The Out to Sea Blogathon: Lifeboat (1944)

When I saw the Out to Sea Blogathon the first thing that came to mind was Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The reason for this is that when dealing with seafaring narratives you are normally are left with few options of how to approach it in terms of the kind of story being told.

As per usual Hitchcock worked from a concept first conceived in prose. In this case a story by John Steinbeck. Shaping into cinematic story proved a daunting task in the scripting stage, as Hitch told Truffaut in their now-legendary interview series:

I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his screenplay was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was complete and was ready to shoot, I discovered the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give dramatic form to each of the sequences.

This kind of revolving door of writers was not unusual then, nor is it unusual now; nor is a director’s pass of the script. This kind of revisionary writing is what many directors do in lieu of writing their own scripts start-to-finish—Spielberg would be a modern day example. Much of Hitchcock’s contribution can be seen in Constance Porter’s (Tallulah Bankhead) arc. However, there are other touches that make this work special, one of under-appreciated works.

In the shipwrecked variant of the seafaring tale (this film deftly incorporates elements of that, war film, and chamber drama) there can be visual monotony to the goings on. What Hitchcock does to break this up is balancing the claustrophobic (being on a small lifeboat with a group of survivors) to agoraphobic (the oceanic nothingness that surrounds them). Another visual component that gives this film some vibrancy is that Hitchcock uses close-ups sparingly. Instead he frames many three-quarter, two-, three-shots, and larger group shots.

While, like Rope, this is a unity of space tale (but not time) yet there are cinematic moments, cuts, and mise-en-scène. So while the actors often share the frame listening and reacting to each other in the same take this film never feels theatrical.

As the title indicates the primary motivation for all the characters is survival. It instantly jumps into the action barely showing the sinking of the passenger ship by a U-Boat and getting right into the lifeboat.

The sea and their vessel is the ideal setting for this clash of characters who are a microcosm of World War II’s combatants. The focus remains myopically on the characters only focusing on the seafaring aspect as much as necessary and as a function of these characters.

As Hitchcock did later on The Birds, there is no musical score in this film. It’s another decision that focuses the audience’s attention on the characters as it searches for more verisimilitude and less spectacle.

As each passenger climbs out of the wreckage and onto the boat, there is tension and conflict as those already on the boat discover who the newcomer is and more about them. This is mostly subsumed and not bombastic. Most of the overt conflict surrounds the character of Willi (Walter Slezak), the German who comes aboard.

There are deceptions along the way but the character of Willi is most definitely an intriguing one. Hitchcock mentioned to Truffaut that some criticism from the press about the film was about the Nazi being too skilled, in short that they wanted the movie to be more propagandistic as it was released in 1944. However, the fact that he was the most qualified to captain the lifeboat doesn’t changed the fact that he lied about his rank on the U-boat and what supplies he kept on his person amongst other things. Plus, he goes to great lengths to earn their trust in order that his deception(s) can go undetected.

Had the film been more starkly black and white in its characterization, as some critics wanted it to be (judging a film by what you want it to be, and not what it is, is a cardinal sin of criticism), I don’t think the film would have had the afterlife its enjoyed despite its disappearing from cinemas with little fanfare upon its initial release. Save for a rather lengthy run in New York.

With any film the audience, both critics and the general public, are the final arbiter of meaning and impact–or at least have the final say whether “correct” or not. My perspective ends up being somewhere between Truffaut who said:

At one time I was under the impression that Lifeboat intended to show that everyone is guilty, each of us has something to be ashamed of, and that no one man is qualified to pass judgment others.

And Hitchcock who said:

Here was a statement telling democracies to put aside their differences temporarily and to gather forces and concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was derived from a spirit of unity and determination.

In drawing the characters out, in giving them all dimension, you will naturally see flaws and positives in all these people. Having no character be a paragon of virtue is what makes this film art and not the propaganda some desired.

Yet Hitch’s message is also there, especially at the very end after the second shipwrecked Nazi is dealt with, the line is clearly delivering the moral he wants, but can be variously interpreted such that it doesn’t become a preachy statement–a trap many films of the era fell into. It could taken as a modern spin on the expression “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” The preceding events showed that when these people allowed their better natures to prevail and followed the Golden Rule they were taken advantage of. They were shown over and over again they could not deal with the Nazis humanely.

With Lifeboat Hitchcock puts on a morality play at sea with representative figures which are archetypal, yet layered; well-rounded and not stereotypical and it is perhaps that it did not connect as well 76 years ago as it might now.

Rewind Review: Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound is triumphant on many levels. Yet despite that it had disappeared from availability on DVD for a couple of years. As occasionally happens the Criterion Collection edition had gone out of print, but the film has now been rereleased by MGM’s Premiere Collection.

The film tells the tale of a man assumed to be Dr. Edwardes, played by Gregory Peck. It’s when it is discovered that the man is an impostor, and is wanted for questioning in Edwardes’s murder, that things really get rolling.

What sets this film apart is that its heavy use of psychoanalytic theory ultimately propels it into a different stratosphere in terms of film theory. The lynchpin of the mystery ends up being a dream had by Peck’s character. To find the killer the psychoanalysts must decode what the dream symbols mean and to create the film the cinematic, visual symbols needed to be chosen carefully especially the one the analysts fail to analyze.


This film is also a rare treat because the famous dream sequence told a little after two-thirds of the film has passed was conceptualized by Salvador Dali and it is apparent: eyes, a melted wheel, the obtuse architecture of the houses. This rare blend of genius alone should be enough to get anyone to want to watch this film.

That’s not all though. In this film you also have Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, the former who is always solid but is pretty convincing in this part playing a tortured amnesiac with a guilt complex and the latter another of Hitchcock’s elegant blond ladies who is likely his most underrated leading lady, in terms of her work with Hitchcock.

This film has a very solid foundation built upon on a wonderful screenplay which is full of the fascinating nuance both of the human psyche and of situation. A scene where Bergman and the House Detective speak casually while she is trying to wait for Peck incognito at a hotel in New York is quite brilliantly constructed as is the scene where Peck and Bergman arrive at a friend’s house seeking refuge and find the police there waiting for the same friend.


The film also has an unexpected twist just when you think all is fine and dandy. The twist after resolution seemed to have been reached throws real peril back into the equation and makes you think maybe the happy ending is not destined in this story. Ultimately, I think the film is quite brilliant maybe not amongst Hitchcock’s best but certainly a cut or two above the rest in the genre. Despite his protestations in his interviews with Truffaut it is a terrific film even by his high standards.


Favorite TV Episode Blogathon: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Incident in a Small Jail”

Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Incident in a Small Jail” S6E23


In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, when I was quite young and did most of my Nick at Nite watching, it seemed they stretched a bit further back for shows than nostalgia, re-run based stations do now. Maybe being able to pick over selections from the initial Golden Age of television had something to do with it, or maybe memories were longer then. Rather than allow excessive amounts of nostalgia to get mixed into this post I will leave that an open-ended question.

There will be some reminiscing involved because my history with this episode is much of why I like it, but by no means all. That is because this particular episode more than any other on any show lodged itself in my (sub)consciousness and was intermittently lost through the years as I’d forget about it then recall it again.

Also, I’m grateful for this opportunity to discuss this episode in part because a while ago I introduced the concept of Cinematic Episodes, and except for two entries I’ve not revisited it. So, finally I have returned to discussing television. I even have a partially drafted take on Hitchcock’s turns directing the show he produced and hosted, so it really is something I’ve anticipated. Amazingly Hitch didn’t handle this particular episode, but like almost all the stories they definitely bore his stamp.


Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1961, Universal)

As Alfred Hitchcock Presents became one of the select TV shows I started collecting seasons of on DVD, I began to search for this episode, amongst others. It was actually only seeing this blogathon announced that I discovered what its name was and in what season it aired (as it turns out its the most-recently distributed in the US, Season six).

Due to this fact, I had the unusual pleasure of seeing it for the first time in eons, and one tremendous development was that it still affected me greatly; however, I had entirely forgotten the ending – but I’ll get to that.

For now, my impressions on the episode both then and now.

Incident in a Small Jail

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1961, Universal)

The premise of the story is fairly simple. A salesman, Leon Gorwald (John Fiedler), is cited for jaywalking. In a clumsy attempt to bribe the stickler cop (Ron Nicholas) he is hauled off to jail. After a bit a suspected murderer (Richard Jaeckel) is brought in. Eventually there are fears that a lynch mob is forming to raid the jail the police try and make arrangements to transport the prisoners. The suspect has no designs on waiting to be lynched though, he overpowers the sheriff tricking him and getting out of his cell then forces Gorwald to trade clothes with him.

What I had recalled most vividly was the beginning. The thought of being stuck in a cell for jaywalking (bribe attempt or no bribe attempt) was terrifying enough in and of itself. However, that part omitting the bribe attempt is what I recalled. All I remembered beside that was the dread suspense, which was still there many years later with a lot of added nuance.

It’s very clear to see that this and all the other episodes of this show were basically in three-act structure. What’s impressive here is that the unity of time and space is sustained through a large portion of the story in the jail. There’s only one true temporal ellipse, not including the omission of small fractions of time that don’t need to be seen by more modern audiences.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1962, Universal)

In regards to modern audiences the episode, like all of Alfred Hitchock’s Presents’ episodes, featured stand-ups by Hitch himself teasing the story, adding gravitas or humor where needed, adding finishing touches or throwing it to commercial, while mocking the sponsors. In this particular episode it’s more adding levity due to the nature of the ending of “the play,” as he was wont to call it.

Setting aside the traumatic mark this episode left on me there was room to notice more of what made this episode work for me: John Fiedler is key amongst them. He’s a face you may recognize, a name harder to recall, but you likely know the voice. Fiedler was the voice of Piglet from the time Walt Disney started handling the character until his (Fiedler’s) death. Another aspect that really makes it work is the direction of Norman Lloyd. Lloyd was one of the most prolific director’s during the show’s run, and consistently delivered results. His episodes, for being so numerous, were not always the best but he did helm many great ones.

Much like the films Hitch directed the episodes of the show frequently found their inspiration from works of fiction. This particular tale was originally written by Henry Slesar and appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It truly is an ideal candidate for a short form treatment because the conflict and set-up are so simple and unencumbered by secondary concerns.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1962, Universal)

Since this was a show of mystery and suspense I will avoid discussing plot detail much further than I already have, lest I ruin the surprise. However, even knowing all the facts anew (as I watched it twice in preparation for the piece, it still worked with nearly equal efficacy the second time around. The reason this is so, is that like many forms of entertainment, this episode plays with your perceptions. Types of characters and actors are shortcuts for those working on a project and for the audience alike. They allow immediate identification and classification before characterization has begun. Without much time to develop character, and more time focused on situation and plot, perceptions are more easily exploited. This episode plays this game expertly.

Another nuance that has always struck me is that: dead silence can be very dramatic. No silence is deader than a monophonic track. Even when there is dialogue the ambient sound can be very low. Hitchcock and his show knew how to use silence and volume well. Two of my notes in preparing for this blog dealt with volume. One commented on the whispered conversations the officers had about how to deal with the potential lynchmob, another about the bombastic, loud laughter of the suspect. This unsettled tone of voice throughout, the repetition of dialogue; it all gets to you.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents reached heights in suspense, writing and performance that few shows have reached – especially considering the anthology nature of its structure – and “Incident in a Small Jail” is perhaps the finest example of that.

TruffautHitchcockVillela: Part 4

This article is a partially fictitious account wherein I imagine myself in conversation with two of the greatest minds in cinema: Truffaut and Hitchcock. This work was inspired by the series of interviews the two conducted which was later turned into a book. The quotes from the two are real though the context isn’t always. If you are interested in the book it can be purchased here. If this alternate history premise insults your sensitivities please move on.

This is part three of a series which started here.

I then sought to get a few pointers on my favorite aspect of filmmaking:

B.V.: The screenplay is your favorite part of the production. What thoughts do you have about screenwriting?

A.H.: For me the film is 90 percent finished with the screenplay. I’d prefer to not have to shoot it. You conceive a film you want and after that it goes to pieces. The actors you had in mind are not available, you can’t get the proper cast. I dream of an IBM machine in which I’d insert the screenplay on one end and film would emerge on the other end complete and in color (330-331). To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, “We can cover that with a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound amongst other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms (222).

B.V.: I disagree, to the extent that I think you oversimplify. If dialogue was as irrelevant as that we’d still be making silent films. Many films have shown how essential dialogue can be such as Last Year at Marienbad, your very own film Psycho was greatly enhanced by the ironic use of dialogue especially in the scene where Janet Leigh is eating with Anthony Perkins.

