Blu-ray Review: Murder!

Murder Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:42:29

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1554 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 31.93 Mbps

Notes: This marks this title’s North American Blu-ray debut.

Murder! Title.jpg

Murder! was the first important ‘who-done-it’ picture I made.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Murder! is one in a series of films following Blackmail (1929) and proceeding The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) that are, in all honesty, very difficult to enjoy as entertainments. I’m sure that this statement will be met with a certain amount of derision and perhaps a bit of anger, but it seems reasonably obvious that the director was experiencing a creative dry spell that wasn’t entirely of his own making.

For one thing, the early sound era produced a great many films that make for very difficult viewing today due the limitations of recorded sound and the fact that sound production completely changed the way that films were shot. The industry struggled to overcome the challenges created by the new format as cameras had to be isolated in small “telephone-booth-like kiosks” which made movement extremely difficult, and actors remained stationary so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Visual aesthetics were suddenly not the primary priority, and the result of this change could be incredibly awkward (to say the least).

This would have been frustrating enough for Hitchcock, but British International Pictures often handed him properties that held little to no interest for him instead of allowing him to choose his own projects. In other words, most of these films were “assignments.” Blackmail and Rich and Strange (1931) seem to be exceptions, but it isn’t clear whether Murder! was the result of yet another assignment, if he chose to make it from a list of inappropriate BIP properties, or if this was his own idea. Whatever the case, it is worth noting that the director often made it a point to stress in interviews that he preferred suspense stories to mysteries and that these two genres are actually antithetical to one another:

“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense.’ And the two things are absolutely miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process—like in a ‘who-done-it’—but suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information… I’ve only made one ‘who-done-it’ many, many years ago because in the course—before you arrive at that five second revelation—there’s no emotion going on… So, the mystery has no particular appeal for me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

The mystery that he mentions making “many, many years ago” is obviously Murder!, and it is important to remember that this film was made before the director had latched onto the fact that he was at his best when working within the fairly diverse genre of the suspense thriller. This revelation wouldn’t come until the back-to-back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. In other words, Murder!—which is a who-done-it based on a novel by Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane (aka Winifred Ashton) entitled “Enter Sir John”—may have actually helped the director to understand his preferences for suspense over mystery. What’s more, evidence suggests that if the director didn’t choose this property as a potential film project, he was certainly excited and inspired by this particular “assignment.”

enter sir john - dust jacket

This is a dust jacket for “Enter Sir John.” It is worth noting Helen Simpson would work briefly with Hitchcock on Sabotage, and wrote a novel entitled Under Capricorn that the director would later adapt as one of his more unsuccessful films.

REDEVELOPING ‘THE HITCHCOCK TOUCH’

Alfred Hitchcock worked primarily with Walter C. Mycroft on the adaptation and the incredible Alma Reville on the scenario. The three Hitchcocks borrowed an overwhelming amount of the film’s dialogue from the novel itself, but the director didn’t allow the addition of sound to obstruct his ability to render scenes cinematically. Instead, he preferred to utilize the new medium to build upon his already developing cinematic voice.

“The talkies have given most of us a past about which we need to be ashamed. Why, we used to bore a hole in an actor’s head and superimpose tiny images representing his thoughts! Sound has done away with such clumsiness. I am thinking of a sequence from Enter Sir John. A murder has been committed. There is a shot of the curious outside the villa in which the body was found; a picture with a Fleet Street look. Then, a cut to the notice-board in the greenroom of the local theatre; attention being focused on the fact that an understudy is playing. After that, a glimpse of the curtain rising: immediately followed by a close up of the grille opening into the cell of the condemned actress. The camera holds her face, but the voices in the theatre talk about the understudy. The woman’s eyes just respond to the comments and her thoughts are pretty plain.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

In other words, Hitchcock applies cinema’s visual principals to sound. He uses sound in the same manner that he uses his camera (just as he had done previously in Blackmail). One particularly interesting scene concerned a jury deliberation as Sir John tries to explain his “not guilty” verdict to the eleven jurors who disagree.

“…The jury scene turns expressionistic when Sir John’s arguments against the other jurors are beaten back with increasingly loud, increasingly quick replies: ‘Any answer to that, Sir John?’ Finally, he is overwhelmed by their choral ‘Any answer, any answer, any answer to that, Sir John?’ The veer from dialogue to chant puts the audience into Sir John’s beleaguered position.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Hitchcock’s unique editing rhythm mirrors their chanting, but their words become little more than a distorted symphony of voices as Hitchcock moves into an extreme close-up of our anxiety ridden protagonist’s face. The result is a bit crude due to the aforementioned production limitations, but the scene does find the director experimenting with the cinematic possibilities that sound would offer him.

The moments that follow this exchange are just as interesting. After a despondent Sir John relents and agrees to a guilty verdict, he sits motionless in his chair as the other jurors gather their belongings and leave the room. He begins gathering his things only when the final jurors are making their exit. He finally leaves us alone in the empty room. However, an attendant soon enters the room and begins to clean up as we hear the verdict read to the court and a sentence of death passed down. This is something that couldn’t have been done in a silent film, and it seems slightly audacious even today.

SD - SIR JOHN BEATEN DOWN.jpg

“I tried to stylize a jury persuading a final juryman to agree to the verdict of guilty, and I stylized the voices hammering away at him.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

End of Jury Scene.jpg

Sir John sits despondently as the other Jurors happily file out of the room.

The scene that follows the fade out from this scene is probably the film’s most recognizable, as it is often discussed for its creative (and difficult to achieve) use of sound. Blackmail had the so-called “knife scene,” and Murder! has the infamous “mirror monologue.”

“Most people remember the picture by one particular scene—the one in which Marshall spoke his own thoughts without opening his mouth. The same idea was used more extensively some time later in Strange Interlude. It was considered a somewhat startling talkie innovation. Actually, the idea was one of the prominent methods of stage technique handed down from Shakespeare. Then it went out of fashion. Nowadays, a second actor is brought on so that the actor can speak his lines to him. I have always hated the idea of bringing in an unnecessary person, and this is why I set out to find some way of avoiding it when I had to direct that scene in Murder! I merely went back to the oldest form of all and introduced the soliloquy, brought up to date by making it unnecessary for Marshall to open his mouth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

This effect was more difficult to achieve at that time than it is today, and Hitchcock would discuss this scene in interviews until the end of his career.

“…[Marshall] had [just turned] the radio on, and I wanted to have the Prelude from ‘Tristan [and Isolde]’ playing. I had a thirty-piece orchestra in the studio, just for this little radio he’s playing in his bathroom. You see, you couldn’t add it later, it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

To complicate matters further, a recording of Sir John’s internal soliloquy also had to be played off-screen, and this recording had to be timed to the orchestra’s music! One can only imagine the madness that this probably created on the set, but the coming of talkies often created such chaos. Filmmakers who refused to build upon their already well established stylistic techniques would fail to make an impact in the sound era. Those, like Hitchcock, who became excited at the opportunity to build upon these already established techniques would flourish. However, even these directors would stumble on occasion. The “talkie” era made it necessary for directors to experiment, and these experiments weren’t always successful.

This was certainly true of Alfred Hitchcock, and one particular experimental approach during the production of Murder! helped him to establish some of his more steadfast directorial rules.

“I also experimented with improvisations in direct sound. I would explain the meaning of the scene to the actors and suggest that they make up their own dialogue. The result wasn’t good; there was too much faltering. They would carefully think over what they were about to say and we didn’t get the spontaneity I had hoped for. The timing was all wrong and it had no rhythm.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The failure of this technique helped to solidify his preference to “improvise in the office” while working on the script. The final film shows signs of this failed approach and adds to the clunkiness of the final product.

Publicity Still featuring Herbert Marshall from MURDER!.jpg

“[Murder!] was Herbert Marshall’s first talkie, and the part he played was ideal for him. He immediately proved himself a natural talkie actor.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Abel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Alfred Abel was cast in a Hitchcock-directed German version entitled Mary. His most famous screen performance was probably his portrayal of Joh Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

A BILINGUAL PRODUCTION

Most of what is known about the production of Murder! concerns its status as a so-called “bilingual production.”

“Since it took more time to make a picture, they were often made in several versions in order to reach an international audience. Therefore each film was much more expensive.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The practice was short-lived but crossed continents. There are multiple versions of a great many films made during these early days of sound. There are foreign-language versions of Dracula, The Blue Angel, M, and a great many other titles from this era. However, different directors usually took the reins of the foreign version (although the same sets were usually used). This wasn’t the case with Murder!. British International Pictures trusted Hitchcock to shoot both of these versions.

“We made the German and English versions simultaneously. I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language—just enough to get by. In the English version the hero was Herbert Marshall, and we used a very well-known actor, Alfred Abel, for the German version. Before the shooting, when I went to Berlin to talk over the script, they proposed many changes that I turned down. As it happens, I was wrong. I refused them because I was satisfied with the English version. Besides, we didn’t want to shoot two versions that would be too different from each other for reasons of economy.

Anyway, I returned to London without having altered the script. But as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language. Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one, as, for instance, the ironic asides on the loss of dignity or on snobbishness. The German actors were ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know about the German idiom.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The script was translated into German by Georg C. Klaren and Herbert Juttke, and a handful of changes were made to the story during this process. Most noticeably, the title was changed to Mary (as Diana Baring’s name was changed to ‘Mary Baring’). In addition, Fane’s motives were completely different in the German film. Instead of trying to hide his racial origins, the murderer is trying to conceal the fact that he is a fugitive from justice. However, the production was conceived as a close replica of Murder!

“It was designed technically that I would set up and light a scene with the English cast, [then] take them out, substitute the other actors and do the scene over again in German.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Transcription of François Truffaut’s Interview, August 1962)

MURDER! MARY COMPARISON.jpg

It is clear that the two films mirror one another, but this comparison probably doesn’t give us an accurate account of the differences in framing since home video transfers often crop images for various reasons. (These examples are taken from Sony’s 2007 DVD transfer of Murder! and a 2006 French DVD transfer of Mary.)

This methodology creates a film that mirrors Hitchcock’s British version more often than not, but it didn’t completely eradicate the insanity created by shooting two films at the same time. Charles Landstone—who portrayed one of the jurors in Mary—remembered the chaos created by the bilingual shoot and reminisced about his experiences in his memoir. Apparently, the prospect of interpreting another a role being portrayed by another actor at the same time made Landstone apprehensive. However, he managed to find a solution for this unique predicament:

“…Each man had to give his views—Norah Baring was being tried on a murder charge—and Hitchcock had the idea of planting each juryman with a solo shot that displayed his personality. The Englishman in my part was Kenneth Cove, quite a well-known feature actor of the day and a member of the famous Aldwych farce team. I watched him carefully as he went on the set, and thought that if I could copy him I might get through without being sacked as some of the others had been. I saw Hitchcock give me a knowing grin; he hadn’t been fooled, but he didn’t care. For the twelve days that the shooting of the jury scene lasted I followed the same procedure, carefully aping everything that cove did. Nobody seemed to notice, not even Cove.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

It isn’t surprising to learn of Alfred Hitchcock’s tendency to exploit the unusual “bilingual” situation for laughs (or for his own private amusement).

“He had a clapper boy named Harold, and he cast him in the role of the King’s Jester. His cry would be ‘Haro-old!,’ and when Harold dutifully came to heel he would be sent off on one fool’s errand after the other. He made ‘Haro-old’ learn off by heart a sentence in German which he told him to go and repeat to a young actress who was Norah Baring’s counterpart. I forget what it was exactly, but it was the sort of remark that one might expect in the most permissive of today’s scripts. In 1930 it was outrageous. ‘Haro-old’ dutifully repeated it; the girl was startled out of her life and ‘Haro-old’ stammered: ‘E told me to say it.’ The actress, catching sight of Hitchcock roaring his head off, wagged her finger at him in admonition.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

However, most of the director’s pranks seemed to be directed at the very difficult Alfred Abel:

“[Hitchcock] transparently disliked Alfred Abel, a stuffy man who didn’t share his sense of humor, Abel refused, for example, to wear the same tweeds-and-raincoat costume as the English star, Herbert Marshall, because it didn’t suit his idea of formality. And he refused to follow Hitchcock’s directions for the scene where a landlady’s children climb over Sir John, who is trying to relax in bed while sipping his morning cup of tea. It is a memorable interlude in Murder! (experimenting with overlapping sound, Hitchcock has a baby bawling throughout), but it had to be restaged for Abel and [Mary]…

…Abel finally stepped into the crosshairs when he objected to Marshall’s special lounge chair. No such privilege had been accorded to the German lead. ‘Hitchcock didn’t trouble to explain,’ wrote Landstone, ‘that Marshall was a 1914-18 war casualty and had a wooden leg, but simply said that provision would be made for the German to rest between the shots… and after lunch a magnificent-looking armchair, far more luxurious than Marshall’s, appeared at the side of the set. On it was Abel’s name, and the latter thanked Hitchcock profusely. Noticing, however, the director’s puckish grin, the German went over to the chair and touched it gingerly with his finger, whereupon the whole contraption collapsed to the ground. Hitchcock’s roar of laughter filled the studio.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) during the production of MURDER! and MARY..jpg

This is a ‘behind the scenes’ photograph of Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) on the set of Murder! and Mary.

RELEASE AND RECEPTION

“It was an interesting film and was quite successful in London, but it was too sophisticated for the provinces.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The evidence suggests that Hitchcock’s above recollection as to the reception of this film is accurate. While the German Mary only received a limited release in Germany, the British Murder! did quite well upon its release (especially in terms of critical opinion). British critics were especially kind and fast to compare the film favorably with American product. The following review from ‘The Yorkshire Post’ is a case in point:

“…This adaptation of “Enter Sir John,” the novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, also deals with crime, but the film leaves you with a convincing impression of real people involved in quite possible situations… There may be melodramatic moments in the film version, but there is no rosy haze and no sham sentiment.

Mr. Hitchcock long ago proved himself the most gifted of British directors, and Blackmail showed that he could handle a talkie every bit as well as a silent picture. Murder! (I prefer the original title of the novel) is much longer and fuller than Blackmail, but no less brilliant. Once more we can enjoy Mr. Hitchcock’s remarkable gift for making every scene and every glimpse say something. His camera is as resourceful as in the days of silence. That feeling which the talkie used to give us of being anchored in a narrow room is entirely overcome.

Sometimes, I think, he pauses too long over details—particularly over his satirical touches. The scene in which the needy stage-manager and his wife go to lunch at Sir John’s West End apartment is extremely amusing, but the amount of footage given to it holds up the action. Still, Mr. Hitchcock’s eye for idiosyncrasies of character and his command over so many levels of English life are a great asset. Murder! is a long film, but so richly packed with material that not for a moment did I find it dull.

The acting is on a level with the direction. Herbert Marshall—a new recruit from the stage — has exactly the right urbanity for Sir John; Edward Chapman is first-rate as the little stage-manager; Edward Percy—another stage recruit—is equally effective as a trapeze artist; and Miss Norah Baring, in her short but difficult part as the suspected girl…

Nor is there any weakness in the production or in the settings. Here we have a home-made film which attempts to do no more than tell a mystery story, but which does its job with complete success. Indeed, the wealth of vitality displayed in the handling of this British picture makes the American efficiency of ‘Raffles’ seem oddly stereotyped, oddly thin.” —Yorkshire Post (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, August 05, 1930)

Hugh Castle, who wrote a condescending but mostly positive piece on Blackmail upon that film’s release, did likewise upon the release of this film. In fact, it is obvious that he prefers Murder! to the director’s “talkie” debut:

“…Hitchcock by now must be an admitted authority on the black arts, having graduated with Blackmail. Hitchcock, of course, is an interesting phenomenon, said he, adopting the quietly introspective style. A rambler rose on an arctic slope. Or perhaps it would be better to say a walrus on Everest. He has his moments. He is the one man in this country who can think cinema. He may never achieve half of what he thinks. One cannot expect too much of the British industry… But Hitchcock’s moments justify themselves. Obviously Murder! had its moments. It may not achieve real unity, but it comes nearer than any of its homemade competitors. And after Two Worlds!

There is a suggestion in Murder! of a talk-film idea which personally has appealed to me from the start of the dialogue film. Too much, in my opinion, is made of the deliberate distortion of sound to make a counterpoint to the visual rhythm. For myself, I have always been interested in the direct linking of sound and picture by the employment of a literary translation in the dialogue of a similar rhythm as is used in the montage… In the jury sequence in Murder! Hitchcock has discovered this same idea. The acceleration of cutting, coupled with the dialogue rhythm, speeding up, speeding up. Speech montage. So much more fundamental than that psychologically interesting ‘knife’ episode in Blackmail.

Much could be said about Hitchcock, his use of the detached camera. Documentation. His efforts to weld literary satire into cinematic development, the old fault for which Lubitsch has to answer. His idea-fertility, the use of dialogue as a thought-medium [in Murder!]—a throwback to the Elizabethan stage, this.

Anyway, Hitchcock gives the screen ideas, in which it is so bankrupt. Murder! has several ideas, flung off, used to serve a purpose and then forgotten. Regarded as a motion picture Murder! is a praiseworthy effort, quite the best thing this country has done. Looked at from the straightforward angle of the film-goer it gets dangerously near the highbrow, which means to say that the fact it has brains may militate against it…” —Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

The review published in ‘The Times’ offers more thoughtful praise but forgoes Castle’s particular brand of snobbery. After praising Marshall’s performance in the film, the review elaborates on Hitchcock’s direction:

“…We find ourselves thrust into a world at once made passionately aware of itself, and Mr. Hitchcock has never been more skillful in revealing the inner lives of his characters and the strangeness of the scene that enfolds them. Murder!, then, is not simply a brilliant exercise in mystery melodrama. Like most of Mr. Hitchcock’s work, it tells us about the life as well as the lives of his characters, and we cannot follow him into Sir John’s study or into the actress’s lodgings without knowing more of the world about us than we did before. In short, Mr. Hitchcock’s method is that of the creative artist. He has produced a picture of which any country might be proud, and has shown that when so minded we can make films superior in intelligence and style to any submitted to us by America or Germany.” —The Times (September 23, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes offered the film plenty of qualified approbation and also predicted a successful future in film for Herbert Marshall:

“Probably the best of the pictures recently produced in Great Britain, this boasts a strong story, capably acted by a fine cast. Top honors go to Herbert Marshall, a good looking and capable hero, who solves the murder mystery. The picture has the fault common to many British films of too much dialogue and lack of action, but good direction surmounts this obstacle and the suspense is sustained throughout…

… There are no names of American prominence in the cast, but Marshall should be played up, as he is a good potential bet. This looks like a good offering for the weekly changes, as well as subsequents [sic]. The title should give it draw.” —Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Even American trade publications offered the film their blessings as this review by Charles S. Aaronson illustrates:

“This British International film, adapted most expertly by Alma Reville from Clemence Dane’s stage play, ‘Enter Sir John,’ is as good a mystery thrill picture as they come. As seems to be the usual thing with the product of the Elstree studios in England, the cast is exceptionally fine, from the lead of Herbert Marshall as Sir John, actor and amateur detective, down to the most incidental part. Marshall gives an excellent exhibition of self confidence in his role, and handles his lines with a restraint and perfection of diction which is seldom bettered on the talking screen…

…The manner in which Sir John traps the suspect into betraying his guilt, and the odd way in which the murderer beats the law in the end provide an unusual conclusion and put real punch into a mystery thriller which is novel for its new angle. The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is all that anyone could ask. Every motion and speech is pointed toward the climax, with little or no time wasted on unnecessary incidentals. Photography is good throughout, with several scenes easily rating a grade better than good…

…An able cast, and fine adaptation and direction of a story which has at least one or two unusual twists for this type of mystery, make this film one of the most entertaining British International has sent over. There can be little doubt that American audiences will get a real kick out of it.” —Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

The film’s successful reception is understandable, and it is the highlight of a decidedly uneven period in Alfred Hitchcock’s career (1930 – 1933 / Juno and the PaycockWaltzes from Vienna). If it has aged more than some of his later films, one can take solace in the understanding that it is on par with other “talkies” made during this era.

Murder! SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from a Columbia Pictures window card design that was used to promote Murder! in US theaters. It’s probably the most famous available artwork for the film, so their decision to use it was wise.

Murder! Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and the result is both attractive and easy to navigate.

Murder! SS02 - BLOOPER

Those who enjoy finding mistakes will notice that equipment is visible in this particular shot. It seems likely that this error would have been cropped out of release prints.

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino has given Murder! a very healthy high definition transfer that blows previous DVD transfers of the film out of the water. As for the previous standard definition “public domain” transfers, there is absolutely no comparison as those were washed out, blown out, cropped to the point of ruin, and barely watchable. Those who have only seen one of these transfers haven’t actually seen the film. Kino’s Blu-ray transfer is also a step up when one compares it to Sony’s previous DVD edition of the film (which is the only legitimate release of Murder! in North America).

First of all, we see more information on all four sides of the frame when comparing it to the Sony release. Density isn’t always as strong as one might hope during a few scenes, but it is better than it has ever been in the past. Fine detail and clarity have also seen a significant improvement here, while the filmic layer of grain is healthier and better resolved. It’s true that there are occasional signs of damage, but none of these become at all distracting. In fact, it is surprising how clean the print looks considering the film’s age. There are a few instances of the film momentarily fading to black and then back into the scene that must be the result of age. It is a minor weakness that probably couldn’t be improved upon without significant restoration work being done on this title.

Murder! SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is important to consider the “early sound” nature of this track before criticizing the inherent weaknesses on display. These weaknesses were always on display! Kino’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces the film’s original mono accurately, and those who have only experienced those dreadful “public domain” transfers will be amazed at how clean and clear the track sounds when compared to those earlier releases. Dialogue is clear and usually intelligible. The weakest element is obviously the music as it is a bit boxed in and suffers slightly from the limitations of the era’s sound technology. However, even this has seen improvement when compared to earlier DVD releases of the film. It represents the original sound elements faithfully.

Murder! SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Mary (1931) – (SD Up-Res) – (01:22:07)

Mary Title Card

If Mary had been presented in high definition, it wouldn’t be discussed here as one of the disc’s supplemental offerings. It would have been one of two main attractions. The article that proceeds this disc review discusses the production of Mary, and cinephiles should agree that it is a substantial addition to the disc (even in standard definition). The film hasn’t received a legitimate North American release in any format, so Kino Lorber should be applauded for their efforts.

Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton

Pinkerton gives a well-researched but monotonous commentary that mixes analytical theory with biographical information and production history. The major weakness here is his delivery, and this is a shame because it is an informative track.

Alternate Ending – (10:06)

Alternate Ending

Apparently, the official UK cut of the film was slightly shorter than the version projected for US audiences. The latter of these versions inserts a pair of incidental scenes into the film’s ending in order to make certain points more clearly.

The first of these scenes follows directly after Handel Fane’s dramatic demise. We see his corpse being carried out on a stretcher as Sir John is handed a note that Fane had left behind for him. After looking at the note for a moment, he exits the dead performer’s dressing room. This, of course, leads into a scene that is actually in the official UK cut (the scene where Sir John reads the note out loud).

This scene is then followed by another added scene wherein we see the innocent Nora Baring as she exits the prison to ride off with Sir John. He tells her to save her tears since they will serve her well in his new play. This is the cue for the next (and final) scene in both cuts of the film. Sir John kisses Diana’s hand before tracking out to reveal that this is part of a stage performance. The curtain drops. The End.

In some ways, this US ending (which was included as the primary ending on the Madacy Entertainment DVD) is much smoother and less choppy than the official UK ending, but it also anticipates the final gag of pulling out from what we think is the clichéd “happy ending” kiss. It’s nice to have both endings on the disc, but one actually wishes that Kino Lorber had offered an option for viewers to watch the film with either ending.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon interviews Icon – (14:19)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Murder! and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills. The only complaint that we have about this is that one of the photos is clearly from the production of Blackmail and not Murder! The oversight takes some of the polish off of the presentation.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (05:12)

Noël Simsolo’s French-language introduction is an odd and not altogether worthy inclusion as his information isn’t completely accurate and his theories aren’t entirely sound. First of all, it is clear when one examines Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography that he didn’t really latch onto the thriller genre until the back to back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much. What’s more, Mary wasn’t shot after Murder! as he suggests. These films were shot simultaneously.

One doesn’t like to disagree with popular theories as to thematic subtext, but his adoption of Truffaut’s assessment that the film delves into the subject of homosexuality is questionable. Such subtext does crop up throughout Hitchcock’s work but Murder! is a different animal. In ‘Hitchcock’s British Films,’ Maurice Yacowar makes an argument against such readings:

“Ernest Betts makes an extreme claim: ‘More interesting than any technical gimmicks is Hitchcock’s awareness of dissolving ethical standards, of the whole atmosphere of moral and psychological change. He confronts homosexual and other issues in a manner considered bold at the time.’ Durgnat rewrites the film: ‘It leaves us, sophisticates of 1970, in little doubt that “half cast” means “left handed,” which means bisexual or homosexual.’ To Truffaut Murder! ‘in essence is a thinly disguised story about homosexuality.’ The film is neither ‘about’ nor does it ‘confront’ homosexuality. Well, if it is, it is more than ‘thinly disguised.’

…The ‘half caste’ need not denote homosexuality. Nor does transvestitism, given the British farce tradition of male performers in drag…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Yacowar should have gone farther with his argument, because performing in drag isn’t transvestitism. The performing artist isn’t dressing for his own pleasure but for the pleasure and amusement of an audience. This distinction is important.

In the end, one doesn’t mind Simsolo offering his theoretical interpretation of the film, but the factual errors and assumptions (presented as fact) are regrettable.

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)
Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)
The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailer – (01:43)
Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)
Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

The ‘theatrical trailers’ are welcome and worth having on the disc, but the Blu-ray advertisements seem like superfluous additions. One wishes that the original trailers for Murder! could have been found and included. This would have been a significant addition to the disc.

Murder! SS05

Final Words:

Murder! is arguably the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s early (post-Blackmail and pre-The Man Who Knew Too Much) “talkies,” but his best work was still ahead of him. It is fascinating to see how Hitchcock experimented with the new sound medium. However, those who are only casually interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre may find it a challenging entertainment due to the technical limitations that plagued the early sound era.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a remarkable release, and it is certainly recommended for devotees of the director.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Material:

Staff Writer (‘Murder’ at Regal and Alhambra, Burnley Express, May 23, 1931)

Oswell Blakeston (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

Staff Writer (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, Yorkshire Post, August 05, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

Staff Writer (Murder, The Times, September 23, 1930)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Ken Mogg (Melancholy Elephants: Hitchcock and Ingenious Adaptation, Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

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Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Gaslight

Gaslight Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Warner Archives

Release Date: June 25, 2019

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:53:46

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48kHz, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 34.99 Mbps

Gaslight Title.jpg

George Cukor’s Gaslight has long drawn comparisons to certain films in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography and is often mentioned as one of “the best Hitchcock films that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t actually direct.” Of course, this isn’t at all fair to Cukor, but there are a number of factors that tend to encourage such comparison. The most important and interesting of these is the fact that the original play was written by Patrick Hamilton. Readers will recall that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was also adapted from a successful stage play written by Hamilton. What’s more, the theme of marital paranoia was touched upon by Hitchcock in Rebecca, Suspicion, and Notorious. Finally, seeing Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, Notorious, Under Capricorn), Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt, Under Capricorn), and Dame May Whitty (The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion) in such a thriller is bound to remind viewers of their work for Hitchcock. In fact, a train scene between Bergman’s ‘Paula’ and Whitty’s ‘Miss Thwaites’ is so obviously “Hitchcockian” that it seems unlikely that the similarities aren’t intentional:

Miss Thwaites: Oh, my goodness! Good gracious! It’s so exciting.

Paula: Your book?

Miss Thwaites: Yes. It’s about a girl who marries a man—and what do you think? He’s got six wives buried in the cellar!

Paula: That seems a lot.

Miss Thwaites: Yes, and I’m only on Page 200, so I’m sure there’s still more to come. It’s a wonderful book!

Paula: It sounds a little gruesome.

Miss Thwaites: Yes. I’m afraid I enjoy a good murder now and then. My brother always calls me “Bloodthirsty Bessie.” Have a biscuit, dear.

Paula: Thank you.

Miss Thwaites: Digestive biscuits. Unpleasant name, isn’t it? I always call them “diggy biscuits.” I never travel without them.

Gaslight Oscar.png

Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award in the “Best Actress” category for her performance in Gaslight. The film earned a total of seven nominations.

It is also worth noting that Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn would feature Ingrid Bergman as a character being “gaslighted” by her jealous housekeeper. The film wasn’t one of the director’s more successful efforts, but it seems likely that this fact contributes to people’s tendency to draw parallels between Cukor’s work on Gaslight and Hitchcock’s work in general.

In the end, however, it seems inappropriate to put too much emphasis on any of these points. George Cukor’s great work on the film should not be overshadowed by comparisons to a director who had absolutely nothing to do with the production. Instead, we should celebrate the existence of a film that is good enough to stand amongst Hitchcock’s work as a classic of the genre.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Archives houses their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring a slightly altered version of the film’s original one sheet design. The cast credits are much smaller and are arranged in a more traditional manner that takes up less space, and the title has been moved so that it is located directly under these names. Whether these changes make for a stronger composition is a matter of taste, but it is nice to see that the original artwork was at least used here.

Gaslight - One Sheet

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from the film’s score and is both attractive and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This exquisite transfer is sourced from a recent 4K scan of the film (which must have been in excellent condition). It is stunningly representative of the film’s original elements and features consistently impressive fine detail for a film of this vintage. An extremely healthy layer of grain lends the image a filmic texture without ever becoming unwieldy or problematic. Contrast is well handled here with strong blacks and healthy whites. The high bitrate ensures that compression issues are never a problem. Age related damage is minimal and never distracting. There really aren’t any problems to discuss here. Everything looks terrific.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track showcases the film’s original mono mix rather admirably. All elements are well prioritized and probably sound as good as they ever have. Dialogue is consistently clear, music is given more room to breathe than in previous DVD editions of the film, dynamic range is much better than one might expect, age related anomalies such as hiss and hum are never an issue, and there aren’t any noticeable synch problems. Audiophiles should be reasonably pleased.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Gaslight: The Original 1940 British Version — (01:23:57)

Gaslight 1940

Upon purchasing the re-make rights to this film, MGM had included a clause in their contract which demanded that all existing prints of this film be destroyed. They even tried to destroy the negative. Luckily, they didn’t succeed.

This earlier adaptation of Hamilton’s play was directed by Thorold Dickinson and stars Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook as the two principals (named ‘Bella’ and ‘Paul’ in this version). In many ways, this almost feels like a reader’s digest version of the story. The husband is very obviously characterized as a brute here, and his “Gaslighting” is already well underway by the time we are given a proper scene between them. It is a bit choppy compared to the more fluid progression of Cukor’s film version, but there are those who prefer this version to the re-make. These individuals will cite a darker and more suspenseful tone, but others are just as likely to note the script’s less subtle characterizations and performances that are nearly void of all nuance.

Either way, it is very nice to have this British adaptation included here as it is fun comparing the two films. It certainly adds enormously to the value of this disc. Unfortunately, this particular image transfer is presented in standard definition with 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. C’est la vie.

Reflections on Gaslight — (13:50)

Cinephiles will also be thrilled with the inclusion of this short “featurette” as it manages to pack some very interesting information into its short duration. Pia Lindstrom hosts, provides a bit of production history, and tells a few second-hand anecdotes. Angela Lansbury also appears to share her memories of the production. This is far from a comprehensive examination of the film’s production, but it certainly doesn’t waste the viewer’s time.

Oscars for Movie Stars — (01:32)

This newsreel footage from the 17th Annual Academy Awards ceremony includes contextual narration by John B. Kennedy as Gary Cooper presents the award for “Best Actor” to Bing Crosby, Jennifer Jones presents the “Best Actress” award to Ingrid Bergman, and Margaret O’Brien receives the Academy’s special juvenile award. The ‘thank you’ speeches were short and gracious in those days. Recent winners could watch this and take a few notes.

Theatrical Trailer — (01:53)

It’s nice to see how Gaslight was sold to audiences at the time. One wishes that all Blu-rays would include a film’s original theatrical trailer (or trailers).

Gaslight: Lux Radio Theater Broadcast — (59:40)

This Lux Radio Theater adaptation was originally broadcast to radio audiences on April 29, 1946 and features Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the same roles that they had brought to the screen only a few years earlier. The entire program is presented here—including commercials and scripted interviews with Bergman and Boyer.

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Final Words:

Gaslight is an engrossing thriller with an incredibly strong performance by Ingrid Bergman, and this Blu-ray from Warner Archives offers a terrific transfer that bests all previous home video releases.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Book Interview: Hitchcock and the Censors

Hitchcock and the Censors - Cover

Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky

Release Date: June 14, 2019

A Conversation with John Billheimer

John Billheimer has written a book that seems long overdue. In Hitchcock and the Censors, he “traces the forces that led to the Production Code and describes Hitchcock’s interactions with code officials on a film-by-film basis as he fought to protect his creations, bargaining with code reviewers, and sidestepping censorship to produce a lifetime of memorable films. By examining Hitchcock’s priorities in dealing with the censors, this work highlights the director’s theories of suspense as well as his magician-like touch when negotiating with code officials.”

Billheimer has graciously agreed to discuss both his book and Alfred Hitchcock’s battle with censorship in this exclusive interview.

Joseph Breen

Joseph Breen headed the Production Code Administration until his failing health forced him to step down in 1954.

AHM: Would you tell us about your new book? How did you happen upon the idea for a book that focused on the director’s relationship with the censors, and what challenges did you face in order to make it a reality?

JB: The book traces the rise of movie censorship in Britain and the US and documents the demands made by the censors on Hitchcock and his reaction to those demands. I got the idea when I accompanied a writer friend to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and looked into their archives while she was doing research. I stumbled onto the reams of correspondence between the Production Code censors and Hitchcock and was fascinated by them. The biggest challenge in bringing the book to fruition was finding a publisher. Most of the agents and publishers I approached felt that there were already too many Hitchcock books on the market and that it wouldn’t be a money-making proposition.

AHM: It’s surprising to hear that publishers weren’t immediately interested. As a matter of fact, one would think that such a book would have already been written about this topic as it is obviously one that should hold great interest for both casual fans and scholars. Why do you think that this particular subject hadn’t been comprehensively dissected until now?

JB: Funny you should make that observation. The first review of the book, by Leonard Maltin, begins by saying, “Here is a book that should have (and could have) been written years ago.” He goes on to call it “…an important piece of work.” I can only guess at the reasons it hasn’t been comprehensively done until now. The existence and accessibility of the correspondence between Hitchcock and the censors isn’t generally known, and those researchers who have discovered the letters have generally been interested in a particular film rather than the complete archives.

AHM: What was your most surprising discovery while researching the various documents that form the basis for this text? Do you see Alfred Hitchcock’s work differently now than you did when you started the project?

JB: I think the most surprising thing was the sheer volume of the demands made on each of his films. Production Code censors averaged 22.5 comments on each film, ranging from the mundane to the mind-boggling, and each one had to be addressed in order to get a film released. In addition, there were other groups, like the Office of War Information and the Humane Society, whose concerns had to be accommodated as well. I definitely see his work differently now. I’m much more aware of his thought processes and tend to see why he emphasized certain elements. I’m also conscious of those elements that were removed from various sequences, like the overhead shot in Psycho and lines of dialogue in other films.

AHM: How did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and why do his films appeal to you?

JB: While in high school, I worked as an usher in one of the three local theaters in my home town of Huntington, West Virginia, and my theater happened to be the one screening Hitchcock’s films. He was the only director whose name was generally recognized, and I had a chance to watch his films over and over. I was particularly impressed by the audience reaction to such set pieces as the attempted murder in Dial M For Murder, first as the murderer lifts and withdraws the scarf as Grace Kelly raises and lowers the phone from her ear, and then as the killer falls, plunging the scissors deeper into his back, which never failed to elicit an audible gasp from the audience.

Dial M For Murder - The Knife Murder

Seeing repeat screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s work was a formative experience for Billheimer: “I was particularly impressed by the audience reaction to such set pieces as the attempted murder in Dial M For Murder, first as the murderer lifts and withdraws the scarf as Grace Kelly raises and lowers the phone from her ear, and then as the killer falls, plunging the scissors deeper into his back, which never failed to elicit an audible gasp from the audience.”

AHM: Were there any major differences between the rules put into place by ‘The British Board of Film Censors’ and Hollywood’s production code? Was Alfred Hitchcock able to get away with things in Britain that he would get into trouble for in America? (Or visa-versa?)

JB: The British censors were far more interested in social issues, class distinctions, and keeping workers in their place. American censors were far more concerned with sex and violence. The differences are highlighted in the last group of thrillers Hitchcock made in England before departing for America. These were passed by the British censors, but had to be ‘Okayed’ by the Production Code office before they could be shown in the US. In The 39 Steps, the male and female leads are handcuffed together while fleeing from both the police and enemy agents and are forced to spend the night together in a double bed. In the British version, the couple are fully clothed, at odds with one another, and the man goes to sleep while the woman frees herself from the handcuffs. Before the movie could be imported, American censors insisted that the scene of the two in bed together be excised, even though the two were fully clothed and arguing. The producers argued that eliminating the scene would create a discontinuity (the two leads would be shown preparing for bed while handcuffed and waking up freed), but the American censors insisted on the deletion, observing that they never would have allowed the scene to be filmed in the first place.

AHM: Do you feel that it is possible for a film to “lower the moral standards of those who see it?”

JB: An interesting question. The quote, of course, comes from the opening of the Production Code. I suppose it depends on the strength of one’s moral standards to begin with. If someone has been brought up to believe that drinking alcohol is sinful and they watch Nick and Nora Charles having a fine time downing martinis and solving crimes, they might decide that drinking isn’t so bad after all. So their standards will have been changed. If they then become an alcoholic, do you blame Dashiell Hammett? I’m against the sort of censorship that sets itself up as the supreme authority on what is “acceptable” and has the authority to enforce their views and stifle creativity. There are, of course, limits (child pornography always rears its ugly head). I’d rather see the marketplace sort out what’s acceptable. There are two quotes on censorship that reflect my views and I wish I’d included in my book: “I dislike censorship. Like an appendix it is useless when inert and dangerous when active.” (Maurice Edelman); and “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.” (Clare Boothe Luce)

The 39 Steps - Censored Bed Scene

The chaste “bed scene” in The 39 Steps passed the British censors unscathed, but America’s Production Code was less lenient.

AHM: In the books second chapter, you state that “in a few instances, the censors’ suggestions actually improved the final films.” Which of his films were positively influenced, and how did the eventual changes improve them?

JB: Notorious is a good example of a film that was actually improved by the Code. The Breen office actually improved the film by demanding that Ingrid Bergman’s character be reformed (that she “live by her wits” rather than being a “loose woman”) and suggesting that she marry the lead spy, played by Claude Rains, who had once been in love with her. This made Rains a sympathetic villain, since his affection for Bergman was far more evident than that of the nominal lead, Cary Grant.

AHM: Which Hitchcock films were most negatively affected by the demands of the code?

JB: In my view, the Code rule that did the most damage to Hitchcock’s films was the admonition that evildoers must be punished. Blind adherence to this rule led to an implausible explanation for the death of the title character in Rebecca. It also led to the outlandish absolution of Cary Grant’s character in Suspicion, forced an improbable ending onto The Paradine Case, kept Farley Granger from completing the criss-cross murder in Strangers On A Train, and saved Montgomery Clift from the gallows in I Confess. It’s hard to argue that Rebecca was ruined by meddling, since it won the Best Picture Oscar. But the plot was implausible—not that implausibility ever bothered Hitchcock. The novel Rebecca tells the story of a man who kills his beautiful wife as she taunts him over an extramarital affair and claims to be pregnant with another man’s child. In the movie, the wife falls while taunting her husband, hits her head, and dies. The husband then convers up her accidental death just as he did her murder in the book, for no apparent reason, other than the need stick closely to the book’s plot.

I Confess was also harmed by the implausibility forced upon the plot by the Production Code. In the play on which the film is based, the priest played by Montgomery Clift goes to the gallows because he won’t reveal the identity of the real murderer, who has confessed his guilt and is protected by the seal of the confessional. Clift is accused of the murder because he was being blackmailed by the murdered man who, in the play, knew that the priest had fathered an illegitimate child before he was ordained. The Code caused the illegitimate child to vanish, and be replaced by an evening Clift spent with his girlfriend after being caught in a storm long before he decided to become a priest. As a source of blackmail, this rain-soaked evening was pretty thin, but, again, plausibility was never Hitchcock’s first concern. And the need to punish the actual murderer saved Clift from the gallows and a stronger ending.

AHM: In the book’s fifth chapter—which focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick—you mention that these two men had differing approaches in their dealings with the Breen office. You state that while Selznick entered into “open warfare,” Hitchcock preferred to avoid open confrontation and simply manipulated them to his benefit. Could you give us some examples of these two differing approaches? What do you think that this says about the differences in their personalities?

JB: Selznick met the censors head on, arguing openly for concessions in Gone with the Wind and publicly airing his disgust with the Production Code, calling it “insane, inane, and outmoded.” He was equally disgusted with the Production Code’s stance on Rebecca. “The whole story of ‘Rebecca’ is of a man who has murdered his wife,” Selznick complained, “and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!” Hitchcock, on the other hand, took an accommodating and conciliatory stance with the Code officials. It was he who suggested the “accidental death” approach to Rebecca. And as his career progressed, Hitchcock bargained effectively with Code officials, getting his way through indirection and seeming accommodation.

The different approaches the two men took with the Code definitely reflected the differences in their personalities. As I wrote in the book, “Selznick was an extrovert, while Hitchcock was subdued and secretive; Selznick was explosive and overbearing, while Hitchcock hated conflict and disagreement…

Notorious - The Kissing Scene

The infamous “kissing sequence” in Notorious was so much more than a way around the censor’s rule that no kiss should last longer than three seconds. However, it may have never existed without the rigid requirements of the Breen office.

AHM: What various strategies Hitchcock use to manipulate the censor’s into allowing material that they would not usually allow?

JB: Hitchcock proceeded by indirection, stalling, sweet-talking, surrendering by degrees, and swapping off lesser elements to protect cherished images. Often, the material to be swapped included questionable elements inserted precisely for that purpose. In Rear Window, Hitchcock captured three separate views of the delectable Miss Torso, filming her once topless from behind, once in a white negligee, and once in black. The topless version was intended as bait for the censors, and he replaced it with the protective negligee footage when they objected, using his “capitulation” to buy concessions in other areas of the film. As his career progressed, Hitchcock would deliberately film elements of dialogue that the censors had flagged as objectionable in their script review, so that they were available as trading chips to protect scenes that raised the censors’ hackles during their review of the finished film.

AHM: Geoffrey Shurlock took over the Production Code Administration after Joseph Breen stepped down in 1954. What were the differences between these two men in terms of production code policy, and how did Alfred Hitchcock use these changes to his benefit?

JB: Joseph Breen was an ambitious anti-Semitic autocrat who enjoyed imposing his will on the studio heads, whom he characterized as “scum” and “lice” in private correspondence. His successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, was a more cultured man with an appreciation for the arts who allowed directors he liked (Hitchcock was one) some latitude in their moviemaking. By way of comparison, the number of comments on Hitchcock’s films under Breen’s supervision (26.7) was more than double the number (12.5) produced under Shurlock. The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch A Thief, which Breen condemned during his final months in office, passed almost intact after he had surrendered the baton to Shurlock.

AHM: How would Hitchcock’s filmmaking be different if he were making his movies today? Would they be better or worse without the code?

JB: Hitchcock’s final three films, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot were made after the Code had been replaced by a version of the rating system we have today. In Frenzy, he took advantage of relaxed restrictions on nudity and violence, but there is little evidence that freedom from the Code affected the other two films. He would certainly have had a broader range of topics to choose from in the absence of the Code, and that could only have improved his output.

The Code had its greatest impact on Hitchcock at the start of his American career, when its influence was strongest. By the end of his career, he was able to manipulate the censors so that they had little real impact on his films. Still, he would have been freed from the need to interact with Code officials, which could only help his output. But the need to bend images to fit Code guidelines led to some of his most memorable scenes. The shower scene is Psycho, one of the most memorable in film history, was precisely constructed to subvert Code guidelines, as was the prolonged “kissing” scene in Notorious. On balance, though, Hitchcock’s films would have been better without the Code, particularly at the start of his American career.

To Catch A Thief - The Fireworks Seduction

“The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch A Thief, which Breen condemned during his final months in office, passed almost intact after he had surrendered the baton to Shurlock.” -John Billheimer

AHM: What is it about Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work that makes it so ripe for scholarship? Why are people still fascinated with his filmmaking?

JB: Hitchcock was the first director whose work was generally recognized by the public, both because of his self-promotion and because of the genuine pleasure he provided in his work. He knew how to push the buttons of his audience systematically and effectively, and provided a lifetime of lasting images. The shower scene in Psycho is easily the most memorable montage ever put on film, and he created other images almost equally memorable, including the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest, the aborted strangling in Dial M For Murder, the avian attack in The Birds, and the excruciating murder in Torn Curtain. Four of his films were listed among the list of the 100 greatest films of all time compiled by the American Film Institute, and nine were among the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest thrillers. He was the cinema’s master technician, and his films are a pleasure to view and study.

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

Book Interview: Hitchcock and Humor

Hitchcock and Humor Cover.jpg

Publisher: McFarland

Release Date: April 23, 2019

A Conversation with Wes D. Gehring

An analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s methodical use of comedy in his films is past due, and Hitchcock and Humor: Modes of Comedy in Twelve Defining Films helps to fill this void. The book examines what should be obvious: Hitchcock systematically incorporated assorted types of comedy—black humor, farce/screwball comedy, and romantic comedy—in his films to entertain his audience.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is honored to have had the opportunity to interview Wes Gehring about his work on the book, and we are proud to present it here for your reading enjoyment.

Alfred Hitchock Being A Big Goof (18)

AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock and Humor for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?

WG: As the back cover blurb suggests, in preparing for TCM’s 2017 online Hitchcock class, as one of the resident scholars, I was shocked that there was no other in-depth examination of the director’s systematic incorporation of assorted types of comedy—black humor, parody farce/screwball comedy, personality comedy, and romantic comedy—in his films to entertain his audiences with compound comic thrillers.

I have done multiple books on all of these comedy genres. Plus, many of my 39 books key upon comedians who mesh with another comedy genre, such as multiple books on Chaplin and his use of dark comedy—someone who influenced Hitchcock in many ways. Fittingly, my last book on the comedian—”Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947“—was picked by Huffington Post as one of the Best Film Books of 2014. It also generated an invitation to speak at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Plus, CHOICE said of it: “Gehring remains supreme in film comedy scholarship.”

Farce/screwball comedy is another genre in which I have also written extensively, from two books on this comedy type, to biographies of key players, from director Leo McCarey, to the “screwball girl”—Carole Lombard, who starred in Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941). Hitchcock scholars treat the film like a sorry step-sister, but no other humor genre is more central to Hitchcock’s filmography (with the exception of dark comedy).

AHM: How did you choose which twelve films to discuss?

WG: A major factor was the often neglected British films—both in general comic terms, and the complete comic neglect of the brilliant Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). Period reviews even compared him to Harpo Marx (I have done two books on the Marx Brothers.) Both films are an inspired mix of black humor and personality comedy with a pinch of farce. Plus, the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much completely blows the bloated American remake out of the water. It is fast, funny, and feels so spontaneous.

Blackmail (1929) was a must because Hitchcock’s career really starts here. It was the beginning of so many of his auteur traits, but it also screams (pun intended) black comedy, especially with it reoccurring Rosetta Stone painting of a court jester.

Hitchcock’s two greatest British films, The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were a given, both because the duo are so tied to ‘tongue-in-cheek’ screwball comedy. Moreover, The 39 Steps borrows heavily from two pioneering screwball comedies—It Happened One Night (1934), and to a lesser extent another pivotal quasi-screwball comedy, The Thin Man (1934). And the beauty of all this is that one need not take my word on it—consult period reviews. I am a devil on period research that has fallen through the cracks of time. For example, just read my well-received 2018 text “Buster Keaton In His Own Time: What the Responses of 1920s Critics Reveal.” Besides being another darkly comic comedian who influenced Hitchcock, I completely focused on period literature and presented a new perspective on the comedian. And Hitchcock’s iffy perspective on humanity and relationships was obviously impacted by Keaton.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a must for reasons already mentioned, and as a bridge to his American films. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), and Stranger on a Train (1951) fall together as what I call Hitchcock’s “Nietzschen Dark Comedy Trilogy.” Shadow was Hitchcock and wife Alma’s favorite of his films, and no other Hitchcock film better showcases his misanthropic and misogynistic nature. Even Peter Bogdanovich has stated that “Hitchcock definitely gives Joseph Cotton his position [in Doubt].” And this is hardly press kit material, or the director’s career would have been much shorter.

Moreover, Stranger’s key character, Robert Walker’s Bruno, is arguably the director’s greatest dark comedy creation. (I know, what about Norman Bates? Let’s not argue.) Moreover, Strangers is also very close to the director’s misanthropic/misogynistic nature—with his daughter as a mouthpiece for it in her supporting role.

Rear Window (1954) is the director’s most beloved study in voyeurism, as well as the beginning of making the audience feel increasingly creepy about what’s going on in Hitchcock’s world. Indeed, anyone who would rather spy on his neighbors than spend time with Grace Kelly has issues. And Jimmy Stewart’s phallic cast merely underlines his messed-up priorities in almost every shot.

The Trouble with Harry (1955) was Hitchcock literally doing an obvious black comedy and somehow failing at the box office. If for no other reason, that was grounds to further explore it. Plus, though initially seen as an “English” project, there is more early American humor involved in the project that has gone unexplored. Plus, the director’s dive into TV at this time is a factor also neglected.

With North by Northwest (1958), Hitchcock had come full circle back to his British comic thrillers, à la The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, which had brought him to America. Thus, it seemed a good stopping point for examining the various comedy genres he had elaborately intertwined around the filmography’s black comedy core. It is also his most full-blown comedy.

However, one cannot close without some passing commentary on Psycho (1960) in the epilogue, though references to the film are peppered throughout the text. Still, the humor factor here seemed too obvious to belabor over a full chapter.

AHM: Were there any unique challenges that you had to face in making the book a reality?

WG: In doing so many books I am blessed to have a solid working relationship with McFarland and some other publishers. Thus, getting a contract did not prove to be a problem. Of course, the wonderful response of TCM viewers to the online Hitchcock class did not hurt. Thus, I owe a major thank you to the man most responsible for both the series, and my involvement—Richard Edwards. And once again, McFarland did an excellent job in supporting and showcasing my work.

AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and what instigated the interest?

WG: As a Baby boomer, I grew-up with Hitchcock’s TV series and often terrorized my sister with a so-so impression of the director while humming his theme song, the “Funeral March of a Marionette.” It is also an 1872 composition, which, fittingly for my book’s focus, was composed as a darkly comic spoof.

Also, as someone who has written a great deal about dark comedy, I had always wanted to further elaborate on the famous Hitchcock “MacGuffin.” This is something that seems very important at the beginning of a Hitchcock film, but by the close does not really matter. However, since Hitchcock has called all of his films dark comedies, no one has made the natural leap to black humor and a theatre of the absurd primer like Waiting for Gadot (1953). That is, early in Samuel Beckett’s play, and other works of existential ilk, the characters are given the quasi-MacGuffin idea that God and/or something else of extreme importance is to surface by the story’s conclusion. These invariably amusing figures (usually inspired by primal comic characters) then invariably both charm the viewer and give them a reason to watch a rather illogical story (Hitchcock’s modus operandi), in which the big finish never occurs. This serious though seemingly logical tie of the MacGuffin to dark comedy hits all the genre’s basics—from absurdity to death—and fits Hitchcock’s misanthropic nature.

AHM: We occasionally borrow a question from Robin Wood and ask scholars why people should take Alfred Hitchcock’s work seriously. In this instance, I’d like to add to this question and ask why scholars should take the director’s use of humor seriously. Why is it important to examine or study the humor in Hitchcock’s oeuvre?

WG: One should take the time to examine the work of any popular artist seriously, even if he or she is not a favorite. As my graduate school mentor, Richard D. MacCann was fond of saying, “If someone’s work has become unusually popular they have hit upon some basic universals which bear looking into.”

With regard to humor, from my darkly comic perspective, as I noted with the additional definition of a “MacGuffin,” life is essentially a joke. It’s the old axiom of tragedy with time. All the great humorists have a perspective along those lines, whether it’s Vonnegut casually using the mantra “And so it goes” for the worst horrors one can image, to Chaplin observing of life, “In the end it’s all a joke.”

Dark comedy is the bravest of all genres, because it allows one no crutches, no happy endings. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is you die.” Maybe Joseph Heller said it best via Yossarian in Catch-22 (1961): “[Things] could be one hell of a lot better… And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways. There’s nothing mysterious about it. He’s not working at all.” But I most embrace Mark Twain’s perspective, “It’ll be a hell of a heaven if everyone goes that thinks he will.”

Consequently, it’s important to study the neglected humor (especially dark humor) in Hitchcock because it gives his work substance. In The 39 Steps when our hero and heroine reach for each other’s hands at the close, do the handcuffs dangling from his wrist really qualify as a happy ending?

AHM: How did humor in his early British films differ from the humor that saturated his work once he started making films in America?

WG: Hitchcock’s British films were full of more farce, and with Lorre, darkly comic personality. Once in America, after Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there is more focus on the black humor of the aforementioned Nietzschean Trilogy, followed by an often uneven period, in which one remake, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is a step back, while North By Northwest actually improves upon The 39 Steps. In a sentence, American Hitchcock was simply more eclectic, though one film actually changed the nature of horror and campy dark humor—Psycho.

AHM: As you have already mentioned,  Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Trouble with Harry are among the twelve films discussed in your book. These films are often written off as anomalies that do not represent the director’s typical modus operandi. It is obvious that you disagree with this evaluation. Why is it a mistake to write these films off as atypical Hitchcock efforts?

WG: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is important because besides being a natural link to the farcical British films which got Hitchcock to America, it plays as a darker screwball comedy—which was typical of several Lombard examples of the genre involving murder, such as The Princess Comes Across (1936) and True Confession (1938). Then, this farcical segue turns on a dime to Hitchcock’s darker noir-ish films, such as Shadow and Strangers.

The Trouble with Harry is closer to Hitchcock’s American filmography on two counts. First, it’s a whimsical first cousin to the Nietzschean Trilogy about a title character who is spoofing a Jesus figure who won’t stay buried—which is more fully articulated in the novel from which it is adapted. Second, Hitchcock blames its poor box office on trying to be too old school British. But it really has much more to do with many branches of American humor, from 19th century women humorists, to Hitchcock’s American world being greatly impacted by New Yorker writers such as Robert Benchley and cartoonists like Charles Addams. Thus, in its own way, it is another transition film.

AHM: Do you think that the director’s claim that all of his films are dark comedies is accurate or is this merely hyperbole? Where do his darker efforts (such as Sabotage, Notorious, I Confess, The Wrong Man, and Vertigo) fit into this statement? There may be humor in some of these films, but I feel that the overall tone of these efforts are decidedly more serious. Would you agree or disagree with this assessment?

WG: I would stand somewhere between hyperbole and serious on your question about dark comedy in films like The Wrong Man or Notorious. The Wrong Man is pure Kafka, such as The Trial or The Castle—which are essentially black comedies on acid. While Notorious is chapter two of North by Northwest, when Cary Grant begins to wonder if the less than “Saintly” Eva Marie will have any other weekends when she just decides to fall in love with someone.

Remember, I’ve previously written that I see all of life as a dark comedy. There are just degrees. My philosophy of life is “cling to the wreckage.” Hitchcock claims I Confess fails because it had no humor. But given his negative perspective on the Catholic Church, I think that his subtextual damning of an institution (a pivotal part of dark comedy) slides it into a deep state dark comedy. And with Vertigo—between the miscasting of Stewart and Hitchcock channeling his increasingly perverse perspective as director through Stewart’s character—I find it a black comedy for the Hitchcock aficionado.

AHM: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and which film do you think best represents the director’s particular brand of humor?

WG: Given my screwball comedy/American farce background, North by Northwest is my favorite. Grant was also Hitchcock’s favorite actor, as well as mine—someone who brings delightful humor to any situation, however dark. Plus, given Grant was Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond, a great case can be made for this being the first real 007 movie. Finally throw in one of Hitchcock’s most entertainingly slick villains in James Mason, and it is hard not to love the picture.

Though Psycho was the most influential of Hitchcock’s films—literally changing horror from old scary Europe to the contemporary world of that “nice” American boy that lives next door, I would go with The 39 Steps as the director’s most representative film. The BFI has selected it as his best British-made film. Plus, the huge ongoing success (since 2005) of The 39 Steps as a play which so successfully spoofs all of Hitchcock’s work would be my trump card in choosing it.

AHM: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film?

WG: My least favorite Hitchcock films would include several of the silent he made following The Lodger (1926). But in the sound era I struggle with the Jamaica Inn, because of how Charles Laughton takes the picture over and drowns it in his hamminess. Producer David Selznick also controls Rebecca (1940). But at least one still has a wonderful picture (just not a Hitchcock one).

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Notorious – The Criterion Collection

Spine #137
blu-ray cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: January 15, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:41:37

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 29.73 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available both individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art) in the DVD format and was given an incredible release in the same format by The Criterion Collection several years before that release.

The film was later given a lackluster Blu-ray release by MGM Home Entertainment both as part of a three-film set entitled, The Classic Collection and as an individual release. This new Criterion edition is from a new 4K restoration transfer of the film and represents an upgrade in quality.

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“In spy films—in all spy films—we have what is called ‘The MacGuffin.’ The MacGuffin, if you go way back, can be the plans of the fault over-looking the pass if it’s in the time of Rudyard Kipling. Or it can be, at the end of [The] 39 Steps, a lot of jumble concerning an airplane secret. It doesn’t matter what you put in. It’s the MacGuffin…

…And the word MacGuffin comes from two men in an English railway compartment, and there’s a baggage rack overhead, and one of the men looks and says, ‘Excuse me, sir. What’s that strange looking parcel above your head?’ And the man looks and says, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’ ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well, it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ So the man says, ‘Well, there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ He said, ‘Then that’s no MacGuffin.’ It doesn’t mean anything.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, Interview, September 1974)

The MacGuffin doesn’t concern the audience, but it certainly created trouble for Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht when they were working together on the script. It took them quite a bit of time to come up with it, and many of the most suspenseful and iconic sequences in Notorious were born out of their eventual choice. Their source material—a story by John Taintor Foote entitled The Song of the Dragon—wasn’t any help at all.

“At the beginning the producer had given me an old-fashioned story, ‘The Song of the [Dragon]’ that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. It was the story of a young woman who had fallen in love with the son of a wealthy New York society woman. The girl was troubled about a secret in her past. She felt that her great love would be shattered if ever the young man or his mother found out about it. What was the secret? Well, during the war, the government counterspy service had approached a theatrical impresario to find them a young actress who would act as an agent; her mission was to sleep with a certain spy in order to get hold of some valuable information. The agent had suggested this young girl and she had accepted the assignment. So now, filled with apprehensions about the whole thing, she goes back to her agent and tells him all about her problem, and he, in turn, tells the whole story to the young man’s mother. The story winds up with the aristocratic mother saying, ‘I always hoped that my son would find the right girl, but I never expected him to marry a girl as fine as this!’

…Well, after talking it over with Ben Hecht, we decide that the idea we’ll retain from this story is that the girl is to sleep with a spy in order to get some secret information.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

saturday evening post - november 12th and 19th, 1921 (part 1 and 2 of the story)

John Taintor Foote’s “The Song of the Dragon” was a two-part short story that was serialized in the November 12th and 19th, 1921 issues of The Saturday Evening Post.

It’s interesting to note how incredibly well Hitchcock remembered the details of this particular story considering how little he and Hecht actually borrowed from it (although he incorrectly remembered the title of “The Song of the Flame”). However, there is quite a lot that he doesn’t mention. Matthew H. Bernstein provided an even more detailed synopsis in an essay entitled “Unrecognizable Origins,” but those hoping to find similarities between it and the film will find themselves at a loss.

“Foote’s tale is narrated by veteran stage producer William Kinder, who begins the story pondering the impossibility of casting for an ingénue in a new play: experienced actresses are too old to be plausible in the part, and new actresses are too inexperienced to pull it off. He is interrupted by a visit from federal Agent Smith, who asks Kinder to ask an accomplished stage star with whom Kinder worked and was in love to sleep with the German head of a ring of saboteurs, who currently pretends to be a British playboy living the high life on Fifth Avenue. Meanwhile, Kinder grants an audition to an unknown actress on whom he takes pity when she is knocked out in his office.

Kinder’s former paramour rejects the idea angrily and stomps out; the ingénue, Sylvia Dodge, auditions and turns out to be an astonishing performer; and as Kinder is making plans with her for their box office success, Agent Smith turns up again to follow up on his request. Though Kinder gives him the bad news, both men witness Dodge’s spontaneous expression of her intense desire to do something to help the young American recruits marching through Manhattan before going off to fight in World War I. Before Kinder can stop him, Smith has whisked Dodge away for the assignment. Part 1 of the story ends here.

Part 2, published a week later, picks up with Kinder angry that Dodge, having accomplished her espionage mission, has not returned as she has promised to his office to resume her incipient career. He chews out Agent Smith because she has chosen to entertain the troops instead. A scene follows between Dodge and her new beau, Captain Eugene Weyeth. The son of a wealthy New York family, Weyeth proposes to Dodge; she holds him off with the promise of eventual marriage and shows up in Kinder’s office to ask his help. She rightly suspects that the captain’s parents will be suspicious of her and will reject her when they learn, as they will, of her sleeping with the enemy. Kinder accompanies Dodge to the Weyeths’ apartment, where she tearfully explains her past service to her country, producing a letter of commendation from the president as proof. The Weyeths accept her with enthusiasm, and the story ends.” –Matthew H. Bernstein (Unrecognizable Origins, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Obviously, the Academy knew what they were doing when they chose to nominate the film in the Best Original Screenplay category—this was truly an original story that owed very little to Foote’s work. It is no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht struggled with the film’s plot for such a long while. They simply couldn’t figure out what their Nazi villains would be trying to accomplish in Rio. What would Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) discover when behind enemy lines? Countless ideas were tossed around, and one of these even made it into the earliest drafts of the script. Unfortunately, that earlier MacGuffin lacked simplicity.

“As always, we proceeded by trial and error, going off in several different directions that turned out to be too complex… Our original intention had been to… show groups of German refugees training in secret camps in South America with the aim of setting up an enemy army. But we couldn’t figure out what they were going to do with the army once it was organized. So we dropped the whole idea in favor of a MacGuffin that was simpler, but concrete and visual: a sample of uranium concealed in a wine bottle…

I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project some place in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium MacGuffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Of course, both Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht were precisionists in many respects and wanted their idea validated by some higher authority. What’s more, they had a number of questions about various details concerning their then-hypothetical bomb.

“…As I’m not sure about this uranium and how big an atom bomb is, I put my hat on and go to the California Institute of Technology, where the most important scientist is working: Doctor Milliken, director of the Manhattan project. Naturally, I don’t know that he’s directing the Manhattan project. I don’t even know the Manhattan project exists. I only know that in New Mexico there exists a secret place where everyone goes in and no one comes out—a journalist told me about it. So I go in, ‘Good day, doctor. How are you?’ I shake hands with the doctor, who has a bust of Einstein in the corner of the room, and I ask him, ‘Doctor, how big would an atom bomb be?’ The scene that follows! He jumps up, yelling, ‘Do you want to be arrested? Do you want to get me arrested too?’ Then he spends an hour explaining to me that it was impossible to make the atom bomb, that the atom bomb never would be made, and that consequently I should not make the atom bomb my MacGuffin. I said all right. But I still had the bottle of uranium in the scenario, [and it was] a dramatic sequence. I didn’t want to give up the uranium, and so I made the MacGuffin the Atom Bomb anyway, and two years later the bomb exploded on Hiroshima.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock: Mr. Chastity, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, 1963)

Interestingly, the director later learned that the FBI had him under surveillance for three months after that fateful visit. In any case, the entire script seemed to fall into place once they finally decided upon using Uranium for as their gimmick.

“The MacGuffin sparked the writers. Tossing out the opera house scene where Sebastian first realizes that Alicia is a spy [in earlier drafts of the script], Hecht and Hitchcock devised a suspenseful episode that chillingly involved Alicia. Late one night, having learned that Sebastian keeps in his basement a mysterious substance pertinent to the group’s scientific research, Alicia explores the wine cellar alone. She accidentally breaks a bottle and spills its contents—‘sand’—to the floor. American intelligence identifies the substance as uranium. In April 1945, a month before the military began work on the deployment of the atomic bomb, two months before certain of Churchill’s advisors knew of it, and three months before the Alamogordo test that demonstrated its efficacy, Hecht and Hitchcock brought uranium and atomic warfare to Notorious.” –Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

The aforementioned sequence would be fine-tuned in a number of ways. Most importantly, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) was eventually incorporated into this portion of the film, and the idea of hiding the uranium in a wine bottle suggested a motif that Hitchcock employed throughout the film’s duration. Better yet, the details and minutia regarding the atomic bomb ended up being completely unimportant as the only element that was used in the plot was the uranium ore. Unfortunately, none of this kept David O. Selznick from raising an eyebrow at the idea.

“…The producer said, ‘What in the name of goodness is that?’ I said, ‘This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.’ And he asked, ‘What atom bomb?’ This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima… The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it. Finally, I said, ‘Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.’ And I pointed out that if it had not been a wartime story, we could have hinged our plot on the theft of diamonds, that the gimmick was unimportant. Well, I failed to convince the producers, and a few weeks later the whole project was sold to RKO. In other words, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, the script, Ben Hecht, and myself, we were sold as a package.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

This is undoubtedly an oversimplification as there were a variety of factors that contributed to Selznick’s decision to sell the project (the biggest of which was likely the producer’s financial situation at the time). He was pouring money and energy into Duel in the Sun as he felt that this film could best Gone with the Wind. In any case, the producer simply wasn’t as invested in the project and decided to shop the package around to various studios. He tried selling the film’s to the largest studios in Hollywood before finally selling it to RKO for $800,000 and fifty percent of the film’s gross earnings.

In all fairness to Selznick, he wasn’t the only producer in Hollywood to be put off by the film’s use of uranium.

“I was sailing on the Queen Elizabeth, and I ran into a man called Joseph Hazen, who was an associate of producer Hal Wallis [of Warner Brothers]. He said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to find out where you got the idea for the atom bomb a year before Hiroshima. When they offered us the Notorious script, we turned it down because we thought it was such a goddamn foolish thing to base a movie on.’ … I answered, ‘Well, all it goes to show is that you were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story. That mistake of yours cost you a lot of money, because the movie cost two million dollars to make and grossed eight million dollars for the producers.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that David O. Selznick hated the uranium MacGuffin, Leonard Leff argues that this is an erroneous claim in the pages of “Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood.

“Selznick not only called the decision to use uranium and the bomb ‘a tremendous thing,’ he even urged Hecht and Hitchcock to devise a culminating scene in which the Germans reveal the power of their discovery: they use ‘a bomb that could be held in the palm of one’s hand’ to blow up an entire mountain. An earlier draft had contained an allusion to such an experiment. Selznick now wanted to use the trick department to realize it. Exploding the bomb ‘makes the whole thing real,’ he told Hecht and Hitchcock, ‘and will give the picture size and spectacle.’” –Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

It is true that Selznick eventually came around to the idea of the uranium, but there are two very important points that Leff manages to glaze over. The first of these points has to do with the fact that he seems to have become enthusiastic about this idea after selling the project to RKO (who had taken over the project in mid-July). Selznick’s newfound enthusiasm seems to have come soon after the fateful events that occurred soon after this in early August. After the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima on the sixth and then on Nagasaki on the ninth, the producer began seeing dollar signs (remember, that he would still receive fifty percent of the film’s profits).

The script was still being developed at this time and even saw an unused polish by Clifford Odets before Ben Hecht returned to the project to undo his alterations. This setback added to an already lengthy writing period, and Selznick urged RKO to light a fire under Hitchcock and Hecht so that Notorious could be one of the first films to the box-office to exploit this topical atrocity. What’s more, he wanted to build up the MacGuffin with the aforementioned embellishments. He wanted spectacle—and this brings us to that second “glazed over” point—the producer’s desire to build up and elaborate upon the MacGuffin betrays his misunderstanding of what a MacGuffin actually is and also what the film was supposed to be about. This was the point that Hitchcock was trying to make: Notorious isn’t about uranium ore. It isn’t about atomic warfare. The audience isn’t concerned with such things beyond the fact that it puts the film’s heroine in mortal danger.

The story itself concerns itself with another kind of politics: sexual politics. Many critics and scholars prefer to discuss the film’s themes regarding the conflict of “love versus duty,” but there are more interesting conflicts at the heart of Notorious. It is a film about the toxicity of male insecurity, passive-aggressive behavior, and the games that couples tend to play with one another. Of course, there are moments of serenity in the film—including a celebrated kissing sequence that represents the calm before a storm that lasts throughout the rest of the film’s duration. It is one of the film’s most remarkable passages, and the audience hates to see the couple part when it is over:

screenplay excerpt - the kissing embrace

The scene was so much more than a way around the censor’s rule that no kiss should last longer than three seconds. It was born out of an understanding that such moments are fragile and fleeting. Alicia doesn’t want anything to interrupt this moment, because she knows that the wall of ice that Devlin has built around his heart is melting. She also knows that another cold front could blow through at any moment. It is no wonder why the director seemed to relish discussing the scene with journalists throughout the rest of his long career.

“It’s always seemed to me that when two people embrace, they don’t want to let go… I distinctly remember where I got the idea of not letting them go—of having the woman not let go of the man, even though he was on the telephone. It was long before I made the film. Before World War II, and I was on a train in France going from Boulogne to Paris and it was on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the train was going through the station of Etapes, moving quite slowly, when I saw a man and a woman, arm in arm, and he was urinating against a wall but the girl never let go of him. She was glancing around, looking at him and what he was doing now and then, but she would not move her arm away from his, she did not want to break that [moment].” –Alfred Hitchcock (Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, December 14, 1969)

Unfortunately, the moment is eventually broken as Devlin dutifully leaves to meet with his superiors so that they can give him Alicia’s assignment: she is to “land” Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who was once an associate of Alicia’s father. The agents hope that this will allow her to learn his secrets. The scene that follows shows us a side of Devlin that he doesn’t show Alicia—he stands up for her, but he isn’t resolute in his argument:

screenplay excerpt - defending her honor

In the filmed version, Prescott doesn’t ask “Have you some personal interest in Alicia Huberman?” He replaces this with “Why do you think she won’t do it?” When Devlin answers that she hasn’t had any experience, Prescott cheekily responds, “Come now. What experience does she lack, do you think?” Of course, this question cuts to the heart of Devlin’s own insecurities, and he gives up his argument completely when he is told that Sebastian was once in love with Alicia. His thawing wall of ice freezes back completely upon hearing this information.

This sets up what is one of the key scenes (no pun intended) in the relationship between our two primary protagonists wherein both Alicia and Devlin play a game of emotional chicken. They love each other, but Devlin does not want to tell Alicia his feelings and later learn that she cannot be true to him. He has given Alicia her assignment: She is to bed a Nazi agent in order to find out secrets about his organization:

screenplay excerpt - testing each other

Alicia is angry at Devlin for not speaking up for her to his superiors. Why would he not tell them that she is the wrong woman for such a job? We happen to know that he did speak up for her, but he refuses to admit this to Alicia. Devlin does not want her to accept the assignment and will not let these feelings be known. He needs to know if he can trust her and can only know for sure if she refuses the assignment. Alicia wants Devlin to tell her that he believes in her and not to take the assignment because he loves her. Neither character will budge. They are testing one another and both of them fail miserably. As a result, Alicia ends up bedding the agent, and Devlin resents her for this choice (even though she is only doing it because she believes it is what he wants). These games intensify later when Alicia baits Devlin during a rendezvous at the races:

screenplay excerpt - racetrack love test

The scene as it appears in the film is more streamlined, but all of the important beats are there and each beat hits hard. The characters in Notorious have a habit of testing one another’s love and devotion. Even Alexander Sebastian plays emotional games with Alicia as he is every bit as insecure as Devlin. At a dinner, Alicia apologizes to Sebastian for her behavior the last time that they were together. He responds by saying, “Well, then I’ll test your repentance immediately.” Sebastian worries that she has feelings for Devlin, and dances around the subject in order to get information out of her. He even pretends at one point to forget the issue and secretly continues to worry. Even his proposal to Alicia is simply a form of manipulation. When Alicia claims that Devlin means nothing to her, Sebastian’s replies, “I’d like to be convinced. Would you maybe care to convince me, Alicia, that Mr. Devlin means nothing to you?

In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto discusses the obvious motif of wine bottles and alcohol in the film and then elaborates on Alicia’s habit of using alcohol to mask her emotional pain. Devlin is also protecting himself from feeling emotional pain, but he does this by pushing Alicia away in a variety of ways (including verbal jabs about her past). Of course, this behavior is what pushes Alicia directly into the arms of Sebastian. Self-preservation becomes self-destructive in Notorious.

claude rains

“Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman made a nice couple, but in the close shots the difference between them was so marked that if I wanted them both in a frame, I had to stand Claude Rains on a box. On one occasion we wanted to show them both coming from a distance, with the camera panning from him to Bergman. Well, we couldn’t have any boxes out there on the floor, so what I did was to have a plank of wood gradually rising as he walked toward the camera.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

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What makes the film’s incredibly well drawn characters and rich subtext all the more remarkable is that they are rendered without sacrificing any of the suspenseful set pieces that Hitchcock has built his reputation upon. In fact, the brilliant crane shot that begins with an incredible overview of a party being held at the Sebastian mansion and ends with an extreme close-up of the famous UNICA key in Alicia’s hand is one of the most celebrated in Hitchcock’s career.

“That’s again using the visual. That’s a statement which says, ‘In this crowded atmosphere there is a very vital item, the crux of everything.’ So taking that sentence as it is, in this crowded atmosphere, you go to the widest possible expression of that phrase and then you come down to the most vital thing—a tiny little key in the hand. That’s merely the visual expression to say, ‘Everybody is having a good time, but they don’t realize there is a big drama going on here.’ And that big drama epitomizes itself in a little key.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Notorious is full of incredible moments like this one, but the film isn’t about these iconic moments; it is merely elevated by them. Every scene is either rich in subtext, suspense, or both all at once. It has been discussed and dissected endlessly and from a variety of different viewpoints, but there is still so much more to discover with each respective viewing.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Criterion Collection houses their disc in the same sturdy clear case that has become the standard for their releases (we actually prefer this to their digipaks). The cover sleeve includes thematically appropriate cover artwork that has been credited to Greg Ruth. It’s a nice design that captures one of the film’s most memorable moments. Also included in the case is a pamphlet that includes more attractive artwork and an interesting essay by Angelica Jade Bastién entitled, “Notorious: The Same Hunger.” Information about the transfer and technical credits are also included therein.

menu

Criterion’s static menu features film-related art and is in the same style that collectors have come to expect from Criterion’s Blu-ray releases. It is attractive and should be intuitive to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion includes detailed information about the film’s digital restoration in their included pamphlet:

“A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director Film scanner at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California, from three elements: the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain, both held by the Museum of Modern Art, and a 35mm safety fine-grain held by the British Film Institute. Several sections of the original camera negative, the primary source for this restoration, have sustained damage over the years and been replaced by duplicate negatives; for some of these portions, the fine-grains were used. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.” –Liner Notes

Their efforts have resulted in a noticeable upgrade in terms of image quality when compared to the earlier MGM Blu-ray. It has a sharper appearance and the image isn’t slightly squeezed (and was on the MGM disc). The cleaner appearance of this new image certainly stands out as does an improvement in density. It seems like the restoration team took more care with this transfer, and the grain seems to be healthier here as well. Clarity is okay as well but doesn’t seem to be much better here than on the MGM disc. Stability is respectable and the movie looks great in motion. The overall experience feels just a bit more filmic.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Interestingly, the film’s soundtrack was taken from a different source than the image as explained in the included pamphlet:

“The original monaural soundtrack was first restored in 2001 from a 1954 35mm acetate release print and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master. Additional restoration work was performed by the Criterion Collection for this release using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.” –Liner Notes

It’s a nice job and the Linear PCM Audio track sounds much better than one might think it should. Music suffers the most from the film’s dated production techniques, but it certainly represents the film’s original Mono elements admirably. Anomalies that might distract have been minimalized so that hiss, hum, crackle, pops, and other assorted nonsense is never allowed to take viewers out of the movie.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

In addition to two feature-length commentary tracks and an hour-long radio drama, Criterion has included over two hours and thirty-one minutes of video-based material that should thrill fans of the film. In fact, this supplemental package would have earned a perfect score if not for the fact that there are a number of supplements from previous releases of Notorious that haven’t been carried over to this disc.

It almost seems ungrateful to even mention the missing supplements considering the embarrassment of riches that have actually been included here.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Marian Keane (2001)

Anyone who has listened to Marian Keane’s other commentary tracks will have a decent idea what they can expect from this one. What we are given here is a feature-length audiovisual essay that discusses what is happening on the screen in a manner that dissects it in terms of Keane’s personal interpretation. It’s somewhat dry and scholarly, but it will interest those who enjoy theoretical analysis (even if they disagree with her interpretation). However, I imagine that there are plenty of people who will prefer Behlmer’s track.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Rudy Behlmer (1990)

Rudy Behlmer’s track is more information based as we earn a bit about the production and its backstory. There are a lot of anecdotal tidbits, excerpts from production memos and correspondence, various books about the director, biographical information, and certain technical details. There is the occasional theoretical comment, but this one is largely about the film’s production and the various people who were involved with it.

Once Upon a Time: Notorious (2009) – (52:02)

This interesting episode/documentary was originally a part of the French series Once Upon a Time. A variety of archival footage is utilized throughout the duration as are interviews with scholars and other pertinent subjects; including David Thompson, Bill Krohn, Charlotte Chandler, Sidney Gottlieb, Claude Chabrol, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen Frears, Isabella Rossellini, and others. We even hear from Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman via the aforementioned archival footage. However, it should be made clear that the made clear that the subject of Notorious isn’t discussed in broad general terms. Topics discussed certainly cover the film’s production—including script development, Selznick’s sale of the package to RKO, and production information—but the program’s objective is to examine the sociopolitical environment of the era in which the film was made and how these things influenced the film. It’s an incredibly interesting documentary that is essential viewing for fans of both this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s other work. It is the disc’s best supplement.

Writing with the Camera – (19:54)

Writing with the Camera is the disc’s second-best supplementary program, and focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s visual style and the various ways that he planned his productions. There are a few contradictory comments as to how the director worked throughout this piece, but this only makes it more interesting and worthwhile. Daniel Raim includes a number of interviews with some of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborators as well as a number of scholars; including Steven Katz (who literally wrote the books on the visualization process in film directing—“Film Directing, Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen” and “Film Directing, Cinematic Motion: A Workshop for Staging Scenes Film”), Bill Krohn (who wrote Hitchcock at Work), Robert F. Boyle (production designer), Henry Bumstead (production designer), Harold Michelson (storyboard artist), and a number of other experts. The program begins discussing Hitchcock’s use on the visual in Notorious, but there is quite a bit of material on The Birds, and it mentions a few of the director’s other films throughout the duration as well.

Poisoned Romance – (21:01)

Donald Spoto—the man who invented the revisionist biography—discusses the film’s story and production in this conversation recorded specifically for this release. We learn about the film’s “source material,” the story and its narrative structure, Alfred Hitchcock’s frustrating relationship with David O. Selznick, the director’s collaboration with Ben Hecht, and Spoto’s own observations. It’s a nice interview but pales in comparison with the previous two programs.

Glamour and Tension – (23:25)

John Bailey’s interview adds enormously to the value of the disc, but this is mainly due to a very short portion of the program that discusses the challenges of the film’s famous crane shot. His comments on the shot are incredibly technical but his explanation is coupled with illustrations that make it incredibly easy for any layperson to understand. Less interesting are his observations about the rear screen work in Notorious. It’s nice to have a well-respected cinematographer discuss Hitchcock’s visual style, but it is a bit more uneven than some of the disc’s other offerings.

Powerful Patterns – (29:42)

The final sequence is broken down by David Bordwell as is how this sequence is set up throughout the entire movie. It’s both an informative and engaging half hour.

Pathe Reporter Meets… Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock (1948) – (00:48)

The Pathe newsreel footage is actually more relevant to Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn as it cover’s Bergman’s arrival in the United Kingdom to shoot the film. However, it is a nice artifact that should be of interest to fans of both the actress and the director.

Lux Radio Theatre Adaptation of Notorious (1948) – (59:56)

This radio play originally aired on January 26, 1948 and starred Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. It’s certainly interesting but has nothing on the actual film. Notorious is such a visual film experience that the radio version simply falls a bit flat. It is certainly great to have it included here for comparison. The show is played over a still image of Ingrid Bergman.

Theatrical Trailers and Teasers

There are four trailers for the film included on the disc:

A Notorious Woman of Affairs – (02:09)
Gems in Her Hair and Ice in Her Heart – (00:55)
Notorious! Notorious! Notorious! – (00:52)
All She Was Was All She Wanted – (00:16)

Some of the director’s other movies were promoted by much more interesting and creative trailers. The four trailers for Notorious are typical of the hyperbolic trailers of its era. It’s nice to have them included as one likes to see how classic films were marketed.

WHAT WASN’T INCLUDED?

We are missing a number of textual supplements from the previous Criterion DVD release (excerpts from “Song of the Dragon,” production correspondence, letters from the government, script excerpts of deleted material, and an essay). However, these text screens would have been much better had they been included as part a booklet instead of on the disc and it is doubtful that many will prefer those to the video-based material that has been included on this release. However, there are a number of features included on the earlier MGM Blu-ray that could and should have been carried over to Criterion’s disc (or as a part of a 2-disc release).

That release included a commentary track by Rick Jewell that wasn’t discussed a wide variety of topics—including the political landscape of post-war America and what the film meant to RKO at the time of the film’s release. A second commentary by Drew Casper was more theoretical and could even be described as an “audio essay.” There was quite a bit of history on these tracks that would have been a terrific asset to this new disc. Even more sorely missed is a half-hour documentary entitled The Ultimate Romance: The Making of ‘Notorious.’ We admit that some of the material revealed during this program is discussed on the various supplements that have been included here, but it is still unfortunate that it wasn’t included as it does contain a wealth of information that wasn’t included. The same can be said for a thirteen-minute featurette entitled Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster as it focused on the director’s influence on the espionage genre. The omission of the clip from the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony is also sorely missed as it included portions of Alfred Hitchcock’s “thank you” speech and Ingrid Bergman’s presentation of the famous UNICA key that featured in Notorious.

It was rather surprising to discover that this release didn’t include audio excerpts from Hitchcock’s infamous interviews with François Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich as they have included them on a few of their previous Hitchcock releases. It’s very difficult to understand why they weren’t here and they are sorely missed. There was also an isolated music track and a restoration comparison included on the MGM disc, but the comparison isn’t pertinent to this release and the music track isn’t as essential as the various supplements already discussed.

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Final Words:

The next time someone tells you that Alfred Hitchcock films are all style and no substance, simply suggest to that poor misinformed soul that they watch Notorious. It is one of the director’s masterpieces and is essential viewing not only for Hitchcock enthusiasts but for anyone who enjoys great cinema.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is a significant improvement over the earlier MGM disc and includes a great supplemental package. However, those who own that earlier release may wish to keep that disc as it contains a number of supplements that haven’t been carried over to this release.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

John Taintor Foote (Song of the Dragon, Saturday Evening Post, November 12 and 19, 1921)

Unknown (Harrison’s Reports, July 27, 1946)

Unknown (Grant, Bergman, Hitchcock, Hecht—Wow, Film Bulletin, August 05, 1946)

Bosley Crowther (Hitchcock Thriller Opens at Radio City, New York Times, August 16, 1946)

Various Authors (What the Newspaper Critics Say About New Films: Notorious, Film Bulletin, August 19, 1946)

Frank S. Nugent (Mr. Hitchcock Discovers Love, New York Times, November 03, 1946)

Unknown (The Times, February 1947)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Oriana Fallaci (Alfred Hitchcock: Mr. Chastity, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

H. E. F. Donohue (Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, December 14, 1969)

Rui Nogueira and Nicoletta Zalaffi (Hitch, Hitch, Hitch, Hurrah, Écran, July-August 1972)

Andy Warhol (Hitchcock, Interview, September 1974)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, April 01, 1983)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Matthew H. Bernstein (Unrecognizable Origins, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Angelica Jade Bastién (Notorious: The Same Hunger, 2018)

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Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Sisters – The Criterion Collection

Spine #89

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: October 23, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:32:42

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 34.71 Mbps

Notes: The Criterion Collection had previously released a DVD edition, but this is the film’s Blu-ray debut.

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WARNING: This article contains spoilers. We prefer not to discuss a film’s plot in intricate detail so that spoilers aren’t an issue, but it was necessary to compare very specific elements in Sisters to those found in Alfred Hitchcock’s work. We apologize in advance.

De Palma 1973

Brian De Palma in 1973

“I have found that people who like and are knowledgeable about Hitchcock also like Sisters—they know the references I am making to his films and they seem to appreciate it all the more for that. Which is good, because you could so easily be attacked as a tawdry Hitchcock rip-off.” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

After several decades worth of hindsight, it seems more accurate to say that those who are truly knowledgeable about Alfred Hitchcock are much more likely to find fault in the film homages of Brian De Palma—not because he is using ideas and themes popularized by a much better filmmaker, but because he doesn’t seem to understand how and why Hitchcock’s technique for creating suspense in his audiences actually works. In fact, these borrowed techniques are often rendered less effective when used alongside De Palma’s own stylistic flourishes.

Sisters is the film that began this particular pattern of filmmaking for Brian De Palma, and it may very well be the homage that works the best on its own terms. This is probably due to the fact that he wasn’t attempting to set himself up as the next Hitchcock when he started the project. In a 1973 interview, De Palma clarified his intentions: “Basically, I wanted to make a movie in the Hitchcock mode in order to work out my own problems as a storyteller. It was also a study in the realization of precise visualization.” He was also attempting to make a film that could capture a wide enough audience to make a decent profit at the box-office after the epic failure of Get to Know Your Rabbit. This meant turning his attention towards exploitable subject matter and learning how to plan his scenes visually.

“I was at Columbia in the late ’50s and early ’60s, terrified of being drafted. So I made movies about not wanting to go to Vietnam—very much the politics of the day. And then I decided I wanted to start learning how to tell stories with pictures. So, of course, Hitchcock is the great master of that, and I saw a lot of his movies and began to use some of his story ideas and techniques in order to learn how to do that.” –Brian De Palma (NPR, July 01, 2016)

Borrowing heavily from Psycho, Rear Window, and even Rope, the film tells a sordid story about a gorgeous model named Danielle (Margot Kidder) who has a secret: she was once a conjoined twin and was recently surgically separated from her sister, Dominique (also Margot Kidder). This particular story element was actually based on a very real set of Siamese twins:

“I got the idea from a picture in ‘Life‘ magazine. They had these Russian Siamese twin sisters called Masha and Dasha as they’re sitting together on a couch—one looking kind of gay and happy and the other sort of slumped over to the side looking completely psychopathic. And the caption was ‘although they’re physiologically perfectly normal, as they develop into adolescence, they’re developing certain mental problems.” –Brian De Palma (De Palma, 2015)

Masha and Dasha-Rare Study of Russia's Siamese Twins-Life April 8, 1966

This is the photograph of Masha and Dasha (at age 11) that gave Brian De Palma his inspiration for Sisters (1973). It appeared along with a photo essay entitled “Rare Study of Russia’s Siamese Twins,”  which appeared in the April 8, 1966 issue of Life. The caption actually read: “When they were younger, they enjoyed special attention. As they matured, they came to comprehend the full meaning of their deformity. Doctors now predict they will need psychiatric help.

The first act of Sisters is an obvious nod to the structure of Psycho as it introduces a character as the film’s protagonist only to kill him off at the end of the first act. In this instance, the protagonist is Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson). We first see Phillip as the unwitting guest on a hidden camera show called ‘Peeping Toms.’ (Some critics suggest that this may be a homage to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, but those familiar with De Palma’s earlier films understand that voyeurism had long been a staple of his work—especially in Greetings and Hi, Mom!. It is also a theme that is omnipresent throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work.

The aforementioned model, Danielle, has been hired to portray a blind woman in Phillip’s locker room who begins undressing (seemly unaware of his presence) as the show’s contestants make guesses as to whether he will be a gentleman and leave or if he will simply gawk at the attractive woman undressing before his eyes. He does the right thing and is given a dinner for two at a cheesy restaurant called “The African Room.” One might assume that Danielle was paid for her participation, but this is apparently not the case since she is given a set of cutlery. In any case, Danielle asks Phillip if he wouldn’t mind taking her as his date to “The African Room” and they take a fast liking to one another.

Unfortunately, their enjoyment of the evening is soon hindered by a strange looking gentleman named Emil Breton (William Finley) who seems to be stalking Danielle. We first see him in the studio audience at the game show, he confronts her as she dines with Phillip at “The African Room,” and he follows them back to Danielle’s apartment. It turns out that the gentleman stalker is actually Danielle’s ex-husband. After temporarily getting rid of Emil, Phillip and Danielle make love as the camera reveals a rather large scar on her hip.

Morning soon comes and Phillip is awakened by the sound of Danielle arguing with an unknown woman in another room. The argument is in French and therefore inscrutable to Phillip. However, he is soon told what the audience has already inferred from their subtitled argument: the other woman is Dominique, Danielle’s unstable twin sister who is visiting her on their birthday. It seems that she is jealous of Phillip’s presence in the apartment. He offers to leave them alone so that they can enjoy their day together, but Danielle prefers that he stay with her. She does, however, ask him to go and pick up some medication for her. He does this and also stops at a bakery to buy Danielle and Dominique a personalized birthday cake. Meanwhile, Danielle is in a great deal of pain and in desperate need of her medication.

Phillip returns and it seems that she has passed out on the sleeper sofa—but the woman asleep on the sofa isn’t Danielle. It will suffice to say that Dominique doesn’t seem to care much for birthday cake, because Phillip is stabbed to death for his efforts. The structural similarities between Sisters and Psycho are obvious: Phillip Woode is the Marion Crane of Sisters. De Palma has made it a point to discuss this similarity in interviews, bragging that “there are a great many structural elements here that are in all [of] Hitchcock’s movies: introducing a character and then having him killed off early in the film, switching points of view, taking the person who sees the murder and then having him solve the crime.” He isn’t quite right in stating that this was a structural feature of all Hitchcock films. After all, the master really only dispatched what the audience assumed was the film’s protagonist in Psycho, but De Palma is right to give credit where credit is due. (One might argue that Hitchcock also killed off one of his primary characters two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, but it should become clear why this isn’t technically the case if they give it any serious thought.)

Phillip desperately crawls to a window where he writes “help” in his own blood. This is seen by Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a struggling reporter living in an apartment across the way. This is one of several nods to Rear Window, but this is shown in split-screen instead of Hitchcock’s preferred technique of subjective montage. In fact, the next sequence in this film relies heavily on split-screen—a device that Brian De Palma is known for and uses in many of his films (with varying degrees of success). It actually works surprisingly well in Sisters for a variety of reasons. For one thing split-screen reflects the “split” nature of Danielle and Dominique (in more ways than one), but it also provides a bridge between the Phillip/Danielle perspective and the Grace Collier perspective since this single sequence is shared equally between them. Of course, it wasn’t the first time that he had used this device and it wouldn’t be the last.

“[The] split-screen, I got from Dionysus in ’69 where I shot the narrative of the play and Bob Fiore shot the audience’s involvement with the players and the play. And then I got this idea: ‘Well we’ll show them simultaneously.’ The thing about movies is that you’re telling the audience what to look at. When you cut to something, you’re saying ‘Oh, there’s something important going on here. Look at that! The thing about split-screen is the audience has a chance to sort of put two images together simultaneously, and something happens in their head. You’re giving them a juxtaposition as opposed to, “THIS!” Split-screen is a technique that can take you out of the experience. The idea is, ‘where is it appropriate?’ In Sisters it worked quite well: ‘Can I get the blood cleaned up before Jennifer [Salt] comes around with the police?’” –Brian De Palma (De Palma, 2015)

Grace calls the police and hurries around to find the location of Danielle’s apartment before two police officers arrive at the scene with a chip on their shoulder. (It seems that Grace has recently written a rather unflattering article about the local police department.) As our new protagonist answers their questions and tries to talk them into investigating the murder instead of wasting time as they address their own hostilities, Emil has arrived at Danielle’s apartment and helps her clean up Dominique’s bloody mess. Much of this plays out in split screen and it is really quite effective as the viewer waits to see if the mess can be cleaned up before Grace arrives at the door with the police. If the sequence has a flaw, it lies in the fact that there is temporal manipulation in the form of editing during the Emil/Danielle portion of the frame while Grace interacts with the police in real time. Ideally, both scenes should have played out mostly in real time for maximum effect.

Sisters Splitscreen - Cleanup.jpg

Even with these flaws, the split-screen device works much better in this film than it did in many of De Palma’s other films. One can’t help but wonder if he didn’t continue using the device in an effort to put his stamp on a film without ever considering how it would affect the scene. One example would be the prom rampage in Carrie. After her cruel humiliation, we see the film’s titular character take violent vengeance on the students and faculty. It plays out in a series of split-screen shots, and the effect of the chaotic violence is largely diminished as a result. This is only one example of many, but it seems that the director now agrees with this particular criticism after having given the sequence a few decades of retrospective analysis:

“[Split-screen is] very good for some types of storytelling and not so good for things like the trashing of the prom in Carrie, because split-screen doesn’t really work well in action. It’s more of a meditative technique.” –Brian De Palma (The Autopsy, 2004)

Carrie 1

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The split-screen scene in Carrie (1976) was an error in judgement, and the device doesn’t work nearly as well in this film as it did in Sisters (1973).

Actually, Carrie has a number of distracting touches that seem to serve no function other than to take the viewer out of the film. The most obnoxious example might be a scene where Tommy Ross (William Katt) is seen with a group of his friends as they try on and choose their tuxedos. Suddenly, the scene speeds up and their voices sound like chipmunks. This is a horror film! Establishing and maintaining a certain tone is of paramount importance, and this completely takes the viewer out of the film. De Palma claimed in a commentary track that he felt that the scene was too slow, but this is a scene that could have been shortened by cutting to the next scene a bit earlier or deleting it entirely (it wasn’t at all a necessary scene). There are weird quirks in many of his films, but this is one of the more annoying examples.

