Tuesday, July 01, 2008

AMERICAN HITCHCOCK - PART III (1960-1976)

THE BEGINNING OF THE END
PECKING OUT A LASTING LEGACY IN THE SIXTIES

“Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”
- Alfred Hitchcock

By 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was an international celebrity – instantly recognizable around the world. Only part of this notoriety was due to his films. Hitchcock’s more palpable form of celebrity came from his weekly appearances, introducing segments of his own television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC. Budgetary restrictions and the fast pace of shooting television would come to serve as a template for Hitchcock’s next, and arguably his most popular, cinematic endeavor.

Often sited as the film that matured American cinema into its present state of sublime cynicism, Psycho (1960) is based on a novel by Robert Bloch that has its roots in the real life criminal activity of a deranged farmer who quietly butchered his neighbors. In the book, Norman Bates is a rather pudgy middle aged recluse – easily identifiable as someone with a darker side to his character. By transplanting the attributes of a serial killer onto the seemingly normal and youthfully handsome Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock plays upon our erroneous misperception that evil is immediately identifiable or, as Shakespeare most astutely observed, “he that smiles may smile and be a villain.”

Budgeted at a remarkably modest $800,000, Psycho went on to earn forty million in its first release – a telling sign of the more cost-cutting that would come to exemplify film making in the sixties. Joseph Stephano’s screenplay carried an immersive under layer of psychoanalysis, perhaps because the writer was also in therapy at the time he wrote the script.

The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh); a hot and bothered secretary whose lover, Sam Loomis’ (John Gavin) is unable to commit to marriage because he is struggling to pay for his ex-wife’s alimony. To expedite her way to the altar, Marion decides to steal fifty thousand dollars from her employer as a runaway down payment for the fantasy life she misperceives can be hers.

Unfortunately, en route from Phoenix to Fairfax the weather turns ugly, forcing Marion to take a night’s refuge at the Bates Motel from which she will never return. The motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) a congenial mama’s boy on the surface quickly develops a paralytic sexual frustration toward Marion that manifests itself as murderous psychosis while pretending to be his mother. After stabbing Marion to death inside one of the motel showers, Norman disposes of her body in a nearby swamp. Enter private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Assigned by Marion’s employer to track her down, Arbogast eventually traces Marion’s route to the Bates Motel and shortly thereafter suffers the same fate as our heroine. Forced to take matters into their own hands, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam journey to the motel and that now infamous old gothic house on the hill – actually a free standing set built on Universal’s back lot.

Lila hides herself in the cellar, the last place she thinks anyone will look for her. Unfortunately, the basement is home to the real truth behind Norman Bates; that his mother, who earlier figured prominently as a possible suspect in Marion’s disappearance is actually a mummified corpse, dressed in a shawl and wig, but rotted nonetheless. Hitchcock frames Lila’s terrifying moment of realization in extreme close up, with mother’s back to the camera, then slowly spins her chair around to reveal a shriveled corpse, its cavernous sockets blankly staring into the camera.

For its time, Psycho was a disturbing revelation in American cinema signifying the weakening of the Production Code of Censorship that would never have allowed such a grotesque moment to be seen on the screen. The shower sequence in Psycho remains one of the most effective and masterful bit of editing ever put on film.


Involving ninety cuts, a partially nude stand in for Janet Leigh, and a melon being slashed to simulate the sound of steel cutting into flesh – the sequence unravels as an assault on the audience’s collective expectation of what murder should be – providing quick horizontal and vertical cuts whereupon our collective imaginations reassemble those bits and flashes into a brutal homicide that, in truth, is never entirely realized on screen.


When the film debuted it was readily denounced by the Catholic League of Decency as well as by a select few film critics who condemned the movie and Hitchcock as going too far. The backlash, coupled with Universal’s clever marketing of the movie only served to further fuel the public’s rabid fascination to see it. In the final analysis, Psycho became Hitchcock’s most successful movie to date.

Immediately following the film’s triumphant premiere, Hitchcock took a three year hiatus from making movies. However, he was far from idle – investing a considerable amount of effort in continuing his television series and returning to the screen with what would be his last great cinematic triumph; The Birds in 1963. Working from a short story by his favorite author Daphne du Maurier, Hitchcock commissioned screenwriter Evan Hunter to flesh out the story and provide cohesion to du Maruier’s episodic series of bird attacks.

The plot eventually concocted concerns the quaint hamlet of Bodega Bay: weekend getaway for hotshot defense attorney Mitchell Brenner (Rod Taylor). While in San Francisco, Mitch tweaks the nose of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a spoiled wealthy socialite and practical joker whose wild past has been expounded in the tabloids.

Mitch and Melanie quickly escalate their mutual interest in one another from tempestuous rivalry to smoldering romance; a move quietly abhorred by Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Mitch’s mother and even more quietly observed by old flame, Annie Haywood (Suzanne Pleshette). But then, there are the birds – those fine feathery fowl who run amuck in the town, smashing into buildings, attacking school children, pecking out a farm neighbor’s eyes and blowing up the town gas station.

From a technical vantage, The Birds remains Hitchcock’s most ambitiously mounted film, relying heavily on matte photography that only occasionally belies its origins under today’s closer scrutiny of special effects. The sodium screen employed in the film’s matte photography was largely the invention of Disney SFX specialist Ub Iwerks after Hitchcock became dissatisfied with the less than stellar results reproduced by the more traditional ‘blue screen’ process. While ‘blue screen’ tended to produce blue halos around hair and other fine details, the sodium screen process generated a virtually flawless matte with no discernable traces of separation between the various photographed elements.

Hitchcock’s second unit spent days at the city dump photographing thousands of sea gulls circling the skies and then matting them into the foreground action shot on location and on the Universal studio back lot.

Admired from a Seago shampoo commercial, but with no prior acting experience to her credit, Tippi Hedren was Hitchcock’s first and only choice to play the film’s central protagonist, Melanie Daniels. Groomed in the manner of a Grace Kelly, Hedren received a lavish wardrobe designed for her by Edith Head prior to principle photography commencing on the film. In retrospect, Hedren is the last of the memorable Hitchcock blondes; statuesque, cool and strangely removed from her surroundings.

Initially, filming began with high spirits; the chemistry between Hedren and Rod Taylor, palpably engaging. However, after being told by Hitchcock that a pivotal scene involving Melanie attacked in the upstairs bedroom of the Brenner family home after the birds have pecked through the roof would be shot using matte photography and reaction shots, Hedren arrived on set to discover that the entire bedroom set had instead been enclosed in a cage, and, that real life birds – hurled at her by a wrangler – would be used instead.

Reluctantly, the actress submitted to an afternoon of being assaulted by live animals after which she quietly slipped into a catatonic state from that she failed to recover from by the following Monday morning. Hedren’s failure to report back to work necessitated the use of her double for a subsequent sequence where Melanie’s badly pecked at and bloody head is bandaged by Lydia in the living room.


The overwhelming box office success of The Birds was encouraging to Hitchcock. Perhaps, in Tippi Hedren he had at last found a replacement for the blonde ideal that Grace Kelly had once represented so clearly for him. His faith in Hedren secure, Hitchcock cast her in Marnie (1964) – a Freudian psychological sex mystery where she played a manipulative and compulsive thief, but with a sinister underlying current of sexual frigidity.

Hitchcock had wanted to make Marnie immediately following Psycho and, from the start, he had envisioned the story as Grace Kelly’s triumphant return to the screen. Although Kelly had initially agreed to do the film she eventually reneged on her acceptance and at the last minute – after Hitchcock had already commissioned a screenplay from John Michael Hayes. Reports on Hitchcock’s reaction to Kelly’s final decision vary from utter rage to sad disappointment. What is true enough is that after learning Kelly would not be able to do the film Hitchcock issued a polite letter of regret to the Princess; then chose to shelve the project rather than recast her part.

By the time Hitchcock had convinced himself that Tippi Hedren would be ideal to play the lead in Marnie he was readily clashing with screenwriter Evan Hunter over the handling of a scene in which Marnie – having been forced to marry Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) or face imprisonment for stealing from his publishing company is then forced to have sex with her husband after launching her own strenuous objections.

The ‘rape’ scene – as it came to be known – generated a creative impasse between Hitch’ and Hunter; the latter arguing that if any sympathy was to remain for the character of Mark he could not be seen forcing himself on his own wife. Hitchcock readily disagreed and promptly fired Hunter in favor of Jay Presson Allen (a novice in the medium of film, and with only two professional stage writing credits to her name).

In rewriting the story, Allen altered key sequences that were part of Winston Graham’s original novel and Haye’s original treatment; changing the office lover’s triangle between two men, Mark and his rival for Marnie’s affections – Terry – to the more subversive pseudo-lesbian fascination finally embodied by Lil,’ Mainwaring (Diane Baker). She also removed a key sequence where Marnie seeks professional treatment in the office of a psychoanalyst. Henceforth, the responsibility of getting at the crux of Marnie’s sexual repressions fell to the character of Mark – possibly as a way of redeeming him in the public’s eyes after he had already raped his wife.

Clearly an attempt on Hitchcock’s part to revisit themes and issues he had more readily and to better effect rounded out in Spellbound, upon its release, Marnie received almost unanimously negative and scathing reviews from the critics. Its failure at the box office effectively ended Tippi Hedren’s brief career and arguably wounded Hitchcock’s reputation as the purveyor of solid chills. That reputation would be further dismantled with Hitch’s next project.

In hindsight, Hitchcock’s shortcomings on Marnie seem at once more pronounced, yet more easily forgivable. Tippi Hedren is wooden next to Sean Connery who, despite his enviable charm, still comes off as something of a sexual sadist and a cold-hearted brute while trying to deconstruct his wife’s troubling sexual past. By promoting Marnie as a ‘sex mystery’ Hitchcock creates a false audience expectation that perhaps damaged the film’s box office potency.
Marnie is not about sex but rather the absence of any intimacy in the sexual act itself. The linkage between Marnie’s frigidity and the convoluted logic behind her kleptomania is fundamentally flawed and not readily apparent on a first viewing of the film. Allen’s screenplay takes far too much time unraveling the bizarre relationship between Marnie and her mother, Bernice (Louise Latham) while seeming wholly disinterested in the more weirdly sexual obsession that lures Mark into marrying Marnie in the first place.
Liberal changes in the cultural climate toward a more perverse and voyeuristic standard, the erosion of the studio system, and, the removal of the Production Code that precluded explicitness of any kind on screen: these were perhaps disquieting developments that an old master like Hitchcock found out of step with his star-driven slickly packaged movies from the 1950s. In that vein, Marnie is very much a throwback attempt by Hitchcock to revisit his atypical ‘50s glamour. The film is not a ‘sex mystery’ except if one chooses to entertain the screenplay’s very loose interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis.

In hindsight, Marnie is the real finale to Hitchcock’s American career. Though Hitchcock continued to make movies well into the decade, he had arguably and irreversibly lost his toe-hold in cinema as its undisputed master of suspense.


THE FAREWELL YEARS

Torn Curtain (1966) is probably Hitch’s most awkwardly miscast thriller. It improbably stars fresh-faced pert and plucky Julie Andrews miscast as Dr. Sarah Louise Sherman; fiancée to a brilliant lecturer, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman). The two are in Copenhagen for a conference where Sarah begins to suspect that Mike is becoming a communist defector. Like Lina’s contemplation over her husband’s innocence in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, made nearly two decades before it, Sarah’s assumptions about Michael in Torn Curtain turns out to be false and misleading – the screenplay by Brian Moore incessantly toying with her ‘what if’ scenarios and generally blowing them out of proportion with ironically timed unhappy accidents.

From its conception, Torn Curtain struck a decidedly sour note for all concerned. After penning a score for the film, a personal disagreement effectively ended Hitchcock’s association with long-time musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann. His score would eventually be replaced by Hitchcock. Paul Newman, a method actor out of sync with Hitchcock’s way of working, frequently clashed with his director over his part. Worse, the chemistry between Newman and Andrews failed to materialize as principle photography commenced. Hitchcock, who acknowledged that Julie Andrews had been thrust upon him by studio executives who found her enchanting in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, readily tired of making any attempt to mold a plausible dramatic performance from his star, choosing instead to grumble over the fact audiences would expect Andrews to break into song.

What is perhaps even more troubling about the film is that in hindsight it seems desperately struggling for something intelligent to say. More often the screenplay comes up with preposterous bits of dialogue that string the story along to its inevitable and contrived conclusion. The humorous bits are not funny and the dramatic moments are not nearly as suspenseful as they ought to be.

The film’s one memorable moment is the awkward murder of Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) a double agent working for the Russians who too late realizes Michael’s defection is a fraud. Here, Hitchcock illustrates for his audience just how difficult it is to kill a man – particularly when the adversaries are evenly matched. Michael attempts to strangle, stab, strike down with a metal skillet, then gas his assailant in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. He is successful only in the last of these methods.

“When was the last time Hitchcock went to the movies?” one reviewer proposed upon Torn Curtain’s release; an understandable inquiry, given the film’s unnatural blend of matte shots and largely indoor set pieces shot at Universal that seem pronouncedly obvious in their poor recreations of European country sides and utterly one dimensional. Hence, of all of Hitchcock’s later endeavors, Torn Curtain is the one that has worn the least well.

Dated in its fixed cold war premise, its awkward acting and bizarre amalgam of stylistic elements, Torn Curtain today appear as a forgotten relic from some archaic and strangely disembodied decade in cinema history that never existed. The film is neither a product of vintage 60s film fare nor is it an attempt at knocking off the stylish post-war elegance of slickly packaged entertainments like To Catch a Thief or The Man Who Knew Too Much. For all concerned then, Torn Curtain proved to be a forgettable footnote.

Following the Torn Curtain’s disastrous premiere, Hitchcock departed making movies for nearly three years before bringing Topaz (1969) to the screen. He could just as easily have taken another year to convalesce. Based on the sprawling best-seller by Leon Uris, Topaz is the story of a highly ranked Russian official, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) who defects to America. After a lengthy prologue in which Kusenov and his family narrowly escape Russian agents in Denmark, the film settles into a rather standard and plodding narrative written by Samuel Taylor; the crux being that Kusenov’s defection might actually have been a rouse.

Enter Agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe); a rather benign sort who enlists the aid of his more flamboyant French spy and personal contact, Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to do a bit of homegrown subversion involving Castro and the Cuban communist resistance. André accepts the assignment, though his wife Nicole (Dany Robin) suspects that part of the allure has to do with sultry Cuban communist, Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) the wife of a dead freedom fighter who is actually a double agent. The plot is further complicated with the introduction of Andre’s son-in-law, Michèle Picard (Claude Jade) who inadvertently uncovers a murder plot - then nearly becomes part of the body count himself.

With the success of the James Bond film franchise in the back of his mind, Hitchcock delves into espionage more deeply than in any of his other films, coming up with his own brand of cloak and dagger that never gets beyond the drawing board stage. In terms of box office appeal, Topaz has the insurmountable task of overcoming an inherent lack of star power. Though each is competent in his/her performance, none of the actors in the film particularly stands out with the sort of ‘star quality’ so vital and necessary for the overall marketability of the film.

Hitchcock’s first sneak preview of Topaz with an ending that had André in a duel inside a vacant soccer stadium was an absolute disaster, universally receiving the worst reviews of any Hitchcock picture to date. In planning another ending for the film, Hitchcock made two compromises, arguably neither completely satisfying – the latter with André and Nicole departing on a plane for France with their seemingly shattered marriage brought back into perspective; the other involving the off camera suicide of Claude Martin (John Van Dreelan) – the suspected head of the international cartel who had had an affair with Nicole.

To suggest that Hitchcock’s sensibilities as a director were hopelessly out of touch with audience tastes of the 1960s is perhaps a tad too sharp a condemnation. However, film critic Leonard Maltin’s suggestion that Hitchcock was making more personal films – not in tune with immediate public tastes perhaps, though solid entertainment nevertheless – is far too liberal a critique than any screening of Topaz should allow for. The film is sluggishly paced and confusing to follow, particularly during its final reels. At best and in retrospect, Topaz remains an unusual error in Hitchcock’s craftsmanship.

If there were those who thought Hitchcock was finished as a director upon Topaz’s release, his next film Frenzy (1972) provided a considerable reprieve, if not completely, then mostly to reinstating his status as the master of suspense. Based on Arthur La Bern’s novel, Farewell Piccadilly, So Long Lester Square, Frenzy represents Hitchcock at his most uncharacteristic and undeniably gruesome. In many ways the film is a throwback to the kind of entertainment Hitch’ was making in Britain prior to leaving England for Hollywood in the mid-1930s.

Shot on a modest budget and on location in the UK, Frenzy opens with the discovery of a naked female corpse floating face down in the Thames; the latest victim of The Necktie Killer. After Hitchcock’s prerequisite cameo, as a passerby who observes the recovery of the body, the narrative constructed by Anthony Shaffer moves to the firing of bartender Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), after being caught by his employer attempting to steal a drink from the pub. Blaney’s girlfriend, barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) encourages Richard to keep a stiff upper lip. Richard is next scene strolling through the marketplace at Covent Garden by friend, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) – the actual serial killer.

Rusk suggests that Richard move on to greener pastures, but all Richard can think of is to revisit his past; his estranged wife; employment councilor, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). Shortly thereafter, Rusk also pays Brenda a call – one that ends with her becoming the next victim of the Necktie Killer.

The killings in Frenzy are not only amongst the most brutal ever created for a Hitchcock film, but they tend to take on a distinct note of pandering to the times. Hitchcock ups the ante he first established in Psycho by inserting gratuitous nudity into several key sequences – titillating his audience with the prospect of exploitative erotica turned upside down; lust escalating into violent crime and death.

Although the inclusion of violent rape represents something new for a Hitchcock film, the staging of the strangulations in quick cuts is pure homage to the shower sequence from Psycho. Already in declining health, Hitchcock clearly relished the opportunity to revisit some of the familiar locations he had known as a boy. Hence, Frenzy was, in its own way, the return of Hitchcock as England’s prodigal son, come home. A financial success, Frenzy also introduced scores of younger filmgoers to Hitchcock in the movies even though it had become quite apparent to his most ardent fans that his best works were now truly behind him.


