Possessed

by Lauren Wilford

illustratioin by Brianna Ashby

illustratioin by Brianna Ashby

Most films with a twist ending beg to be started up again immediately, rewatched with a vigilant eye. Vertigo, somehow, doesn’t. It invites repeat viewings, to be sure. Martin Scorsese has described “being drawn and drawn to the picture, like being drawn into […] a very beautiful, comfortable, almost nightmarish obsession.” But we don’t rewatch Vertigo for clues; we watch to fall into its pull all over again. Most of the iconic, hypnotic images of Vertigo are images of Kim Novak as Madeleine: now in a flower shop, now falling into the San Francisco bay, now awash in eerie green light. The film is about a man obsessed, and so the camera stalks what he stalks, wants what he wants. It doesn’t matter that we learn two-thirds of the way through that “Madeleine” was a sham, that her blonde chignon and lost gaze were fictions meant to entrap Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie. We don’t care if she’s a fake. To fire up Vertigo is to be struck anew by Kim Novak in that green dress, to trail her in the car, to run up the bell tower after her.

You can do this many times over and never engage in the thought experiment that I’m about to propose: to experience Vertigo through the eyes of its female lead, Judy Barton. What was once a mystery becomes a horror film, a story of anxiety so profound that it approaches body horror.

A traditional plot summary would tell you that Vertigo is the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a former detective who leaves the force after a traumatic incident where his partner fell to his death. An old colleague, Gavin Elster, convinces Scottie to take on a private assignment to trail his wife, Madeleine. Elster explains to Scottie that Madeleine has been going into trances and behaving erratically, and that she appears to be possessed by the spirit of her suicidal great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. Scottie becomes infatuated with Madeleine and tries to keep her from harm, but his vertigo prevents him from following her up the bell tower where she jumps to her death. After being released from a mental institution, Scottie finds a young woman who looks much like Madeleine, and becomes obsessed with making her over into the image of his late love. This young woman is Judy Barton. We learn that Gavin Elster chose Judy to play the role of his wife in order to lure Scottie into witnessing his wife's “suicide”— in fact a murder. Judy plays along with Scottie’s makeover because she loves him, but eventually Scottie gets wise. He takes Judy back to the bell tower, forces her to admit her role in the murder and her affair with Elster, and conquers his fear of heights. Judy falls to her death, justice served.

Hitchcock tricks us into thinking of “Madeleine” and “Judy Barton” as different characters.Vertigo’s narration sticks so closely to Scottie’s perspective that we fall into the mystery every time. We meet ethereal blonde Madeleine, and then earthy redhead Judy, and never conflate them until Scottie’s climactic revelation. But it was always Judy Barton. This is her story.

*

One day, Judy Barton is spotted by a man named Gavin Elster. She walks down the street, surrounded by friends, looking good for no one in particular, unaware of the calculating male gaze that follows her. We actually get to see what this scene might have looked like—it’s reiterated for us in the second half of Vertigo, this time with Scottie standing in for Elster. The scene calls to mind the way that Alfred Hitchcock often found his female stars, his signature icy blondes. He saw Tippi Hendren in a commercial and snapped her up into a seven-year contract—and then proceeded to control her personal and professional life, down to the details of what she wore, ate, and drank.

In Judy, Elster recognizes raw material he can shape for his purposes. She bears a striking resemblance to his wife, a woman he wants to kill and replace. Judy is coached and directed. Judy’s clothes, hair, and manners are changed until she can pass for a mad Madeleine—both bewitched and bewitching. The first shot of Vertigo is an extreme close-up of the lipsticked lips and then mascara’ed eye of Judy, made up as Madeleine by Elster. The sinister spiraling melody of the opening theme accompanies one other sequence in the film—the makeover that Scottie forces Judy to undergo at the salon, again featuring extreme close-ups of her face. By the time Judy surrenders to Scottie’s aesthetic vision, she has made that blonde capitulation twice.

Somewhere in the course of her rehearsals, Judy becomes Elster’s lover. It might seem strange that a man would be attracted to a woman modeled after the wife he wants to kill, but control can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Judy, for her part, must have been flattered that such a formidable man singled her out. In offering her the role of Madeleine, he gave Judy the chance to perform a romantic, glamorous—and expensive— femininity to which Judy, a young Kansas-born transplant, never before had access. Later, playing Madeleine for Scottie, she would feel her seductive power over him. Now, playing Madeleine for Mr. Elster—for Gavin—Judy feels the frisson of knowing she is more compelling than the wife she is imitating; she feels the guilty electricity of outshining the last woman.

At this point, the film’s plot begins to record Judy’s story. Gavin takes Judy out to a restaurant, where he has arranged for Scottie to see her in costume. When Scottie first lays eyes on her, Judy stops until she’s sure she feels his gaze. And the next day—as she buys her bouquet, visits Carlotta’s grave, and stares at Carlotta’s portrait in the museum—she can sense Scottie’s eyes on her the entire time. His stalking is not subtle. He does not keep a proper distance. But Judy performs an elegant trance that makes him feel like he is doing good detective work.

She puts on a brilliant show when she leads him to the edge of the San Francisco Bay, delicately dropping flowers into the water before her fall. The trap works; Scottie dives in and pulls her out, feeling urgent and masculine as her wet body drapes across his arms.

Of course, Judy was not actually drowning in the bay, and she never went unconscious. She keeps her eyes closed and controls her breathing as Scottie removes her clothes and places her under the covers. She feels where his hands and eyes linger. When he “wakes” her, Judy perfectly presents as the doe-eyed Madeleine, damp-haired and serenely bewildered. Her voice is cool and musical, her lips lightly parted. She maintains just the right balance of seductive eye contact and demure glances at the floor. “I fell into the bay and you fished me out?” she asks, knowing exactly where to put the emphasis.

She knows how to make psychosis look feminine and attractive. Her “possession” by a suicidal spirit affords her lots of opportunities to gaze off into the distance, thrash gracefully, recount fairy-tale memories of a bygone world, fall into charming confusions, and to run, “lost,” into Scottie’s arms. “There’s so little that I know,” she coos, when Scottie presses her for detail on one of her “memories.” Scottie flatters himself that he can save her from her madness: “No one possesses you. You’re safe with me.”

Scottie is so fervent and focused in his passion for Madeleine that Judy is taken in. It’s breathtaking to be loved that hard. We can see Judy’s conflict in their kiss at the Spanish mission. Judy catches herself being swept up, wishing Madeleine were real so that this love could mean something.

She breaks away and runs up the steps of the bell tower, back to Gavin, the man who knows who she really is. But after the murder, Gavin leaves her.

“I cannot tell you exactly how much time passed, or how much happiness there was, but then, he threw her away…. You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power, and the freedom…. There are many such stories.”

Judy starts over. She spends months recovering from the pain of reshaping herself for a man and then being discarded anyway. She slowly remembers how to be Judy.

Until Scottie finds her again. “You remind me of someone,” Scottie tells her. “I’ve heard that one before,” she says. And she has—but that time, she knew that Gavin meant, “You’re like someone I loved, but better." This time, she knows that Scottie means, “You’re like someone I loved, but not quite.”

*

It’s dangerous to be compared to a partner’s former loves. At best, you’ll come out feeling superior; at worst, you can find yourself spiraling into obsessive research, trying to find out exactly where you stack up amid evidence of his taste. Knowing too much about what your partner likes can drive you mad—like finding his browser history full of pornography starring actresses who look a lot like each other and nothing like you.

Vertigo takes this anxiety to a twisted new level. Judy knows exactly what Scottie’s ex was like, because she played her. She knows every inch of the painful distance between her real self and his ideal.

It is Judy’s fate to remind men of someone else. When Scottie admits that he is attracted to Judy because she reminds him of Madeleine, Judy replies, “It’s not very complimentary.” But she clings to the hope that she can convince him to love her as she is. When she decides to go out with Scottie as herself, she goes to her closet to pick a dress. She pulls out the gray suit she wore as Madeleine, seems to consider it— and then buries it in the back of the closet. She is tainted by the knowledge of his desires. There are no unrestrained, innocent choices anymore. She can put on that purple frock and pray he’ll be appeased, but that gray suit will haunt her. When a woman in the suit walks past their table at dinner, Scottie turns his head immediately, not even bothering to hide his attraction. Judy slumps, crestfallen. There’s no use.

Vertigo is a film about fake female madness and real male madness. Judy’s “possession” as Madeleine in the first half of the film is benign, compelling, and carefully controlled. On the contrary, Scottie’s obsession with turning Judy into Madeleine is unhinged and threatening. Judy’s chameleon allure is a double-edged sword. In the first half of the film, she puts on the Madeleine costume to gain power over Scottie. In the second half, Scottie exerts his power by demanding the Madeleine costume in exchange for his love. When you know how to realize a man’s fantasies—to tap into his precise desires—you might be surprised to find you’ve pushed yourself as a drug and created a demanding addict.

From Judy’s perspective, the second half of Vertigo constantly threatens to become a slasher movie. Her innocent attempts to win Scottie over—showing him pictures of her family, holding hands on a walk in the park—are strangled by Scottie’s sinister presence. He looms over her and withholds affection until she breaks. The scene where he forces her to buy the gray suit in the department store is harrowing. Judy runs to the corner of the room, reflected in a mirror. Scottie comes up behind her and towers over her. The shot shows two terrified Judys boxed in by two steely Scotties. “I don’t like it!” she whisper-screams. “We’ll take it,” he says to the clerk.

When Judy returns from her final makeover, Scottie is upset that she hasn’t adopted Madeleine’s hairdo. “We tried it. It just didn’t seem to suit me.” Judy makes a pitiful last stand, hoping that Scottie can love at least a small part of her natural self. He cannot. So she puts her hair up, and melts into the kiss that he has so long withheld. This is a woman so desperate for love that she is willing to let men use her body as a canvas upon which to paint their desires. This is the kind of woman you could pull into a murder plot by making her feel irresistible.

*

Once, someone loved me because of a girl he thought I was. He misread my thoughtfulness as romanticism and my love of nature as an innocent, feminine wonder. I had the luck and misfortune of finding out about a crush he had carried around for years, an intense, mystical sort of crush on a girl who sang in a local band. I developed my own obsession with her, because she served as a convenient key to my boyfriend’s taste. I scrolled through her Instagram and Facebook, collecting insights. Everything I learned about her was both pain and power to me. She was willowy and perfect, with long auburn hair and wide doll eyes. She wrote songs about the sea, and poems about clouds and leaves, and took pictures of her boot-clad feet turned in toward each other, and I felt like I had her number immediately. It made me feel superior and sophisticated to pin down the performative, artsy femininity that had attracted my boyfriend, but it did me no good in the game of securing his love. It took me a year and a half to pull myself out of the self-destructive loop of knowing too well what he wanted, becoming it, rebelling against it, and obsessing again. If you’re a good enough actress to be capable of self-deception, it’s not so very bad to be loved for who you aren’t.

At first I felt like Judy in the first half of Vertigo: I knew more than he did about what he wanted, so I kept his love and a measure of control. But the image I created for him, unwittingly and by degrees, trapped me. If I stepped outside of it, I risked losing him.

Judy ran up the bell tower the first time in part to escape the trap she had set for herself with Scottie. We saw her from below, from Scottie’s point of view, running away. When she is in the tower again at the climax of the film, we see her from above, pushed from behind by a menacing Scottie. He’s furious that another man had a hand in creating the image that captivated him, blind to his hypocrisy: “Did he train you? Did he rehearse you?” He throws her against the wall, punishing her for acting out the fantasy that he demanded. She can’t win. “I walked into danger, let you change me, because I loved you,” she cries, trying to make Scottie see that her deception was borne out of desperation.

But there is no redemption for a woman found guilty of exploiting a man’s desire. Scottie doesn’t like finding out that his fantasies are not unique, that they have been quantified and catered to. He felt justified in manipulating Judy because he was making her in the image of a woman who was “naturally” that way, “pure.” When Scottie finds that there was no such transcendentally attractive woman in the first place, he responds with violence—as if he were an obsessed john realizing that his prostitute was only playing a character for him. Judy’s crime as Madeleine was to make her calculated allure seem innate, essential, unaffected, and thus revealing Scottie as a dupe, emasculating him. Scottie may not have ended up killing Judy for that, but Vertigo surely does.

Scorsese sees Vertigo as “a very personal film” for Hitchcock. It’s difficult not to, with all the parallels between Scottie’s treatment of Madeleine/Judy and Hitchcock’s treatment of his cool blonde stars. The first and most natural experience of the film is through Scottie’s (and perhaps Hitchcock’s) eyes, a man obsessed by the image of a woman. But it is also a film about a particularly feminine anxiety— the anxiety of being beheld. Judy’s story in Vertigo is about how intoxicating it is to be intoxicating, the seduction of seducing.

Hitchcock may never have meant for the film to be seen this way, but Vertigo grants remarkable humanity to its female lead (in large part thanks to Kim Novak’s performance, which reveals astonishing layers when you follow the story through Judy’s eyes). It is crushing to watch how swiftly and fully the power balance shifts for Judy Barton. Vertigo tells the story of a woman who kills and is killed for her longing to be loved—forever cursed to remind men of someone, and finally destroyed for reminding a man of herself.


Lauren Wilford has a degree in Aesthetics and Narrative Studies from Seattle Pacific University. She lives in Providence, RI, where she works as a barista in specialty coffee.


Spies Like Us

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

What’s very best about Ingrid Bergman is when and how she surprises. I first encountered her the way many contemporary audiences do, watching her play Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. In the 1942 romance, she is the revered, remembered passion that turns Humphrey Bogart tough on the outside and twisted up emotionally. When that love is thwarted—they plan to escape the Nazis together but Ilsa doesn’t show up for the trip—Ilsa absconds with all of Rick’s best nature: his good will, his accountability, his humanity, his moral outlook. He becomes a hologram of himself, acrimonious in spirit, willfully humorless to the extent only a devastated sensibility can be.

This is all backstory: Rick begins with nothing, and the lack has become a posture and a revenge. A reel into the film, Bergman’s Ilsa appears with the illuminating burnish of a celestial body. She makes things glow and reanimate — intimacies, loyalties, dreams. She amplifies Rick’s own goodness by showing a generosity that he reaches only through his connection to her. For Ingrid Bergman prompts a vulnerability that cracks open all hearts. She even made the icy impresario of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, fall unrequitedly in love with her.

Bergman first collaborated with Hitchcock in Spellbound, in which she plays the buttoned up psychiatrist Constance Petersen who runs off with an amnesiac patient. We find ourselves forgiving the breach of medical and ethical etiquette, partly out of wish fulfillment (the patient is the apogee of male beauty, Gregory Peck), but mostly because of Bergman’s innate decency. She’s a star who appears to resist all self-indulgence—and aren’t many kinds of attachment merely self-serving?—but who abandons herself to a feeling when it’s powerful enough to surpass considerable moral stricture. When an Ingrid Bergman character falls in love unsuitably, she certainly has applied all efforts to avoid doing so. She personifies the highest octave of morality in characters who are never prudish or repressed but always measured. In cinema, invariably, an Ingrid Bergman character encounters something—a feeling, a person, an ideal—worthy of allowing herself to become immeasurable. Conflict is the result.

As a director, Hitchcock liked to toy with certainties — emotional, sensory, and moral. Perhaps the smartest dramaturgical tack he takes in Notorious is to make Ingrid Bergman a fallen woman. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Ben Hecht can address and thwart the hypocrisies of the day by employing this singularly good actress to play an erratic and impetuous human being.

In Notorious, her Alicia Huberman offends patriots and puritans: she is the daughter of a Nazi sympathizer and a woman of loose character, indulging in reckless drinks and impulsive flings. Whether these habits are a coping technique or a worldview at work do not factor — Alicia is, foremost, a fallen woman. The story takes its title from her character’s ill repute. We meet Alicia’s circumstances before we meet her. She is under surveillance after her father has been convicted of treason. To distract herself, she throws a party and makes plans to sail away to Havana. Devlin (Cary Grant) appears at her house, without explanation or invitation. We understand very little about Devlin’s motivation in being there; he’s unusually silent for a Cary Grant role but characteristically dashing. The intimacy between them is immediate.

She confronts him: You’re a party crasher. I like you. On a whim, she dismisses her guests, save this silent and mysterious admirer. Maybe it’s time for a picnic, she murmurs. Outside?he asks. Too stuffy in here for a picnic. I’ll drive, she adds, daring him to deny her. She’s unsteady on her feet, swilling liquor until she gets to the door. She takes the wheel — the first of Hitchcock’s many erotic tropes in which his male protagonist succumbs to the thrill of allowing a woman to be in control. They swerve and skitter across the road. What’s this fog, she squints at Devlin, and he points out that it’s a strand of her own hair falling over her eyes.

Like an experienced Lothario, Devlin uses influence to ingratiate Alicia. He shows protection from the cop who pulls her over for drunk driving, but he also treats her with disdain, wrestling and overpowering her when she gets emotional. He is as cruel to Bergman as Bogart’s Rick, though by the time of the film’s release in 1946, the movie-going world understood the nature of this savagery: it is a defense. Then he proposes a bit of light espionage. Perhaps her guilt or self-loathing are appeased if she tarts herself out for the right side; perhaps Alicia is in need of direction. Devlin convinces her to become a field operative, spying upon Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a colleague of Alicia’s father who lives in Rio and consorts suspiciously with a ring of former Nazis.

As they arrive in Brazil, Devlin informs Alicia of her father’s death by his own hand: cyanide pill. The great tension of Alicia’s life has dissipated — she has nothing to rebel against or run from, and she finds herself liberated of her vices when there’s nothing she needs to blind herself from. It’s a very curious feeling. As if something happened to me and not to him. You see, I don’t have to hate him anymore.

Alicia leans to look at Rio through the plane window, and we sense in Devlin the uncomfortable undertow of attraction. It’s only a threat when it makes you feel vulnerable; that is, when it makes you feel. Let’s remember this is a Hitchcock film—a thriller not a romance—and the story in part addresses the nature of woman - not what she wants but what she is: kaleidoscopic, sexual, capricious, venal. Devlin’s scenes with Alicia are always bluffs, for he can’t comprehend her nature. Alicia is a woman who depends on male attention, and she returns the interest, leans into it. So many of Hitchcock’s films circle back to the same themes: obsession, memory, observation, identity. In a Hitchcock film, characters can cede to a compulsion but always resist and test a feeling.

Alicia: Scared?
Devlin: I’ve always been scared of women.
Alicia: Afraid you’ll fall in love.
Devlin: That wouldn’t be hard.

When Devlin’s CIA bosses inform him of Alicia’s assignment—that she’ll need to seduce Alex Sebastian to spy on him—Devlin is confronted with a dilemma. Should he object to this assignment on behalf of the woman who loves him; or should he keep silent and let her prove that she’s changed? The dangers of the job are evident to Alicia, who is wounded when Devlin doesn’t try to protect her from the assignment.

Alicia: If you’d only once said you’d loved me.
Devlin: Dry your eyes, baby, it’s out of character. Keep on your toes.

Bergman is, for the duration of Notorious, changed from her higher self to a degraded one in order to remind us all of what’s best in each of us. She is like Yvonne, the young woman in Casablanca who dates a German officer when Rick casts her aside but sings the Marseillaise with tears streaming down her face in musical battle against the German occupiers. Alicia needs an outside prompt to remind her of herself, of her better nature—she redeems herself through her self-sacrifice.

The screenwriter Ben Hecht was an extraordinarily gifted and fluent dramatist. He moved to Hollywood after receiving a telegraph from Herman Mankiewicz: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Hecht retained a novelist’s skepticism about the studio system’s moral and artistic values. “Would that our writing was as good as our lunches,” he quipped, though he crafted some of classic Hollywood’s best scripts: Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, His Girl Friday, Spellbound and many, many more. He hated the moralizing values promoted by Hollywood films. You can sense this in the dialogue he writes, particularly in Devlin’s ire at how his CIA bosses disregard Alicia because she takes drinks and lovers. Miss Huberman is first, last and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but she is never a lady.

Alicia easily lands her prey, and accesses his secrets. She witnesses one of Alex’s cohorts allude to the group’s secret (a substance is concealed in bottles in the wine cellar, a then little-known mineral called uranium), an offhanded blunder that results in the associate’s death. When Alex realizes that he has married an American agent, the mistake is as threatening for him as it is for her. He’s convinced that he has no choice but to keep her alive, poisoning her slowly, so that his Nazi friends do not suspect and kill him.

*

Notorious works most powerfully through its suspense and interruption of time. At the start of the film, when Devlin and Alicia become lovers, they share a long intimate scene in her Rio apartment. They won’t go out, they decide, they’ll stay in. This is meant to be the beginning of many such evenings — the start of Alicia’s domesticity as she and Devlin work alongside each other. Before long, they are interrupted by a phone call, but not before we get to the meat of the scene. Emotionally, we want to see the closeness between these characters who before long will be separated by work and by discord. Dramatically, we need to remember their bond.

The filmmakers conspired to create the longest kissing scene that could get past the film censor board. In those days, a screen kiss could last only three seconds. Hecht and Hitchcock get around this rule by punctuating the sustained embrace with dialogue and action. The characters move from room to room, making a phone call and planning a meal, always cheek to cheek, lip to lip. His stars were uncomfortable emotionally and physically with the staging, but the director understood what an audience wanted most. Hitchcock drily described the mise-en-scene as a kind of wish fulfillment; who wouldn’t desire a “temporary ménage à trois” with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman?

At the time, Bergman was the perfect woman to embody this role; she was publicly faultless and enshrined in public opinion as a poised, virtuous, emotional but not too emotional female. She was an actress as well as a star, her best self playing someone else, always searching for a mediated role that was new and different. But the curious thing about a star is where projection (practical, psychological) meets essence. Bergman’s face carried goodness — it’s nearly impossible not to find it there, even when watching her play a cruel or selfish or destructive character. It makes sense that so many of Ingrid Bergman’s roles involve redemption — in a few of them, she plays a nun or a saint. Each plane—the glimmering eyes, the prominent upturned nose, the sculptural cheekbones and sturdy jaw—demonstrates her artistic nature. Even when she plays against type, the overlay of some essential qualities hold sway over her roles, in symphony or in counterpoint.

This tension—between Alicia’s secret motivations and outward appearance, between Devlin’s wish to believe and his suspicion of her—drives the lovers apart. The further entrenched Alicia becomes with Alex, the more elusive the pained Devlin becomes, until Alicia learns that he plans to remove himself from Rio altogether for a new assignment. He doesn’t detect her suspicious illness until it’s nearly too late. When Devlin finally decides to intervene and they are reunited, Alicia looks younger and frailer. Grant helps her down the stairs in another long, tight, suspenseful close up, and at last, the audience has the reunion we’ve longed for: Bergman next to Grant next to us, all our best selves.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


Drink and a Movie: The Birds

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

First things first: most movies are better accompanied by a drink.

I don’t mean they’re all bad and you’ve got to drown your sorrows, though I sure would have liked Jurassic World more with a frosty pint in hand. It’s just that I find sipping often aids reflection, and besides, watching a movie at any time is a cause for celebration. You’ve got the leisure to watch and a whole world of cinema to explore. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate?

Plus, movies and drinks have a lot in common. Great drinks set a mood. So do great movies. Every cinephile remembers the first time a movie blew their mind apart, and everyone remembers the first truly great drink that showed them there’s more to life than Bud Light and Jager bombs.

So in the spirit of celebrating the movies, alongside the atmospheric (and sometimes medicinal) properties of a dram or a highball, in Drink and a Movie I’ll pair the two, aiming for both fittingness and an element of surprise.

Are you in? Good. Let’s begin.

*

When I was a kid, Mom told me about a movie she watched when she was young. “There were tons of birds,” she said. “And they flew into a town and killed everybody, and I had nightmares for a year.” I don’t remember why she told me this; probably we’d just seen a flock of crows settle on the lawn, or something similar. But that vision—of a flock of birds killing everyone—nestled its way into a corner of my imagination, and so even when I got older and watched Psycho and Vertigo and Rear Window and North by Northwest, I skipped The Birds. Too terrifying.

Now I am 31, so I gamely gathered my courage and watched The Birds, finally. I still think Vertigo is much scarier, but in the days since I watched it, The Birds has continued to sit in the back of my mind or, I guess, roost back there. (I’m sorry.)

Part of what’s so startling about the movie is it starts out as a different film—a slightly mysterious flirtation, a movie in which you suspect the problem here is Melanie (Tippi Hedren), who is cheeky and adventurous but also thinks little of hopping in the car to deliver a practical joke to a stranger a long drive from San Francisco. Or maybe the real trouble is Mitch (Rod Taylor), who might have stalked Melanie around town after seeing her in court. Could also be the schoolteacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), who rents out a room in her home and looks at Melanie askance for her association with Mitch. Or there’s always creepy Mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy)—creepy mothers being one of Hitchcock’s recurring characters.

All these characters are there, but the center of the plot seems hollow for a long while. Okay, so Melanie drives up to Bodega Bay, but she seems nice enough. Mitch doesn’t appear to have any bodies buried in the backyard. Annie turns friendly after a while. Lydia makes dinner for everyone and is honest with Melanie and good to her children.

And so, if all you know is that eventually birds are going to land and bad stuff will go down, then you might not be paying attention at the moment where the movie shifts from small-town drama to Greek-style myth. It creeps up on you, not unlike the flocks themselves.

The moment, I think, is in the diner, when the cast of characters and a veritable chorus of town characters gather to discuss what’s happening, complete with Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist, who grimly suggests it’s barely worth resisting, and (my personal favorite) the drunken Irishman quoting Scripture in the corner and intoning the end of the world.

