When I ran a poll a little while ago on which three 1001 films I should live tweet, The Birds (1963) was the runaway winner. That was a pleasnant suprise, because even though I ama massive fan of Hitchcock, I have never seen this film. Until earlier today when I did the live tweet. Here are the results.
My March viewing pretty much covered the cinematic spectrum. Some rubbish big budget releases were offset by somewhat obscure Hitchcock classics, phenomenal documentaries and even academic film. Share your thoughts on these in the comments section below.
- The Look of Love (2013), Michael Winterbottom – Coogan and Winterbottom make a pretty good double act. Coogan has evolved into quite the performer whilst Winterbottom is a very assured shooter and the early parts of this film are nicely stylised. There is not too much plot, but the film is nicely put together and has a decent script and period design. Overall it is a bit unfocused and perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity to peer deeper into what is shown. But as a portrait of a not particularly nice rich man, it succeeds. And some moments rise above, such as Imogen Poots singing over the final credits.
- The Little Mermaid (1989), Ron Clements and John Musker – This is a combination of sublime design and terrible (even by Disney standards) morality. There is great, evocative presentation of life under the sea with an artistic, almost hand painted animation style. Disney’s sense of character is so spot-on here, establishing Sebastian and Flounder as characters to latch onto in very quick time. But the themes are terrible. I think this picture my fiancée scribbled in my notebook pretty much sums up the film:
- Miss Representation (2011), Jennifer Siebel Newsom – This doco, which focuses on the representation of women in the media, straightforwardly presents the overwhelming power of the media simply due to the quantum of consumption. This force is able to shape what is most important about women and also shape how young men consider women. From a filmmaking perspective, this is not scintillating stuff. But backed up with shocking stats (depression amongst girls doubled from 2000-2010 for e.g.) and personal insights from a varied range of talking heads including Margaret Cho and Condoleezza Rice, it effectively gets the important message across.
- Lifeboat (1944), Alfred Hitchcock – This is one of Hitch’s first high concept flicks, set entirely on a lifeboat funnily enough. It works on a bunch of levels and is also really quite shocking for the time on a similar number of levels. Not everyone lives. There are some great philosophical discussions when a Nazi soldier is picked up. For this to work, the script had too be really sharply written and it is. And even when limited by his conceit, Hitch can direct the shit out of a film. The film functions as a portrait of life at sea as well as a morally complex, bleak portrait of war. Up there with Hitch’s best, not something I say lightly.
- The White Diamond (2004), Werner Herzog – This may be my favourite Herzog doco. The German director seems to be a genius at bringing the most incredible stories out of people. The film starts off with an examination of the history of the airship before focusing on the specific story of a modern day adventurer looking to bring them back. Herzog is also highly original in the way he structures his docos, hinting at the past and even giving small spoilers of what is to come. Like a Simpsons episode, a Herzog doco is never about just what it appears on the surface. This is one of his best.
- Sin Tierra, No Somos Shuar (2010), Stacey Williams – A refreshingly watchable ethnographic film. Both very specific, but also quite relatable to numerous other places where there is a conflict between traditional land usage and mining interests. Presents the indigenous population as masters of incredible self sufficiency, which is something all should learn from. It’s pretty short and you can check it out on Vimeo here.
Not Worth Watching:
- Non-Stop (2014), Jaume Collet-Serra – This is far from a complete write-off, with a smattering of sharp, tense moments. But much of it is a combination of terribly clichéd characterisation and a vastly underdeveloped narrative world. The ending in particular hits home with all the power of a wet fish. The whole thing is just far too pedestrian in its pace. The joke has been made by many – Non-Stop is not quite non-stop enough.
- Monuments Men (2014), George Clooney – This is no near miss, it is an utter failure. The script is inept, there is no goal, no stakes and most absurdly no real enemy. As the trailer suggested would be the case, the film struggles deeply to control the tone. So you are left with a WWII film with no with weight and an ol’ fashioned farce with no laughs. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed that a film with this cast would be so not worth your time.
- Pompeii (2014), Paul W.S. Anderson – Utterly terrible. The script is nothing short of embarrassing, with one eye rolling line after another. The beginning and end of the positives is Kiefer Sutherland hamming it up like a beast. There is a decent disaster flick to be made about Pompeii. Buy here it is saddled with an unnecessary and lame gladiator plot. The eruption is actually an afterthought, barely mentioned. The whole film is utterly stupid. Who knew a volcanic eruption could be so boring. Props to them for ending though, which took some guts (or would have if anyone cared).
