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James Stewart has his own perspective in Rear Window

Short-Term Memories

If the internet was your only source of film information, you would be led to believe that the only films that exist are those in production, upcoming or currently on release. Visit the pages of sites such as Cinematical.com, Rope of Silicon and Empire Online and here are the kinds of questions being posed: ‘Is a Good Videogame Adaptation Possible?’ or ‘Does Speed Racer Miss the Mark With Kids?

Fine, these are popular sites concerned with popular cinema. Yet these sites not only have huge readerships, their articles are also circulated around the internet via an ever-complex network of links. These can take the form of news aggregators, fan blogs, message boards, and other large-scale film sites. The problem is that these articles swamp the internet and circulate limited perspectives on film history.

My concern is with how these sites deal with, question and write about film history. The short answer is that many of them do not write explicitly about film history. That in itself is quite telling of an apathy towards looking at older cinema and where today’s films have come from. Then there are history articles, but in many cases they seem limited in how far back they are prepared to go.

I want to point out one article I came across entitled ‘The Greatest Five Seconds in Movie History’ which is just one of hundreds that could be discussed here. The title itself is similar to many others online that use attention-grabbing terms such as ‘The Greatest’, ‘In History’, and ‘All-Time’. It turns out that these five seconds are to be found in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Darth Vadar reveals to Luke Skywalker, ‘I am your father’.

On the effects of the original Star Wars (1977) on audiences, the author writes: ‘Republicans and Democrats sat side by side, mouths agape, in like wonderment during the cantina scene. A Jew and a Muslim were both enthralled by the awesome sight and voice of Darth Vader. Young people and old gripped their chairs on the roller-coaster ride culminating in the exhilarating destruction of the Death Star…STAR WARS had, in effect, engendered a cinematic community that wasn’t bound by borders or ideologies or even culture.’

On the basis of this article it would seem as though world peace had briefly been solved in 1977. The author suggests that: ‘That sentence changed movies and by extension, America, forever.’

If The Empire Strikes Back were such an international hit, why would it only change America and not other parts of the world? This points to the dominating American perspective on cinema to be found on the internet, but this can also clearly be found in printed film histories.

The ‘All-Time’ of the title is quickly discovered to be mere hyperbole. Instead we find a lack of perspective where the idea of All-Time hits the 1970s and stops abruptly.

Empire Online is the online extension of the British magazine that I used to read when I was younger. I distinctly remember articles on The Godfather (1972), Scorsese and Star Wars. Its retrospective articles would often largely point to the 1970s and that seemed to be the limit of its memory. Needless to say may of its writers grew up during that period, which seemed to fuel the hyper coverage of the Star Wars films on re-release.

But then again Empire is a magazine for the public and articles on older cinema do not sell. It also is manipulated by the industry: when five stars are awarded to the big Summer films, you can’t help but suspect that this is merely an extension of studio marketing.

There are certain topics that sell well online: comic book films, superheros, video game adaptations, and movie lists (Top 10 Villains, Top 10 Explosions, etc.). These articles get hundreds, if not thousands, of hits a day and a continuous stream of comments. Maybe there is no room for articles on older cinema?

But surely there are many viewers out there who want to know more about all kinds of cinema but just cannot find the resources to do so.

Alternatives

So what are the alternatives? For starters I would head for Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog and stay subscribed. Renowned film scholars of works such as Classical Hollywood Cinema and Film History, theirs is perhaps the most insightful film writing online.

Film history is so rich, vast and exciting that it can be frustrating when online writing only deals with a fraction of that period. I often wonder why there isn’t a greater urgency to find out more about what came before. Surely this would give viewers and writers a more mature understanding of the films they see today.

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This will hopefully be the very first of many posts to come on early film, one of my particular interests.

It seems to me that few are aware of the pleasures of early film. The term ‘early film’ refers to the earliest films, from around 1894 until around 1907 at which point films shifted towards a the more explicitly narrative cinema.

Early films are distinctly different to the narrative feature films in obvious ways: namely they’re far shorter, contain far fewer shots, and many are factual. At least silent feature films resemble the fiction films we are used to of today. As a result early films tend not to be dealt with in broad film histories (particularly online), and as I’ll probably end up mentioning over and over on this site, many people seem to believe that cinema began with either A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Great Train Robbery (1903) or The Birth of a Nation (1915).

These fragments of film can seem to come out of the blue, a tiny window on somewhere in the world. One common reaction is that these films are ‘primitive’, almost naive, in their form. ‘Why have a single shot when we now know that films are meant to be made up of many shots? If they only knew then what we know now.’

One aspect of films that many do not take into account is how they were exhibited. For many, films should ‘hold up’ as singular entities that should ‘work’ regardless of the year in which they are being watched. Therefore if they do not work today, they do not ‘work’ at all. Early films, many of which today can be comprehended with absolute clarity, were shown in a programme of other films, and often other kinds of acts. Moving pictures would have played on a music hall programme amidst live acts, for instance. Therefore these films were not intended to be watched in isolation.

There is often great imagination in these films, which consisted of trick films with spectacular special effects or actualities documenting life and movement. The earliest films consisted of a single shot, as in the film above, View From An Engine Front – Ilfracombe (1898). One of the earliest multi-shot films was G.A. Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel from 1899. The technological constraint of only being able to shoot using a single strip of film was not viewed as a constraint to early filmmakers but rather a mere fact of their trade. This ‘limitation’ to creative variations, such as in the phantom ride above, and to a visual economy that was ultimately succinct aesthetically intriguing. The single shot also resulted in early films having a distinct temporal difference to edited fiction feature films, namely that they linger, play out in real time, and in many ways do not seem to begin or end, they just happen.

Many people do not realise that cinema began as early as it did and that there indeed were Victorian films. These films can still be a pleasurable shock in the vivid window they present to us of our world over 110 years ago.

I plucked the film above from the BFI’s YouTube collection. Indeed it’s one of the films I have written about for the BFI’s Screenonline here. Also check out my mini-essay on the ‘phantom ride‘, of which this is a great example, here.

If only you were watching it on a big screen rather than through the fog of pixels. 

Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

Let’s say someone came to you and said, ‘So, what’s the big deal with all these old movies you keep watching?’ They try to convince you they’re ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and far more hard work than a quick visit to the multiplex. Some may even try to convince you that you don’t actually like them, you only think you do.

There are many ways to combat these statements (perhaps I’ll go into detail another time). For now I will suggest a few movies you should pile into their arms and send them away with (kick optional). First off:

The Circus (U.S., Charlie Chaplin, 1928)

During the 1910s Chaplin’s films gained instant popularity and propelled the British-born music hall comedian to world stardom. He became one of the most famous, popular and highly-paid men in the world, as did his famous shadow: the little tramp.

Chaplin was a virtuoso. His visceral performance style fitted the medium of film perfectly. Watching these performances, he is always busy, his face, body and hands constantly occupying themselves with an ever-shifting stream of comic business. His movement could be big – as in a chase – or they could be small – his fingertips delicately removing a cigarette from its case. Often his movements are so subtle, or so quick, that it’s easy to miss them.

One key to Chaplin’s success is the comic contradiction of the tramp. On the one hand he is a refined gentlemen with his hat, cane and delicate gestures, and on the other he is down-and-out. Somehow, from his second film (the brilliant Kid Auto Races at Venice (Keystone, 1914)) Chaplin created a universal everyman for the modern age, a character that was open to interpretation.

His performances are highly stylised, unlike even the other performers in his own films, but also in other films more widely. Unlike others his performance tapped directly into one of the primal forces of cinema: pure spectacle. So there is a pleasure simply to be had from watching the complex movement of this little man, on top of the interpretation of his performance.

One film that Chaplin did not discuss in his autobiography (My Autobiography, 1974) was The Circus (1928). The film has been long overshadowed by his other famous works such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924) but stands as perhaps his most purely comic feature film.