Psycho (1960, Universal)

B.V.: I am trying to devise a system that ranks films based on how they stem from a type of dream. Being either daydreams or nocturnal; nightmares or fantasies. I believe all these playful delusions are the genesis of creation. This is why I think Spellbound is such an accomplishment because it makes dreams and the workings of the psyche tangible. You worked with Salvador Dalí yet avoided being too surrealistic which, is a trapping of dream-based films.

A.H: I was determined to break with the traditional handling of dream sequences through a blurred and hazy screen (163). Since psychoanalysis was involved there was a reluctance to fantasize; we tried to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure (165).

F.T: I hope you won’t be offended, but I found the picture something of a disappointment (167).

A.H.: Not at all. The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.

Spellbound (1945, United Artists)

B.V: Not at all! Plus, I prefer some explanation rather than none as in The Birds.

F.T.: I’m glad you didn’t give a specific reason for the attacks. It’s clearly speculation, a fantasy (286).

B.V.: I found that Spellbound combined a whodunit aspect which you hate with one of your favorite themes of the innocent man wrongly accused and with great psychoanalytic deduction that Arthur Conan Doyle would’ve used had it been at his disposal. I also find it interesting that in Spellbound you killed a child, albeit in flashback, yet in that instance you don’t look at it as a mistake like it was in Sabotage, why is that?

A.H.: I don’t know. (167).

B.V: A remake is always a difficult and dangerous task to undertake. How then did you remake your own film?

A.H.: Despite the similarities, they’re really quite different from each other (228).

B.V.: So in essence you feel it was like making an entirely new film?

A.H.: Naturally (228).

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Gaumont British picture Corporation)

B.V.: Charles Chaplin is perhaps one of the greatest minds in the history of cinema, he thought film was akin to ballet and was against the advent of sound. Yet in 1940 he wrote and performed the most moving speech in film history. What do you think of sound?

A.H.: Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked were the sound of people talking and noises (61). Many films now being made there is very little cinema: They are mostly what I call … Photographs of people talking.” In other words since all that was missing was simply natural sound, there was no need to completely abandon the technique of the pure motion picture, the way they did when sound came in (61).

F.T.: I agree. In the final era of silent movies, the great filmmakers […] in fact almost the whole of the production — had reached something of near perfection. The introduction of sound in a way jeopardized that perfection […] In this sense one might say that mediocrity came back into its own with the advent of sound (61).

A.H.: I agree absolutely (61).

Rope (1948, Warner Bros.)

B.V.: I disagree to an extent, I believe that as film has evolved; the lines between the arts has blurred. Film is now the most complete art-form. In your films you demonstrate this in Rope you capture some of the essence of theater, in a film like Fantasia music is the driving force, Le Chien andalou and Spellbound illustrates painting’s impact, any number of literary adaptations would show the impact of the written word. Statues coming to life have long been a popular motif in the arts and film is not immune; animation is a medium of its own in the realm of film. Even still photography has made its mark and while I hate the “freeze-frame ending” as a rule, the momentary freeze frame is wonderful as illustrated in Jules and Jim. What this all means is that the cinema is now the ultimate art-form and as such the quality of films suffers because there are too many incomplete artists and cannot handle all the disciplines film entails, having said that I believe this represents a paradigm shift, meaning that film is no longer “purely visual” but “primarily visual.”

A.H.: It seems unfortunate that with the arrival of sound in the motion picture, overnight, assumed a theatrical form (61).

B.V.: Film is the most theatrically contrived art-form. Nowhere else can the final product be so meticulously planned before hand. What occurred is that sound was used as a crutch for lazy and or less than competent visual artists. This conversation is rather moot since sound is dominant because the audience demanded sound. I don’t think they would’ve been satisfied with piecemeal sound, however, I agree that it is sad that many films were less visually interesting. Yet the slide continues. In the ’30s Hollywood made many dialogue-heavy films but the set design and cinematography were interesting so there was something to look at. The audience is dictating to studios who dictate the artist and when the audience will shell out money for subpar films money rules so quality won’t change. It’s a hard cycle to break. They say “We want sound! We want color! We want Cinemascope!” and they get that and story is thrown out the window.


