Happy Birthday Hitchcock!

 

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If you have ever watched the original Psycho, or The Birds, or Rebecca (preferably alone on a stormy night, with all your doors bolted) you know what it is to experience Alfred Hitchcock at his best.

The Master of Suspense, the Sorcerer of Shock, and the King of Comeuppance — Hitchcock is by far one of the best film directors of the 20th century.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day, August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone England. His father was a greengrocer, his mother a homemaker. He was the youngest of three children, an average student and a bit of loner.

But yawn. That story is far too mundane. Something must have happened in his formative years to help create his twisted persona, to turn him into the Tyrant of Terror, who would later alarm the world with his disturbing psychological horror.

It turns out a few things did happen. (His birth date fell on a Friday the 13th. That ought to tell us something, heheh.)

When he was five years old, Hitchcock’s father wanted to punish him for ‘behaving badly’.  Little Alfred was sent to the local police station with a note asking the officer to ‘lock him up in jail for five minutes’.  This incident left a lifelong scar on Hitchcock, possibly influencing his frequent themes of harsh punishments, wrongful accusations and sly retributions for evil doers. He had a permanent fear of the police.

He also had a permanent fear of Jesuits.

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Hitch was raised Roman Catholic and attended Jesuit Grammar School at Saint Ignatius College. Years later, when asked in an interview how he – a  polite gentleman – managed to create such malevolent stories, Hitchcock replied: “I spent three years studying with the Jesuits. They used to terrify me to death and now I’m getting my own back by terrifying other people.”

His 1953 film I Confess starred Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest who is wrongly accused of murder, but also hears the confession of the true murderer — and is sworn to secrecy by his priestly vows.

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Hitchcock’s first job was as a draftsman for an electric cable company called Henley’s.  Even then, as a teenager, he was already writing scary tales. Some of these were published in the company’s newsletter, The Henley Telegraph.

Hitchcock’s first piece, “Gas” tells the story of a young woman who imagines that she is being assaulted one night in London—but the twist at the end reveals it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair induced by the anesthetic.

Interestingly, one of the episodes featured on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seems reminiscent of this tale. In the newer version, the woman’s hallucination involves a futuristic society in which all men have been eradicated through a medicine originally intended to kill rats.  There are no more men in the world! Babies are born through test tubes and they are always females! The woman wakes up from her dream to find that in reality, a famous scientist is currently experimenting with a medicine which will rid the world of rats!  The woman takes a shotgun, attempts to kill the scientist and… Well, you will just have to watch the episode to find out what happens.

His other early stories also indicate Hitchcockian creepiness and weird sexual overtones. One short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (which some folk thought should have been banned)  tells of a young man who goes out looking for a brothel, but instead stumbles into the house of his best friend’s girl. Hitch also wrote a piece called “Fedora” which gave a ‘strikingly accurate description’ of his future wife Alma Reville, although he had not yet met her!

At the tender age of twenty, Hitchcock got a job at Paramount Studios as a title card designer for silent films. Within five years he was directing those films.  His first commercial success was a thriller called The Lodger about London’s notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.  

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 Around this time Alma Reville became Hitch’s assistant director. The two were married on December 2, 1926.   Alma became Hitchcock’s closest collaborator.  He rarely discussed her contributions to his films, although some were credited on screen. Alma was clearly ‘the woman behind the great man’ but she avoided public attention.

Hitchcock had the unique experience of working in the film industry as it evolved through all its massive changes of the 20th century. In 1929, his production company began experimentation with sound, producing the first ‘Talkies’.  Hitchcock’s contributions included Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much and his highly acclaimed The 39 Steps, which made him a star in the United States.

The 39 Steps established two unique Hitchcockian traditions: the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and The MacGuffin’.

The Hitchcock Blonde was the beautiful, ice-cool, perfect leading lady who often became a victim of twisted circumstances.

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First personified in The 39 Steps by actress Madeleine Carroll, his other blondes included Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh. Hitch believed that these flawless, classy women left much to the sexual imagination –  they were ladylike in public but potential whores in the bedroom. He described this archetype as follows:

“I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open. … Without the element of surprise, the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex.

