Month: June 2017
The equivalent of Going My Way but for fascists instead of Catholics. Though Catholic fascists will love it even more. Very well made propaganda, lovely to look at and emotionally affecting. Francisco Franco makes a cameo at the end to thank those who resisted the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo.
In the program notes for the catalogue of this year’s ‘Il Cinema Ritrovato’, Emiliano Morreale writes L’assedio dell’Alcazar ’emphasises realism, an anti-rhetoric which while not necessarily ‘anti-Fascist’, nonetheless brought to Italy the model of the American and European war movie, opening the way to Rossellini’s first feature films.’
This is a statement that at first seems contradictory, after all what could be further than the American war movie with its emphatic individualism, its focus on action and its cause and effect continuity than Rossellini’s Paisan? However, the film is undoubtedly as exciting as an American war film, focussing on an enigmatic hero (Captain Vela played by Fosco Giachetti) through an overall structure of resisting the siege, with two romances (that of the hero which ends in success and that of a young soldier which ends in his new bride’s death), and lots of action sequences in between. It is also true that many sequences, particularly the outdoor ones, have a documentary flavour.
The story of the fascists under siege from the republicans in the Alcázar during the Spanish Civil War became legendary partly through its re-iteration in Francoist propaganda in Spain (I remember reading it in the general ‘Enciclopedia’ which was a textbook for children throughout Spain in the sixties. See also figure 1, and extracts from a series of twelve postcards, all currently on exihibit at the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid), and partly through its dramatisation in films such as this. Daniela Arcona writes how the Alcázar is under siege in support of the revival of the traditional Spain incarnated by dictator Francisco Franco and how in the film,
‘The discourse is articulated on a symbolic and ideological level, discipline/chaos, nobility/vulgariy, homeland/Bolshevism, faith/atheism. The characters evidence a similar slippage : the rebels are characterised by respectability and courage, while the defenders of the legitimate government are marked by scruffiness and cowardice’.
In Historia del cine español, Roman Gubern et al, note that, in Spain, the Spanish version of the film was adopted as a Spanish film and elevated as a prototypical example of ‘de Cruzada’ cinema, the Francoist cinema that crusaded against the forces of Bolshevism and atheism and for Catholic and traditional values (p.209). I understand that the Italian and Spanish version are quite different though I have yet to see the Spanish one. The film was released in Italy, just after the start of WWII in August 1940; and in Spain under the title of Sin novedad en el Alcázar in October 1940, only a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Part of an accordion set of Spanish postcards from 1940 by Foto Rodriguez currently on display at the Queen Sofia museum
According to David Melville Wingrove, ‘ironically, both of the film’s leading ladies were blacklisted after the war due to their personal lives. The seemingly angelic Maria Denis (who marries the young soldier on her deathbed in the film) was the mistress of Pietro Koch, the Fascist Chief of Police in Occupied Rome. The coolly elegant Mireille Balin (the society lady whose experience in the Alcazar transforms her into a saintly nurse in love with the Captain) was the mistress of an SS commander in Occupied Paris. He and Balin went on the run together after the war but were captured by the French Resistance….the rest of the story is not pleasant!’
It would make a great movie though. This one is well-made, glorious to look at and exciting to watch. Though I found its expertness and what it was expert on alternately creepy and funny.
A gorgeous restoration of a Clouzot classic. Bardot has killed the man she loves, who also happens to be her sister’s fiancée. But what she’s really on trial for is for being a woman, for being young and for being unconventional. It’s 1960 France that the film really judges and finds wanting. Clouzot fills the frame with dozens of pretentious hypocrites or figures of authority, condemning them all. Bardot, always at the centre, is a beacon of beauty, truth, and liberty. She accepts who she is, chooses to act in freedom, and takes responsibility for her action. Bardot’s Dominique Marceau is French Cinema’s greatest and most romantic existentialist heroine. Bardot in La verité is what people claim falsely for Brando in The Wild One. She and the film are both great.
Alain Delon loves dancing, dogs, children, life. But he’s killed a man and fallen in love with a woman. He’s been wounded in the stomach but it’s the wound in his heart that’s killing him. Will he make it home from the mess in Algeria to see his child?
Black and white gorgeousness by Alain Cavalier and with Delon and Messari, based on a true story about the kidnapping of lawyer Dominique Servet, who subsequently sued the producers (which included Delon, producing for the first time) and won. The film was re-distributed in cinemas minus twenty-five minutes of footage the court ordered removed. It didn’t make sense.
Now it does and can finally be seen as Alain Cavalier originally intended: as a film about the consequences of a war that dared not name itself as such/ ‘montrer les conséquences d’une querre qui ne veut pas dire son nom’ and film with a protagonist, ‘a hired hand, a mercenary, a man who believes we do things only because it’s our job and discovers that that’s not what it’s about / C’es un homme de main, un nercenaire, un homme qui croit qu’on fait les choses simplement par métier et qui découvre qui’l ne s’agit pas de ça . L’Insoumis is at least as good as his wonderful Le combat dans l’île (1), which I’ve written on at length here.
Seeing L’Insoumis and other French films of the period in Bologna made me realise that there’s at least a book yet to be written on French Cinema, one on non-nouvelle vague cinema during the nouvelle vague era, that could highlight some of these achievements and bring them out of the shadow of their more famous but not necessarily better contemporaries. Claude Renoir’s cinematography is a wonder.
French quotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon Paris: Flammarion, 200, pp. 187 & 188
The thrills and quiet desperation of working class life in Bethnal Green, vividly rendered in this exciting noir. The film doesn’t just tell us a story but evokes the ‘structures of feeling’ of a whole way of life, one that unlike in Ken Loach’s films, recognises poor people’s pleasures: the thrill of illicit sex, of betting and crime, the joy of what can be done with a simple mouth organ; the little treacheries, the lies and power ploys that even nice people engage with to get what they want. The film works with the greys of family life, we get to know what it is to settle but also to love; the reasons why a stepmother might not be very nice to her stepdaughters, why otherwise good people give in to temptations, how a Jewish family with high moral standards resists and accommodates criminality and both suffer and gain from it as a result. Through it all, the tedium of this rainy Sunday in Bethnal Green is lashed through with crime and passion, ending with a marvellous set-piece at the rail-yard. Googie Withers is the personification of surly discontentment as a good-time girl who’s settled for a quiet life with an older man only to have all her old passions explode when her old flame escapes from prison and tries to find shelter in her busy home. She throws enough shade to shroud all of Bethnal Green in a fog of dashed hopes, sexual expectation and seething discontent.Brilliant.
‘The Man That Got Away’ number in the 1954 version of A Star is Born directed by George Cukor is widely acknowledged as one of the very greatest in the history of the musical genre. There’s so much to admire: dramatically, the choice of a song of loss and longing as the moment that sparks admiration and love in the narrative is inspired — it’s at first unusual and original and later becomes prescient and structuring. The song itself, a Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin tune, written for Garland, given a great brassy orchestration by Skip Martin, and so great it’s become a standard covered by practically everyone including a sparse version by Jeff Buckley accompanied only on guitar. Garland’s performance of the song, both the singing and the acting of it, are, as I will demonstrate later to any who doubt, legendary and beyond compare. As is the choice to film it as a noir in colour with most of the colour drained out and used sparingly but powerfully. Here director George Cukor acknowledges the contributions of production designer Gene Allen and legendary photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to the way the film looks. Sam Leavitt was Director of Photography.
What I want to deal with here is the direction, particularly in its use of the cinemascope frame: the fluid arrangement and re-arrangement of compositions, the forward move of the action, the creation of the illusion of three dimensional space and the way which the filmmakers manage to create a sense of horizon in a narrow rectangular frame. CinemaScope was relatively new then and, along with technicolour, prominently publicised in all the posters for the initial release. This number to me is a sublime example of brilliant use of it made even more gobsmacking by the singing of the number all being filmed in one shot.
