San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Friday, December 15, 2017

What a Character Blogathon: Charles Lane

This post is part of the 6th Annual What a Character Blogathon, hosted by, Outspoken & Freckled, Once Upon A Screen, and Paula's Cinema Club.

Charles Lane is one of those character actors whom even if you don't know his name, you probably know his work. Specializing in crabby authority figures, Charles Lane was the go-to guy when film or TV producers needed a mean miserly lawyer, judge, tax collector, banker, or landlord. A lot of actors complain about being typecast, but probably no one had more right to than Charles Lane. Then again with 361 IMDB credits and a career that spanned 77 years, he had a career that few could boast of.

Born in San Francisco on January 26, 1905 as Charles Levinson, he was one of the oldest living survivors of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. As a young man, he spent a short time selling insurance before turning to acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1929. His first film appearance was as an uncredited man in train station in City Girl (1930), F.W. Murnau's second to last film. In 2005, he was honored at the TVLand Awards for his long career and 100th birthday. As he accepted the award, he told the audience, "In case anyone's interested, I'm still available!" He later appeared as the Narrator of a short adaptation of A Night Before Christmas, when he was 101 years old.

Many of his roles in the early 1930s were uncredited, playing desk clerks, cashiers, and salesmen, but by the mid-1930s, a pattern starts to emerge as you see more of the parts he would become known for, lawyers, judges, and a state examiner.  He appeared in many of director Frank Capra's best films:

  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town - Plays Hallor, the crooked lawyer for Deeds' benefactor's commonlaw wife.
  • You Can't Take It with You - Plays Henderson, the IRS agent who informs Lionel Barrymore that he needs to file tax returns.
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - Plays Nosey, one of the reporters who dupes James Stewart into making a fool of himself when he first hits Washington. 
  • Arsenic and Old Lace - Plays one of the reporters, who recognizes famous bachelor, Cary Grant, as he is trying to apply for a marriage license. 
  • It's a Wonderful Life - Again with Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) as his rent collector who informs him that he's losing money from the poor suckers who are now leaving his slums to live in the affordable homes built and financed by George Bailey (James Stewart).
Other memorable Charles Lane film roles include, Larsen, the accountant for the Totten Foundation, the organization financing the encyclopedia, being written by Gary Cooper and the other professors in Ball of Fire, the landlord in the Christmas classic, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and the airport manager who tries to keep Buddy Hackett and and Mickey Rooney from waking the drunk pilot/airplane owner, Jim Backus, in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

At times, Lane had so much work that he had to shoot two pictures on the same day. He would show up in the morning for wardrobe say his few lines of dialog on one film and then move to a different set for new wardrobe and another small part on a second film all on the same day. Sometimes, he would go to the movies, not remembering that he had appeared in the film he was watching until he showed up onscreen. 

Charles Lane was also founding member of both the Screen Actor's Guild and the Television Academy. Television turned out to be as much of a boom for Charles Lane as motion pictures had been for him earlier. He was a good friend of Lucile Ball, whom he had met when they were working on musicals at RKO. He appeared on multiple episodes of I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and had a recurring role on The Lucy Show

One of the few times, you will ever see Lane smile a real smile onscreen
in the few seconds he thinks he has a son, before learning otherwise
Charles Lane appeared in one the most viewed episodes of I Love Lucy ever, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," where little Ricky is born. At the time it first aired, over 70% of the people who owned a television in America tuned in to see this episode. He played Mr Stanley, an expectant father in the waiting room with Desi Arnaz. While Desi is a nervous wreck, Lane is calm and collected, he already has six children, all girls. When the nurse comes in to tell him she has a surprise, Lane is excited to learn that his wife has finally given birth to a son, but his elation is short lived. His wife has not given birth to a son, but triplets, three more girls. "Nine girls," he laments in that distinctive growl of his. 

"Well, you can always plan on a girls' softball team," quips William Frawley (Fred Mertz). 

