Sunday, February 05, 2006


PBS Dallas is running North by Northwest[^] as I write. Good movie, but then again, almost every movie Hitchcock directed is a good movie.

The first time I saw it was during a re-release season in Melbourne in 1984. Someone or other got the rights to show a half dozen Hitchcock movies and billed it as a 'you haven't had the chance to see these movies for 20 years, here they are' event. For all I know that might even have been true (though I also remember seeing a 'Last Chance Hollywood' season in 1983 where they ran Footlight Parade[^] and Goldiggers of 1933[^] and a couple of years later both movies turned up on late night TV in Melbourne. I don't believe the hype anymore though I do go to the showings!). The 1983 double bill was wonderful; I came out of the theatre with James Cagney dancing in my head. I should, perhaps, not reveal that I've always thought Ruby Keeler was incredibly sexy. Keep your comments to yourself! :-)

I note that both films plus three other classics of the era are due for release next month on a 6 DVD set. Guess who's just placed an order! (I also snuck in an order for What the Universe Tells Me - Unraveling the Mysteries of Mahler's Third Symphony[^]. I could do without the 'unravelling the mysteries' part of the title but that's been one of my favourite symphonies for about 33 years so I'm looking forward to the DVD.

One of the other movies in the Hitchcock re-release season was Vertigo[^]. For me, the best Hitchcock movie ever. It plays on my own greatest fear; the fear of heights. Here in Dallas I'm on the 9th floor and it's all I can do to approach the window close enough to look straight down. I can't do it if I'm facing the window; only sideways where it feels as though, were I to lose my balance, I'd fall to the floor rather than through the window. Silly thought but nonetheless real for all it's silliness.

Personally I find the story of Vertigo confusing. I'm never quite sure who's the villain and who's the good guy. Quite remarkable ambiguity for a movie made at the tail end of McCarthyism and at the height of the cold war. It probably helped that the director was an Englishman.

The appeal is in the pacing and the mood of the film. When one sees Arnie or Bruce Willis facing down the terrorists one knows one is seeing pure escapism; no normal person could do what one sees in such movies. When you watch the best of Hitchcock you know you're watching normal people put into slightly unusual situations and at almost every point you can imagine yourself doing what they do. Thus James Stewart becoming obsessed with the Kim Novak character in Vertigo. (It helps that she's very attractive of course).

As to the pacing; witness the scenes where James Stewart follows Kim Novak through San Francisco. Camera mounted on the bonnet (hood) of the car. Very old school these days and yet it captures a mood; nothing spectacular happens but Hitchcock is prepared to let the scene take 'natural' time. He did a similar thing in Frenzy[^] where the camera follows a woman returning to her office. We, the viewer, know that she's going to find a murder victim but he prolongs the scene with an unmoving camera and silence on the soundtrack. The tension mounts and is broken, quite some time later, with a scream. And later in the same movie, we see a judge preparing to pass sentence as the camera withdraws from the court and silence falls. Very skillfully done!

As a confirmed addict of Romantic music I have to say that I love the soundtrack! Bernard Herrman could write great soundtracks! If you listen very carefully you can find echoes of Mahler but there's also a touch of Alban Berg in there. Indeed, I'd put Bernard Herrman right at the top of my favourite film composers. He's been dead these 30 years but I hope saying that doesn't make him spin in his grave!

I spent a Saturday afternoon in July 1986 driving around San Francisco trying to find all the locations he'd used for Vertigo. To be honest, the only one I found was the obvious one; the shore beneath the south side of the Golden Gate bridge but I really didn't mind. It's one thing to be in a strange city driving around aimlessly; quite another to have a purpose.

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