However, it seems that this article has gone off on a tangent—and just as it was about to discuss one of the most important scenes in the entirety of Sisters.

It is during the aforementioned clean-up sequence that another Hitchcockian touch is introduced. Emil and Danielle hide Phillip’s body in the sleeper sofa just as a body was hidden in a trunk throughout the entire duration of Rope. It turns out that they finish cleaning and Emil is able to exit the apartment with the rest of the evidence just as Grace arrives at the door with the two police officers—a very nice ending to the film’s celebrated  and the split-screen sequence.

Sisters Splitscreen - Arrival at Door

What follows is an investigation of the apartment that might have had even stronger ties to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope if De Palma had been able to shoot the sequence as he had originally intended:

“One of the scenes which I would have completely reshot had I the money (and it’s no longer in the picture because I couldn’t reshoot it) is one that I had thought about for years and years, where the body is in the couch and it’s bleeding through the bottom of the couch. The whole search scene is a Max Ophuls-type tracking shot about six minutes long, and while they are searching through the apartment, the camera keeps coming back to the couch, and the spot keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I shot it, but because the camera could only get down so low and still go up high enough to shoot the rest of the scene, we couldn’t get down to the bottom of the couch, and when we saw the rushes it looked ridiculous because it looked like the guy was bleeding up through the arm of the couch. So I had to throw out the whole tracking shot, and I was forced to use close-ups and television-type coverage—which bothered me a lot because it was a great conception for that kind of material. (In fact, the whole set had been constructed so that I could track through the entire length and back around, just like Hitchcock did in Rope.)” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

What we are left with is still quite interesting as the couch still manages to loom large in the scene as we are shown a blood stain that goes unnoticed just as Grace actually sits down on the sofa as she argues that there must be evidence of the murder. As they go through the apartment, Grace discovers that the closet contains two of each outfit and asks Danielle if she has a twin sister. Danielle insists that she has multiples of her outfits because she is a model and sometimes need a backup. This lie is nearly exposed when Grace discovers the birthday cake (which reads “Happy Birthday, Dominique and Danielle”) in the refrigerator, but she slips on the floor and destroys the cake before the two police officers can read it.

The police consider the matter closed after this fruitless search, but Grace is undeterred and continues to investigate the matter on her own and hires a private detective named Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) to assist in the investigation. Larch decides that another search is in order and uses the guise of a window cleaner to enter the residence after it is determined that the residence is empty. Meanwhile, Grace watches this search from her apartment with a pair of binoculars in a scene that recalls a sequence from Rear Window wherein Lisa Freemont investigates Lars Thorwald’s apartment while he is away. Larch soon signals to Grace from one of the windows that he has found something, but Danielle and a pair of unknown men return to the apartment. Grace distracts Danielle by dialing her phone and Larch soon signals that everything is okay (it is unclear what actually transpires since the view is much more limited here than it is was in Rear Window).

Rear Window - Hitchcock

Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) silently addresses L.B. Jefferies from Lars Thorwald’s apartment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

Rear Window - Sisters

Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) silently addresses Grace Collier from Danielle Breton’s apartment in Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973).

De Palma uses Hitchcock’s favored subjective editing style in this particular scene, but he is unable to build the same level of apprehension for a variety of reasons. One important factor here is that we just met Joseph Larch and are not nearly as invested in his character as one is to that of Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. Another issue here is that the film is less carefully thought out and the result is a scene that isn’t nearly as clear as the similar scene in Hitchcock’s film.

Shortly thereafter, Grace watches Emil and the two men previously seen in the apartment as they load the sleeper sofa into the back of a moving van. Meanwhile, Larch returns to the van and gives her a file that he found hidden in Danielle’s room and tells her that he tried moving the sofa to find that it was much too heavy and has come to the conclusion that this is where they have hidden Phillip’s body. He decides that he will follow the moving van and tells Grace to wait in her apartment and he will call her with updates. However, Grace has no intention of doing this, because the records contained in the file reveal that not only does Danielle have a twin sister named Dominique, but they were conjoined at the hip until very recently.

Grace remembers a story written about Dominique and Danielle that was published in Life magazine and visits the writer of the piece. It is here that she learns two important things: Dominique was once mentally unstable, and she died in surgery as the result of the separation. Those familiar with Psycho might compare this revelation with the scene where Lila Crane and Sam Loomis are told by Sherriff Chambers that Mrs. Bates died in a murder-suicide incident several years prior.

Soon thereafter, Grace tails Emil and Danielle to a mental institution in a sequence that owes more to Roman Polanski than it does to Alfred Hitchcock (at least in terms of style). Grace watches as Danielle struggles against Emil and is soon discovered. Emil (the head doctor at this institution) convinces one of his staff that she is a new patient and proceeds to hypnotize her, “There was no body, because there was no murder.” While she is still under hypnosis, we are taken into a dream or hallucination that inexplicably places Grace in Dominique’s memory:

“…The history of the twins growing up in the Institute and their separation is via a sort of dream imagery, which I think makes it much more interesting. The idea derives from Polanski. I have always liked the dream sequence in Rosemary’s Baby where the devil makes love to her. It was a good idea because you never really know whether or not it happened, and the imagery is terrific. It also avoids the scene in Psycho where the psychiatrist sits down and explains everything. An expository scene can be a kind of boring scene, but you need it because the audience doesn’t know what’s happening and you’ve got to explain it to them. By placing it in a dream, I think you get a sort of visceral feeling for what went on rather than specific information.” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

Rosemary's Baby - Dream 1

The surreal nightmare-rape sequence in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) inspired the ill-advised dream elements that tainted the final act of Sisters (1973).

Frankly, this is the moment that the film de-rails. The dream sequence is an unnecessary element and serves only to confuse the viewer (while exposition is intended to clarify or provide information). We really don’t learn anything of paramount importance that we do not already know or won’t learn in the moments following this hallucination. Furthermore, it isn’t nearly as interesting or as well executed as the scene in Rosemary’s Baby that inspired it.

This ineffectual nightmare is immediately followed by a scene wherein Emil reminds Danielle that Dominique died as a result of the surgical separation that he performed on them, and we learn that she compensated for this loss by giving Dominique life in her mind (a psychological phenomenon that is now referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder). He also explains that Dominique’s personality takes over any time that he tries to make love with her. If De Palma’s intention for the illogical hallucinatory nightmare was to provide the film’s expository revelations in a more cinematic manner than the typical dialogue scene, one has to ask why he follows the scene with expository dialogue.

It also seems unlikely that an educated doctor who has just revealed the fact that his sexual attention triggers the wrath of Dominique would punctuate this information by giving Danielle a passionate kiss when she is obviously in an unstable state of mind, but this is exactly what he does. Of course, the inevitable result of this moment of incredible stupidity is his death—and the result of this murder is that Danielle is arrested (although she still seems completely oblivious to the reality of her condition). Unfortunately, Grace seems irrevocably damaged and emphatically insists that, “there was no body, because there was no murder” when the police take her statement. The picture ends on a short shot of Joseph Larch watching the abandoned sleeper sofa that no one will ever claim. It goes without saying that the film’s premise owes a huge debt to Psycho.

It seems fitting that such a film should be scored by Bernard Herrmann, but his participation actually began after the film entered post-production. In fact, one might even say that his score was merely an inspired afterthought.

“When we were doing Sisters my editor, Paul Hirsch laid a lot of Benny’s stuff from Psychoin a temp track. As we were looking at it and it worked so well, we sort of looked at each other and said, ‘where’s Bernard Herrmann now?’ So, we brought him to New York to look at the film… Of course, as soon as he hears—I forget what it was, but I think it was either Vertigo or Psycho—but he starts to hear the music [and] he starts shrieking. He says, ‘Stop the projector! Stop it, stop it. I can’t hear that!’ And I said, ‘Oh, my God! So we stop the projector. He says, ‘I can’t look at your movie and listen to that!’ So, we frantically pulled all the temp track off and then played the movie silent for him… But he was scary.” –Brian De Palma (De Palma, 2015)

Of course, Herrmann’s score added immensely to the film’s overall power. It also reinforced all of the inevitable comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Conclusion: The Trouble with De Palma

“…But then I am no Hitchcock—I don’t have the resources or the time or the skill to do that yet.” –Brian De Palma (Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973)

It has now been 45 years later since the release of Sisters, and Brian De Palma now has the resources and the time. He has also developed his technical skills, but this shouldn’t suggest that he has risen to Alfred Hitchcock’s level since technical proficiency is no match for creative genius. This should have never become De Palma’s goal in the first place, because it is impossible to develop one’s own creative voice while attempting time and time again imitate someone else.

It is somewhat difficult to get a handle on such a filmmaker. One cannot say that he merely mimics Alfred Hitchcock since a great number of his films bear very little if any resemblance to Hitchcock’s work. However, De Palma has made quite a few films that borrow heavily from the master’s oeuvre and he seems to delight in rubbing the viewer’s nose in their similarities. This is unfortunate, because one never becomes fully engaged in a film if they are constantly comparing it to someone else’s movie. To confuse matters even further, he consistently compares his films to those made by Alfred Hitchcock only to chastise critics and scholars for making these same observations.

“Well, I’m compared to Hitchcock all the time, mostly by people who don’t quite understand me or Hitchcock. I understand Hitchcock extremely well. I mean, I’ve been behind those eyeballs. I see the way those shots are constructed.

And many of the comparisons… are ludicrous. You read them all the time. You don’t know what these people are seeing on the screen. They talk about Carrie—the bath scene—being like the Psycho shower scene, and it’s like, ‘what?’ I mean, the Psycho shower scene is completely unique. It’s a whole series of very clever quick cuts. Carrie gets into the bathtub [and] washes the blood off in about three different cuts! There’s absolutely no relationship except [that] there’s a girl in water.” –Brian De Palma (The Autopsy, 2004)

This may seem a like an extremely valid argument, but thousands of comparisons have been made of the two directors throughout the years (many of them by De Palma himself), and most of these comparisons are blatantly obvious. His arrogant and manipulative assertion that those who compare him with Alfred Hitchcock do not “understand” him or Hitchcock is beyond absurd. What’s more, his argument is based purely on how these two scenes are shot. He never considers their context or what the two scenes being compared actually represent. One imagines that it is De Palma who misinterpreted whichever critic happened to make this comparison and not the critic who misinterpreted him.

At first, this reviewer agreed with De Palma’s assertion that any comparison between Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho and the bath scene in Carrie is ridiculous. However, after giving it a moment of consideration, it now seems like an interesting observation—an observation that has nothing to do with how the two scenes are shot or how they work on the audience. Marion Crane’s shower was a symbolic baptism in that she was washing away her sin (the theft of the $40,000). Carrie White’s bath can also be seen as a cleansing of her sins (the murderous rampage at the prom). The symbolism is made even more obvious in Carrie due to the fact that she is literally washing away blood (not to mention the other religious iconography that saturates the film).

Whatever one’s opinion on this particular argument may be, it should certainly strike the reader as incredibly strange that De Palma should become irritated at being compared with Alfred Hitchcock. It was he himself who started this comparison during his publicity interviews for Sisters, and he would continue positioning himself in this manner for quite some time. He seems to have spent a significant portion of his career making films that he himself admits borrow heavily from the master’s body of work. After all, this is the same man who made Obsession! To call this a radical contradiction would be a massive understatement.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is actually one of Brian De Palma’s primary influences and he has borrowed liberally from the film throughout his career. Obsession (1976), for example, borrowed liberally from the film:
…I saw [Vertigo] in 1958, and it had an incredible impression on me way before I was interested in making movies. And there was something about the way the story was told and the cinematic language used in it that connected to me, even though, at that point, I was studying to be an engineer.” –Brian De Palma (NPR, July 01, 2016)

For a filmmaker who has consistently gone out of his way to promote himself as a student of Hitchcock’s, De Palma doesn’t really seem to have a handle on his work. He even seems ignorant about basic trivia that is known to basically everyone who has even a casual interest in the subject. As an example, he writes in Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill—an article about his working relationship with Bernard Herrmann that he had thought the composer had already passed away. When his editor, Paul Hirsch questioned this, De Palma stood firm, “Look, I don’t have the dates, but the last movie I remember him doing was The Birds and that was ten years ago.

Most cinephiles are aware of the fact that The Birds has no score and that Herrmann merely acted as a “sound consultant” (which in retrospect seems like a title one gives to temperamental composers with sensitive egos as a way to ensure a continuing working relationship). Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann deserve more credit for bringing Hitchcock’s unique ideas to life than Bernard Herrmann. Worse, De Palma seems to have forgotten the composer’s great work on Marnie—even though they had used a selection from this score in the temp track for Sisters (as is indicated later in the same article).

Of course, De Palma’s ignorance about such trivialities doesn’t really matter very much. One simply feels that if he wants to sell himself as a student of Alfred Hitchcock’s (much less the “heir” to his thrown), he should at least admit that he never paid any attention in class. De Palma may borrow heavily from Hitchcock, but he often overlooks (or ignores) important elements that are inherent in the master’s approach to a scene and replaces them with devices that are more in line with his own aesthetic. The result is usually a mishmash that doesn’t quite work. Luckily, Sisters almost came out unscathed in spite of these tendencies… almost.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Criterion Collection houses their disc in the same sturdy clear case that has become the standard for their releases (we prefer this to their digipaks). The cover sleeve includes thematically appropriate artwork by Jay Shaw that is an improvement over their artwork for the earlier DVD edition but somewhat less impressive than Criterion’s best cover art. Happily, we are given an attractively illustrated booklet instead of their standard folded leaflet. It contains an essay by Carrie Rickey entitled, Sisters: Psycho-Thriller, Qu’est-ce Que c’est?, excerpts from an archival interview with Brian De Palma that was originally published in Filmmakers Newsletter in September of 1973, and Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill, which is an article written by the Brian De Palma about his professional relationship with composer Bernard Hermann. It was originally published in the October 11, 1973 edition of The Village Voice. This booklet adds an enormous amount of value to an already attractive package.

Menu

Criterion’s animated menu features footage from the movie and is in the same style that collectors have come to expect from Criterion’s Blu-ray releases. It is attractive and should be intuitive to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Well, Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration transfer is a significant improvement over Arrow’s 2014 transfer. There may be a few fans who prefer Arrow’s color grading but it seems reasonable to assume that Criterion’s disc is more accurate since it has been approved by Brian De Palma (although this isn’t necessarily true). We know that Criterion has always prided itself on trying to represent the films in their collection in the manner that the filmmakers originally intended. Highlights look especially better here than they did in the earlier release. The only issue here is that the color does shift a bit.

Another difference between the two transfers is that Criterion presents the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. We should make it a point to mention that while Arrow’s 1.78:1 transfer may have included more information at the top and bottom of the frame, Criterion gives the viewers more information at the left and right of the image (while presenting the film as it was seen in theaters).

There may be a bit more grain evident but this is likely due to the increase in detail that the new 4K scan gives the image. Frankly, this grain looks more organic and well resolved here despite the fact that there is more of it. Many cinephiles will appreciate the filmic texture of the image. There are some density fluctuations that were inherent in the source elements that are unfortunate, but since these were unavoidable it would be unfair to blame the transfer. Depth has certainly been given a boost as has fine detail. There may be a few age-related issue present, but Criterion seems to have removed most of these anomalies. Overall, this is a very nice transfer that was limited only by the original source elements.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s lossless Mono track represents the film’s original mix. It might be a marginal improvement over Arrow’s transfer as it seems to be fuller and allow the various elements (including the Bernard Herrmann score) more breathing room. There isn’t a huge difference, but that earlier sound transfer was really quite decent. Some may criticize Criterion for not including an upgraded 5.1 track, but the important thing is that this is a very good representation of the original sound.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Audio Interview with Brian De Palma

This 1973 discussion with Brian De Palma was recorded at the American Film Institute and plays over the film as if it were a commentary track. The conversation is largely focused around Sisters, but other films are briefly discussed as well. It is certainly an interesting listening experience, although some of the questions from members of the audience are quite difficult to hear or can be inarticulate even when they are audible. It is amusing to hear De Palma’s irritation at times as certain questions rub him the wrong way, but he is quite open as to his intentions and his responses are worth hearing. Especially interesting are his recollections about working with Bernard Herrmann.

Interview with actor Jennifer Salt – (24:07)

Jennifer Salt discusses her friendships and the lifestyle that she shared with her Margot Kidder and Brian De Palma before the production of Sisters, and how she and Kidder were eventually cast in the film (their roles were written for them). She also goes into their experiences while shooting the film and her initial disappointment that it wasn’t an immediate classic. Her memories are interesting and worthwhile even if much of the information is vague and generalized.

The Autopsy – (26:32)

The Autopsy is a “making of” retrospective that was produced by “Wild Side Video” and features interviews with Brian De Palma, Paul Hirsch, Bill Finley, Edward R. Pressman, and Charles Durning. It was produced in 2004 and contains a fair amount of information about the film’s conception and production. It isn’t as comprehensive as one might hope, but it is well worth the viewer’s time as it does add to one’s appreciation of the film itself.

Margot Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show (1970) – (08:56)

This pre-Sisters interview with the late Margot Kidder finds the actress in a quirky but charming form. This excerpt also includes a rather large dose of an equally charming Gloria Swanson and a tiny dose of Janis Joplin (we don’t see much of her). It’s a nice addition to the disc even if it doesn’t bring anything in the way of Sisters-related information. It is an enjoyable nine minutes.

Photo Gallery – (11:20)

Herrmann’s music accompanies this lengthy no-frills slideshow of production photography. It is nice to see these photos included in some manner as most of them were new to this reviewer.

Radio Spots – (03:31)

This collection of radio spots is accompanied by pages from the film’s press book. Both the press book and the collection of radio spots give cinephiles a brief glimpse into the film’s marketing. Unfortunately, much of the text featured here is impossible to read.

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Final Words:

De Palma has proclaimed himself to be the “only true heir” to Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic technique. We disagree with this on a number of levels, but such a claim wouldn’t be worth celebrating even if it were true.

Luckily, Sisters works as mindless exploitation once accepted on its own terms (even if—like Danielle—it is unable to establish its own identity), and this Criterion release offers genre fans a very good transfer coupled with a supplemental package that adds to one’s overall appreciation of the film… Just remember that those who want to see something truly Hitchcockian should watch a film that was actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Review by: Devon Powell

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One Sheet

Offbeat 4K UHD Review: Halloween

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Lionsgate Films

Release Date: September 25, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:30:56

Video: 2160P (HEVC, H.265)

Main Audio: 7.1 English Dolby TrueHD (48kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio: Mono English Dolby Digital Audio

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 2.35:1

Notes: This title has seen many DVD releases and two Blu-ray releases. This marks the film’s UHD debut. Special features are never consistent when it comes to this particular title, and this creates a problem for anyone who wishes for a clean upgrade. The transfer for the UHD disc was sourced from different elements than the included Blu-ray (see below for a more detailed analysis).

Halloween

“Well, you call it a slasher film. I guess the original slasher film was Psycho. That was the film that all of these things are kind of based on… Psycho was the big daddy of them all. And it had a literal slashing scene in it! The famous shower scene. So I don’t think I created anything…” –John Carpenter (Crave Online, Oct 23rd, 2013)

Is it even possible to discuss John Carpenter’s classic without mentioning Psycho? It’s difficult to find an article about (or a review of) Halloween that doesn’t at least mention Hitchcock’s landmark film. In fact, Roger Ebert opened his original review of Halloween with a quote by Alfred Hitchcock before he proceeded to compare the two films:

“‘I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.’ –Alfred Hitchcock

So does John Carpenter. Halloween is an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to Psycho. It’s a terrifying and creepy film about what one of the characters calls Evil Personified… Halloween is a visceral experience — we aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us. It’s frightening. Maybe you don’t like movies that are really scary: Then don’t see this one… Credit must be paid to filmmakers who make the effort to really frighten us, to make a good thriller when quite possibly a bad one might have made as much money. Hitchcock is acknowledged as a master of suspense; it’s hypocrisy to disapprove of other directors in the same genre who want to scare us too.

It’s easy to create violence on the screen, but it’s hard to do it well… ” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 31, 1979)

John Carpenter during the production of Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter during the production of Halloween.

The truth is that there is very little “violence on the screen” after the film’s opening murder sequence. Carpenter plays by the same rules utilized by Hitchcock while maintaining a style all his own. It is no small wonder that Ebert goes on to describe Carpenter’s expert command of the frame—it is a command that demands participation from the viewer. The film’s killer, Michael Myers, looms ominously in the background and usually remains in the shadows (or is seen at some distance). He is a malignant force that can be felt even when our eyes might miss him, and one never knows where he might turn up next. At other times, he will appear mysteriously in the foreground as his potential victims complacently go about their lives in the distance. Either way, the audience is aware of his presence while the teenagers remain blissfully in the dark—and this is Hitchcock’s primary rule for creating suspense. We know something that the characters do not know, and their ignorance may very well cost them their lives.

The emphasis is on the stalking sequences instead of the inevitable carnage. The eventual deaths contain little violence and relatively little blood. It simply isn’t needed. Carpenter, like Hitchcock before him, shows his audience the threat before making them wait for the violence. He has an uncanny ability to slowly build an audience’s anticipation until the suspense is nearly intolerable.

Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis

Mother and Daughter: Janet Leigh with Jamie Lee Curtis.

However, while one cannot deny that Hitchcock’s influence on Carpenter can be felt while watching Halloween, one doubts if a thorough comparison to Psycho would withstand serious scrutiny. Frankly, most of their commonalities are somewhat superficial. One imagines that Halloween’s various homages to Hitchcock’s film is responsible for linking these two vastly different exercises in suspense: Dr. Sam Loomis was named after John Gavin’s character in Psycho, Marion Chambers seems to be an amalgam of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane and John McIntire’s Sheriff Chambers, and Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh. One could argue that both Bates and Myers favor the butcher knife as their weapon of choice, but this isn’t a particularly revelatory observation.

Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween)

Janet Leigh as ‘Marion Crane’ in Psycho and Jamie Lee Curtis as ‘Laurie Strode’ in Halloween.

Sam Loomis and Dr. Sam Loomis

John Gavin as ‘Sam Loomis’ in Psycho and Donald Pleasence as ‘Dr. Sam Loomis’ in Halloween.

Several scholars have chosen to compare the original murders of Michael Myers and Norman Bates from a quasi-psychological perspective and argue that Myers murdered his sister for showing another boy sexual attention just as Bates dispatched his mother for having a relationship with another man. This reading of the film suggests that, like Norman Bates, Myers is a stunted adolescent. Norman Bates forms an alternate personality to keep from facing the consequences of his actions while Myers literally wears a mask to keep reality at bay. This would certainly explain why sex seems to act as a trigger for Myers, and such an examination would definitely be more interesting than the popular opinion that Halloween is a kind of puritanical morality play about the evils of carnal knowledge (a reading that Carpenter himself has always argued against). It might be very interesting to view the film from this perspective, but it is impossible not to feel that this particular argument is a bit overreaching.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. After all, the fact that Halloween is still being discussed and analyzed some forty years after its initial release places it in a distinguished group of timeless classics—and this is inarguably something that the film shares with Psycho. What else matters?

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Lionsgate houses their UHD and Blu-ray discs in a standard 2-disc UHD case with a sleeve that includes the same iconic jack-o’-lantern artwork that graced the film’s most popular one sheet. This is as it should be! It is one of the best marketing images that has ever been produced for a horror film. The first pressing also includes a sleeve with this same artwork that will help protect the case and the discs that are housed inside.

One Sheet.jpg

The UHD menu is reasonably attractive and easy to navigate. Meanwhile, the included Blu-ray features the same animated menu seen on Anchor Bay’s original Blu-ray release of Halloween in 2007. (It is exactly the same disc. The only difference is the artwork that decorates it.)

