Saturday, August 9, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Frenzy (1972)

"Frenzy" was Hitchcock’s second to last movie. It’s his only film that was rated R (for language, violence, and nudity). It’s an uncomfortable movie to watch, plain and simple. Here’s a list of reasons why it’s uncomfortable:

1) It’s the early 70s. This was a terribly unkempt era. Hairstyles and clothing were incredibly silly-looking and odd. The hair-dos look accidental and the clothes are ill-fitting and awkward. Ugly, to be succinct.

2) Ugly people. Now, folks can say that they watch movies to “see reality” but that’s a load of junk. Hollywood movies are full of beautiful people for a reason -- people like looking at pretty people. Hitchcock knew this... it’s why he used Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman three times each. He was widely-known as a misogynist with an eye for the ladies. Hitchcock liked his leads to be “easy on the eyes.” As the 70s came along, he seemed to be willing to go hard on the eyes. See these photos of the three main characters in Frenzy:

I’m not sure anyone would confuse Anna Massey with Grace Kelly.  (Yes, she was supposed to be the "romantic" lead.)

3) Hitchcock seems bored. It very much feels like Hitchcock is going through the paces. By 1972, he was widely regarded as the “master of suspense,” but also as a director who knew how to balance tension with humor. In "Frenzy," he seems uninterested in carefully blurring the lines between tension and humor, instead, okay with letting two scenes (or two themes in the same scene) butt up against one another, no matter how incongruous. A prime instance: the chief New Scotland Yard inspector on the case (a London serial killer who rapes women, then strangles them with neck ties) discusses the case with his wife at home. While he’s unfolding the details, she is presenting the dinner she’s prepared: an amazingly disgusting fish stew and tiny little cooked quails. The inspector’s reactions to the meal are, indeed, humorous, but the scene feels so out of place. In older days, the scene would have been staged, directed, and played with irony. As it stands, here, it just feels like the feeble attempt of an aging director to “phone in” a gimmick which once worked. (See "Rear Window"as a wonderful example of this done well.)

4) An unlikable main character. Dick Blaney (Jon Finch) is painted as a rather unsympathetic “hero” who has (by the end of the film) only himself to save. By the end of the first act, Dick has been fired for drinking on the job (and not paying for his drinks), yelling at his (rather sweet) ex-wife, moaning about his lot, and being rude and aggressive with his girlfriend. We find out later that he’d been (perhaps) violent with his ex-wife. Granted, this is all necessary to cast a shadow of doubt on Dick’s innocence (he’s been accused of the serial murders which, in fact, his friend Bob has been committing), but it’s a tough hole to dig yourself out of. Hitch has stacked the deck against himself. I didn’t like Dick from the beginning, so (by the end) I hardly cared whether or not he went to jail.

5) A grisly and tense scene in the back of a potato truck. Bob (the killer) has realized that Babs (the latest woman he’s murdered) died with his tie-pin in her hand. So, he goes to retrieve the body, which is in a potato sack, amongst giant bags of potatoes, in the back of a truck. Bob climbs in back and tries to retrieve the pin, but the truck takes off. So there is a “humorous” scene where Bob is wrestling with a rigor mortis-ed body, breaking the finger bones to relinquish his pin. Not funny at all. In fact, it’s quite in bad taste.

6) Jon Finch. The main character (Dick) is played by Jon Finch. Finch had just finished work on Franco Zefferelli’s Macbeth, and that more than obvious. Though he’s meant to play a regular-English-joe, he comes across (diction-wise) like he’s reading couplets. The film is meant to feel, moderately, natural... Finch’s performance is anything but. (There are times it sounds like he’s reading voice-over copy for the film’s trailer, rather than his lines.)

7) The main character is all but lost for the last twenty minutes. This is sure-fire way to shoot the wheels off of a movie: remove your “hero” in the last act, and let someone else “solve the puzzle” or “right the wrongs.” Bad move. (A very different film, "Minority Report," suffered because of a similar sin.)

