Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Anecdote of the Week: "I think Nathanael West was a creep."

Two excerpts from Eve's Hollywood, billed as "a confessional L.A. novel by Eve Babitz." James Wolcott wrote about Babitz not too long ago and the Siren, fascinated, managed to borrow a copy of the out-of-print and damn-near-unavailable book from a trusting and generous friend.

This little post is for that friend, and for Kim Morgan, who loves Los Angeles and who makes the Siren want to love it. And after reading this book, the Siren's smitten with Eve Babitz, too. The woman is a natural writer--unforced, unfussy, funny as hell.

First, a picnic by the L.A. River. Los Angeles has a river? wondered the Siren, as she read. Well, of sorts...

Vera Stravinsky once told me that in 1937 she went on a picnic, in a few limousines, that Paulette Goddard had prepared ("because she was quite a gourmet..." Vera said). On the picnic was the Stravinskys, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, Greta Garbo, Bertrand Russell and the Huxleys. They got into the cars to drive to a likely spot, but there were no likely spots and they drove and drove. There had been a drought and everything was dry, there was no grass and so finally they spotted the measly L.A. "River" and decided to spread their blanket on its ridiculous banks and make the best of it. The "L.A. River" is a trickle that only looks slightly like a river if there's been a downpour for three months but even then it doesn't look like a river. Anyway, they spread out the food, the champagne, the caviar, the pate and everything and sat on the banks of the "river" beneath a bridge over which cars were going.


They looked up and there was a motorcycle cop with his fists on his hips, looking cross.

"Yes?" Bertrand Russell stood up to inquire.

There was a sign that said people were not allowed to picnic by the "river."

The cop pointed to the sign and looked at Russell and then said, "Can't you read?"...

The cop only relented when he recognized Garbo.

The Siren is quoting this next bit because first of all, the Siren loves people who love their cities. Second, the Siren likes Nathanael West--and despite that, this made her laugh and laugh and laugh. Especially the kicker.

"Nathanael West is the best writer about Hollywood there ever was."

"No, he isn't."

The first speaker is someone from Chicago, the second is me, born in Hollywood. People from the East all like Nathanael West because he shows them it's not all blue skies and pink sunsets, so they don't have to worry: It's shallow, corrupt and ugly.

I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he'd gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It's a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn't have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer. And so people from New York and Chicago say, "Nathanael West is the best writer about Hollywood there ever was."

All the things that Nathanael West noticed are here. The old people dying, the ennui, the architecture and fat screenplay writers who think it's a tragedy when they can't get laid by the 14-year-old doxette in Gower Gulch, the same 14-year-old who'll ball the cowboys any old time. But if there had been someone, say, who wrote a book about New York, a nice, precise, short little novel in which New York was only described as ugly, horrendous and finally damned and that was the book everyone from elsewhere decided was the "best book about New York there ever was," people who grew up knowing why New York was beautiful would finally, right before dessert, throw their sherry across the table and yell, "I'll pick you up in a taxi, honey, and take you for a fucking guided tour, you blind jerk."

The Siren's been under the weather, but she'll be back to her old, erratic self in no time.

Monday, May 21, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Bring Up the House Lights

Don't mind me...I'm just a little tired...

Whaddya know, the last reel rocked.

The Siren foregoes preamble to tell her patient readers, dear blogathon participants and generous, beautiful donors that our total zoomed up to $6,490 in the final stretch. That, my friends, puts us over last year's total.

Over the six-day course of the blogathon, we notched 208 posts (why do you think I chose that screencap?) from 112 bloggers. And, listen, in the two previous years Marilyn and the Siren were proud to note that many people wrote fine, fine pieces, ones the Siren still refers to on occasion. But this year--damn, you folks outdid yourselves. This has been excellent reading and the Siren is still wending her way through the links. She doffs her feather-trimmed fascinator to everyone involved. Y'all gave the Master nothing but the best.

So, where does that leave us in terms of streaming The White Shadow this fall? The Siren turns the microphone over to Annette Melville, the protean force behind the National Film Preservation Foundation's fundraising efforts. (Working with Annette behind the scenes has been David Wells, and a round of applause for David, too, as he's been tracking donations and just quietly being indispensable from the beginning.) Anyway, here's Annette:

There is no presentable digital copy of the film now. We have to raise sufficient money to make a digital copy, record the new score, pay the composer and musician, mix the score, and lay it down to the digital copy, in addition to the web hosting...We hope to raise these funds over the next few months...Plans are afoot but cannot be finalized until we have the all the necessary money.

In sum, what we have is not the whole megillah, but it's a darn good start. Annette says our efforts have gotten the NFPF a good part of the way--"the heavy lifting." The NFPF are deeply grateful, and in addition, "there is also an important long-term goal of planting a seed--of getting people thinking about film preservation and the value of supporting it." She's very happy, as are we all, that we've accomplished that.

We're done, and we did good. As Marilyn says, "it was an unqualified success as far as we're concerned." Back to our regularly scheduled programming here and at Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod.

The name of this here blog is, after all, Self-Styled Siren, not Widely Acknowledged Nag.

In the meantime, however, your good work is still out there, and the Siren suspects you haven't finished reading everything, either. Keep up the commenting, because a good comment warms a hard-working blogger's heart. For the posts you love, by all means, share via the social media of your choice; call your tech-challenged Aunt Mildred and read her the URL.

The donation link remains in service, now and for quite a while to come, because in the past we've gotten post-blogathon donations, and like an auteur working variations on the same theme, that could well happen again. The Siren's leaving hers up on the sidebar.

Some glad tidings of prizes for those who gave generously to the NFPF:

To Shannon Fitzpatrick goes an autographed copy of Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. (Thanks to Mr. Ebert for donating that prize.)

Rebecca Naughten has won an autographed copy of Betty Jo Tucker’s Confessions of a Movie Addict. (Thanks, Betty, for offering that prize!)

To Peter Nellhaus goes a French Notorious poster, and I hope that poster appreciates its new owner, that's all I can say.

Aurora Bugallo gets the photo of Alfred Hitchcock and the giant telephone. (Warmest thanks to goddess Donna Hill for donating those last two prizes.)

And the Treasures DVDs from the NFPF go to Jill Blake, Thomas Bolda, Kenji Fujishima, Catherine Grant, Katherine Kehoe, and Lee Price.

Music, The End, roll credits...go hang out on a beach somewhere. We deserve it.

(One note: that screencap up top is from Sheila O'Malley, who has a magnificent post up about Cary Grant and the character of Devlin in Notorious. It was one day late for the blogathon, but you want to read it, oh boy do you.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Last Call at Rod's

It's the final day of our For the Love of Film III blogathon to raise funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation's efforts to stream The White Shadow. Once again, your host is Rod Heath of This Island Rod. Click over to Rod's place for all your blogathon needs; remember that he's in Australia, and his hours won't synch perfectly with the North American day.

