Hitchcock postsThursday October 20, 2011
Movie Review: Marnie (1964)
WARNING: SPOILERS, MAMA. MAMA, SPOILERS
Tippi Hedren had just come off “The Birds,” Sean Connery had just come off the first two Bond films, and Alfred Hitchock had just come off the most successful string of movies in his illustrious career: “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.”
So I guess they were due.
Why doesn’t it work? Why is “Marnie” laughable and cringeworthy? And why have the readers of IMDb.com given this very, very bad movie a 7.2 rating?
Don’t they understand that the film is almost anti-Hitchcockian?
Most Hitchcock thrillers are about uncovering your own problem for reasons of survival. “Marnie” is about uncovering someone else’s problem for reasons of love.
The threat in the best Hitchcock movies is external: birds or hotel managers or international spies or our own damned voyeuristic curiosity as we spy on our neighbors. Here the threat is internal: the repressed memories of Marnie Edgar (Hedren).
Hitchcock’s most memorable protagonists are innocent men, or not-so-innocent men, trapped in something they don’t understand, who spend the movie running and punching their way out—not only to set themselves free but to see just what trapped them in the first place. Mark Rutland (Connery) isn’t trapped in anything. He has more knowledge than anyone. He’s not within it but outside it. And what he’s trying to see, into the mind of Marnie, isn’t exactly cinematic.
Do his motivations change? I’m curious. Marnie uses her looks and secretarial skills to get jobs at companies, which she then robs. Then she dyes her hair, goes to a new town, and starts all over again. But when she shows up at Rutland’s publishing house, Mark recognizes her from her previous gig (where he was a client), and hires her anyway.
What does he want at this point? To trap her? To sleep with her?
During a Saturday work sesssion, Marnie is frightened, almost made catatonic, by a thunderstorm, and Mark comforts her, then kisses her. Do his motivations change here? Does he care for her now that he’s seen how vulnerable she is? How soft her lips are?
Eventually he spills the beans. He knows who she is and what she is. And guess what? He wants to marry her! Marnie’s reaction to the first revelation is to act like a trapped animal. Her reaction to the marriage proposal is to act like a trapped animal. She almost grrrs. But she’s got no claws.
What’s making her act like this? Why is she stealing compulsively? Why doesn’t she want Mark to touch her? Why does she wig out during thunderstorms and whenever she sees the color red?
Complex questions with the same easy answer: repressed memory.
I wasn’t a fan of repressed memory stories when they turned up in later episodes of “M*A*S*H.” in the 1970s. The world and human beings are complex; but somehow if you just unlock what’s locked up inside our minds we'll be well again. It’s all too logical. It reduces human nature to a mathematical equation. You just need to know the numbers to the combination to set yourself free.
Marnie’s repressed memory happened on the seedy docks of Baltimore when she was five years old. Her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham), whom we’ve met in an early scene, and who warns her grown-up daughter about men, was once, of course, a prostitute. She used to rouse little Marnie from their shared bed whenever the “men in white suits” (sailors) came calling. But one sailor, played by Bruce Dern, goes out into the hallway to comfort Marnie during a thunderstorm. (That’s why she’s scared of thunderstorms.) Then he begins molesting her. (That’s why she’s frigid.) The mother sees what he’s doing, fights him, but breaks her leg in the process. (That’s why she limps.) It’s up to little Marnie to grab a fire poker and bash the dude’s head in. (That’s why she’s scared of blood-red.) See? It all fits together. All because of one bad night long, long ago, which she then represeed. But with Mark’s help, and with a lot of overacting and baby girl voices, Marnie finally remembers it all, and reconciles with her mother, and Marnie and Mark leave to assume normal, rich lives in Philadelphia.
Awful. Remember that five-minute bit at the end of “Psycho” where the psychiatrist goes on and on bout what’s wrong with Norman Bates? Like that, but for an entire movie.
Hedren isn’t used well here, either—she’s best playing flirty and self-satisfied rather than trapped animal—while a subplot with Mark’s deceased wife’s younger sister, Lil (a gorgeous Diane Baker), goes nowhere.
But because Hitchock’s name is at the helm, the film is being “rediscovered” by modern, Hitchcock-loving cineastes who are finding all sorts of reasons to like it.
Final reason they shouldn’t: Reconciles with the mother? Hitchcock?
One of the better shots in the film: Marnie (Tippi Hedren) waits in the ladies room to rob the Rutland Publishing House in Alfred Hitchcock's “Marnie” (1964)
Searching for Birds in Bodega, Calif.
If it's been a quiet week on ErikLundegaard.com it's because Patricia and I drove from Seattle to Bodega, Calif., for our friend Ward's 50th birthday. Ward actually lives in Seattle but his friends, with Patricia at the forefront, told him he had to do something special for his 50th; he couldn't just have a party. Initial discussions, I found out this past weekend, actually centered on Lebanon, but others reined in that thought and offered the Oregon coast. Bodega Bay was the compromise between the Oregon coast and Lebanon. As it always is.
My reaction upon hearing the party's location was the film nerd's reaction: You mean the place where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds”? I suggested all blondes attending wear their hair in a chignon.
Tippi Hedren demonstrating the playful insouciance, and the Hitchockian chignon, that made her so memorable in “The Birds.”
We actually stayed a few miles south of Bodega Bay, at Dillon Beach, renting several houses with spectacular views of the ocean. Saturday morning, after the initial, intense warm-up dinner, with too many courses and too much wine, Ward convinced the entire crew to attend a charity pancake breakfast, then a mid-afternoon wine-tasting, but I begged off, not hungry, a bit hungover, and a whole lot curious about Bodega. I drove into town searching for ... I don't know what. That diner. That schoolhouse. Tippi Hedren.
This and that looked familar but not familiar enough, so I pulled over to the side of the road and read the Bodega Bay (pop 1423) section of Lonely Planet's Coastal California book. Apparently the place is “the first pearl in a string of sleepy fishing towns” and “the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's terrying 1963 avian horror fllck, The Birds” (I like the helpful addition of “avian” there, not to mention “terrifying”), but as to what is where, the book wasn't much help. So I stopped in at the Terrapin Creek Cafe for a quick lunch and peppered the waitress with my “Birds” questions. She suggested the Visitor Center back on California 1, which runs through town, and which I'd passed on the way in. There, as soon as I mentioned “The Birds,” the woman behind the counter took out a single-sheet black-and-white map and a yellow highlighter, and in a tone somewhere between Selma Diamond and comatose, laid out the particulars:
- The Tides Wharf restaurant where everyone gathered during the attack
- The gas station that goes up in flames
- The house across the bay on Gaffney Point that never existed
- The Potter schoolhouse five miles south on California 1 in the town of Bodega; and
- The country store across the street that has the most extensive “Birds” collection anywhere in the world.
“I get the feeling you've done this before,” I said. This brought a smile. “Only about eight thousand times a year,” she replied.
