Monday, August 17, 2015

Feeding Frenzy: An Evening Inside the Mind (and Belly) of Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock loved to make movies and he loved to eat—and not necessarily in that order. So it's no surprise that just about every movie he made featured food and dining. In Blackmail, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Topaz and many more films, important scenes that reveal his deeper, often unappetizingly macabre, themes take place over a meal. It's an area ripe for study, and at least one book has been written about it.

Saturday night, my dear friend Laura Locker invited me to speak at her Hitchcock-themed dinner party. Splitting my PowerPoint presentation into three sections, each one corresponding to the meal's courses, I shared a Hitchcockian outlook on the subject of food, dining and appetites in general. Here's what I had to say:

Herbed white bean bruschetta 
Caprese bruschetta
Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe
Wine: A variety of sparkling wines
Cocktail: White Lady 

 He took food very seriously:

But he didn't take himself too seriously.

At all.
In these last few slides, we see Hitch with his wife of 55 years or so, Alma Reville. She was as great a cook as you'd ever meet. I have a hunch that she kept Hitch fat and happy in order to create a bit more distance between him and the beautiful actresses he directed. Whatever the case, they had a beautiful, flourishing relationship.

Although the Hitchcocks were rich and famous, they kept a relatively modest ranch style home in Los Angeles' Bel-Air neighborhood. In the early 1960s, they remodeled their kitchen to create an open floor plan, with a bar where guests could hang out and enjoy wine while Hitch and Alma kept busy in the kitchen. While this social-cooking arrangement is common in many homes today, it was unusual back then: just another area in which the Hitchcocks were ahead of their time.

This is a wonderful scene from Psycho. Here you can see the first close-up of a flushing toilet ever to appear on the big screen. I chose this screenshot as a reminder that tonight's meal, like every meal, will end up in the same place. Hitch himself was never far from that thought.

He sometimes mused about making a movie about a meal: it would begin early in the morning with the chefs' helpers down at the wholesale market buying boxes of fresh produce and vegetables and the finest meat, then loading all of that onto delivery trucks to be shuttled to the kitchen of a five star hotel, where an army of chefs in tall paper toques would slice and dice and chop and bake and fry and flambé all of those ingredients into gastronomic masterpieces. A brigade of waiters would then file in and with great ceremony march those platters out to hungry patrons in the dining room, who would then cut and scoop and scrape all of that food into their mouths. The scene would end with a giant close-up of a sewer drain, disgorging all of their resulting shit into the river.

Hitch deeply understood that it's shit we are and it's to shit we will return, as the ending to Psycho shows:

That's not a dour, or even grotesque outlook. It's just the truth. And, in fact, it's our attempts to avoid those facts that get us into trouble. I believe that Hitch had his own holy trinity, which looked something like this:

These are three elemental facts of life, and in Hitch's world they are inextricably intertwined. In Notorious' famous kissing scene—the longest screen kiss up till that time—Hitch makes the connection between food and sex when Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant spend several minutes smooching and making out and rubbing their tummies together: and the whole time they're talking about what they should make for dinner.

Regarding sex and death, François Truffaut sometimes said of Hitch that he filmed his love scenes like murders and his murders like love scenes. A good example of that is in Dial M for Murder, when Anthony Dawson tries to strangle Grace Kelly. He throws her on the writing desk and climbs on top of her, adding a distinctly rapey aspect to the scene.

Hitchcock's greatest food film was Frenzy, from 1972. It's his second-to-last movie, and it's a perfect bookend for his career: his second film, The Lodger, from 1927 (even the numbers are reversed!), was about a Jack the Ripper-style murderer who stalked around London looking for blonde women to kill. Frenzy covers pretty much the same ground, with the added detail that the murderer strangles his women with a necktie. The film very neatly outlines Hitch's fascination with food, sex and death, as its trailer demonstrates:

We're going to talk more about Frenzy and food. But for now:

Roasted beet and tomato gazpacho
Wine: A variety of white wines

In Frenzy, Hitch treated food to grossly comical surreal effect. In this, the movie resembles another great food film, which came out the same year:

Made by the great surrealist Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is about a group of upper crusty Parisians who visit a restaurant, a cafe and people's homes in search of a meal, but each time, they're interrupted and throughout the whole movie they never do get to eat. In the case of Frenzy, the police chief is served lavish meals that are all but inedible. Here's the rub: Hitch and Buñuel were friends; Hitch even called the surrealist his favorite director of all time. Because of the similarities between these two movies I believe the two directors were passing notes to each other in the back of class that year.

Now I'd like to introduce the next course with a clip from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I think you'll agree that Barbara Bel Geddes' leg of lamb was a real knockout:

Go here and, to get to the good part, skip ahead to 4:55.

Roasted Leg of Lamb
Wine: A variety of red Bordeaux

Throughout his career, Hitch occupied the spotlight while Alma, his partner in crime, was content to remain in the background. In 1979, he squared that up when he received the AFI Life Achievement Award. During his acceptance speech, he said:
"I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen and their names are Alma Reville."
A few years ago, their daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, wrote a biography of about her mother, shedding some light on this important, but heretofore somewhat unknown woman. At the end of the book she added an appendix that reproduced several of Alma's most noteworthy guest menus. Here's one for dinner with Tippi Hedren:

Here are a couple more images that reveal Hitch's domestic side—as well as his love of imports. Hitch was a neat freak, so after Alma cooked the meal, he enjoyed washing the dishes and tidying up the kitchen.

If you're an American of a certain age (like me), you might have had a mother who was raised on canned, packaged food. But then in the late 1960s, kitchens across America rediscovered fine dining. With the help of Time-Life's "Foods of the World" cookbook series, mothers everywhere tried their hand at preparing the unusual ingredients and exotic recipes featured therein. My mother's efforts, though served with love, didn't always deliver the results promised in those cookbooks' photos. This scene from Frenzy perfectly captures those moments of awkward domestic bliss, while also serving up a delightful blend of of food, sex and death:

And this leads us right into our dessert course!

Freudian delights: 
Lady fingers and beignets arranged to look like penises
Lady fingers and custard served in an ashtray, arranged to look like cigars
Cocktail: Rusty nail

We also enjoyed conversation about many other aspects of Hitch's films, his relationship to women (I hope I dispelled a few myths) and other topics. Then we all went home satisfied, mentally nourished and ready for a long, thoughtful spell in the loo.

Laura, flanked by two guests, one of whom brought a Hitchcockian companion on his shoulder. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock Geek: The Selfie Interview

I recently sat down with myself in my living room in Northwest Portland to talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s life and films, and how he’s come to be viewed by history. I'd mixed a cavernous snifter of cognac and Drambuie—a drink that Stephen DeRosa notes was one of Hitchcock’s favorites—and offered to make one for myself. I politely declined.

A notoriously prickly interview subject, today I was feeling expansive and was completely at ease talking to myself. Also, I kept slurring my words. Here are the highlights of my fascinating conversation.

Joel Gunz: Let’s start out with a few of the most common questions that people ask when they find out that I’m a Hitchcock geek. Going back to the beginning, how did I become a Hitchcock Geek?

Alfred Hitchcock Geek: 
It all started when I was about 12. My stepdad told me about this director who could manipulate his audience's emotions and create suspense just by the way he edited his films. That captured my imagination, and right around that time, an interview with Hitch from 1964 aired on PBS, where he  explained his techniques. I recorded that show on a cassette tape and listened to it over and over; it was several months before I actually saw my first Hitchcock film, so I was actually a geek before I'd even seen any of his movies. Then, a few years later, I watched Vertigo on the big screen, and that sealed my doom.

JG: What is my favorite Hitchcock movie?

AHG: Short answer: Vertigo, the greatest film ever made.

Longish answer: all of them. One of the pleasures of watching Hitchcock is that his 54 films can be experienced as one long movie, stretching over half a century from the silent era to the American “New Wave” of the 60s and 70s. The themes and subjects of his films are all there in his early work, and he brought them into deeper focus as the years went by. Over and over again, characters that he introduced in one film would be resurrected later on, giving the viewer a sensation of the uncanny: Hitch doesn't merely repeat himself, he reincarnates his characters from one movie to the next. For that reason, even his lesser-known movies are “essential” to a full Hitchcock experience.