8) Hitchcock’s frame of mind. As stated earlier, by 1972, Hitchcock had acquired quite a reputation. And, he tried to operate out of that reputation... rather than what came about naturally. Originally, Hitchcock gained fame as a director who could create suspense masterfully (ahem). He constructed scenes and placed them adjacent to other scenes to create a commanding whole. He (for lack of a better term) manipulated his audience well. By 1972, though, Hitchcock had become a caricature of himself. He was known as a filmmaker interested in murder, the dark hearts of men, and dabbling in the grotesque (with a wink). His television show (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents”) showcased this bend. But, as films like “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo,” “Lifeboat” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” show, Hitchcock was less a showman of graphic violence than a virtuoso of expectancy and anxiety. "Frenzy" feels like a director trying to live up to the image he’d sought to convey. And that image wasn’t accurate. Sure, it was an easy shortcut (“a Hitchcock film will shock with its violence”) but it never really captured the gifting of the maestro. In short: if Hitchcock had continued to make films into his 90s and 100s, he would have made films more like “Hannibal” than “Silence of the Lambs.”

In sum: “Frenzy” is an ugly and uncomfortable film that doesn’t work for myriad reasons... and (worse) points to a director who wound down his career trying to play to type.

Frenzy 1972
Starring: Jon Finch, Barry Foster and Anna Massey
Written by: Anthony Shaffer
Music by: Ron Goodwin (Hitchcock hired Goodwin after hating Henry Mancini’s initial attempt at scoring)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Vertigo (1958)

I don't like "Vertigo."

This was my third attempt at the film.

And, though I could appreciate it a bit more, this go 'round...

I still don't like it.

Now, I'm sure this makes me a cinematic idiot.  Like the yokel who stands in front of a Mondrian and goes, "Looks like a Parcheesi board.  Next."

It's hard because "Vertigo" is almost unanimously praised.  Roger Ebert has inducted it into his "Great Movies" hall of fame.  The most current AFI list of the greatest films in cinema history ranks it at #9.  The BFI critics' list places it at #2.

And here I am, the wannabe Hitchcock devotee, and I can't hardly sit through the whole thing.

Let me say that, on paper, this film is brilliant.  It is a marvelous story of obsession and possession and a looping tale of people creating other people in the image of still other people.  It seeks to play out the "Year of Living Dangerously" quote: "All is clouded by desire."  The story even takes on deeper significance when you understand that Hitchcock, himself, became obsessed by some of his go-to blondes (Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren and Ingrid Bergman) and frequently sought to do to them what Scottie (James Stewart) does to Judy (Kim Novak).

So, yes, I relent: this is a great idea for a movie.  It's rife with suspense (the themes are draped across a tale that is simple mystery) and it's backed by a very strong "shadow film."
But why doesn't it work for me?

1) I don't like Kim Novak.  More than a few reviewers notice that Novak's performance is, at first blush, stilted and unreal.  But, they follow these comments up with the note that their minds have changed, over time.  Robin Wood in his analyses goes so far as to add a footnote to his page on the shortcomings of Novak's performance in later editions which says that, after rethinking, her work actually works.  I don't buy it.  I don't like looking at her (forgive me, but she's no Grace Kelly... does that make *me* Scottie-like?).  Her eyebrows are, truly, comical when she's Judy.  She just seems charmless and perfunctory and I can't buy Scottie falling in love with her -- let alone obsessing over her.  

2) It's pretty slow and boring.  Even a talker like "Rope" clips along for me.  This one, though, isn't all that talky... it just kind of sits on shots and really drills the "dream-like" quality... almost too much.  Maybe it feels (again, forgive me) *too* cinematic.  Lots of watching, watching, watching (Scottie following Madeleine, a walk through the sequoias, Scottie watching Judy transform into Madeleine).  Maybe that's vague, but Hitchcock was generally quite good at (especially for that day and age) keeping a brisk pace.  Not so, here.

3) Some terrible foley.  Okay, this is minor, but it kept bothering me.  Who put in the sound effects for this thing?  Were they done for the restoration?  There was one near laugh-out-loud moment where Judy is ripping a piece of paper and it sounds like they stuck a microphone inside the paper.  Heck, maybe this is the mixer's fault.  Either way, do we really need to hear loud footsteps -- footsteps louder than the traffic driving by?

4) Some missteps by Herrmann.  I actually love Bernard Herrmann's scores, in general.  His "North by Northwest" theme hums itself inside my brain more often than I care to recount.  "Psycho" is also memorable, and for more than just the strings for the shower scene.   (The slower moments in that score are wonderfully aped by Michael Giaccino for many episodes of "Lost.")  As well, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) prominently features his conducting as part of the film.  But, here, aside from the theme (which I do, actually, like), he seems to dip into soap operatic-mode.  The scene where Scottie kisses Madeleine in front of the ocean is undercut by a twee "romantic musical interlude."  Unfortunate.

5) Outdated and kooky special effects.  Scottie has a dream which is almost laughable.  It includes a few seconds of Disney-esque animation and his neck-less head floating against a swirling background.  Even the opening credit sequence (which shows close-ups of Kim Novak's face and hands) feels like it's trying to outreach its grasp.  Now, I do appreciate the warp-zoom (frequently referred to, nowadays, as the "Vertigo zoom") but I felt like, every time it was used, it could have staying on the screen just a second longer.  It is quite effective, but I felt like Hitchcock trimmed it too much to make it truly powerful.

The story, simply put, is about a policeman (Scottie, played by James Stewart) who retires upon discovering (in a most unfortunate way) that he has acrophobia whose primary symptom is vertigo.  After retiring, he is called upon by an old school friend to follow the man's wife as she has been acting quite "possessed."  Scottie does, and as he watches Madeleine (Kim Novak), he falls for her.  Madeleine, though, seems unaware of Scottie's following her and, in 
"madness," jumps into the San Francisco bay.  Scottie, watching, rescues her, and takes her to his home.  There, a spark ignites and Scottie's affection seems to be appreciated and returned by Madeleine.  Madeleine's insanity, though, comes back and she eventually flings herself from a mission tower, while Scottie stands by helpless -- impotent to climb the stairs because of his acrophobia.  

The second half of the film (easily more interesting than the first) centers on Scottie's obsession over his lost love and how, when he finds a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine, attempts to maker her over in her image.  (I'll leave the rest vague for those wanting to give it a try.)

Even as I write out that synopsis, I see how it seems tantalizing.  The ideas are sharp and, to some degree, largely unseen in cinema.  Stewart's obsession drives him to a difficult emotional cliff, and it feels novel to watch "America's Nice Guy" take a fairly dark turn.  The scenes where he's forcing Judy to become more and more Madeleine-esque are discomforting and purposeful.

I'd like to watch this one again (my fourth time) later this year.  Something tells me I may appreciate it more.  But, as it is, this one still doesn't set well with me.  Am I the boy who says the emperor has no clothes... or am I, indeed, the idiot in the museum?

Vertigo 1958
Starring: James Stewart and Kim Novak
Written by: Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor
Music by: Bernard Herrmann

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Turning stage plays into cinematic films is tricky business.  Frequently, the movie feels like a filmed play -- as if the director just set his camera up in row 5 of the local playhouse and let it run.  There are typically only one or two sets in movies like these and they are frequently quite talky (a mortal sin to the likes of Hitchcock who claimed that the introduction of sound film would produce little more than "talking photographs").  That said, Hitchcock had much of his work cut out for him when it came time to turn Frederick Knott's hit play into a feature film.

A bit more background... in the early 1950s, the film business was quite worried.  Television had come along and taken the medium of story-entertainment and brought it to the living rooms of America.  Droves of filmgoers were becoming television-watchers and box office revenue was plummeting.  Hitchcock himself said that the advent of television was akin to the advent of indoor bathrooms -- neither would change the average person's need... but now that need could be met within the confines of one's own home.  