So I filled up my car at the gas station that blew up in “The Birds,” then drove across California 1 to the Tides Wharf Restaurant, where Tippi Hedren had watched in horror as the gas station blew up in “The Birds.” But the perspective still seemed off. The gas station was across California 1? On a hill? The Tides Wharf included a gift shop that barely mentioned “The Birds,” just—after a search—a few postcards, some lame T-shirts, a big picture book, and a smaller, almost mimeographed pamphlet called “The Birds by Hitchcock: Sonoma Coast Guide: Expanded Second Edition.” This last, I figured, you could only get there, so I got it there, then peppered the girls behind the counter with questions. The second was a fount of information. The Tides Wharf where we were? Not the original. The original burned down in 1965, along with the gas station, which, yes, had been on this side of California 1. But the schoolhouse, the Potter Schoolhouse, still existed. Five miles south on “The 1.”
And that's where I went. Here's the famous scene:
The Potter Schoolhouse attack in Alfred Hitchcock's “The Birds.”
In the town of Bodega, I initially mistook St. Theresa's Church, made famous by Ansel Adams, for the Potter Schoolhouse, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock. But then I turned into a small road and there it was. It's privately owned now, and there's no bench in the backyard, let alone a playground or jungle gym; but I still got out and took a picture:
The Potter Schoolhouse today.
Then to the country store. As quiet as the rest of the town is about “The Birds,” the country store is just that noisy. It's like a museum but with all of the pieces for sale.
Apparently Tippi Hedren also sells wine now. Apparently she was in Bodega Bay the weekend before, at the Tides Wharf, signing autographs. I bought my share of swag—including a “What Would Hitchcock Do?” T-shirt—and acted the tourist. I just needed the Bermuda shorts and the camera hanging around my neck to complete the picture.
The next day, on the way out of town, Patricia and I returned to the schoolhouse to complete the picture:
We'll photoshop the birds in later.
Review: “The Birds” (1963)
This fall I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and for the final session, on “The Birds,” the professor asked a relatively simple question—a question that most of the characters in the movie ask: Why do the birds attack? Then, as he was wont to do, he began to answer his own question.
He talked up the scene in the diner where the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, quickly descends from questions to accusations to Salem Mass.-like pronouncements of witchery. “They said when you got here the whole thing started,” she says to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil! E-vil!”
But what if, the teacher posited, it wasn’t Melanie who was responsible? What if it was someone else? Then he diverged into a 10-minute synopsis of the 1950s sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” and the dark forces we can unknowingly unleash, then referred back to Melanie’s elder-generation doppelganger, Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), mother of Melanie’s love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has a tendency to look severely at any of her son’s girlfriends because she’s afraid of winding up alone. And what if, the teacher continued, the dark forces within Lydia, somehow...? He moved his hands forward, as if to propel his theory forward, but that’s about as far as he got. He admitted his ideas were inchoate.
Others piped in with their own theories—mostly dealing with a kind of cosmic comeuppance. Oh, we treat the birds so poorly. Oh, we put them in cages, and eat them, and use them in our own silly little games of romance. So they finally got fed up. For a moment, my classmates and I reminded me of all of the characters at the diner trying to fathom the unfathomable. We even had a doomsayer who proclaimed, tongue mostly in cheek, “It’s the end of the world!”
I added my own two cents, of course. I said I thought all of our theories were ultimately reductive. I said the brilliance of “The Birds” is that it gives us no explanation for why the birds attack. And since we’re not told why, we’re forced to wonder: Why not? Which is the scariest thought of all.
A cleverer man simply would’ve put a finger to his lips, said “Ssshhh,” and looked warily around.
That’s a key to “The Birds,” isn’t it? The silences. Not just the absence of a soundtrack, which amplifies the sound of the birds, their awful clucking and cooing, but the absence of talk, of human talk, in the face of an attack. Lydia sees Dan Fawcett with his eyes gouged out and speech is strangled from her. Melanie sees the line of fire roaring toward the gas pumps and speech is strangled from her. When the birds attack the house no one says shit, they just try to melt into the walls; and after the attacks, when the birds are still there, hanging out on wires or jungle gyms or trees or garage roofs—wherever they want. really—that’s when we really don’t say shit. Because we don’t want to upset the birds. Because it’s their world now. We survive at their sufferance.
Speech is strangled from us.
In structure, “The Birds” reminds me a bit of “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s previous film. It starts out about one thing but becomes about something else. Something seemingly harmless (a hotel manager, birds) hijacks the story.
Thank God. I love Tippi Hedren here—done up like so many of Hitchcock’s ice-cool blondes, but so much more playful, ready to act on the world rather than wait for the world to act on her—but it’s a slow slog at the beginning. Maybe because we’re waiting for the title characters to take over.
They’re there from the start. On a San Francisco street, Melanie, about to enter a bird shop (which Sir Alfred is about to walk out of), and just whistled at by some boys (she’s a good-looking bird, after all), notices, for a second, the odd activity of birds in the sky. Then she enters a place where birds are caged and humans are not and begins a romance, in classic, opposites-attract Hollywood fashion, with criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner.
The first half hour of the film is her attempt to deliver on a frivolous practical joke. To do this she tracks down Mitch’s home address, then his Bodega Bay address, then buys two lovebirds and drives the hour north of San Francisco, where, among other machinations, she orders up an outboard motorboat, pilots it across Bodega Bay to the Brenner dock, steals inside with the caged lovebirds and a note, makes a getaway by boat, is followed by Mitch, who waits for her on the dock on the other side with a smile in his eyes and a witticism about to burble from his lips when ... bam! A seagull, smacks into Melanie’s forehead, drawing blood. Whatever witticisms he and she were about to engage in are gone.
It turns out Melanie is the second woman that Mitch’s charms have lured to town. The first is the school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleschette), who began a relationship with Mitch years earlier but couldn’t get past first base with the mother. Yet she stayed. To be near Mitch. Kinda creepy.
Now I’m not positing this as a reason for the bird attacks, but it is fascinating how most of the characters in the film seem to be frittering away their lives: Annie here, Melanie there. Mitch defends a man who shot his wife in the head six times because she changed the channel on the TV, and everyone jokes less about the kill than the overkill: “I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don't you think?” An impartial observer might think, from this sample, that human beings don’t deserve dominion over the earth.
That bonk-bonk on the head occurs half an hour into the movie. As the romance heats up, and we learn more about Melanie (she’s a socialite who went all Anita Ekberg in a fountain in Rome but is trying to repair her life), we get some excellent foreshadowing—call it horror foreplay—from Sir Alfred:
- Annie sees a flock of birds fly by and asks, rhetorically, “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”
- The chickens aren’t eating the feed. That’s never happened.
- As Melanie and Mitch argue their way out of a good evening, we hear, in the background, much cluck-clucking. It’s not until Melanie departs in her that we see the culprits: dozens of birds on a telephone wire.
- That same evening, as Melanie and Annie drink brandy and make nice, a bird launches a kamikaze attack on Annie’s door.
