Monday, April 5, 2004

Why the Master of Macabre was a "cut" above the rest.

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg once cut her left pinkie finger off while chopping onions. Carefully packing the severed digit in a Tupperware bowl filled with ice, she drove herself to the emergency room where they glued the thing back on. Amazingly, her career hardly suffered. After a few months of physical therapy she was back on the road. Still, I wonder if her pinkie ever itches while she's performing.

In other news, according to the Torah, Jewish slaves could buy their own freedom. Or, if they wished, they could sell themselves to a particularly generous master for the rest of their life. In that case, they solemnized their commitment by driving an awl through the thin cartilage of their earlobe and into the wooden doorpost of their master's house. A decision like that is not to be made lightly. Then there's the matter of committing yourself to a life of slavery.

Both of these factoids bring me straight to the life of Alfred Hitchcock.

The Master of Macabre was a pretty squeamish guy. He often said that his movies are simply depictions of his own worst fears. Here are a few scenes that reveal his thoughts about body piercing:

It's a little known fact that "Dial 'M' for Murder" (1954) was originally made in 3-D. Funny thing is, almost the entire movie takes place in a one-bedroom apartment. Have you seen the "Dial M" in 3-D? I have. And I tell ya, the murder scene in which Grace Kelly reaches deep into the front row of the theater to find the scissors with which to stab her assailant is quite beautiful. Hitch had to reshoot that segment because the scissors didn't quite glint properly in the light.

In "Topaz"(1969) - a movie about peoples' lives that were destroyed by Cold War diplomacy - there is an exquisite shot of a woman cradling her disfigured husband who has been executed following a night of interrogation and torture. The scene is a grotesque parody of Michelangelo's "Pieta," and the symbolic reference is clear: The man had been "pierced for our sins" - or, more accurately, with those of the characters in the film with whom we identify.

Of course, Hitch's greatest piercing scene is the murder in the shower from "Psycho" (1960). Even the violins on the soundtrack join in on the carnage! I wonder if Nadja thought about that scene as she drove her pinkie to the hospital. People make oddball associations like that more often than we realize. I, for example, almost always think about Bill Cosby when I shave.

If you ever get to Portland, Oregon, stop by Movie Madness, a video store on Belmont Street. You'll get to see one of the actual knives used in the murder in the shower scene from "Psycho." The knife is, in fact, a wooden prop that is cut in half because it was used to give the illusion that its pointy end had been plunged into Janet Leigh's flesh. In reality, this knife couldn't pierce anything!

Also in "Psycho," Martin Balsam gets stabbed in the eye when Norman/Mother assaults him on the stairs. The shot is reminiscent of the Salvador Dali dream sequence in "Spellbound" (1945), where Gregory Peck has recurring nightmares that involve a sinister figure who cuts eyeball-embroidered curtains apart with an outsize pair of kitchen scissors.

Surely, Hitchcock had seen Luis Bu�uel/Salvador Dali's surrealist masterpiece "Un Chien Andalou" (1929), famous for its close-up view of a scalpel penetrating an eyeball. Ick!

While we're on the subject of eyeball piercing, in "The Birds" (1963) Hitchcock sent 'Tippi' Hedren up to the attic of her boyfriend's house only to have her face attacked by crazed seagulls. Hollywood legend has it that Tippi almost lost an eye in that scene when one of the trained birds panicked and went a little too far. That same movie sports a close-up of a man whose eyes have been plucked out by angry birds of some sort. Now that's what I call "fowl" play, heh heh. Heh.

In "Blackmail" (1929), a woman lets out a piercing scream. Except, as she screams, her face dissolves into a shot of a train belching out smoke. And the sound you hear isn't her screaming at all, but the sound of a train whistle.

In that same movie, there's a scene where a woman who has stabbed a man to death is carving a ham. Although she did it in self-defense (stabbed the man, that is), the woman still feels very guilty about what she did. Meanwhile, a guest at the table who has heard about the death, but does not realize that the murderer is right there with her, prattles on and on about the ghastliness of using a knife to kill. In an impressionistic turn, Hitchcock muffles the sound so that the only distinct word the audience - and our heroine - hears is "knife. knife. knife.." In her panicked state, the woman drops her own knife, which then falls clattering to the floor.

Ooh! Let's not forget Gregory Peck's repressed childhood memory in "Spellbound"! The one where his brother slid down the front stoop of his house, tripped, and impaled himself on a wrought iron fence!

Joel Gunz

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andrewlewin said...

Nice site, a lot of high quality articles here. I look forward to getting into it.

As I watched "Blackmail" a few days ago, thought I'd just provide a minor correction: the famous jump cut from a woman screaming -> a train is actually from "The 39 Steps" (1935). No train in "Blackmail" but there is a famous jump cut from the heroine, Alice, being startled a tramp on the deserted streets of London and starting to let out a scream -> the landlady of the murder victim turning away, screaming, from discovering his body.

Great moment in a fascinating movie full of such great moments.

Joel Gunz said...

Hi Andrew -
Thanks so much for dropping by the site -- and for catching that error! Will correct that when I get a chance.

Heather said...

Do you think Hitchcock chose movies to make a comment on the judicial system, much like he did to influence his audience during war time?

Heather said...

Do you think that Hitchcock often made films like "Dial M For Murder", with a wrongfully accused, to make a comment on the judicial system? Much like he did during wartime, to influence his audience.

Joel Gunz said...

Hi Heather -

Thanks for stopping by! I think, absolutely, that Hitch's films are about the failure of temporal justice (THE WRONG MAN is his manifesto on the subject), yet that there is always a higher justice (God? Hitchcock? Karma?) that works things out in the end.