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Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo: Film Score, Herrmann, and Wagner

vertigo_soundtrack_coverWhen I first saw Vertigo I was not at all sure I liked it. I knew nothing about it before viewing and I was surprised and made a little uncomfortable by the story. But it wouldn’t leave my mind and I had to watch it a second time soon after, just to get a better handle on the story.

I watched it again, recently, and there’s something about it that I find impossible to shake. It sticks with you like few movies do. Haunting, aching, longing, dreamlike…

There are many things you could say Vertigo is about: obsession, a revelation of Hitchcock’s own obsessions and desires regarding the blonde leads in his own films; but at its most basic core, Vertigo is about longing. Especially longing for something that does not exist or cannot be attained. All people have it. What Scottie has is the mad desire to try bring it about, no matter the cost to other people. Most of us simply accept it.

It really stood out to me when I last watched Vertigo, how Scottie becomes completely absorbed in the story of Madeleine. He even seems to forget about Gavin Elster, the supposed husband. He’s consumed with Madeleine and her story…a story that is entirely made up. He can’t even see Midge, who is real and warm and solid and always there for him. In Vertigo, reality seems just as much of a dream to Scottie as the dream that Scottie falls for.

(Random aside: my sister and I wondered why Midge had broken off her engagement with Scottie all those years before. Was it because she knew he never loved her, could never love her, or did she sense there was something a little off about him, that something in him that leads him to prefer the illusion of Madeleine over the very real love of Midge and Judy?)

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Hitchcock and Herrmann

It was also interesting to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s achingly beautiful score for Vertigo in isolation from the film and visuals. What is interesting is how the obsession of the film takes a back seat and the longing comes strongly to the fore. It almost aches to listen to the soundtrack. Alex Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker, points out how tonally rootless the score is. It never finds it’s footing, tonally, leaving the listener feeling a bit lost. He also writes about the sequence where Scottie follows Madeleine. It is an extended, virtually a silent sequence, only accompanied by Herrmann’s score

Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases…The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.

For Herrmann’s ‘Scène d’amour,’ he took inspiration from Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod,” from the opera Tristan und Isolde. Liebestod apparently means “love-death,” which seems very fitting for Vertigo. The specter of death practically drenches the movie.

There is, apparently, some controversy about the title of “Liebestod.” The title is usually used to refer to the aria Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body, but Wagner evidently never referred to it as such. He called it “Verklärung” (Transfiguration). There is apparently some question about whether or not Isolde dies in the opera, as well. But Wagner referred to the prelude at the beginning of the first act as “Liebestod.” Either way, Herrmann has seemed to derive inspiration from both pieces of music.

Here is “Scene D’Amour,” where Scottie first sees Judy completely transformed into Madeleine.

And an orchestral version of the aria Isolde sings from Tristan und Isold. Compare 3:00 of “Scene D’Amour” with 4:00 of “Liebestod.”

The Prelude, which apparently is the real “Liebestod.”

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2016 in Music

 

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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

1138Foreign Correspondent was the second movie that Alfred Hitchcock made in American, following the Gothic, psychological romance Rebecca with a WWII thriller. Actually, the film is only somewhat a WWII thriller. Take out the epilogue and one would hardly know, though there’s a lot of talk about a coming war in Europe.

The editor of the New York Globe – Powers (Harry Davenport) – is frustrated with his foreign correspondents in Europe. All they can give him is speculation about the coming of war with no hard facts. It’s driving him nuts, so he chooses Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) to go to Europe, a scrappy journalist who got into a fight with a policeman in pursuit of a story and has no particular agenda or political bent.

“What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind,” Powers observes. So Johnny Jones is sent to Amsterdam with a new name – Huntley Haverstock, provided by Powers – and orders to interview a Dutch politician named Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is central to the negotiations for peace. Johnny is also put into contact with the British Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who is head of the Universal Peace Party, which is about to hold an important conference. In the meantime, Johnny also falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day)

In many ways, Foreign Correspondent feels similar to North By Northwest. Simple American gets mixed up in foreign intrigue and is on the run. Van Meer is assassinated….no, wait… he’s actually abducted. There is a secret clause to a peace treaty that the villains (it’s not mentioned, but they are understood to be Nazis) wish to know from Van Meer. The plot is, however, unlike North By Northwest in that there is a lot of it, a lot of characters and it’s a bit confusing at times.