TruffautHitchcockVillela: Part 3

This article is a partially fictitious account wherein I imagine myself in conversation with two of the greatest minds in cinema: Truffaut and Hitchcock. This work was inspired by the series of interviews the two conducted which was later turned into a book. The quotes from the two are real though the context isn’t always. If you are interested in the book it can be purchased here. If this alternate history premise insults your sensitivities please move on.

This is part three of a series which started here.

When we began discussing Stage Fright Hitch asked:

A.H. Why is it we can’t tell a lie in a flashback? (189).
François had no answer, but I speculated.

B.V.: Well the nature of a flashback is slippery to begin with. When we’re taking an audience back in time it is implied that necessary information is going to be conveyed. Film is a continuous art-form as opposed to literature and television where there are breaks, so if we interrupt the forward progress of the story we must have good reason and we must also be truthful for then the audience will feel we have wasted their time even if for only 30 seconds.

B.V.: What did you think of the acting in Strangers on a Train?

A.H.: I wasn’t too pleased with Farley Granger; He’s a good actor but I would’ve liked to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger (190).

B.V.: That’s a very good choice, Hitch.

I Confess (1953, Warner Bros.)

B.V.: You’ve made reference in that past to the fact that French films and films in general seem to be moving away from plots. Yet you’ve always seemed more interested in situations than plots, is that correct?

A.H.: Yes, I’d prefer to build a film around a situation rather than a plot (203).

B.V.: You’ve had reservations about I Confess, especially the fact that priests are not to divulge what they are told in a confessional. Is the fact that this is not universal information the cause of your reservations?

A.H.: Putting a situation in a film simply because you yourself can vouch for its authenticity, either because you’ve experienced it or heard about it simply isn’t good enough (203). That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secrets of the confessional but the Protestants, the atheists and agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing”(204).

F.T.: Then would you say that the basic concept of the film is wrong? (204).

A.H.: That’s right; we shouldn’t have made the picture (204).

B.V.: I absolutely disagree with you. I don’t think the concept is wrong. If any of your concepts was flawed it was that of The Birds because of the niggling wonder I get about the birds and why they act the way they do, even knowing that nature is unpredictable hasn’t helped me embrace that film. I Confess, however, has a great scenario.

To Be Continued

TruffautHitchcockVillela: Part 1

This article is a partially fictitious account wherein I imagine myself in conversation with two of the greatest minds in cinema: Truffaut and Hitchcock. This work was inspired by the series of interviews the two conducted which was later turned into a book. The quotes from the two are real though the context isn’t always. If you are interested in the book it can be purchased here. If this alternate history premise insults your sensitivities please move on.

Film is: Eternal yet momentary, Enormous but has no space, Minuscule yet takes its place, Inflexible yet elastic, Sincere and sarcastic, Confined to a frame, which expands in your brain. When a showing ends, The Journey begins. You close your eyes and travel within. Never has it ever been so warm to be frozen in form.
-Bernardo Villela

Francois Truffaut on the set of Confidentially Yours (1983, Le Films du Carrosse)

I’m a lot older than I look. I was in Paris in 1968 trying to get Nino Rota to score my latest film and ultimately I failed and managed only to gain six pounds eating Crepes Suzette. While there, however, I did run into Francois Truffaut. After I asked him how L’enfant Sage was going he told me he was going to meet with Hitchcock and asked me if I’d like to come along. Of course, I agreed. On the way there I asked him:

Bernardo Villela.: What do you believe is the art of suspense?

Francois Truffaut: The art of creating suspense is [!] the art of involving the audience, so that the viewer is a participant in the film. (Truffaut, 16).

We arrived a few minutes later in a very plush room at the Georges V. Francois introduced me and afterward Hitchcock said he’d like my last film very much, to which I got very embarrassed as I felt I didn’t deserve such phrase. We sat down had some Sauternes as apparently Hitch had just finished a meal. It wasn’t the best lead in but I then asked.

B.V.: What did you think of The Wizard of Oz?

Alfred Hitchcock: It was a very bad movie (39)

I was reading a newspaper and saw that Julie Andrews had just signed to make Darling Lili and this prompted me to ask:

B.V.: Can you tell me what you thought of the Star System?

A.H.: These are the problems we face with the star system. Very often the storyline is jeopardized because a star cannot be a villain (43). Cary Grant could not be a murderer (44).

B.V.: Yet you always seemed inclined to work with stars, why?

A.H.: I’ve learned from experience that whenever the protagonist isn’t portrayed by a star, the whole picture suffers, you see, because the audience is a lot less concerned about the predicament of a character who’s played by someone they don’t know. (145)

B.V.: The comment you made about Cary Grant brings us to the trouble with Suspicion. The film is constructed and leading us to think Cary Grant is guilty and then in the last 5 minutes you jump the rails.

A.H. Well I’m not too pleased with the way Suspicion ends. I had something else in mind. The scene I wanted, but it was never shot was for Cary Grant to was to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother – “Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him.” Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says Will you mail this letter to mother for me, dear?” She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in. (142)

I felt quite embarrassed by dominating the questioning but I think Francois gave me free reign owing to the fact that this was a unique experience for me.

B.V.: Many directors including Robert Altman make films only for themselves and don’t care what the people or the studios think of them, what is your reaction to this kind of thinking?

A.H.: I always take the audience into account. (48)

Citizen Kane (1941, RKO)

Our exhaustive discussion of Citizen Kane led me to ask:

B.V.: How do you define as a masterpiece?

A.H.: Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfection of form, its definitive form. (72)

B.V.: Many people find your films very implausible. I love The Lady Vanishes but even I find the third act a little hard to swallow, what’s your response to that?

A.H.: I’m not concerned with plausibility; that’s the easiest part, so why bother? (99) In a documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is god; he must create life. (102)

B.V.: Can you comment on why your films so often deal with the extraordinary?

A.H.: I don’t want to do a “slice of life film” because people can get that at home, in the street or even in front of the movie theatre [!] And I avoid out-and-out fantasy because people should be able to identify with the characters. [!] What is drama, after all, but life with the dull parts cut out.(103)

B.V.: My two favorite British Hitchcock films are The Lady Vanishes and Sabotage. While I feel the Lady Vanishes is more sophisticated in its structure , bravery is something I greatly admire in filmmaking and that’s part of why I like Sabotage so much.

A.H.: I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb (109).

F.T.: Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power (109).

A.H.: I agree with that; it was a grave error on my part. (109)

B.V.: But I feel that’s part of what made it such a compelling film, the fact that a man has to pay for his sins through the loss of his son.

This is the first part of a series that will post on Thursdays. This is the first time this series has appeared on my new home.

Alternate History: A Hitchcock-Clouzot Switch

Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot had two lengendary square-offs for film adaptation rights for novels by the writing team of Boileau & Narcejac.

The first of which was for Les Diaboliques. Htichcock wanted it, but did not get it. How Hitchcock having done that film in 1955 would have changed his career it’s hard to tell, save for the fact that it likely would’ve accelerated his evolution and perhaps there would not have even been a film version of Psycho. For if Hitchcock had unleashed Diabolique on an unsuspecting American public, then maybe Psycho wouldn’t have seemed as shocking. Though there are some clear differences.

The second such square-off was for the rights to the book D’entre les morts. That one Hitchcock won. It later became known to US audiences as Vertigo.

I venture in this post to just do a bit of dream-casting in the what if scenarios of Alfred Hitchcock directing Diabolique in the US in 1955 and Henri-Georges Clouzot directing D’entre les morts in France in 1958.

Hitchcok’s Diabolique


So who would be this dream cast? Although the last vestiges of the studio system were still hanging about in 1950s, Hitchcock was at that point virtually his own boss so if he had a film he could do it how he saw fit and studio affiliations of actors and the like wouldn’t matter as much. Since this is a hypothetical situation, and one that involves Hitchcock, it’s essentially carte blanche.

There are a few possibilities that came to mind for Diabolique in the US in the 1950s. Hitchcock always did have stars involved but for the most part they were the best fit for the role also. For the role of Michel Delasalle, let’s call him Michael in the US version, the seemingly-jilted husband; a few possibilities came to mind.

Hitchcock did a lot of work with Cary Grant in the 1950s so his name would naturally come up. Though Grant could easily play this two-sided role he was perhaps too classically good-looking. Perhaps someone with a little more of a rugged and mysterious quality; I also considered Fred MacMurray. MacMurray’s career was a fascinating one. He was a film noir staple and later became a linchpin to many family-oriented projects; first, the sitcom My Three Sons and then many Disney films. However, as good as that selection seems, the potential of Robert Mitchum was just too enticing. Just imagine that in some alternate universe Robert Mitchum made Diabolique and Night of the Hunter in the same year. The mind boggles.

For the role of Christina, Michael’s wife who is always racked with more doubt than her cohort, only one name really ever came to mind: Audrey Hepburn. Not only is Hepburn perfectly suited for this part, but it would have been fascinating to have seen her in a Hitchock film and playing a school teacher a few years prior to The Children’s Hour.

Marilyn Monroe

The role of Nicole was one I tussled with a bit. Hitch’s only only 1950s blond that was in the vicinity of this character to me was Anne Baxter. However, there is that bombshell quality to the character which is why Simone Signoret is in Les Diaboliques and Sharon Stone was tapped for the American remake. So there was one more dream pairing with Hitch that just had to be made: Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn is likely where my warning about studio affiliation comes most into play, but I think whether Fox got involved or loaned her, if Hitch had this cast in his sights, and this property, some arrangement would’ve been made and it would’ve been a colossus.

Clouzot’s D’entre les morts

D'entre Les Morts

My frame of reference for an American Diabolique is much greater than mine is for a French Vertigo, which in all likelihood would’ve just retained the title that Boileau-Narcejac gave it in the first place D’entre les morts. However, two names immediately came to mind for the two key roles in the film and I never looked back from there.

For the role that became ‘Scottie’ (James Stewart) in the American version I thought only of Maurice Chavalier. Granted Chevalier was 10 years older than Stewart at the time but there is an analogous quality between the two that I think would’ve made Chevalier quite the amazing fit. His interpretation I’m sure would’ve been very powerful.

The blond goddess, the now seeming reincarnation of his lost love, in the late 1950s in France could be played by no other than Brigitte Bardot in my mind. Though I suspect Clouzot would’ve likely gone back to Simone Signoret for this part too as he did for Nicole in the Diabolique that did occur.


Night of the Hunter (1955, All Rights Reserved)

I’m not sure if I’ll find another instance in film history that coud’ve changed things so greatly that would allow me to speculate like this anew, but it was sure great fun this time around.

Who would you see in these films if things had gone differently?

Django Unchained: Mandingo Fighting and Phrenology


The first full-length post on Django Unchained, my choice as Best Picture of 2012 was my first guest post and first translated post. However, owing to the accolades I gave it, and the wait, it was time to post my own thoughts on the film. This is the last of four posts. The first can be found here, the second part can be found here and the third here.

Mandingo Fighting and Phrenology

Here’s another section where some may have missed the forest for the trees. When we go to Candieland, perhaps the most deliciously hilarious and ironic name for a plantation to American audiences for its allusion to a board game where almost everything is wonderful, and, well, candy; we are introduced, directly and indirectly to two concepts: the first is Mandingo fighting.

Now, here’s a piece that covers the niggling question of “Is Mandingo fighting even a thing?” To be completely honest, I hadn’t read any piece on it until now, because to an extent it didn’t matter, and I’ll explain why shortly.

Next, there’s John Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) “scientific” assertions of why blacks are inherently subservient. The speech, his illustration of the ridges on the inside of the skull and the smashing of said skull are ultimately what won Leonardo DiCaprio his second BAM Award for Best Supporting actor; it’s a moment as captivating as it is chilling.

Django Unchained (AP/The Weinstein Co.)

Now, getting back to the matter of truth, I will draw a parallel to Argo. Right after Argo won its anticipated Best Picture some select Canadians decided to go into a tizzy about the historical inaccuracies of the film. Apparently, they needed to be reintroduced to what movies are and the fact that just because they purport to be based on historical events does not mean they are under any sort of oath to be factual.

Coming back to Django, it does not purport to be based on historical events. Quite to the contrary it is consciously telling an alternate history. So, how come when we as the film nerds hear of gripes about a historical thriller we rationally say “Well, it’s not a documentary and doesn’t have to report the facts” yet, invention in a work of fiction can bother us? I ask this question hypothetically just to point it out. I don’t think too many people were upset by either of these elements in the film, but why should a film that’s not beholden to as many facts as one “based on a true story” not invent things?

Mandingo fighting as an element in the film is not only an ode to blaxploitation film of the 1970s, but it’s also an allegorical representation of how the slave states were in essence cannibalizing the African populous and profiting off their bloodshed. As King Schultz would say it was “another flesh for cash trade.” If nothing else in the film, things that actually happened like slaves being branded and whipped, people being lynched or the Klan burning crosses and terrorizing the ignorant, then this would; and it did me.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Co.)

As for the Candie theory on black subservience, considering that the pseudoscience of phrenology purported that the characteristics of the skull indicated ones faculties or mental traits, this is not that outlandish to put into a racist character’s mouth. What’s outlandish in this day and age is anyone giving any credence to phrenology. However, even if phrenology charts never went so far as to say indicate “African subservience” there was a generally unfounded and accepted belief that these were inferior, in fact, inhuman beings and these were the most dramatic rendition that Tarantino found to illustrate those points, and he drove them home so hard it should shame anyone.

Whether there is any basis in fact for these constructs is virtually irrelevant. For as Hitchcock said “…in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head.” Any of Hitchcock’s edicts needed to be ciphered a bit. I think he meant he didn’t lose sleep if something seemed plausible, I think he did worry about if it made the story better and if it made sense, and I think these touches by Tarantino definitely do.

Cinematic Episodes: Introduction

Themes are sometimes difficult to stick to. The way I usually manage to stick to them is by getting a bunch of installments written and ready and then scheduling ahead of time. Themes that I work on extemporaneously have a chance of being more inconsistent, or worse, falling into abandonment entirely.

I say this because I have had it in mind to do this idea for quite some time. I have not made the intention to do this theme known here, just in a few conversations. The main reason I’ve not announced this one to try and get this one started, and to give themes I do not consider to be done, some staying power.

Without much further ado, the idea I purport to embark upon is one I call Cinematic Episodes. This would be another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

It’s no coincidence that on the day I sit awaiting delivery of Game of Thrones‘ second season that I post this, HBO and other cable outlets have truly blurred the lines more so than most in the past due not only to single camera approach, but also production values and elimination of the commercial break, thus, creating a more cinematic structure that builds its ebb and flow in a more traditional three-act manner than an hour of network television does due to the crescendo to commercial, the precipitous drop upon retuning and then the rise anew.

However, many shows on many outlets come to mind when thinking of the parallels and the current landscape, which I will plumb for the examples I am familiar with. This evolution didn’t happen on its own. I will look back and try and trace, to the extent I possibly can, the evolution of the exchange of ideas.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Universal)

However, it’s not only a technique and structural focus. The first topic I thought of and will likely examine, with what I have access to are the Hitchcock-directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There will be other topics to examine, other specific shows, but I won’t be tiresome in listing them here.

Essentially, any other medium in relation to cinema is worth taking a look at. I’ve always viewed film as a culmination of all the other arts since the advent of sound. With the introduction of sound elements of theatre were further added, music was added as a permanently affixed appendage rather than a variable live element, through the ages an artist’s touch in framing and composition, be it in color or black and white, has been needed. As any new form of communication and/or artistic expression has come about, film has been challenged, however, it perseveres both by adapting itself and also by an eventual embracing and exchanging of ideas and symbiotic influence. It’s been illustrated before with the rise of radio and then with television, the internet is the next frontier, but that landscape is still a bit nebulous. Film is not yet truly threatened or totally changed, similarly those making content for YouTube and other such sites are progressing, pushing back and breaking through but, still being in process, the changes are not yet as evident.

Television being the middle child of “Threats to Film” has firmly established its foothold as a fixture, mostly due to its varied nature of content and usage, but on the entertainment side it remains vital. The last thing that bears saying is that the fallacious “which is better” arguement will not be found in this space – and considering the main focus of my site I doubt you want to read such an anti-climactic piece. As many similarities as I will find, and as many cases of shared influence I will illustrate both films and television work, or don’t, due to completely different reasons. If television is in a halcyon it’s certainly not due to the networks. It’s a bit like the major/indie dynamic in film. What’s pushing the envelope and advancing episodic visual storytelling is basic and prime cable original content.

The Hitchcock piece will likely be the first. I have a definitely viewing list for that and taking an auteurist approach and looking at a different kind of show is actually one of the better easier way to start such a comparative analysis. Stay tuned.