Then it all comes fast and furious. The birds attack the children at a party, they fly down the chimney at the Brenner household, they kill Dan Fawcett and gouge out his eyes. Mrs. Brenner, shaken by the incident, worries about her daughter, Cathy (little Veronica Cartwright), at school, which is why Melanie heads over there, and why she’s waiting on the bench behind the jungle gym having a quiet smoke.
This is the “Psycho” shower scene all over again. Entire chapters have been written— deservedly—and here’s my poor addition: While Melanie looks off to the side, and while the children in the schoolhouse sing an Americanized version of a Scottish folk song (“Ristle-tee, rostle-tee/ Now, now, now”), one crow lands on the jungle gym behind her. While she lights a cigarette, here come two more, then four more. Then she gets lost in thought. It doesn’t hurt that Hedren is exquisite to look at. But after about 15 seconds she spots a crow flying in the sky, and, alarmed, follows its flight over, down, and onto the jungle gym ... which is now filled with hundreds of crows. It’s not only a shock to her, who didn’t know about the first crows, it’s a shock to us, who did, but who last saw only seven crows on the bars. Interestingly, her stunned, reaction shot is filmed against one of those fake backdrops Hitchcock liked to employ, even at this late date, because he didn’t like location shooting. Does he use it here on purpose? To add to the unreality of the situation?
More and more of the movie is silent now. Post-gas station attack, Mitch and Melanie find the diner group huddled in a corner, silent, afraid to disturb the birds, with amateur ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (a brilliant Ethel Griffies) so shamed she can’t even turn her face to the camera. On the way to Annie’s, Mitch, for the first time, shushes Melanie as they walk past the schoolhouse. Don’t disturb the birds. When they find Annie dead, his reaction is Cro-Magninian: he picks up a rock. But Melanie, quietly, almost silently, convinces him to put it down. Don’t disturb the birds. This sets us up for the final assault on the house.
Has any filmmaker ended movies more brilliantly than Hitchcock? Here, it’s not just that a stray bird pecks at Mitch as he prepares for evacuation, letting him know that the pecking order, the literal pecking order, has changed. It’s not just that the four humans—Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy—are crammed into Melanie’s sports car like birds in a cage, while the birds fly and land free. It’s not just that Cathy—idiotically!—brings along her caged lovebirds, letting us know that the whole bloody mess isn’t about the caged lovebirds, since the free birds obviously don’t care about the caged lovebirds.
No, what’s brilliant about the ending of “The Birds” is this: Once Mitch opens the door and sees all the birds, we hope for one thing: that our main characters will get away. And they do. We see them drive off. The car gets smaller and smaller in the distance, and the bird’s noise grows louder and louder, and the movie ends without a “The End,” without credits, without anything, really; and it slowly dawns on us that this ending, which is the ending we wanted, is the most horrifying ending of all. We want Mitch and Melanie to be safe because they matter to us; they’re our main characters, after all. But the reason they get away is because they don’t matter at all. The camera stays behind. With the birds. The viewpoint has shifted and the main characters in the drama have changed. We think that final scene is about Mitch and Melanie getting away but it’s really about the birds driving the humans out. And from above, a light, almost like God’s light, shines down, signaling a brand new day.
Review: “Psycho” (1960)
WARNING: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S SPOILERS
When I was a budding and hugely unpublished short story writer in the early 1990s I thought it would be cool to write a story that begins in one direction—plot, themes, foreshadowing—and then something happens, boom, and it goes off in a completely different direction. I anticipated the same main character (someone like me, of course), but the story around this character changes, since that’s how life often feels. We think we’re going in one direction and then we’re not. We think we’re controlling the story but we’re not.
I didn’t know this had already been done, and better, 30 years earlier.
That’s the startling thing about “Psycho” when you first watch it. We all know Norman Bates and the famous shower scene, so we’re anticipating Norman Bates and the famous shower scene. But Norman (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t show up until a half-hour in, the shower scene until 45 minutes in. Up to that point the movie is Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh). She’s the main character, with her own plot, her own issues, her own themes. She’s involved with a man who can’t marry her because of the debt he carries; then another man flaps a seemingly phallic $40,000 in her face and she takes off with it. That’s the tension for the first half of the film. Will she get away with the money? Will she go back? Can she go back? Hey, this motel manager is self-deprecating and funny. Not bad-looking, either. Will she wind up with him? Oh, maybe she’ll learn from him. About the traps we spring on ourselves. Maybe she’ll redeem herself. Maybe this shower will cleanse her of her sins.
Hey, what’s that shadow in the background?
Wurt! Wurt! Wurt!
That’s the true horror of the movie, isn’t it? When Norman dumps her body in the trunk of her car and dumps the car in the bog out back, he’s not only burying her, he’s burying her story. Everything she worried about for the first half of the movie, and that we worried about with her, is now inconsequential. Now the story is his. Just as he subsumed Mother’s personality after he killed her, he subsumed Marion’s story after he killed her. There’s something primal in this. Kill someone and everything theirs becomes yours.
Do we want him to take over the movie? That’s a tough one. I went in knowing about Norman and the shower scene, so I knew Marion’s afternoon liaison and sudden theft and getaway and worry and buying a new-used car from good ol’ California Charlie were all irrelevant to the true story, so this shadow-play bored me a little. Even with Hitchcock, that glorious perv, giving us all those shots of Janet Leigh and her progressively dark underwear, I was bored. Stealing forty thousand? That’s it? It’s so small. Her plan seems perfectly addled, too. She right near the Mexican border but flees to mid-California. Does she think they’ll never be able to find her there? That the world will swallow her up? Even when the world literally swallows her up, they still find her.
But I don’t know if I’m bored with this storyline because of its smallness or because I know it’s a red herring. I’m curious what people who saw the film in 1960 thought.
(Bowsley Crowther, for one, reviewing for The New York Times in June 1960, seemed unimpressed with Marion’s storyline: “With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel,” he writes. “Well, perhaps it doesn't get her there too swiftly. That's another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail.”)
Throughout, Hitchcock plays with his familiar themes: the struggle between innocence and guilt; the power of watching and the powerlessness of being watched. The first shot is a voyeur’s delight: a pan of Phoenix, Arizona, on December 11, 2:43 PM. The camera closes in on a building, then a window, then it takes us past the drawn shades and lets us watch a good-looking, post-coital couple in conversation. He’s stripped to the waist, she’s in her underwear. We’re peeping toms, basically. Moviegoers are always peeping toms, of course, it’s just that Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it—usually as a prelude to presenting a less palatable peeping tom on screen.
Here, for example, is our view of Marion as she’s deciding whether or not to steal the $40,000:
Now here’s Norman Bates’ view, through the Bates Motel peephole, as Marion decides whether or not to return the $40,000:
The only difference is we have a better view. Hitchcock even makes Norman look like our cameraman:
We all want to be innocent (rather than guilty) and powerful (rather than powerless) but are the two incompatible? Accruing power tends to cost innocence. Look at Marion. She grabs $40,000 but can’t stand the loss of innocence. She wears guilt poorly.
To be powerful is to be guilty ... and to yearn for innocence. That can be considered the theme of some of the greatest American movies ever made—“Citizen Kane,” The Godfather trilogy, “Lord of the Rings”—and it’s a theme here, with Norman, on a smaller scale, and with a psychotic twist.
Let’s start with the sequence where Marion checks in at the Bates Motel. At this point, Norman seems like a self-deprecating, semi-charming kind of guy, and, as she signs in with a fake name (“Marie Samuels”), he asks for her home address. “Oh, just your town will do,” he says. She hesitates; then, with inspiration from the newspaper sticking out of her purse, stammers, “Los Angeles.” For a moment his hand hesitates before the keys to the various cabins. Has he detected the lie, the guilt, in her voice? Is he deciding that L.A. is far enough away? Either way, he hands her the keys to cabin one, the cabin where he can watch her, the cabin where everything bad happens.
Later they have dinner, milk and sandwiches, during which she mistakenly suggests an institution for Mother, whom she’d heard berating Norman, and he kind of flips:
Have you ever seen one of the inside of those places? The laughing and the tears? And the cruel eyes studying you? My mother? There? But she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
At the end of the conversation, deciding she has to get out of the trap she put herself in, and forgetting her subterfuge, Marion tells Norman she’ll be driving back to Phoenix in the morning. She tells him her name is Crane. Then she leaves. We stay. Is this the first change in point-of-view in the film? I believe so. The movie is already becoming Norman’s. He goes over to the desk, looks at the register and sees “Marie Samuels, Los Angeles.” His look is almost triumphant. Then he walks back into the dark and shadows, among his stuffed birds, and lingers. After a beat, he sets the painting aside to peep into her cabin and see her undressing.
There’s a perverse morality and twisted logic as all of this plays out:
- She is guilty so she must be watched.
- He has watched so he must be guilty.
- Mother must take away (kill) the source of her son’s guilt.
- The son must take away (remove) the evidence of Mother’s guilt.
Norman wants the power of watching but can’t take the accompanying guilt. He wants both power and innocence. You could say that’s the source of his psychosis.
Even at the end of the movie, captured at last, sitting alone in a police holding cell—and thus guilty and powerless—he figures out a way to remain innocent and powerful.
By this point the mother (“Norma”) portion of his personality has completely trumped the real (“Norman”) part of his personality, and, as he sits alone in the holding cell, it’s her thoughts, her creepy voice, buzzing in his head. She defends giving up Norman to the police because she feels innocent of the crimes. Which she is. That’s the brilliance of it. He did everything. He used “her” to commit the crimes to remain innocent of the crimes (“She’s ill,” he tells Marion), and, once caught, he uses “her” to take refuge from the crimes (“He was always bad,” she thinks), since it was always his hand sticking in the blade and disposing of the bodies. He adopts whatever personality is necessary to remain innocent. One suspects that if they eventually charged Mother with the crimes, he would revert back to Norman.
That’s how he remains innocent. But how does he remain powerful? Isn’t he trapped in a place where their cruel eyes can watch him again? He even suspects this. “They’re probably watching me,” Mother’s voice says, as Norman’s eyes glance almost casually around. He’s a peeper and we always suspect others of our crimes.
But are the police watching him? We don’t know. We assume not. But we do know that someone’s watching him. We are. We’ve been watching him the whole time. We have the power of the watcher and the innocence of someone who’s not in control (beyond the ticket purchase) of what they’re watching. Hitchcock has already played with our innocence by associating it with a psychopath. In the final shot he takes away our power.
How can the watched regain control from the watcher? By watching back. Which is what Norman does. With the last line of the movie he turns his gaze on us:
They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know. They’ll say, “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.”
Oh man, does it work. By watching us, by letting us know that he knows we’re watching him, Norman regains power and we lose it. It’s frightening. It’s even more frightening because Hitchcock, for a fraction of a second, superimposes Mother’s death-skull over Norman’s smiling face, and he seems a kind of grim reaper, our grim reaper, which is further augmented by the final shot of Marion’s car being dragged from the bog—suggesting not only all of Norman’s crimes but all of our final resting places. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and mud to mud.
“Psycho” has its weak points. John Gavin is leaden, the front story so-so, the shot of Norman in drag almost Jim Carreyishly amusing. Plus the psychiatric explanation is overlong and overdone.
But the rest? This is a movie that changed cinema and our culture. Monsters aren’t the Universal variety—giant or disfigured or hairy—they’re the universal variety. They look like the boy next door. They look like anybody and their victims could be anyone: her, him, me, you. And it can come at any moment. When you’re walking up the stairs. When you’re taking a shower. You’re never safe. That’s the horror. They can get you any time. If this story has gained in power in the 50 years since Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano worked on it, if we’re still trapped in some sense by Norman Bates’ primal gaze, it may be because we haven’t yet worked up the courage to look back.
Quote of the Day
“He mentioned another company that was making very low-budget movies, which were not terribly good, and which were doing very well at the box office. And his feeling was, ‘How would it be if somebody good did one of these low-budget movies?’”
—Screenwriter Joe Stefano on Alfred Hitchcock's pre-production thoughts for “Psycho”
Review: “Vertigo” (1958)
WARNING WARNING: SPOILERS SPOILERS
Okay, girls, who would you rather go out with: John “Scottie” Ferguson or Norman Bates?
I know. A no-brainer. Kindly, lovable Jimmy Stewart, Carol Burnett’s favorite actor, versus one of the creepiest serial killers ever to interrupt a girl’s shower. Of course Scottie kills the girl, too. Twice. And at least Norman lets her wear her hair the way she wants.
“Vertigo” did poorly with audiences and critics when the movie opened in 1958, for which Sir Alfred Hitchcock harrumphed and blamed his long-in-the-tooth star. (He never worked with Stewart again.) Others have blamed the ending, or near end, when Hitchcock lets us in on the secret before Scottie figures it out himself. Hitch sacrificed mystery for suspense, as he often did.
Both explanations, to me, are off. The problem, if it is a problem, is with Scottie. Here’s what he does:
- Causes the death of a fellow cop
- Pretends he’s still on the police force to get information during a private investigation
- Has an affair with the woman he’s tailing
- Has an affair with the wife of an old friend (same woman)
- Forces one woman to dress up like another woman (same woman)
- Causes her death
People go to the movies expecting someone like Jimmy Stewart to play the hero. It’s a mystery and he’s a detective and he’ll figure it out and get the girl (half his age). But in “Vertigo” he actually plays a terrifying figure. Scottie Ferguson isn’t “Jimmy Stewart” here; he’s halfway to Norman Bates.
The movie begins with a horizontal split screen—foreshadowing all of the movie’s doppelgangers—which crystallizes into the close-up of the bar of a metal ladder. A crook, as lithe as a young Bob Fosse, is being chased over rooftops by an elderly cop in uniform and plainclothes detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. The crook jumps rooftop to rooftop and the cop follows. Scottie attempts the jump, misses, slides down the slanted roof and clings to the gutter. He looks down and panics. We get that famous track-in, zoom-out shot to represent vertigo, and Scottie cries out in fear. The cop doubles back to help but Scottie’s helpless. He can’t help himself, and he can’t help the cop when the cop slips and falls past Scottie and into the alley below.
At this point, Scottie is still clinging to the gutter five stories above an alleyway, but Hitchcock has done what he wants here and moves the story along. In the very next shot, we see Scottie, hanging out, leisurely, in the sunny loft of his friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Gedes), attempting to balance a cane on the palm of his hand. Doesn’t he feel guilty about the dead cop? Later in the scene, we get this exchange:
Midge: It wasn’t your fault
Scottie: I know. That’s what everybody tells me.
An argument can be made that everything else results from Scottie’s repressed guilt feelings about the cop. He’s nonchalant here but for the rest of the movie he’ll be haunted by the dead.
I should say he seems nonchalant. In actuality he’s completely unmanned in the loft. He has no job. He needs a cane. He wears a corset. He’s spending time with a woman who is busy designing women’s underwear so he’s caught up in that frilly world—sexless and neutered. This woman, to whom he was once engaged, mothers him. She calls him “Johnny,” the diminutive, and shoots him a dirty look when he says, “Oh Midge, don’t be so mothering.” But she’s like the worst of mothers: she wants him weak. When he talks up his baby-steps approach to overcoming his vertigo, and demonstrates, she demands he go higher, with a stepladder, and when he fails and falls into her arms, she’s there to catch him and coo his name.
Afterwards he meets an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a bland man who married into his position as shipbuilding magnate, and who offers Scottie a job tailing his wife Madeleine. Not because he thinks she’s fooling around but because he’s worried about her. Supernatural elements are brought up, and Scottie, the modern man, scoffs, but Gavin is serious and insistent. His wife thinks she’s been taken over by the spirit of a dead woman.
It’s a job anyway. It’s a purpose. So for the next 10 minutes of screentime—an eternity—we see Scottie tailing Madeleine (Kim Novak): into an alleyway (where she buys flowers); into a church graveyard (where she visits the headstone of Carlotta Valdes:1831–1857); into a gallery (where she genuflects before a portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair, Scottie notices, is done up the way Madeleine does hers). Not a word is spoken. For 10 minutes, we only hear Bernard Herrmann’s eerie soundtrack music. It’s like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” and we find ourselves, as in that book, pulled into this hazy, silent dreamworld where dead girls possess live ones. We almost begin to believe it. Does Scottie? He follows Madeleine to the McKittrick Hotel but suddenly, poof, she’s gone, and the hotel clerk insists she was never there. Like a ghost.
The next day Madeleine tries to make herself a ghost by jumping into San Francisco Bay, but Scottie jumps in after her, pulls her out and takes her home. Not only does he take her home—rather than, say, Gavin’s home or office—he takes her wet clothes off. He leaves her naked in his bed. All of which goes unsaid but is alluded to in that stifled 1950s fashion. “When you, um,” she says, with a look toward the bedroom. “There was something in my hair?” The next day she mentions the whole thing must’ve been embarrassing for him. “No, I enjoyed it,” he responds, before tamping down his enthusiasm. “Uh, talking to you.”
We understand. Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to undress Kim Novak? But in Scottie’s mind he’s not doing anything particularly creepy. He’s the hero. That awful nightmare of clinging to a rain gutter and causing the death of a fellow cop? That’s over. He’s strong again. Madeleine plays on this need. When he tells her his name, she responds, “Good strong name.” When she’s piecing together what happened, and says, “I fell into the bay and you fished me out,” his response, “That’s right,” is flushed with pride. He needs her to fall into the bay—so he can save her—so he can forget the first two minutes of the movie. Here’s a question. Since it’s all a ruse, including, possibly, her fainting spell, was she awake the whole time he was undressing her? He’s taking advantage of her helplessness under the guise of heroism and she’s being taken advantage of under the guise of helplessness. No one is what they seem, but at least Madeleine/Judy knows she’s playing a role.
By the time she leads him to San Juan Batista, they’ve begun a romance. “No one possesses you,” he says, trying to possess her. “You’re safe with me.” But she breaks away and runs up the stairs of the tower. He tries to follow, but, ah, there’s the vertigo again. He drops to his knees. He can’t make it to the top of the tower. Yes, it’s a sexual metaphor. Then there’s a scream and he sees her body drop past the window and crumpled on a rooftop below. The woman who was making him forget the dead cop is now like the dead cop.
Books have probably been written about Scottie’s reaction shot here. At first he looks sad. But when nuns arrive to check out the body, he suddenly seems trapped, and guilty, and he bites his hand and skulks away. This is necessary for the plot—if he checked out the body, he’d see it wasn’t his Madeleine—but forget that for a second. Why should Scottie feel guilty? Truly guilty? Because he hadn’t protected her? Because the arrival of the nuns remind him that he hadn’t been such a nice Catholic boy? He’d mixed business with pleasure. He took off her clothes and kissed her but he couldn’t ascend the tower. He couldn’t be a man so now she’s dead. It’s a wonderful, oil-and-water amalgamation of Catholic guilt and impotent guilt. Is the crime lusting in his heart or not lusting well enough with his body?
Catholic guilt or impotent guilt? Or both?
After an inquest that’s so brutal it’s humorous (Coroner: “We are not here to pass judgment on Mr. Ferguson’s lack of initiative; he did nothing, and the law has little to say on the subject of things left undone”), Scottie winds up in a sanitarium, watched over by Midge, whose interest in him increased as his interest in Madeleine increased. In their opening scene, Midge couldn’t be bothered to go to dinner. But once he’s on the case, once he’s virile again, she can’t abide it and does her own detective work, mocking his. She finds the painting of Carlotta, and, in surely one of the creepier moments in movies. repaints it with her own face. In the sanitarium, she pleads with him as he pleaded with Madeleine: “Johnny, please try. You’re not lost.” But then she adds her own touch: “Mother’s here.” Ick. The role she rejected in the beginning is the role she adopts. She’s part of the reason he’s halfway to Norman Bates.
A second later she’s gone from the movie. The last time we see her, she’s walking down a gray hallway in a gray suit. Contrast this with Madeleine, whom we first see in a startling green dress, who drives a green car, and who, as Judy, is first seen in a green sweater and illuminated, by the neon sign outside her apartment, in green—like a precursor to some alien chick in “Star Trek.” When Scottie and Madeleine visit the giant redwoods, Scottie tells her the Latin name: “Sequoia sempervirens,” he says. “Always green. Everliving.” Is that her? Even when Madeleine goes gray, she stands out. The gray suit is fitted, perfect, and her blonde hair is fitted and perfect. Midge, whose name is the name of an annoying insect, blends into the walls as she leaves. It’s as if she left the movie before she left it. She’s another kind of ghost—the one Scottie can’t see.
Sequoia sempervirens? Or the first Orion slave girl?
Confession: I was once obsessed with a girl in the 1980s and after it ended I saw her doppelganger everywhere. A couple of times a week I’d see a tall, athletic girl with long brown hair, and think, Is that her? Is that her? That’s Scottie after the sanitarium. His case was to follow a woman obsessed with a dead girl and now he’s the one obsessed with the dead girl. Suddenly, too, San Francisco is full of women with gray suits and upswept blonde hair. Those are his triggers. At first, when he runs into Judy, he doesn’t even register her, since she’s brown-haired now, wearing it down, and wearing a sloppy green blouse. Her personality is brassily American rather than vaguely, fussily British. But it’s the same girl.
Hitchcock lets us in on this fact early—too early for some—but I think he made the right move. Without it, her actions would seem incomprehensible and his actions would seem crazier than they do. Plus it shifts the point of the view from his to hers. We worry about her now, this accessory to murder, because we worry what he’s going to do when he finds out. He’s still slightly bats: disconnected, given to rages. He’s not satisfied with her as Judy so he takes her to a department store to buy gray suits and shoes. He looks at her hair and demands she dye it blonde. “It can’t matter to you!” he says. Each step brings him closer to the truth. “When will he realize?” we wonder. We don’t want him to. We’re rooting for her now. The hero is the monster.
Hitchcock once said, in a conversation with Francois Truffaut in the 1960s, that he sees this dress-up game as a kind of reverse stripping. “Cinematically,” he says, “all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.” But Hitchcock must have been aware of other echoes. Kim Novak herself supposedly had trouble with the gray suit but he won her over. He convinced her. Wear it, Kim. Wear it. He got her to dress up like other actresses, now dead to him, such as Madeleine Carroll and Grace Kelly, just as he would with Eva Marie Saint and Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren. Yeah, that’s the suit. Yeah, pin up your hair like that. Which raises the question: How much of Hitchcock is Scottie channeling?
Dress-up equals control, and control equals power, and sex is in there somewhere. Once Scottie figures out Judy is Madeleine, he takes her back to San Juan Batista and up the stairs of the tower. His rant against her, as he’s shaking her, is a poem to perverted jealousy:
You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over, didn’t he? He made you over like I made you over. Only better! Not only the clothes and the hair but the looks and the manner and the words! ... And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil!
Two years later, Hitchcock will forego the woman altogether and have the man play dress-up himself.
Though “Vertigo” did poorly with both critics and audiences in 1957, it’s since been embraced. Hugely. In 2002, readers of “Positif” listed it the fourth greatest film ever made, while the critics of “Positif” placed it higher: no. 2. It also placed second in Total Film’s “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” in 2005.
The second-greatest movie ever made? I appreciate “Vertigo,” I love analyzing it, but I get little joy from it, just as I get little joy from most Hitchcock. (“The 39 Steps” is an exception.)
Yes, there’s the plausibility angle, which Hitchcock always dismissed because his films were invariably implausible. OK, so Gavin Elster wants to kill his wife so he creates a suicidal doppelganger (Judy), a reliable witness (Scottie), and the most elaborate backstory in the history of crime. I mean, couldn’t Madeleine simply be suicidal? Why bring poor Carlotta into this? Plus, to make it work, Gavin has to rely on four increasingly implausible things happening:
- Scottie’s vertigo has to prevent him from ascending the tower. (Most plausible: It’s why he was chosen.)
- Scottie has to see the body fall past the window. (Less plausible: It requires a scream and a quick turn of the head. Plus his vertigo has to freeze him at a point where he can see out a window.)
- Scottie can’t check out the body once he descends the stairs. (Even less plausible: Wasn’t he a detective once?)
- The cops can’t ascend the tower themselves to check out what is known, in some police circles, as “the scene of the crime.” (Least plausible of all. If they’d done so, they would’ve found the dead woman’s husband and another woman, hysterical, dressed like the dead woman, at the very spot from which the dead woman jumped. Questions, one hopes, would’ve arisen.)
But this isn’t why I get little joy from “Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s movies are certainly personal, which is a positive, but sometimes they feel a little too personal. He delves inward and finds the peculiar rather than the universal. His obsessions are not my own. He once famously said that his movies weren’t slices of life, they were slices of cake, and they are, but often they’re slices of cake laced with something astringent. I take a bite and make a face. “I like the chocolate but...too much tannin.”
That said, no one did endings better than Hitchcock, and “Vertigo” is one of his best: a kiss, a fright, a scream... and for the third time in the movie, and the second time with the woman he loves, Scottie, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, stares down at yet another death he’s responsible for. The beginning is the middle is the end. The nightmare is cyclical. One gets the feeling it'll never end.
Review: “Notorious” (1946)
WARNING: KEY SPOILERS
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is the greatest love story ever filmed between a cold bastard and a drunken whore.
That’s a joke and it isn’t. There’s the story we watch and there’s the way Hitchcock undercuts the story we watch. He smuggles all sorts of shit in. He gets America, this puritanical country, to care about these less-than-pure people.
The Hays code helped. In the first five minutes we learn that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father was recently convicted as a Nazi spy, drinks too much and sleeps around, but we only see her drunk once, and we never see her sleeping around—just flirting with Cary Grant, who, let’s face it, is Cary Grant, the Man from Dream City, etc., so who can blame her. The Hays code, by keeping Alicia’s more notorious activities discreet, keeps her sympathetic. When others bring up her past, it almost seems unfair, as if they were tarnishing her with rumors rather than agreed-upon facts.
As for the cold bastard? We first see Devlin (Grant) as the back of a head and wonder, “Why is Hitchcock filming the back of his head when the front of his head has Cary Grant’s face attached to it?” Answer: This is a man who reveals little. He’s a secret agent, CIA, OSS, or whatever the agency was between World War II and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. He doesn’t talk much but every third word is sneered. It takes a lot to drain the charm out of Cary Grant but Hitchcock does it masterfully.
The greatest romance of all time!
The linchpin of the film is also masterfully, intricately created. Devlin recruits Alicia, this wanton, daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy, for an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, but before they get the assignment they fall in love. He loosens up and she looks like Ingrid Bergman again. It begins to feel like a traditional Hollywood romance. There’s even a famous two-and-a-half minute kissing scene that, by skirting the Hays’ code’s admonition of kisses longer than three seconds, relies on multiple, nibbling pecks, making it even sexier than if they’d been allowed to slobber all over each other.
Then the assignment arrives. She’s to infiltrate a gang of Nazis by throwing her charms at one of the leaders, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who once had a crush on her. And by “throwing her charms at,” I mean “sleeping with.” Or “fucking.” All of which is discreetly implied with words like “playmates.” Hays Code to the rescue again.
So Devlin is torn. He’s a professional man but also a man in love. The man in love wants her to say “no” but the professional man knows the job is the job. Which side wins? The side that says nothing. He gets even more tight-lipped. Just when she wants him to talk.
She’s a woman in love but an amateur in this profession, so she goes along with the scheme, one can argue, for Devlin. He wants her to say “no,” but she says “yes” for him. Talk about cross purposes.
That’s how Hitchcock undercuts the traditional Hollywood romance. But “Notorious” is also a thriller, a post-WWII thriller about American agents battling South American Nazis, and the way he undercuts the film’s ostensible patriotism is even more brilliant.
Three scenes stand out.
In the first scene, early in the movie, Devlin recruits Alicia, not by appealing to her patriotism, but by revealing how patriotic she already is. Three months earlier, her father tried to recruit her to the German cause and she’d responded with a speech, straight out of a war-bonds fundraiser, about how much she loves America. Most of us reveal our best face to the world while doing what we do in private. She, apparently, is the opposite.
And how does Devlin remind her how patriotic she is? By playing a recording of that conversation with her father. The very government she’s defending on that recording, in other words, is in fact recording her. It’s spying on her. By showing her that she’s patriotic, he’s also showing her why she shouldn’t be patriotic.
Her secret shame: patriotism.
All of which goes unsaid. The second scene, halfway through the movie, is more overt.
By this point Alicia has infiltrated Sebastian’s sanctum at great risk and personal loss—she loses Devlin—but here she’s about to turn up at agency headquarters, and the man in charge, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), worries. Another one of the higher-ups, Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) adds, “She's had me worried for some time. A woman of that sort.”
During this conversation, Devlin had been showing us the back of his head to the room, but Beardsley’s remark literally turns him around. It forces him to reveal his true face:
Devlin: What sort is that, Mr. Beardsley?
Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all. Not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.
Hitchcock, of course, grew up in working-class London and maintained working-class suspicions of the oligarchy. There are people who work and people who don’t. There are soldiers and those who order soldiers into battle. Alicia, at this point, is a soldier. These old men and their wives who look down upon the Alicias of the world? Not. They call into question her character but Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question their character, and all they can do in response is be affronted:
Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
Devlin (unapologetic): Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.
The men who do little.
The man who reveals little.
His true face. “Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.”
The third scene, near the end of the film, may be the strongest of the lot.
By this point, Alicia has actually married Sebastian and is living in his mansion with his domineering mother, whom he calls “Mother,” prefiguring Norman Bates by 15 years. At a party to introduce Alicia to Rio society, Alicia and Devlin discover the Nazis secret: ore, most likely uranium ore, hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian’s basement. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, but unlike most McGuffins it’s not harmless. It actually anticipates (in the writing and filming) the A-bomb, which will transform the world.
To discover this, Alicia has to steal the wine-cellar key, a Unica key, from hubby’s keyring. Unfortunately, he notices it’s gone, then notices it’s back, and in the wine cellar he finds jig-is-up evidence of Devlin’s clumsy snooping. “I’m married to an American agent,” he tells Mother. But what to do? Killing an American agent can’t make up for having married her in the first place; that won’t sit well with the other Nazis, who, remember, killed poor Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt—his only role in movies!) simply for having a lousy poker face.
So Mother concocts a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. It will seem, to the other Nazis and the rest of the world, as if she had an illness and expired. Alicia figures it out, but too late, when she’s too weak to do anything about it, and she’s led, as if in a nightmare, up to her bedroom, where Mother, with her thick German accent, says, “We’ll take the best care of her,” and Sebastian, feigning concern (and with the camera zooming in tight on Alicia’s helpless, stricken face), tells the butler, “Josef, disconnect the telephone, Madame must have absolute quiet. Take it out of the room.”
Then, in rapid succession, we see:
- Devlin sitting on a park bench, his meeting place with Alicia, looking at his watch.
- Alicia in bed, dying. Mother off to the side, knitting peacefully.
- Devlin, at night, pacing before the same park bench.
In our minds we’re going “Hurry! Hurry!” and finally we get a meeting between Devlin and Prescott. Most such meetings took place in Prescott’s office but this one is in Prescott’s hotel room. It indicates how worried Devlin is. He, like us, can’t wait for tomorrow.
The hotel room also allows Hitchcock to juxtapose Alicia, the solider, with Prescott, the general.
Like Alicia, Prescott is lying in bed. Unlike Alicia, he’s a picture of health. In fact, as Devlin reveals his concerns, and as we’re still shouting “Hurry!” in our minds, Prescott nonchalantly, infuriatingly, butters crackers and stuffs them in his face.
“Five days, eh?” he says, unconcerned. “That must be quite a binge she’s on.” Devlin figured the same—Alicia had lied to him about her sickness—but now he’s having second thoughts. Prescott has none. He even warns against Devlin checking up on her since he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the mission. Then he picks cracker crumbs off his chest.
“That must be quite a binge she's on.”
How far will you go for love or country? That’s one of the main dilemmas of the film. Love doesn’t do poorly in this equation, since, in the end, Devlin comes through, despite Alicia’s past, despite Alicia’s assignment. But country? Beardlsey represents the country. He thinks poorly of the workers. Prescott represents the country. He can’t be bothered to get out of bed. While Alicia is dying in hers.
There is, in general, great balance in “Notorious.” In one of the first shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s father framed in a doorway; and in one of the last shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s husband framed in a doorway. After Alicia is reintroduced to Sebastian, we see Devlin sitting alone at a restaurant on the left side of the screen. In the next shot, we see Alicia sitting alone at a restaurant on the right side of the screen. Balance.
But there is no balance as to our loyalties. The film’s second-most famous shot, after the kissing scene, occurs at the beginning of the party, when the camera, starting from the upper floor, sweeps down to focus on the Unica key in Alicia’s nervous hand. It’s a great shot. One can’t help notice, too, the checkerboard pattern on the floor, and how all of the guests, milling about, look like pieces in a chess game. Which they are. That isn’t a point of contention. Our problem is with the men moving this particular piece. They don't know its value. They see a pawn. We see the queen.
Review: “The 39 Steps” (1935)
I'm taking a five-week course on Alfred Hitchcock this fall at the Northwest Film Forum so periodically I'll be posting reviews of the films we watch and discuss. Feel free to join the discussion...
WARNING: 39 SPOILERS
Here’s a snatch of dialogue from early in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”:
She: May I come home with you?
He: What’s the idea?
She: Well, I’d like to.
He: It’s your funeral.
He is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London. She is Annabella, (Lucie Mannheim), who, unbeknownst to Hannay, is a secret agent. They’ve just met. They were both in a London music hall watching a man named Mr. Memory perform before a raucus crowd when shots were fired and everyone ran for the nearest exit. At the moment she’s playing the frightened woman even though she’s the one who fired the shots.
I love the economy in these four lines. With only 15 words, she seems to promise easy sex while he responds with a shrug—as if he knows he’s in a 1930s movie, where there is no sex, easy or otherwise. The final line is hilariously self-effacing. It’s also expert foreshadowing. Going home with Hannay will, in fact, be Annabella’s funeral.
“The 39 Steps” was the second of six films Alfred Hitchcock directed for Gaumont British Picture Corporation, films in which he began to perfect what became known as “the Hitchcock thriller,” and there’s something clean and nonchalant about it, the way there’s something clean and nonchalant about “The Great Gatsby” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” There’s no wasted space in the plot even though we go off on tangents with quirky secondary characters, such as, here, the milkman, the underwear salesman, and the crofter and his wife. It feels pure and self-contained.
Hannay is the first great example of Hitchcock’s innocent man on the run. When he and Annabella get back to his flat, he fries her up some haddock while she tells her tale. Yes, she’s a spy. Yes, she fired those shots. There were men she needed to get away from. Those men are now outside. Hannay checks, confirms, and she warns him:
She: Now that they have followed us here, you are in it as much as I am.
He: How do you mean?
Now that’s innocent! Worse, though they seem intimate in the kitchen, always within a whisper of touching each other, the promise of easy sex remains just that: a promise. He gives her his bed while foolishly taking the couch, where, in the middle of the night, she wakes him, gurgling warnings, a knife in her back, a map of Scotland clutched in her dying hand. He backs away, wiping blood from his own hand. Now the men are chasing him. He may not get the sex but he catches the disease.
Annabella was vague about why she was being chased—because spies tend to be vague and because Hitchcock is always vague about his MacGuffin (that element that drives the story but is ultimately meaningless)—but Hannay knows the following: 1) Annabella was working to prevent information from leaving England; 2) there’s an important man to see in Scotland; 3) beware the man missing the top joint of his little finger.
Though Hannay gets away, just barely, from the bad guys, and settles into a train bound for Scotland, Hitchcock immediately lets us know there is no “away.” In the very next shot, a justifiably famous shot, Annabella’s body is discovered by a charwoman, and, as she turns toward the camera to scream, the sound we hear is the train whistle and the shot we see is the train coming out of a tunnel. It’s both humorous and immediately revives our sense of urgency. It’s as if the scream is already part of his getaway train. It’s as if the train now has the disease, too.
This is the second time in the film, by the way, that a face, or faces, have turned toward the camera, and us, in a moment of terror. The first was when shots were fired in the Music Hall.
The second is the charwoman finding the body.
First the gun, then the body. What comes next? Guilt and suspicion. The salesman on the train is actually in his own world of ladies underwear and cricket, yet he still stares with narrowed eyes at Hannay, and us, over the newspaper story of Annabella’s murder as if he knows.
I’m sure books have been written about this Hitchcockian perspective. But at its most base level it helps us identify with Hannay. We are the ones people are frightened and suspicious of. We’ve caught the disease, too.
Soon the police, who are remarkably efficient when the story needs them to be, board the train searching for Hannay. Trapped, Hannay barges into the compartment of a pretty blonde, calls out “Darling!” and kisses her as the police, clucking to themselves wistfully, pass; then he tries to get her, this stranger, on his side. It’s a key moment. The Hitchcock story isn’t just about the innocent person caught in a web of intrigue; it’s about the innocent person who can’t get anyone to believe their story. It’s the stuff of nightmares: I have the answer but no one believes me! The milkman—a great secondary character—was the first charcter who didn’t believe Hannay, and the pretty blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who will be a primary character, is the second.
Pamela not only disbelieves him, and not only gives him up to the cops, but she does it with a kind of vindictiveness. When you contrast it with Hannay’s nurturing quality with Annabella in the kitchen, fixing her a meal, it seems not only unfair but unfeminine. Something more seems going on. One wonders if her anger stems from the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss or the fact that she enjoyed the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss.
Contrast her reaction, too, with the reaction of Margaret, the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft). Hannay escapes the cops on the train and makes his way across the moors of Scotland, where he chances upon an old scabby farm, run by an old scabby man, John (John Laurie), with whom he bargains for a room for the evening. Though John is suspicious by nature, it’s his wife, Margaret, who figures out why Hannay’s running, and who believes him, and who helps him escape and ultimately saves his life (with the hymnbook in the breastpocket). What does she get for it? An off-screen slap, and possibly worse, from her husband. Pamela, the ice queen, gets Hannay.
We get more caught/escape cycles. The important man from Scotland, Prof. Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), no. 2 from above, turns out to be no. 3 from above, the man missing the top joint of his little finger. Bad luck. The hymnbook saves Hannay there, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, he’s in the local police station, where the police finally believe him. Except they don’t. So he escapes again, this time through a political parade and into a political rally, where he’s on stage, and in the the midst of charmingly winning over the rowdy crowd (and anticipating Hugh Grant’s entire career), when he’s spotted by, whaddayaknow, Pamela, who promptly, and icily, gives him up a second time. Problem? She gives him up to the bad guys. And she’s brought along for the ride.
She gets hers, though. After he escapes again—this time handcuffed to Pamela—the two take a room at the Argyle Arms posing as newlyweds. Pamela is scandalized, you can see it in her pleading eyes, but we remember her previous behavior, so cold and unwomanly, and have no sympathy. Plus, let's face it, we’re titilated by her predicament. There’s a scene where she removes her damp stockings, Hannay’s handcuffed hand bumping along for the joyride, while the camera holds on her exquisite legs and silence—almost like held breath—envelopes everything. It’s one of the sexier 15 seconds in movie history.
The film ends where it began, in the music hall with Mr. Memory, whose rock-solid memory is the key to transporting the stolen information out of the country. On first viewing, this alley-oop seems brilliant. On second viewing, questions arise.
OK, so if Annabella was in the music hall in the beginning, did she know about Mr. Memory? If so, why point to Scotland? And how did those two bad guys kill her with a knife in the back but not get Hannay? Why kill Annabella—presumably inside the flat—and then phone Hannay from outside the flat? That makes no sense. And why phone the night before anyway? Aren’t they alerting both her and him to their presence? They’re not exactly putting the secret into secret agent, are they? Plus a hymnbook in the breast pocket? Come on. And Pamela shows up again at the political rally? In all the political rallies in all of Scotland, she has to walk into mine...
To which Hitchcock, somewhere, harrumphs. “I’m not concerned with plausibility,” he once said. Another time: “Must a picture be logical, when life is not?”
He might as well have said: Must a picture be logical when dreams are not?
Movies have been compared to dreams forever, and Hitchcock’s movies have been compared to nightmares forever, and this implausibility is part of the reason why. One can imagine Hannay waking up back in Canada and telling his friends about the odd dream he had:
I was in ... England, I suppose, and these fellows were after a woman, a beautiful woman, and I was trying to help her; and then they came after me. They thought I had information but I didn’t have information. I think I was charged with murder in there somewhere, too. I just kept running and getting caught, running and getting caught. I was even shot once but didn’t bleed. And there was another woman, another beautiful woman, who wouldn’t believe that I was innocent. No one believed it. So I had to keep running. Anyway, pass the sugar, will you?
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