Our total at last reckoning was $2,140, far short of the $15,000 we had hoped to raise. Two who chipped in are Kenji Fujishima of My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second and Lee Price over at 21 Eassays; both are winners of the raffle prizes donated by the NFPF, copies of the splendid set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, featuring two films we saved with funds from the first blogathon.

The totals so far are, to be honest, challenging the Siren's usually sunny blogging attitude. Clearly, we could use a nice twist in the last reel, and the Siren, Rod and Marilyn Ferdinand are hoping one shows up. The mighty James Wolcott of Vanity Fair has done his part, for one, and we hope you have, too. Warm thanks to everyone who has participated so far; kudos to those who have donated, we salute you. And if you can, click below and donate--it would be great to have a happy fadeout.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Day Four, With the Siren as Your Host

UPDATE: Hello folks. As always, the Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand and the fine people at the National Film Preservation Foundation are happy with the outpouring from the blogosphere. The number of bloggers participating is higher than ever, and the quality of writing is tremendous, some of the best stuff the Siren has seen during any of the preservation blogathons.

But. And it's a big but.

We're behind, y'all. Way behind. Behind the first year, behind last year.

Now of course it's no coincidence that one could say precisely the same thing about the economy--GDP, schm-DP, it's tough out there. But (did I say that already?) there's no lower limit on what you can toss into the hat, and most of us can spare the cost of a movie ticket or a DVD. It isn't just the amount; it's the number of donors that has us a bit downcast, considering the kind of traffic and posting we've been seeing.

The Siren's got a tip jar on the sidebar that she threw up one day in an "oh what the hell" kind of mood and then never mentioned on the blog itself, not once. To her amazed delight and immense gratitude, some people have actually hit that tip jar, and it's all going to the NFPF by the end of the week. So you could also think of this as cutting out the middleman, or middlesiren. It's all gonna wind up in the same place.

So, once more, and at the risk of sounding like a donation-soliciting version of Jessie Royce Landis ("Roger, pay the two dollars"), the Siren asks you to click below, and throw a little dough at Hitchcock, and Graham Cutts, and Betty Compson, and the people like us who want to see The White Shadow.

Greetings, writers and friends to film preservation. The Siren's corner of the Web continues today as home page for our blogathon to benefit the National Film Preservation Foundation, For the Love of Film.

This year, as we've been trumpeting for a good long while, our blogathon is raising money for the NFPF's efforts to stream online three reels of the once-lost, now-found 1923 silent movie, The White Shadow. This U.K. melodrama was directed by one Graham Cutts, but it has another hook: It is the first film we have that featured a major contribution from one Alfred Hitchcock. The young Hitchcock, according to his biographers, was assistant director, wrote the title cards, edited, designed the sets, decorated the sets, and just generally worked like crazy learning everything he could about how to make a film. And this training-to-make-films wheeze worked out pretty well, as you know.

The White Shadow has already been preserved and restored, and was screened by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles last fall. The Siren wasn't there, and most of you probably weren't, either. Given the level of historic interest (and artistic interest, too--the good folks at the NFPF say this one's an eyeful), that's a shame. We are in a position to do something about it, though. Our goal: to raise $15,000 so the NFPF can put The White Shadow online for three months, with a recorded score by Michael Mortilla, a man with a long history of composing splendid music for silent films.

This blogathon is about raising dough, so if you have not done so, please click the button below and DONATE NOW.

Or click on this link. The Siren is not fussy. All roads lead to the NFPF. We've been doing this for two days, and the pattern we set in the first two blogathons is holding; so far the pace is slow. But it always picks up, and that's what the Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand and Rod Heath are hoping happens now.

The first blogathon raised a gratifying amount of cash, enough to help the National Film Preservation Foundation repatriate and restore two silent films, The Sergeant and The Better Man. Those films were part of the more than 100 silent-era American films found in New Zealand Film Archive; so was The White Shadow. It was quite a cache. Both films are included on the NFPF Treasures 5: The West box set--with our blogathon cited in the booklet as having helped to save them, and doesn't that warm your heart. Treasures 5 is among the prizes that will be raffled at random to 10 lucky donors.

Last year, our second go-round raised money to help the Film Noir Foundation restore Cy Endfield’s 1950 film The Sound of Fury, which has a powerhouse performance by Lloyd Bridges and its own historic significance: Endfield was blacklisted, and his filmography is short. The Film Noir Foundation tells us that restoration will begin in January 2013, and the film will repremiere at NOIR CITY 12 in San Francisco in 2014. We can be proud of that one, too.

Let's do it again. As always, the Siren is delighted with the number of bloggers participating, and the very high quality of their posts. We are raising awareness in a big way, and creating an Internet resource on film preservation that will stick around for a long time.

But of course, the point is to raise money. And while donations have been present, and steady, and the good folks at the National Film Preservation Foundation are grateful for every dime, the Siren asks you to urge your readers to give, if they haven't already.

Check this post throughout the day to keep track of the blogathon posts. The Siren will be here today and tomorrow, linking away. The first two days of posts--and they're awesome--can be found over at Marilyn's place. Remember, Thursday and Friday, your affable host is Rod Heath at This Island Rod.

The Siren kicks things off with her own post, about Lifeboat. A movie about being lost and rescued seemed awfully fitting to her. You can take a look at that one, and then keep track of the many, many more.


Kevyn Knox, at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World, rises to the poetic occasion with a composition that works in every Alfred Hitchcock title.

"My problem is that dullard Frank. He’s unethical, overbearing, and, worst of all, boring.” “Yes, but since he’s entirely too dull to be a villain, I believe we are stuck with Frank as our hero.” Lee Price at 21 Essays riffs on the collaboration between Michael Powell and Hitch during the filming of Blackmail.

Ed Howard at the wonderful Only the Cinema blog also has Blackmail on his mind: "Hitchcock is saying goodbye to the silents that nurtured his talent, and saying it with panache..."

What happens when a brilliant director films something by a playwright famed for his dialogue--and has to do it as a silent movie? Chris Edwards at Silent Volume explores what worked and didn't work when Hitchcock met Noel Coward, in Easy Virtue.

Duke Mantee at Picture Spoilers knows the Siren's heart can be reached by train, and he's attacking the silent-film angle of this year's blogathon with a lovely essay on Buster Keaton's deep love of all things railroad-related.

Two sinisterly clever. posts at Limerwrecks, the blog hosted by old Siren pal Hilary Barta, aka Surlyh (but Hilary isn't the least bit surly and never has been--there, the Siren's wanted to say that for years). The first is a lament for a bout of Vertigo, a rare non-limerick from Norm Knott/Jim Siergey. The second is our limerick of the day from Hilary, about the same film.