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Picture Quality:

UHD: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins
Blu-ray: 3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc 1: 4K UHD

This transfer was approved by John Carpenter and Dean Cundy, so fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief! This disc offers the viewer an option of HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The film has been scanned at native 4K for this release, and the result is really quite pleasing to the eye. There is, of course, a natural patina of grain inherent in the image, but this only adds to the filmic look of this overall transfer. The significant increase in resolution and dynamic range has resulted in a crisper and significantly more detailed image. The anamorphic lenses tend to result in a softer look at the edges of the frame, but this is hardly the fault of the transfer. Everything looks terrific here! The best news of all is that the color timing seems to correspond with the filmmaker’s original intention and mirrors the overall look of the “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray release.

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

It is next to impossible to review this image transfer without also discussing the film’s “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray released in 2013. This disc is actually an earlier 2007 release—complete with the same opening previews, menu, and transfer. It has simply been decorated with artwork from the 2013 release. This may be confusing, but trust us when we tell you that this is the 2007 version.

The transfer included here simply isn’t inaccurate and doesn’t represent the original intention of those who worked on it. It is way too bright as the image practically glows, and the color timing is a complete mess. This throws the film’s tone off-kilter (a real tragedy as Carpenter has an amazing ability to create an atmosphere of dread). Unfortunately, these aren’t the only areas in which the later edition bests this disc in terms of image quality. The early exterior scenes were vastly improved and exhibit less vibrant colors and more natural skin tones than this particular transfer (as the colors here read much too warm). It had a crisper and more detailed image as well and clarity isn’t quite as good here either.

When the “35th Anniversary” edition was released, marketing materials highlighted the fact that it was a new transfer that had been overseen by Dean Cundey (the film’s cinematographer):

“A lot of the previous editions had just been made from a print or a previous digital version or whatever. I was very impressed by the fact that they wanted to make this sort of the definitive copy. Obviously, Blu-ray is, at the moment, state-of-the-art, and the fact that they went back to original materials, the camera negative and IP, and brought John and myself in to sort of approve the work and make sure it looked like our original intention, was highly commendable, I think. Yes, they did take advantage of all the latest technology, with scratch and dirt removal, things like that, so it is a very pristine example of the movie we made.” –Dean Cundey (Liner Notes: “35th Anniversary” Edition, 2013)

Such careful preparation was obviously in response to this disc, so those who own the “35th Anniversary” Edition would be wise to hold on to it if they wish to own the very best transfer in both the UHD and Blu-ray formats.

One wonders why they chose this disc over the other edition, and the only reason one can reasonably conceive is that this disc was chosen so that Halloween fanatics could have the supplements included here (since the supplements on the UHD have been carried over from the “35th Anniversary” edition). However, they could have easily put them on the freshly minted UHD along with the others if this was the reasoning behind this choice.

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Sound Quality:

UHD: 4 of 5 MacGuffins
Blu-ray: 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc employs a TrueHD 7.1 lossless mix that is an obvious upgrade from the previous disc. The film’s iconic score has never sounded more dynamic and the dialogue is noticeably clearer than in the previous Blu-ray edition. This is especially clear in an early car scene where Dr. Loomis and Marion Chambers are driving in the storm. In the previous release, the dialogue seemed to be swallowed by the sounds of the storm. Here it seems to be balanced at a more acceptable level. The track has decent range and clarity making for a solid listening experience. It would be unreasonable to believe that a 7.1 mix on an older low budget film could sound any better than it does on this disc.

It will irritate most purists to discover that a high definition transfer of the film’s original mono mix isn’t included here, and I must admit that I include myself in this group. I’m tempted to give the sound a three star rating do to this oversight, but one doesn’t wish to give an unfair assessment of what is actually here.

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Special Features:

UHD: 3 of 5 MacGuffins
Blu-ray: 4 of 5 MacGuffins
Total: 4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc 1: 4K UHD

Every supplement featured on this UHD disc has been carried over from the “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray edition of Halloween.

Feature Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis

People will likely feel that this new commentary is superior in some ways to the track on the 2007 Blu-ray disc that has been included in this same package. That track includes John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Debra Hill—but all three of these collaborators were recorded individually for that track, and the result isn’t nearly as fluid as the conversation between Carpenter and Curtis that is featured here. Having said this, the other track might be a bit more informative than this one. Both tracks should be of interest to fans of the film.

TV Version Footage – (SD) – (10:46)

This collection of scenes is actually my favorite supplement on the UHD disc. They were shot by Carpenter during the production of Halloween II in order to extend the film’s length for its original television broadcast, but he claims to regret doing this and feels that he sold out. It’s easy to understand why the director doesn’t care for them as they add nothing to the proceedings and interrupt the fluidity of the overall film. Having said this, one is happy to have them included on this disc for fans to revisit.

The Night She Came Home!! – (HD) – (59:43)

This featurette gives fans a glimpse of Jamie Lee Curtis as she attends a horror convention in order to monetize her horror celebrity for charity. She is shown signing autographs, talking to her fans, taking photos, and even hanging out with other Halloween alumni. Fans should find it extremely interesting if somewhat anemic when it comes to the amount of actual information provided. It simply isn’t terribly revelatory.

On Location: 25 Years Later – (SD) – (10:25)

This feature is ported over from one of the film’s many DVD editions and is a look at the various South Pasadena locations as they appeared on the film’s 25th anniversary. It is worth viewing, but why did they not include Halloween Unmasked 2000 instead? Unmasked is a 28 minute documentary about the making of the film that is far more informative than this featurette, and it includes some of the film’s important locations as well. What’s more, it hasn’t been included on either of the film’s Blu-ray releases. Oh well.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

It is nice to have the film’s trailer included. Too many supplemental packages seem to forget this basic feature.

Three Television Spots – (SD) – (00:32, 00:32, 00:12)

Three Radio Spots – (HD) – (00:29, 00:27, 00:28)

These vintage television and radio spots are interesting artifacts and nice additions to the supplemental package (even if watching them all together does tend to become somewhat repetitive).

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Disc 2: Blu-ray

Again, this is the exact same disc that was released by Anchor Bay in 2007. The disc includes three unique supplements.

Feature Length Audio Commentary with John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Debra Hill

As mentioned previously, this commentary track may provide a bit more information to listeners than the 2013 track discussed above, but one’s listening experience isn’t quite as fluid. Basically, both tracks have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest – (SD) – (01:27:07)

The best overall supplement included in this set is undoubtedly this feature-length “behind the scenes” documentary. It covers the entire production history of Halloween, the film’s release, and its enduring legacy. Frankly, it was incredibly annoying to find that the “35th Anniversary” Blu-ray didn’t include this essential supplement. Those who are annoyed that Lionsgate included the 2007 Blu-ray instead of the “35th Anniversary” Edition may find solace in the fact that they are getting an excellent documentary that wasn’t included in that later edition.

Fast Film Facts (Textual Trivia Track)

This feature allows the viewer to watch the films with occasional trivia information occasionally appearing on the screen (very much like subtitles). One doubts if most people will want to revisit this particular feature terribly often since it tends to take one out of the film. It would be better to utilize this option while listening to the commentary track.

Trailer – (SD) – (02:42)

Three Television Spots – (SD) – (00:32, 00:32, 00:12)

Three Radio Spots – (HD) – (00:29, 00:27, 00:28)

The Theatrical Trailer, Television Spots, and Radio Spots are all exactly the same as those featured on the UHD disc.

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Final Words:

John Carpenter’s Halloween is forty years old and still going strong. It is an incredibly efficient suspense thriller that demands to be revisited. Luckily, it can now be revisited in 4K UHD. Just remember to hold on to your “35th Anniversary” Edition Blu-rays since the image transfer on that release is vastly superior to the Blu-ray included in this package.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Alternate Poster

 

Book Interview: The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman

Cover

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Release Date: September 15, 2018

A Conversation with Constantine Santas

It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or what you may have heard about the importance of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaboration with Grace Kelly. Ingrid Bergman’s place in the master’s legacy is every bit as important and possibly even more interesting. Needless to say, any book examining her work is worth reading for fans of the director as well as for those who admire this incredible actress.

In “The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman,” Constantine Santas and James Wilson look at what they consider her most notable performances (and they had plenty to choose from). Her career began in Sweden in the 1930s and lasted until the year of her death in 1982, but this text focuses on the 21 films that they consider her most noteworthy. Special attention is paid to those aspects of her acting that made her stand out most—her undeniable range of emotion, her stunning vulnerability, and her indisputable beauty. Among the films discussed in this volume are Casablanca, Gaslight, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Notorious, Stromboli, and Autumn Sonata. Each chapter is devoted to a specific film and provides a general production history, a plot summary, thematic highlights, and major award details.

Constantine Santas (professor emeritus at Flagler College) agreed to sit down for a series of questions about his new book, Ingrid Bergman’s incredible legacy, and the impact that certain directors may have had on her craft.

AHM: I’ve read the book and enjoyed it immensely. Could you describe THE ESSENTIAL FILMS OF INGRID BERGMAN for our readers and what your intentions were in writing such a book?

CS:The Essential Books of Ingrid Bergman” was part of a series called, “The Essential Films…” of several books on Hollywood stars by Rowman and Littlefield, based on their most important works. Books on Mickey Rooney, James Garner, Jack Nicholson, and my own, “The Films of Humphrey Bogart,” have already appeared, along with others that I may not know about. My intentions in writing the book was basically derived from the aim of the series: to select the best films of Ingrid Bergman, out of a total of 51 films, including her pre-Hollywood Swedish works (but not including her television works, with the exception of A Woman Called Golda), for close analysis, including introductory materials, plot designs, and theme selections. These guidelines were set by the publisher and we followed them closely. Obviously, the process of selections was in close cooperation with Stephen Ryan, the chief editor of R&L. With these guidelines in mind, we set out to produce a book on Bergman that would include her best work while sketching out a portrait of an actress who was thoroughly devoted to her work, talented, beautiful and one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”

AHM: When and how did the idea for the book arise, and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?

CS: I started thinking about doing a book on Bergman while I was still finishing up Bogart. Aside from their Casablanca collaboration, the two had certain similarities in outlook and theme. Both had come from modest backgrounds (Bogart had debts to play after his father’s financial failures) and both rose by dint of talent and dedication to the art of cinema. Both had extensive backgrounds before they became famous, Bogart as a stage actor, Bergman a Swedish actress before David O. Selznick brought her to America. Both had extraordinary film careers in the 1940s, generally considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. Bergman was my personal choice among several candidates and I thought it a good idea to be my next target after Bogart. I mentioned the idea to Mr. Ryan, and, when he showed interest, Dr. James M. Wilson and I embarked on the project and signed the contract soon after we submitted a proposal.

AHM: Bergman had such a rich and distinguished career that I can’t imagine having to choose which features to include in a book. You mentioned that Rowman and Littlefield set certain guidelines for you. What exactly was the criteria or approach for choosing which films to highlight in this text?

CS: Choosing the films to include was indeed a challenge. The idea was to choose the best and most representative films of Bergman, the “essentials,” as the series was called. They were to be the best among Bergman’s long career, marked a by a key, ***** a classic, **** as good as a classic, and *** as good. Titles that received ** and * (given in the filmography section) were not chosen for inclusion. As it happens, we chose one of her Swedish productions, and the rest were the most prominent of her classic period in Hollywood. Classics included Bergman’s best movies that reflected her outstanding performance in a movie that was also outstanding in itself. Poor films even with an outstanding performance were not chosen. Most inclusions were from her Hollywood period (like Casablanca, Notorious, Gaslight, and several others), two were from the Rossellini period (including Stromboli), and only a few after Anastasia. [This was] mainly because her output in cinema declined in the following decades. We made certain, however, to include Murder on the Orient Express, which was a classic and gave her third Oscar. There is an element of subjectivity in selecting titles, but with three people involved (including the co-author and editor), we believe that the selections given in the book represent Bergman’s best work.

AHM: What qualities did Ingrid Bergman bring to her films that are unique to her?

CS: Her down-to-earthiness was a quality that gave her appeal. When [she] first came to Hollywood, Selznick proposed to alter her appearance, thinning her eyebrows, changing her hair color, fixing her teeth, etc., as was usually done by studios in that era. Bergman refused staunchly, thus retaining her natural looks, which endeared her to American audiences.

Bergman projected the image of a good woman who frequently appeared vulnerable and was often exposed to dangers (whether physical or psychological) by manipulative men who were usually older and socially or professionally superior (as in Intermezzo, Gaslight, and Anastasia). However, far from being naïve, she usually fought back [while] showing a keen intellect (as in Spellbound) and the ability to extricate herself from treacherous situations. She never played a villain or treacherous person, but she did sometimes portray a woman who suffered blows because of weakness or poor choices (Arch of Triumph or Stromboli). Though known for playing straight dramatic roles, Bergman displayed a talent for comedienne, as in Indiscreet and The Yellow Rolls-Royce. Bergman honed her skills constantly, from the start of her career in Sweden to her last role as Golda Meir (for which she posthumously received an Emmy). Bergman was not an imitator but always did things her own way. She commanded the screen with her presence like no one else.

AHM: Do you think that Bergman’s move to Hollywood transformed her acting in any way?

CS: Yes. In her Swedish films, aside from looking much younger (she looked younger than her age throughout her career), she was more realistic [since] films in Sweden had not attained the polish and glamor of Hollywood’s output. Her appearance and character were linked to her Swedish environment. People tried to make a living by leading simple lives and were surrounded by a near-polar environment with long nights and snow on the ground. Bergman’s mentor and director of several of her Swedish movies, Gustaf Molander, was consciously trying to present her on the screen as a woman of modest background (looking middle-class or lower). In the only film included in this book, En Kvinnas Ansikte (A Woman’s Face), she is not only low class but also a criminal that leads a gang which blackmails straying lovers. She also has an ugly scar on one side of her face, the result of a fire wound in her younger days.

David O. Selznick would not have allowed his Swedish import to look anything but beautiful. In Hollywood, beauty and glamor were institutions and actors and actresses had to undergo changes in their appearance, including hair color, eyebrows, lip design, teeth, not to mention accent and body movement. Bergman was tutored in English to learn the American idiom, while her appearance on the screen would change radically. In Hollywood, her Swedish plainness would be transformed into glamor. Though she would not allow Selznick to thin her eyebrows, Bergman was manipulated on a set to look glamorous, and one way to do that was to photograph her face from the left, which, some agreed, favored her profile. In Casablanca, this becomes evident, as one sees her face in profile from several angles, in numerous close-ups. Though retaining her individuality, Bergman became a glamorous movie star, being given proven male leads, and becoming world famous within a year or two after her arrival in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood image was soiled after her adventure with Rossellini, Bergman regained her glamor with Anastasia, after which she projected an international image, making movies in several languages, Italian, French, Swedish, and never quite becoming a Hollywood idol again. Her last movie, Autumn Sonata, made for her namesake, Ingmar Bergman, brought her back to her homeland (though it was actually filmed in Norway) and the cycle was completed. Bergman’s image of an international star came into being in the second part of her career, but she is mostly still remembered as a Hollywood mega-star.

Casablanca.jpg

Bergman was wonderful in Casablanca (1942) but that film is Bogart’s.” -Constantine Santas

AHM: What do you think Bergman took away from her experiences working with Alfred Hitchcock?

CS: Actresses who worked for Hitchcock said that they learned a great deal about acting from the Master of Suspense. He tutored them individually, on and off the set, supervising their movements, dress, accent, commandeering their performance in every film, while almost never praising a performance. With Bergman, Hitchcock developed a warm relationship from the start, guiding her adeptly through the three films she made for him. In Spellbound, she developed leadership qualities by adopting an unorthodox method of treating a patient, who was also her lover. Over the objections of several senior members of a psychiatric clinic, she undertakes to prove that he is not a suspected killer. Hitchcock shows her wearing glasses in her early scenes, suggesting that she was sexually repressed—a favorite Hitchcock gambit. As the plot progresses, the glasses are tossed off, while Constance Petersen takes the lead in investigating a crime against the advice of her seniors. In Notorious, Bergman was a dominant figure on the screen throughout the movie. Hitchcock taught her to be subtle in reaction shots, as for instance at the time she realizes that she is being poisoned by Madam Sebastian and Alex. Almost every possible shot was used to photographing her in several mental states—which is actually his strategy in the film. Bergman was a mature actress when she started working for Hitchcock; it shows on the screen. But her work for the Master gave her an extra sheen and cinematic stature that she retained for the rest of her career.

Production Photograph from the set of NOTORIOUS.

Bergman’s portrayal of Alicia Huberman is one of her best performances. This production photograph from the set of Notorious (1946) shows the actress enjoying a ‘behind the scenes’ moment with both Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock.

AHM: Not only is NOTORIOUS my favorite Ingrid Bergman film, but it also happens to be one of my five favorite Hitchcock films. I actually believe that it is superior to CASABLANCA (which is admittedly an incredible film) because it has so many layers of subtext to appreciate. I enjoy the relationship politics involved between Alicia and Devlin and their testing of one another—a test they both fail miserably. There is always more to see with each viewing. On top of all of this, Bergman is simply incredible! It’s really her show.

CS: I could have written these exact words. Yes, Bergman was wonderful in Casablanca, but that film is Bogart’s. He has much more screen time than she has, and he is the character that makes the major decisions. In Notorious, Bergman is center stage from beginning to end. Dejected after her father’s trial (and a bit later his death), she takes refuge in carousal and goes driving with an unknown man who happens to be at her party. When she is asked to collaborate with American Intelligence, she accepts and embarks on a dangerous mission that nearly costs her life. She handles everything “with great intelligence,” as Prescott tells her. Alicia Huberman is a heroine in the best sense of the word. She takes on the challenge to be another “Mata Hari” and, despite a heartache caused by her lover Devlin (Grant), she delivers the goods. Hitchcock makes sure the viewer understands her plight by having his camera following her in close-ups, the famous crane shot where the key to the cellar is shown in her hand, and many sequences where her actions, as well as her state of mind, are clearly communicated to the viewer. The love story cannot be ignored here either: the man she loves, stung by his conscience and realizing her plight comes to her rescue, just in time. Casablanca is a story of at least half a dozen people, put together with superior artistry. Notorious is following a single narrative line and the center of that line is Bergman.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Bergman film?

CS: For me, Notorious is Bergman’s best film and the reasons for that are explained in the paragraph above. I will add that a close second is Gaslight, for which Bergman received her first Oscar. This is an extraordinary performance in which Bergman is playing a woman losing her mind, subjected to mental torment by a designing villain-husband. In the last scene, when Sergis Bauer (Boyer) is tied, Bergman as Paula Anton delivers a caustic speech in which she explodes with feelings that were held back. She pours out her soul, it seems, providing a balm (catharsis) to the audience, thirsting for her to take revenge.

AHM: Is there a least favorite?

CS: That for me would be Arch of Triumph. It was made by Enterprise—United Artists, a company aiming to make movies with artistic ambitions. The company did not survive the failure of this film. In it Bergman plays Joan Madou, a European woman of undermined background, taking lovers, rather than pursuing a career (possible that of the singer since Madou could sing). The film was poorly edited and the plot seems murky at times. The reason for including it is that, despite its shortcomings, the film still manages to convey the plight of Russian and other refugees at the brink of the Second World War. Besides, the film features strong characters, Charles Laughton as a sadistic Nazi, Charles Boyer as a displaced doctor, and Louis Calhern (remembered from Notorious) playing an expatriate Russian who shelters and helps other displaced persons. Even as a “bad” character, Bergman gives a notable performance as an aimless, displaced woman who suffers the consequences of her ill-judged actions.

The wayward Joan Madou in 'Arch of Triumph'

Ingrid Bergman portrayed the wayward Joan Madou in Arch of Triumph (1948).

AHM: It’s impossible to discuss Ingrid Bergman’s career without at least touching on her relationship with Roberto Rossellini, but instead of the resulting scandal, I prefer to discuss their work together. How do you think their distinctive styles changed the other’s work?

CS: Bergman’s collaboration with Rossellini demanded special work and a special study of the Italian Neo-realistic movement. It was her torrential affair with Rossellini that caught the attention of her fans and obscured the relationship of the two in purely cinematic terms. One thing that should be noted is the vast differences between the movie-making styles and methods of Hollywood and the Italian neo-realists—especially Rossellini. Generally, in Hollywood, preparations for filming demand a considerable amount of time spent on the writing of a script, [the building of] sets, costume design, art direction, musical scoring, the casting of professional actors, and etc.

When Bergman arrived in Stromboli, she saw a volcanic island spuming lava and a few inhabitants eking out a living as fishermen while living under the constant threat of an eruption (which actually happened during filming). What astonished Bergman more than anything else was Rossellini’s unorthodox style of film-making. He had no script—only an idea of a displaced woman he had met earlier in a refugee camp—and it seems that the story evolved as filming progressed. Instead of sets, Rossellini shot scenes on the village streets of Stromboli, the sea-shore, and on the mountainsides. There were no doubles, so Bergman had to do all the running up and down the slopes. And basically, all the actors were untrained uncomprehending villagers who had no idea what was going on, and moved on cue, as Rossellini attached strings to their toes when he wanted them to move in one direction or another.

At first, Bergman was appalled, tossing out a complaint: “Is this realistic filmmaking?” Gradually, however, she complied with Rossellini’s methods as their love affair intensified. To her, Rossellini was a genius and she came under his spell with considerable enthusiasm and eventually she went along with his projects, which included four more films and an oratorio. As a consequence, her Hollywood persona was demolished, and she played women in failed marriages, either because of the conditions of the environment (as in Stromboli), or social class (as in Europe 51), which describes her as attaining sainthood, leaving her husband and his high class, and ending up as an inmate in a psychiatric asylum. Bergman’s talents were so capacious that she could adjust and adapt to Rossellini’s demands, and she rose to the occasion, making three films (Stromboli, Europe 51, Journey to Italy) playing failed women in which Rossellini describes the wreckages of the war, the emptiness of soul in the upper classes in Italy and Europe, and a marriage that goes through the motions—themes that were developed by his contemporaries, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini among others.

During the Rossellini episode, Bergman lost her good reputation in America, but her artistic abilities expanded as she became a more mature and skilled actress. This was due to her unparalleled professionalism which demanded excellence at any level of filmmaking. Rossellini himself explored Bergman’s talents to the limit and most of his films with her stood the test of time, although one cannot say that they have become more popular. In the end, setting aside the dimensions of a scandal that rocked Bergman’s career, both Rossellini and Bergman profited from working together, and their work merits further study.

AHM: Which Rossellini/Bergman collaboration is the strongest, and why do you think it shines above the others?

CS: Unquestionably, the strongest Rossellini/Bergman collaboration is Stromboli. The film shines in its objectivity in describing conditions in a God-forsaken place as realistically as was ever done in film. Despite the primitive conditions of filmmaking, Rossellini knew what he was doing and combined narrative and documentary style (the tuna fishing episode) while creating a story compelling enough to be watched with interest today. As for Bergman, the plainness of the environment favors her appearance, as she is more beautiful than ever (sitting on a rock, her hair, with a silver streak in it, blowing in the Mediterranean breezes). The Criterion Blu-ray of Stromboli is worth watching, as it reveals the uniqueness of this film in the Bergman canon.

Bergman Stromboli

Stromboli (1950) might be the best Rossellini/Bergman collaboration.

AHM: Do you think that her work with Rossellini in Italy had any influence on her later work?

CS: In films that followed, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Goodbye Again, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Murder on the Orient Express, Bergman appears to have gained additional skills, playing mostly European women with an expanded range—a leader in the mountains of China, an American rich woman who fights for a cause against the Nazis, or a woman who a adjusts to a failed marriage—these are signs of maturity that may be attributed to her relationship to Rossellini. It is to be noted, however, that Bergman did not actually make a film in Hollywood until Cactus Flower in 1969. Her Hollywood career had essentially ended after her affair with Rossellini, but her performances were always good and at times superb, as Bergman always sought to try her best in every film she made. Rossellini had left his marks on her which can be traced in the rest of her career.

Interview by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Under Capricorn

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: June 19, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:57:14

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.93 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously given a bare bones DVD release.

