Friday, February 29, 2008


I seem to recall the tag-line on the poster for 'Stardust' being something like "the fairytale that won't behave itself".

Good call.

The works of Neil Gaiman have never slotted neatly into categories, even when the genre touchstones seem to be present and correct. There are elements of horror, fantasy and mystery throughout his ouevre, but the only way you could accurately categorise Neil Gaiman is by coming up with a new genre - and you'd have to call it Neil Gaiman.

Maybe it's the enigmatic quality to his work, maybe it's because his imagination overarches the mainstream and goes heading off into new territories that are completely his own, but Gaiman adaptations are thin on the ground. In the 90s, he developed 'Neverwhere' for the BBC, then reimagined it as a novel. A couple of years ago, Gaiman's long-standing collaborator, the illustrator Dave McKean, made his directorial debut with the Gaiman-scripted 'MirrorMask', an offbeat, under-rated, often bizarre but ultimately beautiful film.

'Stardust', however, is Neil Gaiman's introduction to the mainstream: a decently budgeted adaptation, its cast balancing out newcomers (Charlie Cox, Kate Magowan) and flavours du jour (Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais) with Hollywood heavyweights (Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert de Niro). If the cast is oddball, so is the director: Matthew Vaughn following up duties as producer to Guy Ritchie and his decidedly Ritchie-esque debut 'Layer Cake' with something that resolutely does not feature guns, gangsters, swearing and shell suits. The change of direction is quite pleasant.

The plot, in a nutshell, involves a quest by young idealist Tristan (Cox) to retrieve a fallen star, as a token of his love for Victoria (Miller), from an enchanted kingdom whose boundary borders his village. Also in pursuit of the star are a band of fratricidal princely brothers (their numbers including Jason Flemyng and Rupert Everett) hell-bent on killing each to secure their ascension to the throne, and narcissistic witch Lamia (Pfeiffer, at her best in ages) who wants to take the heart of the star for its powers of youthful reinvigoration.

Ah yes, the star itself. Upon falling from the heavens, it takes human form, that of Yvaine (Claire Danes), a young woman who vacillates between dreamy romanticism and acidic stroppiness. It's giving nothing away to say that Tristan finds her first and that romance eventually blossoms - it's what happens along the way that counts.

Despite a few contrivances and coincidences, 'Stardust' emerges as a fun, frothy concoction, its occasional moments of the macabre giving the production a bit of weight. It's not quite a masterpiece (maybe one day we'll get a Gaiman adaptation that truly captures the flavour of Gaiman's uncosseted imagination), but it's well worth your time, if for no other reason than de Niro's hilarious, flamboyant turn as a camp, cross-dressing sky pirate.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Myth, majesty and malevolence: three modern American classics

What do 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', 'No Country for Old Men' and 'There Will Be Blood' have in common, apart from being three of the finest films I've seen in the last three months?

Firstly, they're all adaptations - 'Assassination' and 'No Country' from novels of the same title by Ron Hansen and Cormac McCarthy, 'Blood' from 'Oil!' by Upton Sinclair. In a current cinematic climate of shoddy remakes and sequels shot through with the law of diminishing returns, they represent high-quality film-making drawn from bona fide literary sources.

The titles say a lot. I love the 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' for its unapologetic length (seventeen syllables; the same as in a haiku) and for the fact that it encapsulates the film's entire dynamic: that James and Ford will play equally significant parts in the story, that things will move inexorably towards an act of violence, and that history will record Ford as a chicken-shit. You can't say it fast, either. Listen to people asking for tickets at the box office ("Two-for-'Over-Her-Dead-Body'-please", "One-for-'Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks'-please"); by and large they blurt out the title as if embarrassed to be heard buying a ticket for such formulaic pap or desperate to get to the popcorn stand. Try it with 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'. It almost demands you to pause in at least three places - 'The Assassination ... of Jesse James ... by the Coward ... Robert Ford'. It's a weighty and serious title, one that tells you you're in for something epic, something that's going to demand your attention.

'No Country for Old Men' functions on a different level. There's an enigmatic quality to it. It sounds poetical. It is. The phrase comes from W.B. Yeats' poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'. Again, it carries weight and significance when spoken aloud.

So, too, 'There Will Be Blood'. Four granite-like monosyllables. There's no modulation to them, no rhythm. Each word falls from the tongue as bluntly and solidly as the one that proceeds it. 'There Will Be Blood'. It's a statement. There's no way around it. Likewise, the film will have no last-reel reprieve. There's only one way the story's going: straight into the heart of darkness.

