticing Alfred Hitchcock’s genius. I had watched a couple of films before and enjoyed them, but never really loved them. It was around this time that I started getting into classic films, and I thank Hitchcock for introducing me to them.

The first one that I took an immediate shine to was his adaptation of Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, in which Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine take the leads. Though an early effort from Hitchcock, this masterpiece was every by the sophisticated, glossy audience-manipulator that Hitchcock would later go on to make. Hitchcock has consistently coaxed good performances out of his cast, and here, Joan Fontaine is superb in her jittery twitchiness. Hitchcock personally told everyone on the cast to treat her cruelly so her performance would be more “real,” and though this was somewhat mean, the results are clear.

Slickness ensued with his first colour film, Rope, an ingenious little invention where it has the appearance of all being shot in one long, shot. The acting from the two men/boy was not as great as it possibly could have been (though Farley Granger did great work on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), but James Stewart gave one his best performances, thus making the slightly-surreal situation more realistic, and the film a rewarding experience.

Two of Hitchcock’s earliest films, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, are two that I feel are criminally underrated. Both were made in England, before he went to America with plans of taking over. The 39 Steps was an endlessly entertaining thriller-comedy, and whilst it may not have had the big-name casts and expensive locations that would later be present in his work, this film does feature the themes of loss of assumed identity and betrayal, two very Hitchcock-esque themes, and the quick, lively pacing works only to its advantage. The Lady Vanishes, which was made on a very low budget, has effects that were ahead of its time, and featured an extremely charming performance from Margaret Lockwood as the feisty heroine.

An early film of his own that Hitchcock was less pleased with, The Man Who Knew Too Much, would later go on to be remade by himself in Technicolor with James Stewart and Doris Day. The first had been too quick-paced and snappy, with a rather odd performance from Peter Lorre, but this one entertained perfectly, with a nice little song (Que Sera, Sera), thrown in. With a larger scale, the Albert Hall scene truly shone in this film.

Hitchcock is a very consistent director. Like anyone, he makes mistakes (Under Capricorn, Stage Fright and Frenzy didn’t impress me at all), but of all my favourite filmmakers, he has made the most films that I rate 8/10 or more. Sometimes he might resort to use his crowd-pleasing formula, as in Shadow of a Doubt or Suspicion, to produce, atmospheric, jumpy thrillers, but sometimes he’ll fancy a challenge and create a film that sets the standard in cinema.

James Stewart and Cary Grant are Hitch’s two key collaborators. The former uses his “Aww shucks” demeanour perfectly in each of his performances, balancing good-guy innocence with what is relatively rare for Stewart in anything other than Hitch films, intensity. In Rope, he played a very un-Stewartish role, as a cynical intellectual, but witness the passion behind his little monologue in the final act. He would visit this type of on-screen persona again in 58’s Vertigo.

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Cary Grant is in Hitchcock’s films as more of romantic model. In Notorious, he had appropriate coldness as Ingrid Bergman’s heartbreaker, slowly falling in love with her but unwilling to show his feelings. And in the light To Catch a Thief, Cary Grant was basically playing himself. He was twice Grace Kelly’s age at the time, but Hitchcock did the wise thing of pairing the two together, and together, they deliver escapism at its most fun.

1954 was a great year for Hitchcock, where he collaborated with leading lady Gracy Kelly twice. First was smart men-getting-what-they-deserve Dial M for Murder, which sported an excellent premise and a genuinely dislike villain in the scheming husband. Then came Rear Window, which, on top of being completely thrilling, featured some of the best chemistry in a Hitchcock film between Stewart and Kelly, and was also beautifully shot. This time, Hitchcock was not afraid to make his viewers think, and Rear Window has been deemed voyeurism, and poses the question, are all humans, like L.B., just voyeurs into other people’s worlds? Who would have thought that a film set in just one room could be so rousing and intelligent? All the experience from doing this with Rope and Lifeboat came together, and Hitchcock invents his best film, sophisticated, compelling, and the work of a master.

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Two popular Hitchcockian themes are secrets and obsession. These feature heavily in his well-crafted masterpiece, Vertigo, which features the best dream sequence in the history of cinema. Kim Novak plays the mysterious female lead with conviction, and haunts, even though she does not say a word for the first 50 minutes of the film. Being Hitchcock, nothing in the film is as it seems, but all the better for it, as he weaves tension, deliria, human emotion as well as visual style.

As far as the 60s went, Hitchcock wasn’t on his amazing form, but still managed to make two films that I enjoyed – The Birds, and Psycho. The Birds was eerie, quite beautifully, and managed a few scares, and Hitchcock’s influence on cinema is evident even today, if you compare this film to the likes of say, Signs. I’m not as big a fan of Psycho as the AFI are, but it was genuinely creepy, and nobody could make a better Psycho than Anthony Perkins. Though I still maintain that the book was better.

Sadly, the greatest film director to live is no longer with our. But his influences still are. Spielberg, Shyamalan, and various other thieves name him as an influence. But they will never match his masterworks, because I know for a fact that this man, someone who can make you think, be entertained, feel and be afraid all at the same time, is in a class of his own.