Title

Under Capricorn was made for Ingrid Bergman… but if I’d been thinking clearly, I’d never have tackled a costume picture. You’ll notice I’ve never done any since that time. Besides, there wasn’t enough humor in the film. If I were to make another picture in Australia today, I’d have a policeman hop into the pocket of a kangaroo and yell, ‘Follow that car!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Many scholars have pontificated as to why Hitchcock chose to adapt Helen Simpson’s Under Capricorn as what was originally intended to be the première Transatlantic Films production. The major studios had all wisely passed on optioning the property. In fact, they had also passed on the other properties purchased by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock for Transatlantic. Under Capricorn, Rope, Stage Fright, and I Confess were all considered inappropriate material in which to build a suitable film script. Few if any of these historians seem to have given any consideration to the possibility that these “passed over” properties may have been the only ones that the budding production company could afford. It is doubtful that they would be able to outbid the major studios on more promising subjects (although Rope and I Confess are both incredibly underrated). This is only conjecture but it seems a reasonable possibility and one wishes that this avenue could be explored in more depth.

Alfred Hitchcock always claimed that he chose the property because he felt that Ingrid Bergman would respond to the material and that he was so absorbed with signing the actress to a film that this became his only consideration.

“I had no special admiration for the novel, and I don’t think I would have made the picture if it hadn’t been for Ingrid Bergman. At that time, she was the biggest star in America and all the American producers were competing for her services, and I must admit that I made the mistake of thinking that to get Bergman would be a tremendous feat; it was a victory over the rest of the industry, you see. That was bad thinking, and my behavior was almost infantile. Because even if the presence of Bergman represented a commercial asset, it made the whole thing so costly that there was no point to it. Had I examined the whole thing more carefully from the commercial angle, I would not have spent two and a half million dollars on the picture. At the time, that was a lot of money, you see… Anyway, I looked upon Bergman as a feather in my cap. We were making it with our own production company, and all I could think about was, ‘Here I am, Hitchcock, the onetime English director, returning to London with the biggest star of the day.’ I was literally intoxicated by the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This makes sense when one considers that the director was enjoying his first taste of freedom after being emancipated from the shackles of his contract with David O. Selznick. It was more important for the director to distinguish himself as a producer than to satisfy his own creative interests (at least when it came to his material). Under Capricorn was to be a star vehicle to rival those that Selznick was so fond of producing, and the fact that Bergman had already refused to sign another contract with Selznick would have made this victory even sweeter.

Ingrid Bergman in a Publicity Still for 'Under Capricorn'

Publicity Still of Ingrid Bergman: “The film was done more or less for the benefit of Ingrid Bergman. That was a case of trying to find a subject to suit the star, which I don’t believe in. So, it was really a compromise…” –Alfred Hitchcock (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

 WRITING THE SCRIPT

Unfortunately, Selznick had been able to procure prestigious properties and Hitchcock was stuck with a rather tedious novel that borrowed heavily from much better pieces of literature. Hitchcock’s film is thankfully much different than the convoluted mess that Simpson originally concocted. Her story is divided into three sections, and Hitchcock’s film only follows the first of these before providing a more coherent denouement. His final act has been criticized for being rather weak, but it must be said that reading the original novel gives one new respect for Hitchcock’s conclusion.

As mentioned, the film follows the first section of Simpson’s text rather faithfully, but the stories diverge at the Governor’s ball (which is a St. Patrick’s Day dance in the novel). This dance begins the second section of Smith’s novel, and it is at this point when her story becomes much more convoluted and tangential. Constantine Verevis gives a more detailed comparison between the film and the novel in an essay entitled, “Under a Distemperate Star” (although she takes a more appreciative view of the original novel than it really deserves). Her account of the rest of the book is a concise and more enjoyable way of comparing these two very different stories than actually having to read the book:

“The beginning of [section] two takes up the story—some three months after Adare’s arrival—on the occasion of the St. Patrick’s Day dance, the event Adare chooses to present the restored Lady Henrietta to social life… The Irish dance becomes the point of Hitchcock’s departure, setting up Henrietta’s emergence at the ball (as Adare’s first artistic creation) as the occasion of Flusky’s public reclamation of his wife. This event provokes—in the celebrated 9.5 minute sequence shot—Henrietta’s confession to Adare that it was she (not Flusky) who killed Dermont [James in the novel] in self-defense and sets up a number of confrontations that lead ultimately to the restoration of the married couple, Flusky and Henrietta. In order to effect this, Hitchcock excises from the novel Adare’s encounter at the dance with a young working-class woman much nearer his age—the locally born Susan Quaife—to whom he takes an immediate liking…

…Adare proceeds to court Susan, visiting her at her father’s barbershop on George Street. Around the same time, Adare enlists the help of ‘Ketch,’ the aboriginal leader introduced (none too sympathetically) following Adare’s first dinner with Flusky, to embark upon a treacherous journey north to Port Macquarie and then inland to unknown territory in search of gold. Milly has spread vile rumors that Adare and Henrietta are lovers, and Flusky (mildly suspicious of Adare) is quick to agree to fund the expedition. Convinced that Flusky has effectively delivered Adare (in repetition of her brother’s fate) to his death, Henrietta becomes despondent and turns to drink.

[Section] three thus begins with Henrietta again fighting her demons. Five months have passed with no word of Adare. Milly returns to assume control of the household, and this time it is Winter, the gentleman servant, who challenges Milly’s authority. Winter is soon expelled (given his ticket back to convict prison), but before leaving he passes to Henrietta a message left by Adare prior to his departure. The letter asks Henrietta to look up Susan Quaife, and upon doing so she invites Susan for an extended stay at the Flusky mansion, where Henrietta proceeds to groom the illiterate colonial girl in manner and appearance. Around the same time, Flusky is told that Adare has been found close to death but that he is recovering and is expected back in Sidney in December. After some weeks, Adare returns, declaring his love for Susan and [his] desire to stay and work honestly in the colony. This along with Susan’s exposure of Milly’s attempt to usurp Henrietta’s place, conclusively disrupts the romantic triangles and paves the way for a restored relationship between Henrietta and Flusky…

…Simpson does this by substituting the character of Susan Quaife for that of Charles Adare, whose search for gold happens entirely off-stage. Upon relocating to Minyago Yugilla, Susan not only proves herself an able match for the wily Milly, but also comes to function as a surrogate daughter to the childless Henrietta. Adare returns from the expedition matured by his experience on the land… [And] at this point, [he] asks for Susan’s hand in marriage and declares his dedication to the new continent. Simpson sets up the working-class Susan and the nobleman Adare as a parallel (cross-class) couple to Henrietta and Flusky, the latter stating (in anticipation of the young folks’ union), ‘It would be like us, only t’other way round,’ to which Henrietta replies: ‘With a better chance. Better hope. Both free.’” –Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Although, it goes without saying that Under Capricorn isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s best work, it is impossible not to admire how he transformed this convoluted mess into something that resembles a reasonably coherent narrative—although he may have been aided by an earlier dramatization (most likely written for the stage but never produced) by John Colton and Margaret Linden. Their play had also seen fit to jettison some of the book’s later subplots but also confined the action to the Flusky mansion. Having never seen or read this adaptation, it is best not to make any assumptions as to any similarities between it and the film version.

In any case, one completely loses interest after the first section of Simpson’s meandering novel, but Hitchcock and his writers were able to trade this nonsense for a resolution that examines some of Hitchcock’s pet themes regarding an innocent carrying the burden of a wrong that isn’t their own. It comes as no surprise that the French critics loved it! Unfortunately, the film’s pacing is constricted by the kind of long monologues that plague so many of the era’s costume dramas. The director was never able to find an appropriate writer and settled on inappropriate collaborators.

“My second mistake was to ask my friend Hume Cronyn to do the script with me; I wanted him because he’s a very articulate man who knows how to voice his ideas. But as a scriptwriter, he hadn’t really sufficient experience. Still another error was calling on James Bridie to help with the scenario. He was a semi-intellectual playwright and not in my opinion a very thorough craftsman. On thinking it over later on, I realized that he always had very good first and second acts, but he never succeeded in ending his plays. I still remember one of our working sessions on the script. The man and wife had separated after a series of terrible quarrels, and I asked Bridie, ‘How are we going to bring them together again?’ He said, ‘Oh, let them just apologize to each other and say, ‘I’m sorry, it was all a mistake.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hume Cronyn cited Hitchcock’s obsession with the film’s visual design as the source of the weaknesses inherent in the script:

“…I learned a lot from him and I have enormous admiration for him. He put together Under Capricorn image by image, and with all due respect, I think this method sometimes led him astray. He became so fascinated by these images that sometimes the direct line of the narrative would get lost or be bent, or there would be an awkwardness telling the story. He had of course been very revolutionary in the way he approached Rope, and it had been written to be shot in tremendously long takes. But when he came to his next film, it was to cover the vast panorama of colonial life in Australia. The difference in the quality of the two stories was the difference between a miniature and an enormous landscape. Yet, he decided to use the same approach, and I feel that was a mistake and got him into trouble.” –Hume Cronyn (as quoted in ‘The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,’ 1976)

This tendency to blame Hitchcock’s visual approach for the film’s failure is ridiculous, but there were certainly issues that should and could have been addressed and the director was well aware of them when the team was working on the script.

“In the year following Rope, Hitch asked me to do another treatment, this one based on Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn… I went to London with Hitch to work on Capricorn. We would meet for our story conferences at Sidney Bernstein’s offices in Golden Square. From the beginning, the work was fraught with problems. On one particular morning, with Hitch at the end of the table and Sidney and I on the either side of him, Hitch suddenly reared back in his chair, scowling like an angry baby, and announced, ‘This film is going to be a flop. I’m going to lunch.’ And he stalked out of the room, pouting. I was appalled; Sidney was immediately solicitous. ‘Now, Hume, don’t be upset. You know Hitch: he’ll have a good lunch, come back, and everything will be serene.’ It was true; I’d seen Hitch suffer these tantrums before. He never had them on the set; by the time we got there, the whole film was already shot in his head, down to every cut and camera angle… But during a film’s preparation, he could become very mercurial; his emotional thermometer would soar to over a hundred degrees in enthusiasm, only to plunge below freezing in despair. We were alike in that, and I should have been more philosophical about the morning’s upset. The trouble was that in this particular instance I had the awful, nagging suspicion that Hitch’s premonition was accurate.” -Hume Cronyn (his memoirs as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks,’ 1999)

Interestingly, the director originally tried to engage Bridie to write the script to Under Capricorn after finishing his work on The Paradine Case (a Selznick production that has its own script issues) and turned the project down.

“I don’t mind helping to turn The Paradine Case from a bad book into a good film, but it is another story when the book is a good book but based on a philosophy that means nothing to me. If you get the right script writer, Under Capricorn ought to be really memorable. But it is not up my street.” –James Bridie (as quoted in ‘Alfred Hitchcock: A Light in Darkness and Light,’ 2003)

How anyone could judge Simpson’s novel as anything better than mediocre is a mystery, but perhaps this isn’t important since he later relented and agreed to work on the project.

THE PRODUCTION

The script wasn’t the only aspect of the film’s production that gave Hitchcock headaches and the director felt that the film’s casting compromised the film’s verisimilitude.

Under Capricorn was again the lady-and-groom story. Henrietta fell in love with the groom, and when Joseph Cotton was shipped to Australia as a convict, she followed him there. The main element is that she degraded herself for the sake of her love. Cotton wasn’t the right type; Burt Lancaster would have been better.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This statement about the inappropriateness of Joseph Cotton in the role of Flusky isn’t merely the lamentations of a disappointed filmmaker who suddenly becomes aware of something after the fact. During the film’s pre-production, Hitchcock actively sought Burt Lancaster, but the actor required too much money and had other obligations. The production couldn’t be pushed back, and Bergman’s salary had already taken a considerable chunk out of the budget. He would have to find someone else, and that someone ended up being Joseph Cotton.

Joseph Cotten VS. Burt Lancaster

Hitchcock had originally sought Burt Lancaster for the role of Sam Flusky as he believed Cotton too distinguished and charming to portray an ex-stable hand.

One can understand why audiences may have been unable to accept Cotton as an uneducated, manure smelling, brutish groom—but this isn’t such a problem for modern audiences. Frankly, Cotton’s portrayal frees the character from the sort of stereotypical trappings of such characters. Is it outside the realm of possibility that a poor stable-hand might also be intelligent and charming? In any case, this has never been one of the more troubling aspects of Under Capricorn. After all, it is rare to hear anyone complain about Ingrid Bergman’s accent as Lady Henrietta Flusky which isn’t convincingly Irish—a fact that wasn’t lost on the actress. Her inability to give her character a proper Irish brogue plagued Bergman throughout the film’s production and exacerbated an already stressful situation.

Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed a warm friendship that lasted their entire lives, but the production of Under Capricorn put a strain on their relationship. Bergman blamed the contention on various stresses created by the director’s long mobile takes, an approach he carried over from Rope. A series of letters to Ruth Roberts gives one an intimate glimpse into the troubled production. The first and lengthiest of these letters is dated August 06, 1948:

“…Oh dear! This is my seventh week waiting. [Under Capricorn] started O.K. [on] the 19th, but with Hitch’s ten-minute takes they were behind one week after one day’s shooting. The technicians here have very little or no experience—and they don’t seem to care. I have been waiting and waiting, but every day it is the same: ‘We didn’t get the shot today, but for sure we’ll have it tomorrow morning.’ Finally after four days I was told [that] Hitch had abandoned the shot and would start with my entrance. I was so happy. [We] rehearsed and at two o’clock the same day had the first take. During the second take all the lights went out, the electricians walked down the ladders and left. Strike! All afternoon we waited for them to finish their meeting, but they never came back. This morning I was up at six; at nine I was told they had not come back yet: ‘Just relax in your dressing room!’ I am outraged but the others seem to take it relaxed. Nothing new. After the war they always have a couple of strikes. The reason for the strike was that two men were fired because of bad work and coming late to work several times.

Hitch is trying to find an entirely new electricians’ crew. Until then, we’ll have no peace. This is their second walkout. The camera crew and sound crew are nice, but it is a hostile feeling on the set that just kills you. People hardly look or speak to you. When I had the first test, the crew were whistling and making funny remarks. I was stunned because you know how very good people have always been. Don’t think everybody is bad but you know if it is just a few they color the whole set. The script is interesting now [and] we’ve got a pretty good end but Hitch’s new technique I don’t like. I have had no experience with it yet, for my first entrance was just a normal shot. But I have watched him with the others. It is so frightening for actors and crew. If the least bit goes wrong, you know … I think Hitch and I will have some arguments. He wanted to shoot a whole roll of film, the camera following me everywhere and the sets and furniture being pulled away. It meant we had to rehearse a whole day without shooting and then shoot the scenes the following day. It made everybody nervous but he insisted. 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… To top the rest of the mishaps I have a slow hairdresser. I have to be here at seven thirty. Makeup is very fast—hardly any—and very grey: no lipstick, no ice-towels, and the rest of Jack Pierce’s fun. All the time is for hair, so already at nine a.m. I am sore, not only my behind… Look what a long letter the strike will give you. It is now eleven thirty. No move in any direction…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

The long takes that she mentions in this letter did create a few problems—some of which were not an issue during the production of Rope. However, any objective analysis of these troubles will reveal that most were beyond Alfred Hitchcock’s control. Could he be blamed for the various strikes that halted production (or the time lost when Michael Wilding took ill with pleurisy)? Absolutely not.

In any case, the problems that were actually created by the long takes took a lot of ingenuity to solve. Jack Cardiff would often discuss his work on the film, and his memories weren’t happy ones.

“I had been much more involved than usual in the production planning. Usually, I tried to dream up ideas for dramatic lighting, but on Capricorn, I had for the most part to work out how on earth I could possibly light so many sets at once! I worked more closely with the director than usual… Practically all of Hitchcock’s dramatic ideas were visual. If a cameraman is supposed to ‘paint with light,’ Hitchcock painted with a moving camera…

…We would rehearse one whole day and shoot the next day. Good recorded sound was impossible: the noise was indescribable. The electric crane lumbered through sets like a tank at Sebastopol, whole walls cracked open, furniture was whisked away by panting prop men and then frantically replaced in position as the crane made a return trip. The sound department did exceptionally well just to get a ‘guide track.’ … When we had made a successful ten minute take, everyone had to leave the studio except the sound people, Hitch, the script girl, and the cast, who would then go through the motions with dialogue without the camera. Amazingly, by sliding the sound tape backward and forward, it all came together.” –Jack Cardiff (as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks.’ 1999)

This strategy took the cooperation and agility of everyone on the set and this included the actors.

“…Required to light as many as six sets for a single take, English cinematographer Jack Cardiff attached lights to cranes, dollies, boom mikes and even crew members to make them mobile enough to light a shot and then get out of the way of the cumbersome crane as it followed the actors to another part of the set. ‘It was a fantastic sight,’ he wrote in an article for American Cinematographer, ‘to see a lamp silently glide in through a window, or even in through a hole in the wall, twist and tilt and pan in several directions, then just as mysteriously disappear again.’

…The Regency table that production designer Tom Morrahan built for Under Capricorn [were] cut into fourteen sections. It came apart to permit the camera to pass through. ‘The actors often helped,’ Cardiff writes, ‘and as the camera approached them seated nonchalantly enough, it looked positively weird to see them suddenly grab a section of the table, with a candle or plate of food fixed on it, and fall wildly out of picture … with their own parts of the table clutched in their hands.’ Mattresses were placed strategically behind the actors to catch them when they toppled backwards.

A bed was made for Ingrid Bergman that could be made to tilt up at a 45-degree angle, permitting the camera to shoot ‘down’ at the actress. Despite the contortions this setup imposed, Bergman succeeded in conveying so many conflicting emotions in one shot where, lying in bed, she realizes she is being systematically driven mad by a jealous servant, that Eric Rohmer wrote he would give all of Stromboli (1950), her first film with Roberto Rossellini, for that shot, if cinema were ‘only’ the art of plumbing the depths of the human soul.” –Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Needless to say, this kind of chaos can be a great handicap for actors trying to lose themselves in their role, and this eventually all became too much for Bergman and led to an infamous outburst which was discussed intimately in another letter written to Ruth Roberts towards the end of August, 1948:

Under Capricorn is half finished. The other day I burst. The camera was supposed to follow me around for eleven whole minutes—which meant we had to rehearse a whole day with the walls or furniture falling backwards as the camera went through—and of course that couldn’t be done fast enough. So I told Hitch off. How I hate this new technique of his. How I suffer and loathe every moment on the set. My two leading men, Michael Wilding and Joe Cotton, just sat there and said nothing—but I know they agree with me—and I said enough for the whole cast. Little Hitch just left. Never said a word. Just went home… oh dear…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Years later, Hitchcock himself remembered this exchange in his famous interview with François Truffaut:

“Ingrid Bergman got angry with me because of those long shots. And, since I never lose my temper and I hate arguments, I walked out of the room while her back was turned to me. I went home, and later on someone called to inform me that she hadn’t noticed my departure and was still complaining twenty minutes after I’d gone.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

She would try again while having drinks with the director and her two male leads. Somehow the conversation shifted to the long takes and she began complaining about the approach once again. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of turning away and he took this opportunity to leave her company. “That’s the trouble with Hitch,” the actress lamented, “he won’t fight!” This was true. Hitchcock loathed conflict and felt that drama should be reserved for the screen.

Even so, it should be made clear that Hitchcock didn’t always ignore Bergman’s protests. When it was possible, he preferred to placate her by offering some sort of compromise that would allow him to have his way while seeming to bend to her will.

“…They were shooting a drunk scene on the stairs and Bergman could not, or would not keep her marks. ‘Why should she anyway?’ she asked. She was supposed to be drunk. Couldn’t they just let her act the scene the way she felt it and follow her? This time, Hitch decided on a little demonstration, so he agreed to shoot the scene her way if she would play it his, and leave the decision of which version to use up to her. Once she saw the rushes of their respective versions she was in no doubt that Hitch’s was better and generously admitted as much.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, none of this had a lasting effect on their friendship, and Bergman would even admit that his approach had merit after seeing some of the footage. This admission first appeared in a follow-up letter:

“The picture is nearly finished. Some of those damned long scenes work out very well. In one nine-and-a-half-minute take, I talked all the time; the camera never left me and it worked fine. I must say much better than being cut up and edited.” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

This same sentiment would be repeated publicly in an essay written for the Toledo Blade that was published on August 27, 1949:

“…I know I put myself completely in [Hitchcock’s] hands. In the making of that picture Hitch was the boss—and, within the four walls of the sound stage, his word was law… Merely acting for ten minutes at a stretch is no problem to anyone with stage training, but doing a ten-minute tense emotional scene without a break for the screen is a different matter. Your positions and your movements must be correct to the fraction of an inch for camera focus. Walls and doors are constantly disappearing to make way for the camera as you move from room to room, Property men are crawling under foot removing obstacles in your path. And a Technicolor camera on a 30-foot crane is constantly pursuing you, coming in swiftly for a close-up and then sweeping away—all these make demands upon an actress that go far beyond the realms of mere acting. But a lot of people do exhausting work and are happy to do it because the results are gratifying. And that’s how it is with me. I have seen Under Capricorn and I know the experiment, if you care to call it that, has succeeded. Hitch sees, and commits to paper, every movement of the cast and camera six months before hand. He has the whole production in mind, from beginning to end, on the day the camera starts turning. And it is not only a general idea; it is the detailed development, with every camera angle and every movement, worked out to the last quarter.” –Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in Under Capricorn,’ Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Joseph Cotton was more worried about weaknesses within the script and his dialogue. As a matter of fact, he referred to the project as “Under Crapricorn” or “Under Cornycrap” (depending on which version of the story you want to believe) within earshot of his director and James Bridie (who had come to the set to adjust some of Cotton’s dialogue). Of course, it is quite possible that this comment was born out of his insecurities as an actor (he was never able to handle an authentic Irish lilt) and personal issues that were not at all related to the production as he was going through quite a lot in his personal life. The lengthy takes only exacerbated these simmering issues.

The director himself may have privately cursed his sequence shots after having his toe crushed by the camera and the crane that held it. Perhaps this was a negative omen.

Alfred Hitchcock and the mamoth camera during the production of 'Under Capricorn.'

Alfred Hitchcock and the mammoth Technicolor camera used for the production of ‘Under Capricorn.’

RELEASE, RECEPTION, & LEGACY

Under Capricorn became the first British feature to have a world première at Radio City Music Hall on September 08, 1949 and had already accumulated $1,875,000 by this time on account of its world distribution rights. On September 17th, The Gloucestershire Echo reported that the film had already accumulated $2,000,000 but is unclear as to whether this amount includes the amount earned by selling these territorial rights (it is likely that it does). Either way, it seems that the film’s New York engagements were reasonably successful as the film played to “capacity audiences” for four weeks if newspaper reports can be believed. One assumes that the film was given a substantial boost due to the names of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton in the first week or two of release only to fall off in the following weeks. Whatever the case, Under Capricorn didn’t do enough business and was eventually repossessed by the bank that financed the project.

In The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Ken Mogg proposes that Ingrid Bergman’s presence in the film may have contributed to its eventual failure.

“…Then another setback occurred. The previous year, when Under Capricorn was being shot in England, Bergman had flown to Paris with her husband Petter Lindstrom to meet the Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. The meeting lasted two hours. There and then, Bergman agreed to appear in Rossellini’s next film, and joined him in Stromboli just before Under Capricorn was released. In fact, it was also a rendezvous of another kind. News of their affair and the scandal it caused spread quickly. Catholic organizations in America reacted by banning the Hitchcock film, and many cinema owners were sufficiently outraged to follow suit. Hitchcock blamed Rossellini for what had happened and always remained bitter towards him…” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

This may have some merit. However, it seems likely that the film had probably already failed by this point (at least in America). It was March 14, 1950 when—at the height of the scandal—Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced the actress on the floor of the Senate calling her a “powerful influence for evil” who had instigated a violent “assault on the institution of marriage.”

