The Hero Project #13: Hitchcock In The Shadowlands

Rebecca, adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel, is the story of a mousy girl who becomes the second wife of a brooding aristocrat, but finds that she cannot escape the long shadow of his dead first wife, Rebecca DeWinter. Our heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, is never named (nor was she in the novel). Most people watching the film fail to notice this until they try to discuss it afterwards and they realize that they have no way of identifying her.

Equally strange, in this visual medium, is the fact that the title character, the first wife, is never pictured. True, she’s been dead for years before the story begins, but she could have appeared in a flashback, or a photo, or a portrait. Usually, if an element is notable by its absence, then screenwriters make sure to visualize that element as often as possible and make it real for the viewer, but not here.

So we have one character who has a face but no name, and another character who has a name but no face. Each has been reduced to one half of a whole. Shortly after her marriage, Fontaine gets a call for “Mrs. DeWinter”. She instinctively responds “Mrs. DeWinter is dead,” and hangs up, only to realize that the call was probably for her. As Emily Dickinson would say, “I’m nobody, who are you?”
North by Northwest is, in tone, on the opposite end of the Hitchcock canon. It’s hip, breezy and modern, while the other was classical, brooding and gothic. But it creates a similar situation. Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill is quick to point out that (as was the case with Hitchcock’s former boss David O. Selznick) he doesn’t actually have a middle name: “The ‘O’ stands for nothing.” And we all know what it means when a character says that a certain trait is his middle name.

Much like Fontaine’s unnamed character, Thornhill is disparagingly compared to an unseen, unknowable doppelganger. In this case it’s a non-existent super-spy named George Kaplan. Like Fontaine, he is expected to wear the clothes of his doppelganger and keep his appointments, though he knows that the people there will be bitterly disappointed with the substitution.

We’re back in Jung territory here. This all echoes Jung’s idea of the shadow-self. Fontaine and Grant never lay eyes on theirs, which may be for the best-- I previously described a Hitchcock-directed episode of his TV show with a similar story starring Tom Ewell. Ewell actually met his doppelganger face to face and was destroyed by it, something that Jung warned of. Let’s cut and paste from Wikipedia, shall we? Jung says that if and when “an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in others - such things as egotism, mental laziness, and sloppiness; unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots”

This goes back to another point I made before: Thrillers are nutty. How do you justify that a normal person would go to such ludicrous extremes to solve their problems? By the rules of our world it makes no sense, but these heroes have entered into a dream world. Hitchcock has plunged them into that shadow-realm of “unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots.”
Robert Donat in The 39 Steps has no doppelganger in the classical sense, but he too has a disturbing amount of blankness under his dapper exterior. He never mentions his past and he has no friends or allies. Everything in his rented room is unused and covered with sheets. He mentions that he’s visiting on vacation from Canada but we get the feeling that he’s been in England for a long time, and has no plans to return home any time soon. Who is he? He makes it up as he goes along.

Perhaps it’s actually valuable that Donat has no pre-established skills to rely on. The target of his search turns out to be a vaudeville performer named “Mr. Memory”, who has memorized every known fact, and that has become a fatal burden. Donat, on the other hand, seems to know nothing in particular, and he gets by just fine. He is not just lacking in skills, he’s totally liberated from the burden of the self. It seems to me that Hitchcock succeeded in breaking the rules because he created his own fully-realized dream-logic.  He could use blank heroes because he made their blankness fascinating. 

The Hero Project #12: Hitchcock’s Ill-Equipped Heroes

So I’ll pick right up from yesterday: Why was Hitchcock able to tell compelling stories about heroes without skills, even though that’s usually a bad idea? I reconsidered nine different movies he made about worst possible picks: 

First of all, I realized that, in four of these movies, my thesis held up: the heroes weren’t interesting enough. These include both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (’34 and ’56) and The Birds. I think these movies would have been improved by having the heroes bring a little more of themselves towards solving their problems. I would also reluctantly include Saboteur in this category, even though I identified it as an underrated movie. In retrospect, the lack of unique qualities in the main character was probably a big reason that Hitchcock couldn’t get Gary Cooper and had to settle for Robert Cummings.
And there were other Hitchcock movies that conformed to my expectations in a different way: I had said before that the only way to make a successful worst possible pick movie was to have the hero suffer endlessly and get saved by someone else. That would certainly describe The Wrong Man and Frenzy. I realized to my surprise that it would also describe Rebecca. Rebecca’s heroine is not able to adapt any of her skills as a paid companion to her new job as mistress of a secret-filled gothic mansion, and ultimately has to pretty much have the mystery spelled out for her at the end. 