Family Plot (1976) effectively brought down the curtain on Hitchcock’s career with a preposterously lumbering bit of inane nonsense. The story concerns a fake medium, Madam Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her taxi driver boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) who cleverly scams naïve rich people out of their life savings. At present, their sitting duck is Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbit), a widower who is certain that the ghost of her dead sister has come back to haunt her.

George and Blanche accidentally cross paths with a pair of spurious diamond merchants Arthur Adamson (William Devine) and his attractive girlfriend Fran (Karen Black). The two are behind a series of VIP kidnappings in the San Francisco Bay area. When Blanche is asked by Julia to channel her nephew, whom she had given away for adoption many years earlier, this improbable greedy foursome concoct a scheme in which to lighten the dowager of her considerable bank load.

Based on Victor Canning’s novel, the plot as reconstituted by Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for the film remains inconsequential, tired and meandering. Everyone seems to be going through the motions – particularly Barbara Harris, who plays up the camp elements of the story more than the suspense, as though the entire production were a sort of Freak Friday Part Two instead of a Hitchcock thriller.

In point of fact, Hitchcock had long admired Harris as an actress. However, his usual indiscriminant zeal for strict adherence to his scripts was, on this occasion, relaxed, allowing Harris to improvise the final scene, whereupon she addresses the camera – and therefore the audience – with a wink.

Hitchcock was also rather lax about re-shooting scenes with actor Roy Thinnes, whom Hitchcock fired after his first choice for the role of Arthur Adamson - William Devanes - suddenly became available. Although Hitchcock was forced to re-shoot close-ups and medium shots already made with Thinnes in the role, for continuity sake, the long shots of Arthur walking away from the camera are not Devanes but Thinnes.

In hindsight, and with his health in steep decline, one wonders why Hitchcock chose to shoot Family Plot at all. In point of fact, he relied heavily on his second unit to lens the more strenuous action sequences. Clearly, Hitchcock was a man of means. He did not have to continue working and yet he did – mostly to the detriment of his otherwise sterling reputation within the industry. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was most readily proud of his MacGuffins - objects or devices seemingly integral to his narrative, yet otherwise inconsequential to the story once their purpose had been served. However, in his last few outings the MacGuffin which had proved so malleable and easily identified within his personal style suddenly becomes strangely absent. The proof is in his body of work. Hitchcock’s last three movies (Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot) barely resemble the rest of his canon, both from a stylistic and narrative perspective. Instead, and particularly with the advent of home video that has made entire bodies of work viewable in chronological order, these last few Hitchcock films exist today as strange anomalies apart from what was then referred to as Hitchcock’s auteur style.


In recent years Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia who sometimes costarred in his movies, has defended against the rumors that have circulated about her father: that his humor lent itself more to cruelty than in fun; that he rarely socialized with people outside of the making of his movies; that he derived a sick fascination by playing on actors phobias, and, that he firmly believed all actors were cattle. The Hitchcock family legacy in private reveals a man unlike the persona of the macabre gentleman glimpsed in his features or adroitly providing glib sarcasm on the set as introductions to his weekly television series.


No, Hitchcock in private is arguably not the Hitchcock the public knew and came to love. True enough that as a showman, Hitchcock was ever concerned with cultivating his reputation as a loveably brooding ham and even more meticulous about the films he produced than in the public’s misperceptions about who he was in the roles of man, husband and father. Yet, in the final analysis Alfred Hitchcock lives primarily in the public’s estimation through that on screen persona and with the sort of product he produced during one of the most successful and lucrative tenures in Hollywood.

That the resulting body of work should lean more toward darker tastes and themes was in servitude to giving the public what Hitchcock perceived they wanted and what he knew they had come to expect from him – rather than revealing any sort of deep inner aversion or dower glimpses into the heart of the man behind the curtain. That Hitchcock himself chose work over a quiet retirement is also admirable from the perspective that he remained an aspiring artist to the very end – even if his last few ventures were ‘less than’ what he might have provided his audiences during his golden period.

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is widely regarded, revered and respected both for his public persona and for that body of work. The two remain indivisible in the eyes of his adoring fans. However, the truth about Hitchcock is less nefarious than his plot lines: that he was ever the kindly understanding and devoted husband to Alma Reville: a tenure made more precious to Hitchcock as a man than any piece of celluloid that emerged from his ever creative closet of terror.

@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved.)