The major film distributors searched for ways to differentiate the theater-going experience from the TV-watching-experience.  VistaVision (and a host of other widescreen formats) came along to emphasize the vast difference between the enormity of the film screen and the dwarfishness of the television screen.  Color was also pushed, as televisions, in the early 1950s, were uniformly black and white.  In their groping for differences, the film business also stumbled upon a host of (what could best be qualified as) gimmicks designed to keep theater patrons buying tickets.  One of the most popular of these was 3-D -- a system designed to allow the film watcher to feel as though he or she was "really there" by simulating three dimensional vision.  

3-D film watchers had to put up with flimsy glasses which (along with a stereo filming process) produced the illusion... and which produced audience-wide headaches.  Along with the glasses, film goers had to put up with films which were little more than scenes strung together which might highlight the 3-D effect (scenes like ripsaws coming towards the screen, spears aimed at the camera, or giant apes swinging on vines set on the Z-axis).  3-D was, for sure, a fad.

1952 saw the height of the 3-D fad and by the time production was to begin on "Dial M for Murder," they were keen on the marriage of the effect with Alfred Hitchcock -- the master of suspense (most 3-D films were centered on tales of horror, adventure, or suspense).  Hitchcock, though, found the process positively anti-cinematic with its "constant reminder to the audience that they were 'out there' and not drawn, visually and emotionally, 'into' the story, its action and its mood" (from Donald Spoto's, "The Dark Side of Genius").  Hitchcock (on the heels of the poorly received "I Confess") was in little position to haggle.  So, he decided to just film it as quickly and as unceremoniously as possible.

One snag, though... in the process of casting "Dial M," Hitchcock stumbled upon Grace Kelly and the director (to some degree) fell in love.  This became the first of three Hitchcock films to star Grace Kelly ("Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief"), though there could have been many more had she not married Prince Ranier and become the functioning Princess of Monaco.  The director doted on the cool blonde (as he had with Ingrid Bergman, and would soon with Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren) and delighted in directing her.  

"Dial M for Murder" is the story of a Tony (Ray Milland), a former tennis pro who suspects his wife Margot (Kelly) is having an affair with Mark (Robert Cummings), an American writer.  Tony sets up an elaborate and manipulative plot which includes
blackmailing an estranged college friend into killing Margot, and the planting of evidence to make sure it is clear that Margot was the victim of a random burglary.

When things do not go quite as expected, Tony is forced to cover-up the crime and pin the death of his college friend (who is killed in the botched plan) on Margot.  The second half of the film follows Mark (a mystery writer) matching wits with Tony in an elaborate criminal chess game, in an effort to convince Inspector Hubbard (wonderfully played with lightness and catty aplomb by John Williams) of Margot's innocence.  

95% of the film takes place in Tony and Margot's apartment. The script is extremely dialogue-heavy.  It is clearly taken from a stage play.

And, yet, the film moves along quite well.  Grace Kelly is (as she would be for the other two Hitch films) delightful and sympathetic and classy.  Milland is hard and conniving and plays well the typical charming Hitchcock villain.  The dialogue and filming make the material (a fairly straight-forward "will he get away with it or won't he?" story) shine.  

Kristin (my wife) kept noting how their lines crackled with energy, life, and vibrancy.  Clearly, a playwright was behind the typewriter for this one.

The scene when Margot is attacked is still quite nerve-wracking (this was my second time seeing the film).  The gas-lighting of Margot by Tony is still quite frustrating.  And, though I wished Grace Kelly was more involved in the solving of the crime (she's practically absent for one of the final reels), the story resolves itself tidily and satisfyingly.  

Hitchcock, though frustrated with the 3-D process, made the most of it.  He found ways to differentiate a Hitch-made 3-D film from a regular 3-D film.  Furniture is clearly placed in spots to emphasize depth of space and the attack scene clearly tries to take advantage of the medium.  

