Archive for the 'Directors: Hitchcock' Category
Photo by Philippe Halsman.
I’m going through a Hitchcockian period; every week I go and see again two or three of those films of his that have been reissued; there’s no doubt at all, he’s the greatest, the most complete, the most illuminating, the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most experimental and the luckiest; he’s been touched by a kind of grace.
François Truffaut, letter, 1961
In June of 1962, François Truffaut wrote to Alfred Hitchcock proposing a lengthy interview. Hitchcock agreed, and Truffaut materialized in Los Angeles in August, with his translator and collaborator Helen Scott. After six days of discussion, Truffaut had accumulated, he claimed, fifty hours of tape. Over the next four years the tapes were transcribed, the book was edited, and extra sessions were recorded to cover the films Hitchcock made in the meantime. The result was published in France in late 1966 and a year later in an English translation.
Energetic scholars have recently discovered that the finished book bears signs of massive cutting, compression, and recasting of the conversation. It seems that Hitchcock approved something like the final version, but on this director we want everything. Eventually we will want a complete transcription, but with some tapes still missing, that isn’t possible for now. But we do have some tapes, and just as important, we have the book known in English as Truffaut/Hitchcock.
What Truffaut called his “Hitchbook” is now the subject of fascinating documentary by Kent Jones. Premiered at Cannes, Hitchcock/Truffaut was so successful that an extra screening was scheduled to meet the demand. Why so much interest? Of course, Hitchcock remains a filmmaker known to everyone. But we should also recognize that the Hitchbook was one of the most important books on film ever published.
Popular material treated with intelligence
Alfred Hitchcock, who is a remarkably intelligent man, formed the habit early—right from the start of his career in England—of predicting each aspect of his films. All his life he has worked to make his own tastes coincide with the public’s, emphasizing humor in his English period and suspense in his American period. This dosage of humor and suspense has made Hitchcock one of the most commercial directors in the world. . . . It is the strict demands he makes on himself and on his art that have made him a great director.
François Truffaut, review of Rear Window, 1954
The film’ s title is an impudent reversal: “Hitchcock/Truffaut” puts first things first, a dialogue between a master and his adoring admirer.
At first glance, this is a clips-plus-talking-heads doc. But that impression doesn’t do it justice. For one thing, many of the clips are fresh ones, drawn from rarely shown Hitchcock films. These tease us with their unfamiliarity, like a gallery of less-known pictures flanking a hall of masterpieces.
Moreover, the film’s perspective is far more sophisticated than what we usually find in the genre. Hitchcock/Truffaut respects its viewers enough to summon up suggestive and subtle links between sequences, between image and commentary. Often there’s no title marring the images, so they stand out with a hallucinatory purity. Often a clip starts to play before the commentary kicks in, all the better to let the imagery strike us in its integrity; only then do we get the connection to what came before. The extracts are the prime movers, with the text snapping into place to catch up.
The speed and precision of Hitchcock’s movies are paralleled by the swift opening of Jones’s film, which introduces the main themes. As shots from Sabotage are intercut with the book’s flipping pages, we hear a chorus of voices. These belong to our talking heads, and the heads are full of ideas. Remarkably, all the commenters are film directors. It’s a top-tier lineup, of Movie Brats (Scorsese, Schrader, Bogdanovich) and younger talents David Fincher, James Gray, Wes Anderson, and Richard Linklater. From overseas come Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Olivier Assayas, and Arnaud Desplechin. There are no academic experts, no journalists or friends or family. Everything, we quickly learn, is going to be about cinema as art, craft, and vocation.
Immediately, as if reenacting Family Plot, the film shows how two paths crossed. A quick summary of each man’s career leads to that six-day week in 1962, overseen by the beaming Helen Scott, and our film launches itself into the depths.
We learn of Hitchcock’s urge to outwit the audience, and his thoughts on plausibility. He reviews matters of technique, from image size to the expansion of time. How do you handle actors? How do you give your film a shape? About halfway through, the questions go bigger, and the Cahiers concerns preside. Is M. Hitchcock a Catholic artist? (He gives his answer off-mike.) Is his work haunted by guilt, even Original Sin? (“Yes,” he murmurs.) Don’t the plots enact a transfer of guilt? Don’t they exhibit the logic of dreams?
At one level, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a fine introduction to the issues in French film writing about the Master, articulated most fully by Desplechin. But the Americans bring in plenty of insights as well. Fincher and Scorsese track changing acting styles of the 1940s and hint at the problems those caused for Hitchcock. Schrader notes the recurring fetish-objects (keys, handcuffs) and points out that Vera Miles (Hitchcock’s choice for Vertigo) could never have carried off Kim Novak’s painfully sluttish turn.
Two extended sequences are devoted to Vertigo and Psycho. These allow Jones and his co-screenwriter Serge Toubiana to knot together all the major themes. Vertigo encapsulates the dream elements, and through careful editing Hitchcock/Truffaut turns Hitchcock’s interview remarks into a commentary track under key sequences. Meanwhile, the filmmakers riff freely on what we see. What about Judy’s story? asks Fincher. Scorsese finds “a sense of loss and melancholy.” Judy’s stepping out of the bathroom yields what Gray calls “the single greatest moment in the history of movies.”
But Vertigo wasn’t a huge success, especially for a filmmaker who aimed at arousing the mass audience. The movie that exemplified “pure film,” Hitchcock says, was Psycho. Again our filmmakers are powerfully eloquent about its creative choices (pacing, framing, point-of-view) and, above all, its devastating shocks. It was, says Bogdanovich, “the first time that going to the movies was dangerous.” Psycho’s stupendous popularity, Truffaut remarks in the last edition of the book, made it the capstone of the Master’s career. “I am convinced that Hitchcock was not satisfied with any of the films he made after Psycho.”
Many reviewers of Hitchcock/Truffaut have fastened on moments in the interviews when Hitchcock expressed doubt. Should he have veered off from controlling the “rising shape” of every story? Should he have been “more experimental”? Should he have paid more attention to character rather than situation?
Such questions were raised in Truffaut’s 1983 addendum, but I’m not convinced they’re valid. They presume that plot is more important than character, and that thriller plots are somehow intrinsically thinner than other kinds. Truffaut offered the best defense of the power of a gripping intrigue when he suggested that a disciplined format didn’t make things shallow. He suggested that following Hitchcock’s example could be fruitful.
Don’t tell me that it would be inferior or vulgar. Just think of Shadow of a Doubt and Uncle Charlie’s thoughts: the world is a pigsty, and honest people like bankers and widows detest the purity of virgins. It’s all there, but inserted into a framework that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Hitchcock put it another way: A good film, he remarked, consists of “popular material treated with intelligence.” And that intelligence can take chances. Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Window, Psycho, and Family Plot are among Hollywood’s great experiments.
The Figure in the carpet
Storyboard image for Psycho.
My initial aim in undertaking [Truffaut/Hitchcock] was not to make the best-seller list, but to influence and shake up the smug attitudes of the New York critics.
François Truffaut, letter, 1967
Truffaut/Hitchcock had been out for a year when I got my copy in December 1968. Why did I wait? No paperback edition, and the hardback cost a princely $10. That’s about $70 in today’s currency.
That sturdy copy has followed me around ever since, and now, nearly fifty years later, I still find it stimulating. I can’t think of another book on the cinema that has had its influence. Let me count some ways.
It changed tastes. Truffaut tells us that he decided to do the book when he learned that American critics considered Hitchcock as merely a popular entertainer. Not all reviewers needed convincing, though. Robert Sklar found it “likely to become a classic book on the art of the film. . . . No book before this one has made a better case for Hitchcock’s genius or for the French ‘author’ theory of film directorship.”
In the pages of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther had long treated Hitchcock as a talented purveyor of suspense who sometimes gave good value (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo) but who too often favored wildly implausible plots (Strangers on a Train) and “slow buildups to sudden shocks that are old-fashioned melodramatics” (Psycho). Yet the Times granted Truffaut/Hitchcock two admiring reviews. One by Eliot Fremont-Smith declared that Hitchcock had turned out “a surprising number of perfect or nearly perfect movies.” Arthur Knight praised Truffaut’s careful preparation for the encounter and celebrated Hitchcock’s almost unique control over his projects. His films were at once technically adept, emotionally exciting, and bristling with what Truffaut called “moral dilemmas.”
As Sklar indicates, Truffaut/Hitchcock gave aid and comfort to auteurists. If you wanted to make a case for creative artistry in Hollywood, Hitchcock was the logical point man—a cinematic virtuoso and a director whose films were instantly recognizable. Andrew Sarris’s first Village Voice review set the tone: Psycho indicated that “the French have been right all along.” The English critics of Movie followed with vigorous analytical essays, while Robin Wood’s probing thematic study Hitchcock’s Films (1965) may have helped establish an audience for Truffaut’s book. Truffaut predicted in 1983 that “By the end of the century, there will be as many books written about him as there are now about Marcel Proust.” The prophecy may well have been fulfilled, and in a new century the literature seems to be swelling even faster.
The book affected tastes in another way, I think. It appeared when French filmmaking enjoyed great prominence in America. Unlike what happened in later decades, in the 1960s and early 1970s we could see virtually everything being made by Truffaut, Varda, Chabrol, Demy, Resnais, Bresson, Rohmer, Melville, and other major filmmakers; Godard sometimes gave us three a year. There were middlebrow hits too, like Sundays and Cybèle (1962) and A Man and a Woman (1966). It seems hard to believe now, but in 1966-1967, twelve numbers of Cahiers du cinéma were published in a handsome English-language edition. Just as important, the year 1967 brought America not only Truffaut’s book but Hugh Gray’s translation of Bazin’s What Is Cinema?
For years afterward, France set the tone for both arthouse distribution and serious cinephilia. Importers brought us La Cage aux Folles, Tous les matins du monde, Amélie, Ma vie en rose, and other vessels of Gallic charm and profundity. Journalists and programmers stalked through French festivals searching for the next big auteurs. Later, academics learned about semiology, neo-Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis from their Parisian counterparts. To this day, critics beg their editors to send them to Cannes and academics beg presses to consider another book on Deleuze. The Hitchbook helped establish France as the home of adventurous thinking about cinema.
Master and disciple
I’d like everyone who makes films to be able to learn something from it, and also everyone whose dream it is to become a filmmaker.
François Truffaut, letter, 1962
It influenced filmmakers. Jones’ documentary highlights the Hitchbook’s enduring power for generations of directors. Wes Anderson says that his copy has fallen to tatters; Fincher read his dad’s over and over, marveling at how the layout of images made the editing patterns apparent. For the young Gray it was “a window into the world of cinema.” The book, says Scorsese, gave courage to a generation: “We became radicalized.” It showed that he and his cohort “could go ahead.”
The book’s impact came from its insider aspects. As Schrader points out, we already had many books about the art of cinema, but Hitchcock shared secrets of craft. How did he get particular effects, like Foreign Correspondent’s plane crash, with the ocean bursting straight into the cockpit? Hitchcock had views on what made film art (montage, mostly) but he also knew, as Fincher puts it, what made it fun. The flagrant virtuosity which Hitch’s detractors attacked was a powerful stimulant for 1960s filmmakers. The chef has taken us into the kitchen and revealed his recipes.
Take camera placement. Many of today’s moviemakers and TV directors are fairly indifferent to the niceties of framing. Scorsese crisply shows how important the high angle is in Hitchcock’s work. You can read it thematically (God looking down) but it’s also elegantly functional. In Topaz, Scorsese points out, the camera’s deviation from the straight-on view is unsettling, and it accentuates the defector’s eye movements. An unsettling, queasily close high-angle is practically a Hitchcock signature, as here from The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest.
Beyond their craft, Hitchcock films yielded a personal vision of the world. That vision wasn’t a matter of messages articulated in clunky dialogue (vide Stanley Kramer). Hitch’s personality soaked into the very textures of his plots, his characterizations, and above all his attitude toward the story and the audience. The Cahiers critics had found individual expression in the Hollywood studio product, and Hitchcock’s world revealed some fairly sordid corners.
He was obsessed with looking, duplicity, doubles, and hidden identities. Some of his characters, such as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt and John Brandon in Rope, are suave sociopaths. In Notorious, the putative hero is a cynical bully, while the Nazi he’s stalking is a gentle and charming husband. A detective obsessed with a woman manages to kill her twice; a husband who wishes his wife dead gets what he wanted. The plots pass harsh judgment on momentary slips, like looking out your back window, listening politely to a loopy train passenger, or placing imaginary racetrack bets. If Ben Jonson lifted sardonic misanthropy to the level of art, why couldn’t Hitchcock?
It’s as if the Movie Brats and those who followed were scoping out the realities of the business they were entering. I think they took hope from a man who made a great deal of money working with stars, flummoxing producers (Selznick in particular), embracing new technologies (sound, widescreen, even 3D), and managing to put an idiosyncratic spin on forced-march projects. It’s easier to reconcile the one-for-them-and-one-for-me dynamic when you remember what Hitch made of assignments like Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, and (even) Topaz. By letting Hitchcock explain the commercial pressures he faced, and the ways he found to dodge or work within them, Truffaut must have given young filmmakers a conviction that they could do personal work in the industry.
Pictures that work hard
The interest of the book will lie in the fact that it will describe in a very meticulous fashion one of the greatest and most complete careers in the cinema and, at the same time, constitute a very precise study of the intellectual and mental, but also physical and material, “fabrication” of films.
Francois Truffaut, letter, 1962
It influenced film criticism too. For one thing, it confirmed the interview as a legitimate critical tool.
Truffaut didn’t invent the cinephiliac director interview, of course. Cahiers and Movie undertook interrogations of directors; Pauline Kael notably mocked Movie for asking Minnelli about a crane shot. But after the revelations of Truffaut/Hitchcock, people who wanted to put movies down couldn’t automatically assume that directors were inarticulate. Yes, they’d recycle their favorite stories, usually mythical; yes, they knew ways to dodge the hard questions; but get them going on craft and you stood a chance of learning something. The god of cinema dwelled among the details, and Hitchcock spread out details with solemn largesse.
Sarris had displayed some of the possibilities in his Interviews with Film Directors (1967 again!). But that book republished interviews already out there. Truffaut’s through-composed marathon showed the power of the interview format as an analytical probe. Today, nobody would think of writing about a filmmaker without consulting published interviews—or better yet, trying to wangle a fresh one. The book-length interview has become a genre, as in the X-on-X series from Faber and Faber and, more lavishly, Matt Zoller Seitz’s books on Wes Anderson.
Furthermore, despite Truffaut’s insistence on Hitchcock’s commitment to “pure cinema,” the book gave new credence to a quasi-literary approach to film criticism. Truffaut repackaged the Cahiers thematic interpretations of Hitchcock. A film’s true meanings were elusive; they had to be unearthed. Films could now be read. Once we could find Catholic guilt in Strangers on a Train and an omniscient, perhaps bemused deity in a high angle, why not extend the strategy to other filmmakers? It seems to me that Truffaut/Hitchcock was a major step toward our apparently endless efforts to find hidden meanings in popular filmmaking.
To his credit, Truffaut understood that such reading had to be very close. He needed pictures. His correspondence details his demand that the illustrations “correspond exactly to Hitchcock’s own comments on the film.” Truffaut shrugged off any worries about permissions. Film books of the day, when they included pictures, used production stills—photos taken on the set, which seldom corresponded to what was on the screen. Truffaut used some production stills, but he took pride in packing in genuine frame enlargements, actual images from film prints. I can think of only one earlier author who systematically deployed actual frames to illustrate points of technique: Sergei Eisenstein, in The Film Sense (1943) and Film Form (1949).
Today, when hundreds of websites run clips and framegrabs, we need to remember just how bold and tenacious Truffaut was. He borrowed 35mm prints from studio archives and spent three days in London making stills from the British titles not available in France. He could then provide meticulous shot-by-shot presentations of sequences—central to proving the artistry of a man who put editing at the center of film art. The original French edition flaunted its production values, slugging frames from the Psycho shower sequence across front and back cover.
Once Truffaut made such displays thinkable, film criticism could become more analytical. Enterprising writers got hold of prints, projected them incessantly or studied them on editing machines. Most notable was Raymond Bellour, whose 1969 analysis of The Birds (below) pushed analysis to an unprecedented degree of exactitude.
Throughout the 1970s, film critics became more adept at this shot-by-shot study. It was one hallmark of my generation of academic film writers, especially in dissertations. That group included Ted Perry at Iowa (in a dissertation on L’Eclisse, 1968) and NYU scholars Fred Camper, Paul Arthur, and Vlada Petrić. P. Adams Sitney’s trailblazing Visionary Film (1974) brought this sort of scrutiny to the avant-garde tradition. I followed the same line in my 1973 monograph on La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and in my 1975 dissertation on 1920s French cinema.
French scholars were following Bellour’s lead, and a significant school of textual analysts emerged. The BFI magazine Screen opened up similar avenues with Stephen Heath’s 1975 analysis of Touch of Evil. A few teachers started to incorporate frame enlargements as slides for lecture courses. Kristin and I did, while inserting frame enlargements into our publications. We may have been the first to publish a film aesthetics textbook, Film Art (1979), relying on actual images, not production stills.
Studying films shot by shot was difficult, requiring 16mm or 35mm prints and machinery like analysis projectors and flatbed viewers. To document the shots, you had to take frame enlargements with a bellows and a still camera. By the time videotape and laserdiscs came along, intensive study was far easier. Not until we got DVD technology, though, was it simple to make decent frame grabs to illustrate critical pieces.
Now everybody does what Truffaut did. But let’s remember that we analysts, along with nimble video essayists like Seitz, Kevin B. Lee, and Tony Zhou, owe a debt to Truffaut’s obstinate insistence that “quoting” a film, even partially, allows us to understand it more deeply.
Looking in his direction
This book on Hitchcock is merely a pretext for self-instruction.
François Truffaut, letter 1962
Given Truffaut’s deep admiration for the Master of Suspense, we’ve long assumed that he tried to learn from him. Like Hitchcock, he cared very much about evoking a response from his audience, and he sought as well to master the disciplined technique that could create precise effects. As early as The 400 Blows, he had Hitchcock in mind, as he confessed in the interview.
The recent availability of the 1962 tapes enabled Hitchcock scholar Sidney Gottlieb, in an article teasingly titled “Hitchcock on Truffaut,” to explore portions of the conversation in which Hitchcock comments on a key passage in Truffaut’s film. Truffaut tells Hitchcock of the moment when Antoine Doinel and his schoolmate, playing hooky, catch his mother kissing her lover on the street. Antoine rushes off and she guiltily turns away, telling her lover that her son has recognized her. Hitchcock, who apparently hasn’t seen the film, asks about Truffaut’s intention and tries to visualize the scene.
Jones’ film smoothly incorporates the sequence, letting the men’s voice-over discussion provide a gloss. The passage allows us to pinpoint some important aspects of Hitchcock’s discipline.
Truffaut is shooting on location, with a camera that’s often very far from the action. We see the boys walking right to left in an extreme long shot, and then we cut to another extreme long shot, in which Antoine’s mother and the lover are embracing by a Métro entrance. They are centered, but there’s a great deal of city life in this frame as well, so one can easily miss them. Even if we notice the couple, we can’t clearly recognize the woman as the mother.
In order to make clear what’s happening at the Métro entrance, Truffaut gives us two further shots of the couple. The first conveys only the act of kissing; we can’t really identify the characters. The second shot reveals that the woman is Antoine’s mother.
Truffaut indicates to Hitchcock that he was short of footage, but there’s also the problem of shooting on location. Truffaut could have cut directly from the extreme long-shot to reveal the mother (that is, from my second shot to my fourth). But that would have been rather disjunctive, and without the railing in the third shot we wouldn’t know the characters’ orientation very clearly. The shot of the railing indicates that we’re roughly opposite to the angle taken in the extreme long shot. But the whole series—three shots needed to establish that the mother has a lover and is kissing him—is somewhat uneconomical.
Having given us important information about the mother’s affair, Hitchcock might have made us wait longer, raising suspense about whether Antoine would discover the illicit couple. Instead Truffaut cuts immediately to a panning shot of Antoine and his pal passing and looking more or less to the camera. That’s followed by a shot of the mother seeing Antoine and turning abruptly away. The boys also turn away and hurry off.
We’re in the familiar territory of constructive editing and the Kuleshov effect. There’s no establishing shot that includes all the dramatic elements. Similarity of locale, the exchange of glances, continuity of sound effects, and the concept (they see each other) knit the shots together.
Again, though, there’s a certain roughness to the effect. The second shot of the mother looking into the camera seems to be roughly Antoine’s point of view, but that camera setup has already been given us as an “objective” shot of her kissing her partner. Apart from the eyeline, there isn’t any marker of the second one as subjective—such as a sidelong camera movement that might correspond to Antoine’s walking viewpoint. POV shots can be slippery in classical filmmaking, so it’s not exactly an error, but Truffaut gave up the chance for a more nuanced variant.
The couple’s placement remains a little vague in this shot too, again because there’s no railing to orient us. If the mother is more or less blocked by her lover (her back is to the railing), her later glance at Antoine must fall quite far down the sidewalk on her left. But when he passes he’s further up the sidewalk, on her right. Yet he’s supposedly looking more or less directly at her.
Put it another way. In the physical terms given by earlier shots, the lover’s back would hide the mother from Antoine until he was quite far down the sidewalk on her left. He’d have to turn back to see her. Yet the boy seems to be looking at her from a position more or less opposite her, in effect “through” the lover’s back.
Plainly we get the point of the scene. But there’s a certain roughness to the presentation. That may be why Truffaut felt he needed the return to the railing setup to show the mother turning away, followed by an explicit underscoring of what just happened through dialogue.
Hitchcock, a little sadly: “I would’ve hoped that there was nothing spoken.”
Truffaut admitted to Hitchcock that he didn’t have enough footage and was forced to intercut the shots too much. “In the cutting room it was absurd. . . . It was less good than if I’d thought it out beforehand. Then I would have had a variety [of shots].”
In the interview Hitchcock goes on to remake the sequence at one remove. He suggests that we could start with Antoine walking and markedly seeing the mother. Then we see her turn, “looking in his direction.” The boy turns away, then she turns away. Simple and straightforward.
To get a concrete example, consider how Hitch directed a scene of one person catching another by surprise. In Stage Fright, the blackmailing maid Nellie Goode has come to the garden party to squeeze more money from Eve Gill. Hitchcock shows us that Nellie is present and then shows Eve and Ordinary Smith approaching unawares in a distant shot—more or less from Nellie’s optical standpoint.
Thus the shot of the person seen is anchored in relation to the person seeing. After a reverse angle on Nellie, with the long-shot scale more or less matching its mate, we get a shot of Eve noticing Nellie.
We have another piece of constructive editing, but we scarcely notice the absence of a master shot. The geography is crystal clear, not least because of the marked eyeline. And now, as in Truffaut’s scene, an objective framing becomes subjective. We get a parallel series of shots, one setup showing Nellie advancing, the other a tight framing just on Eve, who halts Nellie by signaling with her eyes and mouth. On the couple, the framing has gone from long-shot to two-shot to single.
When Nellie stops, puzzled, Eve launches her plan to send Smith off to her girlfriends. Eve leaves, Smith follows, and we’re back to Nellie watching in annoyance.
Bare-bones though it is, this sequence is more complicated than Truffaut’s, because the third party, Ordinary Smith, mustn’t be allowed to notice Nellie. We take it for granted that the mother’s lover doesn’t recognize Antoine, but Eve must actively distract Smith. Moreover, there is dialogue running throughout this action, as Smith chatters away to charm Eve. So we have the familiar Hitchcock technique of playing banal dialogue in counterpoint to suspenseful imagery.
Everything that happens—Nellie waiting in ambush, the exchange of looks, the fluttering expressions on Eve’s face, the policeman’s obtuseness—is rendered fully. The functional precision of this simple passage shows why Hitchcock liked shooting in the studio. He could control all his angles, eyelines, and shot scales exactly. Truffaut had to make do with what he could grab on a very busy location. Still, as he points out, he compensated somewhat by the very tightly controlled scene later in 400 Blows, when Antoine’s parents come to school. There the closed conditions of the classroom allowed a sharper articulation of glances and camera angles. It’s no set-piece, but it’s a tidier piece of work, somewhat Hitchcockian.
The Truffaut thriller
Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississippi).
I have adapted too many novels, especially American novels. Oddly enough, it has become quite clear that (with the exception of Jules et Jim) my intentions have been better understood when I have filmed such original screenplays as Les 400 Coups, Baisers voles, L’Enfant sauvage, and La Nuit américain than when having filmed Irish and Goodis.
François Truffaut, letter, 1974
Mystery novels were popular in France well before World War II, and films prefiguring the tone of noir cinema, such as Pépé le Moko and Le jour se lève, began to appear in the late 1930s. The Nazi occupation, by shutting off American films, stimulated the French industry, which during the war produced some important films of crime and suspense. Over the same years Simenon, who wrote both detective stories and psychological thrillers, became a respected literary figure. But it was not until the postwar period that the roman noir became a major literary trend. That was partly due to new publishing initiatives like the Série Noire collection (established 1945), which translated a great many American and English crime writers, and the Fleuve Noir series (1949), which cultivated French authors. Within this lively milieu, the team of Boileau and Narcejac achieved fame with novels that became the sources for Diabolique and Vertigo.
The burst of translations of American authors in the 1940s and 1950s paralleled the postwar flood of US films, including films noirs. Truffaut, like his Nouvelle Vague friends, grew up reading crime fiction and watching Hollywood thrillers. He was fourteen years old when Double Indemnity was released in Paris, and twenty-two when Rear Window was. Over those same years crime writers like Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis were being translated in French editions. Writing of Woolrich, whom he knew under the pseudonym William Irish, Truffaut recalled:
The cinephiles of my generation knew Irish before they had read a single line of his, because many of his novels and short stories were the basis of the bizarre and fascinating films of the forties and fifties, such as Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man, Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, Roy William Neil’s Black Angel, John Farrow’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window, and especially one of the best if not the best Hitchcock film, Rear Window.
Truffaut came to admire the novels’ authors fors their modesty, their professionalism, and their ability to create, behind a pulp surface, “free works” that opened onto sadness, dream worlds, and lost memories.
No wonder, then, that when the young directors sought to make films of wide popular appeal, they turned to noir. If you wanted to generate emotion in a wide audience and to tackle a project that posed formal and technical challenges, some version of the thriller seemed a promising way to go. Claude Chabrol, co-author of a book on Hitchcock, built his career on suspense films, sometimes adapted from English-language authors. More notoriously, Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA was an unrecognizable rendering of a crook novel by the great Donald Westlake. As late as 1986 Godard undertook to adapt a James Hadley Chase novel for French television.
Truffaut turned to American thrillers when he wanted a change of pace from his dramas. Naturally the spirit of Hitchcock hovered over such projects. By looking at some problems he faced, we can get another angle on what he learned, or did not learn, from the Master.
As Truffaut became more wedded to shooting in studio conditions, he might have handled scenes with a degree of Stage Fright precision. But he had a predilection for lengthy takes, with fairly open horizontal staging covered in simple, lateral camera movements. Often shooting in anamorphic widescreen, something Hitchcock never did, Truffaut needed to fill up the horizontal expanse, Fluid panning and tracking from a fair distance seemed a good solution. But that meant sacrificing Hitchcock’s urge to build scenes out of details, tight shots of facial expression or close-ups of significant props.
If Truffaut needs a detail, he may accentuate it with an abrupt close-up. In The Bride Wore Black, Julie Kohler wants to be alone with her victim. When the victim’s friend brings her a drink, she dumps it into a flower pot, signaling that he should take off.
Much later, the friend casually waters his own African violet. (Did he inherit his dead friend’s plant?) The gesture reminds him of where he’s seen the woman before. The cut-in detail functions as a sort of flashback for us.
The example indicates Truffaut’s inclination to use close-ups of faces and objects to punctuate the master shot—a more traditional and conservative choice than Hitchcock’s urge to build a scene out of bits.
Truffaut confronted larger narrative problems in the thriller genre. One involves the protagonist. In the classic thriller, as opposed to the detective story, the protagonist is either the criminal, the victim, or a bystander drawn into the intrigue (as in Rear Window). And typically our range of knowledge roughly corresponds to that of the protagonist.
In Truffaut’s first thriller, Shoot the Piano Player, he adheres fairly closely to the standpoint of the protagonist, as presented in the source novel, David Goodis’ Down There (1956). Likewise, Mississippi Mermaid attaches us to Louis Mahé, a plantation owner who has married a woman whom he knows only from letters. He eventually discovers that she’s an impostor and a hardened criminal. Like its source, the Cornell Woolrich novel Waltz into Darkness (1947), the film restricts us quite closely to Mahé’s range of knowledge. At only one point do we leave Mahé and follow his business partner, who glimpses the wife quarreling violently with another man. Nothing much comes of this, but we are alerted to her possible treachery.
Another Woolrich novel, The Bride Wore Black (1940), has a bolder structure. The protagonist is the woman bent on revenge who kills five men, one by one. The viewpoint shifts from victim to victim. After the first killing we know, as the men don’t, that this woman who enters their lives is a murderer, so the suspense comes in wondering whether they’ll escape. Each section of the book concentrating on a victim ends with a chapter devoted to the policeman who is trying to make sense of these apparently random deaths. He becomes a secondary protagonist.
By contrast, Truffaut makes the policeman merely a walk-on (although a friend of two victims, the plant-waterer seen above, plays a minor investigative role). Instead Truffaut attaches us to Julie more strongly, so that we follow her from crime to crime. As she calculates ways to enter each man’s life, the emphasis falls on how she plays to each one’s fantasies. While early victims are given privileged scenes apart from Julie, as the film goes along we are bound more closely to her. Truffaut’s belief in overpowering love traces how she dedicates her life to avenging her dead husband.
Another gender shift is followed in Vivement, Dimanche! (Confidentially Yours; “Can’t Wait for Sunday!”). Charles Williams’ novel, The Long Saturday Night (1962), is told in the first person by a man hunted by the police for a pair of murders. We’re attached to him as he flees, investigates on his own, and hides out in his real estate office. At certain points he sends his secretary out to do some snooping, and she plays a critical role in trapping the real killer. But clearly the accused man functions as protagonist.