They're all epic: 'Assassination' and 'Blood' in their two-hour-forty-minute running times, the scope and sweep of their stories; 'No Country' in its striking vistas and elegiac tone. All boast the kind of cinematography that remind me why I fell in love with cinema as an art form in the first place. Cinema is, first and foremost, a visual medium; one wherein movement is crucial. That's where the word "movie" comes from after all: moving picture. All three films have magnificent - but not prettified - cinematography. It comes as no surprise that genius lensman Roger Deakins shot two of them, with Robert Elswit more than worthy of comparison to Deakins for his work on 'There Will Be Blood'.

It's tempting to describe all three as the work of directors at the top of their game - for the Coens, 'No Country' is their best in a decade and the equal of the half dozen or so works in their filmography that can genuinely be called classics; for Paul Thomas Anderson, 'Blood' is a quantum leap from the confident and technically brilliant but ultimately somewhat soulless stylisations of his previous features - but how can I apply this description to Andrew Dominik? 'Assassination' is only his second film (after 'Chopper', which I must confess I've never seen). Is he at the top of his game so soon into his career? Or will he scale even greater heights, make even more impressive films? Oh God, I hope so!

They are all films about greed. 'No Country' and 'Blood' in particular take scenarios that are almost cliches - respectively: otherwise honest man finds bag full of drug money and goes on the run; prospector is driven to dangerous measures in his pursuit of oil - while 'Assassination' touches on greed in the fiscal sense in that Jesse James (Brad Pitt) has created his own myth carving out a career as a ruthless and violent thief, but also examines psychological greed - that of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), half in love with and half pathologically jealous of James, wanting to be him but always falling short, a laughing stock among his peers.

'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' has two main characters, but no protagonist - no-one you could remotely consider a hero. James is vicious, paranoid, as quick to kill those who ride with him as those who oppose him. Ford is a spiteful child awkwardly inhabiting a man's body. Two antagonists tear the screen apart in 'There Will Be Blood': oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and fire-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).

'No Country for Old Men' divides its screen time between three main characters: Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles on a drug deal gone wrong and takes the money instead of turning round and getting the hell out of there; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a methodically efficient killing machine dispatched by various underworld types to retrieve said currency; and Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a small-town lawman steeped in the past, unable to come to terms with changing times (Jones is perfectly cast here, having already explored these kind of Peckinpah-esque themes in his excellent directorial debut 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada').

All three films have their share of violence: Chigurh's chillingly dispassionate executions; James' casual brutality and almost knowing acceptance of Ford's act of cowardly treachery; Plainview's increasingly vehement battle of wills with Sunday, including a jaw-dropping scene where Plainview whores his atheism and allows, in return for permission to build a pipeline across a parishoner's land, Sunday to baptise him into his self-styled Church of the Third Revelation, physically beating the "demons" out of Plainview while forcing the prospector to decry that he's a sinner who has abandoned his child. The reversal of this scene, at the end, veers from nervous hilarity to catharsis to shocking finality.

They all have endings that will challenge the complacent film-goer, reared on traditional three-act structure and neatly tied-up endings. 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' has its conventional climax - Ford's murder of James - two hours in, then goes on to explore Ford's brief fame and lasting infamy, the shadow it throws across his life, the inevitable circularity of his own death. 'There Will Be Blood' climaxes after fifteen wordless minutes as Plainview's initial efforts to find oil are gloriously rewarded. What follows is a study in commerce vs. religion (although, for Plainview, oil clearly is his religion; the triumphant way he mouthes the word "pipeline" after what should have been the humiliation of his baptism says it all); a weighing up of the price of oil.

It can be argued that the climax of 'No Country for Old Men' happens before the film opens: the double-cross and ensuing shoot-out that leaves men dead and pick-up trucks riddled with bullets in the middle of nowhere. What follows, follows as a result. Fortune - good or ill - plays a greater part here than narrative. Film and book are titled from a poem; a phrase by another poet, William Ernest Henley, applies: "the vagaries of chance".

These films are studies in aftermath. They are straight up masterpieces.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cloverfield: some questions

Why doesn't the monster turn up ten minutes earlier so we don't have to spend any longer listening to the witless yammerings of a bunch of personality-challenged twenty-somethings than is absolutely necessary?

Why, if Hud has been carrying a torch for Marlena, doesn't it occur to him that he'll earn some serious brownie points by putting the camera down and his arm protectively around her?

Why does Hud become an accomplished camera-man during the quieter, more intimate moments, yet prove utterly useless at composition and focus when there's actually something visual happening?

And why does he have such an acute knack for product placement?

Why couldn't there have been a script polish, so that the endless variations on "Rob! Rob! Fuck, man, where you going? Rob! Jesus, dude, did you see that?" were replaced with either erudite dialogue or blessed silence?

Why, during the scene in the military facility, does no-one ever say "Son, give me the camera" and follow it up with the butt of a rifle to the face?

Why, with the monster laying waste to the city, does everyone stop to loot 36-inch widescreen TVs from an electrical goods shop instead of hotwiring the hottest models at a Mercedes dealership, putting the pedal down and making a decent stab at getting out alive?

Why didn't it end with ...


... that poignant, almost poetic image of the camera unable to focus on Hud's face as he lies dead in front of the very gizmo he's clung onto the whole time ...


... instead of lumbering on for another ten minutes as the melodrama and cliches pile up?

Why, faced with the inevitable prospect of a 'Cloverfield' sequel, do I find myself hoping that the camcorder-wielder this time around will be a White House intern capturing grainy footage of a big scaly monster stepping on Dubya's head?

Go, monster, go.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Family Plot

After the sluggish Cold War thrillers 'Torn Curtain' and 'Topaz', and the cynical and misogynistic 'Frenzy', Hitchcock's swansong was a return to the pacily plotted, playfully irreverent thrillers of old. And while it never quite manages the heights of, say, 'North by Northwest', 'Family Plot' is still good fun.

The hilariously (deliberately) overplotted narrative sees fake medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) persuade apathetic taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) to assist in a scheme to fleece rich widow Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt). The stakes are raised when Julia offers Blanche $10,000 to track down her late sister's illegitimate son with the intention of restoring his name and making him heir to the fortune. Blanche and George set about trying to find him, but the trail leads to a dead end: a cemetery, appropriately enough, and a dodgy headstone. George twigs that the headstone is new; the guy under it allegedly died twenty years ago. Their continued investigations lead to a shady gas station owner named Maloney (Ed Lauter) and a priest who officiated at the Rainbird boy's christening.

Then the priest is kidnapped, the second victim - after a wealthy industrial - of husband-and-wife team Adamson (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black). Their modus operandi is honed and professional, the Feds flummoxed at the lack of leads. Meanwhile, Maloney is out to get Blanche and George, concerned that a dirty little secret from the past - one that connects him with Adamson - is about to surface.

The fun of Ernest Lehman's script is the way it plays off the two sets of couples. Blanche and George are stuck in the doldrums of the low-income bracket, Blanche's wonderfully over-the-top seances bringing in barely enough to supplement George's earnings (the amount of time he bunks off shifts to assist in Blanche's schemes doesn't go over too well with the taxi firm). They bicker like an old married couple and their lack of pretentions is wryly pointed up every time Blanche relinquishes her medium act and drops back into her normal accent. Harris's comic touch in the seance scenes is nicely balanced by Dern's hangdog persona.

Fran and Adamson, on the other hand, exude glamour and sophistication, he bedecked in sharp suits and acting cock-of-the-walk in his jewellery store, she the vampish brunette (except when disguised as a blonde - this is Hitchcock, after all) in figure-hugging outfits. Devane, with his bristling moustache and teeth-clenched grin, is a fine hissable villain, while Black provides sparky chemistry.

There are several great scenes: Fran's wordless collection of the industrialist's ransom; Blanche and George waiting at a diner for a contact who never shows, unaware that Maloney is setting them up; George haranguing a mourner at a funeral to get information; the drugging and carrying off of the priest mid-service, Adamson counting on the congregation being reticent about making a fuss in a house of the Lord.

Best of all, though, Hitchcock gleefully subverts that most cliched moment the thriller or suspense film has to offer: the hero, driving along a precipitously windy road, suddenly realising that his accelerator pedal is stuck and the brakes don't work. Hitchcock throws in slow moving vehicles, lumbering lorries, a slew of cyclists; he speeds up the film as the car rounds bend after bend; while Blanche and George's antics in the front seat hysterically puncture any tension, painting the sequence as a splendid bit of piss-taking.

The same can be said of the ending: a quite literal wink to the audience. It's a nice image to think of Hitch going out on, a glint in his eye and just the shadow of a smile.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


There's really only two variants on the Hollywood love story:

i) Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back again.

ii) Boy meets girl. Boy encounters obstacle in winning girl's affections. Boy overcomes obstacle.

In both cases, the "happily ever after" ending is contractually obligatory.

Now let's consider 'Marnie'. For 'boy' read 'ruthless businessman'; for 'girl' read 'psychologically disturbed kleptomaniac'. Here goes:

Boy - Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) - meets girl - Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren). Boy employs girl. Girl tries to rip off the contents of boy's safe. Boy catches girl in the act. Boy coerces girl into marrying him. Girl gets all frigid on the honeymoon. Boy rapes girl.

Yes, you read that right.

There's more: the catch-all description 'boy works out why girl is psychologically disturbed' pretty much sums up the last half of the film. But the key scene is Rutland's response to Marnie's frigidity, a repressed experience in childhood leaving her repulsed by any sexual advance. Rutland tries to understand her 'condition' but she is contemptuous and insists they sleep apart. "If you don't want to go to bed, please get out," she says, attempting to hustle him out of the boudoir. "But I do want to go to bed, Marnie," he replies, "I very much want to go to bed." And so saying tears her nightgown from her shoulders. It's all very Hollywood, all close ups of silk pooling around her feet, hardly an inch of flesh on display, and Rutland is immediately contrite, draping his dressing gown around her. He sits her down on the edge of the bed, but straightaway starts getting tactile again.

Then he forces himself on her, eyes burning with carnal lust as his face fills the screen.

Adapted from Winston Graham's novel by Jay Presson Allen, it was originally Evan Hunter, fresh off 'The Birds', whom Hitch approached to write the screenplay. Hunter considered the rape scene unnecessary and petitioned Hitchcock to excise it. Hitch was adamant and had Hunter removed from the project. As Hunter recalled in his memoir 'Me and Hitch':

Many years later when I told Jay Presson Allen how much [Hitchcock's] description of that scene had bothered me, she said, "You just got bothered by the scene that was his reason for making the movie."

Dark and twisted? You'd better believe it. 'Marnie' makes 'Vertigo' look like a light romantic comedy. Boasting a good performance from Connery and a poor one from Hedren, 'Marnie' is curiously devoid of any of the bravura set-pieces that typify Hitchcock's directorial signature. It's an oddity in the filmography. It's a blip in a decade-long run of classics.

It's a Valentine's Day movie for unrepentant cynics.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


It's Kim Novak's 75th birthday today; a glass of rioja is hereby raised to lady while I consider her most iconic role. Whenever I watch 'Vertigo', I can't help but make a comparison to Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom' and wonder what made one film enduring popular while the other was universally vilified and languished for two decades until it was rediscovered, re-evaluated and recognised as a masterpiece?

Quick comparison: in 1960, 'Peeping Tom' - a homely tale of scoptophilia, serial murder, pornography and the psychological abuse of a child by his father - triggered such a critical backlash that it all but ended Powell's career. Two years earlier, Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' - a romantic treatise on guilt, deception, sexual manipulation and the merging/confusing of sexual identity - garnered critical acclaim and remains a classic today.

Of course, the answer is self-evident.

The essential difference is in the approach to the subject matter. Powell's film is blatantly explicit, implicating the viewer purely for watching ("all this filming, it's not healthy"). Hitchcock, however, doesn't include a single explicit frame. The twisted psychology of the last third is arrived at via a by-the-numbers private eye narrative which swiftly segues into a lilting, if slightly melancholy, romance. Familiar genre trappings: reassuring to an audience.

San Francisco policeman James 'Scottie' Ferguson (James Stewart) is afflicted with vertigo after a rooftop pursuit during which a colleague falls to his death. Quitting the force, Ferguson undertakes a private eye job for industrialist Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). The brief: shadow Elster's glamorous blonde wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Elster is worried that Madeleine is acting strangely, Ferguson, immediately captivated, drifts into a protective relationship with her.

When Madeleine dies, seemingly in an act of suicide, Ferguson is unable to save her, his condition preventing him from pursuing her to the top of dizzyingly high bell-tower. Understandably, he goes to pieces.

Three years pass before he encounters Judy Barton (Novak again), a brunette who, hair colour apart, is Madeleine's look-alike. What he doesn't know is that ...


... Madeleine and Judy are one and the same person, a twist that Hitchcock reveals almost immediately. This is another reason why 'Vertigo' avoided the fate of 'Peeping Tom': Hitchcock doesn't make the audience complicit in his protagonist's guilt the way Powell does. We know watch the score is. We can understand Judy's psychology, why she lets herself be put through Ferguson's indignities. Elster has paid Judy to impersonate Madeleine, to leave Ferguson a breadcrumb trail of morbid behaviour by which he perceives her death as suicide - an impression, crucially, which he testifies to at a court enquiry.

Result: a perfect cover story, the real Madeleine having been hurled from the tower by her husband ... who happily gets away with murder.

Judy, however, has lived with the guilt as surely as Ferguson. In order to expiate it ...


... Judy allows Ferguson to remodel her as Madeleine, dressing her in the same outfits and insisting she dye her hair blonde. It's in a cheap hotel room, walls bathed in sick green light from a neon sign outside, that Judy presents herself to him as Madeleine - and there's no doubt that the woman Ferguson embraces is Madeleine. Their embrace becomes a kiss, the camera whirling around them as the green-hued motel room gives way to darkness. The scene then shifts seamlessly to the coach house at the hacienda from whose bell-tower 'Madeleine' committed 'suicide'.

Think about it. Bear in mind that Ferguson is still unaware of the plot spoiler. In a nutshell, Ferguson remakes a living woman in the image of a dead woman in order to make love to her, and during that lovemaking the personality of the dead woman replaces that of the living one.

To use the kind of prose that you don't generally find in Sight & Sound or Cahiers du Cinema, this is some fucked up shit. Ferguson's act of consummation can be considered - metaphorically and psychologically - as necrophilia. The fact that Ferguson - Hitchcock's most flawed and disturbed character (and, yes, that includes Norman Bates) - is played by the most all-American actor of his generation, only paints the irony a darker shade of black.

It's a testament to Hitchcock's genius - and Kim Novak's striking beauty and dynamic screen presence - that such a bitter cinematic pill is so visually ravishing and so damn compelling.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Is there anyone out there who hasn't seen 'Psycho', who has no idea what happens when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) makes an ill-advised en suite decision at the Bates Motel?

Didn't think so.

Is there any need for me to write this, especially with in-depth articles here, here and here?
Probably not.

And yet here I am, eleven films into this Hitch-fest, and I'm more convinced than ever - not that I really had any doubts before - that 'Psycho' represents Hitchcock at the top of his game. For the record, this is what makes it a classic:

Saul Bass's starkly simple titles - simple, but with the key credits fracturing. Seldom have the opening credits set up the 'feel' of a film with such economy.

Bernard Herrmann's score - has a composer ever meshed with a director as fully as Herrmann did with Hitchcock? His music for 'Psycho' is what a soundtrack should be - an integral part of the film, woven into its narrative, characters and imagery.

And speaking of imagery - the Bates motel, the old dark house looming behind it. Forget Dracula's castle, forget the Overlook Hotel, don't even mention the house on Haunted Hill, this is the essential iconic image of the horror genre.

And would it be so iconic if Hitchcock had shot 'Psycho' in colour? Well, Gus van Sant shot his exercise-in-pointlessness remake in colour and ... well ... anyway ... moving swiftly on. Hitchcock's 'Psycho' is in black and white. After spending most of the 50s shooting in technicolour (1956's 'The Wrong Man' being a notable exception), it's tempting to describe 'Psycho' as a return to Hitchcock's roots - a film underpinned by a constant sense of menace, much as 'Shadow of a Doubt' was. Certainly, there's an energy, an edginess that sets it apart from the likes of 'Rear Window' or 'To Catch a Thief'.

And yet it's modern: it pushes forward, pushes the envelope. The almost-nudity of the shower scene (deliberately blurry focus when Hitchcock drops in an overhead shot of Marion, arm outstretched to fend off her attacker). The use of editing to create the impression of images more graphic than are actually shown. Forty-eight years down the line, it's still a striking, shocking, impressively realised scene.

And it flips audience expectation on its head. This is supposed to be our protagonist. Who's going to take centre stage now? Private eye Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam)? It's kind of late in the game, but surely logic dictates that he's now the main man by default, the guy who puts it all together, who nails Bates (Anthony Perkins)?

Actually, no.

'Psycho' delights in pulling the rug from under your feet, all the way through to the final moments where a sanguinary bit of voice-over and a creepy superimposed image tell you the whole story.

Marion's not the main character. Nor is Arbogast. It's not Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles), either, despite her woman-in-peril bit near the end.

And no, it's not Norman Bates.

It's his mother.

But don't be scared. She wouldn't harm a fly.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Hitchcock and the Cold War: Torn Curtain and Topaz

On paper, 'Torn Curtain' has all the makings of a classy, crowd-pleasing thriller: a couple of big stars (Paul Newman, Julie Andrews), a script by Brian Moore ('The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne', 'Black Robe'), some atmospheric European locations and a plot involving the defection of an American scientist working on a defence programme - topical stuff for a film made during the Cold War.

Newman, in a commendably low-key, thoughtful performance, plays Professor Michael Armstrong. Attending a conference in Scandinavia, he begins acting secretively and strangely, receiving coded messages. His fiancee and fellow researcher Sarah Sherman (Andrews) grows suspicious. When Armstrong takes a plane to East Germany, she follows. But is Armstrong really going over to the other side, or does he have an even deeper agenda?

This is the stuff of le Carre or Deighton, and you need only look at the film versions of 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' or 'The Ipcress File' to see how impressive the material can be if handled properly.

'Torn Curtain', however, is mishandled quite badly, mainly because Hitch never really engages with the material. He'd dealt with espionage-related plots before - 'The 39 Steps', 'Saboteur', 'North by Northwest' - but these were essentially chase movies boasting one suspenseful set-piece after another. 'Torn Curtain' has a grand total of two set-pieces (I'm discounting here the ludicrous scene where Armstrong and Sarah escape a theatre by yelling "Fire!" and slipping out while panic ensues - even though none of the other patrons are English speakers!). The first is Armstrong's confrontation with hard-to-kill Russian agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) at a remote farmhouse - the sequence is extended, excruciating and only the time the movie truly comes to life. It then settles back into inertia for another hour before set-piece number two comes along. This is a contrived bit of business involving two buses, the tension deriving from the distance between them and the presence of roadblocks by the authorities. Hitchcock's predilection for process shots renders the entire sequence risibly phoney.

Elsewhere, matte paintings complement the process shots in terms of artificiality. The sets look like something cobbled together out of cast-offs from other productions. The dialogue is often blandly expositional. There's no chemistry between Newman and Andrews, the latter wandering lifelessly through the film. The music, by John Addison (Hitchcock jettisoned Bernard Herrmann's score after they fell out), is bland.

Curiously, 'Torn Curtain' proved a box office success while it was Hitchcock's similarly-themed follow up, 'Topaz', that earned him the worst reviews of his career. Curious because, while over-plotted and mostly dialogue-driven in its second half, 'Topaz' boasts a lot more in the way of pace and directorial flair.

American agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) oversees the defection of Soviet politician Boris Kusenov (Per Axel Arosenius) and his family. The debrief reveals activity in Cuba and a double agent codenamed Topaz. Nordstrom targets Cuban politico Rico Parra (John Vernon) as a source of information but given American/Cuban relations cannot approach him directly. So Nordstrom persuades French operative Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford) to undertake a mission to Cuba. Devereux has an ulterior motive: his affair with Cuban double-agent - and Parra's consort - Juanita (Karin Dor). Meanwhile, Devereux's wife Nicole (Dany Robin), a heroine of the Resistance, is clandestinely involved with one of Devereux's superiors, Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli). Granville, when not romancing Nicole, is protecting his alliance with fellow minister Henri Jarre (Philippe Noiret) - a man with his own agenda.

Devereux's Cuban interlude ends in a welter of violence and betrayal when his spy ring is uncovered. Returning to France - to face the music now that his paymasters are aware of his off-the-books mission on behalf of the American - knows, but cannot prove, that Topaz is high-ranking member of the French government. But who can he turn to, who can he trust?

'Topaz' has more incident, tension and plot development in its first twenty minutes than the whole two hours of 'Torn Curtain'. Location shooting is used optimally, with minimum reliance on process shots. A largely European cast shine in roles that could easily have been ciphers instead of characters, particularly Piccoli and Noiret, two of France's finest acting talents, with kudos due, as well, to the luminous Karin Dor. John Vernon is also excellent as Parra.

There are plenty of good scenes - from Kusenov and his family stalked by security personnel to Devereux inveigling his son-in-law into gaining entry to a suspected traitor's apartment - shot through with Hitchcock's genius for creating tension. The minutiae of spying is well-observed. So is the grim aftermath. The single best scene is Parra's discovery of Juanita's double life. Hitchcock delivers a highly memorable overhead shot - a moment of cinematic alchemy that transmogrifies an act of violence into pure visual poetry.

Where 'Topaz' loses its footing, however, is in the talky second half. Once Devereux returns from Cuba, the pace slows and the movie never quite recovers. The ending doesn't help, a damp squib that Hitchcock shot as a compromise after test audiences reacted badly to the original conclusion in which Devereux agrees to a duel with his nemesis. The DVD includes this sequence, and it's easy to see why it incited mockery. Although thematically valid, the sequence is risible. After the double-dealing, hidden agendas and back-room politics which suffuse 'Topaz', the duel tips the whole film into melodrama. Unfortunately, what Hitchcock replaced it with isn't much better.

Still, 'Topaz' has more going for it than it's often given credit for, and deserves re-evaluation.

