Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much

May 22, 2010

During the twentieth century, there were many film directors that came up and were able to carve out their own unique style of making movies. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the male directors to accomplish this. Born in England in 1899, Hitchcock came into the world just as the medium of film was being born. He was trained by the British, but he was also heavily influenced by what he witnessed in the twenties with what the French, American, Russian, and German directors of that era brought to the world. He was able to borrow from those new styles to create movies that would become his own brand of filmmaking. Hitch was known for making suspense thrillers and he used many different camera shots and angles to draw the audience into the story.
In David Cook’s, A History of Film, Andrew Harris describes Hitchcock in this way: He is the only contemporary director whose style unites the divergent classical traditions of Murnau (camera movement and mise en scene) and Eienstein (montage). Although he began making films during the silent days, he would eventually make his name with sound pictures. After becoming famous with British films, he decided in the late thirties that it was time to move onto Hollywood.
Hitchcock made movies until the last decade of his life, but his mark would be made in the 1950s and capped in 1960 by what is considered to be his crowning achievement, Psycho. Drawn to themes that continued to show up in his work such as the falsely accused man, the mentally disturbed woman, or depicting small town America with trouble brewing behind it, the director finds ways to play with the camera to clue the viewer into something that one of the characters may not already be aware of. In the film Strangers on a Train, made in 1951, Hitchcock is building suspense between the good and bad characters of the film by cutting back and forth between them. In doing so, the viewer is forced to go along with the motivations of the hero and villain in a way that makes one feel empathy for both. His film North By Northwest, made in 1959, would revisit the theme of the wrong man and become one of his great action thrillers. We can see his master use of the long shot when Cary Grant is running from the crop duster. The bird’s eye view shot at the end of the film in Mount Rushmore will remind the Hitchcock fan of an earlier work called Saboteur where there is a similar shot used at the end of the film on top of the Statue of Liberty.
When Psycho comes along in 1960, it will open the door for the Horror genre that took hold in the late 1960s and would continue well into the 1980s. Hitchcock admitted to being influenced by the work of innovative directors of the 1920s, and in this film, he is giving a nod to Eisenstein. David Cook says that when Janet Leigh is stabbed to death in the 45 second motel montage sequence, critics of the day compared it to Eisenstein’s Potemkin(1925) in how manipulative the film is with regard to audience stimulation and response. Cook also reminds us of another similarity by telling us that the murder sequence is made up of eighty seven rapidly alternating fragmentary shots, where we see the violent murder taking place, but only once do we see the knife penetrating the flesh. Although Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for Best Director, he has managed to make his mark on history and set himself apart by the way he shot his films. Not receiving an Oscar for directing may have been a thorn in his side, but he was in good company. Orson Welles never got one either.


The Man Who Knew Too Much

May 22, 2010

Ozu and the Footprint He Left Behind

May 17, 2010

Yasujiro Ozu lived a short life and died on the very day of his 60th birthday, but who needs to live long if you had the chance to make history the way he did.  Studying films from childhood, he was influenced by the work of D.W. Griffith. The man made his mark by specializing in a film genre known in Japan as shomin-geki, stories which center the focus around lower middle class families going about their everyday lives and coping with the difficulties thrust upon them. His way of shooting films is very different from what American audiences are used to in that he is deliberately breaking the traditional Hollywood rules for how movies are shot for continuity. In Floating Weeds, Ozu breaks the 180 degree rule in a shot reverse shot showing the feet  of one character pointing in the opposite direction which would indicate that the camera has broken that imaginary line to give the viewer that shot.  Ozu is also famous for something called the tatami shot. It is a low angle shot but different from the low angle used in American cinema. Instead of the camera being low to the ground and tilted upward to the subject, the camera is low to the ground but straight on, recording the subject as if they were sitting on a tatami mat. This would be equivalent to a straight angle shot of a child in an American film, such as the boy in The Shining (1980), where we can see that although the camera is low, the shot of the child’s perspective is straight on. Yasujiro is also known for his use of offscreen space. This meant that he would transition his shots between his characters with significant objects, or pointing the camera to look at the buildings where the next interior shots would take place.  This would suggest to the viewer that something important was also taking place beyond the borders of the frame. It is intersting to note that although Ozu is influenced by Americans, he is anxious to break the rules created by them to say to the world, there is another way of making films, and it works.  He is also ahead of his time in the subject matter that he is taking on. We can see from looking at Late Spring (1949) , that Ozu is showing us the shifting changes in Japanese culture. The kids are blatantly disrespecting their elders, while the women are outspoken about opposing marriage in such an opinionated way. For its time, it had to be a major breakthrough as it is depicting women on a somewhat equal footing with men. Strong minded and unwilling to settle for less than they truly deserve, the way these women handle themselves was probably celebrated in the United States during the film’s eventual release in the 1970s. Known as one of the three great Japanese directors, Ozu is considered an auteur for daring to step outside the box and do something completely different. There is no telling what he might have done if he lived longer, but just looking at the films made during his pinnacle, and anyone can see that Ozu left an impression on the world of cinema that will last for the ages.


The Dark Days of The Blacklist

May 14, 2010

In the 1950s, Hollywood was a very strange place. Many of the most talented people in tinseltown were communist sympathizers in the 1930s because these were people who saw their parents suffer in poverty after the depression. They began to see communism as a better road to take. Their communist ties would find them in some serious trouble during the McCarthy era witchhunts that ruined the lives of those who had great promise for the future. We the viewers are the ones who lost out. Seared in that flame were writers, Directors, and actors that would simply vanish after the blacklist. Among them were John Garfield, Paul Muni, Abraham Polonsky, Jules Dassin,and Dalton Trumbo to name a few of the giants. Let’s not leave out the talented few who cooperated with the House of Un-American Activities Commitee to save their own skin. This list includes Adolph Menjou, Budd Schulberg, Sterling Hayden, Edward G. Robinson, and Elia Kazan. The sad thing about Kazan is that his masterpiece ‘On The Waterfront’ is said to mirror his situation at this time and somehow vindicate him for his actions. But the comparison between how conflicted Terry Malloy is in that movie and Kazan’s own wilingness to testify in the hearings, is absolutely embarassing. Although there was great talent coming out of Hollywood at that time, the coldwar paranoia did not make it a very good place to be  for many unfortunate artists. In the late fifties, Kirk Douglas had the courage to break the blacklist. Dalton Trumbo who had been covering his identity by working under pseudonyms for years, was given back his trademark moniker on the movie Spartacus. Stanley Kubrick the director, knowing that Trumbo was blacklisted, told Kirk Douglas that he would be more than willing to take the writing credit for Spartacus. This infuriated Douglas to no end, and he decided to give Trumbo back his name. Kudos to captain Kirk!


The Gangster Film in the Early Days of Sound

May 14, 2010

In the early days of sound, there were some great gangster films made. Although the Production code was looming as some people felt there needed to be more censorship in the movies, film companies knew that pushing the boundaries would pack people into movie houses. After all, sex and violence always sells. During the early thirties, several stars would be made that would go on to become big name talent. This included Edward G. Robinson, immortalized in the role of Rico in Little Caesar. Paul Muni would be big throughout the decade by starting off with the original Scarface film. James Cagney makes celluloid history by starring in The Public Enemy. Although these dark characters all receive their punishment in the end, their was a fear of copycat criminals cropping up to imitate the new screen legends. Even Barbara Stanwyck prior to the code got away with Babyface, in which she is trading sexual favors for money. It was a sign of the times as the country had just fell into its worst depression in 1929 leaving many Americans out of work and standing on bread lines. You can see from watching any of these pictures, that there was a real hard reality evident which was a mirror for the timeframe. It is hard to imagine that going through such difficult financial woes, people weren’t heard using profanity. But you can see that they didn’t need to curse to portray roughness – these people are tough because of the what they witnessed in real life. Things were hard for many people. Many people don’t know that Humphrey Bogart, who was trapped in side roles playing in this genre throughout the decade, was in real life a man who came from a well to do family that lost everything. It is said that at one point he was so desperate that he was playing chess in store front windows on Fifth Avenue for a $1 a game. This was all prior to getting his break in The Petrified Forest courtesy of his co star Leslie Howard. Starring in the Broadway version before making the film, critics of the day attributed the realism he added to Duke Mantee to the fact that he himself fell on very hard times.
Thank god for those hard times. It was the backdrop for some of the most memorable characters we will ever have the pleasure to see on film.