Charles Lane appeared in dozens and dozens of TV shows. The following are just the ones I remember watching either in first run or in syndication:
  • Perry Mason
  • The Untouchables
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Maverick
  • Mr. Ed
  • Dennis the Menace
  • The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • Get Smart
  • The Munsters
  • F Troop
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • The Wild Wild West
  • Gomer Pyle: USMC
  • Green Acres
  • Petticoat Junction
  • The Flying Nun
  • The Beverly Hillbillies
  • Bewitched
  • The Odd Couple
  • The Rookies
  • Medical Center
  • Rhoda
  • Chico and the Man
  • Maude
  • Soap
  • Mork and Mindy
  • Lou Grant
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Hunter
  • St. Elsewhere
  • L.A. Law

Charles Lane's final feature film was a romantic comedy, Date with an Angel. He played a pot-smoking priest. How cool is that? I would like to say that this was a great capper to a wonderful career, but I can't. No, Charles Lane is not bad in the film. He's perfect as his typical crabby self, but it's a completely missed opportunity to do something different with him. 

Making things worse, Date with an Angel is an absolutely horrible movie. As you watch it, you find yourself thinking, Is this the worst movie I've ever seen? And then you think, No, it can't be. I've seen a lot of bad movies in this lifetime. But then you can't think of anything worse than what you are watching right now. The big problem with Date with an Angel is that it take what might be funny situations and then does absolutely nothing with them, like setting up a joke and not saying the punchline. A guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head. And that's it. By the way, the duck says to the bartender, "Can you get this guy off my ass." 

*** Spoilers Ahead, but don't worry about it. Date with an Angel is not worth watching, even for Charles Lane smoking pot. ***

Sorry for the poor picture quality, but it was the best
I could do taking a picture of the TV with my phone,
and I knew you'd want to see Charles Lane toking.
In Date with an Angel, an angel collides with a satellite and crashes into the main character, Michael Knight's, swimming pool. The angel has a broken wing and doesn't speak English. She just makes high-pitched squeaks, sort of like Beaker on The Muppet Show, except not cute or funny like Beaker, just annoying. Thus, she can't tell Michael Knight why she is there, so he takes her to a Catholic Church to ask the priest what to do. He opens the wrong door to the Confessional, the one where the priest is sitting, and there is an 82-year-old Charles Lane, smoking a doobie. Now you would think that this would be awesome, Charles Lane smoking a joint, but no. As with the rest of the movie, it introduces a potentially funny situation and then does nothing with it. Does Charles Lane act stoned? No. Does he offer one of those unique insights that you only think of when you're high? No. He just acts annoyed, like you have seen him do a thousand times. Okay, about 350 times. First, Charles Lane is annoyed that Michael Knight opened the wrong door and then that he's not Catholic and doesn't know what Hail Marys are. Ultimately, Knight tries to show Charles Lane the angel, but Lane thinks it's a joke and threatens to call the police and tells Knight to go to the Baptist Church down the street. It's a typical Charles Lane performance and about the only thing that almost makes it worth watching. It just could've been so much more. 

I ended up watching the rest of Date with an Angel, in hopes that Charles Lane might show up in another scene. No such luck. I did learn one thing though. How do you know when a romantic comedy is not working, when you're hoping that Charles Lane will come back for another scene.

I want to end with something that speaks to Charles Lane's influence on movies, TV, and pop culture in general. The longest running animated TV show in U.S. history is The Simpsons. Over the years, over a hundred celebrities have appeared on the series, as themselves or in parodies of their work. Limiting myself to just classic film people, The Simpsons have featured the following:

  • James Stewart
  • Ernest Borgnine
  • Mickey Rooney
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Mel Brooks
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Claude Rains
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Clark Gable
The blue-haired lawyer is a character first introduced as one Mr. Burns many lawyers in Season 2. In one of the DVD commentaries, animator Jim Reardon said that the character was designed to look like none other than Charles Lane. The blue haired lawyer has never been given a name. In one episode he worked for the legal firm of "Luvum & Burnham: Family Law," so possibly his name is either Luvum or Burnham. In another episode, he is revealed to be the author of a science fiction novel, The 60 Foot Baby, but on the book cover, he is credited as, Burns' Lawyer. The blue-haired lawyer has appeared in dozens of episodes without being given a name, a perfect tribute to Charles Lane.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Billy Wilder and Film Noir

I just thought of something. One of my favorite film directors is Billy Wilder, and the main reason for this is that he is so versatile. He could do drama. He could do comedy. He could do could do film noir. He could do a courtroom drama or a war movie, but more importantly he could move freely between these genres and mix and match as the story demands.

Often what makes a Billy Wilder movie great is they way it touches on many genres. Some Like It Hot is not just a comedy, it's also a drama and a gangster movie all rolled into one. And it probably says more about sex and gender roles than many films would for years to come.

If you asked me about the quintessential film noir, I would have to say The Maltese Falcon, but running a close second would have to be Double Indemnity. Both are great examples of films noir. In a way, I think I prefer, Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson lends a level of humanity that is somewhat lacking in The Maltese Falcon, but at the same time Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson are every bit as corrupt or corrupted as anyone in any film noir ever.

But let's look at some of his other films, ones that you may not think of as film noir.

*** Warning Spoilers Ahead ***

Sunset Boulevard is a drama about a down and out screenwriter, not really a film noir or is it?  William Holden is no criminal unless you count trying to keep his car from getting repossessed, but there are lies and betrayal, done, not out of greed or avarice, but out of love or at least empathy. Oh yeah, and you do have Holden face-down in the pool at the end.

Ace in the Hole is newspaper story about a reporter who will do anything to get back on top and the media circus that erupts around a trapped miner in a cave-in. The miner doesn't do very well, not as the result of lust or greed but for a byline. The end result is the same. No film noir there. Right?

Stalag 17 is a war movie about a scammer/borderline con man POW, who is framed for something he didn't do. The real traitor is a trusted member of the team flourishing in the midst of the other POWs. It's a war movie, right. Film noir is something totally different.

Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama, but what happens. A man on the fringes of society kills a woman for her money and uses his wife as an alibi. Then ultimately he betrays his wife for another woman and gets his just desserts. Okay, that one sounds a bit more like film noir, but you don't really think about it because of the distraction of the trial.

Billy Wilder films are rarely just one thing. They take comedy and turns it into a drama. They take the elements of film noir and throw them into a drama or newspaper movie or a war movie or courtroom drama. And the end result is often much more than the sum of the parts.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Pitch Forks and Torches, Don't Count on It.

We have a lot of problems in this country. I'm going to look at one of them, but before I start I want to look at problems in general and how they get solved. Let's say your problem is you want to lose 50 pounds, a problem that I'm sure a lot of people can relate to.

First, I want to look at how you do not solve this problem. You do not solve the problem by doing nothing. The only makes most problems get worse. You do not decide that it is too soon to start solving the problem, that there needs to be a grieving period for the 50 pounds you want to lose. You do not solve the problem by blaming it on something else, like the NFL, players taking a knee are disrespecting your desire to lose weight.

To solve the problem of 50 extra pounds, you need to take steps. Say the first step is taking a 15 minute walk everyday. You do that for six months, and you lose 15 pounds and feel a lot better, but you still want to get rid of the other 35 pounds. The second step might be to stop eating fried food and eat more fruits and vegetables. Maybe that gets you there. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you need a third step or a fourth and so on to get to where you want to be. The point is you need to start somewhere.

With the massacre in Las Vegas, let's look at the problem of assault rifles. We've seen how much death and devastation that can be caused by one person with these weapons. In the 1930s, there was a similar problem with machine guns, which were legal at the time. The machine gun was the weapon of choice for high-profile criminals, like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson. Police often armed with only pistols were completely outgunned.

How did America address this problem? Did they make sure that every law enforcement officer in the nation was issued a machine gun? No. Did they decide that the best way to stop a bad guy with a machine gun was a good guy with a machine gun, so that Old Man Johnson and Miss Simpson could take on the Bonnie and Clydes of this world. No.

Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. Though not entirely banning the weapons, the NFA regulated certain types of weapons, requiring extensive background checks including fingerprints and photographs, and regulated how they were sold, transferred, and transported. In addition, these weapons were taxed at a prohibitively high rate of $200 (over $3600 in 2017 dollars). The NFA covered machine guns (guns that can fire more than once with a single trigger pull), short-barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, silencers, destructive devices, such as hand grenades and explosive missiles, and non-shotgun firearms with bores larger than 0.5 inches, and certain other weapons such as cane guns and umbrella guns. I'm sure that machine guns did not disappear after the NFA was passed, but in time, law enforcement in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s didn't have to worry about criminals wielding machine guns like they had in the early 1930s.

Fast forward to now, the AR-15 assault rifle is the civilian version of the military M16 rifle. The AR-15 is equipped with a 30-round clip and is semiautomatic, meaning you can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger. This comes out to about three rounds a second, though most people will not be able to maintain three trigger pulls per second for an extended period of time. Assuming two trigger pulls per second and 5 seconds to change 30-round clips, an average person could fire 90 rounds per second from an AR-15 without any modifications. Think about someone shooting 90 times a minute in a crowded shopping mall or at a sporting event. How many people could be killed and injured in that one minute with those 90 shots?