In adapting the book, Truffaut turns his lover, Fanny Ardent, into a detective. She will risk her life for the man she silently adores: “an ordinary woman, a valiant secretary, determined to prove her boss’s innocence.” As a result, early portions of the film show the trap closing around the self-centered, quarrelsome Vercel. Once he gets immobilized hiding in his office, our attachment shifts to Barbara, the resourceful secretary, and we follow her investigation. The structure is a bit like that of Phantom Lady, in which a woman tries to find evidence to clear her imprisoned lover. Eventually Vercel and Barbara learn to work together. The situation echoes those American mystery-comedies like The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) and Fast Company (1938), centering on a married couple who solve a crime in tandem. Here, though, the grudging cooperation creates the romance.
The selection of a film’s protagonist and center of consciousness impinges on a second problem that’s worth considering. A thriller, while not having the structure of the classic detective tale, may harbor some mysteries. That is, the reader/viewer is not given some key information about past or offstage events. At some point that information must be presented, so the question is: When?
Timing the Big Reveal
Like the detective story, the thriller often saves the Big Reveal for the end. Hitchcock employed this in The 39 Steps, Spellbound, and Stage Fright. But Hitchcock plays with the Big Reveal. Shadow of a Doubt doesn’t fully confirm Uncle Charlie’s guilt until Young Charlie realizes it, about halfway through the film. Creating the Big Reveal through a switch in attached viewpoint helps him here, as Young Charlie has become the protagonist. In Frenzy, the killer’s identity is revealed to us thirty minutes in, so that we can feel suspense as he approaches other victims and as the innocent man seems more likely to be charged.
Boldest of all, however, is the Big Reveal in Vertigo. The original novel saved it for the very end, but Hitchcock made a daring choice. After nearly 100 minutes of being attached to Scottie Ferguson, we get a scene fully 30 minutes before the end that suddenly gives us access to what another character knows. A flashback, guided by Judy’s anxious look to the camera, clears up the entire situation. On the tape, Hitchcock says:
What will Stewart say when he finds that this is one and the same woman? This is your main thought. In addition, you have this added value. You watch the woman resisting being changed back. . . . Now you have a woman who realizes this is a man who’s practically unmasking her.
The wider range of knowledge not only enhances suspense but makes Scottie a more pitiable figure, as we realize that his weaknesses have been exploited. The fact that Judy writes the letter to explain it also measures the extent of her love for him and her shame at participating in the murder scheme. Narrationally, the film dispels mystery to heighten suspense and the romantic drama—as well as the “sex-psychological side,” as Hitch calls it, evoking necrophilia.
In their conversation Hitchcock and Truffaut often turned to issues about when to reveal backstory, and Truffaut took some of the lessons to heart. He uses the option playfully in Vivement, Dimanche! in two misleading ellipses. At one point we see Vercel going back to his house at night, and then we cut to Barbara in her theatre rehearsal. Next morning in the office, Vercel tells her his wife is dead, and we get a flashback that replays his arrival home but prolongs it to include his discovery of her corpse. Later, when Barbara discovers the secret panel in the lawyer’s office, we again cut away to a new scene, and only later does her flashback explain what she discovered. Since the lawyer is obviously the killer (as isn’t true in the book), I take these as narrational filigree aiming to keep us engaged.
Vivement, Dimanche! saves its Big Reveal for the end, as does its source. In Shoot the Piano Player, the long flashback to Charlie’s concert career that takes up the middle stretch likewise corresponds to a centrally placed flashback in Goodis’ novel. Mississippi Mermaid makes Marion’s confession the fulcrum of the film; in choosing to join her on the run, Mahé becomes a criminal himself. Woolrich’s novel has the same structure, making the mystery component occupy the first half and the suspense-pursuit component dominate the second.
Something closer to the Vertigo gambit takes place in Truffaut’s handling of The Bride Wore Black. In the original novel, Woolrich postpones revealing Julie’s motive until the very end of the book. The trauma impelling her is the murder of her husband as they were leaving the wedding ceremony. Through dramatic irony, in her confrontation with the cop, she learns that her interpretation of that event was mistaken. The men she killed were innocent. Her fiancé, whom she revered, was a petty criminal shot by other crooks.
By making Julie the protagonist, however, the film puts a greater stress on the thwarted love that turns to righteous violence. (Julie’s name, Kohler, suggests colère, wrath.) Truffaut enhances this element of passion-beyond-limits through a choice about exposition. Instead of saving the Big Reveal for the end, he exposes Julie’s motive in two steps. As her second victim dies, we get a brief flashback to the wedding at which her husband is shot. This encourages us to start to sympathize with her vengeance campaign.
At the film’s midpoint, when Julie traps her third victim, there’s a full flashback to the wedding, and we learn what led to the husband’s death. No rival gangsters are involved. Five irresponsible men playing with a rifle have robbed Julie of happiness. Now, thirty-five minutes into the film, we understand Julie’s motive and can sympathize as she proceeds to use the men’s vanities against them. In a finale wholly devised for the film, she is resolutely unchastised and manages to polish off her last victim in prison. Unlike Woolrich’s bride in black, who regrets her tragic error, Truffaut’s avenging angel has remained pitiless to the bloody end.
The revelation of Julie’s motive doesn’t have the force of Judy’s flashback in Vertigo, which breaks very abruptly from our lengthy attachment to Scottie. But as in Hitchcock’s film, a Big Reveal before the climax expands our awareness of the dramatic forces at work and increases our sympathy for the protagonist.
Truffaut will never be as experimental as Hitchcock; as Andrew Sarris once remarked, between form and vitality Truffaut chooses vitality. And I think he has a tendency to sabotage his thriller elements. He provides a quasi-optimistic ending to Mississippi Mermaid and he reveals, in Baisers volés, that an apparent stalker nurtures a pure love. I once argued that this is Truffaut’s “Renoirian” side, letting him break noir formulas in favor of something more poignant. Still, I think that in his quiet way he absorbed some lessons of the Master.
Kent Jones’ film opens up the Hitchcock—Truffaut relationship in fresh ways, and it stirs us to follow up the ideas that intrigue us. It’s the most stimulating film about a director that I’ve ever seen, teaching you about not just Hitchcock but cinema in general. Just as interviews can illuminate the films we love, so can documentaries, if they blend admiration with analysis. Popular material, yes, and treated with intelligence.
Thanks to Kent for sharing Hitchcock/Truffaut with me, to Kelley Conway for help with a French translation, and to Lea Jacobs and Kristin for identifying the plants.
A bold vertical cover design made the Hitchbook universally known as Truffaut/Hitchcock, but the title is, strictly speaking, “Hitchcock by François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen Scott” (Simon and Schuster, 1966). The revised edition, with the same title, came out in 1983. Truffaut’s comments about Hitchcock’s morale after Psycho are on p. 328 there.
The broadcast version of the interviews is online at slashfilm. The portion discussing the 400 Blows scene is in Part 22, starting around 11:30; the material on Vertigo is in Part 21, starting at 17:28. For an in-depth report on differences between the tapes and the book, see Janet Bergstrom, “Lost in Translation? Listening to the Hitchcock—Truffaut Interview,” in Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague, A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 386-404.
Quotations from Truffaut’s letters come from François Truffaut, Correspondence 1945-1984, ed. Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray, trans. Gilbert Adair (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 192, 218, 311, 426. The Rear Window review is in The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (Simon and Schuster, 1975), 77. Truffaut’s intentions about Vivement, Dimanche! are discussed in Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut: A Biography (Knopf, 1999), 373. The letter in which he talks about changing American critics’ minds is mentioned here as well, on p. 194.
The reviews I’ve quoted are Robert Sklar, “Two Masters of Cinema,” The Reporter (8 February 1968), 48; Eliot Fremont-Smith, “Dial H for Suspense,” New York Times (11 December 1967), 45; and Arthur Knight, “With the Master,” New York Times (17 December 1967), 6, 27. In a nuanced review, Leo Braudy charged that Truffaut’s concern with technique diverted him from analyzing the films’ more disturbing aspects (“Hitchcock, Truffaut, and the Irresponsible Audience,” Film Quarterly 21, 4 (Summer 1968), 21-27). Jones’ film, thanks to his script and his commenters, happily goes in that direction.
Raymond Bellour’s “System of a Fragment (on The Birds)” is available in a revised version in The Analysis of Film, ed. Constance Penley (Indiana University Press, 2000), 28-67. He pays tribute to Truffaut’s “great book of interviews” with Hitchcock and recalls that Truffaut helped him prepare his analysis by providing a shot breakdown based on the release print.
Sidney Gottlieb, “Hitchcock on Truffaut,” Film Quarterly 66, 4 (Summer 2013), 10-22 considers the two Hitchcockian scenes in 400 Blows in detail. The portions I’ve quoted are available in Sid’s other version of the piece, “Hitchcock on Truffaut,” in Hitchcock on Hitchcock 2 (University of California Press, 2015), 134-136. My quotation about handling popular material with intelligence comes from the same volume, in the 1930 essay “Making Murder!,” 166.
Truffaut’s comments about inserting serious concerns in a thriller framework come from a 1962 Cahiers interview in which he imagines Chabrol’s Bonnes femmes as done by Hitchcock (“The Shop-Girl Vanishes”). In the same interview Truffaut confesses that he modeled Shoot the Piano Player too closely on Goodis’s novel and regrets including the flashback. See “Interview with François Truffaut (second extract),” in Peter Graham, ed., The New Wave (Doubleday, 1968), 94-95, 108. Truffaut discusses American thriller writers in “Les Espadrilles de William Irish,” in Le Plaisir des yeux (Cahiers du cinéma, 1987), 133-137. I take Sarris’s remark about form and vitality from “François Truffaut,” in Interviews with Film Directors (Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 447.
There’s a fair amount about Hitchcock on this site; you could start here. The high angle in North by Northwest is discussed in Chapter 4 of our Film Art: An Introduction, where we point out that Hitchcock makes a joke of it. (Van Damm suggests that silencing Eve is a matter “best disposed of from a great height.”) For a discussion of how Hitchcock’s work relates to 1940s American suspense fiction, see the web essay, “Murder Culture.” As usual, Mike Grost’s encyclopedic survey of crime and mystery fiction is a powerful resource; see in particular his discussion of “the Woolrich school.”
Psycho; Vivement, Dimanche!
Mission: Impossible (1996).
The phrase “visual storytelling” is a very modern invention. It seems to be unknown before the mid-1940s, and it doesn’t really become common until the 1990s. It applies to film, of course, but it also refers to comic strips and other media. Sometimes it carries a prescriptive edge: In a pictorial medium, you should tell your stories visually—rather than, say, through lots of talk. The motto is sometimes summarized as Show, don’t tell.
Elsewhere on this site, I’ve argued that sometimes that advice should be ignored. A monologue about incidents in the past can sometimes be more powerful than a flashback depicting them. That power often owes something to the actors’ performances—which are, after all, no less visual than the story action being told us.
Similarly, who would attack great films like His Girl Friday for being too talky? An essential pleasure of American cinema from the 1930s on is the way that some scenes let dialogue take the lead. And it’s not just the words but how, and how fast, they are spoken.
Still, I do enjoy scenes that cut the gab and give us a flow of pictures that coax us to follow a story. My pantheon of great filmmakers includes Eisenstein, Keaton, Griffith, Lang, and many other silent masters. But mentioning them reminds me of something else that needs to be said.
Visual storytelling is seldom purely visual. In film, it needs concepts and music and noises and even dialogue to work most fully. We can learn a lot, I think, by starting with “purely visual” passages and see how they’re reinforced by other inputs.
Take the most vociferous defender of visual storytelling, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
I want to put my film together on the screen, not simply to photograph something that has been put together already in the form of a long piece of stage acting. This is what gives an effect of life to a picture—the feeling that when you see it on the screen you are watching something that has been conceived and brought to birth directly in visual terms.
Yet Hitch needed words and music throughout his career. Put aside the talkathons that are Lifeboat, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Dial M for Murder. His silent films, including The Lodger and others, need written intertitles (dialogue-based, expository) to present the drama. The brilliant Albert Hall sequence in the first Man Who Knew Too Much (run here, analyzed here) would lose much of its power without the tight synchronization of shot-changes with the musical score. I yield to no one in my admiration for the climax of Notorious, which cuts rhythmically as the main characters gather in a knot and step slowly down a staircase. But the progress of the drama needs the snatches of dialogue no less than the close-up glances and POV shots, and they get integrated into the implacable beat of descent.
Then there’s Rear Window, which has a fascinating double opening. The first uses imagery, music, and sound effects to present the situation of Jeff laid up in his apartment over the courtyard. After a tour of the neighbors’ flats, seen from a distance, we’re shown why Jeff is lying there in a sweat.
But during the next scene Jeff gets on the phone with his editor. Now much of the information we got visually is reiterated in dialogue.
Jeff’s optical POV cuts during the phone conversation also recapitulate the neighbors’ routines that we’ve seen in the first sequence. By the end of this second scene, image and sound have explained his situation wholly, thanks to a division of labor. The first, wordless sequence is a kind of test for the viewer, and the second serves as the answer key.
Which brings me to Brian De Palma, Hitch’s self-conscious heir. Of the 1970s generation, he was the most explicit in defending the purity of the pictures in motion pictures.
1973: I always have very precise visual ideas and then try to construct a story around them as opposed to writing a story and then trying to figure out how I’m going to shoot it. . . . As far as I’m concerned, you are dealing with pure cinema—that is, with what is right on the screen—and you should try to think what it will look like.
1984: Images run through my brain all the time. Lately I’ve been thinking about rearview mirrors. You can see people in the next car out your rearview mirror. They’re always doing the most personal things—putting on makeup, fighting, kissing, whatever. I want to put that in a movie. Someone could see a murder in their rearview mirror.
1992: Do you really want to go to work every day and shoot two-shots of people talking to each other? Is that directing?
2002: I’ve been obsessed with this kind of visual storytelling for quite a while, and I try to create material that allows me to explore it. I did quite a lot of it in Femme Fatale. And it put me on a course of, “How can I find visual ideas and work them into the stories I want to tell?” That’s something that haunts me all the time.
Hence the famous De Palma set pieces. Usually scenes of violence, they’re handled through elaborate crosscutting, optical POV, steep high and low angles, slow-motion, bravura camera moves, and extreme deep focus (often with a split-focus diopter). We think of the murders in Sisters and Dressed to Kill, the stalking of Nancy Allen in Blow Out, the baby carriage in Union Station in The Untouchables, and the outrageous Cannes festival opening of Femme Fatale.
Then there’s the invasion of CIA headquarters by Ethan Hunt’s scratch team in Mission: Impossible (1996). In the director’s search for pure cinema, this might be the purest of all.
From here on in
The invasion sequence runs an astonishing eighteen minutes and, as typical of a film’s Development section, constitutes almost pure delay. You can imagine doing it in a couple of minutes, or a lot more.
The main portion of the sequence crosscuts several lines of action. The hacker Luther crouches over his monitor in the firetruck, tracking the parties in the building. Inside Claire tags and dopes the analyst Donloe. From the air duct the venal Krieger suspends Ethan on a rope as he drops down into the black vault (which is white). Ethan must dangle above the computer keyboard extracting the NOC list of agents. We also get occasional glimpses of Kittridge, Ethan’s nemesis, in a central control room.
These lines of action are conveyed through several striking visual ideas. We get the geometry of De Palma’s beloved bird’s-eye camera positions.
There’s extreme depth, jamming two dramatic elements into sharp relationships: Ethan and Donloe, Krieger and the rat approaching him from behind.
Even the rather perfunctory tag, the firing of poor Donloe (“Mail him his clothes”), is rendered in a flashy split-focus shot.
Compared to what we expect from a blockbuster, this sequence depends to a remarkable degree on a quiet flow of visual information. David Koepp, one of the screenwriters, explains De Palma’s plan:
He had another great idea, which was a reaction to the current state of summer movies at the time. He was tired of all the noise, of the bigger bigger bigger noisier noisier noisier setpieces, and desperately wanted to come up with one that used silence instead. He cackled at the idea of a big summer movie set piece that was predicated on silence.
The result is nice case study in visual storytelling. It also indicates how even a pure instance needs non-visual elements to be understood.
Top among those elements is genre. We know a heist situation when we see one, and that knowledge forms a kind of hollow form, a schema into which we slot the elements that generate suspense. What elements? There’s the need for silence and concealment. There’s Donloe, the oblivious analyst who comes in and out of the vault; he must be distracted, but he may still return at the wrong moment. There are unexpected obstacles—a suspicious guard, a curious rat, and a drop of sweat. There’s the risk of a telltale detail that may betray the invaders, such as Krieger’s dagger, dropped onto an arm rest. Over it all hovers a deadline, so that the heist becomes a race against time. (Not only is there a clock in the room, but a digital readout warns us of the rising temperature in the room, another potential giveaway.) Visual storytelling is enormously helped when we bring so much prior knowledge about the type of situation we confront.
“From here on in,” Ethan warns the team, “absolute silence.” For them, maybe, but not for us. The music continues a bit before subsiding for about ten minutes. Even then, the silence isn’t absolute. We hear the hum of the vault, the scratchy patter of the rat approaching Krieger in the ductwork, and the squeaking of the rope as Krieger pays it out and strains to keep Ethan poised above the floor.
Clearly, in his concern for visual storytelling De Palma isn’t ruling out noise and music. What he’s opposed to is talk. But there is talk, however discreet, here too. In M:I, I count about two dozen lines of dialogue once Krieger and Ethan get positioned above the vault. These chiefly involve Luther whispering information to Ethan about Donloe’s whereabouts. Granted, many of his lines are very terse (“He’s in the bathroom,” “Check,” “Good”). Still, dialogue serves as a good redundancy factor, accentuating the suspense of the situation and at one moment giving us access to Luther’s reaction, when he discovers that what Ethan has nabbed is the precious NOC list.
Just as important, our experience of the full suspense of the scene depends on talk we’ve heard earlier. Ethan has gathered his team on the train and is explaining how the security system at Langley works. Using a strategy that goes back to Lang’s M, M:I presents Ethan’s verbal walk-through of the procedures as a voice-over for footage of Donloe executing them. The sequence introduces us to Donloe, familiarizes us with the constraints of the heist, and maps out the normal going-and-coming rhythm that Donloe’s spasmodic upchucking will disrupt.
So the vault break-in can rely on relative silence partly because the situation has been given fully by Ethan’s verbiage. In a way, it’s the reverse order of the Rear Window tutorial: dialogue first, then images to give it dramatic impact.
Drop by drop
Let me close today’s entry with a less obvious but still nifty passage of (audio-) visual storytelling. It comes at the start of Mission: Impossible.
Instead of the usual and wasteful extreme long shots of the city we’re in, taken from a distance or coasting high above the streets, we start immediately, in the closet where Jack Harmon is bent over a monitor. Already we have two things to watch: the sting operation captured by a hidden camera, and the reactions of Jack as he watches.
Correction: Three things to watch. There’s also the owner of the feminine arm on the frame edge of the opening setup. The camera’s track-in eliminates it, but the reverse angle on Jack reminds us that some woman is there, in the right background and out of focus. The script calls her a “whorehouse waitress,” but that’s not apparent from what we see in the film.
Cutting back and forth between Jack and the monitor not only gives us his reaction, but reminds us of the woman, who changes position in the shots.
Once the official Kasimov has given the name Ethan needs, the team’s goal is achieved and Jack can search it on his computer. In the meantime, Kasimov needs to be dragged off without fuss, and so must be given a drugged drink. That, we now understand, is the task of the woman hovering in the background of Jack’s shots. We’ve also been primed by the tray with bottle and glasses in the first shot.
One option would be to pan or cut to the woman behind Jack and show her doping the drink. (This is what the shooting script seems to call for.) We might even see the woman’s face as she does it, but even if we don’t, a shot emphasizing her would give us a lot of other inessential information about the room.
De Palma makes another choice. This woman is important only in terms of what she does. Panning to her, or supplying a separate shot, and showing her face might make her seem as important a character as Jack, Ethan, or Claire. She’s not. So De Palma reduces her to her function: doping the drink. And for economy, she does it in the same setup previously devoted to Jack’s reaction. She’s kept in the background.
But the problem now is making sure the audience sees the gesture. De Palma could presumably have given us one of his split-focus shots, but here he does something more daring. The woman’s hand is above the upper frame edge, so all we see is the eyedropper in action. As it squeezes dope into the glass, all sound except Jack’s typing is cut from the track. We hear the drops very loudly, in what Jean Epstein called a “sonic close-up.” The precision of the sound compensates for the fact that the gesture is out of focus.