If you only have time to watch one Lifeboat
Avoid at all costs Monument Men
I’m not sure how many of you read the great site Forgotten Filmcast. If you have any interest whatsoever in classic film or obscure cinema, then I highly recommend you head over there, take a look around and subscribe if you like what you see.
Todd from Forgotten Filmcast was kind enough to invite me to be part of the awesome podcast he records as well. So if you are keen to hear my laidback Aussie accent do battle with his laidback American one, head here to have a listen. We ramble for a little while and then hop into an in-depth discussion of the early Alfred Hitchcock film Number Seventeen (1932). It is not the best of Hitch’s early work, but I think anything by the great man is worth having a sneaky look at. The film is well and truly in the public domain, so if you are keen, take a look at it right here:
Be sure to let me know what you think of the podcasts if you take a listen.
Even though I have seen Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) a bunch of times before, it is always exciting to be popping the film back in the DVD player. One of my favourite Hitchcock films, it is also without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.
The first half or so of the film is probably cinema’s most famous macguffin. In an attempt to “buy off unhappiness” Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, steals a large sum of money from her employer so that she can start a new life with her lover Sam. It’s the sort of snap decision we all make, but Hitch takes it to a really extreme example. After a couple of days on the run, Marion spends a rainy night at the Bates Motel. Anyone familiar with the film will know what starts to take place here, as the socially awkward Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, begins to interact with his lone guest. I will veer into spoiler territory and say that this is in many ways where the narrative of the film really begins, as Sam and Marion’s sister Lila begin a frantic search for her. As much as the character arc of Marion is often dismissed or looked over when discussing Psycho, it is actually a really fully formed and interesting one. Her decision to return to Phoenix just before she is killed is a really good example.
Psycho is a rare film that I think actually improves with each viewing. Part of that is that a first viewing is dominated by some of the iconic high points – the ‘shower scene’ and the final reveal. But after you have seen it once, everything takes on a different weight and many elements of it are actually all the more chilling. In a funny sort of way, despite near universal acclaim, I feel like the film is a little underrated. People tend to focus on the aforementioned iconic moments, but there is also so much more. Both acts of the stark two act narrative work really well. The second half turns into a wonderful detective story, full of sharp P.I. chatter and patter. The extended scene of Norman’s interrogation at the hands of the P.I. engaged by Marion’s boss is one of the film’s best moments. As for the end sequence, it could so easily have come across as laughable and on paper it really should. But somehow, Hitchcock manages to ram it home awesomely, with the closing stages being both chilling and totally satisfying.
There is barely a thriller made since 1960 that has not taken a whole lot of inspiration from Psycho and the most influential aspect of the film is the soundtrack. Obviously the sound in the shower scene is unforgettable, but literally from the opening credits, the music is playing a massive role. The perfect way in which the soundtrack is used to create tension is the main aspect that has clearly been taken onboard by numerous filmmakers. The whip smart script is brought to life by the great actors involved. Janet Leigh nails it as Marion Crane’s woman on the edge. Her desperation to be with her lover and her guilt at the theft she has done, totally inform every move she makes onscreen and every line she utters. Whilst the performances are all really good, it is Anthony Perkins who truly startles. On first viewing, it is clear that there is something a little amiss with this momma’s boy. But re-watching the film, knowing where the story ends up, and you see just how masterful Perkins’ portrayal really is. Even when his character is acting totally over the top with mental illness, the final scene for example, Perkins is reserved, knowing he does not need to go similarly over the top in his presentation to achieve maximum effect.
There is possibly no film in history which manages to combine bombastic mainstream enjoyment with artistic merit quite like Psycho. A vast majority of you have probably seen Psycho, but if you haven’t, then I highly recommend it. The best thriller in history and also a perfect introduction to the world of classic cinema, even (actually especially) if you are someone who is not really into that realm of cinema.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
When you think Joseph Conrad cinema adaptations, you generally think of Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppolla’s Vietnam War set take on Heart of Darkness. Sabotage (1936) is a not as famous film based on a not as famous book. It is a British era Alfred Hitchcock film, based on Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, a book I absolutely love, and personally prefer to Heart of Darkness. The book is an amazing, tense account of a terrorist and the results of his actions, especially those wrought upon his family. The book is strange in that it is not overly cinematic, but immediately upon reading it I thought it would make a great adaptation if taken on by one of today’s more original directors. I had visions in my head of a contemporary reimagining with Paul Greengrass at the helm, or even more intriguingly for some reason a Tarantino helmed period piece. Either would be scripted by me, so no stealing my ideas.
Before I get into my thoughts, I think it is hard to talk too much about the film without giving away spoilers. Luckily the film is in the public domain, so check it out here (it is well worth a look, and is only an hour and a quarter long):
First a small note on the name change. It was necessitated because Hitchcock’s previous film was titled Secret Agent (1936). That picture was unrelated to Conrad’s novel, and was in fact based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story. From the very start Hitchcock’s originality and ability to utilise technique to enhance the style of his films is on display in this effort. A pre-credits shot sees the camera zoom in on the word sabotage in an open dictionary; whilst the first shot of the film proper shows a canted close up of a light bulb whilst Mr Verloc plunges the city into darkness with his first act of sabotage. The film has an edge of innovation throughout it, such as when a deceased character’s face repeatedly flashes up onscreen, haunting his older sister. What the film does well narratively, is achieves the all-important balance any adaptation must. Namely it strips away the fat from the book, in the form of a number of sub-plots which are not necessary to the central thrust of the film as envisaged by Hitchcock. Verloc is a saboteur, an agent for an unnamed foreign government who runs a cinema in London as a cover for his operations. The film has fun with this metaphor, with the shady goings on all taking place behind the facade of the screen. The appearance writ large for the audience in the movie’s cinema masks the reality of the city’s underbelly unfolding behind it.
The film is in parts, searing. It was actually banned in Brazil because it upset public order, whilst Hitchcock says the scene where a young boy is killed was the biggest mistake he made on film. This scene is the film’s highpoint and I think it is equal to any sequence Hitch ever filmed, at the very least in terms of tension. I do not write that last sentence lightly. Stevie, thinking he is just delivering a film canister, gets distracted on the way to dropping it off. The audience knows he is really carrying a bomb for Verloc, a fact Hitchcock reminds us of with repeated close-ups of the package, often intercut with a shot of a cute puppy or the young, innocent Stevie. As the scene builds to its shocking conclusion, Hitchcock continues to amp up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The outcome is a crushing one, smouldering bus wreckage and all. The book is extremely psychological, primarily concerned with mental anguish and torture. Whilst the film is not able to maintain all of this, it does elicit a lot of tension from the situations that it depicts and it is able to maintain the cerebral quality of the book. Hitch truly is a master of this genre of film. Specifically I am talking about short, taut, classical mystery films dripping with intrigue; in this case all aided no end by a very clever script. The setup, with enemy spies and undercover cops, is classic crime film. But the layer of psychological manipulation and the relationships between the characters allow it to rise above the generic standard. And whilst his Hollywood work is undoubtedly more ambitious, big in scope and ‘great’, these earlier British films of his really are genre classics.
Occasionally the acting in these earlier, British works of Hitchcock’s left a little to be desired, especially in comparison with the turns delivered by some of the stars of his later Hollywood work. That is definitely not the case here though. Oskar Homolka gets the difficult role of Verloc, a pretty unlikeable dude. He is a bad husband, and a small amount of initial idealism swiftly makes way to a much larger unfeeling, vicious streak. He is a coward who will do anything to placate his superiors and Homolka’s portrayal maintains the small mindedness and bumbling tendencies of Conrad’s Verloc. Homolka is a bit of an Edward G. Robinson lookalike who initially appears to be rocking a Dracula accent, but this settles and is not distracting after a while. Continuing the lookalike theme (for me at least) is the undercover cop Ted Spencer, played by John Loder who looks a whole lot like Laurence Olivier. Spencer is (along with Stevie) the moral core of the film, obviously representing good and the law in opposition to Verloc’s evil and illegality. Stevie, Sylvia’s younger brother who features in the film’s emotional highpoint is effectively portrayed by Desmond Tester. This is a difficult role as Stevie is a character with mental issues, but the performance resists the temptation to overplay this, instead making it clear but not distracting. His innocence that Verloc takes advantage of is also made plain. The standout performance by far of the film comes from Sylvia Sidney as Verloc’s wife Sylvia (this has been changed from the name of Winnie in the book). Sidney is truly excellent in this film, managing to convey the right amount of innocence without coming across as weak. Actually her character is far from weak, as evidenced by some of the actions she takes late in the film. The scene where she discovers that her younger brother has been killed is heart wrenching, mainly because of Sidney’s performance. Upon hearing the news, she collapses to the ground, overwhelmed by grief yet not needing to resort to histrionics. It is a masterful piece of acting.