I wish I could see "Dial M for Murder" in its original 3-D format.

(When it came time to release the film, Warner Bros. recognized that the 3-D fad was waning, and so the film was shown only sparingly as a three-dimensional film.  It wasn't until 1982 that the film was re-released more widely in the 3-D format. )

This film is fun.  Yes, it's talky, and (of course) it's contrived, but it truly works.  Kelly and Milland are riveting, and the pacing is smart and effective, especially for a "filmed play."  The pathos is real and the suspense holds up.  Sure, there's not much depth to this one (little of the "shadow film" found in the likes of "Psycho" and "Rear Window"), but it's still a fine little film.  

And maybe the whole thing is just worth watching to see two things: 1) the fake giant thumb Hitchcock had to use (because of the limitations of the 3-D film cameras) to show a close-up of the dialing of a telephone and 2) John Williams (as the inspector), thoughtfully stroke his mustache as a good English investigator should.

Dial M for Murder 1954
Starring: Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings and John Williams
Written by: Frederick Knott (based on his play)
Music by:  Dimitri Tiomkin

The Lodger (1927)

Though the director had made four films prior,"The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" (its official title) is frequently referred to as the first "true Hitchcock film."  The film includes a cool blonde subject to grave danger, inept local police, mistaken identity, and an overbearing mother -- all themes and motifs which would become constants in the Hitchcock oeuvre.  Though it's a silent, black and white, 1927 film (with 1927 sensibilities), it is actually quite fun to watch, as it serves to provide clear antecedents for many of Hitchcock's later films.

The story centers on a London soaked in fear.  A Jack the Ripper-type strangler is on the loose, snuffing out young blonde women.  The fear is so widespread, blonde flappers are wearing brunette wigs.  Daisy Bunting (described in the credits as a "mannequin" -- a clothes model), though, couldn't care less.  She scoffs at the other platinum's fears.  

Daisy and her family run a boarding house and Daisy (though betrothed to a member of London's finest) has her eyes on Mr. Drew, a man who's just started renting an upstairs room.  She's smitten by the mysterious stranger who a) wears clothes similar to those of "The Avenger" (the killer on the loose) and b) wants all of the paintings of blonde women which hang in his room to be turned toward the wall.  

Daisy and Mr. Drew exchange affections, much to the anger and chagrin of Daisy's cop-fiancee.  

At the fiancee's urging, the police bear down on Mr. Drew.  They search his room and find a gun and a photograph of a blonde woman.  Drew tries to explain, saying that, in face, he is also on the hunt for The Avenger -- the man who had killed his sister (a young blonde).  Blinded by jealousy, the policeman slaps handcuffs on Drew (the manacles serving as another image which Hitchcock would use often, over the subsequent years) and prepare to run him in.  Drew, though, escapes, running off into town.

Daisy meets up with Drew in the town, but a lynch mob have assembled to execute justice.  Drew falls from a ledge and his handcuffs catch on a high iron fence, hanging him from his wrists.  As the mob descends, the police arrive to say that they have, in fact, found the real Avenger (in the act of killing) and that Drew is innocent.  Daisy's fiancee apologizes, and Daisy goes to Drew to comfort him.

Like "M" (a 1931 German expressionist film by Fritz Lang), "The Lodger" deals, explicitly, with the mob mentality and the destructive nature of widespread fear.  All of London is foaming with the rabies of revenge (ironic, considering the killer has termed himself "The Avenger").  Their rage is so blind that they nearly kill an innocent man.

Ivor Novello (Mr. Drew) is watchable as the innocent protagonist (a role played, to some degree, by Cary Grant, Henry Fonda and, even, Grace Kelly in later films).  The other actors feel like they are overacting, though (this being a silent film, in the silent film era, was not uncommon).  