The bit ends when she slips out of the room in the background….
…and enters the scene shown on the monitor to serve the drink.
This is a tidy piece of classic continuity. If we don’t understand what’s happening, it’s not De Palma’s fault. Now that we see the serving woman more clearly, as one among several functionaries, there’s no reason for us to think she’ll be important in the action to come. By contrast, as Ethan revives Claire, we get tight reverse shots of them—not only underscoring their importance but setting up the quasi-affair that will be important in the plot ahead.
As often happens, the scene conforms to an action schema we have about crime and spy skullduggery: drugging your adversary’s drink. Here the schema is actualized in a way we don’t normally see, but the essential cues are present. And even this gesture has a larger purpose. We can expect the M:I team to drug somebody else, as indeed they will in the Langley exploit. Then we can get a proper close-up to understand that Claire’s task is accomplished. And of course drops will become pretty important when Ethan is dangling just above the vault floor.
I wish I had time to consider other examples of visual storytelling in Mission: Impossible. There’s the credits sequence, for instance. In reviving the TV series’ original glimpses of the episode to come, the sequence yields something that is very rare in feature film: anticipations of particular things we’ll see. TV network programming gave us bumpers that offered teasing previews of high points in the next show up. Did M:I, like I Spy, swallow up such “flashforwards” into its credit sequences? And how much did these TV credits owe to the anticipatory images in the credits of Goldfinger?
Above all, I’d like to spare time for the very clever flashbacks that, at the climax, show us how the initial murder of the team actually went. I call them clever because it’s not at that moment certain whether they are flashbacks constructed solely for us, to tip us off to the betrayal, or whether they also represent Ethan’s new understanding of that early bloodbath. But of course those quick flashbacks depend on nonvisual information as well, especially the voice-over that accompanies them.
Still, I hope I’ve said enough to suggest that “visual storytelling” in film needs both sound and more impalpable factors—context, familiar situations, genre conventions—to work. And those factors in turn depend on our knowledge of conceptual structures (schemas) that the film prompts us to lock in. As usual, narrative movies provide the audience an instruction kit, coaxing us to apply our knowledge to a fresh instance. In other words, the eye is part of the brain.
Many thanks to David Koepp for information about the production of Mission: Impossible. For some of David’s ideas about visual storytelling go here. The shooting script is available online here. Watch for David’s next directorial effort, the 60s-style intrigue comedy Mortdecai, coming 23 January!
My Hitchcock quotation comes from his 1937 essay, “Direction.” The version of that piece I’ve used is in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (University of California Press, 1995), 256. The De Palma quotations are all from Brian De Palma Interviews, ed. Laurence F. Knapp (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 12, 84, 131, 177.
Why do Development sections tend to include delays? See Kristin’s blog entry here and her Storytelling in the New Hollywood. I discuss her layout of plot parts in another Mission: Impossible installment in “Anatomy of the Action Picture.” On the imagery of Dial M for Murder, there’s this blog entry.
Gipsy Anne (1920).
A stack of new DVDs/BDs and books has been gradually building up on the floor in a corner of my study. I’ve been meaning to blog about them, but first I had to catch up with viewing and reading. Or did I? With this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato starting next week, I suddenly realized that the DVDs at the bottom of the pile were ones I bought there last year! Clearly, I would never catch up.
So this entry aims to notify you of releases, many obscure, that you may so far have missed. Mostly the DVDs and BDs come from the dedicated archives and independent home-video companies that release historical rarities and restorations.
Early Scandinavian films
I don’t think I had ever seen a Norwegian silent film, apart from the one Carl Dreyer made there, Glomdalsbruden (The Bride of Glomdal, 1925). Though produced between Master of the House and the wonderful La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, The Bride of Glomdal is unquestionably one of Dreyer’s lesser works.
In the sales room at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, one stand was selling four new releases of Norwegian and Swedish silent and early sound films. All were issued by the Norsk FilmInstitutt.
Of these, the most important seems to be Fante-Anne (Gipsy Anne), directed in 1920 by Rasmus Breistein. It’s generally considered the first Norwegian feature film, launching the genre of the rural melodrama that would be a mainstay of the industry.
This is the only one of these Norwegian films that I have so far watched, and it’s a remarkable one. Clearly Breistein and his cinematographer Gunnar Nilsen-Vig were influenced by the great Swedish films of Sjöström and Stiller, and though Gipsy Ann is not up to the best work of those two, it shares the same feeling for landscape for for allowing a melodramatic situation to develop slowly and in unexpected ways.
It tells the story of a foundling child, Anne taken in by a widow who owns a large farm and who raises the girl alongside her son, Haldor. Haldor is a timid boy, constantly led astray by the adventurous Anne. Once they grow up, the two fall in love, but Haldor’s mother pushes her son into an engagement with a young woman from a well-to-do family. In the meantime, Jon, a humble tenant farmer working for the widow, falls in love with Anne, who snubs him.
Gipsy Anne has none of the clumsiness in lighting and staging that one so often sees in European films of the period around 1920. The cinematography is beautiful, as the frame at the top shows. Breistein has mastered shot/reverse shot and other aspects of analytical editing. The lighting is impressive, with some interiors using a strong backlight through windows and a soft fill that gives a sense of realism (left).
The film also sets up neat visual parallels. In a scene in Anne’s childhood (below left), she hides by an old farm building and curiously spies on some local lovers. Much later, she lurks heartbroken by Haldor’s lavish new house as he shows it to his fiancée:
There are even some planimetric shots that yield dramatic compositions, one when Jon comforts the young Anne when she learns that she was adopted, and another, much later, when Anne is in court testifying about the fire that burned down Haldor’s new house:
Again there is a parallel, since Anne is hiding her own guilt in starting the fire, and Jon is about to falsely confess to the crime to protect her. (There’s also a hint at influence from Dreyer in that courtroom shot.)
Of the four releases, Fante-Anne is the only one put out in a Blu-ray version, packaged along with a DVD and an informative booklet in Norwegian and English. The print, with toning and a pleasantly rustic-sounding score, has English subtitles. Oddly enough, the Norsk Filminstitutt does not have an online shop. The film is available from at least two Norwegian online dealers in Scandinavian videos, Nordicdvd and Dvdhuset. It can also be ordered from an American source, Blu-ray.com.
Markens Grøde (The Growth of the Soil) was made only a year later, in 1921; it was directed by Gunnar Sommerfeldt and is another rural melodrama, adapted from a Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same title. This release is 89 minutes long and includes subtitles in English, French, Spanish, German, and Russian. It, too, can be ordered from Nordicdvd and DVDhuset.
The third release is an epic film, Brudeferden i Hardanger (The Bridal Party in Hardanger, 1926). Its two parts run 104 and 74 minutes; it was also directed by Rasmus Breistein, with cinematography by Gunnar Nilsen-Vig. DVDhuset carries it, but not Nordicdvd. It is, however, available from Amazon.uk. It has English subtitles.
Finally there is “Bjørnson på film,” a compilation of three early films based on the pastoral writings of Nobel Prize-winning author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and was issued in 2010, the centenary year of the author’s death. Two of these are Swedish productions: Synnøve Solbakken (1919, director John W. Brunius) and Et Farlig Frieri (A Dangerous Proposal, 1919, director Rune Carlsten). Lars Hansen stars in both, and Karin Molander co-stars in Synnøve Solbakken. The third is an early Norwegian talkie, En Glad Gutt (A Happy Boy, 1932, director John W. Brunius).
After considerable searching, I can find no online source for this 2-DVD set. Perhaps it will become available. Otherwise you’ll have to come to Il Cinema Ritrovato and see if it’s on sale again. If not, at least you will have a great time!
All these releases are PAL, though Fante-Anne is also Blu-ray region B; they would all need to be played on a multi-standard machine.
(Mostly) American treasures
The well-known and invaluable “Treasures” series from the National Film Preservation Foundation has become somewhat difficult to keep track of. It started with “Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films.” That was followed by “More Treasures from American Film Archives: 1894-1931.” After that volume numbers appeared, and the references to archives were dropped in favor of thematic collections: “Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934″ and “American Treasures IV: Avant Garde 1947-1986.” Then Roman numerals disappeared with “Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938.”(The ones linked are still in print.)
Now we have an unnumbered entry, but it’s still part of the series: “Lost & Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive.” Most readers will recall that in 2010 it was announced that about 75 films had been found in the New Zealand Film Archive. News coverage mostly centered on John Ford’s 1927 feature Upstream, which had up to that point been lost. That film forms the central attraction for this new release.
It also includes, however, an incomplete print of a distinctly non-American film, The White Shadow (1924). It was directed by Graham Cutts, but it is mainly of interest now as a film on which the young Alfred Hitchcock worked in several capacities. He wrote the script, based on a novel, and was assistant director, editor, and art director. Despite the enthusiastic tone of the program notes in the booklet accompanying this set, there is little detectable of the later Hitch. The story is ludicrously far-fetched, depending on the old good twin/bad twin contrast, with Betty Compson in both roles (above). At various points the twins pretend to be each other, much to the confusion of the bad twin’s fiancé, played by Clive Brook. The convoluted plot becomes even more so when a series of titles tries to convey the action of the missing final three reels.
The film has its moments. Cutts, who was a decent if not outstanding director, manages some lovely compositions, as with the backlighting in the night interior below left. As with many of Hitchcock’s sets for the film, this one is pretty standard-issue. He obviously had some fun with the set for the tavern called The Cat Who Laughs. It looks a bit jumbled, but it’s actually full of little areas that Cutts uses effectively for picking out pieces of action amid the chaos:
So the Treasures series moves on, as does the Foundation. Not all of the discovered prints made it onto the DVD set. Several more have been preserved since and generously made available for free online viewing at the Foundation’s website; more will be added as the restorations are completed.
American classics continue to make their way onto BD.
Flicker Alley has teamed with the Blackhawk Films Collection to release The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, director Wallace Worsley). No original 35mm negative or print is known to survive, so this release was mastered from a 16mm tinted copy struck at some point from the original negative. Some restrained digital restoration was done to clean it up a bit. The extras include an essay and audio commentary by Michael F. Blake and a 1915 film, Alas and Alack, with Chaney in his pre-movie star days playing a hunchback.
The film is available at Flicker Alley’s website, where you can also pre-order their three upcoming releases: a set of all Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies (1916-17); the first volume of The Mack Sennett Collection, including 50 films; and We’re in the Movies, which collects some early local films made by itinerant moviemakers, as well as Steve Schaller’s 1983 documentary, When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose, about the first film made in Wisconsin. There’s also a documentary about a small local theater in Los Angeles that showed silent films in the sound age.
D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation will celebrate its centennial next year, and now it’s also out on Blu-ray, from both Kino Classics in the USA and Eureka! in the UK. Both have the same new restoration from 35mm elements accompanied by the same score. The extras also appear to be identical–most notably seven Biograph shorts by Griffith about the Civil War. The main difference is that Kino throws in David Shepard’s 1993 restoration, with different musical accompaniment and a 24-minute documentary on the making of the film. Again, the Eureka! version is BD region B.
Last month Eureka! also released a BD of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951, BD region B) in their “Masters of Cinema” program. The release also contains a DVD version. You can check it out, along with other recent releases and upcoming ones here.
This German series works with an impressive array of archives, mostly German but also Swiss and Luxembourgian. The titles that result include modern films (Straub and Huillet figure in their catalogue, as does Werner Schroeter), television, experimental cinema (they’ve done several James Benning films), documentaries, and older films. (No Blu-ray as of now. Perhaps too expensive or perhaps just the sort of restraint that dictates the white backgrounds on their covers.)
Recently Edition-Filmmuseum released a set with two films by Gerhard Lamprecht, a little-known and but in the 1920s an important director of socially conscience films set among the working class. The two-disc release includes Menschen untereinander (1926) and Unter der Laterne (1928), each with two musical tracks to choose from. The German intertitles are subtitled in English and French, and the enclosed booklet is likewise trilingual. Like all the DVDs from this company, there is no region coding.
Similarly, another new release is devoted to the early films of Michail Kalatozov, a Georgian director better known for his Soviet films of the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba). One of the films here is Salt for Svanetia (1930), one of those vaguely familiar but rare titles from the history books on Soviet montage cinema. The other is Nail in the Boot (1932).
Salt for Svanetia is indeed a classic that anyone interested in silent cinema and the Soviet Montage movement should see. Set in an extremely isolated, primitive area of the Caucasus, Svanetia obviously needs a dose of Soviet modernizing. The peasants can barely subsist, and a lack of salt makes their cows and goats unable to produce milk. It’s basically an attempt to combine an ethnographic documentary with large doses of Montage-style rapid editing, canted cameras, heroic framings of people against the sky. At one point a man cutting another’s hair is framed against one of the local feudal era towers in a low angle that makes it look like something out of Alexander Nevsky (above). The film is a fascinating peep into a little-known culture.
Kalatozov stages some sketchy scenes using the locals: an avalanche which kills some men, a resulting funeral, a woman giving birth alone in the countryside. There’s no over-arching plot, though, and the director wisely sticks with showing off local customs. Naturally at the end the Soviets are building a long road to reach the area, and there’s a promise of good things to come.
Nail in the Boot is impressive for about two-thirds of its length. It stages some large battle scenes between what I take to by the Red and White Armies during the Civil War. The Whites are attacking an armored train, and a lot of explosions result. The soldiers aboard the train fire machine-guns, and Kalatozov conveys the sound by alternating single-frame shots of the muzzle of the gun with single-frame shots of the man firing it. Sound familiar? It happens two or three more times in the course of this film. Both of these films are definitely part of the Montage movement, but the director has come along so late in it that he seems to feel all the good ideas have been used, and they’re worth using again. So we get another quotation from October in a canted shot of a cannon’s wheel, and Kalatozov even steals the idea of our hero looking and feeling very small and his prosecutor becoming a looming giant, as in Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The Overcoat:
We are some time into the film before we meet the hero, and I was thinking that this might be one of those Montage films with no single central figure. But well into it, the ammunition on the train is running out, and a messenger is sent to run and get help. Much of the film simply shows him running along, becoming increasingly lame as a bullet in his boot digs into his foot. Ultimately he does not reach his goal, though he tries hard. Once he is put on trial for treason, he blames the shoddy workmanship of the cobblers who made his boot badly. This seems a strange anti-climax after the exciting battle scenes earlier on, but the film actually turns out to be about Soviet workers paying attention to what they’re doing and not putting out a bad product. All the workers looking on at the trial look shame-faced at the hero’s accusation, suggesting that if a hundred percent of the workers are doing a bad job, there’s not much hope of rectifying the situation.
Both films are fascinating because they come so late in the Montage movement, which lasted from 1925 to 1933, and they are particularly valuable because it’s harder to see the films from this late period than those from the 1920s.
Both films have optional English subtitles.
By the way, Edition Filmmuseum also sells Flicker Alley films, and those in Europe and elsewhere might find them easier to order on its website.
You’re gonna need a bigger shelf
There are three notable new releases of French films. Before I get to the two epic, brick-like sets, let me mention the new Eureka! Blu-ray of Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) in the “Masters of Cinema” series. Admirably, the film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The supplements consist mainly of a thick booklet with some new essays, an interview with Rivette, and so on. You can read more about the booklet’s contents and buy the film here. Note that it is coded BD region B.
Now to the bricks.
At long last the French Impressionist director Jean Epstein is well represented on DVD. Although a few of his most famous films have appeared on video from time to time, these eight discs are a cornucopia of his work (plus a 68-minute documentary on his work by James June Schneider). They come from what are probably the best possible prints, since the set is issued by La Cinémathèque Française. Marie Epstein, who had made films herself in the late 1920s and 1930s, worked at the Cinémathèque for decades and helped preserve her brother’s work. A major retrospective of Epstein’s work ran at the Cinémathèque in April and May; the restorations in preparation for the series made possible to this DVD set. (This page links to further resources on Epstein.)
Epstein started out working for some of the large French film companies, though he mixed somewhat experimental films with more standard ones. His second surviving feature film, Cœur fidèle, is one of his most famous, and perhaps his masterpiece. A beautiful print of it is already available on a Eureka! DBD/BD combo (BD region B). There’s also a French DVD. I wrote a little about it when it made our top-ten films of 1923 list.
The big outer box of the set comes with three inner fold-out disc holders that reflect the phases of his career. The first is “Jean Epstein chez Albatros.” In 1924 Epstein joined the Russian-emigré company Albatros. Three of the four films he directed there are grouped together: Le Lion des Mogols (1924), starring Ivan Mosjoukine and Nathalie Lissenko; Le double amour (1925); and Les aventures de Robert Macaire (1925). The big gap here, and indeed in the entire set, is the absence of the fourth, L’Affiche (1924), which I think is one of his best. It does survive, so I hope it will eventually appear on disc. Apart from L’Affiche, these are all big-budget productions, and Robert Macaire is a serial running 200 minutes. This set has no overlap with the Albatros set from Flicker Alley that I wrote about last year and indeed is an excellent supplement to it.
Beginning in 1926, having been successful with his big Albatros films, Epstein produced his own work under the name “Les Film Jean Epstein.” Again, there were four films, the surviving three of which are on the discs in the second folder, “Jean Epstein: Première Vague”: Mauprat (1926), La glace à trois faces (1927), and La chute de la maison Usher (1928). (The lost film is Au pays de George Sand, 1926.) La chute de la maison Usher was for a long time the only Epstein film available on 16mm prints, which didn’t really do justice to its eerie German Expressionist-influenced sets.
Gradually, however, the reputation of La glace à trois faces (“The three-sided mirror”) has grown, and it is another highlight of Epstein’s career. It introduced a trope of modernism into the cinema, the notion of using point of view to create ambiguity. The story shows scenes concerning one man as seen through the eyes of his three lovers–each, of course, making him seem a very different person.
The other films deserve discovery as well. Le Lion des Mogols has a clever story (written by Mosjoukine) which starts out in a fictional Tibetan city where the hero, a nobleman (Mosjoukine) incurs the sultan’s wrath and flees. A cut to a ship suddenly reveals that we are in a modern world, and the film becomes a fish-out-of-water story as the hero blunders onto the set of a movie location shoot on deck (above). Intrigued, the female star of the film helps him adjust and brings him in as a leading actor. Thus our hero jumps from one genre, the fantasy Far-Eastern melodrama (familiar from various German films of the time, including the Chinese sequence from Lang’s Der müde Tod) to a modern romance. The film has the advantage of scenes in and around Albatros’s own studio:
Les Film Jean Epstein produced some major work, but it didn’t make money, and in 1928 Epstein changed course, He made 28 more films, up until his death in 1953, most of which are virtually unknown. The exceptions are some films modest, lyrical films he shot in Breton. Seven of these are presented as “Jean Epstein: Poèmes Bretons”: Finis Terrae (1928, Epstein’s last silent film), Mor’vran (1930), Les Berceaux (1931) L’Or des mers (1933), Chanson d’Ar-mor (1935), Le tempestaire (1947), and Les feux de la mer (1948). These range from 6 minutes to 82 minutes long. Most have simple plots and involve the sea.
The set has been put together so that the supplements for each film are on the end of its disc, not lumped together on a separate disc. There is also a 158-page book, not booklet, with program notes and many images: posters, designs, publicity stills, and frames. (It also has the smallest page numbers I have ever seen.) I can find no indication that the set is region-coded, but the Amazon.fr page says it’s PAL region 2. (I cannot find any reference to the set on the Cinémathèque’s own site, so I can’t confirm either way.) It does have optional English subtitles.
Since the beginning of film history, France has produced one of the world’s great national cinemas, and Jacques Tati is one of its greatest directors. On Facebook, Ingrid Hoeben, one of Tati’s devoted fans, runs a page called “I’d like to be part of the Monsieur Hulot universe, if only as a cardboard cut-out”, and I think she speaks for many of us. (She also runs a FB page on PlayTime–as she spells it. Many writers use Playtime, and I prefer Play Time.)
For those who love Tati, there is finally a new set of his complete works, restored and available in separate DVD and Blu-ray sets. The imposing big black box contains seven discs, each in its own cardboard fold-over holder, one for each of the features and one for the shorts. There are extras on each disc. The small book included with the set has a brief bio of Tati, information on the restoration of the films, and program notes.
There are various versions of some Tati films. The Mon Oncle disc includes both the French and English-dubbed versions. The Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot disc has the 1953 version and the 1978 restoration. Jour de fête, which Tati tried to make in color, has three versions: the 1949 release print, the 1964 one with selective color added, and the 1994 restoration of the color version Tati had had to abandon.
The print of Play Time, though visually beautiful, is altered by some tampering by the restorers. It originally contained passages of music over a dark screen at beginning and end. I described these moments in my essay, “Play Time: Comedy on the Edge of Perception” (published in 1988 in Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis). Of the beginning I wrote:
The film begins with pre-credits music involving percussion; at a seemingly arbitrary point in this music, the bright credits shot of clouds fades suddenly in from the darkness. Already we encounter the sound track as a separate level from the image track–as something to which we should pay cloe attention in its own right. (Unfortunately, most of this music seems to have been edited out of the re-release print.) (p. 253)
(The darkness and music actually last about 10 seconds before the cloud shot.)
And the ending, which in the original has several minutes of music played over a black screen:
Play Time structures even our transference, at the end, of aesthetic perception to everyday existence, by continuing its theme music for several minutes after the images stop–so long that we are forced to get up and move about to this music. The film’s sound track becomes an accompaniment for our own actions, inviting us to perceive our surroundings as we have perceived the film. (p. 261)
(The actual timing is about one minute, though it seems longer when you’re sitting in a darkened theater and are used to leaving immediately at film’s end.)
This new disc includes the dark footage at the end and the music, but the credits for the restoration and video are superimposed throughout–quite a different experience than music accompanying darkness. The music over darkness is shortened at the beginning to about 3 seconds, with the logo of Les Films de Mon Oncle’s logo and a dedication to Sophie Tatischeff, Tati’s daughter.
All these superimposed credits alters Tati’s intentions considerably. He clearly meant for that concluding music to make us almost actors in his film and to carry over its defamiliarization of the fictional world into the real world. Without it, this cannot be considered the definitive version of Play Time. It may seem a small matter, but the original decision was completely reflected Tati’s distinctive style.
Fortunately the Criterion collection’s version retains the music over black at the end, as well as a different set of supplements. Completists will need to have both.
For many, Tati’s last feature, Parade, will be new. It’s not a M. Hulot film or even really a fiction film. It was made in Sweden and consists of a variety performance by musicians, singers, a magician, and so on, all MCed by Tati in propria persona. Between other acts, Tati performs some of his most famous pantomime bits, including a remarkable scene where, as a tennis player, he mimes part of the action as if caught by a slow-motion news camera. Tati also devised some little scenes to take place among the audience, which contains some of the same sort of cardboard cut-outs that first appeared in Play Time:
Parade was shot on video during live performances, but the acts were also staged in a studio in 35mm (see bottom). That’s the source of the inconsistent visual style, though it’s less apparent on video than when projected in 35mm on a large screen.
It’s a strange but enjoyable and even complex film, if one goes into it without expecting it to be like Tati’s others.
Very few will have seen all of Tati’s shorts. These fall into three periods.
Three of them are from the mid-1930s, brief comedies ranging from 16 to 24 minutes: On demande une brute, Gai Dimanche, and Soigne ton gauche. Tati was a young music-hall performer at the time, specializing in sports pantomimes.
Second, there is L’École des facteurs (1946), a 16-minute version of of the same story that he expanded into Jour de fête a few years later. L’École des facteurs was his directorial debut, the earlier shorts having been directed by others.
And third, Tati made some shorts late in his career: Cours du soir (directed by Nicolas Ribowski), Degustation maison, and Forza Bastia (the latter two directed by Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, who used the original family name).
The set has optional English subtitles and is BD Region B.
On early Soviet cinema and much more
The title of Natascha Drubek’s new book, Russisches Licht: Von der Ikone zum frühen Sowjetischen Kino might seem to imply a narrow field of study. Actually, though, it ranges far, examining the introduction of electric lighting into Russia and examining what a wide range of Russian commentators wrote about light at the time. This includes, of course, the cinema, an art form both composed of light and using light during the filming.
The introductory section covers theoretical approaches to cinema, including the work of the Russian Formalists. Drubek goes on to consider factors in the early history of media in Russian and Soviet cinema, including writings on theaters and film censorship.
She then goes back to the roots of thought on light and media further back in Russian history, dealing with icons and the church, as well as the influence of icons on the Russian avant-garde of the pre-Revolutionary period. Finally she deals with cinema and in particular with the films of Evgenii Bauer.
I cannot claim to have read the book, for with my shaky knowledge of German it would be slow going. But it is an impressive achievement, and anyone interested in Russian/Soviet cinema and especially Bauer should have it. It is available online directly from the publisher.
Tati’s classic fishing routine in Parade.
Henry Edwards; Alfred Hitchcock.
My previous entry reminded you that Hitchcock was notorious for distinguishing between suspense and surprise. To achieve suspense, he maintained, the audience has to be aware of more than the characters know. Surprise arises when we know as much as the characters, or less. Hitchcock also declared his general preference for suspense, since it provides prolonged tension while surprise produces merely a momentary buzz. The mystery was: Where do this distinction and this preference come from? Are they original with Sir Alfred, or can we find precedents?
The story so far:
Step 1: The distinction itself goes back at least to the eighteenth century and the playwright/theorist Gotthold Ephriam Lessing. Lessing likewise expressed his preference for suspense because it demanded superior craftsmanship and yielded stronger effects on the audience.
Step 2: The distinction and the preference for suspense was still circulating in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century commentaries on theatre. My entry also mentioned a 1922 screen playwriting manual by Howard Dimick that took the same stance.
So we’ve located general conditions for influence. By the early 1920s, the suspense/surprise doublet was still circulating in the worlds of film and theatre, when Hitchcock was starting his career. But influence, like its source-word influenza, requires close contact. It would be good to find the secret agent who might have passed along the idea to the young director.
Step 3: My P.S. to the entry ropes in one candidate: Eliot Stannard. Richard Allen proposed him as a possibility, and Ian Macdonald supplied information that strengthened the suspicion. Stannard was a busy screenwriter of the period, who worked closely with Hitchcock on nearly all his silent pictures, and he even wrote a manual on screenwriting. Although he apparently didn’t talk about suspense and surprise in print, he would have known William Archer and other drama theorists who did. Stannard could well have initiated Hitchcock into the idea.
Step 3.9: But do we have the wrong man? After I posted my P. S., another foreign correspondent weighed in. Charles Barr writes:
A key figure here is Henry Edwards. Director in British cinema 1916-1937, and actor for much longer. His (lost) feature film Lily of the Alley in 1923 made a big point of avoiding intertitles. Whether or not he saw it, Hitchcock must have at least been aware of it, even though later he always said that The Last Laugh was the first such film. And already in 1920 Edwards had spelled out the surprise/suspense distinction: see attachment from the trade paper The Bioscope.
Edwards was indeed a major figure, as producer, actor, and director during the 1910s and 1920s. At the British Film Institute site, Geoff Brown and Briony Dixon provide a lively account of his career. He was clearly in a position to influence younger filmmakers.
The 1920 Bioscope article, cited in the Brown/Dixon overview and supplied to Charles by Ph.D. student Michaela Mikalauski, is a revelation. Edwards writes:
We must so construct our story that suspense is created–suspense is the dread that something may happen, and it is on this that we must build our story.
We must so construct it, that by careful preparation impeding difficulties or dangers are looming up before our characters. We must show the audience these dangers, and keep our characters ignorant of them until the proper moment; and it is the nearing of the danger to the blissfully ignorant character, making us long to cry out and warn him, that give suspense.
Tellingly, Edwards uses an example of an explosion. Imagine that our hero, wandering in the wilderness, has taken shelter in a shack. He sits on a box and lights a cigarette. While he has a leisurely smoke, his match has ignited some dry rubbish by the box. He rises and leaves the shed, just as the box is blown to pieces. Now we realize that it contained dynamite.
Here is a case in which there is expectancy, and never for a moment suspense, because the audience does not know of the impending danger to the character.
Now let us defy the critics who clamour for “surprise” in film construction, and tell the incident in the language of the screen.
Edwards goes on to imagine that we’ve seen quarrymen leave the box of dynamite behind. When the hero ambles in and settles down on the box for a smoke, we’re already apprehensive. Now every gesture he makes prolongs the tension, and we watch anxiously as the discarded match ignites scraps beside the box.
It becomes a question as to which will take the longer, the hero to recover his strength and go, or the box of dynamite to explode. Here is sheer suspense, and when there hero has gone it is no jar to the audience but rather a pleasurable expectancy to see the box explode harmlessly in the air.
After supplying another, more psychological example, Edwards concludes his piece: “The letters of the film alphabet are s-u-s-p-e-n-s-e.”
This article–published the very year that a young and innocent Hitchcock began work for Famous Players-Lasky in Islington–shows that the terms in which Hitchcock understood the suspense/ surprise distinction were already clearly articulated in English film culture. Even the bomb situation that Hitchcock would summon up for Truffaut is there in Edwards’ piece. But of course this information doesn’t sabotage the standing of Stannard, who may have read the Bioscope article and transmitted its lesson to Hitchcock in later years.
I confess I had thought I was done with the thing, but the last few days have brought a small frenzy of emails, and I’m feeling a bit of vertigo. Still, there seems not a shadow of a doubt that Hitchcock was maintaining his faith in a storytelling device that goes back quite far and still had a grip on the formative years of British and American cinema.
Thanks very much to Charles Barr for the information and for sending me the Edwards article. It was published as “The Language of Action,” Bioscope (1 July 1920), supplement p. iv. Thanks also to Michaela Mikalauski for locating the piece, and to Antti Alanen for forwarding some crucial email addresses.
Charles’ revised edition of his Vertigo monograph includes some further comments on the suspense/surprise distinction as it relates to that film. Charles is also completing a new book, with Alain Kerzoncuf, called Hitchcock: Lost and Found. It surveys the little-known films from all periods of Hitchcock’s career. “It devotes some 15,000 words to ‘Before the Pleasure Garden,’ discussing the 21 films Hitchcock was involved with (surviving in whole or part or not at all) and also a bit on the wider context, which is where Edwards comes in. This is all about to go to the publisher (Kentucky) and if all goes well will be out by the end of 2014.”
I’m grateful to all. The little adventure, which I suspect is not quite over, has been rich and strange.
Broken Threads (1918), produced and directed by Henry Edwards, who also starred.