The M16 military version is fully automatic and fires 700-950 rounds per minute. With modifications, an AR-15 can be made to fire at much higher rates. In addition to things like 100-round clips, which would save the time reloading, devices such as hand cranks and bump fire stocks, can easily make an AR-15 fire similar to a machine gun. These are fully legal aftermarket accessories that almost anyone could install. You don't need to be a gunsmith to do it. According to The Washington Post, at least, a dozen of the 23 guns that were recovered from Stephen Paddock's Las Vegas hotel room were modified to fire like a machine gun. Here are two of these devices that can do this:

Bump fire stock (this was specifically mentioned):

Hand crank (not mentioned, but I included it because it is a very cheap and simple device that can make an AR-15 fire like a machine gun):

According to CNN, the Las Vegas shooting lasted 9 to 11 minutes. In that time 58 people were killed and over 500 injured by gunfire and trying to escape the scene. Now, I'm not a gun person, but my older brother is. I can understand that if you like shooting guns, things like a bump fire stock would make it a whole lot more fun to do so, but these devices effectively make machine guns legal and allowed a psycho to unleash this much carnage in roughly 10 minutes. 

I live in California, where assault rifles were banned in 1989. My brother is kind of a redneck, and he bought an assault rifle before the ban went into effect. He has never committed a crime with his guns. He always kept his guns locked up, mostly because he didn't want his kids shooting the neighbor kids or vice versa but also because his guns were worth a lot of money.

My brother retired to Maui about three years ago. He now spends most of his time paddle boarding, roller skating, and taking pictures of the sunset (he posts them on Facebook all the time). I honestly don't know whether he still has his guns. I'm guessing he still has at least some of them. That's right. My red-neck gun-toting brother now spends most of his time paddle boarding and taking pictures of the sunset. He's also pro-union. Ain't America grand?

Now, if we banned assault rifles and things like bump stocks tomorrow. Not gonna happen, but let's say we did. That doesn't do anything to prevent more mass shootings with assault weapons already out there, but like the 15-minute walk, it's a start. Maybe 20 years from now, things would be safer. Banning assault rifles also does nothing to prevent shootings with other types of weapons. Again, it's a start. The first step of many. I honestly don't see anything happening. The government has its head so far up the NRA's butt, they can tell whether they need to floss more often. 

As far as I know, my brother and I don't agree on gun control. I  can't imagine he's done an about-face on the issue in the last few years, though the sunset thing does give me pause. We do agree on a lot of things. My brother is not a fan of the government. I'm not either. For both of us, it's because the government does not care about ordinary people. They care about big corporations, the very rich, and special interest groups like the NRA. 

My brother is always talking about how he can't believe people don't take to the streets with pitchforks and torches. This is something else that my  brother and I disagree on. It wouldn't surprise me if people took to the streets, but it won't be with pitchforks and torches. It will be with guns, lots and lots of guns. Maybe, the government should think about whether it's a good idea to ignore the needs of the vast majority people while giving them almost complete unfettered access to guns. It just doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy to me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Charade Chord Melody Solo Tabs

My take on the Theme to Charade for ukulele. In the video, I probably don't play it exactly the same as the tab, but the tab will get you there.

Charade Tab pdf

Hit a Major Milestone

The other day I hit a major milestone. My mother-in-law had her 94th birthday. That's not the milestone. That's just why it happened. We were taking her out to celebrate. The kids wanted to have breakfast in the middle of the day, so we went to IHOP. It was kind of cool. With picking up my daughter from school, we got there about 3:00, and the place was almost entirely empty.

Now, I've been trying to get back on my diet, so I wanted to find something on the menu that was fairly low calorie. I looked over the menu, and it turns out the short stack of three buttermilk pancakes was 430 calories, about two thirds the calories of any of the sandwiches. Yeah, I know that doesn't include butter and the boysenberry syrup. Shut up. Further, it turns out the short stack was on the 55 or older Senior Menu. 

I just turned 55 last month, and though, it pains me to admit I'm a senior, I'm also out of work. And cheap, so I ordered the short stack off the Senior Menu. While I was enjoying my low calorie pancakes with generous amounts of whipped butter and syrup, shut up, I noticed something. The music they were playing was music that I listened to as a kid. 

This is not really new. It's been going on for a long time. When I was a kid, the music they played in places like in IHOP was Muzak, soft pop songs played with strings and piano, so it wouldn't offend anybody. Muzak went away some time ago. Actually, it probably didn't. Some quick research tells me that it just switched to playing real music about twenty years ago. 

I honestly don't know how it works. I know that when it first switched over, it was a mix of 50s through 70s pop/rock. For the last about ten years, it seems to have switched over to 80s music. In IHOP, it was all 70s, like we were listening to the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 soundtrack. Maybe, there are different channels. 

Though getting old sucks, at least I can take solace in hearing music I like in places like IHOP. To be honest, the age I don't mind so much. It's just a number. What bothers me is being overweight. Hence, the diet and my low-calorie pancakes. Shut up.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock – A One-Trick Pony?

Ever since college, my favorite film director had been Alfred Hitchcock. In recent years, I began to think that maybe Billy Wilder might have supplanted The Master of Suspense, because Wilder was so versatile. Billy Wilder could do film noir. He could do comedy. He could do drama, war movies, and even one of my favorite courtroom dramas. I know I already mentioned comedy, but he could do comedy with a sense of tragedy and pathos like no one else, whereas Alfred Hitchcock seemed like kind of a one-trick pony.

Now, when I say, one-trick pony, I mean this is the absolute best sense of the word. To be truly successful as a one-trick pony, two things need to happen. First, it needs to a hell of a good trick, and second you need to do that one trick better than anyone else. This describes Hitchcock to a tee.

Over the last six weeks, I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class at In college, back in the early 1980s, I also took a class on Alfred Hitchcock. While my college class was good, I'm getting a lot more out of the 50 Years of Hitchcock class. For one thing, in my college course, the professor wanted to see you parrot his ideas back to him. In the 50 Years of Hitchcock class, it's more here's what I think is important, you look at it and see if you agree or if you have anything new to add.

Another big difference is the technology. In the early 1980s, VCRs existed, but as a student, living on top ramen and macaroni and cheese a lot of the time, an expensive VCR was not in the cards. Also, while VCRs existed, large screen TVs did not. In class, we would watch the movies on 16 mm film. For the most part, you got one shot at it. You can't really fast forward, rewind, and pause a 16 mm film. Okay, you might be able to, but you would need to really know the film and have a projectionist, who really knows what he or she is doing.

With films on DVR and DVD and clips online that you can watch over and over again, you can really study them. You can watch them different times to look for different things, like objects in the background or just listening to the music and sound effects or even with the sound off to get just the information in the visuals.

Now back to my original premise, Alfred Hitchcock as a one-trick pony, that opinion hasn't really changed. What has changed is my appreciation of that one trick. While he is mostly known for suspense thrillers, he also made a handful of comedies, and most of his suspense thrillers had elements of comedy. He made a handful of movies that are best described as horror, but incorporated elements of his suspense thrillers, and often the suspense thrillers had elements of horror.

