Monday, May 14, 2012

A New Use for Old Places

21 Essays is a proud participant in
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III,
May 13-18, 2012.

If you like this blog...  
if you like Alfred Hitchcock...
if you support the cause of film preservation...
then please follow this link to make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation to support the effort to make the recently discovered silent film The White Shadow (1923) accessible to a wide audience via the internet.

We're trying to raise $15,000 and it's going to take many generous small (and large!) donations to get there.  With great appreciation for your generosity, THANK YOU!

Blackmail-blogging, essay 2 of 6 blog entries
A New Use for Old Places

Fleeing the police, Tracy the blackmailer sees the sign to the
British Museum in Blackmail (1929), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Introduction:  The Setup

The thought of young Alfred Hitchcock as a bright and eager assistant on the set of The White Shadow (1924) reminded me of Michael Powell’s apprenticeship on Hitchcock movies like Blackmail (1929).  Michael Powell eventually became a major film director himself, responsible for such classics as Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Peeping Tom.  With each of these blog entries, I’m opening with a fantasy dialogue between Hitchcock and Powell, circa 1929, as they meet at the nearest pub after a full day of shooting.

Part One, The Second Fantasy Dialogue

The chase to the top of the British Museum in
Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail.
Cut to Hitchcock and Powell at the pub after a busy day filming Blackmail:

Hitchcock:  “Alma* approves of your proposal for a chase in the British Museum, Mr. Powell.  And I approve of dropping our villain from a great height.  Is there anything he can cling to after the glass shatters on the British Museum dome?  Perhaps a metal bar?  I should like to prolong his agony.”

Powell:  “I could imagine opening a movie with a man hanging precariously from a great height.  Just fade out on him dangling above an abyss.  Rather metaphorical, don’t you think?”

Hitchcock:  “And then drop him at the end?  I do like that.  A most pleasant symmetry would be achieved.  I hear they’re building a skyscraper in New York City that sounds perfect for dropping people from.  The Eiffel Tower would do, too.  One could make a career of this sort of thing.”

Powell:  “I like the British Museum because it’s more than just a high place. It has a history, tradition, and culture behind it.  It brings a seriousness to the entertainment just as the chase gives a lightness to the institution.  I think it works rather well.”

Hitchcock:  “Of course it does, Mr. Powell.  I dabbled in art direction once myself, you know.  The background always contributes to the meaning.  Place your lovers against a grove of ancient trees or in front of a rolling surf.  For a really proper love scene, I’d want a big spray of water dousing them as the waves crash.”

Powell:  “And not just love, it would work for war as well. One could film a battle scene with guns firing at some ancient location, perhaps with our heroes shielding themselves behind the rocks of Stonehenge.”

Hitchcock:  “Here’s a scene for you...  I have my heart set on filming a chase at Stonehenge, with our characters leaping from rock to rock.  Can one actually do that?  I confess I’ve never been there.  Would you die if you fell from one of those rocks?  Are they sufficiently high or would we have to build a taller Stonehenge in the studio?”

Powell:  “It might be more plausible to have one of the rocks tumble over on your villain.”

Hitchcock:  “A capital idea!  The stones could topple like dominos with the last one taking out the villain.  Mr. Powell, I appreciate these talks. One day I shall make a talking picture where two characters obsessionally discuss modes of murder.  It will be my tribute to our pleasant discussions at the pub.”

* Hitchcock’s wife and frequent script collaborator, Alma Reville.

Part Two, The “Wow!”  Factor

Michael Powell repeatedly claimed that he came up with the inspired idea of placing the climactic chase of Blackmail (1929) in the British Museum.  In his memoir A Life in Movies, Powell suggested that the success of this scene provided Hitchcock with a template for future famous Hitchcock climaxes, like his use of the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.

Robert Cummings attempts to save Norman Lloyd in
Saboteur (1942), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
But maybe Powell deserves more credit than that…  The British Museum, the Statue of Liberty, and Mount Rushmore are each famous national institutions, yet Hitchcock displays little interest in their nationalistic connotations, except perhaps ironically.   Even in the midst of the World War II propaganda of Saboteur, the viewer’s sympathies are uncomfortably shifted to the villain-spy rather than the American hero when the action ascends to the top of the Statue of Liberty.  Similarly, the cold-blooded Cold War strategies of the US spies are thoroughly criticized in the lead up to the famous Mount Rushmore scene of North by Northwest.  Far more than any political associations, it appears to be the elemental grandeur of these locations that appealed to Hitchcock.

But if grandeur is the point rather than nationalism, our field of study expands to include natural as well as man-made backgrounds.  After Blackmail, both Hitchcock and Powell were constantly alert for locations that suggested timelessness and immensity, allowing them to deepen their plots by placing them against resonant backgrounds.  One classic example is in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Dwarfed by the Sequoias towering above her, Kim Novak traces the tree rings and says, “Here I was born, and there I died.  It was only a moment for you;  you took no notice.”

James Stewart and Kim Novak visit the Sequoias in Vertigo (1958),
directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The memorable image of the stone face in the British
Museum in Hitchcock's Blackmail.
In Blackmail, the most memorable image within the British Museum is the colossal stone face that serves as a background for the blackmailer’s daring descent down a chain.  This impassive image evoking timelessness echoes down their films:  For Powell, there’s Canterbury Cathedral in A Canterbury Tale, the Himalayas in Black Narcissus, and Stonehenge in The Small Back Room;  for Hitchcock, there are the Sequoias and the bell tower in Vertigo, a grove of trees near the monument in North by Northwest, and the Albert Hall in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, as well as the iconic Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore scenes already mentioned.

The immensity of these backgrounds is emphasized whenever possible, particularly as they can create a feeling of… vertigo.  Characters find themselves perched on a life-threatening edge, with a sheer drop off into oblivion below.  Examples:  For Powell, there’s the whirlpool in I Know Where I’m Going! and Deborah Kerr ringing the bell on the precipice in Black Narcissus;  for Hitchcock, there’s the cliff that the skier plunges over in Spellbound, the Westminster Cathedral Tower in Foreign Correspondent, and the bell tower and opening rooftop scene in Vertigo (plus, of course, the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore).

Both Hitchcock and Powell capitalize on the qualities inherent in these awe-inspiring backgrounds to amplify the concerns of their own movies.  The backgrounds make the love stories more timeless and add resonance to the conflicts.  At the most fundamental level, they add a “Wow!” factor to the action.  Combine it all together, with awe-inspiring art direction and an overhead camera angle that catches a seemingly endless descent into darkness, and you have Jimmy Stewart clinging to a rooftop gutter or Deborah Kerr scrambling for a foothold on a Himalayan precipice—trademark Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell movie magic.

Kathleen Byron and Deborah Kerr struggle on the precipice in
Black Narcissus (1947), written, directed and produced by
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

James Stewart hangs from a gutter in the opening scene of
Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Reference Sources
A Life in Movies by Michael Powell
Million Dollar Movie by Michael Powell
Michael Powell: Interviews by David Lazar
Hitchcock's Films Revisited by Robin Wood
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto
Arrows of Desire by Ian Christie
Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
The Hitchcock Romance by Lesley Brill
A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague

A special thank you to Joe Marcincuk for tracking down and delivering a copy of A Life in Movies to me in the nick of time.  Thanks for not leaving me hanging, Joe!

© 2012 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. As it turns out, my blogathon post is also about Powell and Hitch...and takes as its starting point Powell's account of BLACKMAIL from A LIFE IN MOVIES. You'll find it here:

    I'm looking forward to the rest of your series!