I had the privilege of revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion with my daughter this week. The film is a fascinating example of Hitchcock’s work, because though it is often seen as a weaker entry in his filmography, I find it to have some of the most startling possibilities for a viewer of any of his films. Most of his films wrap up with a neat finish, whether tragic or triumphant. This one presents ambiguities that are not really resolved, right up to the final moments of the film. The film is a psychological examination of an unhealthy marriage, with an ending that is dramatically different from the novel that it was based upon. The way we interpret that ending can be quite different, however, depending on what perspective we bring to the film, as I discovered while discussing the film with my daughter after our viewing.
Suspicion is the first of four films that Cary Grant would make with the Master of Suspense. He would go on to star in my favorite Hitchcock film, Notorious, as well as To Catch a Thief, and finally North by Northwest. The story is based on the novel Before the Fact, by Francis Iles, and tells the story of a young, bookish woman named Lina (Joan Fontaine) who impetuously falls in love with gadfly, socialite, and playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). The two marry, and it soon becomes apparent that he his charm and seductive manner covers over his lack of means: his “wealth” is an appearance built out of gambling windfalls and friendly loans, and eventually theft. François Truffaut summarized the scenario, and how it differs from the source material in this way:
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Zorro did not exist in the popular imagination. He seems to be as timeless a creation as his legendary English counterpart, Robin Hood, who traces his origins to ballads from the middle ages. Just under a century ago, however, the legend of Zorro was born in the 1919 serialized story “The Curse of Capistrano,” by Johnston McCulley, telling the story of the masked avenger who defends the poor and the oppressed. Almost immediately, the story was picked up for the screen by Douglas Fairbanks, and adapted into the first Zorro film, The Mark of Zorro. The film was directed by Fred Niblo, who would go on to direct other Fairbanks adventures, and also the original screen version of Ben-Hur in 1925.
Not so nice laaaady.
Martin Scorsese has said that he did not originally want to make The King of Comedy (1983) when it was first presented to him by Robert De Niro—he “didn’t get it.” But, as he has explained in a couple of retrospective interviews, he eventually came around to understanding the script. The story follows the improbably named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who wished to make it big as a stand up comedian on the Jerry Langford (a brilliantly simmering Jerry Lewis) late night show. When Langford brushes off the unproven Pupkin, Pupkin’s attempts to gain Langford’s attention grow more desperate, culminating in him kidnapping Langford along with his equally obsessed and unstable friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard).
Scorsese told critic Richard Schickel (in his interview book, “Conversations with Scorsese”) that at first, he thought that it was “just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show. Hmm.” But he later began to see what De Niro saw in the script by Paul Zimmerman: the way celebrities like De Niro have to deal with “the adulation of the crowd, and the strangers who love you and have got to be with you and have got to say things.”
Wim Wenders’s 1984 film Paris, Texas (which I have written about before), never reaches the town referenced in the title, but it is filmed in large part on location in various Texas towns from El Paso to Galveston. The final sequences take place in my home town of Houston.
Houston was a big city even in the early 1980s, riding one of the crests of an oil boom that was about to come crashing down later in the decade. But it has exploded in both population and sprawl since that time, now boasting one of the nation’s largest and most diverse populations. Houston is also infamous for tearing down and replacing old architecture, but a number of the iconic locations, so memorably captured by Robby Müller’s cinematography, can still be experienced in person.
Fragmentary impressions of a silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, and starring Reneé Falconetti as Joan:
- The film is unique in my experience in the way that it refracts the point of view we experience through the constantly shifting angles deployed on the screen for brief moments before another equally striking image replaces it.
- The kaleidoscopic effect, rather than abstracting and distancing me, drew me into the heart of the emotion, and the spiritual nature of the simple narrative.
- Director Carl Th. Dreyer employs a rapid pace of editing that at times anticipates the style of a latter day music video.
- The pace is combined with the bewildering variety of camera angles, in almost exclusively medium to extreme close-up shots. The few instances of zooms or tracking shots are used with memorable specificity to emphasize the mood of the judges.
- Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Voices of Light” serves as one of the finest silent film scores I have ever experienced.
- For a fully realized essay about this film, I recommend you to this post by Matthew Dessem on his Criterion Contraption blog.
- I couldn’t help but think that many contemporary viewers surely will view this story of a young woman interrogated, tortured, and condemned by a gang of old men as a proto-feminist parable.
- To me, however, the story of faith does not condemn the institutional church as a whole, for all time. We are expected to bring an extra-textual context to our viewing. (That is, since Joan was canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.)
- Joan is interrogated with ruthless cruelty by a panel of churchmen, but her answers are often given with the wide-eyed and tearful nod or mouthed “oui.” The details of her replies are sometimes left to our conjecture—the simplicity of her pure faith is clear however.
- Despite the basic dearth of wider or establishing shots, the film really has to be seen in motion to appreciate the effect of the compositions. So much depends on the montage, and the subtle arrangements of faces and furniture from shot to shot.
Looking down at the saint…
…who lies abed, appearing small and frail.
- The film being shot in chronological sequence apparently gave Falconetti, in her only screen role, a chance to experience the trial and suffering of Joan in a very striking fashion, which is completely visible on the screen in her face.
- The final scenes of Joan’s martyrdom are as harrowing as anything I have witnessed in film. They are cut against visions of the English soldiers brutalizing and killing the French peasants. Joan’s victory, and that of the peasants, is not ultimately through arms, but through embracing the way of the Cross.
“I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life.”
—Carl Th. Dreyer
This post is part of the Blind Spot 2017 series, hosted by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee.
I’m sure everyone is as excited as Tippi.
Well, I just missed noting the 2 year anniversary of the blog on June 9. It’s been a fun experience sharing discussions of new and classic films with you all this past year.
Here’s some of my favorite things I’ve written since the last birthday celebration, in case you missed them:
- I visited the filming sites of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.
- I wrote about all of Winsor McCay’s short cartoons, which was apparently picked up on by a university animation class in Australia.
- I discussed the links between Au hasard Balthasar and Paris, Texas in an essay.
- I looked at Peter Bogdanovich’s lesser-known first film, Targets.
- I shared a very personal reflection on the meaning of Scorsese’s latest film, Silence.
- And I made my first (and so far only) appearance on a podcast, making the case for A Shot in the Dark to Lady P. and Martin Kessler of the Flixwise podcast.
Thanks to everyone who has read and commented this year. I really appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my blog.
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A crane shot, perhaps, of a crane shot.
It is probably not best to view a parody before you see the original work that is its subject. But in this case, I think no harm was done. I laughed out loud the moment I recognized the music that underscored the crane shot in the opening sequence of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), having first heard it in this silly gem of an American Express commercial by Wes Anderson. Anderson, noted for his admiration of Truffaut along with other filmmakers, has no shame in pilfering shots, music, or other elements from films he admires. You can also hear the same music cue in the trailer for Day for Night (pardon the unfortunate English dub). Anderson even riffs on the scene where Truffaut’s character has to choose from a tray of guns needed for a later scene, as he gives us his tongue-in-cheek homage to Truffaut’s behind the scenes look at filmmaking.