Friday, February 08, 2008


'Frenzy', Hitchcock's penultimate film, is often dismissed as one of his lesser works, a violent and misanthropic little number, a disappointment that was mercifully superceded by the playful plotting and 'Trouble With Harry'-style humour of his swansong, 'Family Plot'.

It's also cited for its controversial aspects. 'Frenzy' contains what no Hitchcock film that came before it had (but which some of his best had strived for, albeit working around the edges due the social, and censorial, mores of the time): graphic violence (sexual assault, strangulation), nudity (body doubles ahoy!) and profanity - the script, by Anthony ('The Wicker Man') Shaffer, uses the word "bastard" with the same liberality as 'Goodfellas' uses "fuck". Indeed, one of the numerous anti-social pleasures of 'Frenzy' is the vehemence with which Jon Finch, playing down-on-his-luck former squadron leader Richard Blaney, spits it out.

Blaney is the ... no, not hero. He's quarrelsome, obstreperous, self-pitying and loud-mouthed. Okay; start over: Blaney is the ... no, not protagonist either. The suffix "pro-", as in "pro-active" doesn't suit him. For most of the film he's completely in the dark, unaware that his sometime friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) is behind the killings that he finds himself in the frame for.

If you've never seen 'Frenzy' and you're cursing me for not putting "spoiler alert" in capital letters before that last paragraph, pray desist with the Blaney-like "you bastard" and be assured that I'm not giving anything away. Hitchcock reveals Rusk's guilt early on. It's not a whodunnit, after all. It's about how Blaney, through his own bullishness, paints himself as fitting the murderer's profile, how Rusk capitalises on it, and how Blaney, with the full force of the law against him, tries to clear his name.

Which brings me back to something I was debating earlier. We've pegged Rusk as the villain of the piece. But Blaney - let's just call him the main character - isn't much of a hero. So who's our main man? Who do we root for? There's Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan), the journeyman copper socially embarrassed by his wife's pretentions to nouvelle cuisine cookery (Oxford's dinner table expositional dialogue, delivered while he queasily faces up to a succession of repulsive-looking meals, are a comedic highpoint). But he's only in the film for the second half and, apart from twigging late in the game that Blaney might be innocent, he doesn't exactly do much.

There are two sympathetic female roles - Blaney's ex-wife Blenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and his current girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey), but with the murderer targetting women ... well, you can pretty much guess the rest.

The most frequently levelled criticism is the film's treatment of women. There's no way around it, so here goes: the necktie murderer (so named for the apparel he leaves around their neck, post-strangulation) rapes his victims first. While nowhere near as explicit as that in, say, 'Straw Dogs' (made a year before in 1971), the rape scene in 'Frenzy' is easily the most disturbing thing Hitchcock ever filmed, Rusk murmuring "lovely ... lovely" as he forces himself on his victim.

Rusk's luring of his next victim into his apartment is handled a lot more subtly, and with a moment of technical bravura: as Rusk closes the door behind them, the camera floats back down the stairs in complete silence, out through the lobby and, with the first tinges of traffic noise impeding once more on the soundtrack, into the street and away from the building. The effect, particularly the use of silence, is powerful. A pity Hitchcock couldn't have thought his way around the earlier scene with such finesse and technical aplomb.

The Argento-like camerawork in this scene makes it one of two genuinely memorable sequences in the film. The second, involving Rusk's dumping of a body in the back of a truck - and his desparate attempts to recover a piece of evidence he realises he's left on the corpse - spins out into a blackly comic extended set-piece. Claustrophobic, grotesque and a damn sight funnier than it ought to be, Rusk's tussle with a body stiff with rigor mortis in the back of potato lorry is pure Hitch. And if it doesn't quite the achieve the level you'll-never-look-at-a-King-Edward-in-the-same-way-again greatness that 'Psycho' does with shower curtains, it’s still an effective signifier of Hitchcock’s streak of the perverse.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Man Who Knew Too Much

'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is the only remake in Hitchcock's filmography - and it's remake of one of his own films, to boot.

The original version was made in England in 1934 and enjoyed great success. It set him up for a run of British films - including bona fide classics 'The 39 Steps' and 'The Lady Vanishes' - that cemented his reputation and paved the way to Hollywood. The original version moved fast, kept the tension ratcheted up, and clocked in at a taut 75 minutes.

Over two decades later Hitch gave the world Version 2.0 - 40 minutes longer, far less urgent and with the dubious bonus of Doris Day, in an atypical dramatic role, belting out 'Que Sera Sera' twice during the course of the film. (The song was written specifically for the film and Doris Day's recording has enjoyed enduring popularity.) To be fair, though, she excels herself in a heart-wrenching scene after James Stewart breaks the news to her that their son has been kidnapped, communicating a genuine sense of inarticulate pain and distress.