This is epic, and so appropriate: Chef du Cinema offers a post that links, if you click through, to not one or two, but THREE recipes suitable to eat while watching Hitchcock films. The first, in honor of The Lady Vanishes, is one that Alma Reville Hitchcock cooked for her food-loving husband: Crêpes Elizabeth. The others are Coq au Vin (no prizes for guessing the related film) and the trouty-but-good trout, in case you're traveling North by Northwest.

High-Def Digest offers an appreciation of the great Henry Fonda's one Hitch collaboration, The Wrong Man, and of the film's "stripped-down aesthetic."

"Each of the courtyard's individual apartments are a physical manifestation of Jefferies' fears of seriously committing to Fremont": Siren pal Tony Dayoub writes up his own cogent thoughts on Rear Window, at the always-good Cinema Viewfinder.

Another old friend, Operator 99 from the completely fabulous Allure, has a set of posters from the foreign release of Alfred Hitchcock films. Allure always has things you won't see anywhere else.

At Cinema Sight, contributors Wesley Lovell, Peter J. Patrick and Tripp Burton are counting down their favorite Hitchcock films. To see which films were picked as Numbers Six and Seven, click right here.

All the way from Dubai, Hind Mezaina is on her third year of doing her bit for preservation at her blog, the Culturist. Today, she's back with embedded episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with the aim of showcasing the jaw-dropping kind of people who worked on that TV show: Bette Davis, Roger Moore, Steve McQueen, Walter Matthau, William Shaner, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Redford and Rober Duvall.

"You can also understand how one actor might take "Just do what you always do" as a compliment and sign of respect, or as an insult": The mighty Glenn Kenny deals, as only Glenn can, with the idea that Hitchcock was not a friend to actors.

Darren Mooney at the M0vie Blog is midway through a string of posts that also deal with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, here paying tribute to the episode that gained the series its first Emmy nomination: "The Case of Mr. Pelham," with Tom Ewell as an accountant convinced someone is trying to steal his identity.

At The End of Cinema, Sean Gillman goes deep into The Lodger, Hitchcock's third film as director and the one most people cite as "the first "true" Hitchcock film."

"I would be lying if I said that this post wasn’t going to be mostly hot pictures of Jo Cotten." And if that doesn't prompt you to visit Marya at Cinema Fanatic and her post on Shadow of a Doubt, nothing will.

"Family Plot is a film that seems to get tossed off with barely a nod": Donna Hill begs to differ, in a lovingly detailed post at Strictly Vintage Hollywood.

Brooksie (love that nom de blog!) at Brooksie's Silent Film Collection has a wonderful post that uses The White Shadow as a starting point to look at the theme of twins, doubles and doppelgangers in Hitchcock, and in other silent films.

A photo array of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, which may not be what you think it's going to be. From Larry Aydlette, sui generis as ever.

At Press Play, the Indiewire site devoted to video essays, Peter Labuza has an essay up demonstrating the world-wide impact of Hitchcock: Another titan, Akira Kurosawa, shows Hitch's influence in his film High and Low.

We all know about Hitchcock's love/hate relationship with special effects--but Gareth at Gareth's Movie Diary has a post about an effect that the master never used, because it was so real it might have panicked the audience. Completely fascinating, and absolutely new to the Siren.

A glimpse of the Siren's mysterious Twitter pal, The Futurist, and his Hitchcock-loving psyche.

Awesome--Andrew Hartman at the U.S. Intellectual History blog has a brief, elegant post about Hitchcock, horror and the theories of Slavoj Zizek. What's a blogathon without Zizek, I ask you?

David Cairns, whose wonderful post on Lifeboat the Siren linked in her own, offers a recap of the Hitchcock Year he ran on the indispensable Shadowplay.

Hedwig from As Cool as a Fruitstand talks about a key element of the magnificent Vertigo: the radical change in perspective that Hitch pulls off midway through.

The Siren loves this one: Eric at Dr. Film's Blog posts a list of The Top 13 Films in Need of Preservation. Just see if you don't to get hold of them somehow, too...

Scenes from the Morgue is back, with W.B. Kelso posting vintage newspaper ads for Hitchcock movies: "Gosh! No wonder they tell you to see it from the beginning! That ending is !!! Gosh!"

And, also from Mr. Kelso: What do Tom Hanks and Rear Window have in common?

At Home and Amateur, notes from Dwight Swanson on Alfred Hitchcock's home movies--yes, he took them--and how they were preserved.

Doug Bonner at Boiling Sand has an elegantly written, carefully researched analysis of "Poison," an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode made just after Vertigo. The Siren has never seen it, but she now intends to search out, pronto.

Long before the Internet, the Kinematograph Year Books helped people in the British film industry check out whether someone was padding their resume. At the Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion, Joe Thompson looks at three of the yearbooks and picks out some fascinating Hitchcock-related entries.

Another great piece of research, from Sean Axmaker at MSN movies, this one on the long and convoluted saga of restoring Metropolis, that celebrated masterwork from Fritz Lang.

A nine-minute champagne commercial from Martin Scorsese--with a film-preservation angle, yet? Larry Aydlette's Tumblr has it, and as Larry reminds us, giving to film preservation would make Marty--I mean Mr. Scorsese happy.

Noel Vera of Critic After Dark has a nifty theory about why Scottie should have twigged to the plot shenanigans in Vertigo earlier than he actually did.

The Siren tweeted this link, and got more retweets than she'd ever imagined: Rhett Bartlett at Dial M for Movies collected the final frame of every Hitchcock film extant. Not content to rest on his laurels, Rhett has added an interview regarding the BFI's "Rescue the Hitchcock 9" project--their effort to restore nine of the master's silent films.

At Film Noir Blonde, Jacqueline Fitzgerald lifts a glass to the champagne cocktail that is Notorious, "one of the most beautiful films Hitch ever made."


"What is to be made of Hitchcock's first film? It's hard to see the director Hitchcock would become without squinting. It's there, but it's not fully formed": Vulnavia Morbius of Krell Laboratories squints at The Pleasure Garden (1925) and detects Hitchcock just beginning to work out his vocabulary.

David Cairns gives us a video essay, on the use of hands in The 39 Steps, intended to be a companion to his essay on that great film to be included in the Criterion Blu-Ray. (The Siren plans to pounced on that one.)

At Scenes from the Morgue, W.B. Kelso favors us with newspaper ads for The Birds, featuring a decidedly non-glamourous shot of Tippi Hedren and Hitchcock looking even more impish than usual. And at Micobrew Reviews, he goes into the justly celebrated trailer for that film.

Ed Howard of Only the Cinema traces Hitchcock's "budding visual imagination and subtle sense of humor" in a typically astute post on the director's third sound film, Murder!.

"If you have a favorite actress and you want to see her stockinged legs and feet and never have and she's in a Hitchcock movie, you're in luck!" Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles says he has nothing new to say about Hitchcock, but he says that nothing with great humor and panache.

Guest blogger Joan Myers is hot on the Case of the Actress Who Is Not Nita Naldi, as she discusses The Pleasure Garden over at Strictly Vintage Hollywood.

Hilary Barta, for his part, is dissecting the master's imitators and his childhood neuroses, in witty five-anapestic form at Limerwrecks.

A master and his dogs: Alfred Hitchcock poses adorably with his terriers, both on and off-screen at Spellbound by Movies.

Peter Nelhaus comes up with an Asian thriller that makes some good use of Hitchcock's interest in how long it takes someone to die: Lady in Black.

Hind Mezaina is back, with a clip of Alfred Hitchcock on What's My Line, disguising his voice and even trotting a word or two of French, no doubt in preparation for chatting with M. Truffaut.

Also returning: Lee Price at 21 Essays, musing on the role of paintings in both Michael Powell's Age of Consent and Hitchcock's Blackmail. All this, plus more fantasy dialogue: "Your hero sounds like a very sick man to me." No kidding!

The Trouble With Harry is probably that it's a dark comedy, but Angela Petteys admits that she does, too, at Hollywood Revue.

The Futurist warms the Siren's heart by posting the trailer to probably the least heart-warming Hitchcock movie ever made.

Still counting down the Hitchcock Ten at Cinema Sight, with Numbers Five and Four from Messrs. Lovell, Patrick and Burton. A special shout-out to Mr. Burton for his No. 5!

Now this is different: KC of Classic Movies reviews The Testament of Judy Barton, a novel for all those who watched Vertigo, looked at red-headed Kim Novak and saw a hard-luck dame if ever there was one.

A film Hitchcock himself disliked, but one that prefigured Under Capricorn: Sean Gillman looks at what's worthwhile in The Manxman, at The End of Cinema.

Hooray! Rachel of The Girl With the White Parasol loves Tallulah Bankhead in general, and Lifeboat in particular, as much as the Siren does. An absolutely wonderful tribute to Bankhead's talent, beauty, and just how good she was in the movie, with oodles of screencaps.

Alfred Hitchcock, eternal bridesmaid--at least, in competition at the Oscars. Wesley Lovell looks at the whys and wherefores, at Cinema Sight.

Catching up with High-Def Digest: Josh Zyber takes advantage of a stay in San Francisco to take us on a Vertigo-inspired tour. And Aaron Peck offers a Top 10 list of Hitchcock posters. A must-click for the Marnie poster alone--all the Siren can say to that one is whoa.

Both Marilyn and the Siren love them some Tinky Weisblat, and here you can see why: a lovely meditation on the domestic longings in Shadow of a Doubt, AND a recipe for butterscotch pound cake with maple icing. At Our Grandmother's Kitchen.

Darren Mooney continues his series on Alfred Hitchcock Presents with "Back for Christmas." Includes Hitchcock's not-to-be-missed intro, which begins, as one always does for a Christmas special, "Shrunken heads are a hobby of mine."

"It’s one of Hitchcock’s best and most chilling films, and the first in which he denies his audience the cleansing catharsis of his heroine’s redemption." The fine film critic and writer Carrie Rickey joins us with a post on her favorite Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt. (It's the Siren's favorite too--and Hitchcock's.)

At The Frame, Jandy Stone Hardesty recounts the experience of seeing The White Shadow at AMPAS--the very experience we're blogging to bring to everybody. And she asks: " If we can still locate treasure troves like this in 2011, what else might still be out there, waiting for intrepid archivists to find it, figure out what it is, and restore it so the world can rediscover it?"

The Hitlist at MSN chips in again with a new contributor, Kate Erbland, writing about the appointment of Carl Beauchamp as Resident Scholar at the Mary Pickford Foundation, a group that itself has done good work on behalf of film history.

Former VH1 host Bobby Rivers, a lover of classic film, a very funny man and one of the best Twitter-following decisions the Siren ever made (he's @BobbyRiversTV) comes through with a loving tribute to Doris Day and her evolution in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

At Garbo Laughs, Caroline traces Alfred Hitchcock getting "comfortable in the director's chair" in his 1928 silent comedy, The Farmer's Wife. She also gives a shout-out to the awesome Screening Room at the NFPF, where movies are streamed, free.

Another glimpse of Hitchcock entries in the production annuals that film professionals used back in the day, this time from The Hollywood Reporter Production Encyclopedia; at Joe Thompson's Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion.

At Cry of the City, cherished Siren commenter Trish has a post about why she's always loved the decidedly odd Marnie, with attention paid to Sean Connery as Mark, "required to be love interest, zoologist, detective and psychiatrist."

Oh look, even Smithsonian.com is on board! Daniel Eagan has a really wonderful post about film preservation, The White Shadow and the nature of streaming films online, with some thoughts from the NFPF's Annette Melville, who has been the guardian angel for the blogathon. There's even information about Alfred Hitchcock's canny moves with regard to the rights to his films.

Lifeboat (1944) (For the Love of Film III)

(This post is the Siren's contribution to our blogathon, For the Love of Film III, raising money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to stream The White Shadow, one of the first films worked on by a young Alfred Hitchcock. If you like the post, or indeed the Siren's work in general, she urges you to click the button below and donate as generously as possible to this cause.)

It's good to be king, and it's good to be an auteur. For one thing, if you're an acknowledged auteur, there's no need to worry that when you're dead and gone, someone will hold a blogathon for your rediscovered movie and give all the attention to your pushy assistant.

There's a small catch, though, in that if you are an auteur, you might make Lifeboat, and it won't get all the love it deserves because hey, you also made about a half-dozen towering masterpieces, and this film is merely very, very good.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted a cross-section of characters; it would be trickier to make a movie about how only the kitchen waitstaff survived a boat sinking. And so the Lifeboat people, adrift after a Nazi sub torpedoes their ship, are a motley lot. Kovac (John Hodiak) is a worker from the engine room, proudly grease-stained and loudly left-wing, like a handsome inversion of Eugene O'Neil's Hairy Ape. Alice (Mary Anderson) is a gentle, pacifist nurse; Stanley (Hume Cronyn, an iffy accent but one of his best performances) is an English merchant seaman. Joe, played by the great, ill-fated Canada Lee, is another sailor, as is Gus (second-billed William Bendix) who has a leg full of shrapnel. The industrialist Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) managed to save a single cigar before the ship went down; the shell-shocked Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel) clings to a baby who has already drowned. And there's Constance Porter, the mink-draped journalist played by the one and only Tallulah Bankhead. The U-Boat was itself sunk in the firefight, and soon the survivors have rescued Willi (Walter Slezak), who seems to speak only German and claims to be a simple sailor like the others.

Lifeboat checks off each item on the list of Hitchcock's strengths. Suspenseful direction, to start with the obvious, in scenes such as the passengers fighting a vicious storm, only to hear the Nazi exhorting them to get it together--in the English he claimed he didn't speak. There's psychology, as the peril on the boat is at least as much from emotions and weakness as it is from the sea and privation. And there is humor, too; amidst the pounding waves comes Tallulah's indignant "You speak English!" to Slezak, as well as her expression when she tries to retrieve her suitcase and comes up with a lipstick and a comb.

When people describe Hitchcock as cold or cerebral, the Siren shakes her head. In some films, maybe, but almost never entirely, and not here. Check out the heartbreaking zoom toward Heather Angel's empty, upturned arms after her baby's corpse has been slipped into the ocean. And the first indication of Slezak's menace isn't the shot of him surreptitiously checking his compass. It's Willi's yawn after the passengers have tried to calm the grieving mother, a warning of his heartlessness that no one heeds.

Above all, Lifeboat showcases Hitchcock's timing. He insisted there be no score; there's music only at the beginning and end. Yet Lifeboat is a gloriously rhythmic movie. The boat's bobbing and the sound of the water slapping are all the emphasis needed. When it starts raining, and the half-dead occupants grab a sail to catch the water, the camera moves in on the drops spotting the canvas…and stays there after the rain stops. The amount of time we spend looking at that useless bit of damp is inexpressibly perfect. Not one extra microsecond. So many of Hitchcock's celebrated moments are big, kinetic, heart-clutching, but Lifeboat offers a different sort of genius, like the single change of angle and camera distance, as the delirious Gus imagines he's sharing a drink with his girl.

Even upon release Lifeboat didn't do so hot with critics. The Siren's beloved James Agee said the allegory was "nicely knit, extensively shaded and detailed, and often fascinating," but it wasn't as good as allegories by Shakespeare, Kafka, or Joyce. (At least not being Shakespeare is something most people get over fairly early in life.) John Steinbeck, who wrote the short story the movie was based on, was displeased with the changes and thought the film would hurt the war effort if released abroad. Bosley Crowther sputtered that Lifeboat "sold out democratic ideals and elevated the Nazi superman." By way of qualification he added that doubtless no one planned to make a movie that undermined democracy, but still. If the Nazis got hold of Lifeboat, claimed the Bos, with a few edits they could release it in their own theaters.

In fairness to Crowther (and don't we all strive for that) he was expressing exactly what the Office of War Information had said about the original script. OWI, set up by Roosevelt to advise the movie industry on how to support the war effort, understood that the passengers were stand-ins for the Allies. But OWI couldn't see why these people had to be such drips.

You can almost hear the OWI staff pouring themselves a stiff drink as they wearily compose their memos. Constance is "a selfish, predatory, amoral, international adventuress." (You say that like it's a bad thing, boys.) Kovac boasts too much of his sexual conquests and besides, he (probably) cheats at cards--were the writers suggesting Americans are lecherous and dishonest? The character of Rittenhouse underlines class differences in the States, and we don't have those, or at least, we don't talk about them in front of the neighbors. The original script had an argument over Spain that included Connie addressing the pro-Loyalist Kovac as "Tovarich" and ended with Rittenhouse observing that "a new Spain is coming." The agency succeeded in getting rid of that, although the "Tovarich" comment was moved elsewhere and Connie still gets to needle Kovac: "Oh, I get it. A fellow traveler. I thought the Comintern was dissolved."

Other OWI objections sailed past the filmmakers. The agency, staffed largely by liberals as you might have inferred, spent a fair amount of time trying to get Hollywood as a whole to dial down the racism. The manual they sent the studios politely asks, for example, that scripts refrain from describing the enemy in the Pacific as "little buck-toothed treacherous Jap[s]." Clearly OWI didn't succeed all that often, and in Lifeboat, they couldn't even strip Canada Lee's character of the nickname "Charcoal." Nor did they manage to alter the scene where the passengers give Lee a vote on Slezak's fate and he refuses to use it, although Lee's sardonic head-tilt on his line, "Do I get a vote too?" is its own kind of tell.

Credited screenwriter Jo Swerling and others did make some changes, most notably adding the scene where Willi pushes Gus over the side, a culling of the weak as brutal, and pointedly political, as anything in Hitchcock. Hitchcock achieves effects just by keeping the camera on the face of a good actor, when Willi tells the outraged passengers that Gus had to die. You can see in Slezak's eyes, so precisely you can pause the frame on a player, the exact moment when Willi realizes that he has lost his hold on these people. (Here. It's at 3:13.)

Then they turn on Willi, only the backs of the mob visible as they beat him with their fists, then Stanley grabs a piece of wood, Joe stands apart, and there's just one glimpse of the German's bloodied face before they throw him over the side. The script calls it "an orgasm of murder," and the exhaustion afterward indeed seems almost sexual, Mary Anderson arching her back and stretching out her legs. Hitchcock responds to the violence with another sinuous shot--an elegant pan down Rittenhouse to the shoe he holds, the one he picked up to hammer Willi's hands away from the side of the boat.

The Siren's regard for this movie dates all the way back to her pre-teen years and her first encounter with Tallulah Bankhead's memoirs. Bankhead, an Alabama gal like the Siren herself, may not have been the ideal role model, but she sure was educational: "I was a hedonist before I knew what hedonism was," she wrote, as the Siren reached for her dictionary. Lifeboat gave Bankhead her one movie role that lives on in the public memory. She was proud that she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, even pointing it out in the caption to Lifeboat still she included in her autobiography.

Bankhead, as the Siren recalls, didn't write up the most notorious story from the Lifeboat set. The boat was floating in a huge tank on the Fox lot, and as she scrambled around, the persistently panty-free star was flashing the entire cast and crew. It was all fun and games until a reporter from a ladies' magazine came to visit, caught a better view of Bankhead than she had bargained for and nearly had an aneurysm. The head of Fox publicity (so it is said) went to tell Hitchcock that he needed to, er, put a lid on Tallulah and the director mused out loud: "In a case like this it's hard to tell where the responsibility lies. You might consider that this is a matter for the wardrobe department, or perhaps for the makeup people--or perhaps it's a matter for hairdressing." Thus endeth the Case of the Missing Underpinnings.

She came down with pneumonia after weeks of being doused with water, but still they got along well, Tallulah and Hitch. He called her "Baghead," she called him "Bitchcock" and when the movie was released he described her as having given a "Bancock" performance. You get the feeling that they could have gone on like that forever--Cockbank? Headcock?--and it's a pity they never worked together again. In the fantasy cinema in the Siren's head, she likes to give Bankhead a cameo as the nun who materializes at the end of Vertigo. You have to admit, Tallulah in full wimple would be enough to startle anyone into falling off a bell tower. Lifeboat is all we've got from these two, though. And there is no actress, living or dead, whom the Siren would rather see volunteering her diamond bracelet as a fishing lure, no voice the Siren would rather hear utter the line, "I can recommend the bait. I bit on it myself."

Despite her partiality for her Alabama paisano, the Siren assures you that she has no similar soft spot for movies that coddle fascists. Pace Crowther, Lifeboat does nothing of the sort. The Nazi's advantage comes not from being some Wagnerian demigod, but from being a sociopath--he has water and energy pills, and he shares neither with the desperate people who pulled him out of the water. Willi's preternatural calm, his courage, are disturbing but necessary. Dramatically necessary, because otherwise we can't comprehend why seven people would, first unknowingly and then with sullen resignation, permit Willi to escort them to a German boat and the certain fate of a concentration camp. And it's vital to the allegory, because the governments in Europe and America had done the same thing by appeasing Hitler throughout the 1930s. Lifeboat doesn't try to pretty that up.

But neither is Lifeboat straight-up propaganda, as it's sometimes read nowadays. It was released in January of 1944, when the Allies' demand of unconditional surrender no longer seemed like a pipe dream. The German supply ship heaves into sight, only to be shelled by one of our own vessels. And the citizens of the lifeboat, in the closing moments, find themselves hauling in another German, a young sailor who echoes Willi: "Danke schoen." Rittenhouse, who moments before had wondered, "what are you going to do with people like that," now has an answer: "Exterminate him! Exterminate them all!" The weak, vacillating Ritt, easily the least sympathetic of the lot, is overruled. But his question remains, asked by Stanley after the sailor pulls a gun on the rescuers: "What are you gonna do with people like that?" Kovac responds, "I dunno. I was thinking of Mrs. Higgins and her baby. And Gus." Now that the end is in sight, the people on the boat, and by extension the Allies, don't want to lose their humanity. Connie answers in closeup: "Well. Maybe they can answer that." Hitchcock ends on Tallulah, surrounded by debris, the lives in the boat safe for now as the costs mount around them.

(Material on the making of Lifeboat is from Hollywood Goes to War by Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, and The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto. The Siren also recommends David Cairns on Lifeboat, right here.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Day One

Starting a Hitchcock-themed blogathon on Mother's Day is the kind of joke Hitchcock might have appreciated, and so here we are. It's Day One of our blogathon to benefit the National Film Preservation Foundation and its efforts to stream the three rediscovered reels of The White Shadow from 1923, directed by Graham Cutts and the earliest surviving film that Alfred Hitchcock had a major part in creating.

Click over, please, to goddess Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films for all your blogathon link needs. Then click through to the posts by all the wonderful, dedicated writers who are urging you to donate. And above all, throw a little something in the kitty, please. Every donation counts, every donation is eligible for raffle prizes, and every donation is deeply appreciated.

Digging around for Hitchcock anecdotes is like trying to find just the right cup of sand at the beach; the problem is that the supply is inexhaustible. Nevertheless, to start us off, the Siren is offering a few here.

The eyes should be far apart, the face oval or round rather than long, and the way the hair grows round the forehead is important. The features must not be too decided, and the screen demands a certain animation and sparkle of movement, which is the opposite of self-consciousness.

--Alfred Hitchcock's "rough-and-ready rules" for screen beauty, circa 1935, quoted in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

He took the trouble to study his actors quite apart from what they were playing, and so he was able to bring hidden things out from them. He always realized how nervous I was and used to wait for the silence before 'action' and then tell a naughty, sometimes shocking story that either galvanized me into action or collapsed me into giggles; either way it removed the tension.

--Ann Todd, The Eighth Veil

We already had one little argument about my entrance and I got my way. I know I always can with him but I dislike the argument.

--Ingrid Bergman writes a letter to a friend from the set of Under Capricorn, quoted in My Story

If any other director asked an actor to put down a teacup, it would be only that. But with Hitch it was done for a reason. If an actor was strumming his fingers it wasn't just an idle strumming, it had a beat, a musical pattern to it--it was like a sound refrain.

--Teresa Wright, quoted in Spoto

There was one small scene, however, that continued to trouble our conscientious star, and no amount of waffle on our part could convince him that he had its proper significance within his sights. This was where, as an American scientist in East Berlin for reasons I need not go into, he has a meeting with Julie Andrews who has to place a package into his hands, for reasons I no longer remember. Newman's problem, as he agonized it to Hitchcock during the camera rehearsal, was on the lines of: 'Hitch, it seems to me I have a situation here with Julie, I have a situation with the package, I have a situation with being in East Berlin and I have a situation with the problem of our being observed. Now how should I be relating in this scene?' HItchcock, having listened courteously, delivered his judgment in his measured, plummy accents: 'Well, Mr. Newman, I'll tell you exactly what I have in mind here. Miss Andrews will come down the stairs with the package, d'you see, when you, if you'll be so good, will glance just a little to the right of camera to take in her arrival; whereupon my audience will say, "Hulloh! What's this fellow looking at?" And then I'll cut away, d'you see, and show them what you're looking at.'

--Keith Waterhouse discusses Torn Curtain, for which he did some uncredited rewrites with Willis Hall; in Streets Ahead: Life After City Lights.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

For the Love of Film: Your Instructions

Alert! Alert!

For a moment, please put aside whatever marvelous thing you've been doing, whether phoning a friend, watching TCM in your jammies or, maybe, working, and listen up. The final instructions regarding For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, are here. This year, we are raising funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation's project, The White Shadow, directed by Graham Cutts and written, assistant-directed, and just generally meddled with in a number of different ways by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock. The goal is to raise $15,000 to stream this once-lost, now-found, three-reel fragment online, free to all, and to record the score by Michael Mortilla.

Marilyn Ferdinand, Rod Heath and the Siren are pleased to announce that we now have more than 100 bloggers signed up for this hoedown. Good onya, as they say in Rod's part of the world. Here's what you do.

1. We kick off Sunday, May 13, at 10 am EDT and we wrap at 10 pm on Friday, May 18. Your post should go live between those two times.

2. In order to be linked by the blogathon, ya gotta do one main thing: Link to the NFPF's donation site. That's it. Simple. Here's the link:


And you can get an absolutely corking donation button right here. We love you all, but if you don't have that link, we can't link to your post.

3. Last, the response was amazing and the participation bigger than ever, which was heart-warming and a beautiful thing, but it took a lot out of Marilyn and the Siren. The Siren, in fact, had a dream one night about entering html links. In order to make things a bit easier, we are rotating the home blogs this year, as follows.

Sunday May 13 and Monday May 14, the home blog is Ferdy on Films. Go to the comments at Marilyn's place and leave a link to your post. She will link from there.

Tuesday May 15 and Wednesday May 16, it's the Siren's turn. Procedure the same.

Thursday May 17 and Friday May 18, our genial host is Rod Heath at This Island Rod, the gentleman who made all the fabulous banners for this blogathon, still available here. One thing to note: Rod is Under Capricorn, meaning he's in Australia, and unless html dreams are keep him awake all night, he is quite likely to be asleep during part of the North American day. So please be patient about his updates.

One more, very important point: You can participate at any point during the blogathon. You don't have to have signed up already. And this isn't restricted to film blogs, either. All we ask is that you include the donation link (can't stress that enough), and post about either something related to The White Shadow--any aspect of Hitchcock, Graham Cutts etc.--or about film preservation.

Let's do it! And please, spread the word far and wide--Twitter, Facebook, your mom, whatever. The more people who know about this, the more money we can raise.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

For the Love of Film III Preview: Rear Window

Ahead of our blogathon, For the Love of Film, which begins Sunday with Marilyn Ferdinand's Ferdy on Films as the home base, the Siren is re-posting a very slightly fine-tuned version of this, from 2008, about one of her top five Hitchcock movies, Rear Window. More details, including a button for the donation link to the National Film Preservation Foundation, will be here soon. Meantime, you can also hear the voice of the Siren discussing the blogathon on the podcast run by the wonderful folks at the group classic-film blog, The Cinementals. Have a listen, please.

The Siren spent a number of her early New York years in a rundown apartment on the fuzzy border between Harlem and Morningside Heights. Everything about it was ramshackle, including the wiring, and our doubts about whether the outlets could stand up to an air conditioner meant I spent several scorching summers with only a few fans. Naturally I got in the habit of sleeping naked. You would, too.

One night, having been out too late, I awoke in the wee hours and decided I wanted some milk. Since my roommates were dead to the world I got up in the altogether and went to the kitchen, which faced a narrow airshaft and a window directly into the kitchen of the apartment in the next building. I didn't turn on the light. I opened the fridge, grabbed the milk carton and with the door still open, because the air felt good, I turned to grab a glass. And what should I see across the way but a neighbor, also stark naked, standing next to his fridge and also holding a carton of milk. I let out a shriek and bolted. I think he did the same.

Say what you will about New York, that kind of thing probably doesn't happen much in Dubuque. (And right now any readers I might have in Dubuque are saying, "Thank god.")

This brings us to Rear Window. Like all great movies it offers many avenues for interpretation, but today the Siren is after the question of what it may tell us about living in New York, shot though it was at Paramount.

Did you know that sellers of telescopes and binoculars do a brisk business in New York? Just one problem--the incredible amount of light pollution in the city makes stars hard to see. People aren't buying this stuff to look at Neptune. As with this woman quoted by the New York Times, they're hoping to "see something totally unexpected." Life being life, and not the movies, they usually don't. But, like James Stewart's photographer, still they look.

People go to great lengths in this most crowded of American cities to preserve a sense of privacy. If you live here, or visit, take some time on the subway to observe the almost balletic maneuvers that New Yorkers will make to maintain their personal space as the car gets crowded. Americans in general don't like people standing too close, but an average New Yorker needs Yankee Stadium around his body to feel truly comfortable. So observe, too, the way New Yorkers react to someone who, whether deliberately or out of ignorance, doesn't get it and insists on full-frontal contact with another passenger--the dirty looks, the impatient sighs, the way the New Yorker twists away from the clueless interloper.

If an argument should start, notice how no one appears to be listening. They are, trust me. We are constantly listening and looking. But we also do a good job of not seeing things if we feel we shouldn't--the girl crying silently on the train, the neighbor whose anatomy you know better than you should.

The murder drives the plot, but it is far from the only thing that grabs you in that vast array of windows so impossibly arranged across Jeff's courtyard. You also focus on the composer, who is having a hard time with his art despite living in the most desirable apartment in the building (that's a very New York observation, sorry). There's Miss Lonelyhearts, kindhearted but hating every minute of being single. There's Miss Torso, doing her calisthenics and entertaining an all-male party (why all men?). There's the (probably) childless couple, lowering the wife's beloved dog into the garden every morning for a romp. There's the honeymoon couple...well, they're the most boring for sure.

The classic interpretation of Rear Window is as a metaphor for both moviemaking and movie-watching, Jeff (Stewart) standing in for both Alfred Hitchcock himself and those people out there in the dark. Rear Window is one of cinema's greatest uses of the subjective camera. Our point of view across the courtyard is always Jeff's, keeping our identification with him. So his dilemmas become ours, which is why the Siren thinks the Jeff-as-film-director-and-audience viewpoint is true, sure--but it isn't nearly probing enough. Where's the quandary in that? In both cases, people are just doing their jobs, the director making the movie and the audience watching it. Both acts are morally neutral. You can throw around the word "voyeur," but it's the reaction to what you see that counts. In the context of 1954, with Joe Breen and his minions still on smut patrol, it's amusing to note how Hitchcock introduces a non-stop series of sexual innuendos, from Jeff's (ahem) highly extendable telephoto lens to Lisa (Grace Kelly) holding up a filmy negligee and announcing "Preview of coming attractions." (This is the favorite part of every male the Siren has ever discussed the movie with.) Still, there's nothing particularly daring about pointing out to a movie audience that they want to be entertained, or even titillated, by other people's lives.

The real question of Rear Window isn't about the morality of looking, it's about the ethics of intervention. A little less than a decade after the movie's release, a young woman was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens, stabbed to death within earshot of neighbors who mostly dismissed her screams. While later research led to doubts about whether the neighbors realized Kitty Genovese was fighting for her life, the story passed into legend, the ultimate indictment of people not wanting to get involved, forever to be cited as an example of the unique callousness of New Yorkers.

Rear Window is Kitty Genovese in reverse: rather than "I didn't want to get involved," it's New Yorkers getting very involved indeed. "I'm not much on rear-window ethics," says Lisa, but the movie asks us to become just that. At what point are you looking at things you shouldn't--when you witness one neighbor drunkenly trashing his work, or another's despairing loneliness? And when are you obligated to act--when you see that neighbor trying to kill herself? All right, that one's easy. But how about when you suspect a crime--any crime, let alone a murder--but haven't a thing to prove it, and can't get the police interested, either?

Only three creatures in the movie pay a real price for observing, and in all cases their undoing comes when they get involved. Jeff breaks his other leg. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the murderer, sees Jeff across the courtyard and comes after him, only to get caught. Presumably he will pay the ultimate price off-camera. But the one creature whose curiosity ends in death during the running time is the neighbor's dog, who scratches in the flowerbeds where Thorwald has buried some part of his wife. When the dog's body is discovered, his owner flings her anger across the courtyard:

Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbor.' Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do. But I couldn't imagine any of you bein' so low that you'd kill a little helpless, friendly dog - the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did ya kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?

As if to emphasize their complicity, Hitchcock gives us a shot of each neighbor. But is the dog owner's accusation fair? The Siren looks at Miss Lonelyhearts, tenderly placing the dog's body in his basket for the last time, and thinks not. The stricken faces around the courtyard don't suggest casual indifference. Maybe the characters don't trill "Good morning!" (though we do see some greeting going on) and inquire after everyone's health, but let's face it, that can be either heart-warming or annoying as hell. Many people move to big cities to get away from small-town nosiness. And we've been spending our time with Jeff and Lisa, who definitely care whether Mrs. Thorwald lived or died.

After the speech everyone moves away from the window, except Lisa and Jeff (and us, via Hitchcock's camera). But the most guilty person in the movie, the one who killed his wife, strangled a dog and doesn't go to look, is Thorwald. The shot of his apartment, dark save for the glow of his cigarette, is the Siren's favorite in Rear Window.

Could this movie have been about any city other than New York? Possibly, but it wouldn't have hit the same truths. Because New York is a city where neighbors ostentatiously stay out of each other's business when they're out on the sidewalk, then go home and do everything they can to find out what's happening across the air shaft. Sometimes, as with what the Siren's roommates later dubbed the "milkman incident," your discoveries are accidental. More frequently, you're looking on purpose. Either way, you gather information but usually don't need, or even want, to act on it. When the Siren encountered the milkman on the street a few weeks later, we did an excellent job of pretending It Never Happened.
Certainly Hitchcock is teasing the audience for its need to watch, and giving us a taste of being behind the camera, able to influence events but not dictate them entirely. The director is said to have loved storyboards, planning every shot and trying to mold every scene to the way it unspooled in his head. Like most legends that one isn't entirely true. But even if you take it for granted that Hitchcock was a control freak, what an actor does when the cameras turn is something that can never be completely controlled--for that you'd need a marionette. (Cattle, to cite Hitchcock's notorious comparison, can be even less biddable than a recalcitrant star.) Jeff's lack of power--his initial inability to catch Thorwald, his helplessness while watching Lisa in danger, his immobility when the murderer comes stomping up the stairs for him--is a highly exaggerated version of the way New Yorkers see more in a day than they can possibly react to.

In the penultimate scene, Thorwald confronts Jeff and asks "What do you want from me?" The question could be addressed to us as New Yorkers. What do we want? The city is beautiful, but so are many other cities. We make our lives here because our fellow New Yorkers are interesting, and because interesting things happen here. We want to observe the stories around us, but we also want to be left alone as we live out our own.

You gotta problem with that?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Trains and Romance, in Black and White

All legendary obstacles lay between
Us, the long imaginary plain,
The monstrous ruck of mountains
And, swinging across the night,
Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,
The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale
Above the negro porter's lamp.
I was too blind with rain
And doubt to speak, but
Reached from the platform
Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady, who marked
A neat circle on the glass
With her glove, to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

--John Montague

The General

Trains figure in the whole history of cinema and in all film cultures...Trains represent progress, and the past, and the future, and death. They always signify change. They're protean as a metaphor, and yet they're also profoundly romantic objects in and of themselves.

--Laurence Kardish

The Girl: You're so simple, you're apt to get into trouble.
Sullivan: Why do you think I'm here?
The Girl: Gee, I like that about you. You're like those knights of old, who used to ride around
looking for trouble.
--Sullivan's Travels

Oscar: Why Lily, you're crying.
Lily: Sure, sure, I turn on the faucet. It's that sort of scene. That's the devil of it.
Oscar: That's the pity of it, you mean. Those movies you were in--it's sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.
--Twentieth Century

Chips: Miss Kathy!...Kathy!...You kissed me.
Kathy: I know, it was dreadful of me.
Chips: No, but do you...are we...oh this, is dreadful...awful...Look here, you'll have to marry me now, you know.
Kathy: Do you want to?
Chips: Do I want to? Do you?
Kathy: Dreadfully...goodbye.
Chips: Kathy! Oh you can't go now, my dear!
--Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Frank: Goodbye, thin girl.
Ariane: Goodbye, Mr. Flannagan.
Frank: You promised.
Ariane: You don't have to worry about me, Mr. Flannagan. There've been so many men before. There'll be so many after this. It's gonna be another one of those crazy years. While you're in Cannes, I'll be in Brussels with the banker. He wants to give me a Mercedes Benz, a blue one. It's my favorite color. And while you're in Athens, I'll be with the duke again in Scotland. But, I don't know whether I'll go yet, because another man's asked me to spend the summer with him in Deauville. He owns race horses. He's very rich. He's number twenty. I mean number twenty-one. You're number twenty. So, you see Mr. Flannagan, I'll be perfectly all right. I'll... I'll be all right... I'll be all right!
--Love in the Afternoon

Anna: Are you just going to sit there and do nothing?
Gus: Now please, don't make a scene.
Anna: Don't you realize what this means?
Gus: Yes, I do. But he's got a gun and I haven't and he's got a couple of reserves next door. Who do you take me for, Bulldog Drummond?
Anna: Can't you be serious even now? I told you this would happen, I told you that your scheme was absolutely childish, but you wouldn't listen to me. Why didn't you stay in England, instead of coming over here and deliberately throwing your life away, you fool!
--Night Train to Munich

But, my friend, happiness is not a joyful thing.
--Le Plaisir

And I love the scene in Since You Went Away, where Jennifer Jones sees Robert Walker off at the railroad depot. It is night, the night that John Cromwell and Stanley Cortez photographed so well, and she wears a white frock and she runs to keep up with the train, but it is inexorable, pulling away.

It still seems to me the perfect farewell scene, and no film crew today could muster the same feeling or keep away the irony in order to just do a scene like that. They'd whisper to you that, in real life, Jones and Walker were breaking up at that time because David O. Selznick, the film's producer, had seduced Jennifer. None of which matters, except maybe for Jennifer Jones.

Which of us ever forgets one detail of the moment when we lost something, or let it go?....
--David Thomson

I stood there and watched his train draw out of the station. I stared after it, until its tail light had vanished into the darkness. I imagined him getting out at Churley, giving up his ticket, walking back through the streets, letting himself into his house with his latchkey. His wife Madeleine, will probably be in the hall to meet him, or perhaps upstairs in her room, not feeling very well. Small, dark, and rather delicate. I wondered if he'd say: 'I met such a nice woman at the Kardomah. We had lunch and went to the pictures.' And then suddenly, I knew that he wouldn't. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he wouldn't say a word - and at that moment, the first awful feeling of danger swept over me.
--Brief Encounter