Joker – DeaconsDen Reaction

JOKER as a film manages to capture the essence of The Joker as a character. Anchored by an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER is a look into a man’s descent to darkness.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a man with issues who lives with and takes care of his sick mother Penny. Arthur works as a clown for hire while suffering from mental health concerns where he takes many different medications. He also has aspirations to become a stand-up comic. From the outset, we are made to sympathize with Arthur’s situation and you do for a time. He’s picked on, he’s ignored, he’s in dire straights. However all of that changes and Arthur begins a transformation that will have lasting consequences for the city of Gotham.

There have been many questions and thoughts about JOKER. One being about its director Todd Phillips. Could the director of THE HANGOVER trilogy handle something so volatile? I would say depending on your read of the film, that could be yes or no. For me it was a yes. The reason going back to my opening line, the way this film is constructed, is similar to that of the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s hard-hitting, it’s chaotic, it’s indecisive. After leaving the theater, I can see this one being discussed for years. The polarization of the film is why I found it a great watch. This isn’t a BATMAN v SUPERMAN type of split, this is something different. And honestly, I love seeing something like this for the comic book movie genre. Even if it was widely disliked, I like that this managed to get released.

The construction of the film is outstanding. Phillips and his team really recreated a decaying urban American city in the 1980s. This isn’t the stylized Gotham of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. This is more like the origin of the decline of Gotham seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Despite the grimy look, there is a beautiful sheen to the look thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Lawrence Sher (who should get awards consideration).

Then there is the haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir. She brings an underlying note of tragedy to the film. The score is strong, but never intrusive. It doesn’t have a distinct theme for the character like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman have in the past. I found that a positive because it really highlights the fact that one of Gotham’s biggest threats came from an ordinary citizen.

Much has been made of the film’s lack of a stance. I felt this was by design since the character of The Joker has no stance. I would not disagree with those whose criticisms see it as shallow and empty, this is true, I however saw it as true to the character. The Joker never commits to anything. Never an ideal, never a purpose except mayhem. Even the use of certain song once Arthur’s transformation is complete feels in line with the character as I can see him doing something like that, just to get the rise out of people. Honestly, the character is empty, which is why his battles with Batman are always intense due to Bruce Wayne’s mission. The Joker’s perspective on the world is always made known by him. To accomplish this. JOKER the film is built entirely on Arthur’s perspective. We descend as he does. You question what you see because you know something isn’t right with Arthur. We don’t get the answers, and I loved that. I love a film intentionally setting itself up for different views. The film is intentionally ambiguous in its leanings which lend credence to the whole “multiple choice” path the character takes when describing his origins. While JOKER definitely feels like a one and done origin, I must say I would love to see a short film, set 10-20 years down the line, that includes a conversation between Phoenix’s Joker and his future nemesis.

JOKER is a fascinating piece of entertainment that I am happy to have taken a moment to experience for myself. Its open ended structure and viewpoints are perfectly aligned with the character it covers. It’s a sad, uncomfortable and when it needs to be, visceral film showing the decline of a man. We may say the movie feels empty, but no matter which side of the fence you fall on the film, you will feel something. Arthur becomes the Joker, and the audience knows definitively that they are not.

Ad Astra – DeaconsDen Reaction

AD ASTRA is the latest in a line of existential, thought provoking science fiction films. It clearly shows its inspirations from movies like, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SOLARIS and even more recent fare like GRAVITY.

Brad Pitt is Roy McBride. After an accident that is the result of powerful surges that threaten the safety of the earth, McBride is recruited to search for the source of the surges. It is believed that they are the result of experiments performed by his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a mission to search for intelligent life called the Lima Project.

To understand what AD ASTRA is, you need to understand what it is not. This film is slow burning personal odyssey despite the huge stakes presented at the opening. Action sequences are lightly peppered in the film. As these sequences occur, more individuals who are part of the mission Roy has to accomplish are removed resulting in each instance, Roy having to compete the objective on his own. As I mentioned earlier, this is more along the lines of a film like SOLARIS and not STAR TREK.

Brad Pitt gives another great performance in 2019. In AD ASTRA, he portrays Roy as far more reserved and somewhat conflicted about his demeanor and its influence on those around him. Throughout the film, Roy is subjected to psychological evaluations that he must prove he has shed emotion and will accomplish his mission objectives pragmatically and logically. The organization Roy works for SpaceCom what’s all emotion she and Roy has to dig into those emotions so that he can do what needs to be done. In a way, it sort of presents an effort to fight back against the coldness of a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. My only issue is that the film brings up questions about the search for life outside of the Earth and it actually answers that question. However, I don’t feel that was needed as the main text of the film was very prominent and that was just a secondary plot device in retrospect.

AD ASTRA begins with a mission to discover life beyond our solar system, yet what it manages is to ask another question. What good does it do to explore outside our space, if we’ve not yet understood ourselves and the reasons why we choose to explore? AD ASTRA reminds us that we have to carry these things with us. There is no future without them.

Rambo: Last Blood – DeaconsDen Reaction

Sylvester Stallone returns to screen as Vietnam veteran John Rambo in the fifth installment of the Rambo series of action films that began in 1982 with the thriller FIRST BLOOD. This is the first film in the franchise since 2008’s RAMBO which was directed by Stallone. This go around, he is directed by Adrian Grunberg with Stallone sharing script duties with Matthew Cirulnick. How does LAST BLOOD fare?

LAST BLOOD involves Rambo traveling to Mexico to rescue his niece from a sex trafficking cartel. From there the story moves to a bloody version of HOME ALONE.

There really isn’t much to discuss about LAST BLOOD. It’s said to be a send off for the character of John Rambo, but this film doesn’t do that at all. It’s a competently made action-revenge thriller but it never felt like it was in the world of Rambo. Even with the often parodied action of FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III you always managed to remember the man who was harassed in FIRST BLOOD. In this film, the character may be named Rambo and you may have flashbacks to prior films, but this easily could have have a different title and character name without changing a thing. That’s how standard it is. Now I like standard, I love seeing stuff blow up, but I really thought this was going to close the story of the Rambo and it never was that. In all honesty, the 2008 film does a better job of that and it’s not even a swan song.

As far as the action goes, it’s brutal and bloody just like the 2008 film. It definitely showcases the the effect these various weapons have on the human body. That violence is a criticism I slightly disagree with only because it’s something that was already present in a prior film. Another talking point is the portrayal of the Mexican antagonists in the film. Now I’m someone who grew up watching action films with all sort of nationalities used as villains. I’m not saying to ignore it, more so that it’s something I was already familiar with, however in the current sociopolitical climate, it’s something that is to be noted. So for that mileage may vary with the viewer, but I fully understand the apprehension with the choice.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is not the send off it claims to be. Despite its pretty cool end credits (which it did not earn) and well staged action, it’s does nothing to close out the story of John Rambo. It’s passable action at best and maybe loathsome at worst depending on the viewer. Would I watch it again? Sure. Yet I’m also sure nothing will ever revisit the broken man from FIRST BLOOD.

Reacting to the Short Films of Melvin Van Peebles

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

2021 saw the loss of Melvin Van Peebles. A trailblazer in cinema who came into the art with his own voice and style. His cinematic language was unfiltered and this was unquestioned in every facet of his work which was not only film, but music, theater and literature. I acquired the Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films box set from the Criterion Collection and want to reflect on the cinematic work of this legend who elevated Black consciousness. To begin, I provide my brief thoughts on three short films directed by Van Peebles.

Sunlight (1957)

A short film by Melvin Van Peebles about a black man who commits robbery to afford to marry a woman. There’s a sense of German expressionism here despite the overall production being flimsy. I was most impressed with the subject matter itself. In a world where people are concerned about the images of people, Van Peebles was audacious enough to present a black man on screen committing a crime. It’s nice that Van Peebles did not build to that rebel streak, he already possessed it.

Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957)

Not as engaging thematically as Melvin Van Peebles’ prior short film Sunlight. Three Pick-up Men for Herrick still provides a modicum of interest just to see how the story resolves. However the big takeaway is seeing Van Peebles direction improve a great deal. The score may be a determining factor in enjoyment as well. The craftsmanship from Sunlight to this short is a major leap for Van Peebles.

Les cinq cent balles (500 Francs) (1961)

Les Cinq Cent Balles is the short of Melvin Van Peebles that I feel best indicates the path the director would head in by time he makes Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Specifically when it comes to the composition of the shots, the scoring and the staging of one scene where the young boy gets into a physical altercation with another man who is attempting to get this franc-note out of a gutter. Again Van Peeble’s craft takes another leap making this the most complete of his short films.

These three short film showcase the vision that Melvin Van Peebles would bring to the art of cinema. There’s no slow build with his work, it definitely starts with a bang and these shorts give a clear indication to the path Van Peebles defining works of the 60s and 70s would be on.

NO TIME TO DIE: A Reaction and a Confessional

I do agree with the consensus that NO TIME TO DIE is a fitting farewell to Daniel Craig as James Bond. Craig is the first Bond actor who gets such a moment as the others in the past simply said they weren’t coming back. Since Craig is the one actor who’s tenure consists of a character arc over multiple films, we get a satisfying conclusion to his Bond story. However I came away feeling mixed about the film because I wonder how does the series go forward?

First I have to say in full transparency I am much more of a fan of the Bond era before Daniel Craig than I am of the Craig era itself. I absolutely love CASINO ROYALE. It’s my second favorite film of the series and I love the reinvigorated feel it brought. I actually have more respect for QUANTUM OF SOLACE than most do, as I feel that works as a fitting epilogue to the formation of Bond as began in CASINO ROYALE. 2012’s SKYFALL however, is where I start to falter on the Craig era. As well constructed as SKYFALL is, I always felt it as a Bond film that felt sort of embarrassed at the films that preceded it. I’m not talking about updates to problematic elements, but rather the fun of a Bond film. It’s so serious and further seeks to explore Bond as an individual. I take no issue with this choice as after 50 years (at the time of SKYFALL’s release) you certainly have the cultural cache to make a significant change. I just came to the realization in 2012 that laying bare the soul of the cinematic 007 did not work for me beyond 2008’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE. It turns out, I don’t find Bond interesting when I know every single detail and personality trait. Then we move to 2015’s SPECTRE which tried to merge the heaviness of its predecessor with a somewhat more old school Bond film feel. However, it leaned closer to the former with a story that expands the Bond world beyond what I felt was interesting. Again, I was open to the choices and upon seeing them, understood how they didn’t quite work for me.

Photo courtesy of Eon Productions

So now I arrive at NO TIME TO DIE. Was this the film that finally got me to connect with the creative decisions made during the Daniel Craig era? As I said earlier, I come away feeling mixed. There was plenty I enjoyed yet there’s a spectre (pun intended) that looms over it and my feelings on it

First, what did I enjoy about it? There are moments where NO TIME TO DIE bursts with an energy of an old school Bond film. Particularly the pre-title sequence and when the film moves into Cuba. Ana de Armas’ Paloma is one of the highlights of this part of the film. Also the final act is worthy of talk for the emotional component it plays. It is probably the most emotional Bond finale since CASINO ROYALE. One other highlight is Hans Zimmer’s score. It certainly takes to opportunity to provide some great musical callbacks to the past as well a very strong rendition of the main James Bond theme during some of the action sequences. In addition to the score, I found myself appreciating the main theme by Billie Eilish once I heard it in conjunction with the title sequence. Those credits did bring a smile to my face because of the way they began, paying homage to my favorite Bond film. I still find the song, drab outside of the film, but I think it works, especially as you hear its orchestrations in Zimmer’s score.

Photo courtesy of MGM/Everett Collection

So why are my feelings about NO TIME TO DIE mixed? From a story perspective, it seems as if the film is two films merged into one. There isn’t really a push or pull, it actually resolves some plot points from the prior film and rather quickly. Yet I think NO TIME TO DIE uses plot points to draw us to Bond’s emotional arc and honestly once you get past QUANTUM OF SOLACE, I’m not totally sure what Bond’s arc actually is. This is why I said earlier that the character is not as interesting to me when all is revealed. Little moments in prior films I believe have achieve this and have a stronger effect on me as a viewer. For instance, the slight look of rejection on Bond’s face as M excoriates him in GOLDENEYE. Or In the THE SPY WHO LOVED ME when Anya Amasova begins to mention Tracy and Bond ends the conversation. Even in CASINO ROYALE, Bond thinks he has Vesper figured out on the train and then she flips the script on him and while there is a smile on his face the whole time, we see and know that it has cut deep. I find these work better to show the emotionality of the character better than these sweeping stories across multiple films.

There is something about the spirit of the Daniel Craig Bond film’s that walks the line between contemplative dramas and the more typical Bond formula. Yet I am never able to fully connect with them because when the familiar elements show up in them, it feels as if the familiar is being welcomed into a new home and not showing appreciation for the popular parts of what helped the franchise endure for nearly 60 years. The films shouldn’t be ashamed of that. NO TIME TO DIE is a very good sendoff for its actor and this unique era of the franchise. I just wish and hope for the future that the series from this point on feels the love again and be proud of it.

Exploring the Television Career of Alfred Hitchcock: Episode Two – Breakdown

We’re back with another episode of television directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Last time we took a look at the very first episode of the series, a gripping tale called “Revenge.” You can check out that piece to get an understanding of the Hitchcock formula’s first opportunity on the small screen as well as some of the early background on the series. As with the first episode’s discussion, spoilers about the episode will be mentioned.

“Breakdown” is the seventh episode of the first season of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and the second episode of the series that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock himself. The story is by Louis Pollock with the teleplay by Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock. The episode stars Joseph Cotten as Callew, a ruthless movie producer. Playing a no good person for Hitchcock is nothing new for Cotten, having already played the villainous Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Some interesting casting tidbits about this episode include a young Aaron Spelling and James Edwards, best know for his role in HOME OF THE BRAVE, but first came to my attention in 1956’s THE KILLING which was directed by my other favorite director, Stanley Kubrick as well as a role in 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

“Breakdown” tells the story of movie producer Callew who scoffs at the crying of a longtime employee he just fired over the phone. Callew believes it’s absolutely weak of an individual to just have a breakdown of emotion. His colleagues are far more understanding, recognizing that the man let out all of his emotions at the moment to avoid bottling it up and causing damage to himself or others later. It’s surprisingly a progressive line of thinking for Hollywood types. The episode takes shape once Callew is out driving and crashes into a construction site. The resulting accident leaves the producer completely paralyzed. He is unable to move any part of his body. All that lets the viewer know he’s alive is his thoughts as he tries to do something to let others know he is not dead. After coming into contact with multiple people and eventually ending up at the morgue, Callew is about to be tagged as a dead body when his emotions finally breakdown (giving us the purpose of the title) and a tear runs down his face. This alerts the coroner that the man is not dead and there the episode ends.

So how does Hitchcock applies his cinematic tools of the trade to this episode of television? Well for starters, we look at his lead actor. Hitchcock enjoyed working with Cotten when he would be playing antagonistic characters so this role is certainly a continuation of the type of work they did during SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

A key trademark of the Hitchcockian style is the movement of the camera representing the eyes of the viewer. Making voyeurs of the audience. The episode “Breakdown” does something a little bit different. Typically either the camera is moving or the subject moving in the scene. However with Cotten’s character completely paralyzed we have no movement from the character at all. So what does Hitchcock do to create the tension? He has static shots of Cotten’s total stillness. All he has is his thoughts and we are trapped in that car with him and his thoughts. It also creates a stream of consciousness scenario which is something you do not see typically in a Hitchcock film. The director also succeeded in playing with the proximity of his shots, knowing when to cut to a close-up to show the uncomfortableness of being in the car with Callew or to a wide shot and see the man’s helplessness.

“Breakdown” is an episode all about visual language and Hitchcock excels using it to provide one very taut half-hour of television. One could only imagine what he could have done if this concept was expanded to a film.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief is Alfred Hitchcock on vacation. If you are watching the works of the Master of Suspense, whether it’s Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, Rebecca and so forth, you have expectations to be on the edge of your seat. Although it has moments of suspense, We pretty much spend our time in the beautiful setting of the French Riviera with two beautiful leads or Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

This certainly the most playful film of his 50s run. For me the highlight is Grace Kelly’s performance. I thought it amazing how well Kelly and Hitchcock worked together. She always exuded a high class aura and Hitchcock manage to leverage that into 3 different performances in their films. In To Catch a Thief, Kelly is her most unleashed, feeling almost like a combination her characters Margot Wendice and Lisa Fremont from Dial M for Murder and Rear Window respectively. And talk about a sexy movie, the double entendres, the visuals of the fireworks scene. Hitchcock’s movie never steered away from sex and this film is dripping in it. 

Being released after Rear Window, you would expect an equal level of success, but after the heaviness and themes of Rear Window, don’t we all deserve a getaway to a gorgeous area with gorgeous people? 

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – WATERSHIP DOWN

WATERSHIP DOWN does absolutely no holding of hands. It’s naturalist, it’s visceral and it showcases the absolute fleeting idea of nature. Death is quick and sudden most of the time and when it isn’t, like a scene where a rabbit is caught in a snare it’s brutal because it’s a slow process of dying. 

In adapting Richard Adams’ novel, director Martin Rosen could have easily removed the elements that make this film seem disturbing for audiences, especially children. Yet Rosen keeps all this intact because when you look at it, WATERSHIP DOWN is life. Nature is life and when nature is in action it may not be pretty or makes you feel good, but it is what it is. This film also succeeds is putting you in the fur of animals and what goes through their minds as humans evolve and expand and build and our actions displaces countless warrens. It also provides a great real world analogy with a rabbit so determined to keep his people safe, he abuses and oppressed them. The film doesn’t anthropomorphize the animals, but it does seek to enter the human element so that we get a better comprehension. 

What keeps this from being so depressing? I think it’s because the opening of the consists of the establishment of the rabbits beliefs. Whether you call it, faith, religion, spirituality or mythology, the rabbits believe in something bigger than themselves and because of that, death is a pet of life. Considering that it comes so swiftly to them, I can understand their taking belief as a comfort much as I do. 

WATERSHIP DOWN completely trusts it’s audience. It doesn’t make the dog a bumbling fool that the rabbits outsmart. It’s an animal that does what it’s supposed to do. It’s no villain. Even humans themselves are not portrayed as “evil” just as a force that nature contends with. It shows life and the world truly as it is.

DeaconsDen Classic Reactions – Carol Reed’s The Third Man

The Third Man is a movie that is in between identities and views. It’s a film that even if you’ve never seen it before, you think you’ve seen it one way and it ends up being another. It’s meant to disorient you. It achieves this at the earliest possible moment with the shot of the zither and it’s playing of the main theme over the credits. The Third Man was co-produced by a British producer, Alexander Korda and an American, David O. Selznick. The music acts as a sort of element to bring together the old European world of the film that Korda is producing, but also to give it a bit of splash that works in favor of Selznick selling this to U.S. audiences.

Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, an American novelist seeking answers about the death of his friend Harry Lime. Martins is another example of this conflict of identity and ideology. Martins is a cocky and sometimes not very bright American who has come over to postwar Vienna and is essentially is trying to assert his will in a foreign land. However, the European characters of the film push back against that. We witness this in the form of Trevor Howard’s Calloway. It’s a battle of old world vs new world. Old school artistry against new school commercialization. The Third Man presents itself as both European art film and American genre film.

The Third Man also enhances this tension with the various Dutch angles that director Carol Reed uses throughout. These represent that despite Martins’ arrogance as he moves about Vienna, he is disoriented, out of place and feels off kilter. Reed also uses the angles well in conversation as ways to indicate a power struggle. During the film, Martins calls Calloway, Callahan to which Calloway must retort that he is not Irish. Again, the idea of the American imposing his will and the European reassertion of that power. 

Typically in a film where the protagonist is in an unfamiliar world, it’s common to have that protagonist learn the ways of the world and eventually overcome the difficulty of existing there. It also can be common for the protagonist to slowly become aware of their shortcomings. The Third Man however doesn’t give Holly Martins that type of story. From the start we see him out of his depth. This is quite a creative choice especially with an American producer on deck. He thinks he knows any and everything, he never really gets near the truth. He’s constantly confused and never fully comprehends anything. Knowledge is power and Holly doesn’t have that, whereas other characters do. Also it’s a nice touch to have animals distrust Holly, a nice flipping of a trope where animals point out the antagonist.

The Third Man also examines the push and pull of the cynical nature of the postwar environment. A blurring of the the concepts of good and bad. We have the visual confirmation via the rubble and ruins that the Nazis have been defeated. However there is still evil. There is still crime, still malevolent nature. The end of the war brings up a new enemy. What is the greater evil? And just because America is a power that can run the world, this does not give an indication that they understand it.

Duplicity is at the center of the plot of The Third Man and it’s at the center of the themes of the film in general. A noir that jostles for position between its European and American natures to provide commentary of the postwar era by taking two major American actors and making a geopolitical statement on American nature. It’s fascinating to think it was able to be made with a co-producer like Selznick who produced Gone with the Wind, a movie that is pure American nature. The Third Man doesn’t simply balance two ideas is meshes them and let’s them combat each other to create one of the most distinctive noirs in movie history. 

DeaconsDen Classic Reactions – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Although science fiction films of the 1950 tend to have a reputation for being cheesy and cheap, there are a few that presented some form of perspective. The Thing From Another World for instance can be read as a warning of communism already being here. Forbidden Planet is a look at man’s unwillingness to be part of society once he’s realized he gained power. The Day the Earth Stood Still could be interpreted as a religious analogy of Christ delivering the message to people to be better. These films possessed spectacle and had a message as well. The genre also had contemporaries that offered spectacle and nothing beyond it.

Then we have 1953’s The War of the Worlds. The first adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic, The War of the Worlds manages to provide more on spectacle than speculating, but also represents a pop art look at the atomic age. The film really represents the minds of both its producer and director, George Pal and Byron Haskin respectively. 

This adaptation takes to heart the “war” aspect. The movie opens with a narration by Paul Frees giving an overview of two World Wars before mentioning how this new war is one fought with weapons never before seen. We get extended scenes with military leaders discussing plans. We are shown a montage that plays like a documentary being narrated by Cedric Hardwicke of cities being destroyed (which some is historical footage) and people fleeing in terror. There’s one shot I like that looks like London during the blitzkrieg. The War of the Worlds wants to be a science fiction war film and I believe it managed to achieve it.

The War of the Worlds presents a very clear religious slant. It’s sprinkled throughout, but is pretty much the basis for the final act. This is due to producer George Pal. This wasn’t uncommon for Pal with this genre as in one of his prior films, 1951’s When Worlds Collide, Pal presents the end of the world. That film is the Book of Revelation and the Book of Exodus in the same movie as a group of survivors must leave the doomed Earth to find a new paradise. 

The other angle of The War of the Worlds is its sense of helplessness and futility. This was due to director Byron Haskin. Haskin was a child survivor of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. So he wanted to portray events from a perspective of things that suddenly happen to people and there’s nothing you can do to stop it until it’s just over. The second act of The War of the Worlds ends with the failure of the atom bomb and it appears humanity is doomed. That is until the martians begin dying due to exposure to earth bacteria that humans have long been immune to. The film closes that humanity was saved by the littlest things that God put upon the earth in his wisdom. Like the earthquake Haskin survived, it went on, until it was suddenly over. This circled back to the religious angle that Pal inserted. This was a good combination as the two ideas play off each other.

Another aspect that is worth noting is that it is another example of America centering itself. We learn that most other nations have been destroyed and their governments displaced. Washington D.C. remains the only unassailed strategy point. The U.S. is the one with the bomb and humanity only appears doomed once America finally failed. It’s a concept I certainly see in the 1950s. 

So while The War of the Worlds may not have one specific thing to say, it is bursting with ideas that mesh well due its producer and director having certain perspectives to apply to it. Combine with with its outstanding audio-visual spectacle and you have one of the best films of its genre.

Exploring the Television Career of Alfred Hitchcock: Episode One – Revenge

The films of Alfred Hitchcock are certainly frequent subject here on DeaconsDen. I’ve written about a few of the Master of Suspense’s works. These include PSYCHO, MARNIE, DIAL M FOR MURDER, REAR WINDOW, THE LADY VANISHES, SUSPICION, THE BIRDS, FRENZY, TOPAZ AND ROPE. I have always found Hitchcock’s work to be extremely entertaining and due to the size of his filmography, we have a significant amount of material to review and analyze. One area I wanted to dive into more is Hitchcock’s television filmography.

By the 1950s, Hitchcock had now directed films in four different decades. He had directed 43 films. He had proven to be an extremely popular director who had achieved a level of stardom nearly on the level as the actors he directed in his films. With the rise of television in delivering stories to audiences, it would only make sense that Hitchcock would make the leap to television. To aid him in this new endeavor, Hitchcock would enlist Joan Harrison who wrote for Hitchcock during the late 1930s and into the 1940s on films such as REBECCA, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SUSPICION and SABOTEUR. Harrison would take on the role of producer and oversee the acquisition of the writers and directors that would work on the weekly anthology series to be titled, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

Over the ten year period that ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and its renamed THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR was on the air, Hitchcock himself would sit in the director chair for 18 episodes. Here, I will take the time to provide some level of analysis of each episode and see if Alfred Hitchcock’s film direction and television direction overlap and if he had a mastery of suspense on the small screen as comparable as he did on the silver screen. I have to mention that there will be spoilers of these episodes. To begin, we will look at the premiere episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, titled “Revenge.”

“Revenge” is the first episode of the first season and the first episode of the series that Alfred Hitchcock directed. The story was written by Samuel Bias with a teleplay by Francis Cockrell. The episode stars Ralph Meeker and a regular Hitchcock player in Vera Miles.

The episode is the story of the Spann’s. Former ballerina Elsa (Miles), and her engineer husband Carl. Elsa has recently gone through a mental breakdown and is recovering at their trailer park home. We are treated to some opening shots of a serene town. We see the beach and some other trailers to give us the impression of an average coastal town. Hitchcock always liked to have his features open with something calm and peaceful. Consider the opening of ROPE with its upbeat look at the neighborhood before taking us into the horror of that one apartment. You can also consider PSYCHO with the shots of Phoenix. He want to establish something that will be upended during the course of the story. This introduction of the serene allows for the ensuing drama to feel more potent.

As stated earlier, Elsa has been recovering from a breakdown. After Carl leaves for work, he has their neighbor Mrs. Ferguson check on Elsa during the day. Even as their conversation goes on, you still feel there’s a shoe to drop, however all is well. Things go as normal and we are eventually shown a scene with Elsa sunbathing outside in her swimsuit. Hitchcock’s camera acts as both our eyes and the eyes of the neighbor. Hitchcock always played around with things sexual and I got the impression that he might be signaling that Mrs. Ferguson may have another interest in Elsa. This doesn’t play a role in the rest of the episode, but I thought it was an interesting observation since the camera certainly makes sure we see and admire Vera Miles in a swimsuit.

Later, Carl returns home and sees the trailer a mess and something burning in the oven. Once he finds Elsa she tells her husband about an attack by a man and how he almost killed her. Carl takes his wife for a drive, considering her state of mind. While out Elsa points out a man walking and identifies him as the man who attacked her. Carl pulls over and grabs a wrench from under the seat. Here is another moment of Hitchcock’s suspense building as he tightens the shot on Carl’s hands moving from the steering wheel to underneath the seat. It may be on screen, but the director manages to make us feel the metal in his hands. Following the man to his hotel room, Carl kills the man. Even for television this scene has quite the feeling of brutality with nothing shown but Carl’s shadow and the long swings he takes to bash the man.

Back in the car, Carl and Elsa continue driving. On their way home, Elsa points out the man that attacked her. There, Carl has the immediate realization that his wife is not in a good state of mind and that he has killed an innocent man while we hear the police in the background and the episode ends.

For “Revenge,” Hitchcock manages to bring over some of his cinematic language. For instance he knows when not to cut. He knows for the drama he is attempting to build or the emotions he wants to convey, we have to linger on things as along as possible. For instance an early scene of romance between Elsa and Carl gives a lengthy shot of them kissing. Another example is the close up of Elsa’s face when she is explaining to Carl what happened to her. This intensified the horror that Elsa has gone through.

I wanted to touch on the character of Elsa for a moment. I found her an interesting character when you consider the Hitchcockian woman. Typically, a woman in a Hitchcock film is one who is put through the wringer. For example, Grace Kelly in DIAL M FOR MURDER is accused of murder and nearly executed. In REAR WINDOW , she is the one who has to put herself in danger to go to Thorwald’s home. Tippi Hendren’s character of Melanie in THE BIRDS is traumatized by the end and in MARNIE that traumatization is part of the character. And of course we must mention Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane from PSYCHO. Other examples include Joan Fontaine’s characters in both REBECCA and SUSPICION. Hitchcock’s women get put through it. Miles’ Elsa at the start of the episode, appears to have already gone through it. She’s recovering now. One could see her as the “survivor” of a Hitchcock film. We never know what caused her breakdown, but I can imagine what would the future be like for someone like Melanie Daniels or Lisa Fremont after their ordeals. As an episode, “Revenge” feels like it asks the question of how does Hitchcock’s style affect his characters?

As an episode and piece of suspense, “Revenge” is a great start to this anthology series. The episode is flush with Hitchcockian trademarks and features an interesting character that feels like the aftermath of going through a Hitchcock film.

Next Episode: Breakdown.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes is Alfred Hitchcock’s best film of his British era. It is an awesome cocktail of comedy, thrills and romance while simultaneously taking a peak at at British insularity.

This film could be seen as a predecessor to Hitchcock’s single setting films of the 40s and 50s. Although The Lady Vanishes does not take place in one exact location like Lifeboat, Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, it does manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia. The cast of characters start the film as cramped guests in a hotel and end up as cramped passengers on a train. 

This tightness results in a lurid intimacy that Hitchcock shows here. You have the duo of Charters and Caldicott who may or may not be gay. We know Hitchcock films do not have an issue peering into queerness. We’ll see this later in 1940’s Rebecca and 1948’s Rope. You have Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter, an adulterous couple. Then you have our protagonist, Iris Henderson, played wonderfully by Margaret Lockwood, first introduced with her friends in the hotel as she prepares to leave for her wedding to a rich man to further her societal status. Once she meets Michael Redgrave’s Gilbert, a courtship begins throughout the film that is dripping with sexual energy.

Hitchcock does an excellent job in getting the audience to care about the disappearance of the titular “lady,” Miss Froy by having May Whitty dominate her scenes and become a singular presence so that you feel her absence once it occurs. If we don’t feel ourselves missing Miss Froy, then it becomes difficult for us to feel for Iris as she searches for the woman and is not believed and doubted at every turn. Again, Hitchcock’s skill as a cinematic manipulator is top notch.

One area that differentiates The Lady Vanishes from subsequent Hitchcock films is its heroine. Lockwood’s Iris, while certainly initially aristocratic, is not the typical icy and damaged Hitchcockian woman. She does not operate from a point of despair like Marion Crane. She doesn’t have a tragic backstory like Marnie or is terrorized like Melanie from The Birds. She isn’t manipulated like Alica Huberman of Notorious. Iris’ actions are to simply get to the bottom of the vanishing of Miss Froy because it is the right thing to do. 

Iris’ determination eventually spreads through to the other characters who all initially refuse to become involved in the search, focusing on their own wants and desires, much like people tend to when they consider their class and status in life and that since they are secure, there is no need for them to stick their neck out for anyone. However, once things take a dark turn into the climatic shootout, and Charters is shot in the hand, the fantasy of the audience watching and the grim reality of the characters being watched, smash together to create a thrilling sequence where these characters who only cared for themselves, answer the call to do the right thing against a foreign fascists.

While Jamaica Inn would end up becoming the film that closes out Hitchcock’s time in Britain before he comes to America, The Lady Vanishes is his biggest achievement of that period. It bursts of youthful energy that may have not only been a goodbye to England, but officially to his own youth as he was about to turn 40. It almost is like a myth of a plucky young hero out to save the day. I can imagine with World War II on the horizon this was needed. Yet even with The Lady Vanishes being the close of an era, it is a clear indication of the future of Hitchcock’s filmography.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur, as it unfolds, feels very much like the movie this genre/sub genre was building towards. Everything about it excels over many of its contemporaries. It may be the best directed (in competition with DeMille’s Ten Commandments from 3 years prior). It has an outstanding production design, one of the best musical scores in movie history, and a top performance from Charlton Heston. These things combined with a good story of a man’s journey from revenge to forgiveness make for one of the crowning achievements of cinema history. 

I’ve come to feel that the biblical epic film works when there is an individual human story to latch onto in the midst of the religious story being portrayed. In Quo Vadis it is about a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian woman during Nero’s persecution of followers of Christ. The Robe follows a similar structure and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators has its main character essentially lose his way while participating in the arena. There are some exceptions, it can work without the human story if you make the biblical story feel splashy and grandiose like DeMille’s The King of Kings from 1927. However you can also end up with 1961’s King of Kings which imitates Ben-Hur in style, but ends up being a dull and boring affair.

The thing that makes Ben-Hur work is the journey of a man betrayed by a former friend who uses that rage to return home and confront him to restore his name, honor and to save his family. Even with winning the Best Actor Oscar, I think Heston gives a performance that is very much like the majority of his roles. The difference is that he inserts a layer of anger to fuel his motives. I think the initial argument between Judah and Stephen Boyd’s Messala where Judah remarks that “Rome is an affront to God” is the moment that won him the Oscar. It’s the Heston you know, but it’s different. Just a tiny bit different, but it makes the acting stand out in a way I’d never seen from Heston.

The spectacle is mostly held to two major set pieces. The first being the ship battle which had a great build to it from the moment we see Judah rowing to when he first meets Arius to the battle itself. It’s a patient scene (not just because the film is nearly 4 hours long). The other of course is the chariot race which is the signature moment of the entire film. It’s a breathtaking scene which also takes its time getting there. It’s a great scene metaphorically as well. The cheers of the crowd and the thunder of the horses can almost represent the rage Judah has built up over the years being excised at last against Messala. The thing about that rage is that it is uncontrollable and you can not get out of its way, repressed by charioteers (Messala included) being trampled and crushed beneath the hooves of the horses. A criticism I see of this scene is similar to one it inspires 40 years later in the podrace scene from Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It can said that it is too long. My feelings on that are the same as George Lucas’ film, you get this kind of spectacle, you have to give it time to breath and time to take it in. The spectacle is earned  here.

The central theme of Ben-Hur is how one single act of kindness can go a long way. Judah is given water by Jesus, though he doesn’t know who it is even though the audience does. The next is Arius leaving his chain unlocked before the battle. A simple conversation and another act of kindness shows Judah how simple it can be. We see after Messala’s death (some great death rattling by Boyd), how unfulfilled Judah appears. These are some great character building moments and Heston is superb in conveying them. This leads to what I feel is the disappointment of the film, it’s final act. 

The last act has Judah seeking Jesus because he is known as a miracle worker, to cure his mother and sister of leprosy. However, the trial of Christ has already begun and we eventually get to his crucifixion. Judah reciprocates when Jesus falls and he realizes this was the man who gave him water all those year ago.  Then we conclude with the family reunited as his mother Miriam and sister Tirzah are healed and cured. If Ben-Hur was about a man who did not believe in God and does by the end, this would be a good ending I feel. Yet Judah does and always had. His story is moving past his desire for vengeance. The ending of Ben-Hur (and this is the same for the 1925 silent version) feels like a story meant to help people unfamiliar with Christ and Christianity understand the power of the faith. It feels at odds with the personal story that had been told over the last 3 hours. It’s certainly an old Hollywood storytelling technique and it undercuts the great story that was told.

Despite this, Ben-Hur is quite the marvel and it deserves to be. The genre had build itself to this moment and it truly is the peak. After Ben-Hur, the biblical epic did not have the same aura it once did and every effort following it, did not have the same impact. I take this as a result of moving from the 1950s into the counterculture of the 60s. New Hollywood filmmaking would become the norm and studios would have to adjust. However, Ben-Hur remain a testament to an era of filmmaking that truly sought to transport you to another time and place.