“Mr. President, now that the stupid film about a pregnant woman and a volcano has exploited America with the usual finesse, to the mutual delight of RKO and the debased Rossellini, are we merely to yawn wearily, greatly relieved that this hideous thing is finished and then forget it? I hope not. A way must be found to protect the people in the future against that sort of gyp!” –Edwin C. Johnson

Of course, the senator had an agenda as he was proposing a censorship bill based on the “moral compasses” of those who work on any particular film. Such a bill sounds like an excuse to take away the inalienable rights of those who do not think or believe the same as Mr. Johnson and others like him, but this neither here nor there. The point is that this was months after the film’s initial release and it is doubtful that it had any effect on the film’s box-office earnings. It may have been a factor in the bank’s decision to repossess the picture but this is merely conjecture.

Critics and audiences tend to excoriate films that don’t meet their expectations and have difficulty judging them on their own merits, so Under Capricorn never really stood much of a chance. Alfred Hitchcock often made mention of this in his interviews.

“[The French critics admired Under Capricorn] because they looked at it for what it was and not what people expected. Here you get a Hitchcock picture which is a costume-picture and not approached from a thriller or excitement point of view until towards the end. I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, ‘We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.’ They went in expecting something and didn’t get it. That was the main fault with that picture… Also I used a fluid camera—mistakenly perhaps because it intensified the fact that it wasn’t a thriller—it flowed too easily.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This is probably a reference to William Brogdon’s awkwardly composed review for Variety:

Under Capricorn is fortunate in having a number of exploitable angles that can be used to parlay sturdy initial grosses. On the long pull, though, box-office will be spotty. Ingrid Bergman’s name will be a potent help and there are Technicolor, Joseph Cotton, and Alfred Hitchcock as added lures to get ticket sales going, even though it doesn’t appear likely [that] momentum will be maintained in the general market.

It is overlong and talky, with scant measure of the Hitchcock thriller tricks that could have sharpened general reception. A moody melodrama, full of long speeches and obvious movement, it uses up one hour and fifty-six minutes in developing a story that would have had more impact had not Hitchcock dwelt so tediously on expanded single scenes. He gives it some air of expectancy, but this flavor eventually becomes buried in the slow resolution of tangled human relationships into a happy ending… Miss Bergman’s scenes have their own particular brand of thespian magic. On their own, they glow, but when combined with the other lengthy sequences, the effect is dulled…

…In an opening sequence, Hitchcock plants the fact that Australian aborigines shrink the heads of their victims. One hundred minutes later he uses a mummified head as the single shocker in the footage. It will cause a round of horrified gasps. In between, he is just as obvious in the development, resulting in a regrettable lack of the anticipated Hitchcock subtleties… Margaret Leighton does the housekeeper, an unrelieved heavy so obvious that the other characters should have seen through her…

…Photography is another example of Hitchcock’s bent for an extremely mobile camera, playing long scenes in one take, but the moving camera is not a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper story-telling…” –William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Other critics shared Brogdon’s opinion and echoed his sentiments, and British critics followed suit. This review in The Times sums up the majority opinion:

“Miss Ingrid Bergman, Mr. Joseph Cotten, Mr. Michael Wilding, Miss Margaret Leighton, and, as director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock — there is clearly a team here, if not of all the talents, at least of a considerable number of them; and the question is, are they going to play well together? The answer, in the end, must regretfully be that they do not… and only occasionally is Mr. Hitchcock’s cunning and dramatic hand visible in the direction. The colour, especially while the camera is indoors, is admirable, but Under Capricorn lasts far too long and has far too many loose ends.” –The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, October 05, 1949)

Many critics enjoyed the film but qualified their praise by pointing out that the material wasn’t up to the director’s usual standards. Usually, these reviews credited Hitchcock and his all-star troupe of actors for elevating the material. This review published in Harrison’s Reports is a case in point:

“Lavishly produced and photographed in Technicolor, this period melodrama with psychological overtones is an impressive entertainment of its kind. The story… is not unusual, nor are the characters, with the exception of the heroine, particularly sympathetic. Yet the acting of the entire cast is so competent that one’s interest is held well. Ingrid Bergman, as the wretched dipsomaniac who is victimized by a murderous housekeeper in love with her husband, comes through with another striking performance. The story is not without its weak points, particularly in that much of the footage is given more to talk than to movement, but Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial skill manages to overcome most of the script’s deficiencies by building up situations that thrill and hold the spectator in tense suspense…” –Harrison’s Reports (September 10, 1949)

Helen Williams wrote a similarly positive review for the Yorkshire Post:

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock has exploited to the full the dramatic possibilities of Under Capricorn, Helen Simpson’s romantic story of Australia in 1831… He is ably supported by a brilliant cast… The probabilities in this melodramatic tale may not bear analysis, but the excellence of the acting and Alfred Hitchcock’s direction carry the film to a triumphant close…” –Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Of course, the French critics were enamored with the film and would eventually vote Under Capricorn into a list of the ten greatest films ever made in Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s hardly one of the ten greatest films ever made. Frankly, it isn’t even one of the ten greatest films in Hitchcock’s filmography. Unlike Vertigo, few Hitchcock scholars try to elevate the film’s reputation in the public consciousness. Books covering the director’s filmography tend to see it as a forgettable blemish on the face of the director’s career, and this is actually a pretty fair assertion. Unfortunately, the scholars making these assertions don’t seem to have any real understanding as to why the film doesn’t measure up to his greatest work.

A perfect example of this appears in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock:

“…The impressive long takes that sometimes move from floor to floor, through lengthy corridors, and several rooms make this a sporadically beautiful movie, but the obsession for this technique also inspired lengthy monologues and dialogues that became perilously arid. Too often motionless, the camera seems indifferent, as if actors had to keep talking until the film ran out… This results in very talky motion picture-making without a prevalent viewpoint. The conversation simply isn’t engaging or suspenseful, and the lack of cutting short-circuits tension and necessary visual narrative rhythm.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Spoto makes the mistake of assuming that the lengthy monologues were inserted to cater to the director’s lengthy takes, but they really only complicated them. If one will think back to The Paradine Case (which was also adapted by James Bridie and then given another polish by Selznick), they will recall that the film had a similar tendency of employing longwinded monologues and constant dialogue. This is a characteristic of Bridies writing. Unlike Rope, Hitchcock wasn’t trying to get through an entire roll of film without cutting. He simply employed this technique when it best suited the material.

Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky similarly complained in their book about the film’s excessive dialogue but do not blame the sequence shot for this weakness:

“If [Under Capricorn] proved anything, it was that Hitchcock was literally making ‘talkies.’ Ostensibly [it] is a costume epic with a suspenseful side story. It was Hitchcock in a terrain in which he did not belong… The plot of the film was as uninspiring as [the] nearly two hours of dialogue.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Patrick Humphries doesn’t elaborate on the film’s weaknesses, but he makes it clear that his opinion follows suit:

“At best Under Capricorn is an unholy cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca, with the three witches from Macbeth thrown into the kitchen for good measure. At its worst, it is a turgid historical potboiler.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stephen Whitty goes even further in his condemnation of the film:

“…The production design is cheap and unconvincing—the Flusky mansion a more-than-usually obvious matte painting, the waterfront and pier a cramped mock-up—and although Bergman is given a nice, dramatic entrance, there’s no standout sequence or memorable moment. It’s the sort of picture that Hitchcock always said he hated—pictures of people talking—and it marks the lowest point in a dull period of halfhearted efforts that stretched from The Paradine Case to Stage Fright.” –Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Surprisingly, Ken Mogg seemed to disagree in his analysis of the film and gives it his enthusiastic praise:

Under Capricorn is one of several Hitchcock films of the late 1940s and 1950s that pleased few people at the time, but now seem full of interest… The result is a moody, stylized film where people talk endlessly while their real points stay unspoken. A key line is given to Flusky, who complains about the unfeeling legal process, which goes ‘on and on and on.’ The line is significant because beyond all the legality—and the talk—lies hope of something else, a return to a lost paradise. Under Capricorn may be Hitchcock’s finest film to explore that theme… [It] is more than a key Hitchcock film: it is one of his most lovely pictures. Its fluid design suggests life itself, sometimes wasting, sometimes being savored.” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

The truth—as is often the case—lies somewhere between these two extremes. Some films are neither brilliant nor terrible, but Under Capricorn was certainly a failure in the mind of its director, and Hitchcock’s tendency to adopt the prevailing critical opinion of his films has poisoned objective reevaluation.

FINAL ANALYSIS

“I made Under Capricorn because I wanted to apply the concepts of Rope to a different sort of story to see what that would yield.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Obviously, many scholars seem to believe that the failure of Under Capricorn was due to the fact that Hitchcock insisted on carrying over the sequence shots he utilized in Rope, and these people aren’t thinking past the semi-formed opinions of other critics that plagued newspapers and magazines in 1948 when the film was released. The fact is that his approach to Under Capricorn is fundamentally different than the technique used in Rope, because: a.) This film wasn’t shot to look as if it was shot in real time, b.) Under Capricorn includes traditional cutting in conjunction with sequence shots while Rope consists only of sequence shots, and c.) it doesn’t make any effort to camouflage the film’s edits.

In short, the technique used in Capricorn is a refinement of the experiment that he used for Rope. He is searching for the proper equilibrium between two opposing techniques and some of the director’s future work proves that he found it (even if it wasn’t perfected in this particular film). Hitchcock realized that there were flaws in his approach to Rope and is testing the sequence shot as an added tool to use in conjunction with other techniques. One can see a difference in his aesthetic before he made the two Transatlantic films and those that he made after them. He grew from these experiments and never completely abandoned the sequence shot. He confessed that he still admired the technique in a 1955 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma and this won’t come as a surprise to those who truly pay attention to his later work.

“Certain people thought it was a mistake and that it wasn’t truly cinema. Yet it’s pure cinema because you must do the editing in your head in advance. Then the movement between the scenes is made continuous by the movement of the actors, not of the camera alone, but of the actors and the camera together. Thus the camera roams about while the actors change positions, and together they establish various framed compositions. In my opinion, it’s a purer cinema but not enough people agreed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

This is an important point that seems to be lost on most critics and scholars. Hitchcock incorporates a wide array of shots into these long takes. The wide master, the two shot, the close-up, the extreme close-up, and the insert shot are all utilized. It isn’t as if he were simply pointing the camera at the actors and allowing the scenes to play out as if this were a play. What’s more, his use of this technique adds power to a number of the film’s traditional edits.

Some of the cuts in Under Capricorn are dramatic solely because they happen to follow a sequence shot. Take, for example, Bergman’s introduction. We follow Adare as he meets other guests after arriving at the party, Flusky gives instructions to Milly regarding Mrs. Flusky (which makes the viewer curious about her), and the men finally sit down to enjoy a meal and say grace. Soon the guests notice something that is happening just outside the scope of the frame, and Flusky notices their attention and nervously begins turning his head to see what has captured their gaze. We then cut to Bergman’s bare feet as they move into the room and carry us back to Sam Flusky as she places her hand on his shoulders. Finally, we move to the intoxicated face of Ingrid Bergman. It’s quite the introduction.

Hitchcock never abandons his devotion to the visual in this experiment, he simply expands and adds to the language of the medium. If Under Capricorn fails, it is due to the weak script and an arguably less interesting subject. It does not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best films—or even his second-tier titles—but it was an essential phase in his artistic evolution. What’s more, it isn’t any worse than a number of other overwrought and syrupy costume melodramas being made at around that time. One wonders if the film wouldn’t have a different reputation if another director’s name were written on it.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino houses their Blu-ray in a standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that offers a choice of film related artwork.

Reverse Cover Artwork

The default art is taken from the film’s original American One Sheet while a more lurid foreign poster was used for the reverse as an alternative. The American one sheet is the superior choice.

Menu

In fact, Kino must agree with us on this point since it is this artwork that has been carried over for the disc’s static menu.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s 4K restoration transfer is a huge improvement over the previous DVD editions of the film, and the improvement isn’t merely due to the added resolution. However, it must be said that the final result is less that completely satisfying and will probably disappoint some collectors. This doesn’t seem to be the fault of the restoration or the transfer but is instead the unfortunate symptom of the ravages of time. Damage and debris is evident, but the most significant problem here stems from the various color elements in the Technicolor print which has resulted in slight haloing. Luckily, this never becomes distracting. In fact, most people won’t notice it and will instead pick up on the obvious improvement over earlier transfers in terms of both vibrancy and clarity. Motion is also greatly improved upon here (something especially important considering the mobile nature of the image). Best of all, we get quite a bit more information in the frame in this new transfer. This is likely the best this film is going to look on home video at this point.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio is an admirable representation of the film’s original source elements. It doesn’t offer the dynamic sonic experience one expects from more recent films, but no one should really expect this. The film’s dialogue is well prioritized and clearly rendered and the music is given adequate room to breathe thanks to the high definition transfer. Fans should be pleased.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger has provided commentaries for a wide variety of films in recent years. As editor-in-chief for Diabolique magazine, she has a reasonably deep well of general knowledge to aid her in this track—but those expecting any in-depth information will be somewhat disappointed. Some of her analysis is interesting enough to keep the listener engaged, but it isn’t an especially focused discussion about the film (which she insists is underrated). She has a tendency to overlook important points and there are a few questionable statements along the way. This is par for the course with third-party “scholarly commentaries.” It is nice that she has included some general information about the careers of various cast and crew, and this is really the best reason to give the track a listen.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon (Audio) – (12:23)

Absolutely essential is this excerpt from Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous interview with François Truffaut as it finds the director speaking candidly about Under Capricorn. Those who have already read the book won’t learn anything, but it is nice to hear the director discussing this often overlooked film. It is illustrated with a still photograph of the two filmmakers that was taken during the interview sessions in 1963.

A Cinema of Signs: Chabrol on Hitchcock – (26:42)

The disc’s best supplement is probably this half-hour program that finds Claude Chabrol discussing a variety of Hitchcock related topics, including Cahiers du Cinéma’s infamous Hitchcock issue that would help change critical opinion of Hitchcock’s work, the equally important book that he penned with Éric Rohmer (Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films), an analysis of a scene from Under Capricorn (which was taken from the text of this book), Truffaut’s book-length interview Hitchcock, and his own analysis of scenes from Marnie and Frenzy. Fans will find this material fascinating even if they find themselves in disagreement. It offers food for thought and is a welcome addition to Kino’s package.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)

While trailers for other Hitchcock titles are much more interesting and original than the rather standard approach used to market Under Capricorn, it is certainly nice to have the trailer for this film finally available on home video.

We are also given a number of other trailers, including one for Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), Bergman’s Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), Cotton’s A Portrait of Jennie (1948), and a remake of The Lodger (1944).

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Final Words:

“If I seem doomed to make only one type of picture, the movie audience is responsible. People go to one of my films expecting a thriller, and they aren’t satisfied until the thrill turns up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

This quote frames our parting thoughts admirably. Those who expect a typical Hitchcockian suspense story are bound to be disappointed. Under Capricorn is probably one of the director’s five weakest American films but it certainly wasn’t a waste of his time. In fact, it was an extremely important step in Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes the best transfer of the film currently available on home video and a very nice supplemental package.

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet

Source Material:

Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in ‘Under Capricorn, Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Staff Writer (The Times, August 31, 1949)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 10, 1949)

William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, September 17, 1949)

Staff Writer (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, The Times, October 05, 1949)

Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Staff Writer (Amusements: Ingrid Bergman in Australian Romance, Western Morning News, February 14, 1950)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, February 28, 1950)

D.J. (Derby Daily Telegraph, March 14, 1950)

David Brady (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Bryan Forbes (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Michael Haley (The Alfred Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Book Interview: Hitchcock’s Heroines

Cover

Publisher: Insight Editions

Release Date: May 01, 2018

A Conversation with Caroline Young

From his early days as a director in the 1920s to his heyday as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had a complicated and controversial relationship with his leading ladies. He supervised their hair, their makeup, their wardrobe, and pushed them to create his perfect vision onscreen. These women were often style icons in their own right, and the clothes that they wore imbued the films with contemporary glamor.

Quite a lot has been written over the past few decades regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s use of women in his films—some of it from a scholarly or theoretical standpoint and some of it from a sensationalized tabloid angle that only serves to muddy the waters of responsible scholarship. However, it must be said that this new Insight Editions release of Caroline Young’s Hitchcock’s Heroines doesn’t quite fall into either category. She chronicles six decades of glamorous style while exploring the fashion legacy of these amazing women and their experiences working with Hitchcock. It is informative without being pushy but still manages to have a point of view. What’s more, Young’s text is well researched and beautifully illustrated with studio pictures, film stills, and original drawings of the costume designs. Anyone with a fondness for attractive coffee table books should consider adding this volume to their collection.

Caroline Young is based in Edinburgh Scotland. Her love of film and fashion led to her writing Classic Hollywood Style, Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures, and Tartan and Tweed. Young recently consented to this exclusive interview with Alfred Hitchcock Master, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Alfred Hitchcock and Doris Day on Location

This photograph of Alfred Hitchcock and Doris day is one of the many gorgeous photographs contained within the pages of “Hitchcock’s Heroines.” It was taken during the production of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work and what instigated the interest?

CY: I have been a Hitchcock fan since my early teens. I would read Empire magazine, which would often do lists of the best films ever made, and Hitchcock was frequently on the list. So I would rent as many videotapes as I could, and I think the first one I saw was Rear Window. I just loved the visuals and the way it felt like I was in this tenement in a sweltering summer in New York. I did film studies at university so my appreciation was further built, studying the shower scene and applying various film theories to his work.

AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock’s Heroines for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?

CY: Hitchcock’s Heroines is the first book to visually explore the costumes and image of the women in Hitchcock’s films. It has great images and costume sketches, including one from Frenzy that has never been published, but it offers a lot more than this. I wanted to take a balanced approach to Hitchcock’s relationship to his leading ladies, weave in details on the making of the films, and celebrate these amazing actresses and their stories. I also researched and found further detail on the designers behind the different films, such as Adrian for Shadow of a Doubt, and how it was David O Selznick who shaped the character’s image in Rebecca and Spellbound.

AHM: What gave you the initial idea to write a book that centers on the heroines in Hitchcock’s canon and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?

CY: The idea came from my first book, ‘Classic Hollywood Style,’ which explore the story behind the costumes in classic movies. As a follow up I wanted to do another film costume book that focused entirely on Hitchcock, as I had only featured To Catch a Thief, but I had found out so much more information on the costumes in his films that I would’ve liked to have included. This was in 2012, and there was also a lot of interest in the relationship between Tippi and Hitchcock at this time, and his obsession over blondes, particularly on the release of The Girl. But rather than look at him through this misogynistic filter, I was interested in seeing how the women in his films were sympathetic and inspiring, how their image was constructed, and what the actresses thought of Hitchcock and how they got on with them.

The main challenge was the topic, as firstly, Hitchcock was considered controversial, and also that books on film fashion are not always considered popular. I was also conscious of being respectful to Tippi and that a balanced approach didn’t diminish what she was saying.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock heroine? If so, who would that be and why is she your favorite?

CY: Difficult to choose, but I adore Nova Pilbeam as she’s really fresh and plucky in Young and Innocent (you wonder how did she learn skills from being in a boxer’s dressing room), but Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite. I like the character arc from self-destructive to showing complete guts in sacrificing herself for duty, the way the ‘female gaze’ is reversed in the party scene, and those Edith Head costumes which use stark black and white to make her stand out. Also, Ingrid Bergman does being drunk really well.

AHM: Now, the reverse of the last question: Which of Hitchcock’s leading ladies is your least favorite and why did she not appeal to you?

CY: Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn, probably because the film doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock work, and it doesn’t leave a memorable impression.

AHM: How did you decide upon which films and actresses to include in the book?

CY: It was a tough call as there was a limit to how much I could include—so I went for the most notable films in terms of visuals around the female character, along with ones I felt illustrated the journey. Nova Pilbeam is not that well known but had been an early protégée of Hitchcock’s, which is why I included Young and Innocent. I would have liked to have explored Vera Miles in The Wrong Man but her image is secondary in that film. However, that could have been interesting in itself.

Madeleine Carroll

Madeleine Carroll: Alfred Hitchcock’s “first glacial blonde prototype.”

AHM: How do you think his British films—and the heroines that feature in these films—differ from those he made as a Hollywood director? Did his heroines change once he moved to America? If so, what are these differences? What do you feel the reasons for this might be?

CY: The British period was when he was finding his own style, developing new techniques and narratives, and in the British period, apart from Anny Ondra, who he enjoyed working with, and Madeleine Carroll who was the first glacial blonde prototype, it wasn’t until Grace Kelly that he found his muse. There are articles in the early 1930s where he talks about what makes the ideal heroine—and he notes that above all they must be appealing to a female audience, so that’s really what he had in mind when casting his British heroines. In later interviews with Hitchcock in the 1950s, when the ideal of the Hitchcock blonde had been established, he pushed a PR line about the Nordic blonde, the ‘snow covered volcano’, and I feel that this was really shaped by Grace Kelly, whose magic he was striving to recreate.

One of the main factors in the differences is that it was in the late 1940s American period where he finally found autonomy in his work as both director and producer, and this allowed him to have complete control, rather than having to answer to other producers. That’s why Notorious is interesting as the first Edith Head collaboration, and the first where he really takes control of the heroine’s image.

Some of the differences are also down to the period they were made. Women in 1930s films often followed the screwball comedy mold, and they were designed to appeal to female audiences who liked plucky, fashionable heroines on screen. Then in the early 1940s, there was a trend for gothic romantic films that delved into the heroine’s anxieties, and this was all shaped by the Second World War. Priscilla Lane in Saboteur was another example of the archetype he would later develop more fully, but I feel he was disappointed a little in her performance. The period of the Hitchcock blonde was predominant in the 1950s, once he had his dream team, and with Edith Head shaping the costumes, and perhaps it could also be argued that the Hitchcock heroine that we think of is very much a 1950s woman.

AHM: As you well know, Hitchcock had originally intended to pull Princess Grace out of retirement so that she could star in MARNIE before later deciding to make the film with Tippi Hedren. How do you think the casting of Grace Kelly would have changed the final film? How do Hedren’s qualities differ from Grace Kelly’s?

CY: I imagine the making of the film would have been a happier experience for all involved if Grace Kelly had played Marnie, and this could, in turn, have had a significant effect on the final work.

Grace Kelly was also a more experienced actress, requiring less guidance than Tippi, and while Tippi has this real vulnerability and emotional quality, I wonder if Grace Kelly would have made the character seem more manipulative and less frightened. Maybe she would have had the ability to convince him of character changes, to cut the rape scene etc, which many people believe he kept in to demonstrate complete control of Tippi.

It’s often said that Hitchcock was never the same after the making of Marnie, it was an upsetting time for Tippi (as she has recounted). If Grace Kelly had done the role, his later films may have been different. He may have been allowed to make Mary Rose… It’s an interesting question as it could potentially have had a big effect on how we judge him now.

AHM: Alfred Hitchcock’s films are still enormously popular all around the globe. Why are his films still relevant while so many others have long been forgotten?

CY: They were highly innovative, combining humor, suspense, and similar themes throughout which have provoked countless theories and examinations around his fetishes and obsessions. He was a great PR man who knew how to publicize himself, evident from some of the early interviews in the 1930s, and so he became a fascinating, intriguing figure in himself. One of the appealing aspects of Hitchcock is also that he captures a particular time and place in his visuals, and Hitchcock, as a British director, captures America through the eyes of a Brit. So he explores Americana in Psycho, with the highways and motel, and uses huge American landmarks for the climax of many of his films (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and etc). He was also always looking to be innovative [and] to push boundaries, but he also changed the way we view films with Psycho. [It’s] hard to believe people would just wander into the cinema to see a film at any time, but Hitchcock insisted audiences not be permitted once the film started. So all these factors have contributed to the longevity of his films, and that we are still discussing him in detail along with recent controversies which have continued to keep him in the news.

Ingrid Bergman - Still from Notorious

“Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite…”

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. Remember that this is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell