Screening Log – Long Takes and Perfect Murders
Over the past month I’ve been sloooowly working my way through the Hitchcock filmography; my real goal was to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge (especially the silent films), but so far it’s mostly been a slew of old favorites.
Originally shot as a silent, Blackmail had a few dialogue scenes added in to become England’s first talkie. Once you know this, it becomes GLARINGLY apparent which shoot different shots came from; for the most part, everything that looks good is from the silent version, while everything that seems cramped and awkward is from the reshoots. Maybe the very fast-forwardable police procedural opening made a bit more sense in the silent version too, but I doubt it.
What’s most striking about the movie might be its seeming amorality, especially compared to Hitchcock’s later Hayes-code approved works. The heroine goes out on her boyfriend (who himself comes across as a bit of a jerk) and winds up killing a would-be rapist. The boyfriend, who’s also a police detective, finds out almost immediately and covers it up. When a witness attempts to blackmail the two, the boyfriend frames him for the murder and chases him off the roof of the British Museum, where he falls to his death. And the girl and the detective get away with it!
Of course, Blackmail isn’t quite as amoral as it seems. Indeed, it’s obsessed with the murderess’ guilt, a theme Hitchcock would explore again and again. And the ending, as the couple walk out of the police station, doesn’t really seem “happy.” If anything, the girl seems more disturbed and guilt-ridden than before! Odd movie.
The 39 Steps (1935)
A classic wrong-man spy thriller, I love this one especially for the cold, foggy desolation of the photography in the Scottish highlands scenes. Thankfully Hitchcock avoids the anti-Semitic potential of the novel.
Despite having a much higher budget, Suspicion can’t help but seem a bit cheap and set-bound compared to the light-footed 39 Steps. It’s kind of perversely admirable that the film is able to generate so much suspense entirely from shots of Joan Fontaine looking confused, especially since censorship reduced the story to nothing. Cary Grant carrying the glowing glass of milk up the stairs is a great sequence, but it’s just about all the movie has going for it.
Here’s a personal favorite. Despite what most people say, Rope DOESN’T try to give the impression of one continuous take; there’s at least three (by my count) clear, undisguised cuts. Ironically, Hitchcock’s constantly moving camera and fluid staging render these cuts unnoticeable, while the clumsy “disguised” cuts (the famous “push-in-and-pull-back-from-someone’s-coat” camera move) are immediately obvious.
A lot of folks consider Rope and Under Capricorn to be failed experiments, their long-take show-offiness a sign of Hitchcock’s hubris, and whose failure forced the director into a glorious second-wind of creativity in the ’50s after a decade of artistic ups-and-downs. But these two movies are Hitchcock at a real peak in technical precision, and I feel like Rope at least has the screenplay to back it up. It really keeps you hooked from beginning to end, and the long takes pull you along in a pretty mesmerizing way.
On a personal note, I watched this movie the first time with my uncle during a family gathering. Every time the characters pontificated on the Rights of the Superior Man to murder, he would turn to me and say, in all seriousness, “That’s what liberals believe!” and “See, that’s what liberals are trying to teach kids in college!” Well, I looked it up, and whaddaya know: it’s true! Modern liberals are all Nietzsche. All of them.
Under Capricorn (1949)
And here we have the movie that bankrupted Hitchcock’s production company and could have easily ended his career had he not had so many commercial successes behind him. If Rope‘s long-takes sometimes gives the impression of theater, Under Capricorn‘s occasional use of the same technique is gloriously cinematic, with the camera going in and out of doors, through windows, and up and down staircases in some of the best executed cinematography of this style ever, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, the movie as a whole isn’t that great. The elaborate long-takes are nice, but they were so complicated to pull off that many scenes had to be simplified and many close-ups and cutaways are the obvious result of reshoots. For every scene that’s expertly handled, there’s sequences that reek of desperation; it’s clear that at some point late into the tortured production, Hitchcock simply gave up.
Making matters far, far worse is the script, a dull rehash of Rebecca, right down to the evil maid. The script was a pet project for Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and co-writer of most of his films up to this point. She obviously put a lot of herself into Under Capricorn; Patrick McGilligan goes into some detail in his highly recommended Hitchcock biography, especially concerning her affair around the time of the film’s writing. The film’s failure by all accounts devastated her, and she retired from the industry.
Okay, so Under Capricorn isn’t a very good movie by most people’s criteria, but it has a deserved cult following. Hitchcock really could do this kind of costume drama just as well as anyone else, but of course it’s not really what he does best. After this, Hitch retreated back into lower-budgeted crime pictures, a move which quickly brought him back into commercial favor and made his masterpieces of the 1950s possible. In that sense, Under Capricorn is one of the major turning points in his career. Check it out, it’s really not THAT unwatchable…
NEXT TIME: Hitchcock made some of his most entertaining and artistically dense films in the ’50s; I’ll cover a few of those and maybe even delve into some silents. MAYBE.