The MacGuffin is a plot device — an object thrown in for the purpose of intriguing the audience, but which will have little consequence in the overall story.  In a lecture at Columbia University, Hitchcock explained The MacGuffin as follows:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

The MacGuffin took on a life of its own in filmmaking. It is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legends.  Some modern examples include:  the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name; the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane; the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III, and  the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic.

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Hitchcock’s recognition and fame continued to grow. In 1939 he received The New York Film Critics Circle Award for his film The Lady Vanishes.  Picturegoer Magazine called him ‘Alfred the Great’.  The New York Times called him ‘the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world’, placing him alongside other English treasures such as the Magna Carta and the Tower of London.

In 1940 Hitch directed Rebecca based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. (If you have not read this masterpiece, you must do so immediately!) The film won an Academy Award for best picture, with a best director nomination.

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Hitch and horror novelist Daphne Du Maurier formed a natural collaboration. His film The Birds  — a story of rebellious birds that slowly and creepily take over a California town — was also based on a story written by Du Maurier.

A few years ago my local movie theater ran a big screen production of The Birds. Tippi Hedren,  an iconic Hitchcock Blonde who stars in the film, came in as a guest speaker.

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I swear to god she looked EXACTLY the same as she did in the film!  Some forty years had passed and the woman had not aged, not one day!  You will find pictures of Tippi Hedren on the internet where she looks older, but these (I swear!) are not real.  I believe she might actually have some weird Dorian Gray arrangement going on… Perhaps the internet pictures are aging as she herself stays young.  (Anything would be possible in Hitch’s world.)

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Hitchcock’s career peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s when he directed gems such as Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and of course Psycho.  This movie was the creepiest creep-fest of all, about a young woman (Janet Leigh) who goes to stay at a hotel run by a taxidermy obsessed man (Tony Perkins) who has a strange relationship with his dead mother…

 

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Hitch’s television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ had a ten year run from 1955 to 1965. The fascinating thing about these segments is that, by today’s standards, they are very plain.  No bells or whistles, no special effects –  just simple black and white cinematography, flat lighting, and mostly unknown actors – yet the brilliant storytelling speaks for itself.

Equally entertaining was Hitch’s deadpan delivery  of introductions which always began with “Good Evening” and went on to speak of outrageous things.

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Hitchcock moved to California and became an American citizen in 1955, although still retaining his English citizenship. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, a few months before his death. Film critic Roger Ebert considered it something of a snub that the Queen took so long to give Hitch his knighthood, writing:  “Other British directors like Sir Carol Reed and Sir Charlie Chaplin were knighted years ago, while Hitchcock… one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was passed over.” Maybe the Queen was a bit spooked by him, or reluctant to invite him to the palace?

On April 29th, 1980, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in his home in Bel Air California. Despite his professed fears of the Jesuits, two priests came in his closing hours, giving a final mass at Hitchcock’s home and hearing his last confession.

Gone but not forgotten, we will never ditch the Hitch!  He shall always be alive in legacy, legend and the ominous voice that warns to lock the doors and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Happy Birthday Alfred!

This short tribute is a great celebration of the man and his art. Hope you like it!

 

 

 

 

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An Analysis of Alice

 

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I am a huge Lewis Carroll fan.  The Alice stories (In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) are among the best ever written. To my thinking, they are worthy of analyzing and revisiting many times over, always with something new to be discovered.

Because the original work is presented with a good deal of abstract symbolism, readers often misunderstand, or are completely baffled by the text. (Especially if they are trying to decipher it on an adult level.)  Hence, film makers tend to go ‘over the top’, often presenting the story with a lot of bells and whistles that were not included in the original story. (Tim Burton and Disney both did this.)

It is, at its core, a story about questioning authority. Carroll pokes fun at just about every Victorian institution. His attack at  child rearing, for example, is evident in the fate of the baby that turns into a pig.

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He pokes fun at the school system, evident in the ‘reeling and writhing’ classes of the mock turtle. He makes fun of he British monarchy (‘Off with her head’ is a reference to its once frequent be-headings.)

