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Posts Tagged ‘James Stewart’

Nice to see a sizeable turnout for the latest vintage showing which I went to at the Phoenix in Jericho; almost but not quite cheery enough to offset the news that the current poll on whether or not to retain the trial policy of assigning designated seating at weekends is currently running at more than 50% in favour. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Phoenix is still my favourite cinema in the Oxford area, but it seems like every refurbishment and renovation they’ve had in the last year has had the effect of making it less characterful, less quirky, less welcoming and less like an actual independent cinema, and the switch to allocated seats is only another part of this. Then again, the whole world seems to have accelerated its drift towards a state of consisting entirely of dismayingly irritating pointless faff, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.

Hey ho. At times like this a joyous movie from yesteryear is more cherishable than ever, and on this occasion it was George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, first released at Christmas 1940, long since ascended to timeless classic status. Simply naming the main players – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart – is almost enough to give you a warm glow inside, and you almost wonder if any film starring these three together can be good enough to live up to expectations.

philstory

Needless to say, the tale unfolds amongst the upper echelons of east coast society. The society wedding of the year looms, with the nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she marries aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). She was previously married to whiskey-loving shipwright CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and he is still nursing something of a grudge against her. To this end, he agrees to participate in a bit of skulduggery where two reporters are infiltrated into the wedding party, on the pretext that they are old friends of the bride’s absent brother. (Yes, this is a slightly complex set-up, but films back then were prepared to credit the audience with a little intelligence.) The reporters are Mike Connor (Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey).

Connor is initially dismissive of the whole proceedings, affecting to despise people whom he sees as the idle rich, and wanting to get back to being a writer of substance. Nevertheless he find himself making an undeniable connection with the bride to be, somewhat to the chagrin of his own girlfriend, Liz. Meanwhile, Dexter realises that his own feelings towards his ex-wife are not entirely unambiguous, and nor are hers for him. She’s bound to marry someone in the end – but whom?

Not everything in the past is quite what you might expect it to have been. These days, for example, everyone knows that Katherine Hepburn is a bona fide Hollywood legend, unassailable star of peerless popular classics like Bringing Up Baby. Except… at the time, Bringing Up Baby was just one of a string of flops, leading to Hepburn acquiring a reputation as box-office poison, and finding it very hard to get roles. Her response was to pay someone to write a play for her to star in, and then retain the film rights in order to guarantee she would get the lead role when it was adapted for the screen.

This was as shrewd an investment as one might expect from a legendarily smart cookie like Hepburn, and it may explain why there are many scenes of the male characters singing her praises most fulsomely and at great length – and, quite possibly, also why the other characters spend much of their time talking about her even when she isn’t on screen. Not to suggest that this is entirely a vanity project: everyone gets a chance to shine, and Hepburn’s character is as flawed as any of the others.

The opening sequence of the film promises an effervescent farce, with the reporters attempting to pass themselves off as house guests, not realising the family are fully aware of their mission and intent on feeding them an entirely false impression, while – for reasons too bizarre to go into – Tracy Lord’s father and uncle are obliged to impersonate each other. This is as smart and genuinely funny a comedy as anything I’ve seen in the last six months.

However, soon the film becomes more measured and thoughtful, as the deeper personalities of the main characters become more apparent. This really is a romantic comedy, albeit a fairly peculiar one by modern standards: the modern rom-com is almost certainly as predictable a film genre as any in history, but here, for the uninitiated, it is very difficult to predict just who it is that Katherine Hepburn is going to end up marrying in the final reel. Comparisons with the modern rom-com are perhaps a little unwise, as this apparently is one of the defining examples of a very 1930s subgenre entitled the comedy of remarriage, a product of extremely strict regulations curtailing the use of extramarital shenanigans as a plot driver – hence the device where Grant and Hepburn are conveniently divorced after a very brief opening scene, thus leaving her technically available to flirt with all the other male characters.

There are a few other ways in which this is clearly a film of a different era: some jolly jokes about smallpox and domestic abuse strike a somewhat startling note, for instance. But while the film’s sensibility is that of another era, its themes are universal: what it means to be a good person, what someone’s responsibilities are to their loved ones, snobbery, privacy, the thin line between love and hate, and so on. The script alone would be a lovely thing, even if it weren’t brought to life by three of the greatest performers in screen history – to say nothing of some very striking supporting turns, particularly Ruth Hussey’s rather wistful performance as Stewart’s long-suffering girlfriend.

To be honest, it’s very difficult to identify the particular elements which make The Philadelphia Story such an outstanding film, because it genuinely doesn’t seem to have a weak link: every element of it exudes class, polish, wit, and charm. It always seems a bit fatuous to me when someone says they don’t make them like they used to – but then again, as this film shows, they really don’t.

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I am so used to finding myself completely out of step with the rest of the world that it comes as a bit of a shock on those occasions when it turns out my reactions and opinions are squarely in line with those of the majority. Then again, I suppose one of the definitions of a truly great film (or an utterly worthless one) is that it can produce the same response in everyone who watches it.

I was in my late teens and just in the process of becoming a film and TV bore when I made the acquaintance of a guy who was several steps further along than me. The rooms of his house were lined with tapes (this was over twenty years ago); tapes of The New Avengers and Doctor Who (he also had virtually a complete set of matches from Italia ’90 recorded, which just shows you never can tell), but also – and more pertinently for our current line of thought – most of the Hitchcock centenary tribute season one of the major UK TV channels had broadcast a while earlier. I was getting to the point where I thought I knew my Hitchcock, and ever-mindful of gaps in my education I borrowed the 1958 movie Vertigo off him.

vertigo

By this point I had already seen Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. The film has, somewhat atypically for Hitchcock, an in media res opening, with detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) in hot pursuit of a bad guy over the rooftops of San Francisco. But Ferguson slips and is left hanging by his fingertips over a multi-storey drop, and a fellow cop is killed trying to rescue him.

This event understandably leads to Ferguson developing a crippling fear of heights and quitting the police force. Finding himself at a loose end, he is retained by old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who has an odd and slightly delicate problem. His wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting very strangely, visiting the former home of one of her ancestors and spending hours staring at her portrait. Elster is concerned about all this, half-fearing some kind of malevolent possession is in progress, and wants Ferguson to follow her and find out exactly what’s going on.

Initially dubious, Ferguson takes the job and almost at once finds himself struck by the beauty of his old friend’s wife, not to mention how strangely enigmatic she is. Can she really be genuinely haunted by a ghost which is driving her to take her own life? Averting an attempted suicide forces him to make her acquaintance, and now he finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved with this troubled woman. But is there any hope for her? Or, come to that, him…?

Well, I sat down to watch Vertigo all those years ago, really expecting another smart, sharp, clever entertainment of the kind Hitchcock is renowned for, and ended up feeling… well, really rather baffled. This is not your typical Alfred Hitchcock movie. To be honest, it’s a difficult film to describe, especially if you don’t want to totally deconstruct (and thus spoil) the plot.

For one thing, the principal cast – certainly in terms of the characters who appear in more than two or three scenes – is tiny: just Stewart, Novak, Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s pal. Even then, most of the film is composed of scenes between Stewart and Novak. This isn’t to say that the plot is simple – well, maybe it is simple; it’s certainly not complex or fast-paced, but if so it is fiendishly simple, containing multiple layers of subtlety and sophistication, some of which aren’t readily apparent on first viewing. There is arguably a sense in which the story makes some pretty big asks of the audience, and there are certainly a few more loose ends than you’d expect from a Hitchcock film, but then it seems to me that this is not a plot-driven film but a character piece.

If so, then it’s a character piece masquerading as a psychological thriller pretending to be a Gothic melodrama. Hitchcock’s intention to make the audience identify with Stewart’s character works on numerous levels – there’s the simple technical sense, in which Stewart’s in nearly every scene and we frequently see events from his point of view, but also on a wider narrative level: just as Ferguson is ultimately the victim of a put-up job, so to some extent is the audience, because the film we think we’re watching isn’t the film we think it is.

Hitchcock famously messed with audience expectations in Psycho, but it’s hard not to see that same intention in the structure of Vertigo, too. There’s a major plot reversal in the middle of the film that appears to go against every tenet of conventional storytelling, and it’s completely wrong-footing: you have no idea how the story is going to proceed from this point on. Any pretence at being a conventional thriller is certainly abandoned and the film becomes a rather bleak drama about all-consuming obsession and the horrible things that love can drive people to do to their lovers.

Here is where the real sophistication of the plotting comes in: quite naturally, as the film shows it, what entails is a situation where – on a thematic level – the ‘fake’ plot of the first part of the film, with a living person consumed by a shade from the past, is replayed for real. The brilliance of the script comes from the fact that the living person and the shade are both in fact the same individual. Vertigo poses some serious questions about identity, certainly when it comes to relationships – is it even possible for someone to impersonate him or herself? To what extent do we actually fall in love with with real people, rather than just our idealised images of them? Can love survive complete truth and honesty?

Pretty heavy stuff, and not leavened by any laughs, either. One of the many remarkable feats of the third act of Vertigo is that a scene which should feel clunky and melodramatic, and rather intrusive, is actually the turning point of the entire movie. Stewart departs the movie for a few minutes, leaving the stage clear for another character to actually deliver a monologue explaining the plot and how Ferguson (and the audience) have been misled by the villain, such as he is. It really shouldn’t work, but not only does it generate the suspense and pathos leading up to the climax, it effectively shifts the audience’s sympathies: Stewart actually becomes rather creepy and unsettling in his pursuit of his lost love (or at least her image), while a character who should have no call on the audience’s affection becomes engagingly vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s consummate storytelling sleight of hand, and I’ve no idea quite how Hitchcock managed it.

That said, most of the time in Vertigo one gets a sense of stuff going on that one isn’t entirely aware of. Hitchcock and the cinematographer are clearly doing something with Novak and the colours red and green: she’s frequently dressed in one or other of them or surrounded by it in the set dressing, but if there’s some kind of code going on here I haven’t been able to decipher it. All those scenes in the first half of the film of, basically, Stewart following Novak around San Francisco, too: they seem rather repetitive and slow but presumably the director is slowly and incrementally building our association with Stewart, and the idea of his obsession with Novak.

Vertigo is quite a long film, and not really a conventionally entertaining one: no-one in it ever seems particularly happy, not for more than a few seconds, at least. But it really does have that mesmerising, dreamlike quality so often ascribed to it: or perhaps, in the circumstances, not dreamlike but nightmarish. The opening titles of the film do a good job of conveying what’s to follow – Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score plays over Saul Bass’s spinning, multicoloured vortices, which we initially access through Kim Novak’s eye. The message is that this is going to be an internal, psychological film, about loss of perspective and loss of control. And it is.

Vertigo baffled the critics in 1958 just as much as it did me thirty-something years later, but its critical reputation has recovered now to the point where it has displaced Citizen Kane as Best Movie Ever (Ever) on at least one list. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m still not sure I would chose it over one of Hitchcock’s more conventional entertainments, but this is an extraordinary film in many ways: it confounds expectations at every turn while still being completely magnetic to watch, if never entirely comfortable.

 

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I am, all things considered, reasonably happy with this here blog which you happen to be reading – it’s not brilliant, but it gives me an outlet and it’s not like I’m charging anyone for the privilege of reading it. One thing it does occur to me that it is short of is Hitchcock, whose name is checked far more often than his films actually appear. Luckily, a welcome revival of Rear Window at the Phoenix has given me the opportunity to start fixing that.

Rear Window was released in 1954 and was Alfred Hitchcock’s seventeenth Hollywood movie: by this point he was already famous enough to get his name above the title of his own films. This is one of his most celebrated works, and watching it again it isn’t difficult to see why.

rear window

James Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies, an ace photo-journalist coming to the end of a seven-week stretch laid up with a broken leg received in the line of duty. New York is sweltering in a heatwave and the heat and inactivity are driving him up the wall – he is also having committment issues with respect to his lovely girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, long before she turned into Nicole Kidman). Jefferies’ only diversion from this is to look out of the titular window of his apartment and observe the minutiae of the lives of his various neighbours.

At first this seems harmless enough, but then one of them, a bedridden woman, mysteriously disappears, and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins to act a little oddly – trips out of the apartment in the dead of night with a heavy case, strange behaviour with knives and saws, and so on. A suspicion begins to grow in Jefferies’ mind, but how can he find evidence either way, confined to his apartment as he is?

I first saw Rear Window nearly thirty years ago – it must have been my first Hitchcock – and I was initially rather unenthusiastic about the prospect. I wanted to watch the other side, truth be told, and it was only my father’s insistence that we watch it just for a bit, together with the tiny size of the static caravan we were holidaying in at the time, that resulted in me giving the film any of my time.

Probably this is because, even back then, Rear Window looks and sounds extremely dated – the colour stock is unlike anything used today, it’s primarily just people talking in one room, and it’s obviously studio-bound. These days I am wise enough to understand that increasing age doesn’t necessarily equate with declining quality, and that many of the things that appear to count against Rear Window are actually at the heart of what makes it such a great movie.

To dismiss it as studio-bound is to completely overlook the merits of the vast, elaborate set on which the story takes place – it may not be completely naturalistic, but then this is a fairly tall story in the first place. And it’s the limitations of the story which make it special: for most of the film the only real speaking parts are Stewart, Kelly, Thelma Ritter as Stewart’s nurse, and Wendell Corey as his detective buddy: everyone else only appears as characters observed from a distance by Stewart.

You can see the appeal of this story for Hitchcock, even if only as a simple formal challenge – there’s the limited roll of characters, the fact it’s all grounded in a single room, and so on. But above it was surely the potential for directorial sorcery that lured him to this tale – the audience is practically compelled to identify with Jefferies, viewing his neighbours as he does, and reliant on the nuances of Stewart’s performance for clues as to how to respond to them. It is a masterclass in the principles of direction and editing and you can’t help but be drawn in. This is even with a surprisingly slow start: most of the first act is preoccupied with setting up the story and characters in an extremely leisurely way, most of the scenes concerned with Jefferies’ situation and his inability to make up his mind about Lisa.

But the tension slowly ratchets up, until the climax, when – well, look, I still clearly recall being absolutely speared into my seat, frantic with alarm, during the climax of this film, all those years ago: Jefferies is trapped in his apartment, seemingly helpless, with a killer on his way to try and silence him. It’s the biggest of several electrifying moments throughout the film, and Hitch springs them on you seemingly out of nowhere.

Rear Window works so well as a smart, witty thriller – like many Hitchcock films, it’s much funnier than you might expect – that it almost seems superfluous to try and mine it for any deeper concerns – we’re dealing with a master entertainer above all else here. However, there are perhaps the faintest glimmers of subtext about the nature of urban living. When you live on top of dozens of other people – quite literally so in some cases – your natural instinct is to mind your own business and close yourself off, overlooking what could be quite obvious signs of things going amiss. It’s only Stewart, the spy, the voyeur, who picks up on the clues, and even he seems unsure of the morality of his actions – is it justifiable to intrude on someone’s privacy, even in the name of justice? The film seems to suggest that it is, and also that people look out for one another more – but this remains a complex issue that has become perhaps even more important in the sixty years since this film was made.

It is first and foremost a supremely entertaining thriller, though, winningly played by Stewart, Kelly, and the others, and flawlessly directed. They don’t make them like this any more – but then again, you could probably argue that they only ever made one like this at all.

 

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