If you’re interested have a look at the number, refresh your memory. delight in the brilliance of the singing, the acting, the direction, the look, the way the scene unfolds and the way the camera moves…
Shot 1 (14 seconds): Then let’s look at the first shot of the sequence. Note how the frame is divided into thirds, that the title of the club is the ‘bleu bleu’ — significantly narratively as a place one goes to drown one’s sorrows but ends driving the blues away and also as an indicator of the overall look and tone of the scene — advertised on different sides of James Mason’s back (see the first frame.) Then Mason advances towards the door, whilst the camera at first stays still, thus creating a new composition within the shot, now we have neon blue on one side, and a poster, pinkish with red overtones, advertising the band on the other. In the third reframing within the same shot, the camera has caught up with Norman Maine (James Mason) and as he opens the door to the club, the door occupies one third, the poster the other and Maine and the open door roughly occupy the centre. The open door gives a sense of horizon, the illusion of three-dimensional space so familiar from Renaissance painting, think of the Mona Lisa, and so hard to achieve in that narrowly rectangular cinemascope frame. The door opening coincides with the brass element of the orchestration trumpeting the refrain: something new is announced, a new space of possibility just beyond the horizon.
Shot 2 (3 seconds, see frame enlargement below): the second shot is only three seconds. It’s an establishing shot of Norman Maine looking. But note how the shot is almost drained of colour except for the neon red throwing its pool of light from outside to the inside of the club. Note also how the lighting is focussed on Norman Maine’s face, and how the furniture is arranged along with the post in the right hand side. This creates a triangular shape within the frame, a sense of horizon, this time from the reverse perspective that we saw in the previous shot and inside. What the shot establishes is Norman Maine’s point-of-view, which is what will anchor the whole sequence. His gaze on her is what’s important, it’s how she, through him, will demonstrate to us that she is in fact the great singer and star he will know her to be once the song ends and that we, the audience, already know. According to Patrick MacGilligan,
‘The marriage of Technicolor and the wide-screen CinemaScope (a process still in its infancy) was partly responsible for the delay and cost. Color-test scenes had been filmed and re-filmed until everyone was satisfied’ (p.226). One can see in this shot how all those tests with the format and the colour paid off. It’s sparse, elegant, dramatic, like the work of a great painter, or here a great director elegantly mobilising all the talents of his cast and crew to purposeful and meaningful expression that delights the eyes and ears.
Shot 3 (7 seconds, see frame enlargement below)
The third shot is Norman’s point-of-view. He looks in the previous shot and this is what he and we see. Note how Esther Blodgett, soon to be transformed into Vicky Lester, superstar, and played by Judy Garland is a pinprick in a pool of light at the centre of the frame with her band. Her importance is signalled by her centrality but not quite yet made overt. Note how the frame is also divided into thirds. How the chairs on the right are closer to the lens, how the two musicians are framed by that pink/coral light we first saw on the poster on the right side of the frame in the first shot, accented by the pool of light that follows Norman Maine’s entrance into the club in the second shot. Note how this arrangement helps create a sense of three-dimensionality, gives a horizon to the space that would otherwise seem flat. Note how there’ a sense of drama in placing those chairs so as to impede but not quite block our view of Esther and the band. She, and her talent, will only fully be revealed to us later. It’s not only gorgeous and artful but dramatic and meaningful.
Shot 4: (23 second, see frame enlargements below)
The fourth shot is as the French call it, a plan sequence, a longer take, which can have different sequences within it created by camera movement and which involves the orchestration of various elements. This shot begins where shot 3 left off (see frame enlargement below on the left), with Norman Maine at the entrance of the club, triangularly placed on the horizon, with that hint of neon red just above him. He moves towards the camera, which is towards the sound of the band, towards Esther, and through pools of light and darkness. As he sits on by the pile of chairs, a waiter enters the frame from the left (see frame enlargement below, centre). At this point the camera leaves Norman and accompanies the waiter through the club, past chairs and pillars (John Ford claimed that nothing created a sense of three dimensionality as moving the camera past trees. This has a similar effect) to deposit his tray by the band (see frame enlargement on the right). The touch neon red behind Norman Maine has become the quasi coral pink that engulfs Esther Blodgett and her band, and her face is bathed in pure white light. The dramatic advantage of filming it in this way is that Norman and Esther are united in space and time, that his attention is focussed on her, he is watching she is doing performing. Symbolically his darkness, his troubled moving through dark and light ends with a hope of pure light in a coral setting. How better to represent was Esther/Vicky will represent to Norman?
