Tag Archives: vertigo

Head

Thirty years after the death of the most celebrated costume designer in Hollywood history, a look back on the talent, strangeness, and PR bonanza that was Edith Head.

In this week’s Hollywood Reporter.

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I Confess

Alfred Hitchcock died thirty years ago this week, on April 29th, 1980.

I’ve always had a confusing relationship with Hitch. With several exceptions (which I’ll touch on in a moment), a large majority of his pictures fill me with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, like when the TV tells me about a new sports car that can go very, very fast, or an athlete who scores a lot of points. “Yes,” I want to say to movies like North by Northwest, “That’s a lovely sequence – a touchdown sequence – but…then what?”

Maybe it’s because we like to talk about Hitchcock in pieces. The Shower Scene, the crane shot in Notorious, Vertigo’s dolly zoom, the high-angle shot from Topaz – wonderful garnish, but sometimes I wonder, where’s the beef? (Caveat: Vertigo is 100% prime cut select.) Often, it has helped me to see the garnish as the beef: so many of these pictures tend to be as much about how we watch them as they are about their content. Rope is a famous example: an experiment in watching. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought Rear Window was one of Hitch’s best; it was a subject near to Hitch’s heart, and it showed.

Wait, did I just write “Hitch’s heart”? What does that mean, exactly?

Screenwriter David Freeman had the good fortune to work with Alfred Hitchcock late in his career, in the days when Hitch would have prints of the newest movies delivered to his office at Universal, which is how he saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. In his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, Freeman reports that Hitch, at the height of one of those ferocious Liv-Ullmann/Ingrid Bergman scenes, got up from his seat, wobbled to the door, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.” Then he left.

It’s a revealing anecdote, and a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, deep in his heart-thing, was really not one for the hard stuff. He was jokester. Tilt your head, substitute Cary Grant for Alec Guinness, and you’ll see a good portion of these pictures look like sadistic Ealing Comedies. Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, and a few of the films I mentioned above, all have that mischievous prankster quality, the giggly feeling of pulling the rug out from under the status quo. I like these movies, but with the exception of Vertigo and Rear Window, my personal cluster of favorites comes from the back shelf: The Wrong Man, I, Confess, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second) are perhaps his most disturbing films. Not because their composition is any more bravura than Psycho’s, but because they each feature such strong performances (Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and Doris Day, respectively). These characters are the dead-opposite of the Hitchcock Blonde, and their films are all the better for it. But that’s very much a personal thing.

For the record: it’s only because I love Hitchcock that I let myself needle through his best films. As a former-fellow voyeur, I know he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Shutter Island Paradise

I’m not surprised Shutter Island has put people off. It’s bombastic, loud, prone to hysteria, and engaged with the sort of horror hokum we want to think Martin Scorsese – our most popular highbrow filmmaker – is too good for. To be frank, some scenes clank. Others are embarrassingly operatic, and a few too many moments stumble into kitsch (“He’s in here. I can feel it.“), but the gestalt is insidiously addictive.

Attribute it to Scorsese’s deft handling of noir-like flashbacks and horror-type fantasies, which he fuses to induce that place of semi-consciousness between vivid recall and total insanity. It is a state of mind perfectly suited to America of the mid-fifties – not coincidentally the time-setting for Shutter Island – when post-war trauma, McCarthyism, and the pressure to keep it all together were making a paranoid mess of those the nation once counted amongst its sane.

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With material such as this, it’s no wonder Scorsese isn’t shy about going all out. Maybe Michael Haneke would have played it closer to the vest, but when was the last time the director of films as visceral as Raging Bull and Goodfellas traded in whip-pans and splattered blood for a feathery touch? (Even The Age of Innocence is exploding with cinematic guts.) More than that, when was the last time insanity was ever depicted as polite?

Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin anything. From the word “asylum,” we should have a pretty good sense of what’s at stake for our main character. And anyway, the surprises – and there are many – have less to do with twists and turns in the plot than watching Scorsese re-explore one of his favorite subjects – this time with new eyes. Here, in the realm of noir and horror, genres that lend themselves to surreal breaks from objectivity, he can indulge his flamboyance to the nth degree, continuing to build, quite logically, on a sequence of madness that started way back with Taxi Driver, and expanded to include Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Aviator (with side trips to After Hours and The King of Comedy along the way).

Scorsese’s invocation of madness in Shutter Island is as satisfying as anything he’s filmed in twenty years. The Departed was a good time too, and so was Casino, but neither did much to grow the director beyond the walls of his comfort zone. Shutter Island, on the other hand, pushes our conception of Scorsese to the brink. It tests him, and he comes out the cleverer for it, proving that he has what it takes to navigate through the film’s several timeframes and planes of consciousness both the old fashioned way – with a system of symbols triggering the narrative from one association to the next – just as he and his editor, the amazing Thelma Schoonmacher, shuffle us through a trick deck of visual sleights of hand. Like something out of Vertigo, disorienting shifts between points of view – shots that begin (it seems) from one perspective and end up (it seems) from another – evoke the kind of psychological rupture lesser directors would fob off with cosmetic gimmicks, nutty angles, and (God help us) the standard hand-held effect (scary!).

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But there’s more. In the midst of the fancy-footwork, the director proves, once again, that he knows where his characters’ hearts lie. Like all good films noirs, Shutter Island must eventually confront that moment of original sin, when, way back in the past, things started going wrong. When it comes time to show it, in keeping with everything else about Shutter Island, he isn’t afraid to pump up the volume. Scorsese knows there’s no trauma without trauma. Fearlessly, he conveys the wound with a seriousness that belies what many, myself included, consider the limitations of the thriller.