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The War of the Roses is also mocked, with the servants painting roses from white to red (representing York and Lancaster dynasties.) The court system is criticized in the Knave of Hearts’ trial. There is a message about being controlled by schedules in the rabbit’s obsession with his watch and the idea of ‘beating time’.

The Alice books show a test of one’s ability to adapt. Alice finds herself in the strangest of circumstances and tries her best to fit in. In the end she discovers the Wonderland creatures are ‘nothing but a pack of cards’ and thus no better than she herself. (Lower than she herself actually…)

As in any quest for knowledge, and as is frequently the experience of one ‘growing up’, Alice often becomes ‘too big’ for her own surroundings.

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She may be terrified at the changes within her own mind and body – frequently the experience of adolescents and young adults. And yet, as the frog footmen, the lizards and rabbits scurry about, Alice is aware of their silliness, much in the same way an enlightened being becomes aware of the triviality of the world.

Perhaps most importantly, the books teach self actualization. Alice is frustrated, but in the end she realizes her nuanced opinions have some validity. Her experience is just as important as anyone  else’s.

No wonder Wonderland became so popular!  First published in 1865, it has never been out of print. The first fans of the Alice books included Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde.  The Alice books are also reportedly the most quoted books in the English language, right up there with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

Carroll was among the first to use a dream sequence in a novel — a technique that became more popular with the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century. Today dream sequence in film is almost passe’. We have seen it a hundred times, and it is frequently uses as a cliffhanger, or to ‘trick’ the viewer.  But back then it was certainly innovative.

Ironically, although Carroll is frequently accused of drug use, the kinds of drugs they associate him with were not discovered until much later. For example, ‘magic mushrooms’ were discovered in 1955, and LSD was first synthesized in 1938, which I guess proves that Carroll had a brilliant imagination.

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So, forget Tim Burton and all other fabrications. Here I give you a movie which is actually very close in sentiment to the Real Alice!

This 1972 film, directed by William Sterling, captures the intent of Lewis Carroll. Using most of the book’s original dialogue, script writing owes credit to Carroll as well as Sterling. The talented cast includes Fiona Fullerton, Dudley Moore and Peter Sellers.

Although the film is lacking in super-duper mind blowing special effects (it was, after all, made in 1972 on a limited budget) it nonetheless does a great job of capturing Carroll’s  ideas.

Running time is about 1 hour 30 minutes. Hope you get a chance to watch it!

 

 

A Streetcar Named Desire

 

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“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, then transfer to one called Cemeteries, then ride six blocks and get off at — the Elysian Fields!” So begins the opening lines of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, spoken by would-be  femme fatal Blanche Dubois.

Tennessee Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for this 1947 play, which tells the story of Blanche, an aging southern belle who, after a series of devastating personal losses pays a visit to her sister Stella in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Stella lives in a shabby, run down two flat with her brutish and bullying husband Stanley Kowalski (played by  then-unknown Marlon Brando.)  Blanche is immediately both intimidated by and attracted to Stanley, who becomes relentless in his quest to expose dark secrets from Blanche’s past.

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Rest assured, the secrets are very dark  — there was  a marriage to a gay man resulting in his suicide, for which Blanche feels responsible. There were clandestine hotel encounters, possible prostitution, and an affair with a high school student that ended her career.  (Blanche had been a teacher.)

What follows is Blanche’s psychological demise. There is a controversial rape scene, the birth of a baby and Blanche’s threadbare conclusion as she is hauled off to a mental institution:”I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

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In 1951 the play was made into an academy award winning movie, starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Stella. (Hollywood did its best to tone down the homosexual sub plot as well as the rape scene.)

In the end, Stanley, Stella and Blanche were all victims of their own desires. Stanley wanted power, Stella wanted love and Blanche wanted security. Or did they?

The true genius of this play is its conflicting virtues and sexual politics.  It is very hard to name a hero or a villain.  Tennessee Williams was quoted as saying he wrote the play for the “mentally ill and the misunderstood.”  He had a mentally ill sister whom he commemorated in ‘The Glass Menagerie’.  Tennessee himself had a few nervous breakdowns, as did Vivien Leigh. And yet —  I could have sworn the author was rooting for Stanley the whole time.

Although the names ‘Desire’, ‘Cemeteries’ and ‘Elysian Fields’ are actual New Orleans destinations, the symbolism will not be lost on mythology fans. The Elysian Fields in Greek mythology is the soul’s final resting place — ironically a resting place of the heroic and virtuous.  The names imply that it is our desires that bring our demise (the cemetery) and then take us on the Elysian Fields — a parallel of Blanche’s streetcar journey.

At any rate, nothing says ‘Desire’ like this steamy scene between Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando. “HEY STELLA!!”

 

 

Women in the Desert

 

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Have you seen the 1991 movie Thelma and Louise? If not, you must rent it or stream it. Immediately!

Geena Davis stars as Thelma , a stuck at home housewife and Susan Sarandon  plays Louise, a  cynical waitress.  The two are both funny, smart, a little bored and maybe secretly longing for adventure when they set out on a weekend get-away.  Here is what they look like in the beginning.

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Yeah, too much lipstick and bad eye shadow. That’s all gonna change. Their  plan is to drive to a friend’s cabin in the mountains to do some fishing and communing with nature. But actually, they want to get away from bosses, husbands, boyfriends and other  oppressive types who happen to be causing problems in their lives.

On the way they stop at a country/ western bar where Thelma, after dancing and being a bit too friendly with Harlan (a would be date rapist) is assaulted by him in the parking lot.  Louise comes to Thelma’s rescue and  accidentally kills the guy.

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 “In the future? When a woman’s cryin’ like that? She ain’t havin’ any fun!” 

 

Then these two normal, everyday women unwittingly become dangerous criminals  on the run from the law.   Before the movie is over they will be guilty of  murder, armed robbery, property destruction and holding an officer at gunpoint. Also  adultery, driving  WAYYY over the speed limit and stealing whiskey, sunglasses and hats.  The snowball effect follows them as one catastrophe leads to another, none of it being their fault. In the meantime they make some poignant self discoveries.

Maybe it would have been different if that truck driver would have just apologized…

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Not only is this movie a feminist masterpiece,  it is also a  great tribute to the American West, full of breathtaking cinematography.  Thelma and Louise, in their non-stop driving spree, travel through long stretches desert highway, red rock caverns, cattle round-ups, endless sky and even the Grand Canyon itself.

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Plus, we get to watch  a young Brad Pitt (before he was even famous.)

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I love this film because it is a realistic, funny and sometimes disturbing look at 20th century feminism.  And it’s not just about women shooting guns.  (If it were, I’d surely hate it.)  There is actually very little violence, although it was touted as such, and with great controversy when it first came out. This story is really more of  a psychological study of life under the pink collar. Can two feisty, flirty women travel across the country, drink and dance in bars without fear of being raped?  (Yes! Nowadays they can.)   Luckily things have changed a lot since 1991. Maybe even in part because of this film and others like it. Written by Callie Khouri,  directed by Ridley Scott.  Highly recommended for bad-ass women and rebels everywhere 🙂

Here is my favorite scene:

 

This post was inspired by the Daily Prompt Desert

The Witch: Movie Review

 

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So let’s say you are a seventeen year old girl and you live in Puritan New England, circa 1630. Your family are radical separatists. In fact, they are so pure, even the Puritans can’t handle them. Your family is banished from the colony. For being too religious.

Forced to live out in the wildest of wilderness, your life pretty much sucks. You do non-stop chores from dawn till dusk. This includes stuff like washing clothes in the river and grinding corn.  You have no time to yourself, no chance to voice your own opinions, no creative outlets. “Women should be seen and not heard.”  Then of course, there is that pesky problem of your budding sexuality…

Your father is clearly nuts. All he does is chop wood and quote the Bible. All day long. Your young siblings are acting strange. Your mother is also nuts. She talks of sending you off to be a maid for some other family, where you will have even MORE chores to do.

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Your family are Calvinists. They are very concerned with Heaven and how to get there.  They insist upon living a pious (read: dull, boring, repressive) life in order to reap their heavenly rewards.  The only trouble is — God has already chosen His elect and you may not be one of them. You will not find out until you die.  All your piety could be a big fat waste of time and you just may end up in Hell.  It’s a real game of Russian roulette, eh?

Then along comes this goat named Black Phillip…

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The question here is not WHY would a Puritan woman sign a blood contract with the Devil. The question is WHY WOULDN’T SHE?

This film is beautifully shot, meticulous in historical detail, and a spine tingling, psychological thriller!  Now out on DVD.

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

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Go Ask Alice

 

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“When logic and proportion   

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the white knight is walking backwards

And the Red Queen’s lost her head

Remember what the dormouse said.”

Can we change history by traveling back in time?  This very interesting question is posed in the new movie Alice Through The Looking Glass.  At first glance you might think this is a kid’s film, but don’t be fooled; this is actually a quite complicated story that will most appeal to adults and fantasy/ sci fi fans.

A Steam-punk  Alice (Mia Wasikowska)  is captain of The Wonder, her deceased father’s ship, circa 1870.   After three years out at sea, Alice returns to her home town to find her life in shambles.  The evil Hamish  has taken over her father’s company. Her mother’s fortune is in jeopardy and  Alice must give her up her beloved ship, resign as captain and take a boring job as a desk clerk.

In a moment of confusion Alice retreats to the parlor and follows a butterfly through the mirror. She then lands in Underland where the real trouble begins.

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Alice’s best friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp)  has gone into a state of depression regarding his family and painful past incidents.   Alice is given a mission by the  White Queen (Anne Hathaway)  to travel back in time in order to change situations that have created grief —  not only for the Hatter, but for many other characters. People in general. You and me probably…

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Everyone knows the Grandfather Theory regarding time travel. That is — if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather, you could never be born (because Grandpa wasn’t around to  sire your father, hence your father could not sire you.) Which would also mean you would not be there to time travel in the first place. Which would mean time travel is impossible.

Quantum physicists, however,  have recently made some new discoveries, and are now theorizing that there may actually be as many as eleven different dimensions, through some of which time travel would be possible. Your grandfather  is thus existing in a completely different dimension of space and time. Kill him in one dimension and he still is alive in another. Yes, kind of like Schrodinger’s cat. (This based upon Einstein’s theory and the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, suggesting that particles can exist in two separate states, depending upon a conditional variable and how it is observed.)

 

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“Logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.”   Or have they?

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Back to the movie!  Alice’s mission involves stealing the magic chrono-meter, which can enable her to travel through time, but can also basically destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands.  And you know it WILL fall into the wrong hands.  Enter the evil Red Queen (Helena Bohman Carter).

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Time incarnate  (Sasha Baron Cohen) is an actual person, or maybe a robot of sorts — like I said,  this is all very Steam-punkish.   He has some really cool supernatural blue  eyes.   See this movie in 3D for an awesome surreal experience!  Psychedelic gardens, a talking butterfly, weird-funky hats and variety of time pieces which determine one’s death. Plus a disappearing cat. (No coincidence there, Schrodinger.)

I am a HUGE fan of the original Alice in Wonderland  books. This movie, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the  books.  Do not expect a replica of Carroll’s tales.   What the writers have done is create a new, thought provoking story revolving around the original characters.

Lewis Carroll was a mathemetician. He was actually an Oxford professor of mathematics, interested in time travel, the subconscious mind, photography and mirror imagery, as well as storytelling and poetry.    Alice Through The Looking Glass keeps the magical sentiment of Carroll’s original books and also stays true to the provocative questions he had in mind when he wrote them.

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I absolutely LOVED this movie.  If you are a fan of fantasy, time travel, Steam-punk or sci fi I think you will like it too.  Oh yeah, and the voice of the butterfly iis the late great Alan Rickman in probably his last performance. Which is somehow poetically and metaphorically correct…

Here is a picture of the real Alice Liddell, inspiration for the books. When in doubt, go ask Alice, or perhaps go ask Lewis.  In any case, Feed Your Head  🙂

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