Shot 5 (4 seconds)
The fifth shot is a closer look, Norman Maine’s look, on where the camera had deposited us previously. ‘Take it honey’ says the pianist. Esther rises as you can see below, occupying the left third of the frame. As the pianist reiterates ‘Take it from the top’, Esther will come to occupy the right of the third of the frame, so in one shot there’s an elegant move across the wide Cinemascope frame, from left to right, once more leaving the frame neatly organised in thirds, whilst the pianist, chiars and glasses behind the bar, all work together to create an illusion of depth.
Shot 6 (1 second):
Shot six barely lasts a second. It’s a medium closeup of Norman Maine straining to see through the darkness of the empty club. The editing here reminding us that it is Norman who is looking, like us, but unlike us, and as was established in shot four, Norman and Esther are united in time in space. We’re reminded of us as the voice-over to this shot is Esther repeating what the pianist had said but as a question ‘from the top?’. The sound is Esther, the image is Norman. He is the big star, she is the unknown band singer yet it is he who is looking, she who is being looked at.
Shot 7: (3.26 seconds. The frame enlargements below are representative examples of each time the camera moves and re-calibrates the composition, except for figures Gand H which are the same composition but where Esther commands the image, the arrangement of things and figures in the frame created in the ‘good riddance, goodbye moment’ with a wave of her hand on the goodbye moment which makes all the musicians bring down their instruments)
As the DVD extras of A Star is Born inform us, ‘The Man That Got Away’ is arguably the most important single musical sequence in A Star is Born. It was photographed in 3 different costumes on 3 different occasions, in over 40 different partial or complete takes’. According to Patrick McGilligan ‘The director drove people to distraction with his unusual lighting and color demands. Some of the voluptuous effects were arrived at after much argument and costly experimentation’ and it was partly this (along with Garland’s illnesses) that helped turn A Star is Born into the second most expensive picture in Hollywood history up to that point. Its official cost of $5, 019, 777 made it second only to Selznick’s 1946 film, Duel in the Sun, recorded at 5,225,000′ (p. 226).
Every re-framing of ‘The Man That Got Away Moment’ can be analysed in at least as much detail as the shots discussed previously, which themselves can be discussed in greater detail than I’ve offered. I characteristically have run out of time just at the moment of greater interest so I just want to indicate certain things I marvel at. Note how Esther/Garland beckons the musician to her at the beginning. Throughout this sequence she will be in constant communication withe the various musicians (see figures A,E,L and Q as only representative examples), she will also be conveying the meaning of the song, losing herself in it, running to the camera (fig J), and fearlessly turning her back to it (fig K), whilst also conveying Esther, an insecure star-in-waiting, one of the boys in the band, who does this as if it’s nothing, yet giggling and winking at them at the end for the joy of a job well done (see figure Q). Garland must perform all of this whilst being conscious of always hitting her mark, always being in the light, always co-ordinating each of her movements with the band, which has been clearly choreographed compositionally. It’s a tour de force.
And it’s a tour de force of direction. Cukor performs a high-wire act of direction because Garland is always at the centre, the camera will tilt upward or move slightly to ensure she’s always in the frame; yet on the other hand every stop in the camera’s movement has been designed to create an abstract geometric shape amongst the musicians, usually framing Garland, usually at the top (figs D, E) or bottom (figure M, O) of a triangular shape.
Every area of the cinemascope frame is deployed expressively. Each shape made seems beautiful, each is meaningful. In the world of the film, we are introduced, through Norman Maine’s to his love, who will not save him from all the darkness he’s encased in. Note how they’re both wearing variants of the same outfit, black suit with a white collar. They’re meant for each other. But she, encased in light and amidst coral pink will not save him from himself. We’re also introduced to a great talent which the film tells us is Esther Blodgett but who will become Vicky Lester but who we know to be Judy Garland. The Judy Garland who can do the extraordinary things we’ve just witnessed thanks to George Cukor’s extraordinary use of colour and composition in one of the greatest of long takes.