Nevertheless, all three of these movies are intensely watchable and very appealing (at least to me). We always hear that heroes are supposed to be proactive and good at their jobs. This is because, otherwise, we won’t believe it when they become clever and successful at the end. But if they remain fate’s pawns throughout, then it’s actually not as much of a problem that they’re totally ineffective. Such movies can still be quite compelling, although they’re bound to be a bit harrowing, as those three are.

So most of Hitchcock’s WPP heroes didn’t disprove my new rules after all, but that still leaves two of his most successful movies: The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. I had to re-watch these two to figure out why they seemed to defy the rules.
The 39 Steps was the first wildly successful thriller worldwide and it provides the prototype for the whole genre. Vacationing Canadian Robert Donat attends a London vaudeville show that turns out to be a nest of spies. A mata-hari type pretends to seduce him so that she can go home with him and get away from the men chasing her. When she dies during the night, he realizes that he’ll be next unless he can re-trace her path and expose the spy ring. 

According to my rules, Donat should be a totally unappealing hero. He is a total blank. We never even find out what his job is. He shows no skills and no personality traits before the trouble begins. As soon as the trouble starts, though, he turns out to be rather quick-witted, and gets out of most problems through clever bits of play-acting, but we never find out where he might have gotten those skills from.

North by Northwest was a different story, I was at first surprised when I re-watched it to discover that it starts out like a classic adapter movie: unlike Donat, we first see Cary Grant in his natural habitat: he’s basically Don Draper, a Madison Avenue ad man who’s good at lying and seducing women. Then he becomes an accidental spy, and spies have to lie and seduce women all the time, so he should have all the skills he needs, established very efficiently in the first five minutes.

But then a funny thing happens, his lying and seduction skills turn out to be weaknesses, not strengths. Unlike Donat, Grant gets exposed quickly every time he lies, and his overestimation of his powers of seduction puts him right into the enemy’s trap. When it actually comes to getting out of trouble, Grant usually has to rely on blind luck: in the drunk driving trap, getting out of the UN, being chased by a plane in a cornfield, etc. The only time that he actually does something clever is at the auction, and that doesn’t really have anything to do with his ad-man skills. By the end, the villains are killed primarily by the handy intervention of Mt. Rushmore.

And yet Grant, like Donat, is not unappealing. In fact, I once described North by Northwest as a “perfect” movie. One could make the case that this is merely because Hitchcock’s every individual choice (shots, editing, mis en scene) was so appealing that he was simply allowed to break the rules: he could make us interested in people we shouldn’t find interesting. But I think that there was more to it that that. Perhaps Hitchcock was able to make movies about hollow men because he had something to say about blankness. This is where our old friend Mr. Jung comes back into play. But I’ll have to pick up there tomorrow...

The Hero Project #11: But What About Hitchcock?

I got a nice response to the first go-round, so let’s try at least another week of The Hero Project. (By the way, in our time off, the project made a guest appearance over at my wife’s far-more-widely-read blog, where she applied it to kids’ books. I show up in the comments to kibitz.)

So I’ve had a few weeks to think about my bumbling attempts to define heroism, and I’ve been wondering where I ever got this impression that the a protagonist should go from “zero to hero” instead of starting the movie with special skills. The more I thought about it the more I realized that there was a simple answer: Hitchcock. When I made my list of the Nine Types of heroes (plus two), I tried to chart some Hitchcock movies, but in retrospect I think I got some of them wrong. Thinking back through them, and rewatching some of them, I realized that most of Hitchcock’s heroes lack skills, and could be described as the “worst possible pick” for solving their problem.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. He also featured examples of the Pro at Work (Foreign Correspondent, Notorious), Adapters (Rope, Rear Window), a Flounderer (Vertigo), and even a Book Taught Amateur (Shadow of a Doubt). (Yes, I’ve moved some since the original post) But his clear favorite was that riskiest of all categories, the Worst Possible Pick.

My earlier conclusion was that “WPP” heroes only worked in cases like The Terminator and Safety Last where the hero suffered greatly and had some professional help to get them through, while movies like The Spanish Prisoner, where an unskilled everyman hero triumphs simply by working a little harder, were inherently unsatisfying. But Hitchcock frequently made that kind of hero work. In fact, Hitchcock’s first international hit, and the one that formed the archetype for so many others, The 39 Steps, has an unskilled hero with no professional help who is somehow both convincing and appealing.

