Archive for the 'Hollywood: Artistic traditions' Category
A Star Is Born (1954).
Cripes! It’s video-lecture fever!
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Still, we do have something new for you.
A video analysis of constructive editing showed up last fall, and a rather long one called “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies” was posted earlier this year. Now comes one on the aesthetics of early CinemaScope in the US.
It’s a new version of a talk now retired from the lecture circuit and snugly cached on the web. I’m hoping both viewers and filmmakers will be interested in this, particularly in its analyses of staging and composition. The piece makes a more general argument about how new technologies offer both advantages and constraints.
“CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See without Glasses!” runs about fifty minutes. It’s our first one in HD, so it looks pretty nice on many displays. It could be shown in classes, and I’d be happy if teachers wanted to use it. As with our earlier entries, it’s also available on Vimeo here, where you can leave feedback if you want.
I’m also providing the chapter on Scope from Poetics of Cinema. Think of the lecture as the DVD and the chapter as the accompanying booklet. You can go to the essay if you want to dig deeper into the subject, see other examples of what I’m talking about, or learn the sources for my arguments.
By the way, if you’re interested in the art and craft of widescreen cinema, I’ve posted a web essay on Hong Kong anamorphic here.
As usual, I’m very grateful to my creative tech wranglers Erik Gunneson, who produced the video, and Peter Sengstock. Thanks as well to our web tsarina Meg Hamel.
I’ll have to suspend production of these video lectures for a while, but Kristin and I are hoping to float another novelty soon, perhaps in the next couple of months.
Thanks for everyone who has supported our work through Tweeting, Facebooking, linking, or just telling their friends.
Wild River (1960). From 35mm frame.
Rear Window (1954); illuminated transparency used to create the lens reflection.
Note: This entry was nearly finished when Roger Ebert died on 4 April. I had intended to send it to him in advance. I think he would want me to post it as I’d planned–just before this year’s Ebertfest.
On 17 April, about 1500 people will gather at the Virginia Theatre in Urbana, Illinois, for a celebration of movie love known as Ebertfest. Among Ebertfest’s many guests will be C. O. “Doc” Erickson.
This genial man, who visits Ebertfest each year, is a Hollywood veteran. He was production manager for Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, John Huston, Anthony Mann, Roman Polanski, and Ridley Scott. In later years he was associate or executive producer on Chinatown, Urban Cowboy, Popeye, Blade Runner, Looking for Bobby Fischer, Groundhog Day, Kiss the Girls, Windtalkers, and many other projects.
In short, he was an eyewitness to film history. During our visits to Ebertfest Kristin and I have often talked with Doc about his career, and last year I interviewed him for an hour. I thought it was time we set down some of the things we’ve learned. I’ve supplemented Doc’s remarks to us with quotations from Douglas Bell’s 2006 detailed, book-length interview with him.
Setting the scenes
Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Doc began working for Paramount Pictures in December 1944, a year after his graduation from the University of Illinois—Champaign-Urbana. This young man, not yet twenty-one, stepped into the studio that would harbor, across the next few years, The Lost Weekend, The Blue Dahlia, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Unconquered, I Walk Alone, A Foreign Affair, Sorry, Wrong Number, The Big Clock, The Heiress, The File on Thelma Jordan, The Furies, Sunset Boulevard, and several Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Martin and Lewis comedies.
Initially he worked on estimating the budgets for back-lot and set construction. Doc’s unit would try to give the director some leeway. “Ultimately, it wasn’t [a director’s] fault if the set went over budget. . . . We had to try to get enough money in there so that it wasn’t going to go over budget, because then we’d catch hell.” Then Doc and his colleagues would monitor the building of the set to make sure that the specifications were followed and the budget was adhered to.
Doc moved to stage management and supervision, which required him to plan how a production’s sets were arranged in a sound stage. Four or more sets would have to be fitted together, jigsaw-fashion. Doc would try out arrangements by shifting cutout sets on something like a bulletin board, marked with entrances, walls, and power sources. This was called “spotting the sets.” Spotting was much easier in the days of overhead lighting; lighting from the floor, which became more common as the decade went on, posed extra problems.
Once used, the sets might be dismantled, with different departments rescuing what they could use again. A whole set might be saved for another picture (“fold and hold”). B-pictures recycled sets from A pictures. At the other extreme, ornate interior sets might use units drawn from luxurious houses that had been dismantled. From New York mansions came pieces that were shipped to Hollywood and resassembled to create a salon or ballroom.
Paramount’s back lot included big standing sets, including a train station with some cars on the track. “Then, of course, you had pieces of the train in the scene dock, that could be dragged out and assembled on the stage.” A street at the south end of the lot was used for Westerns and featured a mountain that blocked the view of the adjacent RKO studio.
I’ve long been struck by the fact that articles from the classic period seldom talk about the look of sets for ordinary rooms. So I asked: What colors would be found on the sets in black-and-white movies? Doc smiled. “Black and white—or rather, shades of gray.” Sometimes a bit of green would be added. (I’ve read that sometimes snow was painted yellow to make it dazzle.) Pause and think about how hallucinatory it must have looked: actors moving through a three-dimensional black-and-white movie.
The crew was expected to average fifteen to twenty setups per day, at a period when shooting a top-line feature took anywhere from seven to twelve weeks, or even more. The Paramount policy was to press ahead and finish with a set quickly, even if not every shot was taken. Retakes were likely to be close views of the actors and could be picked up later without need for the full set. This flexibility was feasible because most productions were still shot inside the studio walls. Despite the trend toward location shooting in the late 40s, Doc says, “We weren’t off the lot very much.”
The 1940s saw the rise of the hyphenate filmmaker, and this trend was vigorous at Paramount. The studio roster boasted screenwriter-directors Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder and several director-producers, including Cecil B. DeMille, Mark Sandrich, Mitchell Leisen, and John Farrow. At Paramount, Doc recalls, “The director was king.” No wonder that one of the most kingly figures of the period wound up there for several years.
A step up
The Misfits (1961).
Doc had moved into the role of assistant unit production manager for Secret of the Incas (1954), directed by Jerry Hopper and starring Charlton Heston and Robert Young. His new job involved managing the day-to-day work of filming as a liaison between the production office and the shoot. A production manager works closely with the assistant director to keep the work on schedule and within budget.
When Hitchcock made his five-picture deal with Paramount and was preparing Rear Window, his assistant director, Herbert Coleman, found that all Paramount’s established production managers had been assigned. Coleman asked Doc to take the job, and Hitchcock approved. Doc’s experience with budget estimating and set supervision made him a natural choice for promotion.
Doc supported Hitchcock on several films, becoming a guest at the director’s home and traveling with him. After finishing Vertigo, Hitchcock shifted to studios that had their own personnel for production management. Hitch offered Doc a place on his television series, but Doc moved on to other Paramount pictures: “I wanted to remain in the feature film world.” He worked in Manhattan with Sidney Lumet on That Kind of Woman (1959). Doc admired Lumet’s meticulous planning of every shot, as well as his insistence on table readings of the whole film before shooting.
Doc then teamed up with John Huston. In 1959 Huston was trying to launch The Man Who Would Be King, and for location scouting he took Doc and other team members on a forty-day trip around the world, paid for by Universal. But that project was put on hold. Doc went on to manage production for The Misfits (1961), Freud (1962), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). On the latter two films, Elizabeth Taylor lobbied for Montgomery Clift—winning on Freud, losing on Reflections. (Brando got the part.)
Knowing my interests, Doc pointed out some of Huston’s directorial touches, including some striking uses of deep space. In the image above, Montgomery Clift’s quarrel with the rodeo judge is framed in the car window while Marilyn Monroe frets that he could have died in his fall from the bull. Doc also thinks that Huston showed adroit staging in the Reflections scene showing Brian Keith wiping lipstick off his mouth while Elizabeth Taylor, in the back seat, uses the rearview mirror to help her repaint her lips.
The movie industry was pushing toward ever more spectacular projects, and Doc sometimes went epic. After a production manager on 55 Days at Peking (1963) quit, the film’s editor, Robert Lawrence, suggested Doc. The film’s direction was credited to Nicholas Ray, but the bulk of the footage was shot by Andrew Marton. There followed Doc’s stint on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). He recalls Anthony Mann’s excellent eye for composition. The most tangled production was Cleopatra (1963), which had begun shooting in 1960 and was plagued with constant delays. Doc was there for the last eight months of shooting, up to August 1962. He worked under Lewis Merman, the Fox production manager (“one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever known”). Merman was also known as Doc, so the production had both a Big Doc and a Little Doc. It needed even more docs.
For my current research I asked Doc a lot about 1940s studio practices, but I couldn’t avoid touching on what everybody asks him about. How was working with Hitchcock? Hitchcock productions have been chronicled in detail by many writers, so I’ll just pick some bits that Doc brought out for me.
On Rear Window (1954), Doc’s expertise in squeezing sets into a sound stage came in handy. The script demanded that the camera be confined to Scottie’s apartment and that we see only what could be seen from that room. Remarkably, Doc recalls no matte shots being used on the production. The apartment, the courtyard outside, and the apartment building opposite were all installed on a single stage.
Doc was struck by the lighting limitations of this complex and confined set. The color film stock was quite slow, and so illumination levels were very high. He told Douglas Bell:
We had to pour so much light into those apartments, up where Raymond Burr was, it almost put him on fire. It was terrible. Or you would never be able to see him, from where we were shooting. . . . But today it would be nothing, it would be a cinch.
Lens length was also a problem because the camera couldn’t easily simulate the telephoto view of the apartment across the courtyard. Doc found a way to mount the camera outside the window to get a little closer to the opposite building and suggest the enlargement provided by Scottie’s long lens.
Hitchcock had claimed he would need only twenty-four days to shoot Rear Window, but it ran to thirty-six, and its cost was considerably beyond what he had estimated. So great was Hitchcock’s standing in the industry that Paramount didn’t object, knowing the result would be a major picture. Doc was on the set every day. Hitchcock would position the actors and frame the shot, but then return to his chair to watch.
Hitchcock liked Doc and picked him again for To Catch a Thief (1955). For this they left the studio and shot on the Riviera for several weeks—Doc’s first location shoot. After the on-site filming was finished, Hitchcock returned to Paramount for studio scenes and Doc stayed to oversee helicopter shots of the roadways with special-effects specialist Wallace Kelly. The team followed the famous Hitchcock lists and storyboards for such second-unit footage.
Without a break Hitchcock drafted Doc for The Trouble with Harry (1956). Originally to be set in England, the story was transposed to New England. Despite some location work, there were a surprising number of studio exteriors (as are quite obvious to our eyes today). Doc supervised the building of woods on Stage 14, but then scattered around leaves brought in from Vermont and New Hampshire.
Doc was involved in scouting locations in Marrakech and London for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), along with assisting Coleman and Hitchcock in the usual way. Hitchcock clashed with John Michael Hayes on the project, and according to Doc, Steven Derosa’s account of the contretemps in Writing with Hitchcock does justice to the complexity of the situation.
Doc’s memories of the master’s next production, Vertigo, are detailed, but they and other participants’ accounts are chronicled in Dan Auiler’s Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. What I found surprising were two of Doc’s responses to the project. Doc found that the production went very easily. He thinks that was because he had learned so much about location shooting with the overseas demands of To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. My second surprise: “We had no sense that Vertigo was special.”
I’m out of step with the world’s critical consensus. I wouldn’t consider Vertigo the best film of all time, or even the best film by Hitchcock. (My votes would go to Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Rear Window, and Psycho. All seem to me perfect, endlessly exhilarating pictures.) To a great extent, I think that American Hitchcock never stopped being a 40s director, so I tend to see Vertigo as an uneven mix of plot elements and visual ideas from that wild era. Good as the film is, I think, the expository scenes are rather flatly filmed and lack the flair that Hitchcock brought to such scenes in his earlier films.
But thanks to the undeniable brilliance of many other scenes, along with the revolution of taste promoted by the Cahiers du cinéma critics and the long suppression of the film (making it a sought-after treasure), Vertigo has become a holy grail of obsessional cinema. Its plot premise has fed cinephiles’ fantasies. In the history of taste, a fairly creaky tale of murderous deception has become the ultimate vessel of filmic fascination. One hero’s delusion now epitomizes all movie-made illusion.
Give Doc the last word: “When we finished Vertigo, we never thought of it as being the film that everybody thinks it is today. It’s become bigger than life itself.”
Thanks to Doc Erickson for affable and informative conversations.
Being mostly interested in the Old Hollywood, Kristin and I didn’t question Doc about his work of more recent decades. Those activities are covered in Douglas Bell’s extensive interview, recorded in An Oral History with C. O. Erickson (Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts, Margaret Herrick Library, 2006). I’ve drawn much information from this volume. I thank Jenny Romero, Special Collections Department Coordinator at the Herrick Library, for facilitating access to it, and to Kristin for examining it for me during her recent visits to Los Angeles.
For a detailed account of the division of labor on 55 Days at Peking, see Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne (Faber, 1993), 378-389. Andrew Marton, who took over the shoot after Nicholas Ray was dismissed, estimated that sixty to sixty-five percent of the finished film was his work. See Andrew Marton Interviewed by Joanne D’Annunzio: A Directors Guild of America Oral History, 413-418.
Herbert Coleman’s book The Hollywood I Knew: A Memoir: 1916-1988, revisits his AD work with Hitchcock in considerable detail, and many of the anecdotes he recounts involve Doc Erickson. For more on the production of Hitchcock’s films, see Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light and Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work.
Without any planning, the last six months or so have been this blog’s Hitchcock period. The entries include items on Dial M for Murder (screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September), on David O. Selznick, on the first Man Who Knew Too Much, and on the rise of the suspense thriller during the 1940s. On Lumet, for whom Doc also worked, you can see this entry. The production photographs in today’s entry are taken from Arthur S. Gavin, “Rear Window,” American Cinematographer 35, 2 (February 1954), 76-78.
Kristin and Doc Erickson, Ebertfest 2009.
The Dark Mirror (1944).