Some people have argued that the number is misplaced in the narrative that Esther doesn’t yet have the life experience to sing a torch song like this. That the number would have been better once it more clearly voiced Esther’s feelings in the narrative. But I disagree. Esther’s been on the road with a band going nowhere and knows musicians. She’s had the experience. On the other hand, it’s brave to make this the number on which they meet, brave and unusual, and of course totally foreshadows, what will happen subsequently. Moreover, note Esther going in and out of the song, ‘performing’ it, and the interactions with the rest of the musicians. The number has multiple functions, one of which is to show Norman Maine how great a performer she is, that she’s a star who can stop the show as easily as the giggle and the wink that ends the number and gives the impression that this is the kind of thing she can do at the drop of the hat, for fun, and anytime she wants.It’s a brilliant choice and as carefully thought through as any other aspect of this magnificent film.
wink and giggle.
One of the earliest ‘coming out scenes’ in a narrative fiction film and the finest, most poetic and evocative, in New Wave/ Cinema direct cinema.
Johanne: Claude are you homosexual
Johanne: ARE YOU HOMOSEXUAL
#crash of cymbals. Then, in voice over:
Claude: I don’t say yes nor do I say no.
Thus escapes the secret I kept sequestered for a time dating longer than my first memories. Johanne did that. From her women’s hands she has absolved me of the heaviest of my burdens. She made me admit the inadmissible and I felt no shame and I felt no hurt. And now everything has changed because that imperious aspiration never fulfilled, full of torment as it was, now takes the form of a hope.
The line — ‘that imperious aspiration never fulfilled, full of torment as it was, now takes the form of a hope’ — is repeated only moments later when Claude clearly has sex with a man who asks him, ‘What we did today, was it any good? ‘That’s of no importance’. ‘What’s important?’ ‘Finally!’.
A lovely moment from Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (Canada, 1963). Johanne and Claude are in love and now a couple. He introduces her to his friends, which include François Truffaut. Johanne asks François to show her how to blow cigarette smoke out, like in the choo-choo train scene in his Jules et Jim (France, 1962), which must still have been in release when this was filmed. The dialogue in English goes something like this:
Claude: ‘It’s odd but since I’ve fallen in love with you going out pleases me more even though there’s nothing to see.’
Johanne: ‘But there’s more to show’
Johanne: ‘I find your friends wonderful’.
Claude: ‘No need to tell me I can see’.
Johanne: ‘They find me beautiful. They have such great taste that they all deserve a little hug’.
Claude: ‘There’s no need for that. Thank you very much’.
Johanne:Don’t be silly I adore you.
Johanne: ‘François? Show me the trick with the train smoke, you know? Like in your film?’
Truffaut: Oh it’s easy’.
Truffaut: ‘Very good’
Claude: ‘look at me, look at me, look at me!’
Johanne: ‘I don’t see you, I don’t see you, I don’t see you.’
Who hasn’t felt like this at a party? And why does the voice over still seem so inventive so many years after À tout prendre was released (in 1963)?
A favourite moment from À tout prendre: Claude: ‘a teardrop?’; Johanne: ‘a whole vale of tears’.
There’s a lot of lore written about Doris Day, her presence and her performance in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan writes that, ‘According to songwriter Jay Livingston, who wrote the theme song for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Day wouldn’t have appeared in the remake if not for the pressure from MCA, which represented Hitchcock and the actress. “His agent, MCA, said he couldn’t have [James] Stewart unless he took Doris Day,’ recalled Livingston. ” He told us he didn’t want Doris Day but he had to take her. He was very happy with her later’ (p. 517).
Indeed he was, and with reason: Doris gives a great performance in the film. She’s particularly wonderful in the scenes where she’s most hysterical, suppressing and on the verge of failing to contain emotion, the ones that demand most of her as an actress: when Stewart sedates her in Marrakesh, the Albert Hall scene, the scene where she sings Que sera sera again at the embassy knowing her son is upstairs. It’s a Doris Day audiences had barely had a glimpse of to then, though Hitchcock himself saw something of this in Day’s performance in Storm Warning, a KKK drama where she’d co-starred opposite Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan.
What caught my eye in the scene above is the tension between narrative and spectacle, between Doris Day as a singer/performer and as an actress, between what I take to be Hitchcock’s awareness of pleasing the audience, of film as a commercial enterprise, and his attempts at depth, of film as art. When I first saw this scene I thought Day was not good, that she was too much, that she was exceeding the bounds of her character in order to entertain the audience.
Hitchcock does odd and interesting things in this scene. The scene is prefaced by an image of a Crescent moon over over the minarets of Marrakesh, evoking strangeness, exoticism, a dash of danger. The film then dissolves into an image of Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) looking in the mirror and dressing for dinner whilst Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), the man Jo (Doris Day) is so suspicious of, smokes by the balcony. We hear Jo beginning to sing ‘Que Sera Sera’ on the soundtrack. The camera then kind of creeps into the room, evoking a sense of portent. Then just as the camera crosses the threshold, it pans onto a mid-shot of Jo, also dressing for dinner and as the image of Doris Day appears, the son joins her in her singing. It’s a domestic scene but with an undertow of, not quite danger, more like potential disturbance. Everything is not quite right, and it’s not just because Louis Bernard is there.
On the word mother, as the boy sings, ‘I asked my mother, what will I be?’ Jo glances at Ben, who looks back, knowingly and lovingly before saying, ‘he’ll make a fine doctor’. Jo was a star of song and stage. Does she regret giving it up? Has it been an issue? Again, the choices in the mise-en-scène present but also raise questions doing so. And yet the focus remains on the boy and his future, particularly pertinent to the tension that is yet to reach its peak in the film but of which the mise-en-scène already makes us feel.
The next shot picks up on Jo, where the cut-reverse-cut with her husband started. She admires herself in the mirror, likes what she sees. As she enters the boy’s room to put him to bed, she swings her hips as if she’s on stage, and when she sings ‘Que Sera, Sera’ she sings ‘out’ as if to an audience, rather than to her son. Doris was never quite a belter. She’s one of the Twentieth Century’s great vocalists, a nuanced singer, with exquisite phrasing, and a tone that could seem hushed, caressing. She’s a singer who learned her trade on radio. But she’s singing ‘out’, as if to us in the audience rather than to her her child in the story, and she does this throughout the rest of the scene. She gives big broad smiles, make big broad gestures, sings the song as if she were in front of a band. It’s true that there are two men in the other room and that perhaps she’s singing to them as well as to her son. Certainly, Hitchcock always makes a point of returning to the child and the story. But the gestures are as broad as the singing. Doris is ostensibly putting her child to bed but she’s acting, and she’s being filmed, as if she’s performing at the Albert Hall. It’s a scene that feels disjunctive, where the spectacle of Doris Day singing seem to exceed the narrative of Jo putting her son to bed.
One of the beautiful aspects of Hitchcock’s filmmaking is how this will all make sense the next time Jo sings ‘Que Sera Sera’, when in fact she is ostensibly singing to an audience but really singing to her son, almost the obverse of the scene here.
Moments of ‘excess’ in Hitchock rarely are; here what may be initially observed as a moment of spectacle becomes the conveyor of a particular kind of feeling and meaning as well as the basis of later narrative cohesion, what’s planted at the beginning is brought marvellously to harvest at the end, including the guest in the room and the significance of the knock on the door that ends this little scene. It’s very beautifully done. And Doris is a joy to behold.
Torn Curtain is widely thought to rank amongst the worst of Hitchcock, a failed emulation of the Bond films so popular in the era, and remembered by Hitchcock afficionados mainly for the rupture in the relationship between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrman: Herrman wrote a score for the film but Hitchcock didn’t like it and commissioned a new, pop-ier one from John Addison. It was the last time they worked together.
David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film writes, ‘No matter how many times the profit ratio of Psycho is repeated, it does not alter the fact that Hitchcock made several flops, several films in which the entire narrative structure — over which he spent such time and care — is grotesquely miscalculated. Stage Fright, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, and Torn Curtain seem to me thumpingly bad films, helpless in the face of intransigent plots, true delicacy of humour and uncooperative players (p.401).’ It’s all relative I suppose but I don’t agree; or rather, Hitchcock’s worst offers more pleasures than almost anybody else’s best. I found a lot to like in Torn Curtain.
The story is an espionage thriller about a Professor (Paul Newman) and his assistant/fiancée (Julie Andrews), three months from tying the knot, who are at a scientific conference in Scandinavia when, much to the fiancée’s astonishment, the Professor decides to defect to East Berlin. Is he a traitor or is he a spy? We soon find out. The film boasts memorable and typically Hitchcockian set-pieces: the killing in the country-side farm, Paul Newman being followed in a museum, the couple escaping the university, the way they outmanoeuvre the Stasi and manage to escape from the ballet when every entrance is blocked by police, etc. Really, even minor Hitchcock is full of pleasures. Of Hollywood filmmakers, only Lubitsch is Hitchcock’s equal in engaging with the audience, making us complicit in what’s going, trusting us to be co-creators of aspects of the story being told and teasing, tricking, playing with us in order to please and delight.
The performances of the stars of Torn Curtain have been widely criticised, Thomson calling them ‘drab’ (p.402). Others regurgitating stories of how Hitchcock had wanted Eva Maria Saint and Cary Grant; how Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, the top box-office stars of this period, were imposed on Hitchcock by the studio; how Newman was — to Hitchock’s annoyance — too method; how he found Julie Andrews not beautiful or sexy enough.
Be that as it may, there’s no question that he took great care with the presentation of these stars. We’re introduced to them in bed, with their coats over the blankets, making love and trying to keep warm. Then, we see their name tags of the characters they play in alternating close-ups, first Dr. Sarah Sherman and then Professor Michael Armstrong. We first see the backs of their heads, then extreme close-ups of the couple kissing. We know they’ve just had sex: ‘let’s call this lunch,’ says Armstrong. It’s a sexy spin on Julie Andrews’ star persona. Here is Mary Poppins and the novice from The Sound of Music in bed with Paul Newman; and they’re not even married! That must have been a thrilling star entrance to fans of both stars. Moreover, Hitchcock and his team light them beautifully. Look at the shine of the pin spot in Andrew’s eyes in fig. A. How Newman’s eyes, then widely publicised as the most beautiful blues in the world, are presented in an enormous close-up, so big as to encompass only one eye, made to shine against the light (fig. B). Note too, the prominent display of Newman’s body throughout the film (fig. C).
‘Performance’ is not everything in commercial filmmaking, particularly when it’s a question of stars. Newman and Andrews are not bad; the director makes an interesting play on audience expectations, giving them a theatrical star entrance, lighting them gorgeously, dressing them both attractively and meaningfully, and playing on and developing their star personas, particularly that of Andrews. I loved seeing them in this, and stars by their very nature should not need to play a ‘role of a lifetime’ to bring their audience pleasure; often their presence is enough for their fans. When presented as carefully and to so much advantage as here, it is much more than enough. Newman and Andrews were a draw then and are still reasons to see this film.
It is true that the stars, delightful as they are to see, do not give memorable performances. But I do think it would be fair to say that some of the performances in Torn Curtain have become legendary. Wolfgang Kieling as Hermann Gromek, Armstrong’s East German body-guard, with his East-European accent and his American slang, funny and menacing, always watchable, is an outsize cartoon. It’s a particular type of performance, very theatrical, very knowing, aimed at the audience, and clearly a type Hitchcock delights in.
I’ve made a gif of his famous death scene so as to exaggerate his hand gestures (see above). This is an actor who knows how to make the most of a scene even in the absence of his face or even most of his body, who steals the scene from his co-stars by showing us his expiration only with a wave of his fingers, but they wave and wave, each movement expressing something slightly different but within an overall arc, like those hams who can turn being shot into a five minute dance with death. I find it delightful, so much better than merely ‘realistic’ and Hitchcock must have also, or he would have shot it differently, shortened it or cut it altogether.