But the film itself is extremely entertaining, full of wit, with some terrific thrills and memorable scenes and a cast that has a lot to offer. I’ve always loved Herbert Marshall’s voice and as Fisher he makes an excellent, unexpected villain. The secret is that his character is really German (was his name originally Fischer…he just dropped the c?). But he’s a villain with one, glaring weakness. He loves his daughter and in some ways, he’s one of Hitchcock’s least evil villains. He even gets to have a heroic end.

George Sanders also gets to play against type…this time as a good guy. Scott folliott (when his ancestor lost his head to Henry VIII, his ancestor’s wife dropped the capital letter to”commemorate the occasion”). He’s a journalist, too, one of those daring young British types who always makes a joke in the face of danger.

Edmund Gwenn gets a delightful role as Rowley, a cockney assassin who keeps trying to kill Johnny without sucess. Robert Benchley makes an appearance as a dyspeptic correspondent who is now reduced to drinking milk and taking pills and Albert Basserman is the heartfelt voice of the little people against the fascists (his speech in defiance of the Nazis in the middle of the film always drew applause in 1940).

Joel McCrea is one of those actors I seem to like the more I see him. He’s not a flashy actor – I’ve heard him called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, which seems unfair – but he has a central integrity, charm, capable of snark, but also of sweetness…also sincerity, without ever taking himself too seriously. He always seems willing for a joke to be at his expense and to look a little silly. He’s more of an every man than Cary Grant, but a bit more articulate than Gary Cooper.

Laraine Day is not your typical Hitchcock blonde heroine, but the film’s all the better for it. She’s one of the most normal, well-adjusted of all Hitchcock’s heroines (despite having a Nazi for a father)  and the romance between McCrea and Day is unusually sweet for a Hitchcock film.

There are also some wonderful scenes that are very unique to Hitchcock. An assassination in the driving rain, on the steps to a building, then darting away underneath a sea of umbrellas. Sneaking around the inside of a curiously expressionistic windmill. A plane crash in the middle of an ocean. Escape from assassins through a bathroom window in nothing but underwear and a robe.

There are a few moments that mark the film out as having been made specifically during WWII, such as Albert Basserman’s role as Van Meer. But the prevailing ethos is that of Johnny and Scott ffoliott as reporters out for a scoop…somewhat like His Girl Friday. Theoretically, they’re doing it for patriotic reasons, but mostly their just doing it because they’re reporters and they’ve happened on the biggest scoop short of a declaration of war (which does come in the middle of the film). It is Carol and her father who are the ones motivated by patriotism (though admittedly patriotism to separate countries).

The ending, however, is the most striking example of a wartime message. It was added after the end of the film’s shooting and when real-life London was under attack from German air raids. In the film, Johnny is giving the news via radio to America when an air raid occurs and the lights go out and he is forced to modify his message, exhorting America to keep the lights burning, so to speak. It is a direct appeal from Britain to America in 1940, though America wouldn’t get into the war until the end of 1941.

This post was written for The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Thanks so much to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness for hosting!!! Be sure to read all the other posts on Hitchcock.

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Posted by on August 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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Dial M For Murder (1954)

dialmformurderposterBecause Dial M For Murder is an unusually close adaptation of a successful play, it does not seem to garner the same attention that other Hitchcock films do. There is simply less to say about Hitchcock as auteur. But as a masterful film of suspense, red-herrings, and the overlooked little things that trip one up, it cannot be topped. I never tire of watching it; there seems to be something new to see each time.

The film begins with Margo Wendice (Grace Kelly), sitting in white at the breakfast table and enjoying a demure kiss with her husband, former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland). Next, it is evening and she is in a flaming red dress and enjoying a passionate kiss with mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), who is her former lover. They have broken off the relationship and believe that Tony knows nothing about it. He’s changed, Margo tells Mark. He’s a more attentive husband now.

And for good reason. In fairness, I should warn that this post is rife with plot spoilers. If you have never seen it before, it is a stimulating experience to watch the story unfold without prior knowledge. My only warning is that it’s a film you have to pay close attention to. There are a lot of red-herrings.

Tony, it turns out, knows everything about Margo and Mark’s affair. He married Margo for her money and when he realized that she could leave him flat, he concocted a scheme that was a year in the making. He’s going to blackmail an old school fellow from Cambridge, Swan (Anthony Dawson) – a man constantly skating “on thin ice” – into killing his wife for him. He has everything planned down to the last detail and it is a marvel as he calmly unfurls his plan to Swan, a man who is no slouch himself when it comes to criminal scheming, but has nothing on Tony.

But as mystery-writer Mark discusses with Tony and Margo, murders are only perfect on paper. People do not always behave exactly as you expect them to. Owing to a small change in the behavior of Margo earlier in the evening, instead of being murdered by Swan, she manages to kill him in self-defense with a pair of scissors. Tony’s year of planning is a shambles, but he quickly contrives a second plan, which seems to work much better. With the judicious planting of a few telling objects, he make it look like Margo deliberately murdered Swan. The police, lead by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), seem to fall exactly in line and she is convicted of murder.

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland – an insincere lot of people in this moment

To me, the most fascinating part of this film is watching people think, especially Ray Milland as Tony. There are moments when he realizes that he has miscalculated, but everything still seems to fall his way. Will he succeed? Will he not? What is going to finally trip him up? The film is full of red-herrings. For example, part of Tony’s original plan was to call his wife on the phone while Swan kills her. But he’s late and we, as the audience, are convinced that his lateness is what is going to save her life. But ironically, it is something that happened earlier, that we’ve already forgotten about, that saves her life.

Earlier in the evening, she didn’t want to stay home alone while Tony and Mark went to a stag party and he had to convince her, suggesting it was an ideal time to paste his press clippings into an album. He persuades her, but as a result her scissors are on the desk instead of in her mending basket, providing her an ideal weapon.

Even Mark Halliday is a red-herring. Because he’s a mystery writer, one keeps expecting him to be the one to bring Tony down. But in what is the finest twist, the police actually turn out to be rather good at their job. As Inspector Hubbard says, “The saints preserve us from the gifted amateur!”

John Williams played the role of Inspector Hubbard on Broadway and reprised it for the film. He initially seems like your stereotypical British officer, conscientious, following his own line of reasoning and apparently missing the important details. The first time I watched this movie I maligned him twice. I thought he was a stupid policeman, began to rethink it as he seemed to be getting at something important and then impugned him again when he appeared to drop it. Williams is perfect, lending the character sympathy and kindness towards Margo, impatience with Mark and complete satisfaction when he gets his man. He even gets the last shot of the film, brushing his mustache with pleased self-congratulation.

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play's Broadway run

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play’s Broadway run

Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are perfectly fine in the film, but it really belongs to Ray Milland (with Williams coming in second). He’s smooth, sophisticated, and believes he has all the answers…which largely he does. But as much as he might feel like he owns people (as he says he feels about Swan), he doesn’t. He’s awfully good at it, though. He says he puts himself in the place of others to see what they will do.

But everyone does that to a certain extent, which is another part of the fascination of the film. Everyone thinks, realizes, and put themselves in each other’s shoes to arrive at the exact same conclusion at the end. Sherlock Holmes would be proud at how they logically arrive at the only possible solution.

Given all the red-herrings, this last time I was finally able to isolate the three things that undid Tony. They are the scissors, the latchkeys and the money. Three things that seem innocuous and – in the case of the money and the scissors especially – things we completely forget about.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2016 in Movies

 

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