And in the midst of all this, Shutter Island happens to be one hell of a fun ride. If you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy listening to the Coney Island clicks and creaks of the old rollercoaster as your wooden car makes its fateful way up.

Against the Drift

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but I’ve been noticing a trend in wide shots lately, and it’s not doing anyone any good.

For the past several years, and maybe even before, certain sub-middle directors have got it in their heads to drift the camera when dialogue scenes get too talky. You know what I’m talking about: that slow, often barely perceptible circumferential glide around the speakers that sometimes lasts for an entire scene without a single cut. Not a full 360, mind you; just a gentle, endless side-to-side. I’m thinking of The Blind Side, The Last Station, and The Young Victoria. But there are others.

What’s behind this? Very likely a feeling to do something. Or the erroneous logic that verbal movies need movement to keep from seeming theatrical. But like adding salt to a bland tasting meal, the drifting wide shot only makes the blandness more obvious. Look out for it at al fresco dining scenes, in the midst of highbrow pillow talk, and during a scene of reading or orating.

That’s not to say that the drifting/wide is a lose-lose. When it’s done right, like, say, in the movies of Bertolucci, it can express a vertiginous sensuality as intoxicating as anything in Vertigo. Look at something like The Last Emperor, or even The Dreamers (or even Besieged). Somewhere between a Steadicam and a crane on a dolly, Bertolucci’s camera seems to move as freely and as softly as smoke wisping from a cigarette. Whether it’s gliding forward, up, or – quite majestically – forward and up, at their best, these shots are well suited to Bertolucci’s worlds of excessive, often sordid ecstasy. In The Dreamers, for instance, a slight dutch to the shot gives the action – no matter how inviting – an air of not-quite-right, like a drop of poison in the perfume.

Needless to say, you won’t find anything like that in The Young Victoria. Instead, you’ll get the most innocuous kind of drift: the aimless, meandering, purposeless putter that illuminates not the story, character, or the finer shades of theme, but the lethargic mind behind the viewfinder.

Les biches

I’ve always had a thing for Claude Chabrol.

Godard never hits my sweet spot and Truffaut, with few exceptions, hits it too hard. But Chabrol, mercurial, clever Chabrol, always knows what I want. True, he may choose not to give it, he may delay or even withhold satisfaction, but our pleasure is always in his crosshairs, and Chabrol feathers it like a giggling coquette. Better than that, when he’s in a playfully sadistic mood, he may not feather at all. But he’s still laughing. Mercurial Chabrol almost always is.

Like Hitchcock, one of his masters, Chabrol gets a big kick out of perversity. But unlike Hitch, Chabrol’s sense of a humor never sinks to sea level. He’s too damn French for that; Shakespeare would have him somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Falstaff. Think of Les biches (1968), which Chabrol called “the first film which I made exactly as I wished.” It begins full of delicious ennui (bien sur) as Frederique, a beautiful, wealthy Parisian (played by Chabrol’s wife and frequent collaborator, Stephane Audran), picks up a sidewalk artist called “Why” (Jacqueline Sassard), brings her to her posh apartment, watches her bathe, and after some highly suggestive cross-cutting on the part of Chabrol, drops to her knees to drink in Why’s glistening midriff. Well, by now we can hardly stand it. (Come on, Chabrol! Give it to us!) Slowly, so as not to disturb the thick air of languor our director has painstakingly cultivated, Frederique raises her spindly fingers to the button on Why’s jeans, and Chabrol slams us with a hard cut to another place and time. The foreplay has begun.

Into their idyll comes Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to lure Why from Frederique. Together, the three of them circle onward toward a ménage, but no one seems to be having any fun; we soon see this is a game of possession, not sex, and certainly not love. Indeed their every interaction is handled with a sensuality so joyless, if it wasn’t for Chabrol’s cinematic wit, you might think you were watching Antonioni. Throughout the picture, Audran keeps her face as still as lake. When she moves or speaks, it’s practically without intention. At times, like a person out of Pinter, she barely seems to play the part. And yet, it comes off.

With looks as blank as these, it falls to Chabrol to make sense of them for us. He becomes, in a sense, a kind of translator, and uses his camera to reveal the quiet violence coursing beneath the façade. To pull it off, Chabrol could, like Hitchcock, dutch the angle (as in I, Confess), or subsume us in point of view (Rear Window), or try out terrific tricks (Vertigo), but – surprise, surprise – he’s too damn French for that. Instead, Chabrol casts a cool, objective lens on his characters’ dysfunction. But rather than distance us from them, his remove invites us to push past the surfaces and wonder at what sickness churns on the other side of their eyes. Suddenly, the hairline fractures come into view. Then the cracks. Things begin to break.

Enough hours with Chabrol, and one can see the fissures coming a long way off, but no matter; when his mysteries falter, or when his suspense lags, there is more than enough psychological disintegration to keep us going. Can’t see it on the faces? Then look to the camera. By the end of Les biches, flat, deadening two-shots – the shallow-focus kind that Buñuel loved – give way to cubism. With whirling elegance, Chabrol juliennes the action; small pushes-in, gentle tracks-out, and layered compositions lend the narrative its multidimensionality, and enhance our understanding of these people’s inner lives. It keepsLes biches from drooling into hysterics and flamboyant clichés, and it allows Chabrol’s two opposing loves – refinery and brutality – to exist side by perverse side.

This piece originally appeared at notcoming.com

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