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

 

 

 

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Carol

Carol Cover

Distributor: Starz / Anchor Bay 

Release Date: March 15, 2016 

Region: Region A

Length: 118 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

5.1 Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Notes: A DVD edition of this film is also available.

“Our friendship wasn’t really about her work at that point in my budding career as a dramatist. She was so disappointed in all of the adaptations she had seen of her work, even great work, like Strangers on a Train. There was wistfulness about, ‘Gee, maybe when you grow up, and you’re able to do something, maybe you could see about doing a good one.’ It was vague and she would direct me to, actually, four or five of her other books which she was very keen on seeing done well. ‘The Price of Salt’, or ‘Carol’, as it had been re-titled by then, wasn’t on the list.” Phyllis Nagy (Film School Rejects, January 06, 2016)

Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember the name Patricia Highsmith. The director adapted her first novel into one of his most celebrated films: Strangers on a Train. Highsmith’s controversial follow-up was entitled, “The Price of Salt,” and was published under a pseudonym due to the controversial nature of the book’s subject matter.

The Price of Salt - 1st edition

This is the First Edition Hardback cover of “The Price of Salt.” Due to the controversial subject matter, the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” was used at the request of her publisher.

Carol follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. As conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change. A young woman in her 20s, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, the innocence of their first encounter dims and their connection deepens. While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband (Kyle Chandler) begins to question her competence as a mother as her involvement with Therese and close relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) come to light.

Highsmith fortunately had the opportunity to write about her trailblazing novel when it was re-published under her own name and re-titled Carol in 1990. Her memoirs about the novel are rather enlightening:

“…I had just finished ‘Strangers on a Train,’ but it wasn’t to be published until 1949. Christmas was approaching, I was vaguely depressed and also short of money, and to earn some I took a job as salesgirl in a big department store in Manhattan during the period known as the Christmas rush, which lasts about a month. I think I lasted two and a half weeks.

The store assigned me to the toy section, in my case the doll counter… One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted towards the doll counter with a look of uncertainty – should she buy a doll or something else? – And I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand.

Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.

As usual, I went home after work to my apartment, where I lived alone. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, [and] a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook or cahier. This was the entire story of ‘The Price of Salt.’ It flowed from my pen as if from nowhere – beginning, middle and end. It took me about two hours, perhaps less…

…I did not immediately start writing the book. I prefer to let ideas simmer for weeks. And, too, when ‘Strangers on a Train’ was published and shortly afterwards sold to Alfred Hitchcock, who wished to make a film of it, my publishers and also my agent were saying, ‘Write another book of the same type, so you’ll strengthen your reputation as…’ As what? ‘Strangers on a Train’ had been published as ‘A Harper Novel of Suspense’ by Harper & Bros, as the house was then called, so overnight I had become a ‘suspense’ writer, though ‘Strangers’ in my mind was not categorised, and was simply a novel with an interesting story.

If I were to write a novel about a lesbian relationship, would I then be labelled a lesbian-book writer? That was a possibility, even though I might never be inspired to write another such book in my life. So I decided to offer the book under another name. By 1951, I had written it. I could not push it into the background for 10 months and write something else, simply because for commercial reasons it might have been wise to write another ‘suspense’ book.

Harper & Bros rejected ‘The Price of Salt,’ so I was obliged to find another American publisher – to my regret, as I much dislike changing publishers. ‘The Price of Salt’ had some serious and respectable reviews when it appeared in hardcover in 1952. But the real success came a year later with the paperback edition, which sold nearly a million copies and was certainly read by more. The fan letters came in addressed to Claire Morgan, care of the paperback house. I remember receiving envelopes of 10 and 15 letters a couple of times a week and for months on end. A lot of them I answered, but I could not answer them all without a form letter, which I never arranged.

My young protagonist Therese may appear a shrinking violet in my book, but those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.

The appeal of ‘The Price of Salt’ was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.

Many of the letters that came to me carried such messages as ‘Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending! We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.’ Others said, ‘Thank you for writing such a story. It is a little like my own story…’ And, ‘I am 18 and I live in a small town. I feel lonely because I can’t talk to anyone…’ Sometimes I wrote a letter suggesting that the writer go to a larger town where there would be a chance to meet more people. As I remember, there were as many letters from men as from women, which I considered a good omen for my book. This turned out to be true. The letters trickled in for years.” -Patricia Highsmith (Afterward to “Carol,” 1989)

Patricia Highsmith

Phyllis Nagy enjoyed a friendship with Patricia Highsmith (author of “The Price of Salt”), and  she used the writer as a basis for her screenplay interpretation of Therese.

The book’s happy (or hopeful) ending was adopted for the film adaptation, and it is this element that sets Carol apart from other films about homosexuality. Todd Haynes directs Phillis Nagy’s screenplay with a level of subtlety and sensitivity that is rarely seen in films of this nature.

“I didn’t know that he would do the film because it’s the first thing he hasn’t written, and I know what that’s like. You might think you can’t, or you don’t want to, or you want to take it in a completely different direction. So I think we were all thrilled, no one more than me, when we spoke and realized that we were simpatico in very important ways. Todd encouraged me to take things that I had always thought were good for it but which had been changed over the years in various polishes for various people.

We went back to something approaching the early draft, which was smarter for having 18 years of experience. So that was great. Todd spoke to me about his love of framing devices and, in particular, Brief Encounter, and so I added that. We talked about a few other things. It was a very good, fruitful, easy process and I think probably easier than he thought it might be from some of his prior experiences.” Phyllis Nagy (Deadline, December 29, 2015)

Grace Kelly - Rear Window

According to Nagy, Carol’s character was expanded from the ghost-like fantasy in Highsmith’s novel using Grace Kelly’s character in “Rear Window” as a template. (“Reading from top to bottom,” that character’s name is Lisa… Carol… Fremont.)

The collaboration was more than simply enjoyable, it was also an enormous critical success. Living up to its groundbreaking source material, the film premiered to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival—and won the festivals’ Queer Palm award. Since this auspicious debut, it has continued to collect both adoration and accolades. The Academy Awards honored the film with six nominations (including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design). The film also garnered five Golden Globe® nominations—the most of any film this year—including Best Motion Picture, Drama, alongside nominations for both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama. Blanchett and Mara also received Screen Actors Guild nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively. Other awards and nominations include: nine BAFTA nominations; six Spirit Award nominations; four wins from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography; nine Critics’ Choice nominations, and over 125 Top Ten lists.

Carol - Halfsheet Ad

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected by a standard Blu-ray case with the film’s one sheet art, which is attractive (if not particularly impressive).

The menus utilize footage from the film accompanied by Carter Burwell’s original score. They are at once attractive and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Edward Lachman’s Oscar nominated Super 16 mm cinematography is represented with a respectable amount of accuracy here. The transfer showcases the film’s grain pattern without allowing the grain to become irregular or distracting. Colors are accurately represented, as are the contrast and brightness levels. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable digital anomalies to distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the film.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The English DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive. The mix seems to pull the viewer into the world in subtle ways, and subtly is a rare commodity. Dialogue, ambience, sound effects, and music seem to be well prioritized at all times. This is a solid sound mix, and one would be hard pressed to find any reason for complaint.

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Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Q & A with Cast and Filmmakers – (29:25)

These excerpts from various cast and crew Q & A sessions is surprisingly interesting and informative. Instead of short clips of various interview statements padded with an overuse of footage from the actual film, viewers can listen to the cast and crew discuss the film and its creation. Fans of the film  should be happy to have this included here.

“Behind the Scenes” Featurette Gallery – (35:56)

While most of these featurettes don’t have a lot in the way of comprehensive “behind the scenes” information, viewers might find some of the commentary interesting. There is also some “behind the scenes” footage of the cast and crew shooting the film. There are eight featurettes in all:

Cate Blanchett as ‘Carol Aird’ – (04:02)

Rooney Mara as ‘Therese Belivet’ – (04:39)

Todd Haynes (Director) – (04:45)

Phillis Nagy (Screenwriter) – (04:58)

Edward Lachman (Cinematographer) – (04:56)

Sandy Powell (Costume Design) – (03:41)

Judy Becker (Production Design) – (04:03)

Carter Burwell (Original Score) – (04:53)

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Final Words:

Carol is a sensitive and engaging adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s follow-up to Strangers on a Train, but the film is worth seeing for other reasons. It has an elegant and graceful simplicity that is rare in contemporary cinema. It easily earns a recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell