VIEW FROM THE REAR WINDOW

Fellow blogger Tristan Forward sent this amazing time-lapse conflation of all the shots in Rear Window taken from the protagonist’s rear window.  It reminds us that Hitchcock didn’t just go to great lengths to make his protagonist’s apartment an interesting space to inhabit, cinematically — he went to equally great lengths to vary and enliven the POV shots looking out from that space.

BLU-RAY

Blu-ray is to DVD what vinyl is to CD — that is, it offers an incremental increase in quality that somehow takes the viewing or listening experience into a new realm. Vinyl sounds more like live music than a CD can, Blu-ray looks more like a projected 35mm print than a DVD can.

The Blu-ray quality is more important for some films than for others — beautifully lit films with shots composed in depth, like The Searchers, take your breath away on Blu-Ray.

It makes a great difference with a film like Rear Window, much of which takes place in a single room. Hitchcock works hard, through lighting and composition, to make that room seem like an interesting place to be confined.  It feels bigger and more inviting when seen in a Blu-Ray presentation, offering the compensations Hitchcock counted on for limiting his male star’s presence to one relatively small space.

ROPE

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a film that really opens up and comes alive in the new Blu-ray edition. (It does so even more with a good print on a big screen, if you’re ever lucky enough to see it that way.)

Rope is at its most basic level a movie about a set, a magical set with walls that can be moved off screen during shooting to accommodate elaborate camera moves through its spaces, which consist of four rooms in line — a living room, a foyer, a dining room and a kitchen. The camera moves in and around all these rooms except the kitchen, which is only seem through its door.

The film is shot in a series of ten ten-minute takes — the maximum shot length possible for a film camera of the time. The camera moves almost constantly to re-frame elements of the shots for dramatic purposes, since Hitchcock chose not to use editing for this purpose. The cuts between the shots are disguised in various ways to give the impression of the film unfolding as one continuous shot.

There is canny calculation in all this.  The elegant movement of the camera through apparently constrained spaces seems magical at first — and the better the print the more magical it seems.  But gradually we come to realize the limits of the spaces, to realize that the camera is never going to to move outside them, and this creates a a creeping sense of claustrophobia.

This formal strategy mirrors the emotional claustrophobia of the drama, which centers on a domestic partnership between two gay men which is coming apart at the seams under the pressure of a neurotic power imbalance in the relationship.

The homosexual subtext is never made explicit, but we can feel it in every interaction between the two partners, and we gradually come to understand that this is going to be the primary romantic dynamic of the film — that all the other romance alluded to in the story will stay permanently off-screen.

This would have been a shocking thing to mainstream audiences of 1948 and would have induced another kind of claustrophobia, a thematic claustrophobia, beyond the claustrophobia induced by centering a movie around a romantic relationship that is unraveling before our eyes and has nowhere to go but into catastrophe.

The film seems radical even today, for its technique and its thematic daring.  By never mentioning its homosexual subtext, not possible in any case in Hollywood in 1948, it also avoids any kind of special plea for understanding, and thus any kind of patronizing of its gay characters.  They are not terribly admirable men, but they are sympathetic on many levels and, more importantly, they are simply who they are — without apology or comment.

Rope is not exactly a pleasurable piece of entertainment — it’s disturbing in many different ways — but it’s a dazzling exercise in cinematic eloquence and dramatic finesse.

Click on the images to enlarge.

ADDENDUM

Facebook friend Catherine Grant reminds me, through this very useful video essay, that not all the cuts in Rope are disguised:

Indeed, the first cut is very much undisguised and meant to startle.  I would still say that, except for that first one, the undisguised cuts are all designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, to create the sensation if not the seamless illusion that the film unfolds as one continuous shot.

THE END OF ENGLIGH

Dr. Drew Casper is the Alfred and Alma Hitchcock Professor Of American Film at the University of Southern California.  He is a published author on film.  I assume that the “Dr.” in front of his name means that he has a PhD.  Casper shows up often delivering “expert commentary” on DVDs.  I assume that he speaks English as a first language but somehow in his journey through academia he has not managed to master the rudiments of his native tongue.

His style of speaking involves a lot of rephrasing, designed, I suppose, to suggest the addition of nuance to the points he's making but adding up only to redundancy.  In his commentary on the recent DVD release of Notorious, for example, he says that Alicia “is out of control — she has lost control.”  These two phrases mean exactly the same thing — one or the other would have served perfectly well.  He refers to the famous key in the film as “a prop — an object, if you want.”  Yes, I will accept that a prop is an object, since a prop is always an object.  It's sort of like saying, “a person — a human being, if you want.”  This is a form of pretentious bloviation.

Casper misspeaks constantly in his commentary.  He says that Alex's mother “yields a lot of power” in Alex's home, when he means that she wields a lot of power.  Of a traveling shot close on Alicia and Devlin, Casper says it suggests that they are “floating on air, existing gravity.”  I'm not even sure what he actually meant to say there — “resisting gravity”?  Who knows?

Casper introduces the subject of Russian Constructivism and then goes on to refer to it more than once as Roman Contructivism, whatever that might be.  Casper also misuses language freely.  He says that German filmmakers “triumphed” the use of lighting as an expressive tool.  He doesn't seem to know or care that “triumph” is an intransitive and never a transitive verb.

The professor is promiscuously careless about details as well.  He refers to the German director “D. W. Pabst”.  He says at one point that Alex is taller than Alicia, when he's just been talking about the significance of him being shorter.  He says that in Hitchcock's films special effects are always in the service of technique, when he means always in the service of story or character.

Is there no editor or director present when Casper records his commentaries?  Doesn't Casper, or someone, listen to them after they're recorded to catch mistakes and suggest retakes?  Or is it the case that any old nonsense from the mouth of a man with a PhD is assumed to be authoritative?

Casper is not an idiot — he has many interesting things to say about the themes and strategies of Notorious — but he seems to feel no obligation whatsoever to present his analysis with even a modicum of intellectual rigor or discipline.  If Hitchcock had had the same attitude about filmmaking that Casper has about film criticism, we wouldn't be watching Hitchcock's films today.  Bloviating about them in such a scatter-brained way is a kind of insult to Hitchcock's professionalism.

Casper's poor language skills offer a terrifying insight into the modern academy, and modern academic standards in the area of film studies.  Presumably Casper doesn't fear that his students will note, much less correct, his mangling of English, though some of them would undoubtedly be capable of doing so.  They want good grades from him, after all.  Presumably, as the occupant of an endowed chair at his university, probably a tenured position, he doesn't fear the criticism of his fellow professors or supervisors, who would have a very hard time removing him from his job.  Perhaps they feel that since film is a visual medium, there's no need to speak about it in precise and correct language.

It's all very depressing.  When a professor at a major American university can get away with such shoddy speech, it's no wonder that American institutions of higher learning are turning out graduates who are semi-literate, who not only speak but think sloppily about film, among other things.

THE LODGER (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock's silent film The Lodger, from 1927, is wonderfully entertaining, alive with visual inventiveness, with the director's unbridled joy in making cinema.  It's not, however, a terribly successful thriller, and thus not a terribly successful film, since a thriller is what it sets out to be.

The problem is the presence of Ivor Novello in the title role — or perhaps the way Hitchcock uses him.  Novello was a handsome fellow with a decidedly fey quality.  Hitchcock would eventually find ways of using an actor's ambiguous sexuality to disturb an audience, keep it off balance, but he doesn't seem to be trying to do that with Novello.  He lurches back and forth between presenting Novello's lodger as an almost inhuman visual icon of menace and mystery (see above) and letting the actor present his own impersonation of a matinee idol.  Novello does his best to appear brooding and menacing from time to time but he succeeds only in suggesting a man vaguely distracted and slightly peeved about something.

There's nothing really creepy about Novello's lodger, except that he seems to inhabit a different film than the one Hitchcock is trying to make.  He comes across as conventionally, not pathologically, insecure.  The unhinged desperation we sense in Bruno from Strangers On A Train or Norman from Psycho is nowhere in evidence.  It's really impossible to take Novello's lodger seriously as a suspect in the “golden curls” murders, or as a passionate suitor of the heroine.  At the same time, he can't really secure our sympathy as that archetype familiar from so many later Hitchcock films, the innocent man wrongly accused, since we spend most of the film without any clear information about his guilt or innocence.

Still, Hitchcock constructs his movie with relentless, creative imagination as though it had a real villain or potential villain or wrongly accused villain at its center.  We can admire and enjoy its brilliance but we can't care about its story — which offers only the most perfunctory kind of  suspense, without any subliminal psychological undertow.  The film is aesthetically dazzling without being really engaging on any other level.

HITCHCOCK AND LEWTON

I've written before about the painting above by Arnold Böcklin, The Isle Of the Dead, which reportedly inspired some of the compositions in Hitchcock's Vertigo.  It was an image that was important to Val Lewton, as well.  A reproduction of it hangs on the wall of one of the interior sets in Lewton's I Walked With A Zombie, and of course Lewton made a film called Isle Of the Dead, which references the image more powerfully, in the film's setting.

Lewton and Hitchcock had crossed paths before they made any of these films.  Lewton was working as a story editor and assistant to David O. Selznick at the time Hitchcock made Rebecca for Selznick.  I think Lewton learned a lot from Hitchcock on that film — specifically how to create a mood of supernatural dread using only lighting and suggestion.

Hitchcock learned from Lewton in return.  Lewton's The 7th Victim has a very creepy scene (below) in which the heroine, home alone, is taking a shower behind a translucent curtain when suddenly the silhouette of an older woman materializes on the other side of the curtain, delivering an ominous warning.



The moment doesn't escalate into violence, as it does in Psycho, but the sense of surprise, of violation, of vulnerability is exactly the same.  The similarity of the two scenes is too great to be coincidental — and I think we can see Lewton's influence on another important Hitchcock film.  The whole tone of Vertigo — quiet, dreamlike, subtly, ambiguously ominous — is far closer to the tone of Lewton's RKO horror films than it is to Rebecca, which is essentially a very classy and delicate rendition of the spooky atmosphere found in old-fashioned Gothic fiction.

The house, with its ghost, haunts the heroine of Rebecca.  In Lewton's films, and in Vertigo, the whole world is haunted, unhinged — it has become a spooky maze with no exits.  Hitchcock's innovation was to create Lewton's deranged dream world in color, in California sunshine — which is ultimately much more unsettling.

TRUFFAUT HITCHCOCK

Among the many interesting things to be found at the If Charlie Parker
Was A Gunslinger
web log are audio files of many of the
Truffaut-Hitchcock tapes, from which Truffaut's great book of
interviews with Hitchcock was compiled.




It's fascinating, and inspiring, to hear the actual voices of the two
men talking about film with such wisdom and passion — and, in the case
of Hitchcock, often enough, sly misdirection.





You can find the tapes
here.