Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Fury

An important milestone in the career of one of the great directors of silent and sound cinema —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

Spencer Tracy feels Fritz Lang's Fury

" Don’t you have all the answers Henry? "
— [DL], Seven Years in Tibet

MRQE Top Critic

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As I recounted in “The Complete Works of Auteur X,” my wife and I discovered the joys and revelations of watching the complete works, in chronological order, of an auteur (we use the snooty-sounding term on purpose to separate hack or craftsman directors who occasionally make a good movie, from artists who leave their fingerprints on everything they touch). The auteur spends his life producing a body of work, while it takes us mere months to consume and digest it. Watching a career this way, you learn a lot about style and technique. You come to identify periods in the auteur’s career and reactions to global shifts in politics and zeitgeist.

Alfred Hitchcock left his fingerprints on everything.
Alfred Hitchcock left his fingerprints on everything.

At the very least, you get an easy answer to the question “what shall we rent tonight?”.

Our second target (after Federico Fellini) was Alfred Hitchcock. I have notes from watching all 50 of his surviving films and may write some full-lenghth movie reviews eventually. But some high-level insights will probably be more interesting.

Of course, Hitchcock was interested in spies, tension, false accusations, and the threat of death, so let’s quickly move past that into some less obvious details.

Cameos

Hitchcock deserves the term “auteur” in part because he deliberately left his mark on each of his films — his cameo appears in all of his later films and many of his earlier ones. “Spot the cameo” became part of the fun in watching a Hitchcock movie...

Pearls Before Swine

... and I got so that I could predict when to start looking for him. Hitchcock was never a character, he was always an extra. He never gave himself dialogue, and he almost never gave himself a role that required a costume (the cowboy hat in Psycho notwithstanding). He was never a cab driver or a doorman, but rather a passerby whose presence could not possibly affect the characters in their plots. Also, his cameo usually happens early in the film. All of that makes sense, because if he were to appear during the conflict or resolution, or as someone with dialogue, it would be much more distracting. Better to appear and disappear before things get too involved.

Weaknesses or Compromises?

Hitch’s endings are surprisingly “weak.” He would build the tension to a boil, then resolve it, then quickly send you out into the lobby, with no time to let you come down off the emotional high. His movies really were all about the tension, and not at all about the resolution. I found some of his endings to be unsatisfying and abrupt. Once you notice the trend, it becomes easier to accept and forgive — if forgiveness is even necessary — Hitchcock undoubtedly chose this tack on purpose.

Unconvincing rear projection isn't worth improving
Unconvincing rear projection isn’t worth improving

I would say the same for his rear-screen projections. Back in college I scoffed at the unconvincing “special effects” in even Hitchcock’s big-budget films. But when you realize the quality of the projection has little to do with the tension, you tend not to let it distract you. Still, the worst examples were in The Man who Knew Too Much (the second one, with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day).

Styles Change

Alfred Hitchcock’s career spanned four decades, and you don’t last that long in the movies if you’re not flexible. He made small-time films in England, workmanlike films in the U.S., big-budget studio-produced thrillers, and TV-sized movies that required cutting more corners than usual.

Hitchcock tried his hand at 3-D, with Dial M for Murder. He didn’t just shoot with another camera, but thought hard about how to use the medium. Rather than poking you in the eye from the screen (except for once), he created layers of textured foreground, a technique you can see him use later in 2D films. I misrememberd this film as being in black and white; I assumed he used red/blue 3D. He actually shot the film in color with a polarized system not too far removed from today’s 3D revival, and produced a 2D version of the film that would stand on its own, even without special novelty glasses.

Another example of his versatility is the success of Psycho. Some of the sets in Psycho seemed really low-budget, and not just in a pick-your-battles sort of way. We later learned that Hitchcock had having trouble raising money for Psycho, and rather than roll over, he self-financed and embraced the lighter, quicker, cheaper way of shooting that many TV programs were using. Some people still call Psycho one of his greats, in spite of budgetary hardships.

Flashes of Brilliance

Under Capricorn, a costume drama set in Australia, may be Hitchcock’s most boring movie, yet there seems to be a lot going on behind the camera, with very long takes and elaborate camera moves (it’s his next film after Rope). I imagine that the visuals might be more subtly polished than those in Rope, even if they don’t translate as well into emotion. Someday, another viewing might reveal what I missed, if anything, the first time through. I assume there is a flash of brilliance that I just missed.

Lifeboat was disliked when it came out (Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the short story, disavowed the movie after it got critical reviews) and even now it’s not a fan favorite. But as a student of the philosophy of morality, I find Lifeboat to be one of the most intriguing and troubling films in the Hitchcock canon. If you haven’t seen it, it’s not as simple as the standard “overcrowded lifeboat” conundrum whereby the student must decide who lives and who dies. No, in Lifeboat, A group of English and American civilians find themselves on a lifeboat after the Nazis have sunk their ship. One of the survivors is a sailor from the ship that sank them. Their thirst for his blood is balanced by their own incompetence at sea and their reliance on him to save them. But he’s not just a misunderstood survivor; he’s believer in the superiority of the Nazis, which makes the anguished American/English reaction all the more ambivalent.

Stewart chides Brandon with unforgettable contempt
Stewart chides Brandon with unforgettable contempt

Rope was always one of my favorites because of the “real-time, single-take” gimmick. Now it’s one of my favorites because of a single word: “Brandon” spat with righteous contempt by Jimmy Stewart when he learns what the little puke has done. How could anyone like Brandon — so proud and sure — not wither at the utter, dripping contempt of his mentor whom he was trying to impress?

Rear Window is about a man who gets caught up watching the lives of his neighbors. This time I got caught up watching the lives of his neighbors and forgot that I was supposed to be tsk-tsking him for being a peeping tom.

High Point

The high point in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, for me, is North by Northwest. Hitchcock had moved from black and white into color, and from standard into widescreen. He still had the clout to hire A-list actors, and the film industry was such that studio-produced films were still the most relevant movies of the day. North by Northwest was the right film at the right time.

If you want to pick a high point within the high point, choose the crop-duster scene. It makes unbelievably good use of the wide screen, and more surprisingly, it mostly takes place in silence (Bernard Herrmann’s score stays smartly out of the way as the tension slowly builds).

An Entire Career

If I were reading an essay like this, I would want to read the two-paragraph summary of Hitchcock’s work. Unfortunately for readers, it doesn’t work that way. A career can’t be compressed that much. Someone could write the essay on camera technique, another on music, another on casting, and still more on the themes of innocence, sex, violence, and food, to name a few that scratch the surface.

I’ve given a superficial overview of my own experience. Yours would be completely different. (And wouldn’t we have an interesting conversation at a coffee shop or Hitchcock salon some day?)

Watching all of Hitchcock’s films took us about two years (factoring in work, sleep, film festivals, and new-release movies), and it was time well spent. We are eager to keep our experiment in career-watching alive.

For our next auteur series, we chose Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger. We decided not to include their films made separately; only their collaborations. We’ll let you know how it goes, hopefully in less than two years.

  • Derin Emre: Hello!

    I am writing to you on behalf of Institute of Time, a production company located in Amsterdam, and would offer you a private screener for our film Phases of Matter, before it is released on VOD in December. We are reaching out to a number of like minded film professionals whose previous work we deemed pertinent to Phases of Matter. Since you have reviewed films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter in the past, we sincerely believe the film is to your tastes and standards.

    Phases of Matter made its premiere at the International Rotterdam Film Festival 2020 and won the Best Documentary Film Award at the 57th Antalya Film Festival and the 39th Istanbul Festival. As a non-traditional cinematic documentary with an observative style, the film meticulously portrays the story of not only a hospital, but also a country, helping the audience to understand and empathize with health workers in a way that regular style of documentary filmmaking can't. It is the latest film of director and artist Deniz Tortum, who was featured on "25 New Faces of Independent Cinema" by Filmmaker Magazine.


    You can view the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/643504051 and feel free to send me an email for a screener.


    All the best,

    Derin

    Praise for Phases of Matter:

    “Had Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital wandered into Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom the unlikely result might have resembled Deniz Tortum’s haunting and hypnotic Phases of Matter.”
    Boston Globe - Peter Keough

    “We feel the hospital’s heartbeat; we hear this organism breathe."
    Reverse Shot - "Critical Trials" by James Wham

    "An innovative and unique poetic essay about healing and the healers themselves."
    Filmuforia

    "With a formal sense of camera movement that simultaneously embraces the unplanned and unexpected, Tortum crafts a vision pitched between the eerily posthuman and the urgently humanist."
    Museum of the Moving Image


    57th Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival - Best Documentary Film Award

    39th Istanbul Film Festival - Best Documentary Film Award

    Accessible Film Festival - Best Film Award, Best Director Award

    13th Imagine Science Film Festival - Labocine Special Mention

    November 12, 2021 reply
  • Derin: Hello Marty!

    I've sent you an email regarding a film called Phases of Matter about three weeks ago. I wanted to follow-up and see if you are interested. I realize it might be a bit too pertinent with the resurgence of medical news of late, but perhaps a different perspective presented by the film could be of note.

    Just an update: the film's release date has also been pushed to mid-January, in case you might be too busy for the awards season and could have a better time frame if you are interested.

    You can view the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/643504051 and have more info on https://www.phasesfilm.com/

    Please feel free to send me an email for a screener.

    All the best,
    --
    Derin Emre

    Institute of Time
    www.instituteoftime.com

    December 1, 2021 reply
  • Luca Paris: Good morning,

    my name is Luca Paris, i wrote and directed an experimental thriller/horror feature film called Denkraum in Italy. I'd love to read a review on your website. Troma defined it : “#TROMAzingly odd, uniquely interesting & right up Troma's Dark & Seedy Alley!”
    Splatterpunkreviews:”Denkraum is a really interesting Italian horror movie that’ll keep you guessing and have you thinking about it after you finish it.”

    Thanks in advance for your attention,

    best regards,
    Luca Paris August 10, 2022 reply