Best Films
01. Rear Window
02. Rebecca
03. Dial M For Murder
04. Vertigo
05. Strangers on a Train
06. Spellbound
07. Notorious
08. The 39 Steps
09. I Confess
10. The Lady Vanishes

Best Direction
01. Vertigo
02. Rear Window
03. Psycho
04. North by Northwest
05. Rebecca

Reviews of Hitch's films: Dial M for Murder


Bacall said...

Hi Emma I stumbled across your blog because I too have a blog on classic films. On this post, I agree with you totally, there was and always will be one Hitchcock. Although new directors are trying hard to be like him---they can't. But at least they try. Nice blog! I've put a link from my blog to yours. BTW I learn to love classic film when I was very young like you and I've not stopped loving them. I have this fantasy of being a Robert Osborne (TCM film historian) in a skirt--LOL

Anonymous said...

Excellent article! He is the master!

Reel Fanatic said...

Hola Emma ... I'm so glad you've gotten back to writing about movies, rather than simply listing the world's hottest dudes (though I can of course why a 16-year-old girl would want to do that!) .. Hitchcock is indeed THE master .. I love almost all his movies, but if I had to pick one favorite, it would have to be Vertigo .. just perfection

cinefille said...

This is FANTASTIC! Love that you wrote about Hitchcock and more importantly, I love that Rear Window is your number 1 too! Currently my Hitchcock DVDs are making their way around my dorm. Hah! I can never seem to stop spreading my cinephile-ness on everyone else in America.

Matt said...

I'm also a big fan of Hitchcock. I really need to see some of his other movies though, since I've only seen the "big name" ones.

My favorites so far:
-North by Northwest
-Dial M for Murder
-Rear Window

I was a little disappointed by To Catch a Thief, but anything with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (or Ingrid Bergman for that matter) is aces with me.

Squish said...

Wonderful post Emma, thanks so much for contributing. I Confess and To Catch a Thief are the next two on my list to see.

You're jealous. I'm seeing them for the first time...

Don't you WISH!

Art said...

Love old Hitchcock! Back in High School I rented every available Hitch movie I could get from the video store (VHS days, laugh, before you were born). My favorites were Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho.

Gracchi said...

Good post. I'm glad you liked Rope- I find that film really interesting- the justification of violence for violence's sake as a kind of Neitschean undertaking is fascinating. I think the way that Hitchcock thinks about morality and the mind is probably his most interesting trait- you pick up well on Rear Window and the way it makes you think but I think its there in lots of his other films as well. Rope being the classic example. The other thing about Rope that I love is how the claustrophobia of crime is mirrored by the claustrophobia of the film- all taking place in one room.

Sorry I've gone off on one here- but good reviews- I'm 25 and only just discovered Hitchcock and much of what you say makes sense- though I'd love you to do some single film reviews on this stuff. It'd be interesting to see your views.

Anonymous said...


Si Almodóvar no hubiera encontrado Maura, no habrían el éxito que tienen ahora.

Si Almodóvar trabajara con actores de Hollywood o Inglaterra, sus películas costaría muchos mas.

Es bueno que Almodóvar tenga muchas relaciones en el película industria porque ha aumentado sus opciones cuando hacer una película.

Si Almodóvar estuviera aquí, me diría que “Me gustaría que ver una película de sus con actores de todo Latinoamérica, no solo España.”

Si Penélope hubiera sido mas inteligente con sus opciones de papeles en Hollywood, no haría un gran sorpresa su actuación en Volver.

So Almodóvar no hubiera ganado Los Oscares por Todo sobre mi Madre y Hable con Ella, no tenia su buen reputación.

Si Almodóvar hubiera tenido dinero mas pronto, habría hecho una película antes.

Cuando Almodóvar cumpla su próximo película, Tarántula, voy a ser una de las primeras en el cine.

Anonymous said...

Written by John Godber in 1987, Teechers is a play where three school leavers, Salty, Gail and Hobby, present their takes on each of the teachers at their school, Whitewall Comprehensive. Seen by all the present teachers as failures, only the new Drama teacher Mr. Nixon saw talent in these three friends and eventually they manage to enjoy school life, through the redemptive power of Drama. Godber wrote the play, primarily to entertain, but also because he was discontent with the education system as it was and it’s way of treating students who weren’t perfect. Teechers is a play of the comedy genre, the title itself being a joke – Teechers, because the school had not educated their students well. Or, at least in Godber’s opinion, well enough.

As we studied Teechers, we used a range of explorative techniques:

Still Image
On our first activity, we created a still of a stereotypical school character. I choose a Chemistry lover, and posed holding two test tubes, wearing an exaggeratedly excited face. I felt that there were characters like him everyone, including in Teechers, the characters who were very passionate about subjects.
In our lesson on caricatures, we were also asked to create a still image. Here, we expanded and exaggerated our actions to make them more noticeable and interesting. In my caricatured still image I was a furious mother. I pulled an angry face and was very expressive with my hands.
We used still image a lot when introducing our characters, and here it would be where everyone took the most notice of our postures and facial expressions – for most of the teachers I stood with a straight back to convey their sense of discipline. For the different students I did stills of, I stood in different ways –
Walter, the chemistry fan – upright and enthusiastic.
Gail – pulling gum out of her mouth, frowning, slumping.

I created a short improvisation where I narrated a play which I was in. Here I narrated the actions of another person in the character that I was playing.
I also did narrated action, where I played a self-satisfied man who loved himself. I narrated his story, smiling through, whilst acting out everything that happened. Here I also played his wife, and gave my voice a very high pitch. I narrated his story even while he was supposedly eating, and here I mimicked how a person’s voice would sound if they were eating.
In another scene, we performed a classroom sketch that I narrated. The stimulus was the line, “Nobody speaks in Mr Basford’s lessons,” and I played an irritating student. To make her even more annoying, I have her a high pitched voice. She deviated from this when telling the story, which she told in a normal voice.

Cross Cutting
We spent a lesson focussing on the techniques in changing from character to character.
We started by just having students switching from character to character in different situations. I walked around, changing between 3 characters that could all be seen in a school - a 5 year old angel, a bored, joyless teenage boy and the caretaker, old man with a bad back. To change between these characters, I would first change posture – the girl had her legs bent down, feet faced inwards, the teenage boy slouched and curved his shoulders inwards, and the old man bent his back entirely and leaned. I then changed the facial expressions. The girl was happy, and the other two were miserable. Lastly, I altered the pace at which they walked, the girl skipped, the boy trudged and the man hobbled.
I also performed in two scenes, which we cut in between. In one I played an incompetent teacher. He had a quivering voice and ran everywhere. In the other I played the antithesis of a typical Whitewall Comprehensive character, a perfect teacher’s pet, which sat with their legs crossed and spoke with a haughty accent.
This technique helped me in the understanding of Teechers as there was a lot of cross-cutting between characters and events in this play, sometimes very rapidly.

Role play
I role played a variety of different teachers, some of which featured in Teechers. Firstly, I played the stereotypical pseudo-cool, the type who thinks students laugh with, but in truth, laugh at. He danced his way towards the centre, winked for a while, then, with a low voice, I said, “Alright? Have you heard the new 50 Dollar song? I think it’s boppin’.” The audience participated by shouting random comments at me, and this was helpful as I was able to react with some thing that I imagined by character would say. This character was crafted on the character of Deanie, and it helped to understand him better.
I performed a short passage from two Teechers characters. I spoke a line of dialogue which would likely to be said from them. My two characters were Mrs. Parry and Gail. To play Mrs. Parry I stuck my chest out proudly, and beamed at everyone. I walked in long, slow paces and spoke with a high pitched voice. This was completely different to my portrayal of Gail, who slogged her steps, stared down a lot and spoke languidly.
Playing the different types of teachers in Teechers was helpful to me in learning about how and why each behaved the way they did.

In our last performance, we performed from the script, and I played a variety of characters, from Hobby to a ninja. Here I used a combination of all four explorative strategies – I was in still image at the beginning in the pose of Hobby, standing tall and nervously, biting her nails. I narrated for a while, casually walking about. I also did narrated action, where I ran about wildly while speaking. I imitated some of the teachers, changing my voice from Hobby’s soft, colloquial tones to a posh, grown up voice. I also played Hobby imitating teachers, and this caused me to change my voice but not posture.

The different characters and situations that I met through Teechers were amusing and often enriching, and by participating in the workshop I have gathered understanding of the play, the characters and the different stages of life they go through.

Anonymous said...

The section from Teechers that I am choosing to develop starts from page 24:

“During January the shine seemed to go off Nixon”

to page 25:

“She was killed during a French lesson. Thank you…”

This was one of the most comedic scenes of the play, so in developing it, we tried to make the comedic factor evident. There were no props, aside from chairs.

The scene starts with Hobby, Gail and Salty all spread out on stage. Hobby should be portrayed nervously at the start, perhaps biting her nails or fiddling with her hair. But as soon as she introduces the story about the bat phone, she becomes interested in the story and exudes confidence. While describing the batphone, she should make gestures with her hands.

When Salty says, “Right, in the staff room…” Hobby and Gail should take on the roles of the teachers. One should mime drinking coffee as a repeated action while the other first mimes the reading of a book, then on the line “Japanese martial arts experts” both instantly jump up and does a random karate action – one mimes throwing stars, and the other doing a karate chop. Both should be as enthusiastic and noisy as possible, to create a sense of hustle and bustle.

When Salty says, “-can jump out of the window… in a few seconds-” all three actors should jump up and run across the stage frantically. This should all come to a halt abruptly when the actress playing Gail goes back to her normal voice, and whilst she walks to the side, saying, “Right, I’m the French Assistant-” her voice and accent change with it. To play Rachael Steel, Hobby should make her voice thick and not pronounce her ts. This is to differentiate her character from the one she is playing, as well as showing the low-class side to Rachael. She should act out the throwing.

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