Book Review: Hidden Hitchcock

Dust Jacket

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press

Release Date: August 1, 2016

“It is my project here to trace a different, more devious rout taken by the surplus scrutiny that Hitchcock mobilizes in us. In contrast to the games that he is known to play with his Pavlovianly [sic] trained mass audience, I postulate a game he would be playing with that absurdly, pointlessly watchful spectator who dwells within us all, but whom, as members of a mass audience, or as critics in loyal alignment with it, we mostly put on lockdown; and whom I call the Too-Close Viewer. In this game, and for this viewer alone, Hitchcock would cultivate, alongside his manifest style with its hyper-legible images, a secret style that sows these images with radical duplicity. The type of duplicity to which this book gives emblematic pride of place is the hidden picture, in which a strongly narrativized [sic] image has been fashioned to conceal something that – if ever seen – would not enhance its coherence, but explode it. Imagine a small continuity error made on purpose, or a Hitchcock cameo fashioned so as not to be seen or a narrative image secretly doubling for a figure of speech in the manner of a charade, and you will have anticipated three key subtypes of Hitchcock’s hidden picturing. I take all such hidden pictures as sporadic but insistent marks of a perverse counter narrative in Hitchcock that for no reason – or for no good enough reason – takes the viewer out of the story and out of the social compact its telling presupposes. Into what is hard to say. Structurally, the hidden pictures resist being integrated into the narrative or any ostensible intentionality; and whatever we might say about any one of them as a species of content falls markedly short of accounting for their enigma as a recurring form of Hitchcock’s film-writing. It is as though, at the heart of the manifest style, there pulsed an irregular extra beat, the surreptitious ‘murmur’ of its undoing that only the Too-Close Viewer could apprehend…” –D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Preview, 2016)

Miller’s thesis sounded somewhat questionable upon reading the first pages of his Preview (or introduction) chapter in Hidden Hitchcock. It felt as if the following chapters would be filled with what could only be over-reaching guess-work written in the wake of too many other questionable theories about Hitchcock’s work. Luckily, this is only partly true. There certainly are a few unseen visual anomalies in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and there are quite a few of these mentioned in Hidden Hitchcock that are unquestionably present on the screen. (This reviewer spotted some of them before reading Miller’s text.) As a quick example, I call to the reader’s attention a certain hidden cameo that alert viewers can see during the opening train sequence of Strangers on a Train:

“…We are unlikely, therefore, to pay attention to a small detail that emerges at the very moment when the suddenly upraised camera gives Guy and Bruno their first full registration. This is the book that Guy is holding, his train reading; on its back cover is the face of Alfred Hitchcock, who is thus visible, if not actually seen, eight minutes before what we commonly take as his appearance. There is no doubt about it we get several more views of this book—the front cover as well as the back, and the spine too—and though no one has ever noticed it, I did not find it impossible to identify. It is ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense,a collection of mystery stories, published by Simon and Schuster in 1947, that Hitchcock edited, annotated, and prefaced with an essay called ‘The Quality of Suspense…’-D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Hidden Pictures, 2016)

While this discovery wasn’t particularly surprising to this reviewer, having spotted Hitchcock’s appearance on this book several years prior to reading Miller’s thesis, this and a few other examples validate the possibility that some of his other discoveries could be legitimate as well. (There wasn’t time to go through the films discussed and analyze each one.) However, some of his theories as to what these Hitchcock appearances, continuity errors, and narrative images (or “charades”) actually mean could easily be disputed. The nature of film theory is that it is and will always remain theory. As a matter of fact, some of Miller’s discoveries cannot be proven to be intentional decisions made by Hitchcock. Certain continuity errors that have been brought to the reader’s attention might very easily be errors (every film has them).

It is particularly interesting that Miller has narrowed his focus to merely a handful of moments that can be found in three of the director’s films (with the exception of a moment in Murder that was analyzed in the Preview chapter):

“…Accordingly, I am at liberty to worship him in any of his fifty-two manifestations; there simply are no wrong choices. And yet, while forms of hidden picturing are lying all over the place in Hitchcock, the impetus for wanting to write on them came almost entirely from the three films I treat in this book: Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong Man. Why these films and not others? To anyone not myself, who was galvanized by it, my archive must appear, if not exactly marginal, a bit “off,” drawing on Hitchcock’s greatest period (the long 50s) by stopping just before Vertigo and the other universally acknowledged masterpieces in its wake… These films seemed to choose me; by whatever fatal attraction, they alone laid the traps I fell into with the sufficiently catalyzing thud.” –D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Preview, 2016)

It is nice that Miller has chosen to focus on three films that deserve more attention, and this is especially true of The Wrong Man. Too little is written about this underappreciated film, and it is nice to that Miller has seen fit to include it here. There is a particular scene in this film that I look forward to reviewing in order to test one of Miller’s discoveries. It might not be essential reading for casual film viewers, but Hidden Hitchcock has the power to inspire further (and closer) viewing of Hitchcock’s work, and it is certainly worth recommending to scholars and fans for this reason alone.

Review by: Devon Powell

 

 

 

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Blu-ray Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train DVD front cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: 09/Oct/2012

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:40:49

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC, 29.91 Mpbs)

Main Audio: 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 768 Kbps, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio:

French Dolby Digital Mono

German Dolby Digital Mono

Italian Dolby Digital Mono

Spanish Dolby Digital Mono

Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono

Japanese Dolby Digital Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German SDH, Italian SDH

Ratio: 1.36:1

Bitrate: 31 Mbps

Notes: This title has also had a few DVD releases. The most notable of these is a 2004 2-Disc Special Edition (which contains the same special features that are included on this Blu-ray release).

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“For your information, Strangers on a Train was not an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with.” –Alfred Hitchcock

Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s undisputed classics. The film was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who would go on to write The Talented Mr. Ripley. The novel is quite different from the novel, but one can see why it appealed to Hitchcock. The wrong man scenario had already been a favorite of the director, but the line between guilt and innocence had always been clearly drawn. In Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines actually had murderous thoughts about his wife. He benefited from her death and this makes the familiar themes even stronger than in the director’s previous work.

Alfred Hitchcock originally had hired Raymond Chandler to work on the script, but the working relationship was unsatisfying for both men. Chandler had a disagreeable temperament and had infamously clashed with Billy Wilder when they worked together on Double Indemnity. His personality clashed with Hitchcock’s working method of being actively involved in the writing process. He became so aggravated with the director that he was not above making cruel passive-aggressive comments. One day Chandler remarked loudly (and within earshot of the director), “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!” Needless to say, the director looked elsewhere for a writer to help him adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel into a screenplay.

We’d sit together and I would say, ‘Why not do it this way?’ and he’d answer, ‘Well, if you can puzzle it out, what do you need me for?’ …The work he did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I completed the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.” –Alfred Hitchcock

To say that Chandler’s ego was bruised may well be the understatement of the century. He was livid and let Hitchcock know this in a letter dated December 6th, 1950.

“Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a ‘far less brilliant mind than mine’ to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time. [Signed: ‘Raymond Chandler’]-Raymond Chandler (The Raymond Chandler Papers)

With all of the trouble that Hitchcock had during the scripting stage, it is even more amazing that the end result has become one of the director’s most recognized and well loved classics. Perhaps this is because the film featured one of the most memorable villains in Hitchcock’s canon. Robert Walker’s portrayal of Bruno is one of the highlights of the film. He exudes a slimy charm that does little to camouflage the character’s many kinks, but goes a long way in creating sympathy for the psychopath. The public adored the film, and critics seemed to disagree with Chandler’s opinion of the script. One such example is the warm review that was published in Variety.

“Given a good basis for a thriller in the Patricia Highsmith novel [script adaption by Whitfield Cook] and a first-rate script, Hitchcock embroiders the plot into a gripping, palm-sweating piece of suspense.” -Variety (December 31, 1950)

There were a few critics that were less than impressed with the film. Bosley Crowthers wrote a decidedly hostile review of the film.

“…Hitchcock again is tossing a crazy murder story in the air and trying to con us into thinking that it will stand up without support. And again his instigator of evil is a weirdly unbalanced young man who almost succeeds in enmeshing a young tennis star in a murder plot…

…Perhaps there will be those in the audience who will likewise be terrified by the villain’s darkly menacing warnings and by Mr. Hitchcock’s sleekly melodramatic tricks. Certainly, Mr. Hitchcock is the fellow who can pour on the pictorial stuff and toss what are known as “touches” until they’re flying all over the screen. From the slow, stalking murder of a loose girl in a tawdry amusement park to a “chase” and eventual calamity aboard a runaway merry-go-round, the nimble director keeps piling “touch” and stunt upon “touch.” Indeed, his desire to produce them appears his main impulse in this film.

But, for all that, his basic premise of fear fired by menace is so thin and so utterly unconvincing that the story just does not stand. And the actors, as much as they labor, do not convey any belief — at least, not to this observer, who will give Hitchcock character plenty of rope…

…Also, it might be mentioned that there are a few inaccuracies in this film that may cause some knowing observers considerable skeptical pause — such as the evidence that you get to the Washington Union Station by going into Virginia over the Memorial Bridge. Also a purist might question how a tennis star could race around Washington half the night and then win three grueling sets of tennis in a Forest Hills tourney the next day.

Frankly, we feel that Mr. Hitchcock is “touching” us just a bit too much and without returning sufficient recompense in the sensation line.” -The New York Times (July 4, 1951)

Needless to say, this opinion was not shared by the majority. The film was a massive success. The film is often listed as one of Hitchcock’s best and is essential viewing. Roger Ebert even included the film in his list of “Great Movies.”

“…The movie is usually ranked among Hitchcock’s best (I would put it below only Vertigo, Notorious, Psycho and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt), and its appeal is probably the linking of an ingenious plot with insinuating creepiness. That combination came in the first place from Highsmith, whose novels have been unfairly shelved with crime fiction when she actually writes mainstream fiction about criminals…” -Chicago Sun Times (January 1, 2004)

Those who have yet to see the film are advised to remedy this unfortunate oversight.

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The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is housed in the standard blue case with new cover art. I must admit that I prefer the artwork used for the 2-disc Special Edition DVD release of the film. I believe that it used some of the original promotional artwork for the film.

Strangers on a Train DVD back cover

The static menu utilizes the same artwork and is supported by music from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for the film. 

soat menu1

soat menu2

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers provides Hitchcock fans with a near perfect image transfer. The film is notable for being the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s successful collaboration with Robert Burks, who would work on all of the master’s subsequent films through Marnie (with the notable exception of Psycho). Burks’ noir-esque cinematography looks especially crisp on this transfer. The contrast is stark and solid with rich blacks and solid whites. Shadow detail is also excellent and free from crush. The picture exhibits wonderful clarity and the added resolution enhances details that were lost in standard definition transfers of the film. The film remains faithful to its celluloid source and features a cinematic layer of grain. There is no noticeable DNR or Edge enhancement marring the image. The only issue that one might notice is the occasional nick or speck of dirt on the print (and they would have to really be looking for them to notice their existence).

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Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The lossless 1.0 English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio sounds better than it has ever sounded (and likely as good as it will ever sound in the future). The track exhibits remarkable fidelity, but there is a certain thinness to certain areas of the track (notably with the music). These issues seem inherent in the source and are never distracting. The dialogue and effects were well mixed and the track represents the best possible listening experience available.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Preview Version of Strangers on a Train – (SD) – (01:42:57)

The infamous “Preview Version” of Strangers on a Train was once referred to as the “British Version” due to a labeling error. The film was previewed prior to release with this version and then altered for release. This version of the film was given a limited theatrical release in 1996.

This early cut of the film runs about two minutes longer and ends differently than the theatrical cut. The theatrical version has the superior ending, but I prefer the longer opening train sequence on this cut of the film.

This feature is presented in standard definition, but looks a bit better than it did on the 2004 DVD release of the film.

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Audio Commentary

The commentary track includes quite a long list of participants (some more engaging than others). I was surprised that one of the more interesting commentators was Andrew Wilson (Patricia Highsmith’s biographer), who discussed the film’s source novel. There is also a short interview excerpt from Whitfield Cook (who worked with Hitchcock on the film’s treatment). This was one of the more interesting inclusions. Actress Kasey Rogers discusses her memories of shooting the film and her comments are extremely welcome. Perhaps the best commentator was Hitchcock himself (via his interview with Peter Bogdanovich).

Less engaging are comments from people who worked with the director on later films. Joseph Stefano seems a bit out of place here. He discusses Strangers on a Train, but the fact that he is discussing a film that he wasn’t involved with is a bit awkward. The list goes on. This is certainly an engaging listen, but it is a rather uneven track. Warner Brothers should be applauded for their efforts in attempting to provide fans with an informative commentary track. One must remember that the film is 62 years old and most of the cast and crew who worked on the film are now deceased.

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Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic – (SD) – (00:36:40)

This is the closest that the disc comes to a “making of” documentary on the film. The documentary features Farley Granger, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, Robert Walker Jr., and several film scholars and biographers. The piece is consistently interesting, and offers viewers a few ‘behind the scenes’ stories from the set. Andrew Wilson also discusses differences in the novel and Hitchcock’s film and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is briefly mentioned as well. This is not as comprehensive as one might prefer, but this 2004 supplement is worth seeing.

Strangers on a Train: The Victim’s P.O.V. – (SD) – (00:07:22)

Kasey Rogers (alias Laura Elliott) discusses portraying Miriam in the film. One wonders why Mrs. Rogers wasn’t included in the disc’s “making of” documentary, but this featurette is extremely welcome and possibly one of the better supplements included on the disc.

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Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan – (SD) – (00:12:46)

Contemporary director, M. Night Shyamalan discusses his admiration of the film. It is a curious addition to the disc.

The Hitchcocks on Hitch – (SD) – (00:11:20)

This feature includes home movies of Hitchcock and his family supplemented by interviews with his daughters and granddaughters about their memories of Alfred Hitchcock. This featurette focuses on Hitchcock’s family life and this makes it a slightly more sentimental experience. Fans of the director will welcome this featurette.

Newsreel Footage: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting” – (SD) – (00:01:08)

This silent newsreel footage is a curious inclusion. It is difficult to decipher what is happening without the sound.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (00:02:34)

This is perhaps not as amusing as some of the director’s later trailers, but it is always interesting to see how classic films were sold to audiences.

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Final Words:

Warner Brothers has given Strangers on a Train a wonderful Blu-ray release that includes a near perfect high definition image and a respectable collection of supplementary material

Review by: Devon Powell