Much as I love Kieling’s performance, one never gets a sense that he’s playing a real person. This is not true of Lila Kedrova’s marvellous turn as the Countess Kuchinska, the Polish Countess, not ‘communistical’, sneering at the quality of the tobacco and the coffee and desperate for American sponsorship of her visa application. As you can see below, each of her ‘faces’ is beautifully expressive, and she does run the gamut of expression.
I tried to do some image capture to illustrate and the enormous range of vivid expressions she brought even within one shot quickly became evident. No single still would do, so I created a compilation from her scenes in the cafe with Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. Kedrova’s performance is theatrical, almost Delsartean in her gestures, and she looks like a wounded French bulldog, but one gets a sense of a person who’s elegant, pained, powerful but helpless, bewildered. There’s a person that’s constructed out of those arresting expression and those wounded eyes. How did the countess arrive from Poland to East Berlin? What did she have to live through? It’s clear that she was once beautiful and that maybe she could no longer use that to the advantage she once did. What did her class, her gender, her beauty and her foreignness play in her survival? What sort of desperation drives an already old person to go to such lengths to get out?
I love the last shot in the clip above. The countess has finally gotten the American couple the information they needed. But just as they succeed the police arrives. She trips the policeman to allow the couple to escape, knowing that doing so seals her own doom. Hitchcock shows us a close-up of the rifle falling down the stairs, and then the camera cranes right up the stairs into a close-up of Lila Kedrova’s face as the Countess says, ‘My sponsor, my sponsor for United States of America’. It’s simultaneously camp and touching. Kedrova is giving a charismatic, theatrical performance (her elegant posture on the stairs, her voicing of the dialogue) that moves us through the recognisable humanity she expresses. For her all is lost. And Hitchcock wants us to see this enough to arrange a complex shot that is in itself arresting, spectacular. The American couple has a chance; for the Polish Countess in East Berlin, there’s no more hope. And Hitchcock and Kedrova, together, know how to convey the drama and truth of that moment, a moment where spectacle and feeling are rendered one. It’s lovely.
Dress, Décor, Angle and Framing as Part of Mise-en-scéne:
I understand that Hitchcock was disappointed with Torn Curtain but was pleased with what he’d been able to accomplish as an exercise on light and composition. These are some aspects of the film that aroused my interest and delighted my sight.
The reason why I started off writing this piece, but which I’ve left to the end, is that even in the worst of Hitchcock one finds moments of real poetry. In the scene below there are many things to admire. I decided to start the clip in the previous scene, so that you can see the close-up on Julie Andrews’ face as she says ‘East Berlin, but that’s behind the Iron Curtain’. That will rhyme with the very last shot of the scene, which is a masterpiece of expression. In between note how the cut is on Michael’s face seen slightly from behind now on the plane. From her to him, each facing in the opposite direction, and now in a new context, note how the camera tracks slowly back to allow us to take the new context in, and in full, before the camera pans right to a close-up of the befuddled Sarah. Note how the cutting speeds up when he sees her, the repetition of the tracking shot, but much faster as Michael heads to Sarah, then the change in direction but at the same speed as he approaches her. They’re superb choices.
But the pièce-de-resistance is the last shot on Sarah. That last close-up, after Michael has told her to stop following him and go home, which rhymes with the close-up of her finding out he’s going to East Berlin, but now filmed from a slightly higher angle to indicate Michael’s point-of-view on Sarah, and then the beautiful way the image begins to dissolve, goes out of focus, undulates, distorts. Note Hitchcock’s confidence in the length of its duration. And then the quick cut onto the opening doors of the plane with its view of East Berlin’s airport. It’s like all Sarah’s hopes, dreams, are extinguished and expire in that moment where everything goes out of focus and distorts only to be confronted by the harshness of a new reality with all her past knowledge put into doubt. It’s beautiful. A great moment of cinema. And one of many reasons to see the film.
I saw this on a gorgeous blu-ray transfer from Universal Studios: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.