Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

‘Girl’ talk

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a hardcore movie buff getting much out of The Girl, the new HBO drama about the disturbing mid-1960s relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. “Disturbing” may be too mild a word: Hitchcock, coming off the phenomenal success of Psycho and his hit television show, plucked Hedren from semi-obscurity (she’d been a successful model) and apparently came to see her as a puppet to be used as he pleased. Her resistance to his increasingly abusive sexual fixation led him to cripple her budding career, which should have soared after her starring roles in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Just how far she would have gone is debatable — among Hitchcock’s leading ladies, Hedren was no match for Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, or Ingrid Bergman — but there’s no question she deserved better than she got.

The script draws from Donald Spoto’s book Spellbound by Beauty and, judging from some of the details, Me and Hitch, Evan Hunter’s amusing account of what it was like to work with Hitchcock 0n the two Hedren films. (Hunter took rueful credit for the idea of making The Birds a screwball romantic comedy that abruptly morphed into a horror film.) Spoto first delved into the director’s creepy behavior in his earlier Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, and the revelation crystalized much that had been bothersome about the treatment of women in his films — a nasty streak partly concealed by the sexual mores of the era, but made clear in the rape-as-therapy plotline of Marnie and the misogynistic humor in Frenzy. Hitchcock was an innovative virtuoso of film technique and his gallows wit remains bracing to this day, but there were some pretty dark alleys in the back of his mind, and Tippi Hedren had to make her way through the worst of them.

Film buffs already know most of the details, and The Girl dutifully ticks them off, but for anyone not immersed in cinema history the film will come off as little more than an extended PSA on the evils of sexual harassment in the workplace. During this period Hitchcock was at the peak of his career, completely at home in the endless technical details of making big-ticket movies, but The Girl gives no sense of him as a master of a hugely difficult craft. Toby Jones gives an utterly uncanny impersonation of Hitchcock’s inimitable voice and delivery, but he captures none of the maestro’s drollery and outward charm. With his bulging forehead and fixed stare, Jones looks like he just chewed his way out of John Hurt’s chest. By playing Hitchcock as deeply, obviously weird right from the start, The Girl loses the shock of seeing a man who personified dry British wit turning into a coarse, perverted bully. And contrary to what the closing note would have us believe, Marnie is not “hailed as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece” by anyone other than the most hero-worshipping auteurist. If anything, it’s marked down as the film that showed the old man going off the rails. Whether you think he got back on track depends on your view of the last four films: Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot.     

As Tippi Hedren, Sienna Miller does solid work in an underwritten role — paradoxically, it takes real talent to play a believable mediocrity, and Miller gives Hedren plenty of emotional shading beneath the icy blondness. As Hitchcock’s reserved but not entirely submissive wife Alma, Imelda Staunton makes the most of her few minutes of screen time — it’s obvious she’s seen this grubby embarrassment on the horizon for a long time. But screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and director Julian Jerrold leave them adrift. The casting couch was nothing new in Hollywood, and in the early Sixties unwanted sexual attention was usually considered the woman’s problem — if it was even seen as a problem to begin with. A typical episode of Mad Men gives a better evocation of the time and place. Instead, Jerrold gives us clever-clever visual quotes from Psycho and Vertigo, which serve as unfortunate reminders that as bad as he could be in private, Alfred Hitchcock was still ten times the filmmaker anyone involved with The Girl can hope to be.

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Andrew Sarris

Way back in the Pliocene — or was it the Holocene? — when I rode my faithful mammoth Woolly to the news stand every Friday morning for the latest edition of the Village Voice, I skipped past the Andrew Sarris film column as diligently as Beatles fans cued their needles after George Harrison’s track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and for pretty much the same reasons. Droning performance, slumber-inducing voice, off-putting religious veneration — I dig Hitchcock and Sturges, but critic puh-lease! — made for some tedious column inches. Not that J. Hoberman was much better, stylistically speaking, but his prospecting through the swampier recesses of art-house cinema yielded the occasional nugget of interest.

Along with Sarris’ clunky style there was always that odd defensiveness, the sense that Sarris saw himself as Thomas More resisting “the fashionable backlash” against some movie or other. Maybe he was afraid Pauline Kael would sneak into the office and yank away his chair while he sat musing on the glories of Marnie or Hail the Conquering Hero. Whatever the reason, there’s no disputing the fact that until David Edelstein wandered through the Voice door in the early Eighties, the magazine’s film section was nothing much. One immediately turned to the music and concert reviews, or to James Wolcott, and after him, Stanley Crouch (fleetingly) and Adolph Reed (even more fleetingly) for something sparky to read. If things were really slow, one might visit the resident coelecanth, Nat Hentoff, for those fleeting moments when he could still write something interesting.   

Back then, true-blue film buffs tended to group themselves around Sarris the arch-auterist and Pauline Kael the gut-reactionist. Kael was suspicious of schools and systems of analysis; Sarris hardly ventured beyond them. Both critics were formidably knowledgeable and aggressively opinionated, but Kael’s responses could be unpredictable and exciting, whereas Sarris seemed to evaluate movies by running down his auteur theory checklist and announcing “genius” when the right number of boxes had been ticked off. When his tastes coincided with mine, his observations never deepened my appreciation of the film; when his tastes clashed with mine, his arguments never prompted a reconsideration. Oddly enough, though I’m not much of a sports follower, I always found him most engaging when he wrote about sports.

Though he was a seminal figure in the development of American film criticism, Sarris faded more quickly than his colleagues. When he lost his perch at the Village Voice, he had to settle for playing second banana to Rex Reed at The New York Observer, a fate no self-respecting critic should have had to endure. (When career hack Jeff Lyons ended up as Michael Medved’s butt-boy, it seemed only fitting.) But his passing (like the news that Hentoff is now ranting for the neocons and Obama-haters at WingNutDaily) mainly stirs rueful thoughts about the decline of the Voice and the kind of magazine market that once supported eccentrics and cultists like Sarris. Where movie criticism is concerned, the fizz has moved to the Internet, and I would guess the spirit is closer to Kael’s than the man who, in his flightier moments, imagined himself her nemesis.          

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Planetary romance

To say I’m in geek heaven right now would be the most ridiculous kind of understatement. I’m delighted and then some. The reason is that for the first time in decades, I am listening to Bernard Herrmann’s early ’70s recording of Holst’s The Planets with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and finding it every bit as great as I remembered.

For a lot of people, The Planets is one of moldiest figs in the orchestral barrel, but this particular recording is one of the very first classical performances that grabbed my imagination and refused to let go. It’s certainly one of the first that I bought after getting a portable cassette player for my twelfth birthday. The very first cassette I bought with my birthday swag was the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed by Strauss’ Don Quixote. Having played them both to death, I went looking through the Sam Goody cassette section (which back then was still dwarfed by the vinyl LP stocks) and spotted the gray cover art of an LP that had been played by a seventh-grade  music teacher, who I knew then and now only as Mr. Paterno.

Mr. Paterno was probably getting starvation wages from the Saddle Brook school district at that time, but he took his job seriously enough to play an astonishing variety of music. I was being raised in a household where Percy Faith, Mantovani, and Sergio Mendes were the only sounds heard, aside from the occasional dash of Aaron Copland. So it was quite a thing for me to hear Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and “Mars, The Bringer of War” side by side as Mr. Paterno sought to illustrate some point about musical composition. Which is how I came to buy The Planets, which knocked my socks off as soon as I got it home. So let me say once again, thank you Mr. Paterno, wherever you are.

The CD recording comes from ReDiscovery, a boutique labor of love that issues CDR editions of long unavailable recordings of classical music. The CD sounds just fine for what it is, and it’s good enough to make me wish some larger entity would reissue the music in a remastered CD or SACD format. But no company has seen fit to do that, much to my annoyance over the years. It was particularly frustrating because virtually all of Herrmann’s superb film music has been reissued on CD, along with much of his own orchestral work, while my beloved recording of The Planets remained obscure.

The likeliest reason is that Herrmann’s recording was pretty roundly trashed by critics when it first appeared. The biggest complaint was that Herrmann slowed the tempos, particularly on “Mars,” which other conductors usually take at breakneck speed.  After years of relying on memory (and wondering if I hadn’t simply imprinted on the first version I’d heard, the way just-hatched ducklings take the first thing they see to be their mother), I can now confirm that Herrmann’s judgment was impeccable. No other version of The Planets comes close to matching the emotional power of Herrmann’s rendition. This is the recording to have if you want The Planets, as far as I’m concerned.

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Friday finds


Thanks to Mystery Man on Film, I learned about these mosaics depicting scenes from Alfred Hitchcock movies that line the entrance corridors of the Leytonstone tube station in the east of London. Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, and the mosaics were begun just before the turn of the century to mark the 100th anniversary of Alfie’s birth.

Here’s what happens when POD book covers go drastically wrong.

Face to face with the Nihilistic Kid, recommended to those wonder what Haikasoru is all about.

It’s time to leave Monk Eadwine alone!

Here’s a collection of scholarly essays to put at the top of your J.R.R. Tolkien reading stack. And here’s probably your only chance to see Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast compared with The Silmarillion.

I remember sitting down and thinking that I was about 30 percent too famous. I needed to be able to walk down the street.”

How are writers coping with the recession? Well, there’s the dog-walking poet, the poet who ruthlessly schedules himself to balance poetry and day-work, and the novelist who became a professional sports blogger.

How the collapse of a tax shelter proved a benefit to Leonard Cohen fans. And if you don’t know why that’s a big deal, this here site will get you up to speed.

Another professional slimeball writes a way-too-late confession in order to score a fat payday. There was never any doubt about the political intent of terror alerts, but I guess it’s nice to have it confirmed by one of the players.

Come get your free Melvin Van Peebles download.

Can books make you, or ruin you?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian done as a Handel oratorio? Is the world ready for such a thing?

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Oscar and Saul


Still haven’t seen the Best Picture nominees, so my level of Oscar-interest is just about zero. Sorry about that.  If this roundup from Dennis doesn’t get you in the mood, try this dazzling Web site devoted to the work of Saul Bass, whose ingeniously designed title sequences for (among others) Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm and Casino are significant contributions to each film’s impact.

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