JG: What’s up with his obsession with blondes?

AHG: [I pause before responding, swirling my enormous goblet thoughtfully.] Hitch wasn’t obsessed with blonde women per se; but like many gentlemen, he simply preferred them. He famously said, “Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” But there’s more to the story than that.

After all, some of his leading ladies were brunettes [Teresa Wright, Shadow of a Doubt, Karen Black, Family Plot; Audrey Hepburn, No Bail for the Judge (unfinished)]. One of his favorite leading ladies was light-auburn-haired Ingrid Bergman [Notorious, et al.]. Tallulah Bankhead's hair was light brown in Lifeboat.  Hell, he even featured a redhead once [Shirley Maclaine, The Trouble with Harry]. So it wasn't blondes he was after, but, rather a certain type of woman, which he described to François Truffaut:
Hitch: “You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing room type, the real ladies, who become whores in the bedroom.  Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face, and Bridgette Bardot isn’t very subtle, either.... Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense.” 
Truffaut: “What intrigues you is the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.” 
Hitch: “Definitely, I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the Northern Germans and the Scandanavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian and the French women.
Given his preference for a Northern European mystique, Hitch naturally ended up populating his films with more blondes.

JG: I just quoted that interview from memory. I'm impressed.

AHG: Thanks. [I suppress a smug smile by taking a long pull from my drink.]

JG: Why do I call him Hitch?

AHG: He asked all of his friends to call him Hitch. And, studying him for most of my life, I feel a certain kinship with him. You know how it is. You take up a hobby. And the more you get to know it, the more fascinating it becomes. Hitch became quite fascinating to me. In fact, there are times when I feel he almost belongs to me.

JG: Was Hitch as abusive of the women in his films as the media has sometimes made him out to be?

AHG: [My voice rises in exasperation.] Look, Hitch was an Artist, with a capital A. As such, he was uncompromising in his efforts to bring his personal vision to life. He could be manipulative—even mean—if that was what it took to elicit a desired performance from one of his actors. But he could also be very indulgent. The point is, to do great things, you sometimes have to be willing to make choices that other people would shy away from, okay? You have to be ruthless in your pursuit of your art. Is that cruelty or courage? Maybe both. Hitch probably saw himself a one of the select few who could play by his own rules. The high stakes world of big-budget moviemaking is, at its core, an art. And, as Rope’s Rupert Cadell might say, “The privilege of directing superior films is reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.” And those who fall under the director’s sway? “Inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway.”

Of course, I’m joking. But still…. [I pause to gulp my cocktail.] [Nearly shouting.] Was he a megalomaniac if, after all is said and done, he created the greatest body of cinematic work the world has yet seen?

JG: Determined to get drunk, aren’t you?

AHG: I am drunk.
Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million (1966). Says I: "Audrey backed out of No Bail for the Judge while it was in preproduction. Hitch never forgave her, and she never gave up trying to make a Hitchcock film."

JG: But look at the way women are treated in his films. Doesn’t that show he was a misogynist?

AHG: No! He subscribed to the time-honored theory that the best way to create sympathy for his female leads was to put them in danger. So he hung them from cliffs, sent them to sleep with the enemy and pelted them with birds. But bloody hell! Their heroism won out. Every. Goddamn. Time. His female characters were fascinating, not because they’re in “celluloid” danger, but because they were strong. Heroic. His male leads tended to be far weaker and morally squishy. Hitch’s movies are the opposite of misogynistic.They’re actually some of the best examples of feminist moviemaking to come out of the classic era, a time period in which female leads were reduced to either two-dimensional sexpots or demonic femme fatales.

Jesus Christ, man! Even his personal life shows that he had deep respect for women. He was devoted to his wife, Alma, and valued her opinion over all others—even his own. His inner circle—the Hitchcock brain trust—included Alma, Peggy Roberston, Joan Harrison and his own daughter, Pat, and he trusted them implicitly. When it came to his views and relationships with women, Hitchcock was way ahead of his time. And I can quote me on that. [I stab at the air with my cigar.] [Btw, I'm smoking a cigar.]

JG: What other misconceptions would I like to correct?

AHG: [Counting on my fingers] One. Hitch didn’t hate all eggs, he just hated the fried ones. on the other hand, he loved a well-executed soufflé and was a big fan of Alma’s Quiche Lorraine.

Two. He didn’t hate actors. Sure, he made jokes about treating them like cattle, but he counted many actors—men and women—among his closest friends: Carole Lombard, Ingrid, Grace, Cary Grant, Robert Cummings, to name a few.

Three. He claimed he didn’t drive. But, in fact, he did. My gosh, do I have to prove it? Here’s his driver’s license. Wanna check his thumb print? Are ya satisfied? And whether you're satisfied or not, you can just beat it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bird Attacks Terrorize Indiana

Indiana Governor Mike Pence

INDIANAPOLIS—Police in Indianapolis, Indiana have stepped up efforts to ward off a series of bird attacks in the vicinity of its state capitol buildings. In what appears to be a coordinated assault, crows, finches and seagulls have flocked together to  harass members of the Indiana state legislature and its governor, Mike Pence.

Though no injuries have yet been reported, politicians have taken steps to remain under cover. In a telephone conference call with reporters originating from the panic room in the official mansion, Pence, noticeably shaken, stated, "We are doing everything in our power restore order and freedom in our city."

The attacks began shortly after Pence signed into law the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Since then, reports have been filed of birds swooping down, pecking, pooping on and otherwise terrorizing elected state officials. When asked if there was any connection between the two events, Pence replied, "I.... I'm the cause of all this. I'm evil. Eeeeeeevil!"

Bird attacks have also been reported in Arkansas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: “The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock.”

The cityscape for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, under construction. (Click to enlarge.)

Before Alfred Hitchcock was a director, he was a set designer in Britain’s silent film industry. While yet an underling, he directed from behind, building sets that could only be filmed his way. “I was quite dogmatic,” he said. “I would build a set and say to the director, ‘here’s where it’s shot from.’” Even as an apprentice, he knew too much.

Unlike live theater, which can take place on a street corner or an empty stage, cinema relies heavily on its locations to carry the storytelling weight. That’s the lesson Hitch learned while running around with Weimar directors like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. From the furtive environs of a gas station john to the stone-faced mugs of Mt. Rushmore, Hitch’s settings defined his characters. They were the story. He worked his sets as hard as he did any of his human talent.

In his book, “The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock,”[1] art historian Steven Jacobs looks intently at Hitch’s preoccupation with man-made spaces. Focusing on the point where cinema and architecture intersect, he takes readers on a film-by-film architectural tour—complete with floor plans copied from both surviving documents (sketchy) and a painstaking study of the films themselves (laborious).

Jacobs’ wealth of knowledge about architecture delivers numerous insights into a relatively unstudied aspect of Hitchcock’s—or anyone’s—films. Then he interprets what he sees. While most writers offer only the what, Jacobs offers the illuminating why.

His bias is endearing. The book “starts from the absurd premise that all the important buildings in [Hitchcock’s] films are designed by one and the same architect whose oeuvre includes a modernist villa in South Dakota, a London apartment, a suburban house in a Californian small town.” It’s a novel concept, not one that would likely come from the often-hermetic mind of a film studies professor.[2]

Filling an entire soundstage, this model of Manderley was one of the largest miniatures ever built up till that time. Later, Hitch's skyline for Rope consisted of a 12,000 square cyclorama (the largest ever built, so he claimed), and the courtyard in Rear Window remains one of the largest indoor sets ever built. (Click to enlarge.) 

Manderley, Frankenstein-on-Cornwall
Jacobs devotes about 20 pages to Manderley, the colossal estate that looms so heavily in Rebecca. One of those rambling mansions that was enlarged over the centuries, its labyrinthine floor plan, forbidden rooms and chambers built to accommodate the complicated servants’ hierarchy accommodated a social life that ranged from solitary gloom to ballroom shenanigans. It suited the film’s Gothic plot perfectly. The sets' ample floor space also gave Hitch the opportunity to mess around with prolonged tracking shots.

Jacobs notes that, while parts of the house seem to date to late medieval times, other features, such as the bay windows, would have been built in the Victorian era. Still other parts are Georgian. It was an architectural Frankenstein (another character who mourned, and then avenged, his continued existence).

It’s hard to pinpoint when Manderley came to dominate the lives of its masters and servants, yet that narrative is embedded in its endless walls and vast ceilings. They’re a visual correlative to Maxim De Winter’s history—recent and ancient—which, like Laurence Olivier’s eyebrows, never stays put. In Rebecca, the past keeps insinuating itself into the present. You can never go back to Manderley; it keeps following you. No wonder Maxim was always so touchy.

Hitch’s collaboration with art directors
Ironically, there was no real-life Manderley. Just a soundstage-sized miniature, along with a few other models and partial walls all knit together with editing and special effects. Though it was based on photos and sketches made during Hitch’s scouting trips to the English countryside, Jacobs reminds us that it was designed and built by the great art director Lyle Wheeler (who, incidentally, also designed the plantation house "Tara" in Gone with the Wind a year earlier).

In fact, Jacobs includes a list of art directors,[3] set decorators and others at the beginning of each chapter, giving them each a bit of overdue credit—and making it that much easier for students and scholars to pick up where he left off. (Wheeler’s work included Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, as  well as A Portrait of Jennie and Laura. Apparently, he was a go-to art director for atmospheric gothic tales.[4]) 

These unsung heroes contributed more than you’d think. Until the 1960s, studios kept all these professionals on payroll, which gace each studio its own look and style. Thus, while much has been written about the “Hitchcock look,” Jacobs sees it from the opposite end: “The look of a Universal Hitchcock film, such as Shadow of a Doubt, differs considerably from an RKO Hitchcock film, such as Suspicion, made two years later. Unmistakably, this difference is due to the influence of… each studio’s supervising art director.” As a result, you can geek out on the style of one art director just as you can one actor, director, writer or composer. Who knows? If this Hitchcock Geek thing doesn’t pan out for me, I might become an Edward Haworth Geek.

Hitch was.

(Not really, but it’s a nice segue.)


Haworth, an art director, recalled that on the set of Strangers on a Train, if Hitch needed time to think a scene through while shooting, “He would say, ‘everybody get lost for a few minutes,’ and [he’d] chase everybody body out of the room—but never the art director.’” Then the two might consider the best way to approach the scene.

Hitchcock himself acknowledged the role of such unsung heroes. “When I’m sitting there with a writer and we’re designing a scene, I’ll say, ‘I wonder what we can do with that. What sort of setting should we write this for?’ We bring in the production designer while the script is being written.” Such collaboration contributed to the richness and re-watchability of Hitchcock’s films. Really, all members of the team are—or should be—storytellers: the writer tells the story on paper; the art director and others tell the story using the tools they work with. That’s the way Hitch saw it.

Hitch was such a good self-promoter that it’s easy to forget what his day-to-day was like. He respected those members of the team who brought more to the table than a good day’s work, and they got to have a hand in helping shape some of cinema’s finest moments.[5]

For a treat, and to illustrate what we're talking about below, watch this stunning Rear Window Timelapse from Jeff Desom.

Rear Window, Modern Panopticon
A tsunami of paper has been devoted to endlessly recycled studies of Rear Window as a metaphor for: the cinema, the sexually arrested male gaze, the director-as-voyeur, the isolation of modern urban life, you name it. Finally, Jacobs offer a fresh perspective—one that could only be supplied by someone whose life extends beyond film school. He starts out by observing (as have others) that all those apartments that L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) peeks in on make up, collectively, a specific form of urban theater: the 18th century panopticon. From the darkened center of this semicircular building, someone—a prison warden, let’s say— could look in on all the open rooms surrounding it. He writes:
“Whereas the theater [(and cinema, I’d add)] directs the gaze of many onlookers to the single focal point of the stage, the panopticon inverts this logic.... The space of Rear Window adopts the imaginary form of a cone whose apex is constituted by Jeffries’ living room.”

"General Idea of a Penitentiary Panopticon," Jeremy Bentham, 1791. (Click to enlarge.)

Jacobs adds the connection, also made previously by Walter Metz,[6] that Michel Foucault seized upon the idea of the panopticon as: 
“an allegory of the process of normalization and discipline of modernity,... [for] ‘every cage [in the panopticon] is a small theater in which the actor is alone, perfectly individualized and permanently visible.’... Foucault noted that, consequently, the visual logic of the spectacle is turned upside down. Instead of exposing some individual bodies to a community [as in traditional theater], the panoptic courtyard of Rear Window provides the lonely surveyor [Jeffries, in this case, but anyone, really] with an overview of many separated individuals.” 
As such, Jefferies assumes the position of almost god-like omniscience, which he clearly relishes and uses to his advantage to try to ensnare the killer Thorwald.

But here's where it gets interesting. Jacobs goes on to observe that Jefferies' courtyard is actually a neighborhood of other rear windows. He writes: "Rear Window clearly deals with the contrast between formal and representative facade and informal backside, which is one of the essential characteristics of modernity." 

With its messy yards and ad hoc living arrangements, this space presumably contrasts with the view from its front windows, which are probably much cleaner and more formal. More public. (It's hard to imagine that couple sleeping on a street-side fire escape.) In the semi-privacy of these rear windows, however, the inhabitants take more casual liberties with their shades open than they probably would in their front rooms. Writes Jacobs, “It is a delicate social balance based on the collective use of spaces and on implicit rules of conduct between neighbors.” Thus, Miss Torso changes her clothes in full view of her neighbors, but turns her back so that no one sees the front of her bra come off. Her behavior is the perfect bookend to Hitch’s observation regarding voyeurism: “Everybody is doing it. It's a known fact, providing you don't make it too vulgar, keeping it to a point of curiosity.”

Jacobs sees a thriving neighborhood of folks who’ve moved to the city precisely because of its “relative isolation and lack of interference in the everyday life of others.” The film isn’t merely a “commentary on the alienation of modern life” as John Fawell puts it.[7] This imperfect, sloppy neighborhood has a heart. It is very much a community. Jacobs concludes, “It announces a postmodern urban space, the boundaries of which are no longer defined by architectural structures but by the screen and the lens.” He nails what I like so much about urban living. This movie also foreshadows life in a digitally-mediated world.  

You can see why I like the guy so much. He does for Hitchcock and architecture what I’ve been trying to do for Hitchcock and art.

It’s hard to imagine that insights like this could be supplied by a film studies academic. (For  one thing, the writing would be more abstruse. Jacobs keeps it simple.) This topic demands expertise that’s usually outside of their professional scope. Jacobs’ resume is a bit different. He’s an art historian first, specializing in “photographic and cinematic representations of architecture, cities and landscapes.” As such, he was ready-made to write this book.

Obviously, there’s a place for theoretical film scholarship. But movies are made by a diverse range of people, from crafters and tradespeople to philosophers and artists—not to mention legions of expert “story consultants.” It only stands to reason that they can’t really be explained without critical contributions from a diversity of voices. Unfortunately, it's the film studies professors' work that dominates this field, and for obvious reasons: as a whole, they're writing more; I also think that publishers see them as a safe bet. We need to hear more from the geeks.

At 342 pages, Jacobs’ book only scratches the surface of possible examinations of Hitchcock’s architecture—not to mention that of other directors. In breaking open a new topic, it paves the way for others to pitch in with their own discoveries. I hope to see more books just like it. Do your part to make that happen. Buy it.  

[1] nai010 publishers; 2nd Revised edition; April 30, 2014

[2] Originally, the art director was simply in charge of designing and building the sets and left the set “the moment it’s painted” (Hitchcock). But the job has evolved and is often synonymous with that of the production designer, who’s charged with overseeing the overall look of the film, including setting, set design and set decoration.

[3] Some of the most original—and useful—ideas about Hitchcock’s films have come from people for whom film study is a secondary interest: Tania Modleski (“The Women Who Knew Too Much”) is an English professor with an emphasis on gender studies; Camille Paglia (“The Birds”) is a generalist cultural critic. Many fantastic books have come from individuals who work outside of academia—fans and geeks.

[4] Now to mention the first 60 episodes of Perry Mason and about 350 additional movies! Wheeler is a forgotten name by most, but among those in the know, he's called the Dean of Art Directors. 

[5] They also got called back to work with him again. In the 50s and 60s, Hitch’s team of regulars variously included Robert Boyle (art director and production designer), Bernard Herrmann (music), Robert Burks (cameraman), George Tomasini (editor), Edith Head (costumes), Peggy Robertson (script supervisor) and others. Their fingerprints are all over some of Hitchcock’s—and Hollywood’s—greatest movies.

[6] Published in “After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation and Intertextuality,” 2006.

[7] Published in "Hitchcock's Rear Window," 2000

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: "The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo"

Screening Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for first-time viewers makes me edgy. The stakes are personal: if my guests like the movie, I feel flattered, but if they don’t, I’m miffed. I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way. In fact, its intrinsic merits aside, I believe this is why so much has been written about the film: Vertigo admirers often feel entitled—if not obligated—to put their two cents in.

That’s the feeling I got reading the eclectic collection of essays in “The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage and Commemoration,” edited by Douglas A. Cunningham.

People might enjoy To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest for the Technicolor thrills, but when it comes Madeleine’s beautiful, phony trances at Podesta Baldocchi and points beyond, this time it’s personal, maybe even religious. In the book, Miguel Pendás recalls the time he spent as a tour guide driving Vertigo-philes around on their “pilgrimage to all the film’s locations” in the Bay area. Meanwhile, Cunningham writes about those sojourners’ rites as categorically different from the “casual ogling of curious film buffs; after all, the cinephilic pilgrimage [(there's that word again!)] is born of love (for the diegetic world of the film),” along with “loss (the apparent absence of that diegetic world within the realm of the real)” and a desire to briefly inhabit that world. 1  

As with Jerusalem and Mecca (and Dyersville, Iowa), a cottage industry has sprung up in the Bay area, geared to help the faithful get the most the most from their visit. It’s astonishing how close many of Hitchcock’s most famous movie locales are to each other: Shadow of a Doubt’s Santa Rosa and The Birds’ Bodega Bay are just an hour or so away, while places all over the city itself provided the setting for several other Hitchcock films. Contributors Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, who also wrote a great companion to this book, note that there are frequent and “ongoing events celebrating Hitchcock’s filmmaking in San Francisco.”

But if those other locations are holy sites, San Francisco of Vertigo is the Dome of the Rock. Want to see for yourself? You can even stay at Hotel Vertigo, formerly the movie’s Empire Hotel, and push your way into Judy’s old room—if you’ve got some nerve. For my money, I’d rather blow a paycheck on a room at the Fairmont, Hitch’s roadhouse of choice, where Scottie took Judy dancing; be sure to get a room with a view of Madeleine’s Brocklebank apartments across the street. Cunningham devotes five full chapters to the consideration of what it means to take the Vertigo city tour.

Hitch's Missionary Position
The book is at its most thought provoking when it turns its attention to the film’s specific locales. Riffing on a fascinating history of the California Mission Revival of the late 19th century, Martin Kevorkian and Stanley Orr quote Phoebe S. Kropp’s observation that the movement romanticized the less savory aspects of California’s Hispanic origins, smoothing out the facts of “conquest, genocide and war as well as race, class and religious conflict.” The writers draw a direct line from such revisionism to Hollywood’s incompetent Indians and pious Franciscan priests, such as those portrayed in Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro movies.

Leave it to Hitch to put the wrinkles back in the Revivalists’ story. Say the writers: “Through parodic allusion and quotation, Hitchcock exposes the… California Mission Revival and its complicity with American empire building.” Key scenes take place at Mission Dolores—California's oldest surviving mission—and Mission San Juan Bautista, whose tower was lost in a fire, but which Hitch restored using trick photography. The Mephistophelian industrialist Gavin Elster stands in for the dark side of American Manifest Destiny, while the “ghost” of the scorned Carlotta Valdez represents the Hispanics and Native Americans who footed the bill for it. The authors quote Robert J. Corber, who notes, “In repeating Carlotta’s story to Scottie and Midge, [bookseller Pop Liebel] indicates the importance of recovering the history of Hispanics in the American West for constructing a more accurate narrative of the nation’s past.”

Hitch’s own attitude on the topic manifests itself in the movie’s first frames. The authors note that the opening chase is pursued across clay-tiled mission-style rooftops, and that the script called for an “Italian type, with rough features.” In other words, the movie opens on the image of an immigrant, minority “other” running for his life. From the start, Scottie’s (and, therefore, our) place in and grasp on history are shown to be literally flimsy.

In a field where so many ideas get regurgitated ad nauseum, it’s refreshing to read original writing on Hitchcockian topics! This chapter alone makes the book worth the purchase price, highlighting Vertigo as a key antecedent to the intimations of Native American genocidal guilt that seep through in The Shining and Poltergeist and of the profligacy of American imperialism hinted at in Eyes Wide Shut.

From Vertigo's opening, Hitch disrupts his audience's expectations: the opening title sequence starts out in black and white—a motif that's also played out in scenes inside staircases and the bell tower. 

A Dark VistaVision 
Hitchcock dedicated prodigious thought to every aspect of his films’ production. He even thought long and hard about his film stock choices and how they might relate to the themes his stories explored. For instance, when called upon to shoot a film in 3-D—Dial M for Murderhe chose to adapt a stageplay, using that faddish technology to privilege the audience to join the actors onstage. Psycho, a film about the use (and misuse) of eyes, was shot with a 50 mm lens on 35 mm film stock—all the better to implicate the audience in that story’s voyeurism by replicating the natural field of human vision. Vertigo, however, was shot in VistaVision. How does that relate to the story?

Contributor Ana Salzburg offers a few interesting ideas. In the 1950s, studios experimented with a variety of big screen formats, such as Cinemascope and Cinerama. While they emphasized horizontal width, Paramount’s VistaVision allowed for a taller field of view as well. Further, shooting (not just projecting) in VistaVision allowed for greater depth of field—an important attribute, I’d add, in a film whose special effects were designed to bring the dizzying sensation of acrophobia to the screen.

Salzburg meditates on how Hitch may have used the unique attributes of VistaVision as a storytelling device, suggesting that he exploited the technology’s capability to express vertiginousness. While at Mission Delores, Scottie is framed in a low angle medium shot, with the church tower looming overhead, “expressing kindred verticality between Scottie and the mission”—a shot made all the more powerful (if not also possible) by VistaVision. (Click images to enlarge.)

In one of the most sublime and haunting scenes in the film, Scottie and Madeleine are dwarfed by the monumental sequoias at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. “Majestic in their extreme verticality, massive in their breadth, the redwood trees seem to encompass coordinates parallel to those of the VistaVision screen itself.”

The scene at Fort Point combines a full view of the bridge, the bay and Madeleine’s haunted, diminished figure. Likely, such framing couldn’t have been accomplished without VistaVision. This scene is one of the most iconic in all cinema, and the grandeur afforded by VistaVision helped make it so.

Stacks of articles have been written about Vertigo, along with several books, leading with Dan Auiler’s “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic.” At 334 pages and containing the contributions of 17 authors, “The San Francisco of Hitchcock’s Vertigo” takes its place among them. It offers a sweeping, yet idiosyncratic (in the best sense of the term) view of one of cinema’s most treasured jewels, in one of the world’s most-loved cities. Having helped preserve its memory, some of these writers, like Scottie, might feel responsible for it now. Whatever the case, this book is clearly a personal labor on the part of its contributors and its editor—an apt response to one of Hitch’s most personal works. Only a film as beguiling and beautiful as Vertigo could inspire such a project.

While Cunningham makes a good point, I don't think other film fans should be so quickly dismissed. What about those who fly all the way to Iowa to see the “Ghost Players” emerge onto its Field of Dreams for one more pickup game? Something special is going on there, too. Definitely, more could be written about “cinetourism.” As Phoebe S. Kropp wrote elsewhere: "Why do city and state landmark commissions, California and industry historical societies, and community booster organizations overlook, or worse—dismiss—the importance of Vertigo as an artifact of culture and history?" The question could be asked of cinetourism in general. Why aren't more communities cashing in on it?