This is a big part of where I got my habits from. Like a lot of people, Hitchcock is my biggest influence as a thriller writer (he never actually got a writing credit, but most people familiar with his process would say that he ghost-co-wrote all of his movies) And, come to think of it, I’ve been on the phone receiving notes and found myself defending my script in conversations that sounded something like this: Them: “You can’t do that in a movie” Me: “What do you mean? Hitchcock did it all the time.” Now it’s finally sunk in: It’s not so easy to play by Hitchcock’s rules. But why not? Tomorrow I’ll look at several of his movies and figure out why many of his unskilled heroes were so appealing (and why some others weren’t).


Underrated Movie #65: Frenzy

Title: Frenzy
Year: 1972
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Arthur La Bern
Stars: Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, Barbara Leigh-Hunt

The Story: An antisocial bartender finds that a series of coincidences have conspired to make it look like he’s the “necktie strangler” stalking London. Soon the real killer, a friendly greengrocer, realizes that our hero is the perfect patsy and starts making his life even more hellish.

How it Came to be Underrated: Most of Hitchcock’s later output was dreadful. After you’ve sampled a few, the tendency is to just give up. What a delightful surprise it was when I finally gave this one a shot.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is the sort of valedictory summation of themes that you always hope every director will pull out at the end of his career, but few do. From the ‘30s through the ‘50s, Hitchcock excelled at pushing the boundaries of public morals without going over, culminating with Psycho in 1960, where he finally pushed them over the edge. As the ‘60s progressed, however, the public’s boundaries disappeared entirely, and he was cut adrift. With this film, he finally abandoned tastefulness and accepted the new license he’d been granted, giving his most lurid and horrifying nightmares free reign onscreen for the first and only time.
  2. Hitchcock had made many films in which a “wrong man” had been fingered for a crime and forced to clear his name. He usually made it look like a surprising amount of fun. With this story, he shows a far more realistic version of the same story. Anyone who studies the stories of the exonerated discovers an unfortunate fact: the sort of people who get falsely convicted tend to be those who do themselves no favors. But Finch’s powerful performance makes this unpleasant character heartbreaking. He has more in common with Job than the ennobled heroes of movies like Saboteur.
  3. After abandoning England for America thirty years before, Hichcock returns to his lost youth in every possible way. His parents were greengrocers who obsessively followed all the latest sensational sex murder cases in the pubs, and once punished him by convincing the police to unjustly lock him up in prison overnight. This is a one big love letter to all the nightmares that they infested him with.
  4. One particular onscreen crime is brutal and shocking, especially for a classy guy like Hitchcock, but it deserves special credit for being totally non-exploitative. After a lifetime of stylized and glamorous violence, Hitch is coming clean about the horrific true nature of these crimes. Compare this to the erotic shower stabbing in Psycho. Hitchcock is finally ready to grapple with the substance of violence, rather than the style.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Anthony Shaffer had a good run in the early 70s, also writing Sleuth and The Wicker Man.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly.

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Underrated TV on DVD #9: Hitchcock Does “Hitchcock”

Series: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Hitchcock-Directed Episodes
Years: 1955-1962, 268 half hour episodes
Creator: Alfred Hitchcock

The Concept: An anthology with different stars every episode and Hitchcock himself as host.
How it Came to be Underrated: This is an acclaimed show, so it’s not actually underrated amongst TV fans, but it is underrated by Hitchcock fans. College courses and critical evaluations of his work frequently fail to acknowledge that Hitchcock was not merely the onscreen host of the show, he actually directed several episodes. Movie fans watch and re-watch every Hitchcock movie, even the clunkers like I Confess, but they would do well to raid this treasure trove of work that is rarely seen today.

Sample Episode: The Case of Mr. Pelham
Writer: Francis Cockrell, based on a story by Anthony Armstrong
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The Story: Albert Pelham demands to speak to a psychiatrist about a strange problem— He has a double who has been living his life, going to his club, doing his job, sleeping in his bed, always just out of step with his own life. When they finally confronts each other, he finds that he can no longer live up to his own standards.

Why It’s Great:
  1. The doppelganger nightmare, borrowed from Dostoyevsky’s “The Double”, is an idea that The Twilight Zone would later borrow three times, but nobody ever matched the master.
  2. Tom Ewell from The Seven Year Itch and The Girl Can’t Help It, gets a rare chance to do a gravely dramatic role and he gives a powerful, deeply disturbed performance. Fifties TV gave a lot of comedic movie actors opportunities to try out the dramatic parts that Hollywood typecasting had denied them.
  3. For the most part, movies can’t end on a note of ambiguity. It’s fun to gin up a lot of “are they mad or aren’t they?” questions, but movies burn through a lot of plot in two hours, and so any movie that begins on a note of mystery tends to end on a note of certainty. Generally speaking, movies should answer the questions they ask, or the audience will want their money back. TV episodes are shorter, and they’re free, and there’s always another one next week, so you have more freedom to get a little more daring.
  4. Hitchcock uses this freedom to its utmost advantage: As an allegory for the alienation of conformity, this episode is devastating. On a plot level, it’s simply surreal, closer to something David Lynch would make than one of Hitchcock’s feature films.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to Watch Instantly.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Storyteller’s Rulebook #12: Depth is Found in Holes

I had the good fortune to teach a section of Andrew Sarris’s Hitchcock course. Mr. Sarris did more than anyone to cement Hitchcock’s critical reputation in this country, and there was no better education than watching the films, hearing his lectures, and then facilitating a discussion with my half of the class the next day. My favorite student questions were those that it never would have occurred to me to ask. When we were discussing Vertigo followed by North By Northwest, I was asked an odd but interesting question. Let me paraphrase the student:
“Everybody pretty much agrees that North by Northwest is a perfectly constructed film. It fits together better than any other Hitchcock movie. And yet you say that Vertigo is considered to be “greater” by almost every critic. How can Vertigo, which is really messy, be better than North by Northwest, which is perfect?”
It was a good point. Vertigo has a very odd structure. It slows down to a crawl in places. It leaves plot threads dangling and forgets to pick them back up. A lot of the backstory doesn’t really make sense as you watch it and some things make even less sense when you think about them later. (How does Madeline/Judy disappear out of that hotel room, anyway?) The plot is untidy and so are the character arcs. We’re left wondering at the end what everybody’s motivation was. North by Northwest, on the other hand, builds and builds and then pays off seamlessly. We understand every beat of Cary Grant’s journey, strategically and emotionally. It’s an immensely satisfying movie to watch.
But depth lies in holes. A few unanswered questions and unresolved emotions are necessary to really have a profound effect on a viewer. Right at the beginning of Vertigo, we abruptly cut from Jimmy Stewart, dangling from a building in terror, with no rescue in sight, to several months later, as he talks with a friend about leaving the police force. We can figure out what happened in between, but because we never see the rescue we’re left with the unresolved disturbance of the emotion we saw on his face. It’s not a plot hole, but it’s an emotional hole, and it bothers us. And that’s what makes Vertigo a greater film. Great art shouldn’t be entirely satisfying. It has to disquiet us a little bit. It has to have a few holes for us to get stuck in.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #11: Sympathetic Doesn’t Have To Mean Likable

There’s nothing worse than a story with an unsympathetic lead character. Every step of the way, you’re thinking “Yeah, but I could care less. Go ahead-- Check out that mysterious noise-- Get yourself killed. The sooner you die, the sooner this thing ends.”

But making a character sympathetic can be the hardest thing to do . Which is why every writer has a list of tricks that they can fall back on. And the ultimate trick is the one made famous by the late screenwriting guru Blake Snyder: “Save the Cat”. If you have the hero do something wildly sympathetic in the first scene, like save a cat, then the audience will follow them anywhere.

But this is a very limited view of the word “sympathetic”. Yes, you have to win the audience’s sympathy, but you can do it without being morally upstanding. Francois Truffaut claimed that it was impossible to make an anti-war film, because anytime you show someone doing something difficult on onscreen, the audience starts to root for them to succeed, even if they don’t approve.

Nobody knew this better than Hitchcock. Yes, generally speaking, audiences are going to prefer to root for someone moral, or at least someone clever. But if we can’t have that, we’ll root for someone evil and dumb, too. There is no better example of this the swamp scene in Psycho. We never approve of Norman Bates. We never sympathize with his goal, or his point of view. In fact, at this point in the movie, we barely know him. Because of the bizarre structure of the movie, we’ve been rooting for someone else for the first hour. But after she gets killed we’re left watching her killer and we suddenly find that our identification shifts over to him. It’s a neat trick! It turns out that all that’s really required to generate sympathy is to closely watch someone who is: (a) making decisions, (b) doing something difficult, and (c) overcoming setbacks.

At what point do we suddenly realize that we’ve come to sympathize with Norman? With much difficulty, he’s killed our heroine, put her body in the trunk of her own car, and then dumped that car in the swamp. We’re horrified, but we can’t help but get wrapped up in his grim determination. Then, suddenly, the plan hits a hitch—the car bobs back up instead of sinking. And what do we think? We should think “yay, our heroine’s killer will be caught!”, but we don’t. Instead we wonder “oh no, how’s he going to get out of this one?” Truffaut was right. We’ll cheer for anybody if the movie is well made.