Like the best literary adaptations, this film changes a lot but remains true to its source. The film has a happier ending than the book. Not in a saccharine way, but it is a measure of Hitchcock’s skill that this change, just like all those he makes from the book, feels ‘right’ and like it fits perfectly. Whether or not you have read the book, definitely take a look at this one. I wish they still made em like this.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
After emerging from the wasteland of essay hell, I journeyed to the incomparable Electric Shadows Bookshop (www.electricshadowsbookshop.com.au) intent on renting some DVDs for a reason other than writing an essay about them. Finding myself in the Hitchcock section, I thought I would grab something not on the 1001 list so I would not feel obliged to write about it. However, with Hitch having 18 titles on the list, its not always easy to avoid one that’s on there. Attracted by the presence of Joseph Cotten in the leading role I thought Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was my film. But, lo and behold its on the list, so here are my thoughts.
Cotten is best known as running with Orson Welles’ RKO crew, and is fantastic in quite a substantial role in Citizen Kane (1941). Here he plays Uncle Charlie, a suave Philadelphia based mass-murderer who flees to suburban Santa Rosa to escape the law. He is welcomed heartily by his sister’s family, especially her teenage daughter who also goes by the name Charlie. The two Charlies share a rapport and the relationship between the two of them drives most of the film. Young Charlie hopes her elder namesake will bring some light into the mundane family life she feels so trapped in, and which she is clearly rebelling against. Early in the film she squeals “Money, how can you talk about money when I’m talking about souls.” However her uncle brings more than a spark. I’m not sure if this was intentional by Hitchcock, me misreading the film or times changing but I was seriously creeped out by an apparent sexual tension between uncle and niece for the first half of the film. Luckily this passes and the film feels much more comfortable as a result. Eventually Young Charlie begins to suspect him of being a murderer, and even manages to wrangle a confession out of him. This comes with still quite a large amount of the action to come, and the third act deals with the moral conundrum faced by Young Charlie in relation to protecting her family and ensuring justice is served. Keep an eye out for the scene involving Young Charlie’s research in the town library, it illustrates Hitchcock genius for suspense and ability to wow you with a little stylistic flourish without taking away from the narrative.
Film historian (and director) Peter Bogdanovich views this as Hitchcock’s first real ‘American’ film. However the European influences on his style can still be seen throughout this film. To showcase an early chase on foot, he shifts to a high overhead shot, just as Fritz Lang does repeatedly in M (1931). The film seems to grow more and more assured as it goes on. For example the music initially grates and feels like an over the top, cheap attempt to ratchet up suspense. Later however it is more controlled and does contribute to the tension in an excellent way. All of the performances are good. Cotton excels in a role that could have descended into a pure-evil, sneering type character. He’s understated, but still makes you dislike him terribly and believe he is capable of murder. Plus he looks rather good in a double breasted suit with a couple of cigars poking out the breast pocket. All the other performances are similarly good, notable the supporting duo of Henry Travers as Joe, Young Charlie’s father and his best mate Herb played by Hume Cronyn. These two share a couple of exceptionally well-scripted and hilarious set pieces where they discuss suspense stories, and the best manner in which to kill someone without being detected. The manner in which Hitchcock intersperses these with the rather more serious and deadly going ons provides an expert twist of humour and irony.
The major upside of this film is its central conceit – two character who share a name and a rapport despite being different genders & ages end up being part of a suspenseful cat and mouse game. It is this that carries the film through its first two thirds, but it is in the third act where Shadow of a Doubt really explodes; delivering probably the most satisfying conclusion to a film I’ve watched. Hitchcock throws a twist or two into the mix, but they do not feel cheap or showy. He maintains, and even ramps up the suspense, leaving the viewer in real doubt as to how things will end. It is also perfectly paced, there is no rushed deus ex machina, nor does it go on and on a-la Return of the King (2003) and many others, tarnishing the memories of the whole film by leaving us begging for the end. I’m loathe to go into too much more detail in case it ruins this film for you. And despite the fact that it looks like I have given a way a lot of spoilers such as the fact Cotten plays a murderer (this was actually given away on the DVD case of my version), there are still heaps of surprises for you in this film if you go and check it out. Which you most definitely should. And if you don’t trust my opinion, then you should trust Hitchcock (one of the greatest cinematic geniuses ever to live), who said this was his favourite of all the films he made.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter