Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Alfred Hitchcock: On Creating Suspense

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In 1963 Peter Bogdanovich prepared the first complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective in America, ‘The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock’ at The Museum of Modern Art. As part of the exhibition Bogdanovich conducted an extensive interview with Hitchcock about his career. In the following excerpt Hitchcock discusses the role of suspense in ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Psycho’:

Isn’t ‘Vertigo’ about the conflict between illusion and reality?

Oh, yes. I was interested by the basic situation, because it contained so much analogy to sex. Stewart’s efforts to recreate the woman were, cinematically, exactly the same as though he were trying to undress the woman, instead of dressing her. He couldn’t get the other woman out of his mind. Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, ‘When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.’ He said, ‘Good God, why?’ I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman. Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: “So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.” What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
And we come to our old analogy of the bomb: you and I sit talking and there’s a bomb in the room. We’re having a very innocuous conversation about nothing. Boring. Doesn’t mean a thing. Suddenly, boom! The bomb goes off and they’re shocked – for fifteen seconds. Now you change it. Play the same scene, insert the bomb, show that the bomb is placed there, establish that it’s going to go off at one o’clock – it’s now a quarter of one, ten of one – show a clock on the wall, back to the same scene. Now our conversation becomes very vital, by its sheer nonsense. ‘Look under the table! You fool!’ Now they’re working for ten minutes, instead of being surprised for fifteen seconds. Now let’s go back to Vertigo. If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on. ‘Now,’ I said, ‘one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, “I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?” ‘So,’ I said, ‘we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! Right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.’ Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, “Little does he know.”

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason – she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the grey suit, doesn’t want to go blond – because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you. We play on his fetish in creating this dead woman, and he is so obsessed with the pride he has in making her over. Even when she comes back from the hairdresser, the blond hair is still down. And he says, ‘Put your hair up.’ She says, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Please.’ Now what is he saying to her? ‘You’ve taken everything off except your bra and your panties, please take those off.’ She says, ‘All right.’ She goes into the bathroom. He’s only waiting to see a nude woman come out, ready to get in bed with. That’s what the scene is. Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost – he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light.

You see, in the earlier part – which is purely in the mind of Stewart – when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past – in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect – fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street – because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered – until he saw the locket – and then he knew he had been tricked.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Do you really consider ‘Psycho’ an essentially humorous film?

Well, when I say humorous, I mean it’s my humor that enabled me to tackle the outrageousness of it. If I were telling the same story seriously, I’d tell a case history and never treat it in terms of mystery or suspense. It would simply be what the psychiatrist relates at the end.

In ‘Psycho’, aren’t you really directing the audience more than the actors?

Yes. It’s using pure cinema to cause the audience to emote. It was done by visual means designed in every possible way for an audience. That’s why the murder in the bathroom is so violent, because as the film proceeds, there is less violence. But that scene was in the minds of the audience so strongly that one didn’t have to do much more. I think that in Psycho there is no identification with the characters. There wasn’t time to develop them and there was no need to. The audience goes through the paroxysms in the film without consciousness of Vera Miles or John Gavin. They’re just characters that lead the audience through the final part of the picture. I wasn’t interested in them. And you know, nobody ever mentions that they were ever in the film. It’s rather sad for them.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Can you imagine how the people in the front office would have cast the picture? They’d say, ‘Well, she gets killed off in the first reel, let’s put anybody in there, and give Janet Leigh the second part with the love interest.’ Of course, this is idiot thinking. The whole point is to kill off the star, that is what makes it so unexpected. This was the basic reason for making the audience see it from the beginning. If they came in half-way through the picture, they would say, ‘When’s Janet Leigh coming on?’ You can’t have blurred thinking in suspense.

Didn’t you experiment with TV techniques in ‘Psycho’?

It was made by a TV unit, but that was only a matter of economics really, speed and economy of shooting, achieved by minimizing the number of set-ups. We slowed up whenever it became really cinematic. The bathroom scene took seven days, whereas the psychiatrist’s scene at the end was all done in one day.

How much did Saul Bass contribute to the picture?

Only the main title, the credits. He asked me if he could do one sequence in Psycho and I said yes. So he did a sequence on paper, little drawings of the detective going up the stairs before he is killed. One day on the picture, I was sick, and I called up and told the assistant to make those shots as Bass had planned them. There were about twenty of them and when I saw them, I said, ‘You can’t use any of them.’ The sequence told his way would indicate that the detective is a menace. He’s not. He is an innocent man, therefore the shot should be innocent. We don’t have to work the audience up. We’ve done that. The mere fact that he’s going up the stairs is enough. Keep it simple. No complications. One shot.

Did you intend any moral implications in the picture?

I don’t think you can take any moral stand because you’re dealing with distorted people. You can’t apply morality to insane persons.

– Alfred Hitchcock: 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich at MoMA.org

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Peter Bogdanovich on The Searchers

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)
One of the key figures leading the renaissance of American cinema in the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich (b. 1939) began his career as an actor, taking classes with Stella Adler, before distinguishing himself as a writer and film curator. After one of his articles drew the attention of producer Roger Corman, Bogdanovich took the opportunity to direct his first film, Targets, a stylised tale of a serial killer starring Boris Karloff in one of his final roles. Bogdanovich’s three subsequent films, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, were successful reinventions of studio-era genres – the Western, the screwball and small-town comedy.

An important film historian, Bogdanovich has made a significant contribution to cinematic history with his writing and interviews with the great directors of the studio era including Fritz Lang, Leo McCarey, Joseph H. Lewis and most notably Orson Welles and John Ford, of whom Bogdanovich became a respected authority. Indeed Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford, ranks as one of the most influential portraits of the veteran director. In a recent post on his blog at indiewire, Bogdanovich outlined his thoughts on John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers in which he suggests that the key to the undiminished power of the film lies in the archaic and mythical power of its narrative:

The picture begins with the classiest Western opening of all, a black screen becoming a door that opens from within a home to the red desert outside this settlers’ house as the whole family – father, mother, three children (two daughters, one son) and a dog – walk onto the porch while a lone horseman rides up from the gigantic red buttes in the far distance. The rider is the father’s long-absent brother, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), returned for the first time since the end of the Civil War, three years previous, during which Ethan was on the side of the Confederacy, a loner who has spent the bitter years since then fighting as a hired gun in Mexico. What is conveyed in a few small private moments is that Ethan is chastely in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him, though neither would think of showing it in any overt way.

There is the alarm of a Comanche uprising, and Ethan rides off with the sheriff’s posse to check on a nearby ranch. While he and the others are gone, Comanches attack Ethan’s brother’s house, brutally murdering the man and his young son, raping and killing the beloved wife and teenage daughter, abducting the eight-year-old little girl, burning down the house from which we have emerged so recently to begin this story of Ethan’s subsequent ten-year search. He and an adopted ‘quarter-breed‘ (Jeffrey Hunter) become the searchers not only to find the kidnapped young niece but also to avenge the terrible deaths by executing the destroyer, a proud and virile Comanche chief, who will become the child’s husband. The search is both love-and-vengeance ridden and racial.

The saga that ensues is remarkably vivid, filled with incident, superbly composed, emotionally complicated, often darkly funny, deeply moving. That Ethan’s obsessive fury and hatred in some way turns against the young victim as well is among the most troubling aspects of the story, resolved by Ford (at odds with the novel) in one of the most profoundly touching moments in picture history. The ironic theme of the work, spoken by settler Olive Carey, is that all the sufferings these ‘Texicans’ (read Americans) must endure will make it possible for future generations to live in harmony and peace. Although Ethan succeeds in his quest, at the end another settler’s door closes on him walking away toward horse and desert as alone as ever; thus concluding John Ford’s penultimate poetic landmark of the West that has shaped us, that haunts us still as both history and myth.

– Extract from ‘Peter Bogdanovich: The Searchers’ at indiewire 

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Solaris

Solaris (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
‘I was on very intimate terms with Tarkovsky. I always felt like he was my younger brother. Drinking together, we sang the theme of Seven Samurai. His expression of the element of water! It was unique, indeed. Watching this film [Solaris] always makes me want to return to Earth.’ 
- Kurosawa on Tarkovsky

Akira Kurosawa first met Andrei Tarkovsky in Moscow on his first visit to Russia in July 1971 when Kurosawa attended the Moscow Film Festival. Dodeskaden was screened and won the Special Prize. Tarkovsky then went to Japan to re-pay the visit that same fall and the two directors remained friends until Tarkovsky’s untimely death in 1986. Tarkovsky told Kurosawa that he always viewed Seven Samurai before shooting a new film. Kurosawa replied that he would always see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev before shooting...

Originally written by Akira Kurosawa and published in May 1977 the following article titled ‘Tarkovsky and Solaris’ recalls the early relationship between the two great directors. It was translated for Nostalghia.com by Sato Kimitoshi and was subsequently adapted by Criterion for use in the insert booklet of their Solaris DVD.

I met Tarkovsky for the first time when I attended my welcome luncheon at Mosfilm during my first visit to Soviet Russia. He was small, thin, looked a little frail, and at the same time exceptionally intelligent, and unusually shrewd and sensitive. I thought he somehow resembled Toru Takemitsu, but I don’t know why. Then he excused himself saying, ‘I still have work to do,’ and disappeared, and after a while I heard such a big explosion as to make all the glass windows of the dining hall tremble hard. Seeing me taken aback, the boss of Mosfilm said with a meaningful smile: ‘You know another World War hasn’t broken out. Tarkovsky just launched a rocket. This work with Tarkovsky, however, has proved a Great War for me.’ That was the way I knew Tarkovsky was shooting Solaris.

After the luncheon party, I visited his set for Solaris. There it was. I saw a burnt down rocket at the corner of the space station set. I am sorry I forgot to ask him as to how he had shot the launching of the rocket on the set. The set of the satellite base was beautifully made at a huge cost, for it was all made up of thick duralumin.

It glittered in its cold metallic silver light, and I found light rays of red, or blue or green delicately winking or waving from electric light bulbs buried in the gagues on the equipment lined up in there. And above on the ceiling of the corridor ran two duralumin rails from which hung a small wheel of a camera which could move around freely inside the satellite base.

Tarkovsky guided me around the set, explaining to me as cheerfully as a young boy who is given a golden opportunity to show someone his favorite toybox. [The director] Bondarchuk, who came with me, asked him about the cost of the set, and left his eyes wide open when Tarkovsky answered it. The cost was so huge: about six hundred million yen as to make Bondarchuk, who directed that grand spectacle of a movie War and Peace, gaze in wonder.

Now I came to fully realize why the boss of the Mosfilm said it was ‘a Great War for me.’ But it takes a huge talent and effort to spend such a huge cost. Thinking ‘this is a tremendous task’ I closely gazed at his back when he was leading me around the set in enthusiasm.

Concerning Solaris I find many people complaining that it is too long, but I do not think so. They especially find too lengthy the description of nature in the introductory scenes, but these layers of memory of farewell to this earthly nature submerge themselves deep below the bottom of the story after the main character has been sent in a rocket into the satellite station base in the universe, and they almost torture the soul of the viewer like a kind of irresistible nostalgia toward mother earth and nature, which resembles homesickness. Without the presence of beautiful nature sequences on earth as a long introduction, you could not make the audience directly conceive the sense of having no-way-out harboured by the people ‘jailed’ inside the satellite base.

I saw this film late at night in a preview room in Moscow for the first time, and soon I felt my heart aching in agony with a longing to returning to the earth as quickly as possible. We have enjoyed marvellous progress in science, but where will it lead humanity after all? This film succeeds in conjuring up sheer fearful emotion in our soul. Without it, a science-fiction movie would be nothing more than a petty fancy.

These thoughts came and went while I was gazing at the screen.

Tarkovsky was together with me then. He was at the corner of the studio. When the film was over, he stood up, looking at me as if he felt timid. I said to him, ‘Very good. It makes me feel real fear.’ Tarkovsky smiled shyly, but happily. And we toasted vodka at the restaurant in the Film Institute. Tarkovsky, who didn’t drink usually, drank a lot of vodka, and went so far as to turn off the speaker from which music had floated into the restaurant, and began to sing the theme of the samurai from Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. As if to rival him, I joined in.

For I was at that moment very happy to find myself living on Earth.

Solaris makes a viewer feel this, and even this single fact shows us that Solaris is no ordinary science-fiction film. It truly somehow provokes pure horror in our soul. And it is under the total grip of the deep insights of Tarkovsky.

There must be many, many things still unknown to humanity in this world: the abyss of the cosmos which a man had to look into, strange visitors in the satellite base, time running in reverse, from death to life, strangely moving sense of levitation, his home which is in the mind of the main character in the satellite station is wet and soaked with water. It seems to me to be sweat and tears that in his heartbreaking agony he sqeezed out of his whole being. And what makes us shudder is the shot of the location of Akasakamitsuke, Tokyo, Japan. By a skillful use of mirrors, he turned flows of head lights and tail lamps of cars, multiplied and amplified, into a vintage image of the future city. Every shot of Solaris bears witness to the almost dazzling talents inherent in Tarkovsky.

Mirror (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
Many people grumble that Tarkovsky's films are difficult, but I don't think so. His films just show how extraordinarily sensitive Tarkovsky is. He made a film titled Mirror after Solaris. Mirror deals with his cherished memories in his childhood, and many people say again it is disturbingly difficult. Yes, at a glance, it seems to have no rational development in its storytelling. But we have to remember: it is impossible that in our soul our childhood memories should arrange themselves in a static, logical sequence.

A strange train of fragments of early memory images shattered and broken can bring about the poetry in our infancy. Once you are convinced of its truthfulness, you may find Mirror the easiest film to understand. But Tarkovsky remains silent, without saying things like that at all. His very attitude makes me believe that he has wonderful potential in his future.

There can be no bright future for those who are ready to explain everything about their own film.

– ‘Akira Kurosawa: Tarkovsky and Solaris’

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Claude Chabrol: The Mystery of Character

La Cérémonie (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Born in 1930, Claude Chabrol was the first of the French New Wave directors into production with Le Beau Serge (1958). He went on to direct a series of classic films starring his wife, Stéphane Audran, including Le Boucher (1969) and Les Noces Rouges (1973). La Cérémonie (1995) was adapted from Ruth Rendell’s novel Judgment in Stone and starred Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, the new housekeeper of a wealthy family, who befriends Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) – a postmistress with a grudge against the family.

Chabrol’s interest in thrillers is not primarily as a source of plot and suspense but as a means of exploring the psychology of murder. He is motivated by what he describes as the confrontation between character and story. The focus is on character and how the camera can best describe the inner attitudes of his two leads. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Claude Chabrol on La Cérémonie from 1995:

The starting point was a novel by Ruth Rendell. Her fifth or sixth. The first, I think, to depart from the normal process of police inquiry, with its recurrent detective figure – interesting though that process is. In this instance, the novel is a thriller only to the extent that she has chosen to maintain the formal appearance of a thriller. She might easily have chosen to make it a straight novel. I loved the book when it came out, fifteen or twenty years ago, but I hadn’t thought of adapting it as it was written, with only two characters, the maid and the postwoman. The maid was called Eunice in the book. She was a wobbly, fat thing, unpleasant really. The postwoman was very different too. They were fairly typically British. So time passed. I read other novels of hers. I saw that she was developing, her work was changing. She was the one to suggest I modified the structure. The process of reading her more recent work told me how I should adapt this one.

Caroline Eliacheff helped me in that … she uncovered the underlying psychological and psychoanalytical structure. That enabled us to restructure it without altering Ruth Rendell’s vision. I’ve tried to remain faithful to her way of thinking.

I asked Caroline to clean up the story for me, and she did a much more thorough job than I had expected. When I started working on the book, I had whole chunks of dialogue ready that would consolidate the psychiatric underpinning, so that the characters’ reactions might remain consistent. Otherwise, we would have spun off into insanity. Very often, when films depict psychopaths, they allow one to forget, for the duration of one or two scenes, that the psychopaths are just that. And then the insanity returns. But in reality, insanity is a continuous phenomenon. Here, Sophie’s illiteracy is always present, and Jeanne’s craziness is always there too.

My last political film was Poulet au Vinaigre (1984). What I was interested in then was to show the provincial bourgeoisie as starkly as possible, not in too heavy a way, but so that that critique was definitely a feature of the film. Subsequently, I found no particularly stimulating social phenomena to observe. And it is only now, in the past two years, that I am beginning to reconsider. I had a conversation with a young hooligan which left me with a feeling that society was about to explode, or implode rather, because it’s not just a marginal phenomenon. So I decided to make something of this feeling, but not in too precise a documentary way. Just as well, because Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine (1995) makes the point much better than I could have done. Our films are related, in that they reflect the beginnings of this explosion. He sees it as an explosion. I see it as an implosion. The young hooligan I mentioned thought things couldn’t go on like this for long, no more than three or four years. Only two more years left!

I remember an article, I can’t recall who by, it was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which said that now the Wall was down, there could be no more class war. Only someone with money could ever say such a thing. Ask the lower orders if class war can ever end! La Cérémonie was an opportunity to deal with this area. Once a screenplay is ready to go, I always try and find a way of including a few personal preoccupations. In this case, it works. The film really does depict a schematic view of class war.

My starting-point is the relationship between the story and a character. On this film, the audience is not aware of the fact that there is no story. The characters gradually reveal themselves, their relationships evolve, but there is no real plot. Like Simenon, I’m a great believer in structures that arise out of the confrontation between different characters. I take an important characteristic that determines the character (e.g. sex, for Betty), and try to monitor its development in relation to others. It’s chemistry, really. A chemistry of affinity. Although I make plenty of thrillers, I am not really interested in plot. What I am interested in is the mystery, the intrinsic mystery of the characters...

- Extract from ‘Claude Chabrol The Positif Interview’, 1995.