Film Noir and Falling in Love with the Dark side

May 14, 2010

In the years after World War ll,  men were returning from combat, women were readjusting from having to fill their shoes at home, and reality set in. The mood for feel good pictures was gone. And lucky for us.  A genre called film noir crept in to theaters that began showing men suffering from failed masculinity, and women began to take charge using their sexuality as a way to make trouble for everybody they came into contact with. This type of film owes plenty to German cinema. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a sign from the 1920s that darkness could be utilized properly to create a mood that will cast a haunting shadow over a film. Is it any wonder that many of the best films of this period came from German directors such as Robert Siodmak and Jules Dassin? Even F. W. Murnau would have made at least one film noir if his promising career wasn’t cut short by sudden death. Throughout the forties and into the early fifties, the writing, the talent, and the use of chiaroscuro lighting, combine to create a dark world that was very real and usually shot on location. What makes many of the films fascinating is that although they are in black and white, the viewer has a glimpse into the past of what certain places actually looked like sixty to seventy years before. New York City being the perfect backdrop for this type of film with buildings all around and the feeling of gloom and doom, you know that you are watching something special because many times the film is out of print and you are lucky to see it in a theater for not only the first time, but maybe never again! The women also seem to be from the New York world as they are fast talking, smoking, cheating on their husbands, manipulating men for selfish means, and pretty much behaving badly. Who could forget Marylyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle, or Yvonne DeCarlo in Criss Cross? The women in these films are so irresistable that you can’t blame the male characters for following them around like puppy dogs. It is so comical to watch these movies because the man is usually doomed from the start, and the woman is always at the heart of his troubles, while we sit and watch the drama unfold, knowing full well that the ending is going to be ugly. It is easy to see how so many directors are influenced by this type of film. There are no happy endings and the dialogue is usually at a rapid pace with all of the characters trying to outwit each other. Film Noir is a time capsule in American cinema that may never again be in full swing as it was in the days of post WWll, but its nice to be able to go to the theater and take a trip into what certainly feels like a time machine.


Bonnie & Clyde in the Dawn of A New Hollywood

May 14, 2010

The 1960s was the decade that would bring about a change in Hollywood that we may never see again. Filmmakers that were up and coming during this era would be influenced by what was happening with avant garde cinema at the time, and they would also be a very different breed from the great directors before them. Instead of learning their craft by already being in the business, the newcomers would be college educated, honing their skills in the best schools from the east and west coasts of the United States. This new type of director would go on in the 70s to create the films that made this particular decade a golden age of Hollywood. In the late sixties, Aurthur Penn would begin to enjoy creative freedom with Bonnie & Clyde. It is fitting that he would be the one to open a door to what would come as he is nearly two generations older than the famous auteurs of the seventies. Influenced by French New Wave cinema, Penn would borrow the styles of Truffaut and Godard who may have directed the film if not for the consequences of fate. Misread by veteran critics, public outcry from support of the film forced many too take a second look at Bonnie & Clyde. Francis Coppola owes something to Penn as anyone can see that there is a great similarity between the massacre seen here and with The Godfather when Sonny Corleone is gunned down by the causeway. What is very interesting is that while the directors of the seventies enjoyed creative freedom that may never come again, a monster was created by ushering in the age of the blockbuster. After the Heaven’s Gate disaster, film companies are swallowed up by big corporations, changing the way Hollywood pictures are financed and made. Directors would not be the rock stars for long, and creative control would only be afforded to those having the financial might to get projects off the ground without the help of a film company. Coppola being compared to Welles makes sense in that his best work is done early in his career, and he is forced to find ways to raise money if he wants to have things done on his terms. Someone like George Lucas with the success of Star Wars has so much control that any studio is fortunate to make any money in distributing his films. The way films are now marketed and how auteur directors are used as brands to finance and sell pictures, is just another indication of how the business of moviemaking will always be at odds with the creative people responsible for bringing great movies to the masses. All the money in the world can’t make a picture worth watching without the skilled director. Fortunately, the day has come where anyone can showcase their talent online and get noticed.


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