Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Artists and Their Models

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Blackmail-blogging, essay 3 of 6 blog entries
Artists and Their Models

Cyril Ritchard as Crewe the Artist and Anny Ondra as Alice 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 (1960).  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 Third Fantasy Dialogue

(Hitchcock waves to Powell who has just entered the pub.)

Hitchcock:  “Mr. Powell!”

Powell:  “Please call me Micky, Mr. Hitchcock.  That’s  what my friends call me.”

Hitchcock:  “Unfortunately, that name has been purloined by Mr. Disney’s amazing rodent.  Until Mr. Disney tears him up (an act I would deeply envy him as a fellow film director), you would be wisest to go by either Michael or Mr. Powell.”

John Longden as Frank
in Blackmail.
Powell:  “I was thinking that perhaps we should tear up one of our characters.  I’m happy with the work we’ve done on Act Three of Blackmail, but Acts One and Two are no longer feeling as strong.  My problem is that dullard Frank.  He’s unethical, overbearing, and, worst of all, boring.”

Hitchcock:  “Yes, but since he’s entirely too dull to be a villain, I believe we are stuck with Frank as our hero.”

Powell:  “Could we at least add a little charm?  A hint of wit?  It bothers me that our beautiful Alice must end in his arms.”

Hitchcock:  “It is malicious, isn’t it?  To lead our girl into such a nasty situation and then fade out on her.  Perhaps I should bring our heartless jester back to laugh at her in the final reel.”

Powell:  “The last laugh, eh?  You would do that, wouldn’t you?  It’s symmetrical and mean-spirited.  But surely we shouldn’t be so cruel to our beautiful girl.”

Hitchcock:  “We directors must be cruel, Michael.  Our muse is Bluebeard himself, and we leave a string of discarded actresses hanging in our small back room.  I have a secret fondness for the Bluebeard nature of our artist-villain Crewe.  I believe he would have strangled Alice if she had not intervened.”

In Bluebeard's domain:  Vera Miles explores the house
in Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

In Bluebeard's domain:  Anna Massey explores the
darkroom in Peeping Tom (1960), directed by Michael Powell.
Powell:  “You should have more compassion for your fellow artists.  After all, not everyone with a paintbrush or a camera is a would-be murderer.”

Hitchcock:  “Aren’t they?  The camera is the ultimate weapon.  Women should scream in terror when they see one approaching.”

Powell:  “Then I must be a born criminal because I find myself looking at the world as if I was a camera—as if I were cinema itself.”

Hitchcock:  “That would either make you a sadistic killer or a film director.  May you choose the more respectable of these professions, Mr. Powell.”

Creative use of a camera:  James Stewart in
Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Creative use of a camera:  Carl Boehm and Moira Shearer
in Peeping Tom (1960), directed by Michael Powell.

Part Two, Artists and Their Models

Anny Ondra and Cyril Ritchard flirt in Blackmail.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
flirt in Shall We Dance (1937).
Fred meets Ginger and he fancies her.  He tells her that she can find him in a popular crowded restaurant at 6:30. Ginger goes to the restaurant with her stodgy boyfriend, curious to see if Fred will be there. When she sees Fred signaling to her in the crowd, Ginger breaks her date with her boyfriend and sneaks out to be with Fred instead.

Fred takes Ginger back to his apartment.  He tries some of his best lines on her, trying to entice her to come upstairs to see his art.  The audience waits for Ginger to give in, to dance with Fred, and to be swept off her feet into the happy-ever-after ending that she deserves.

I can’t help it!  The lead-up to the murder in Blackmail (1929) feels like an Astaire-Rogers flirtation scene to me!

Fred Astaire’s come-on line was always an invitation to dance, and it gained conviction from the fact that he truly was a real dancer.  In Blackmail, Crewe (aka The Artist) uses the come-on line that he’s an artist:  Would Alice like to come up and see his work?  She flirts in return, plays coy, then submits. Crewe aggressively pushes further.  Would she like to learn something new?  He steadies her hand as he shows her how to paint.  Would she like to pose?  He offers to paint her.

Simply substitute dancing for painting and you’ve got a classic build-up to an Astaire-Rogers routine.

To Crewe’s credit, his come-on line has legitimate truth behind it.  He IS an artist and the viewer’s two experiences of his art demonstrate legitimate talent.  We see his jester painting and we watch as he completes Alice’s portrait of a (nude) woman.  His talent appears to be real.

Of course, it all goes bad in a way that it never would with Astaire and Rogers. Crewe definitely attempts to rape Alice;  she murders him in an act of self-defense.  Her action is understandable, but a remarkably sour end to a potentially fine romance.

Attempted rape in Blackmail.
Hitchcock would struggle to understand the nature of violence all his life. After his death, biographies by men like Donald Spoto and Patrick McGilligan revealed aspects of Hitchcock’s own dark side, suggesting the large degree to which his own movies operated as a self-lacerating critique of his worst tendencies.  He easily identified with both victims and victimizers.

The aftermath:  Cyril Ritchard
dead in Blackmail.
In retrospect, Blackmail appears to have been a natural subject for Hitchcock. The controlling tendencies of Crewe, the sudden shift into violence, the ironic use of the jester painting, and the crushing guilt suffered by Alice echo down Hitchcock’s great movies.

By contrast, it’s hard to imagine a less congenial story for a director like Michael Powell.  In film after film, Powell celebrates his striving artists and his strong women.  There’s Leslie Howard’s sensitive aesthete in 49th Parallel (1941), Dennis Price’s musician in A Canterbury Tale (1944), David Niven’s poet in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Anton Walbrook’s theatrical director in The Red Shoes (1948).  But most of all there’s the matter of Powell’s final feature film, The Age of Consent (1969).  It’s hard to imagine a more complete contrast with the tone of Blackmail.

The Age of Consent is Michael Powell’s idyllic examination of the relationship between artist and model.  When Cora, the free-spirited girl played by Helen Mirren, suffers an attempted rape by the island’s  ferryman (Harold Hopkins), she pushes him overboard into the water and humiliates him by towing him ashore.  Later Cora actually causes a death—somewhat similar in its unpremeditated violence to the scene in Blackmail—but Powell breezily skims over any suggestion of guilt in her personality.  The artist-model scenes between Cora and Bradley Morahan (James Mason) portray the professionalism of an artist depicting sensuality while maintaining a guarded distance.

With The Age of Consent, it’s as if Powell indulged in making an anti-Blackmail, returning to the themes and plot points of forty years previous but transforming them into a proper Powell movie this time.

Attempted rape in The Age of Consent (1969),
directed by Michael Powell.

The aftermath:  Harold Hopkins tossed overboard in
The Age of Consent.

Helen Mirren as the artist's model and James Mason as the artist
in The Age of Consent.

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.

© 2012 Lee Price

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