And the end of the world, it seems to be. It starts as a whisper but grows to a bang. Smoke seems to attract the birds, from the tiny fires at the end of people’s cigarettes and the larger smoke blown up a chimney by a housefire, climaxing in the wide shot of the town on fire, burning after petrol leaks onto the pavement. These birds are looking for fire—or hell, I suppose—and they know how to find it. They silently and then aggressively colonize, pausing only for collective breaks that confuse everyone and throw them off their game—first the jungle gym, then the town center, then the house itself where our heroes have gathered (minus poor Annie).

What seems obvious by the end is the film’s resemblance to Night of the Living Dead, which came out five years afterward, in 1968. The latter film has birds, not zombies, but everyone’s still trapped in a house trying to get out. Critics at Dead's release argued about what exactly the film was critiquing, but watching it today it’s hard not to read it as at least a metaphor for the Cold War; the same seemed awfully true as I watched The Birds—which in turn is based on the 1952 Daphne du Maurier story, itself a parable of the Cold War.

In pop culture today, we’re finally mythologizing and retelling the history of the Cold War—there’s Bridge of Spies and The Americans, for starters—so maybe it’s time to revisit The Birds and hear what Melanie and Mitch and a flock of crows are trying to say. In the meantime, though, you might get freaked out.

And so, I recommend the following cocktail to ease the panic just a bit. It’s a twist on the old Blood and Sand, for obvious reasons, but this one is called the Bodega Bay. Cherries, a favorite of birds, grow on trees and make a good liquor, plus they’re tart like a reception a stranger might get in town. Vermouth is fortified wine, and it’s generally flavored with botanicals—roots, barks, flowers, other things favored by birds, especially ones who are invading your space. Oranges for California, of course. And smoky scotch for the hellfire (you can go with most any scotch, but if you want to have the full apocalypse in your glass, I recommend Laphroiag).

To make, it’s pretty easy: for one serving, mix a half jigger each (.75 oz) of cherry liquor (most people recommend Cherry Heering), sweet vermouth, orange juice, and scotch. Put it in a shaker filled with ice, shake it around, and strain it into a cocktail glass. Or if you’re holed up hiding out from a silent and deadly outside force, too nervous to make much noise, just mix everything together in a glass and add a few ice cubes, then take them back out in a moment (or don’t, if you’re staring fearfully at the boarded-up windows).

Normally you’d garnish a Blood and Sand with a little bit of orange peel, but this is a Bodega Bay, and it’s getting a little crazy out. So sprinkle just a dash of black pepper on top—like a small, manageable flock—and drink it down, conquering your fears and staving off danger. For now.


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington PostThe AtlanticThe Los Angeles Review of BooksPacific StandardMovie MezzanineBooks & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.


Murder Wet from Press

© BFI/Park Circus Films

© BFI/Park Circus Films

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog was not the director’s first film, but it is now regarded as his first serious thriller: the one which marked him out as a director of singular talent and vision. It established the signature elements for which he would become famous: not only his blondes, his taste for the psychosexual, and his technical innovations, but also his effortless confidence in his medium, his careful manipulation of the audience’s expectations, and his keen sense of black humour. The Lodger might seem like a curiosity when compared to classics like Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo, but even without that context it makes for a fascinating film in its own right.

The first thing we see is a woman’s face frozen in something like a scream of agony or ecstasy, her blonde hair bathed in an unearthly glow. ‘To-Night Golden Curls’ flashes across the screen in the style of a neon sign. She has been murdered, it seems, and her death is soon relayed from coffee-bar gossip to the journalist’s notebook, then through telephone, radio, and teletype machine. The only witness saw the killer with his face wrapped in a scarf, and through the communication networks of the modern world, the death of an individual is transmitted into a kind of hysteria around a figure known only as ‘The Avenger’.

The film is an adaptation of the 1913 novel of the same name by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which in turn was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. By the time The Lodger appeared in cinemas in 1927, that notorious case was still potentially within living memory for its audience, yet the film retains an almost total disinterest in the details of the crimes committed. As in a conventional crime story, we follow a policeman as he pursues the case, but he isn’t a Poirot or Holmes, and he has none of their genius for observation or penetrating intuition. He is a blunt instrument guided by jealousy, and as much as anyone else he is shown to be in the total grip of the film’s subject: the aura of mystery around murder.

This, rather than the deed itself, is the central source of interest. The actual killer and victim are rendered almost irrelevant. Instead, in the expression of the story we are shown how this potent aura of fear comes to be amplified all out of proportion by the myriad techniques of publication and broadcast. In this sense at least it remains a film entirely relevant to life in the twenty-first century as much as it was almost a hundred years ago. We possess today this same impulse to share what we consider the worst examples of human nature, and to pursue perceived malefactors in a rush for moral righteousness.

After the initial collage of images that forms the introduction, we follow Daisy, a golden-haired ‘mannequin’, and her relationship with a strange new housemate who moves into the floor above her. He emerges from the darkness wreathed in fog with a scarf around his face; an image which, combined with his reclusive manner and his delicate sensibility, places him as the prime suspect in the eyes of the locals. The lodger himself is played by Ivor Novello, a strikingly beautiful man with a rare presence and natural grace on screen. The long stationary takes of silent film required a whole different kind of acting than today’s movies: every action had to be stylised and wholly deliberate, exaggerated in a way which draws attention to even the smallest gesture. Novello handles this masterfully, imbuing his character’s every action with a sympathetic gentility that immediately leads the audience to doubt his assumed guilt.

At first our man seems a sinister figure. He is unblinking, unsmiling. On seeing that his new room is filled with pictures of women, he insists on turning them all to the wall. When Daisy brings him tea, he draws the butter knife playfully across her stomach in a gesture of imagined violence. Later, over a chess game, he stares at her with what can only be called predatory intent. Not only is he from a different class of English society, but he lives above and apart from the rest of the world, engrossed in his own oblique obsessions, opening his door only to accept the beloved Daisy. As their relationship blooms, to the audience he becomes an increasingly sympathetic figure in relation to the locals around him, while in the camera’s eye their depiction takes on a grotesque quality that verges on contempt.

Hitchcock claims that he originally intended the film's conclusion to be far more uncertain in its resolution, but pressure from the studio forced him to edit it in such a way as to cast Novello’s character as the unfortunate victim of a series of misunderstandings. But while he may not have killed anybody, he is hardly innocent in the broadest sense, and his character remains defined by secret obsessions and darkly inexplicable gestures. In his pursuit of revenge for the death of his sister, he becomes a shadow of the real killer: a literal avenger in pursuit of a notional one.

This idea of a man—and a movie—besieged by a hysterical mass of ill-informed public has more than a faint air of snobbery about it today. We expect a little more accountability from our suspects, and from our artists. Yet this combination of fascination and fear of the crowd was a common trope of the film and literature of the time, going back to the works of Baudelaire and Poe; rather than simple disdain, it was a style deeply concerned with the ways in which we might cope in the intense nervous excitement of the modern metropolis. The Lodger demonstrates that any expression of individuality must frequently and perhaps necessarily conflict with the lives of cruel, small-minded and impressionable people, but offers no solution beyond the presumption of innocence over guilt, of depth and complexity over hype and artifice.


Patrick Vickers is an editor of the kind of stuff nobody would willingly read. Occasionally, he is a writer. He blogs on video games, books, and his life with his partner in West London.


Two Thrills

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

Movies and culture exist in a feedback loop, like language and consciousness, each making the other—but no doubt movies make consciousness, too, and they certainly influence language, as does culture, so tracking the manifold inter-relationships quickly becomes impossible. I got to thinking about this because I was in the mood for a well-made thriller so I watched Three Days of the Condor. It was made in 1975, and is certainly a product of its time. Robert Redford works for the CIA as a reader looking for encrypted texts. While he is out to lunch, everyone in his unit is slaughtered. Later we discover why (he had found a plot to overthrow an unnamed Middle Eastern country) and by whom (freelance assassins hired by the renegade operation within the CIA itself which had hatched the plot). Redford quickly realizes there is no one he can trust; the renegade operation has penetrated the CIA to the highest level. They use one of Redford's friends to lure him to a meeting then try to kill him. He is the Man Alone who must immediately learn difficult skills to survive.

The plot formula has a Darwinian message at its heart, but it also contains the glimmer of transformation, since the Man Alone is always an innocent (Redford is a bookish type who rides a bicycle to work through New York City traffic), and the innocent is treated to an avalanche of experience—in this case, of the action variety. Redford kills a world-class professional assassin and martial arts expert in hand-to-hand combat. Sure he does, although we don't doubt it because we see him do it (just one example of what movies can get away with that books can’t). Through his reading, he has learned how to tap phones, scramble tracking devices, and find which hotel an unidentifiable room key belongs to by the inscription on its edge. He also abducts Faye Dunaway and treats her in a way that would now make audiences question their identification with him on which the movie depends. This abduction of the woman is lifted straight from The 39 Steps, with the addition of a mid-seventies pre-AIDS attitude toward sex and a hazy Hollywood awareness of feminism that seems to consist entirely of an endorsement of a woman's right to have sex as casually as men. Dunaway does have a boyfriend (Redford discovers his shirts in the closet), but he has left for a trip to Vermont, where Dunaway is supposed to meet him. Redford handles her roughly, twisting her arms and tying her up, which of course she may secretly enjoy and anyway he has to do it, right? She doesn't believe his story. She thinks he's crazy. He has no choice but to use force. His life depends on it (and here the Darwinian message asserts itself: the need to survive trumps good behavior). She finds out he's telling the truth when the world-class professional assassin, preposterously disguised as a mailman, shows up at her apartment and the fight to the death ensues, during which she cowers in the corner in good girlish fashion.

Her discovery (necessary in the plot to switch the abducted woman’s allegiance to the hero) is both more violent and more passive than in The 39 Steps. In Hitchcock’s movie, Madeleine Carroll slips out of the handcuffs attaching her to Robert Donat, and sneaks out of the room at the same moment the foreign spies chasing them happen to be reporting to the head spy. She had thought they were policemen, and overhearing their report she learns Donat's crazy stories about foreign spies are true. In Hitchcock's movie (released in 1935) the enemy is foreign, and in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor the enemy is the CIA, which itself bespeaks a profound cultural shift in the forty years between the two films—if not in the eyes of the respective directors, then in the producers' ideas of the audience's attitudes.

Meanwhile, back in Faye Dunaway's apartment, she and Robert Redford do the deed (also in contrast to Hitchcock's film—Donat does no more with Madeleine Carroll than take her hand at the end, but The 39 Steps is actually a much sexier movie). Dunaway and Redford do it in a Very Artistic And Tasteful way, intercut with shots of her photographs (she’s an “art photographer”). The sex scene is hokey and would probably provoke laughs today in a movie house full of teenagers. Redford has shown himself to be an ultra-sensitive respondent to Her Work ("They're lonely. Pictures of places without people, trees without leaves, not winter or fall, but between seasons. November."). So he's really a Sensitive Guy, although earlier he bounced her around and said, "I haven't raped you yet, have I?" And she responded: "The night is still young." Rape is no longer a matter for even lame wit in movies, and we know now that it has nothing to do with sex.

Dunaway's character, while bland in itself, is an interesting cultural study because it’s poised on the cusp of feminist consciousness. She has an independent profession but she wants a man who will overpower her. She is sort of smart and spunky (she calls herself "a spyfucker"), but apologizes and almost mews after she asserts herself. Yet the morning after they have sex she seems to be able to detach as quickly as he does. "You are a sweet man to be with," she says, and when they part she says she would like to show him the photographs she has never shown anyone else (also unintentionally hilarious). Does she return to her boyfriend in Vermont? Does she tell him she screwed a CIA agent? Who cares? That’s the last we see of her.

Part of her blandness probably comes from her status as "love interest," an accessory to the man's story. It is his survival and transformation through experience that drives the plot, although Redford’s transformation consists solely in his learning to distrust his employer (the CIA). Donat is transformed more profoundly in The 39 Steps, at least implicitly. The love story begins about a third of the way through the movie and carries through until the end. Donat is a rather devilish bachelor, and gets into his predicament by picking up a woman in a music hall who turns out to be a spy. He also flirts with the wife of a Scotsman, and uses her loneliness and attraction to him to get her help, and he doesn't mind touching Madeleine Carroll's legs while the two of them are handcuffed and she takes off her stockings in a scene played for laughs rather than erotic charge. Hitchcock’s movie is too witty to be solemn about anything, but there are vague implications that some change in Donat’s (sexual) character occurs because he finds love.

Like Redford, he has to solve the mystery, but does so in a completely bumbling way, making every mistake possible. First, he takes the spy home with him (and serves her haddock). He’s skeptical of her story and has to be convinced, exactly like Madeleine Carroll later in relation to him: there is sweet irony in this. Faye Dunaway too is skeptical, but Redford was never skeptical and lacks this crucial humanizing element. At the end of Three Days of the Condor, Redford gives the story of corruption within the CIA to The New York Times. The End. It seems like a joke now that we have seen what the American media has done with the heroic reputation it acquired after Watergate and the Pentagon Papers: infotainment.

Both movies are men's stories, as is the message of individual survival that Pollack delivers and Hitchcock plays with. Madeleine Carroll gives as good as she gets. She is feisty. The relative importance of the female leads is embodied by the sequence of events: Dunaway simply drops out of the story, whereas Madeleine Carroll is essential to the end and presumably beyond the end. Redford is an Ubermensch, brilliant and physically courageous beyond belief. His appeal is visceral and visual, another language than the one used in books. (The beautiful are the good and the ugly the bad, as in fairy tales.) But to identify with Redford is also to identify with his story, including the implicit message: do it yourself, look out for number one, be smart and be tough—what most boys used to learn and most still do, as well as some girls now, too.

The 39 Steps works differently with our sympathy and identification. Donat is not an Ubermensch. He's kind of a horny schlub. He goes to a music hall and a gorgeous woman asks if she can go home with him so he takes her home and fries her a fish as foreplay. Things happen to him. He makes big mistakes. After the first mistake (picking up a spy who’s packing a gun), he goes right to the leader of the enemy spy ring; then he goes to the police, who arrest him. He gets handcuffed to a woman who constantly tries to get him caught, mocks him, and makes trouble literally every step of the way. He is saved because of his sexual appeal (Scotsman's wife) and dumb luck (the wife of the innkeeper), mostly through the agency of women. The woman who made his survival (comically) more difficult finally becomes his ally. She becomes instrumental to his survival, and finally his salvation. It is still a man’s story, but the agency of grace is not his intelligence and toughness—individual "virtues" of traditional masculinity—but good fortune.

The 39 Steps not so much argues for but enacts another way of seeing things, another view of life: ironic, light, funny, and uncharacteristically benign for Hitchcock. In both movies, an innocent hero has to get experience fast in order to survive, and, in addition to avoiding the various forces hunting him, he must also singlehandedly solve the mystery that threatens his life. This dreary social Darwinism cries out for comic relief, and we get it throughout The 39 Steps, from the first moments the music hall patrons heckle Mr. Memory ("Who discovered pip in poultry?") and start a brawl that turns into a riot when someone fires a gun. The gun turns out to have been fired by the beautiful spy, which gets the plot in motion. There are so many comic moments extracted from Robert Donat’s handcuffing to Madeleine Carroll that the plot morphs midstream from thriller to romantic comedy (or thriller and romantic comedy).

The movie ends with an inspired visual gesture very characteristic of Hitchcock: in front of the just expired Mr. Memory, who has revealed the nefarious intentions of the foreign spy ring (The 39 Steps), Donat and Carroll voluntarily take each other's hands, which have been involuntarily handcuffed together for most of the movie. The binding now becomes a bond. Like all romantic comedies, traditionally ending in marriage, it's a story of transformation, of two conflicting halves of the psyche joined in harmony, of desire fully fulfilled. It applies to both men and women, gay or straight, and leaves us all feeling happy. At that one moment, at least, we can believe it’s possible. It's what we wish for ourselves, inside and out.


Michael Ryan is Director of the MFA Program in Poetry at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is This Morning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).


Tracing Time Without a Clock

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Alfred Hitchcock didn’t much like Rope. Actually, neither did James Stewart, its biggest star. Hitchcock made it to challenge himself, as a stunt, but realized afterwards that filmmaking’s greatest charm is editing—to eliminate that aspect is to lose the most essential cinematic qualities of cutting and montage, he said. Regardless, Rope is a stunning picture, and not only because of its uniqueness. The concept of the 80-minute-long-take isn’t always satisfying, as the masked cuts are sometimes stagey (and there are four unmasked cuts to break them up, made almost invisible by a history of continuity editing), but the film has other things going for it.

It was Hitchcock’s first color picture, and also the first from his production company Transatlantic Pictures, which he founded with Sidney Bernstein. It’s not a murder mystery in the traditional sense, but it’s an incredibly suspenseful experience. And without traditional editing, Rope’s camera movement becomes a source of mystery. In a single long take, where will the camera go next, what will it focus on, what will it choose to show or withhold from the viewer?

The film opens with an establishing shot of Sutton Place, on the Upper East Side of New York City. The credits roll and pedestrians stroll freely along the sidewalk. It's the last fresh air we get for almost the entire film, the remainder confined to the interior of a single apartment. The camera tracks in slowly to a building, pulls in closer to a window ledge, and suddenly, there’s a piercing scream. At this point there is a direct cut through to the apartment behind the curtains; the only cut in the film that Hitchcock intends the audience to notice. The body of a young blonde man collapses, his neck strangled with a piece of rope. We’ve witnessed a murder.

It’s here that Hitchcock gets a joke in, perhaps at the expense of the industry’s censors (which were “famously hardass,” according to D. A. Miller). After committing murder, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) enclose the body inside a wooden chest, and collapse, almost breathless, against each other. Brandon turns on the light, but Phillip flinches and doesn’t want to move. Brandon lights a cigarette. It’s all observable post-coital screen behavior, Hitchcock associating sex and murder as desires of the flesh. Desires to possess, to conquer. Brandon, the more indulgent and more dangerous of the two murderers, begins to describe how he felt when committing the murder, when exerting his superiority over his race. “I don’t remember feeling much of anything, until his body went limp and I knew it was over,” he says, tightly clutching his champagne glass with one hand, and stroking its base with the other. “And then I felt...tremendously exhilarated!” He could just as easily be talking about a sexual encounter, and here their murderous impulses are clearly coded as simply a rush, an act to bring on satisfaction, a temporary feeling of elation. The two men, by all perceivable evidence, are lovers, living together as a couple in their apartment, and this has been offered before as evidence of their homosexuality. There are other things that point conclusively to their being a couple; for instance, shared holidays, a shared car, and a maid seeming to suggest they share a bed.

Following this, Brandon and Phillip begin preparations for a party they will be hosting that afternoon. The party is for David, the man they’ve murdered, and his family and friends. They arrange a buffet in their living area, where they will serve food from the chest in which they’ve hidden David’s body. It’s part of a plan to privately boast of their achievement, and Brandon is delighted, but Phillip is a bit more uncomfortable. The guests, including David’s father, aunt, girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler), friend Kenneth (Douglas Dick), and old schoolmaster Rupert (Stewart) are led to believe that David might arrive at any moment, but he never does, and the audience knows he never will. The party takes place over the remaining duration, and the film is thus defined by the intermingled sensations of waiting and anticipation. Will they be discovered, or will someone give them away?

Watching it over and over again for research, I realized that Rope is the most remarkable film about time—both in narrative and production—that actually has no denoted time in it. If you are interested in film time, or horology, you may have noticed that there are almost no clocks in Rope. There’s a small one on the kitchen wall, I think, too small to read. Another small, ornate clock surfaces on a desk, but it’s impossible to decipher the time. On several occasions, someone’s wristwatch becomes visible—like Brandon’s, which emerges briefly from his sleeve after the guests have left. The time is always hard to read, the glimpse is too quick, or blurred, or may not fit in with the assumed time frame. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that Rope was supposed to take place some time between 7:30pm and 9:15pm, and to affirm that, it has an appearance in Christian Marclay’s 24-hour opus The Clock (2010), somewhere around nine o’clock. Other references in Rope are to abstract time: Janet says that she’s “a new woman, punctual as a clock.” (David’s aunt replies that punctuality is very unfeminine.) But the clock referred to remains elusive. No one mentions the time, or concrete time, only how much they are waiting. And there is so much waiting; nearly the entire runtime of the film is a waiting game: waiting for David to arrive and for the rope to run out. Rope achieves such anxiety, because it’s so involving. The suspense is in David’s absence, in being constantly made to feel as though we are waiting for someone who we know perfectly well is already dead.

Like Rear Window, which came later, time is told by the transient color of the sky: the darkening of the afternoon sun through the gray of the late afternoon, oranges of dusk, and the heavy black of nightfall. It was shot on set, the metropolitan backdrop constructed in a studio, and Hitchcock wanted to take advantage of the Technicolor process as an atmospheric and narrative device. He wasn’t satisfied by the first attempt at the color development, so he hired a weather guru to advise on the tone and cloud formations of the sky. The skyline begins as a monotonous gray, and its gradual change is complemented by the setting sun glistening orange on the sides of buildings and bouncing off clouds. It’s almost barely noticeable, just like reality, and suddenly the sky is dark. We have been lulled along. We still don’t know what time it is.

In the absence of a clock, though, Brandon and Phillip are both tightly wound. (Dall so uncharacteristically so that I watched this and Gun Crazy about five times each in as many months before I realized they starred the same actor.) The camera creeps, moving from reaction shots to the object in view slowly. Conversations occur off-screen, and onscreen dialogue is traded in whispers. It’s like the camera is wound too, perpetually circling the action.

Even in the absence of a clock, the tension in Rope rises at a slow, almost unbearable pace. I showed this film to some friends and we were all pretty much prostrate on the couch, unable to find reprieve. Its palpable, throbbing sense of time expiring is what makes it a film like nothing else. Once the opening credits come to a close, there is no more score music, only interior sounds—Manhattan noises, and a little music wafting from the radio. Phillips plays the piano, too: Francis Poulenc’s "Mouvement Perpétuel No. 1" (a movement of perpetual motion, like the camera), made to sound slightly avant-garde by Granger’s inexpert piano fingering skills. He plays it repeatedly. There’s even a metronome, which acts as a substitute timepiece in the film, keeping nonspecific, sped-up time.

Rope’s temporal anxiety also stems from its spatiality. Objects become hyper-situated, tending to move slowly or not at all. A piece of rope, a pile of books, a loaded gun, enter into the frame unassumingly, but eventually take center stage. The wooden chest almost threatens to expose David’s body. Smoke slowly wafts from chimney and plants in the distant city, polluting the skyline. Just as gently, sounds occasionally waft into the apartment every so often from the street below, immersing us in Manhattan. It’s a single-set film, likeRear Window, only this time, the exterior is much more subtle in its intrusion. What’s outside is barely noticed or commented upon, but as part of the sensory make up, it matters. Off-screen dialogue overlaps the visuals onscreen, revealing unspoken truths about the narrative. When the guests are leaving, David’s father says, “I’m very sorry we had to spoil it,” at the exact moment that Rupert discovers David’s hat in the hall closet. The maid gives it to him accidentally, and he notices the initials “D. K.” printed in its lining. It's a discovery that gives the game away, intensifying Rupert’s suspicions of sinister action, and well and truly spoiling the party.

Boxed in the apartment for so long, with so many guests, Rope is intensely restricting. It imprisons. It’s the most claustrophobic of Hitchcock’s films, even more so than Dial M For Murder (1954), which barely leaves an apartment and its outer hallway, or Lifeboat (1944), confined mostly to a small dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean. With no cross-cutting, and no point-of-view, the camera makes Rope an exhausting film, constricting the chest. The proverbial microphone, which starves the ears for comforting sound or music, adds to the exhaustion. Brandon and Phillip hold their breaths, alternately nervous, drunk, and terrified. When all the guests have left, Brandon lets out a deep, long-held breath. Unintentionally, he offers this vital sign of life, exhaling the life he stole from another. The audience exhales with him. After being drawn along in this experiment with time, with a screen that hasn’t breathed for nearly eighty minutes, we are finally offered relief.

In the final act, neon lights from the nocturnal landscape brighten the apartment, a motif that would return in Vertigo. In both films, these stark neon lights flood interiors, destabilizing spaces by tinting them with warm and cool shades. It’s perhaps this eerie glow that reveals the sinister truth about Brandon and Phillip. When Rupert’s suspicion leads him to David’s body, the couple realizes they’re done for; there’s no way out. Brandon calmly pours himself a large glass of brandy (wouldn’t you?), and Phillip sits down to the piano. He begins to play a melody, a more melancholy one this time, leaving "Mouvement Perpétuel" aside. The perpetual movement of the camera, and their life as we know it, finally comes to an end.


Eloise Ross is a writer, film programmer, and occasional university lecturer currently living in Melbourne. She is trying to finish her PhD in cinema studies but keeps getting distracted by other films.


Psychos

by Tyler Banks

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“I like stories with lots of psychology.” - Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a classic several times over, with more than a few iconic elements; the set design of the Bates Motel, the Bernard Herrmann score, the “gearshift” shock of The Shower Scene, Hitch’s infamous No-Late-Entries-Allowed marketing policy (a tactic borrowed from French director Henri-Georges Clouzot and his film Les Diaboliques), among others. As a pop-culture obsessed teenager, coming of age in the 90’s, I was aware of most of these elements well before I actually saw the film, via out-of-context references on television, in movies, or in the culture in general. I had seen the Bates Motel set on the Universal Studios Tour well before I ever felt compelled to pull a rental copy off the shelves at Seattle’s Rain City Video.

Given what I picked up purely through pop-culture osmosis, I felt like I knew what to anticipate from the film before I popped in the DVD to experience it if for myself. But the element that I didn’t fully anticipate—the one which has lodged itself in my brain in the years ever since that first viewing—is perhaps the movie’s most iconic feature: Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins’ conception of the character of Norman Bates. When I was growing up, “horror movies,” to my mind, were things like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th or Child’s Play, with supernatural killers like Freddy Kruger, Jason, and Chucky. While those movies' unstoppable forces, surreal imagery, and bloody kills could effectively deliver scares, it was always easy for me to eventually shake off the terror thanks to their fantastical elements. I knew that I wasn’t in danger of Freddy showing up in my dreams to murder me.

But I found Norman Bates not so easy to shake off.

Bates, for the most part, is hospitable (if meekly disconcerting) and affable (if strangely skittish) one moment—but willing to sink a knife into your chest and dump the body in a bog the next. I found this all the more unnerving because there actually are people like Norman out there—people who show one version of themselves to the world at large and keep another entirely hidden. Anthony Perkins fully embodies this duality. He injects a wounded, amiable quality to Norman in the early going that makes his dead-eyed stare at the end all the more chilling. For all its pulpy and larger-than-life elements, it’s this plausibly real-life element that I find most enduringly scary about Psycho. And it’s this same element that I find completely lacking in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake.

“Our Psycho showed you can't really appropriate. Or you can, but it's not going to be the same thing." - Gus Van Sant

In one of the oddest Hollywood-Cache-Cash-In-Moments in film history, Van Sant traded in his industry goodwill from Good Will Hunting to make what was reported to be a shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock classic. He would oversee slight updates to the script, an adaptation of the score, and filming in color—but this was to be more re-staging than re-boot. Van Sant appears to have been drawn to the project simply because it seemed like a lark, which, when all’s said and done, seems a perfectly valid reason to take a Hollywood studio’s money. In 2003, Van Sant told the AV Club:

"There were two things [motivating the project]: One was just the experiment of seeing what would happen. There was nothing good or bad or right or wrong in the outcome. The other part was whether the studio could make money with it, and that part was okay. It wasn't a disaster. The project was designed in some ways to see what the studios would do if something like that made money. Would it be something they would occupy themselves doing, making shot-by-shot remakes of other movies? Which was sort of a prank, really."

Genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express, In The Mood for Love, Hero), for whom the 1998 Psycho marked his first Hollywood project, told The Guardian in 2014 that he saw the film as “a $20m artwork...It's a reinterpretation of a black and white piece of art. Don't even worry about the film. It's the concept. It's fucking Duchamp." And while this post-modern, Dadaist approach is maybe the best way to appreciate the film, it also explains why it often feels so inert in the scares department.

Regardless of whether Van Sant’s version lives up to the thrills of original, there are plenty of interesting features to the remake — Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen have fun re-thinking Lila Crane and Sam Loomis as more aggressive and unrefined versions of the characters, while Bill Macy seems to enjoy doing an underplayed cover-version of Martin Balsam’s Detective Arbogast. As Van Sant later admitted, the “shot-for-shot” quality was overstated to create interest, so there are plenty of opportunities to note which elements have been tweaked, and how those changes might affect our viewing. But in the end, it’s hard to experience the movie as much more than a formal experiment.

One of the major reasons why the film can’t stand on it’s own? Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. Whereas Perkins’ take on the character made the threat of an evil that hides in plain view palatable, it’s hard to see anything other than “Vince Vaughn playing Norman Bates” in the remake. I like Vince Vaughn as an actor and an oversized movie-star personality but, to me, his persona robs the Bates role of the underlying everyman quality that so affected me in the original. Balancing the cordial neighbor with the killer inside is an essential component in Psycho and, without it, the remake struggles to scare.

“[Editing is] so unique...It’s endlessly fascinating what can be done editorially. You can create meaning where there was none, you can create feeling where there was none, you can create narrative where there was none.” - Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh hasn’t directed a film since the 2013 double shot of Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, but the “retired” director has been anything but inactive since he stepped away from making feature films. He returned to the world of prestige television with The Knick, served as cinematographer and editor (a role he adores and finds highly enjoyable) for a sequel to one of his own films with Magic Mike XXL, and channeled a good portion of his energy into his website, extension765.com. At extension765 you can find Soderbergh movie memorabilia, high-end booze, and some of his own editing experiments, reworking classic films from unique angles.

One of these experiments is Psychos, in which Soderbergh edits together scenes from Hitchcock’s Psycho with Van Sant’s remake to form a single movie, sticking with the black & white presentation of the original (with a few notable exemptions). As formal experiments go, this sounded fun enough. What surprised me, though, was how Soderbergh’s approach to Psychos underlined and amplified the quality that scared me so much in the original: the duality between what people show to the outside world and what really lurks inside, crystallized in Bates.

But Soderbergh’s Psychos also made me consider how much all the other characters are playing around with public and private versions of the self. Marion Crane puts on certain appearances while she’s at work, while attempting to trade in her car, and when first chatting with Norman as she checks into the Bates Motel; she’s trying to appear run-of-the-mill, trying to hide the ways she’s scheming to make off with her boss’ clients’ cash and start a new life with Sam Loomis. When Detective Arbogast travels to the Bates Motel, investigating Marion’s disappearance and interrogating Norman, Arbogast puts up a front, playing coy about what he does and doesn’t know about the situation to better put pressure on Norman. But later, as he is calling in his report to Lila Crane from the phone booth, Arbogast is more forthcoming about what he really thinks is happening. Sam Loomis and Lila Crane present fake fronts too; they first travel to the Bates Motel posing as “Man and Wife,” but they are really looking for clues to help get to the bottom of Marion’s and Arbogast’s disappearances. All of Psycho’s characters are oscillating between public and private selves.

Soderbergh highlights these dualities in the footage he chooses to include in Psychos. He literally presents the two sides of the characters, using the different actors from the different films to distinguish between a character’s intentions in different scenes. He uses the footage from the Original Psycho (OP) for scenes where characters are putting up a false front, and uses footage from the Remake Psycho (RP) for scenes where characters are alone with their own thoughts.

Anne Heche and Janet Leigh takes turns representing Marion Crane, as the character wrestles with what she is willing to do to provide herself with the life she wants. As Sam Loomis positions himself either an upstanding hardware shopkeeper or a desperately indebted boyfriend, we see him as John Gavin or Viggo Mortensen, respectively. While Anthony Perkins’ Norman will prepare a light dinner for you in the Parlor, Vince Vaughn’s Norman will get his kicks watching you change through a peephole.

I think my favorite representative example of this dual lens is the way Soderbergh edits the sequence starting at 1:07:38. We first see RP Sam and Lila in the truck on their way to the Bates Motel, preparing to investigate and look for clues. As they pull up to the Motel, RP Norman (Vaughn) watches them arrive from inside the house, before we see him shift into Anthony Perkins’ OP “Inn Keeper.” At 1:08:12, as Sam and Lila step around the corner and meet “Norman the Inn Keeper”, they instantly shift into their phony roles of “Man and Wife” as the film shifts from RP footage to OP footage. As the characters toggle between the constructed personas they present to others and their more natural states, the footage toggles between versions, representing the characters’ mental gymnastics with a literal change of person.

Another interesting sequence is the denouement scene, where Norman’s pathology is explained by the psychiatrist via exposition dump. Soderbergh includes the OP footage here, complicating a scene that had previously been criticized for wrapping everything up in a nice little package. By presenting this scene with the OP footage, Psychos raises the question of whether the psychiatrist’s explanation is to be accepted at face value. Might the psychiatrist have an agenda of his own by appearing to be authoritative and tying things up quickly and definitively? Soderbergh injects Psychos’ ending with a nice slice of ambiguity, questioning our ability to truly understand an evil like Norman Bates and, amusingly enough, making the plot of 1983’s Psycho II (starring Anthony Perkins and directed by Child’s Play's Tom Holland) slightly less outlandish.

Psychos’ separation of OP and RP footage only breaks down during the three murder scenes and the final shots of Norman sitting alone in his cell, staring down the audience. In these scenes Soderbergh overlaps footage from the two films, including some splashes of color from the RP. The effect is psychedelically disorienting, warping impressions of space, imagery and impact. Violent screams are laid over slashing knives, short bursts of color bloody stark black-and-white notions of good and evil. The viewer’s bearings become as disoriented as the characters’. Despite all the effort the characters pour into putting on airs, notions of constructed identity slip away when they’re confronted with a visceral threat to their continued existence. You can pretend for only so long; your true self will be revealed. Your carefully constructed facade is no match for Mother’s butcher knife.

I love how Psychos serves as an exploration of the original film's themes through a fan edit; the cinematic mash-up comes off much more as a piece of film analysis than it does film criticism. It makes certain aesthetic decisions that nod to the original—like maintaining the black & white presentation and using Herrmann’s score—but it never dismisses the value of any of the remake’s scenes. Instead, it gives them a distinct purpose, helping to bring presentation and theme into alignment. And while Soderbergh’s Psychos is interesting from a technical standpoint, insightful as a piece of film analysis, and cool as a fun experiment, I also find the way it expands the creepy message of the original more than a little unnerving. Not only are dangerous psycho-killers out there hiding behind amicable exteriors — basically everyone you meet has something to hide.

And if nothing else, Soderbergh achieves something with Psychos that I had previously thought impossible: he creates a context where Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates totally creeps me out.


Tyler Banks is a husband, father and pop culture ex-pat. Born and raised in Seattle, Tyler lives overseas with his family, teaching by day and watching/listening/reading/writing by night.


The Things That Spell San Francisco To Me Are Disappearing Fast

by Sonya Redi

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author

Must be something in the water. Something about how the ocean gently curls itself into the peninsula, as if nervously awaiting permission to hold its hand. Or perhaps it's the way the fog rolls in, as if pushed directly from perpetually foreign Japan. Yes, that must be it: the fresh, yet freezing fog which clouds the brain. San Francisco has always been a city which provokes obsession; even if the epicenter of cultural movements lies elsewhere in the world, when San Francisco gets involved they evolve into full on tsunamis which transform the city and its inhabitants overnight.

Our current tsunami started in Silicon Valley and, in the past few years, has overtaken the Bay Area so thoroughly that all you’ll find left in its wake are plaid shirts, beards, and conversations about start ups and vegan tacos. All original tenants gone, evicted. Spend a minute in San Francisco and you'll understand the reason behind all this obsessive behavior. Squeezed between forests and salt water, balanced precariously atop 41 hills, the city has insanity brewed into its blood. How it aches for it. So much so it can't help but lure people here, only to softly nudge them over the edge.

But I want to go back. Scratch that, I need to go back. To a time before the city's obsession was Earl Gray ice cream, so Instagrammable one must wait in line at least an hour for a scoop. Back to the way I remember San Francisco being when I was younger. And maybe further back still, to the San Francisco I never experienced but felt that I did, thanks to Mr. Stewart's driving skills and Ms. Novak's hours of meandering. In his film, Sans Soleil, Chris Marker famously said that Hitchcock’s Vertigo was “the only film capable of capturing impossible memory.” Well, I would like to capture a few of these impossible memories for myself. Stalk the film's locations to see what has been altered and what hasn't. See first-hand if there is any trace left of the San Francisco I fell madly in love with, or if it was all just an illusion from the beginning; a cinematic trick, courtesy of Mr. Hitchcock. So let's speed down a hill and fall into San Francisco Bay. Are you ready for a drive?

(I) watched her come out of the apartment, someone I didn't know.

It is here, at the Brocklebank Apartments where Scottie begins trailing Madeline, that we must begin our journey. I am oddly overjoyed to find that the building is just as stylish as it was in 1958. If it weren't for the black Escalades parked nearby, I would swear the film just wrapped a few months ago. Right next to it, you can see—over there—the perennially luxurious Fairmont Hotel. I wander through the gold lobby of the hotel, pretending to be a rich person that belongs rather than a young person hungry for a past, and I find a framed poster of the film. For a second I stare, much like Madeline stared, at the Carlotta painting at the Legion of Honor, strangely captivated. I leave this neighborhood feeling relaxed, the same sensation I feel when I leave my great grandparents' house, even though this is a part of San Francisco I have never belonged to and most likely never will. It comforts my eyes to see that some things never change.

The Mission.jpg

The Mission? That's Skid Row isn't it?

This is the area that has remade itself the most since Hitchcock's time. Though it is still home to the city's most notorious drinking holes, the vibe has flipped, with most bars now having the respectable feel of being frequented by young and successful engineers; the old saloon dives that Scottie might have visited have all but been pushed out. Meanwhile, what was once respectably quiet about it—the city's oldest building and church—now serves as legal guardian to the reckless and drunken Dolores Park, where only rich children in their early thirties play anymore. On most afternoons and weekends the park feels like a music festival without any music, save for the occasional man with a mustache ironically playing the fiddle. Picnic blankets, empty beer cans, and hula hoops crowd the scene just a few feet from where the graves of the first San Franciscans lie. (I can't help but laugh thinking that maybe they are enjoying the never-ending party.) Across the way from the Mission Dolores, there's a red-carpet waiting line for a popular ice cream shop. In case the ghosts are hungry, obviously.

See, I told you I wasn't kidding about the long wait.

And you live here alone? One shouldn't live alone.

Luckily for Madeline, I suppose, nearly no one can afford to live alone in San Francisco anymore. Still I can't help but wonder who the fortunate people are that occupy John's apartment. While in the film it looks like a rather humble setup— something appropriate for a retired, semi-successful detective—today the place has added a new outdoor fence (to deterVertigo fanatics such as myself I'm sure) as well as some nice trees. No matter how much it tries to hide, though, on any given day one still finds tourists of all ages walking past its door. Not only because of the film, but because the apartment sits just below Lombard Street, one of San Francisco's most famous landmarks.

I am filled with dangerous envy standing outside. The view, which was once considered commonplace and attainable for average San Franciscans working normal jobs, is completely out of reach, most likely bought out by someone that lives with curtains drawn. In some strange way, though, I guess that's probably how John would live there now, after everything he's been through. The thought eases my gentrification rage. Being a native to this city, my gentrification rages strike often and unexpectedly these days, much like a migraine. I apologize.

And what were you doing there, at Old Fort Point?

Much like Madeline, I wander about. It is so beautiful here, especially at sunset. When one gets away from the city and its chaos, it's easy to fall in love with it all over again. Especially at this time of day, when everything becomes soft and pink. The ocean an indescribable shade of dark blue, white sailboats floating past, reminding me of how peaceful living by a bay can be. A tour bus stops briefly, but the tourists only stay for a few seconds before the quiet, imposing stillness of the bridge returns. A fence has been built that prevents me from getting at the exact spot where Kim Novak's fall marked cinema forever, but I find myself glad for this; I am unsure how I would react standing where she stood. It's a scene that shocks me every time I see it, even though I've seen it a dozen times. It feels both overwhelming and surreal to be here, even though it's by far the most real place I have encountered in San Francisco today. The waves run into rocks, and I struggle to move back to the car. It doesn't take much to see why Madeline would let go here. It's a very tempting place to let one's self fall.

One is a wanderer, two are always going somewhere.

Wandering through the city is difficult nowadays. It seems that everyone and their poodle has a car and is constantly out and about—not wandering, but commuting. To and from work. To and from lunch. To and from the bar. On their phones. Taking pictures of themselves not wandering. Being guided by Siri-voiced maps through the city, at a speed that makes it impossible to see all the wonders flying past. To be fair, I am guilty of this myself. As much fun as it was to drive through the city, my experience was vastly different from Jimmy Stewart's. Parking was not nearby, and I was anything but slow and calm. That being said, I—like John, after following a tour of what turned out to be only lies—couldn't help but get caught up in the dizzying, roller coaster maze of it all. By the end, I had fallen hopelessly in love again. In love with the city's undeniable beauty and it's complex and fickle self. Even though it was only an elaborate rouse, I enjoyed playing along. Because while San Francisco may change, the things that matter most to her, and to me, never do. And while we may not get the chance to wander as freely and elegantly as Jimmy and Kim, we still wander everyday, in their shadows, the ghosts of their impossible memories haunting nearly every spot in this old town.

It's enough to drive all of us mad. Or at least more than we already are.


Sonya Redi is a writer and a filmmaker living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in The Intentional, Gutfire! Magazine, and Girls Get Busy Zine amongst others.


Criss-Cross

Strangers on a Train, d. Hitchcock, 1951

From the start we know he’s a psychopath.
(Hitch isn’t so interested in “discovery.”

Rather, he makes it our folly to watch this man—this momma’s boy—
idle in a smoking jacket and know we are his double:
a two-tone cab and two-tone brogues. Black and its reverse.)

Our greatest fear is something will not happen,
and all the waiting leads to rage cramped in the hands,
strangle position. He will get a little too friendly.
He will develop a wonderful theory, and when he tells her, he won’t blink.

In those days, on trains, you kept close company, and so do we.
Everything’s monogrammed, etched with identity: tie tack, lighter.
These initials hold us in little compartments—
the record store booth, the dining car. Keep us
entertained and stupefied and quivering.

So we have to follow him down the carnival path:
like the town jezebel, we can’t help ourselves. We’re drawn.
Past the freaks, the shoot ’em ups,
the madness carousel, the kewpie dolls
and their big wet eyes, with a broad stride
toward a game of chance and the tunnel of love,
a rickety boat full of shadows, gliding forcibly on its track.

It’s a parlor trick, really, that slots our own gaze
inside the soft prism of the murderer’s,
delivers us pair after pair of thick, broken eyeglasses
in which we can see our gleeful, terrified expressions.

“Mother hasn’t been well for a very long time,” he murmurs,
and we all know how that story goes, and we want more.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.