Underrated Movie #64: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Hitchcock Week: Day 2
Title: Mr. And Mrs. Smith
Year: 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Norman Krasna
Stars: Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond, Jack Carson

The Story: A bickering society couple discover that their marriage was never valid. He wants to have an affair with his own wife, but she kicks him out for “cheating” with her. Now he wants to win her back, especially after they both attract dismal new suitors...

How it Came to be Underrated: Screwball fans think of it as a Hitchcock film, and Hitchcock fans dismiss it as an oddity. I think it’s a great screwball and a great Hitchcock film. If Billy Wilder was allowed to make Double Indemnity, why couldn’t Hitchcock make this?

Why It’s Great:

  1. Hitchcock fell in love with Lombard, the original cool blonde, and she was more than happy to work for him, but she wouldn’t make a suspense movie. He agreed to try a straight comedy, just to get the chance to work with her. Lombard is so smart, funny and elegant that you instantly understand how she could get Hitch to change his ways. Tragically, they would never get to do it again, since she died the next year in a plane crash at age 33.
  2. The early scenes capture the bittersweet moment when couples realize how much they’ve changed together. Did my old clothes shrink while they were in the closet? Did our old favorite restaurant go downhill or did our tastes just get fancier? The scene where they suffer through a meal at a place where even the cats won’t eat the food is hilariously uncomfortable.
  3. Hitch is able to use some of the same tricks for comedy that he uses for suspense. Here’s a great way to build a scene: Establish that someone needs to hear somebody else say something. Then have the other person say a bunch of seemingly nice things, but not what that person wants to hear. We know that tension is building, but the person talking has no idea… until the explosion. Audiences love being put in an information-superior position.
  4. The scene where they both wind up on dates at the same nightclub is a masterful train wreck. I love the moment where he pretends the be dating the elegant blonde seated next to him, rather than the earthy dame he’s actually saddled with, who barks at her pheasant: “Oh, so you wanna wrestle, huh?”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Lombard loved edgy comedy material. The same year, she made the great Nazi-Germany-set-screwball To Be Or Not To Be.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a nice retrospective documentary featuring the always insightful Peter Bogdanovich.

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Underrated Movie #63: Saboteur

Welcome to Hitchcock Week! Alas, I’ve been scooped right off the bat— One of my inspirations for this blog was the great William Martell who has one site for screenwriting advice and another site for movie analysis. He does Hitchcock every Friday, but I tried to start with one that he hadn’t done yet. Well guess what he just did this Friday? He went much more in depth than I have, so read his too!

Title: Saboteur
Year: 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker (yes, the Dorothy Parker)
Stars: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd

The Story: A nazi saboteur torches a defense plant, but the blame falls on an innocent young man, who takes off on a cross-country hunt for the real Nazi that takes him from a ghost town to Hoover Dam to the Statue of Liberty.

How it Came to be Underrated: Hitchcock came to America to make two prestigious literary adaptations, Rebecca and Suspicion, but when he wanted to return to the making the kind of adventure films he loved back in England, he was informed that this was strictly “B” picture material and all his newfound clout still couldn’t get him an “A” budget or big stars. He had to gradually convince America that genre pictures could be art.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This film is the middle step in a three-decade long thematic trilogy, starting with The 39 Steps in 1935 and concluding with North By Northwest in 1959. All three follow an innocent man, accused of treason, who has to traipse across a series of national landmarks in order to clear his name. This isn’t an all-time classic like the other two, but it’s the only one made during an actual war, giving it a little more weight.
  2. This was Hitchcock’s first thriller set in America, and he gleefully decides to cram the whole country in. And yet he doesn’t hesitate to be critical, right off the bat. We revisit the Hitler-loving society types from Holiday, who desire “a more profitable type of government,” but now it’s not enough to dismiss them. Now they must be stopped.
  3. Cummings spends the first half of the movie trying to convince everyone he’s innocent, then when he realizes what they want to do, he starts trying to convince the bad guys that he’s guilty, so that he can unravel the conspiracy from the inside. It’s a great example of raising the stakes—Reacting to circumstances is fine for getting a hero through the first half, but eventually you have to figure out a way to flip things around so that the hero takes control of the action.
  4. Before Hitchcock was told that this would be a “B” picture, he wanted to cast Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. I love it the way it is, but I can’t help but dream of how great the movie would have been with one of my favorite movies duos of the time (Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire) instead of the workaday leads it got.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie shouldn’t be confused with Hitchcock’s earlier movie Sabotage, which was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Secret Agent”. And that movie shouldn’t be confused with Hitchcock’s movie that was titled Secret Agent, which was actually an adaptation of Somerset Maughm’s “Ashenden” stories. Confused yet? Don’t be, just watch the movies, you’ll like them.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly

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