In the film the little tramp becomes involved with a circus. When auditioned, the troupe discover that he does not have the ability to be intentionally funny. Only naturally, and when not trying, is he able to get a laugh. This is tied up with a poignant subplot of unrequited love. Having fallen for the ringmaster’s daughter, the tramp’s feelings go unnoticed. 

The film is punctuated by a series of spectacular set-pieces. The opening finds him being chased by a policeman into a hall of mirrors. Later he finds himself locked into a cage with a real-life lion and finally he ends up on a tightrope being attacked by monkeys. Not only are they incredibly funny, but they are at times jaw-dropping, as when the live lion awakes to find a terrified Chaplin.

A great introduction to Chaplin, to silent cinema, and to classic film more generally, this is an underrated film that is genuinely accessible to any kind of viewer. It is also a great place to start if you’re new to watching old movies.

Marilyn Monroe kisses Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot (1958)

Some Like It Hot (1959)

On the 23rd of April I attended a screening of Some Like It Hot. The film was as funny and sharp as I remembered it, perfectly paced and performed amidst its rich narrative, effortlessly shifting from authentic gangster picture to masterful comedy.

On this occasion all eyes were on the performance of Tony Curtis, and the closer you watched him – particularly his Cary Grant impression as a millionaire oil tycoon – the more convinced you became of his skillful comic timing. In essence he played it straight against Jack Lemmon’s more explicitly comic performance (broad gestures and faces). Indeed, Curtis hardly smiles throughout the whole film.

The atmosphere of the gangster opening is so convincing that if it had continued as a gangster movie I’m sure it would have ended up as a classic of the genre. Of course director Billy Wilder dominated such a variety of genres with films such as The Lost Weekend (1945), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), and he could have clearly made a killer gangster film if he had wanted to.

He certainly had a love for the gangster films of the 30s, as is evident in the knowing casting of Pat O’Brian as the police chief – who had starred alongside Cagney in 1930s films such as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) – and also George Raft as the mob boss Spats, an actor made famous by one of the templates of the genre, Scarface (1932). In that film Raft famously flipped a coin menacingly; in Some Like It Hot he comes across a young guy in the hotel lobby flipping a coin and he asks, ‘Where did you learn that cheap trick?’

The chemistry between Lemmon and Curtis is so natural, and Marilyn sparkles. She had an acute understanding of how to use her face, body and voice to induce a sex appeal that seductively permeated through the screen; men certainly connected with it. And no more than in this film in which she drapes herself over Tony Curtis’s duplicitous character, kissing him with a soft and delicate passion, and is found on stage singing ‘I Want To Be Loved By You’, punctuating her lines with an enticing vocal shrill.

Tony Curtis On Stage

After the movie ended there was excitement. We were offered two scenes from other films, one from The Defiant Ones (1958) and the other from The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (bottom). The crowd stirred, talked loudly, and when it was announced that the evening’s guest was on the way the audience held their breath. He was emerging from the door by the stage when the spotlight hit him and the room erupted instantly into applause that quickly transformed into a standing ovation.

It is certainly a unique experience watching a young man on-screen, as vivid and alive as if he were in the room, and then to be confronted by the very same man, now older, and in that same room. For a moment it was difficult to connect the two images of Tony Curtis. One was boyish, handsome, with his trademark thick black hair; the other was an old man who moved slowly, who no longer had any.

But it was the moment he began to speak that the two images came together. He was a very articulate speaker who was also fresh, funny and enthusiastic, and he did not need a cue from the interviewer to speak. He was more than happy to reminisce freely about the movie stars he worked with, and about his memories and experiences, all in his famous husky New York accent.

Marilyn

He talked a lot about Marilyn Monroe, about how he knew her around 1950 and was her lover for three years. He recalled how he picked her up and drove her through Hollywood in his open-top car, adjusting the rear-view mirror so that he could see the red-haired Marilyn in the backseat. They were essentially each other’s first love, and he talked of the thrill of discovering women for the first time through Marilyn. A love affair with Marilyn Monroe is now an almost abstract concept, but it was a very real one for Tony Curtis. 

He described the first time he and Marilyn spent the night together. He had taken her to a friend’s beach-side house where the waves were constantly lapping and he cooked her steak on the outdoor grill. She didn’t say a word about the sand on her steak, and neither did he. He paused the flow of his story, almost sidetracked by a far more powerful and succinct thought. All he said was, ‘I loved making love to Marilyn.’ This received a round of applause from an audience who almost did not know how to comprehend such a blunt yet powerful statement. The applause was triggered by the thrill of hearing that line coming from someone who could say it and mean it, but it soon transformed into a kind of congratulations on the audience’s part, as if to say, ‘Well done.’

Tony Curtis and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat (1959)

Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Cary Grant

He was asked about his mentors and contemporaries Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. He spoke affectionately of Lancaster and how he brought his powerful real-life personality to his on-screen roles. He was asked about Douglas, but also how it was to work with Stanley Kubrick. ‘Kirk Douglas is tough,’ said Curtis, ‘but Stanley Kubrick was tougher.’ He really meant it when he told us that Kubrick really made them work hard on Spartacus (1960).

Cary Grant was his idol. He had watched his movies as a young man and observed the way he moved and spoke, how he handled props and especially how he handed women. In later life Curtis had the chance of working with him and he was very aware of the circle that his life had taken around Cary Grant. At 16 he had headed into war on a submarine. He said he did so because of Destination Tokyo (1943), the Cary Grant submarine movie. He used to sit on the submarine and imagine Cary Grant coming around the corner. Then when time went by and he ended up in the submarine movie Operation Petticoat (1959) (below) Cary Grant actually did come around the corner. 

Cary Grant was very supportive of him when he began in movies; Curtis took down a poster of Cary Grant off the wall outside a cinema and took it to Cary Grant to sign. In recalling the supportive message that Grant wrote for him Curtis was clearly moved, having to pause his story for a brief moment.

It was entirely Curtis’s idea to imitate Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot, and it was only something that they began working with very close to shooting, if not on the set itself. Curtis was happy to repeat his Cary Grant impression for the audience, who were naturally thrilled. When Billy Wilder screened the film for Cary Grant his verdict was: ‘No-body-talks-like-that!’

Elvis and Sinatra

Curtis was asked about Elvis, who had modeled his famous hairstyle on Curtis’s. He recalled how when walking through the studio lot one day Elvis suddenly pulled him into his trailer. The ‘boy’ talked excitedly:

Elvis: I just want you to know how much of a fan I am of yours, Mr. Curtis.
Tony: Don’t call me Mr. Curtis.
Elvis: What should I call you, then?
Tony: Just Tony.’ (pause) What should I call you?
Elvis: Mr. Presley.

It sounded like they were good friends and that they enjoyed each other’s company. Curtis added that they would ‘share’ girls, though did not clarify what this actually meant.

Curtis revealed that Frank Sinatra had the greatest music system money could buy – ‘Well he should, he’s Frank Sinatra’, he added, and that music would play all day at Sinatra’s place. Except it was Sinatra’s own records that would play. Even when with a woman he would continue to play his own music. Curtis relayed how Sinatra then once asked a lover, ‘So, how was it?’ She replied: ‘Well, the music was good.’

Universal, leading ladies, and some very good advice

Curtis painted a really vivid portrait of how it was to work during the 50s in Hollywood, mentioning an early role as a bellboy on a Barbara Stanwyck movie. Although it was a one-scene, one-line role, the director gave him advice that would stick with him throughout his career. Talking of the bellboy character who was to hand Barbara Stanwyck a letter, the director confided: ‘All you want is a tip.’ When Curtis entered the hotel room he had all the motivation he needed to give a really authentic performance.

Curtis revealed something that was very interesting to me: Universal was inferior to the other studios, and was perceived so by the industry and by those actually working in Universal pictures. They did not have a powerful head like the other studios and they produced movies cheaply for a quick profit. Generally we do not see movies as the product of studios, nor do we categorise them by studio. But studios are probably more of a defining factor of a film’s look, feel and story than we think.

It was revealed that Curtis’s favourite film as a child was The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn. When asked who his favourite leading ladies were he named Janet Leigh right away (which received a round of applause); of course Curtis was once married to Leigh. 

He also mentioned Natalie Wood who he worked with on The Great Race (1965), a film in which he was re-teamed with Jack Lemmon. This turned about to be his favourite performance of all. He particularly loved the fencing sequence in which he swordfights with his shirt off, as well as the pie-throwing scene in which he did not get a single pie on his perfect white suit during filming (because of this they had to recreate the set and reshoot him being splattered individually).

He also gave us some really great advice: ‘don’t believe the stories you hear about the movies, make up your own minds’. Curtis told us how so much that has been written on Hollywood has been made up by writers and journalists. And he must know from experience and from what he has read about himself and his contemporaries. This is important advice for us all: question who is writing, for what purpose, and keep a critical mind, particularly with film history and criticism.

Tony Curtis was full of life. During the evening he had clearly loved making the audience laugh and effortlessly played off the rapport he had created with the audience. Funny, charismatic and very appreciative of the audience, it took him a while to leave due to the incredible power of the applause during the final standing ovation.

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

How the West Was Won (1962)

Although Cinemascope was the first of the new widescreen processes to hit the screen with the high-profile The Robe in 1953, a rival technology called Cinerama was premiered in September 1952. By using three adjacent 35mm cameras, an extremely wide image could be created. It actually required five projectionists operating three projectors to view these films. Uniquely the image was projected onto large screens that was literally curved. This would provide the viewers with a spectacular, almost three dimensional, image.

How Cinerama Is Projected

Outside of exotic travelogues intended to exploit the Cinerama experience (much like many IMAX films today), only two fiction films were shot in genuine Cinerama: How the West Was Won (1962) and The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm (1962). Later films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were filmed in Super Panavision 70 and then presented in a 70mm Cinerama image rather than the 3-Strip image of the original films.

Well now you can view this fascinating process from the comfort of your own home. How the West Was Won, starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Stewart (above), will be released in a new Blu-Ray edition in August. This will include a special feature known as ‘SmileBox’ which will recreate the curved Cinerama image. This seems to be a simple distortion of the image designed to create the illusion of Cinerama, as in this frame from the SmileBox website:

SmileBox

It will be interesting to see how effective this new stab at old technology is, but it sounds like an admirable attempt to present How the West Was Won as it was originally meant to be seen. Until then you can find more information on Cinerama, including some great stills of film frames, at the highly recommended Widescreen Museum.

Scottie and Madeleine embrace for the last time in Vertigo (1958)

Below I reprint the review of Vertigo published in the influential British journal Sight and Sound upon its original release in 1958, but first a brief introduction.

Hitchcock in the 1950s

I am very interested in how the reception of films change over time, and how their initial reception relates to their standing today. One of the single most interesting cases is Vertigo (1958), a film that has become embedded in the consciousness of serious filmgoers.

By the time the film was released in 1958 (1959 in Britain) Hitchcock was the most high-profile Hollywood director of them all. No doubt this was galvanised by his appearance on television as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) in which Hitchcock was cleverly cementing a clearly-defined screen persona – the slow drawl, the black suit, the sense of humour, the portly figure, and the famous profile. It was Hitchcock himself who had transformed his profile into a neat logo, which then went on to open every episode of his TV show. Hitchcock had become an unlikely but powerful brand.

The 1950s saw key changes in how films were written about. Influenced by the politique des auteurs promoted by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, British film critics of Sight and Sound focused more on the role of the director and the director’s responsibility for the film as a whole, then they ever had before. The combination of this shift in film criticism and the strong Hitchcock brand meant that Hitchcock’s role as an auteur was indisputable. In the review below Houston talks of a ‘typical Hitchcock joke’, for instance. Indeed Hitchcock is seen as perhaps the ultimate auteur: the precise visual style of his films suggest to the viewer that he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The controlled movement and pacing of his visuals suggest control behind the camera.

So when Vertigo was released it was clearly seen as another ‘Hitchcock film’. At first glance his films of the 1950s were clearly Hollywood products, as was the case with the glossy star vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with James Stewart and Doris Day, or To Catch a Thief (1955) with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. He made a couple of grittier movies in the 1950s, notably I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956), which had the feel of film noir and neo-realism, but Vertigo was clearly aligned with his bigger releases: vivid colour, Vistavision, and a star name in James Stewart. But again Hitchcock seems to smuggle dark themes into these studio movies, with Vertigo being a particularly bleak emotional journey concerned with loss and obsession.

Today the film is revered by critics and film lovers, and during the last Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll in 2002 the film almost beat Citizen Kane to the number one spot – it was only 6 votes away. The fact that Vertigo, along with Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) were quickly removed from circulation only to be seen again in the 1980s may have contributed to their appeal when re-evaluated (pirate black and white copies circulated for those desperate to see them during that dark age).

Below is the full review that was published in the Spring 1959 issue of Sight and Sound, written by Penelope Houston, which offers an interesting perspective on how the film was received on initial release. She believes that the film suffers from a plot of ‘egg-shell thinness’ and that one of its key problems is that of pacing: ‘this time he is repeating himself in slow motion’. She does not seem to have sensed the repressed passion that drives as an undercurrent throughout the film. This may be due to the fact that Vertigo is ultimately defined by its repeated viewing. The first viewing is only an introduction, but it is in the re-watching that the film starts to take hold and become an obsession.

Please let me know your thoughts on the review and leave a comment.

Scottie Dashes Up the Tower in Vertigo (1958)

Penelope Houston, ‘Vertigo’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1959, p.319.

VERTIGO (Paramount) finds Hitchcock toying weightily with a thriller by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of Les Diaboliques. As with their earlier novel, the mystery is a question not of who done it but of whether it was really done at all–in this case, how can a girl who has fallen spectacularly to her death from a church tower reappear a few months later in the streets of San Francisco, and is she in fact the same girl? This question of identity, central to the novel, is disposed of by Hitchcock in a brisk and curiously timed flashback, leaving only the secondary problem of how the hero, a detective who first trails the girl, then becomes obsessed by his memories of her, will react to discovering the truth. But in a story of this kind, a sleigh-of-hand affair built on deception and misdirection, mystification counts for everything; to introduce questions of motivation, to suggest that the people involved in this murder game are real, is to risk cracking a plot structure of egg-shell thinness. Only speed, finally, could sustain the illusion that the plot hangs together–and Hitchcock has never made a thriller more stately and deliberate in technique.

If the plot fails to work, there are still some good suspense diversion. These include a macabre, misogynistic sequence in which the obsessed detective (James Stewart) enlists dressmakers and hairdressers to make over the lightly disguised Kim Novak number two in the image of the lost Kim Novak number one; a typical Hitchcock joke, in which the detective tracks the girl down an alley, through a dark and dingy passage-way, and finds that this sinister approach is the back door to an expensive flower shop; and a single shot of stunning virtuosity, with a corpse spread-eagled across a church roof at one side of the screen, and the detective slinking out of the church door at the screen’s opposite edge. A roof-top chase, decisively opening the picture, a struggle in the church belfry, some backchat in the manner of Rear Window with a cool, astringent second-string heroine (Barbara Bel Geddes) are all reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve. One is agreeably used to Hitchcock repeating his effects, but this time he is repeating himself in slow motion.–PENELOPE HOUSTON

Scottie looks down from the tower in Vertigo (1958)

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