With the indispensable assistance of our web tsarina Meg Hamel, I’ve just put up an essay on Hollywood film of the 1940s. It’s called “Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense.” It’s long, I warn you. But if you’re interested in American film history, thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock, or all of the above, you could find it worth checking out.
Now for a flashback. Cue track-in, soft dissolve, ominous music.
I was born in 1947, so the Hollywood cinema of that day really belonged to my parents’ generation. Yet why do I feel that the 1940s-early 1950s cinema is “my Hollywood” in a way that the 1960s and 1970s aren’t?
TV is a big part of the answer. Living on a farm, I saw far more movies on TV than in theatres. That’s why I don’t have as absolute a fetishism for 35mm as my baby-boom peers who grew up in cities. They could amble down to the local Bijou every day after school and soak up current movies and classics. I couldn’t, so I can sympathize with kids today who see most of their movies on monitors. That’s what I did, and—truth be told—what many urban cinephiles did too.
What I could see, thanks to Rochester and Syracuse television stations, were those films that had sold in packages of 16mm prints. Fattened out by with commercials, sometimes trimmed to fit schedules, old movies were treated as filler. And while some of the 1930s movies, chiefly the Bs featuring Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan, became lifelong favorites, it was mostly the 1940s and early 1950s films that stuck with me.
There were Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons, of course, which movie books steered me toward. But there was also Ball of Fire, For Whom the Bell Tolls (in black and white), and Suspicion. Those I remember most vividly, but today, watching some obscure 40s item, I find dim memories of that sometimes flaring up too.
From college through graduate school, I made 1940s Hollywood a touchstone. My first published essay, back in 1969, was on Notorious. As a film collector, I favored 1940s things, from His Girl Friday and Fallen Angel to Ministry of Fear (below) and The Shop around the Corner. When I started teaching at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research enabled me catch up on Warners, RKO, and even the stray Monogram. In my courses we showed prizes like Meet Me in St. Louis and The Locket. I was happy when several of my students, such as Diane Waldman, Brian Rose, and Fina Bathrick, took up 1940s topics for their research.
The era pulled in my research too. In Narration in the Fiction Film my preferences were exposed; some friends noticed that most of my prime American examples (The Big Sleep, In This Our Life, Murder My Sweet, The Killers, Secret beyond the Door, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, etc.) came from the 1940s and early 1950s. The conversation sort of went like this. Q: So I guess for you, David, every narrative is a mystery? A: Yes.
In The Classical Hollywood Cinema I could justify my 40s emphasis because that era saw significant changes in storytelling. I couldn’t avoid all those flashbacks, all that deep focus, all that noir and melodrama. Still, as my examples of ordinary Hollywood sound picture I picked Play Girl (1940) and The Black Hand (1949). Likewise, when I wrote an article about how we’re led to forget key story information, I fastened on Mildred Pierce. And one theme of The Way Hollywood Tells It, a book purportedly about contemporary moviemaking, is the debt that the Movie Brats and their successors owe to the 1940s.
No surprise, then, that when I was asked in 2011 to prepare some lectures for Belgium’s summer film college, I decided to revisit 1940s Hollywood. I began preparing in the spring, and had plenty of time to watch films while I was hospitalized with pneumonia. The more I watched, the more I came to believe that we still don’t know this period in its full artistic richness–and peculiarities.
True, we have plenty of studies that see all sorts of 40s films as reflections of the war or postwar malaise. Certainly, as well, the literature on film noir and the female Gothic will continue to grow. (Indeed, these categories weren’t available to people of the time; they just called those movies “melodramas.”) But I wanted to explore broader trends in cinematic storytelling that were pioneered or consolidated after 1940 or so. That meant looking at family sagas like How Green Was My Valley (see Kristin’s post here), as well as dramas like Daisy Kenyon and All About Eve and other things that caught my interest.
During a July week in Antwerp, I delivered the lectures. It was exhilarating to re-see the films in 35 and discuss them with a lively bunch of participants. But my ideas kept developing. I couldn’t shake the films and the spell they cast on me. Over two years I’ve continued to watch and read and turn ideas over.
End of flashback. Cue soft dissolve, track out, music with warmer harmonies.
I’m now writing a book, one that’s relatively short (honest!) and that, I hope, creates an original perspective on American film of the 1940s. Although the new piece centers on the suspense thriller, the book will look at other genres too. You can get the flavor of the project from these entries on the 1940s and early 1950s:
“Intensified continuity revisited.” The Shop around the Corner vs. You’ve Got Mail.
“Creating a classic, with a little help from your pirate friends.” How His Girl Friday acquired its stature today.
“Foreground, background, playground.” This is a trailer for ”William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea.”
“Chinese Boxes, Russian dolls, and Hollywood movies.” On embedded flashbacks.
“Julie, Julia, and the house that talked.” On narrational strategies and wild time schemes.
“Puppetry and ventriloquism.” Bits and pieces from the 2011 lectures, focusing on anti-realism and competition among directors.
“Despoiling the movies.” On 1940s attendance habits.
“Pike’s peek.” Imaginary product placement.
“Play it again, Joan.” Analyzes the technique of replaying scenes seen or heard earlier.
“Bette Davis eyelids.” Joan’s rival and her performance tactics.
“Hand jive.” General piece on performance and gesture, with discussion of All the King’s Men.
“I Love a Mystery: Extra-credit reading.” A sort of dry run for the web essay.
“Alignment, Allegiance, and Murder.” How Lang attaches us to characters in House by the River.
“DIAL M FOR MURDER: Hitchcock frets not at his narrow room.” Touches on Dial M‘s debt to 1940s experiments.
“A dose of DOS: Trade secrets from Selznick.” On Selznick’s films, including those directed by Hitchcock.
“SIDE EFFECTS and SAFE HAVEN: Out of the past.” On current thrillers’ debt to the 1940s; ties to today’s web essay.
Most of these and much of the new “Murder Culture” essay probably won’t surface in the final book. I wrote the pieces in order to clarify some research questions and to sketch out some answers. If you have any suggestions or corrections, feel free to correspond.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Safe Haven; Side Effects.
Occasionally someone will ask me how I watch a movie. Here’s a stab at an answer. If the film presents a story, fictional or nonfictional, I try to get engaged by it, as most viewers do. I also try to watch for how the filmmaker shapes sounds and images. Such things are hard to analyze on the fly, but we can at least be shot-conscious. I suppose as well there’s a small part of me asking whether what I’m watching is good or bad. Another part takes notice of what many viewers spot today: the sorts of story roles allotted to women and members of minorities.
At the same time, one module in my head seems to be looking for historical precedents and parallels to what I’m seeing. The purpose isn’t to dismiss current movies with “Aw, this has been done long ago.” Instead, I think I’m looking for ways in which earlier forms and styles are accepted, recast, or rejected by the creative choices being made today.
For instance, as I was watching Safe Haven and Side Effects, I was thinking of the 1940s.
Not that other periods haven’t left their traces. Both movies depend on crosscutting, something that goes back to the 1910s, as does the goal-oriented protagonist. Both rely as well on analytical editing, with Soderbergh in his usual spare way minimizing establishing shots in favor of compact constructive editing. The wobbly handheld shots cropping up in both films hark back to the 1960s and filmmakers’ periodic revival of them. Four-part structure: check. Rule of three: check. And so on.
But what popped out at me was something that I’ve noticed before. Films of the last twenty years or so borrow a lot of storytelling strategies that originated in the 1940s and carried through into the early 1950s.
In The Way Hollywood Tells It, I argued that 1990s Hollywood drew upon this heritage and in some ways pushed it farther. It isn’t just neo-noirs like Reservoir Dogs and Memento that owe a debt to the earlier period. Lots of films in many genres now casually use flashbacks, voice-overs, restricted points of view, multiple protagonists, network narratives, and replays of scenes from different perspectives—all strategies pioneered or consolidated in the 1940s. These techniques have become so accepted a part of mainstream moviemaking that we may forget that a comedy like The Hangover or a prestige drama like The Iron Lady presents fairly elaborate time schemes or tricks of character subjectivity.
We also tend to ignore the sheer eccentricity of the period. The 1940s introduced movies letting a house tell the story or embedding flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. Characters dreamed things that came true, or realized that they were actually dead. Sometimes dead people narrated the story. All in all, things got pretty strange.
Part of that era’s legacy is the suspense thriller as we know it. I’ll be putting up a web essay on the development of the genre soon, but for now consider these two recent releases as heirs of that tradition. Of course there are big spoilers ahead.
Like many 1940s thrillers, Safe Haven centers on a woman in peril. Most often the heroine is trapped in a house, and an unseen force or a ruthless husband is trying to kill or incapacitate her. The prototype is Gaslight (1944), where as often happens, the wife is rescued by a “helper male,” a romantic alternative to the husband. Variants of this plot include The Spiral Staircase (1946) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). This sort of domestic thriller, sometimes called a Gothic, tends to fill household spaces and everyday routines with vague threats.
Instead of confining its protagonist, Safe Haven builds its plot around a woman who has left home behind. Fleeing an abusive marriage, Erin arrives in a North Carolina town and slowly enters a love affair with Alex, a widower who runs a convenience store. Meanwhile her husband Kevin tries to track her down. The fairly conventional budding romance, as Erin joins Alex and his kids in forming a new family, is threatened by the prospect of Kevin finding her and dragging her back home. As a policeman, Kevin has unusual forces at his disposal: a crucial turning point is his putting out an unauthorized wanted poster. Not only does this endanger Erin’s new identity, but when Alex sees the poster, he breaks off their affair.
On-the-run plots are usually the province of male-centered thrillers like The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. It isn’t unknown, though, to make the woman a moving target. One of my favorites is Double Jeopardy (1999), in which Ashley Judd plays a wife convicted of her husband’s murder. When she learns that he faked his death, she realizes that she can’t be tried again for killing him. Released on parole, she pursues him, while her tenacious parole officer pursues her. An older example is Woman in Hiding (1949), in which Ida Lupino plays a wife who is supposedly murdered by her husband. Actually, she eludes death and tries to flee him, but he, discovering she’s still alive, catches up with her on a hotel staircase.
In such thrillers, there are two common ways you can generate suspense. Both depend on range of knowledge, as Alfred Hitchcock pointed out in 1947.
The author may let both reader and character share the knowledge of the nature of the dangers which threaten. . . . Sometimes, however, the reader alone may realize that peril is in the offing, and watch the characters moving to meet it in blissful ignorance and disquieting unconcern.
That is, the narration can attach us to a character and limit our knowledge to what she knows. Examples of this are Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), which quite strictly confine us to the heroine’s range of knowledge.
Safe Haven, like Woman in Hiding, takes the alternative option: omniscience, or what Hitchcock calls “sharing the knowledge of the dangers.” Crosscut scenes show Erin in Southport while Kevin follows her trail. Other crosscut scenes introduce us to Alex’s problems of raising his kids and grieving for his wife.
As Erin gradually settles into the community, we know that Kevin is closing in. He arrives during a town celebration, and the crosscutting becomes tighter. Thanks to Kevin, the store catches fire and endangers Alex’s daughter, while Kevin drunkenly wrestles with Erin at gunpoint.
Suspense and mystery go hand in hand, and suspense films have a habit of suppressing information about past events. Woman in Hiding begins with the wife’s car plunging into the river; later we get a flashback explaining what led up to the accident. Safe Haven begins with a black-haired woman hysterically running out of a house and taking refuge with a neighbor. What has led to this? The woman, now a blonde, then boards a bus, while we see a man with police credentials questioning witnesses and stopping other buses.
The plot is organized so that we don’t know for quite some time why Erin is being pursued by this exceptionally zealous detective. And some fragmentary flashbacks, mostly in the form of dreams (a favorite 40s device), hint that she has killed a man. Gradually, however, there are hints that this cop isn’t what he seems. Not until the end of the third part (circa 80:00) do we learn from a full flashback that the cop is her husband. Kevin is a crazed alcoholic who began to strangle Erin one evening; she stabbed him and fled her home. The teasing flashbacks, along with the suggestion that Kevin’s pursuit is an official inquiry rather than a private vendetta, misled us. What we saw at the start was Erin escaping from an abusive marriage.
A lower-key form of delayed and distributed exposition involves Alex and his kids. Instead of filling us in immediately on Alex’s life with his wife, we learn of their married life gradually. After Alex has fallen in love with Erin, he retreats to a room kept in memory of his dead wife. He riffles through letters she left behind, to be given to Josh and Lexie when they grow up. Later, Alex abandons Erin because of the wanted poster, and he retreats to his wife’s room, where he has a change of heart and goes to bring her into the home.
Why the change of heart? An unusual aspect of Safe House is the injection of, ah, otherworldly intervention. While living in her cabin, Erin meets a neighbor, Jo, who encourages her to get to know Alex. In the epilogue, Alex gives Erin one of the letters from his wife’s desk, labeled simply, “To Her.” It’s a sympathetic message expressing the wife’s support for the next woman to be wife and mother to her family. The picture inside is of Jo. Earlier, in the sacred space of Jo’s room, Alex seems to grasp that he has to reunite with Erin. At the climax, Erin, dreams that Jo is warning her that Kevin has caught up with her. As angel, ghost, or spirit—you choose—Jo has brought everyone together.
Reviewers, in this cynical age, scoffed at this device. I didn’t mind it because I liked its tie to tradition. Ghosts and angels have haunted American cinema from the start, but in the 1940s they played very prominent roles—not just in comedies like Topper Returns (1941) but in dramas. Beyond Tomorrow (1940), Our Town (1940), Happy Land (1943), A Guy Named Joe (1943), The Uninvited (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), and many other films unashamedly introduced supernatural beings as moral guides to the living. True, those films build their spooks into the premises of the plot early on, while Safe Haven saves its for a Big Reveal. But after The Sixth Sense (1999), this sort of twist shouldn’t seem too upsetting. (A second viewing reveals that Jo is unnaturally disturbed when it looks like Erin won’t bond with the family, and a few lines of dialogue take on new meanings when you know that Jo is dead.) Perhaps the gimmick seems wimpier when it’s invoked in a romantic thriller than in a masculine investigation plot.
Steven Soderbergh is one of our most exploratory directors, a filmmaker who tries different things without making a big deal about it. He’s also a cinephile who, like Cameron Crowe, admires and quietly adapts classic studio traditions. He turns out lots of movies, a habit reminiscent of the contract director of yore.
I was skeptical of his pastiche The Good German (2006), but I do admire his compact, unfussy direction, as I mentioned here. I’m a big fan of Out of Sight (1998), and I think his last batch of films, from Contagion (2011) through Haywire (2012) and Magic Mike (2012), shows him to be a director whose every project is solid and intriguing. It’s a pity he’s announced his retirement after the upcoming Liberace project.
I doubt that in Safe Haven Lasse Hallström was consciously channeling 1940s suspense thrillers, but it seems likely that Soderbergh was trying his hand at something deliberately Hitchcockian. (Reviewers needed no nudging to make the comparison.) Beyond comparisons with the Master of Suspense, Side Effects’s debt extends to two plot patterns of the 1940-early 1950s that Scott Z. Burns’s script ingeniously combines.
The first is what I call the Crazy Lady plot. The Snake Pit (1948) is probably the clearest example, but there are many others, including Bewitched (1945), Dark Mirror (1946), The Locket (1946), Shock (1946), Possessed (1947), and Whirlpool (1950). The plot pattern can be found in literary thrillers too, such as Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates (1945) and John Franklin Bardin’s fine Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly (1948). Hitchcock didn’t tackle a Crazy Lady plot until Marnie (1964), but in the 1940s he tried a Crazy Gentleman variation in Spellbound (1945).
In such films, the woman is the mystery. What is wrong with her? Why do her problems have such horrible consequences for her and others? Often the woman displays an abnormal division in her mind: the prospect of a split personality is never far off. The key factor is that her behavior is inconsistent. A rich woman shoplifts (Whirlpool), a sweet girl fatally stabs her fiancé (Bewitched). Accordingly, only a psychoanalyst can probe the sick woman’s behavior and track down the founding trauma, typically something that happened in childhood. A crucial convention is the scene in which the woman breaks through and realizes what ails her, as in this moment from Whirlpool. It’s typical of this plot that therapeutic dialogue is often paralleled by police questioning.
Side Effects gives the Crazy Lady’s mental problems a modern spin. Emily is suffering from depression, and her husband Martin’s recent release from prison hasn’t helped her recover. After ramming her car into a parking-garage wall, she’s cared for by Jonathan, a hospital psychiatrist also in private practice. He starts her on antidepressants, eventually giving her one recommended by Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Victoria. This seems to help, although it induces Emily to sleepwalk. While she’s apparently sleepwalking, she stabs Martin to death.
Now Jonathan is in a bind. If the drug Ablixa has been misprescribed, Jonathan is responsible for Martin’s death and Emily’s fate. Jonathan defends Emily and his testimony helps win a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. He continues to supervise her recovery while his career collapses. His patients abandon him, his partners cast him out of their business, and he’s dropped from a lucrative experiment. He’s also being investigated by his professional association.
In other words, Jonathan is now fulfilling a second 1940s plot pattern: The innocent man trapped by circumstance. He might be a murder suspect (Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940; Phantom Lady, 1944; The Big Clock, 1948) or an ordinary guy dropped into international intrigue (Journey into Fear, 1943; The Ministry of Fear, 1944). Side Effects combines this noirish convention with the Crazy Lady plot. It turns out that Emily and Victoria have conspired to set up Martin’s death. Emily actually hates her husband, and she’s learned enough from his insider-trading schemes to understand that a scandal could drive down Ablixa’s stock price. She and Victoria, who have become lovers, can make millions as a result of the murder.
Yet suspecting all this doesn’t help Jonathan. Emily can’t be tried again, and as Jonathan begins to grasp their scheme, Victoria draws the net tighter around him. She sends his wife faked photos suggesting that he and Emily have had an affair.
In 1947, novelist Mitchell Wilson pointed out an important convention of the thriller. He claimed that the defining feature of the genre was a fear felt by the protagonist that is communicated to the reader: the protagonist is in continual danger. But when the threat reaches its peak, the worm must turn.
The framework of the suspense story is the continual struggle of the frightened protagonist to fight back and save himself in spite of his pervading anxiety, and in this respect he is truly heroic. The action of the story does not consist in mere activity, but in the hero’s change of mood in response to changing circumstances.
Jonathan’s desperation leads him to concoct a scam of his own. Since Emily is in prison and can’t communicate with Victoria, he is able to play them off against one another. Holding a physician’s control over Emily, he can convince her to double-cross Victoria and unmask her. Then he double-crosses Emily and consigns her to the asylum while returning to his family.
Again, I’ve ironed out the ups and downs of the film in order to lay out the plot’s design. In the actual telling, we’re attached first to Emily and then more closely to Jonathan. The overall pattern resembles that of Whirlpool, which concentrates first on the way the wife’s kleptomania draws her to the sinister therapist Korvo, and then shifts to the investigation undertaken by the police and her husband, a psychoanalyst. (Whirlpool, like Side Effects, centers on dueling shrinks.)
Here the Crazy Lady premise is a masquerade, and Soderbergh “plays fair” with us about it. The 1940s films rely on mental subjectivity—voice-over inner monologues, exaggerated sound effects, hallucinations, dream imagery—in order to show that the protagonist is truly wacko. Side Effects presents Emily objectively, relying on somber color schemes, top lighting, and Rooney Mara’s morose demeanor to suggest a young woman struggling against depression
From the outside we watch Emily’s glum visits to Martin in prison, their frustrated sex when he gets out, her impassive crashing of her car, her confiding in her boss, and her breakdown at a cocktail party. There are a few optical POV shots, but those are justified as Emily’s numb stare–although Soderbergh does sneak past us a POV shot that, because of distorting glass, might seem to be projecting Emily’s state of mind expressionistically. (See above.) Virtually everything we see suggests a woman losing control, so that when Emily perks up after going on Ablixa, we, like Jonathan and Martin, think she’s recovering.
Safe Haven leads us to jump to a conclusion—that the cop pursuing Erin is doing so legitimately—only to rescind that by filling out the teasing fragmentary flashbacks. Side Effects does something similar, but through simple ellipsis. The plot lets us think that Emily is genuinely depressed by skipping over things it could have shown, such as her fake vomiting or her dumping the prescription pills down the toilet. Only at the climax, when Jonathan wrings the truth from Emily, do we get subjective imagery. There are artificially sun-sprayed flashbacks of her days with Martin just before his arrest, as well as glimpses of her therapy with Victoria, followed by replays of the suicide attempts, now revealed as faked.
The 1940s popularized this sort of filling-in flashback, in which a replay shows items that were left out of an earlier presentation. The most famous example is the return to the opening of Mildred Pierce (1945). Now as then, we can’t completely trust a thriller’s narration. There are mysteries in the story, but there are also mysteries in the storytelling. No matter how much a thriller seems to tell us, key information is usually held back, and the suppression won’t always be signaled. To get Rumsfeldian: there are always known unknowns, but thrillers trade in unknown unknowns, data we didn’t realize were there.
There’s a lot more to say about these movies. For example, both trade on a premise common to the 1940s and American movies thereafter. Call it the Margaritaville Rule: There’s a woman to blame. Erin brings calamity to Southport and trauma to her would-be family, and Jonathan’s travails are the result of two scheming women, seconded by a hard-edged wife who won’t hear out his explanations.
Moreover, I hope it’s clear that I don’t think these two recent releases are merely cloning 1940s conventions. They incorporate subjects and themes of our time, like spousal abuse and the insidious power of Big Pharma. They exhibit some innovative plotting, such as the revelation of a guiding spirit in Safe Haven and the combination of Crazy Lady premises with the Cornered Innocent in Side Effects. And Soderbergh’s offers an exercise in crisp direction, from its conventional opening shot to its grimly symmetrical closing one.
My point is simple: However new our films may seem, whether they’re accomplished (Side Effects) or banal (Safe Haven), in important respects they’re continuing traditions that go back decades.
Why then, you may ask, do so many academics and journalists insist that classical cinematic storytelling is dead? Why do they so resolutely ignore the evidence of continuity between today’s films and those that went before? That’s a mystery I can’t solve.
Hitchcock’s remark about the range of knowledge and suspense comes from “Introduction: The Quality of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947), viii. Mitchell Wilson’s remarks on fighting back are in “The Suspense Story,” The Writer 60, 1(January 1947), 16. His novel None So Blind (1945) became the Renoir film Woman on the Beach (1947).
The idea of the “helper male” in the Gothic is developed by Diane Waldman in “’At last I can tell it to someone!’: Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s,” Cinema Journal 23,2 (Winter 1984), 29-40.
For more background on the 1940s thriller, see the web essay, “Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense” and this blog entry. Another blog entry discusses replays in 1940s and 1950s American film. For more arguments about the debts of today’s films to studio Hollywood, see The Way Hollywood Tells It and other entries on this site.
This entry neglects another important component of Side Effects: the music. For that, see Roger Ebert’s acute review. Expressive scores are, needless to say, central to 40s thrillers too.
Mike Grost’s encyclopedic website supplies a great deal of information about the mystery genre.
P. S. 24 March 2013: Thanks to Gabe Klinger for correcting a dumb date mistake!