Hitchcock described the first film as the work of a talented amateur and the second as that of a professional. I'd say the man was damning himself with faint platitudes. And not without justification.

'TMWKTM' demonstrates the best and worst of its director. On the plus side: the innocent-man-caught-up-in-deadly-events plot that Hitchcock did so well; some great set-pieces, ranging from the grotesquely comic (a false trail that leads James Stewart to a taxidermist's) to the genuinely tense (the build-up to an assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall); and the pleasure of seeing composer Bernard Herrmann onscreen conducting the London Symphony Orchestra during the aforementioned crucial scene. Interestingly, it's not his own music he's conducting (although he was offered the opportunity of composing a choral work for the film), but Arnold Benjamin's 'Storm Cloud Cantata', which Herrmann greatly admired and felt would suit the film better than anything of his own. Kudos to the man for his humility and integrity as well as his talents as composer and conductor.

On the minus side: too many lame attempts at comedy (Stewart struggling with the low seating at a Morrocan restaurant; the hamfisted jokiness of the final scene); plot developments that aren't just contrived but hammered blugeoningly into shape; and an annoying succession of patently unconvincing process shots. This last is the thorn in Hitchcock's side as a film-maker: in the earlier films, particularly the black-and-white outings, the process shots don't bother me so much: it was typical of that era. Move into the 50s and particularly the 60s and cinema was heading in a different, less studio-bound direction.

Hitchcock was a studio director. The location shooting was something to be got out of the way, then sets were built back at Universal*. Need a shot of James Stewart or Doris Day outdoors? Use back-projection and never mind the artificiality. 'TMWKTM' goes to an extreme: in the Morocco sequences, half the frickin' interiors are process shots never mind the the exteriors. The cumulative effect is that you never quite forget that you're watching a movie.

Fortunate, then, that you're just as seldom in any doubt that the movie you're watching is a Hitchcock.

*Ironic that his self-described best film, 'Shadow of a Doubt', was almost entirely shot on location.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Rear Window

In many ways 'Rear Window' is textbook Hitchcock.

You've got a beleaguered hero - photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), laid up with a broken leg - trying to prove something the authorities give him no credence for (cf. 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' - either version).

You've got a glacially elegant heroine - Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) - who is effortlessly sophisticated and upon whom Hitch's camera lingers besottedly (cf. 'Dial M for Murder', again starring Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint in 'North by Northwest', Tippi Hedren in 'The Birds' and 'Marnie').

You've got a villain - Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, he of 'Ironside' and 'Perry Mason' fame) - who exudes real menace.

You've got a streak of the perverse running all the way through it - the key theme of 'Rear Window' in one word: voyeurism - pre-empting the darker concerns of 'Psycho' (mother fixation and serial murder), 'Vertigo' (psycho-sexual obsession and, metaphorically anyway, necrophilia) and 'Marnie' (mental instability, sexual manipulation and rape).

You've got the repartee, sharp dialogue and romantic suplot that offsets the darker aspects.

You've got the technical artistry that testify to Hitchcock's mastery of the medium - the use of filters during the climactic scene where Jeffries disorientates his attacker by setting off flashbulbs; the edgy, intrusive way that the camera prowls the back windows that Jeffries' apartment looks out in, peeking into other people's lives, spying on them. With the exception of Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom' and a breathtaking two-and-a-half-minute Louma crane shot in Dario Argento's 'Tenebrae', nobody has made a co-voyeur out of the audience so effectively, and done it with so much style, as Hitchcock does in 'Rear Window'.

And now I have to make a confession ...

I find 'Rear Window' - at least during its first hour - ever so slightly dull. I can appreciate it, for all of the reasons listed above, but I find myself glancing at the clock, wandering into the kitchen for a drink from the fridge, thinking about fixing myself a quick snack. Basically killing time until Hitch starts generating tension and suspense in the second half.

I also find myself wondering why none of the apartment block residents have net curtains particularly the ballerina who spends most of her time practising in her underwear. Why one of the few residents who has venetian blinds keeps them at an angle whereby the interior of her apartment is still visible. Why everyone has their windows open all the time, even at night or when they're out. I wonder why Jeffries bothers checking out the ballerina when his girlfriend's played by Grace Kelly.

I find myself thinking of at least a dozen films I'd pick first if I fancied a night in with a bottle of wine and a first-rate Hitchcock.