Overall, it feels like an important film, but one only for true fans of Hitchcock.  The director, himself, referred to it as his "first film" and it certainly shows promise.  The English film industry was in a troubled state at this point in cinema history -- snowed under by heaps of quality product coming from the rest of Europe (particularly Germany) and especially the United States.  Hitchcock, by way of "The Lodger," became a beacon of hope for the English film business -- a promise that something new and creative and riveting could come from the island nation.

The Lodger 1927
Starring: Ivor Novello, Jane, and Malcolm Keen
Written by: Marie Belloc Lowndes

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rear Window (1954)

It's remained my favorite Hitchock film since I first saw it twenty years ago, so it seems appropriate to begin with it.  It's the only Hitchcock film that I've owned on DVD for some time, so I've seen it numerous times (twenty times?) and it's the only Hitchcock film I've ever seen in a theater (sad, yes... a couple of friends and I saw the restored film shown in 2000).  It still startles me and still reminds me of how aware Hitchcock was of what it meant to be "cinematic."

The movie is like looking into a clean (and clever) funhouse mirror.  The film is meant to be a comment (and celebration) of voyeurism and movie-going.  As James Stewart watches the events that unfold in the apartment building behind him (he looks through his rear window, into the rear windows of various and sundry characters and archetypes), we are reminded that we are like him -- that watching
a movie is a bit like being a peeping Tom.

Remembering that, as the film unfolds, adds a level to the film that makes it much more fun and intelligent than a simple tale of suspense.  (David Sterritt in his book, "The Films of Alfred Hitchcock" calls this a "shadow film" -- the 'deeper meanings' behind the surface images shown in the film.  His strange analysis of "Psycho" testifies to his strong belief in the "shadow film.")

The relationship between Jimmy Stewart (L. B. Jefferies) and Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont) also lifts the story from "Did the man across the way kill his wife... or didn't he?" to "Will Jefferies ever appreciate his girlfriend?  Will she ever bend to help her fit into his life?"  Their dia
logue crackles and Stewart does his best trying to play a man who knows what's good for him (marrying Lisa) but just can't bring himself to want to.  Kelly is stunning and immensely likable and cunning when she needs to be.

The marital archetypes represented across the back alley add more depth to Jefferies' struggle to force himself into a more committed relationship with Lisa.  He sees a defeated newlywed whose new bride seems to have ruined the honeymoon with her neediness.  Thorwald's marriage is no better -- his invalid wife is rude and demanding (so much so, Thorwald turns to murder).  Even the childless couple (with the dog) seem to be living a life based on what is necessary to survive (they sleep on the fire escape to keep cool) than luxury.  Nothing Jefferies sees draws him one inch towards putting a ring on Lisa's finger.

Thelma Ritter plays Jefferies' nurse Stella who urges him to marry Lisa (she calls her "perfect"), but Jefferies keeps her at bay.  Ritter's character feels so modern, it's hard to believe she's walking through a film made in 1954.  (She's also quite funny and provides genuine and reliable comic relief throughout the film.)

I watched this with my wife who'd never seen it, and it was enjoyable to notice her feel tense as the film came to its exciting end -- her gasping a bit when it's clear that Thorwald is going to discover Lisa.  She was even shocked that Thorwald had, actually, killed his wife.  (She thought, surely, the movie wasn't about a man killing his wife which, as a Hitchcock film, of cour
se it is.)

She also laughed (see "Good Evening...") when Stewart falls out the window.  I'm sure those are the best special effects money could have bought in 1954, but it still takes the viewer out of the scene when he falls.  

The policeman, Doyle, gives a wonderful introduction to Hitchcock's view of civil and institutional authority: he fears them and finds them hopelessly hapless and inept.  Sure, Doyle and his police force arrive, but they arrive too late (which is why Jefferies falls from the window at the hands of Thorwald).  Doyle refuses to believe Jefferies and Lisa all along (which provides some excellent tension), even.  Police, in Hitchcock films, are either overbearing bruts or bumbling buffoons (who think themselves more clever than they truly are).  

The music is snappy and the theme song is fun and jaunty.  The film feels like a clarinet solo (slinky and sophisticated), itself.

I could watch this film once a week, if I had to.

Rear Window 1954
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Music by: Franz Waxman

Friday, January 25, 2008

"Good Evening..."

A few years ago, a buddy of mine suggested to his pals that we all join in on an experiment he called, "Hobby Club."  The idea was for each of us to spend a year immersing ourselves within some subject of our own choosing (but approved of by the other members), studying it, participating in it (when possible) and, generally, becoming somewhat of a living room expert on the topic.  Most of us gave up after a couple of months (some less than that), while the instigator of the experiment went the distance (for the curious, his subject was boxing).  

This proposition, though, remains with me and comes back to haunt me around the first of the year, every year.  This January, the proposal had particular attraction for me. (Maybe I saw myself with more free time this year... or maybe it was a desire to live a more "focused" life of interests. Not sure....)  So, I've decided to go for it. A year of me living in a subject.

But what to study?

In the mid/late 90s, I was fortunate enough to take a series of film history classes.  These left an indelible impression on me, as I was introduced to a wide and colorful palate of films -- films I was either unaware of, or had only heard mentioned in "Greatest Films of All Time" lists. Through those courses I, surprisingly, found myself appreciating silent films (Keaton and Griffith), foreign films (Fellini and Godard), and the completely esoteric (my love for "Ballet Mechanique" and "Un Chien Andalou" still stands).  I'd grown up loving "popular films" (those my local suburban cineplex were willing to show)... but I was starting to get a taste for the exotic... the artsy... the "important."

But, in recent years, I've found that my cinematic education was spotty and lacking. Oftentimes I would hear films mentioned (in the erudite cineaste circles I tried to casually slip into while a brief period of living in Los Angeles) as "important in the canon of cinema history" only to find myself ashamed that the film had somehow slipped through the cracks of my schooling.

So, part of me wanted to spend this year watching old movies... in an attempt to fill in my educational gaps with films I "should have seen" but hadn't.

But then I got daunted.

Cinema has been around for almost 130 years.  That's a lot of movies.

And a lot of films that are "important."

So, after a few weeks of trying (and seeing some greats like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "M," "Playtime" and "La Strada"), I decided to narrow my scope to one filmmaker.

And one name kept recurring to me: Alfred Hitchcock.

Some history...

When I was in eighth grade, I was involved in a very small church youth group in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  The group consisted of about ten to fifteen middle school and high school students.  We went to Sunday School, church camp, and various weekly activities together.

On New Year's Eve of 1986, the adult volunteers (our parents) designed a night of fun activities (maybe to keep us all out of trouble).  I remember one of the events being a trip to Pizza Hut to see who could eat the most pizza.  Another was playing "Wallyball" (a mix between volleyball and raquetball).  Another was a midnight game of Hide and Go Seek in the Detroit Airport (not so possible in this post 9/11 world).  But, to wind the evening down, we headed back to one of the volunteer's houses to watch a video.

In that day, watching a video was somewhat of a big deal.  Home video had really only become popular in the prior three years.  So, a gathering of people, huddled around a squeaky top-loading VHS player was still something of an event.  

As I and a few other middle school boys rode in a van to go to the volunteer's house, I pelted our driver with questions.  "What movie is it?"  "Have I heard of it?"  "Is it good?"  The driver, though, was funny and coy and kept us guessing.  (My hope was something like "Star Wars" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" but I was open.)  Finally, he confessed that it was an old movie and it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

And a bell rung in my head.

As a kid, I'd grown up watching Alfred Hitchcock on television. After my family had gone to bed on Friday nights, I would stay up, staring a hole through the rabbit-eared black and white TV in my bedroom. Channel 55 (in Kansas City) showed "All Night Live" from 10:00 to 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. -- a cavalcade of old TV shows and shlocky horror movies (hosted by "Uncle Ed" who sat at a desk and answered a phone made out of a banana). After "Twilight Zone," a clarinet would sound and an obese man's outline would emerge and "Alfred Hitchock Presents" would begin. The show fascinated me because it seemed tethered to a horrible reality ("Twilight Zone" was usually other-worldly and supernatural) that spooked me, but good. The stories had left-hook endings and kept me guessing all along. But what I loved more than the vignettes, was the appearance of Mr. HItchcock, himself, at the beginning and end of each episode. His dry, droll, sarcastic humor tickled me (his jabs at the "sponsors" amused me, even as a ten year old) and he seemed to provide a much-needed portion of levity, alongside such creepy fare. I liked Alfred Hitchcock's program... but I really liked Alfred Hitchcock.

So, when the driver told us we were going to watch a MOVIE made by Alfred Hitchcock... I was in.

The other boys in the car, though, groaned.

The film we watched that night was "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956).  Most of the adolescent crowd tried to stay with it, but (maybe this is just revisionist of me) I believe I was the only one who really, truly, ate it up.  I reveled in the tension... squirmed nervously during the eighteenth verse of "Que Sera Sera"... and felt truly relieved when the boy was returned to Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.

I loved the way the movie made me feel -- smart and artistic, sophisticated and highbrow. I was a middle-school kid who appreciated an old film.

But, even more than that... I loved the movie. It was just a great movie.

A number of months later, the youth group re-convened for another night of pizza and home video.  This time, we watched "Rear Window."  This one thrilled me even more than the other, even though we all laughed out loud (and rewound to watch again) at the poor visual effect of Jimmy Stewart falling out of the window. Jimmy Stewart was (of course) likable and canny.  Grace Kelly was (of course) charming and beautiful. And the story was exciting and suspenseful and kept me wondering how it would all end.

So, I decided that night... I loved Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Over those middle school years, whenever I got the chance to choose the film my family would rent on a Friday night, I either went with a James Bond movie (my dad and shared an appreciation for them) or an Alfred Hitchcock film.  My parents would try to guide me through his ouevre, based off of memories they had of seeing many of them when they were growing up.  I saw "The Birds" and "Marnie" and "Rope" and "Vertigo" and "Dial M for Murder."  Some I loved, some I endured, but my affection for Hitchcock continued.

And then my film school classes, ten years later, told me that Hitchcock wasn't artistic enough.. or smart enough... or important enough. Sure, "Vertigo" is a classic, but the filmmaker was too popular to be taken seriously.

Well, I never bought it.

Fast-forward to December of last year.  I was at our local Wal-Mart perusing their tower of $5 DVDs, hunting for some hidden pearl.  And then -- amidst a hundred copies of "The Net" and "Sleeping with the Enemy" -- I found one.  It was a four-disc set which included the bulk of Hitchcock's early films (before he left for America).  Twenty movies. Some silent. Most rare. All for $5.  Sold.

I had, then, at my fingertips, a collection of Hitchcock's early, nascent, germane films. And, my subscription to Blockbuster on-line gave me access to most of the rest of his films. Add to that, the Video Station in Boulder which carries every film you've ever (and never) heard of... and it would be possible to watch every film Hitchcock has ever made (and has survived).

My decision was made.

This page is really just an on-line journal.  My traipsing through the catalog of "Hitch" (I don't relish that nickname, but I may be forced to give use it now and again).  I'll write my responses to his films as I see them.  I'll post bits from books that strike me.  And, of course... this is all opinion.  Anyone reading this has the right (of course) to disagree.  I'm one man... with one perspective.  

I hope to be objective and (like Francois Truffaut as he interviewed the man himself) unafraid to dislike some of the films, or portions of them. I hope to rise above adoring fanboy... and to bring some amount of critical facilities to bear.

But, more than anything, I hope that I come to more deeply appreciate a remarkable artist and his exceptional craft.  Creativity, in and of itself, is worthy to be investigated, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more creative and innovative filmmaker than Sir Alfred Hitchcock. A year with him should be a year well-spent.

Now... onto his creations...