He learned his craft in the silent era, and often he would have long sequences in his sound films that advanced the story without the use of dialog. He used experimental and subjective techniques to manipulate the audience and explore the psyche of the characters. His films featured ordinary people as protagonists and sophisticated cultured villains. His films looked at marital relationships, extramarital relationship, parent-child relationships, and as much as was possible at the time homosexual relationships. Even his silent and early sound films that are often dismissed as un-Hitchcockian have elements he returns to in his masterworks:
  •  In Downhill, a man helps a friend, is betrayed by the woman he loves, and ultimately loses everything including his sanity. Isn't that more or less what happens in Vertigo.
  • In The Manxman, a woman marries a man she doesn't love out of a sense of obligation when she loves another. Isn't that kind of what happens in Notorious?
  • The Farmer's Wife, Rich and Strange, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are romantic/sex comedies, but aren't Rear Window and The Trouble With Harry romantic/sex comedies with a dead body?
That one trick is built on a whole bag of little tricks, and that bag kept on getting bigger throughout his career. Though most of his films were suspense thrillers, they integrated elements of espionage, romantic comedy, murder, betrayal, and mental illness, but all bore his personal stamp. In looking at that one trick or at Alfred Hitchcock as a one trick pony, I think it's important to ask yourself, did he repeat himself. Examine the following:
  • In 1927, The Lodger examined a serial killer and the preoccupation that society and the media have with serial killers. Later, he would re-examine the serial killer in Shadow of a Doubt, pulling him out of the dark alleys of London and bringing him into for broad daylight of small-town America. As the Production Code broke down, he brought the serial killer into the modern era with Psycho.
  • In the 1930s, he virtually invented the espionage movie with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. He would return to the spy thriller in Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Notorious, and North by Northwest. In the 1960s, his somewhat less than thrilling Cold War spy thrillers, Torn Curtain and Topaz, treated espionage realistically in era ripe with the pure fantasy of the 007 films. Even though unsuccessful, Torn Curtain and Topaz have moments of brilliance, such as the deaths of the East German agent in Torn Curtain and Karin Dor in Topaz.
  • In 1944, Lifeboat experimented with a film set entirely on a small boat. Later Rope would all be set in a single apartment, this time adding the technical challenge, having the entire film shot as if in one continuous shot. In Rear Window, he would create a masterpiece with intricate subplots set entirely in one apartment, and what could be viewed out of the window of that apartment.
  • In 1948, Rope features a pair of gay men who committed murder for the intellectual thrill of doing so. He would later revisit homosexual subtext in Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).
  • In Saboteur (1943), he created an enormous model of the Statue of Liberty for the last scene where Norman Lloyd falls to his death. In 1954, Rear Window used an enormous set with 31 apartments, many of which were fully furnished with working electricity, modeled after real apartments in Greenwich Village, New York. Later, he would use enormous set pieces and matte paintings to replicate Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. 
  • Often Hitchcock is criticized for his use of rear projection, but what about the truly innovative uses? In the plane crash in Foreign Correspondent (1940), he projected the footage of the ocean rushing up on the back of a screen made of rice paper in front of the cockpit set. Then on cue, he had hundreds of gallons of water crash through the screen and into the cockpit set to simulate the plane crashing into the ocean. In 1963, The Birds became his most technically demanding film ever,  with the film's final shot being composed of 32 separate film elements.
Yes, he often returns to the same or similar material, but is he repeating himself. I say, no. Not only did he stay ahead of trends in his films, he created them. In the late-1950s and early-1960s, when films like Desk Set and That Touch of Mink were using computers for comic effect, making boop-boop-a-doo noises and spitting punch cards on the floor, Hitchcock was using a real computer to create graphics for the credits of Vertigo and a predecessor to the modern electronic synthesizer to process the bird sounds in The Birds

In 1946, 13 months after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Notorious was released featuring Nazis in Brazil trying to refine uranium ore. Technically, Hitchcock considered the uranium a MacGuffin, an insignificant plot detail that just as easily could be changed to industrial diamonds. Yet I find it significant that the atomic age was just over a year old, and he was already using it as a plot device.

I purposely left off Frenzy in the above. I did so because it helps bring me back to something I said at the very beginning of this piece. I have often heard that the period between 1967 and 1977 being a renaissance in American film. This is the era that gave us Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, The French Connection, Deliverance, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alfred Hitchcock's best film in this period is clearly, Frenzy. In the 50 Years of Hitchcock class, it was mentioned numerous times that Francois Truffaut called Frenzy a young man's film. Hitchcock made it when he was in his 70s. When I look at Frenzy, it seems perfectly at home with the other films of the 1960s and 1970s I just mentioned. 

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned Billy Wilder, but when I look at Billy Wilder's later films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Front Page, and Fedora (I haven't seen Avanti! or Buddy Buddy), I don't feel like they are at home with other modern films in the way that Frenzy is. I know that this is an unfair comparison, but now that I've had a chance look at Hitchcock with fresh eyes, I think I'll take Hitchcock's one trick over Billy Wilder's versatility. Sorry, Billy, I love you, man, but Alfred Hitchcock is the man.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Flash in the Upstairs Rear Window Apartment

I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class on One of the features of the class is a Daily Dose, a short clip from one of the films under study that is used to discuss certain aspects of the film. In one of the Daily Doses, the opening of Rear Window is shown. I have seen Rear Window somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 times, and there is something I had never noticed until I watched the Daily Dose this morning. 

It occurs approximately 1:30 measured from when James Stewart's name appears in the opening credits (Stewart's name appears before the title and is the first text in the opening credits). I chose this timing because I figured that different versions of the film would have different company logos tacked onto the front of the film. Anyway, at this point the film there is a slow pan of the apartments outside Jame Stewart's Rear Window. During the pan, there is a flash in the window, diagonally above the window where the couple is sleeping on the fire escape. 

I know that the apartments on the set were furnished and had working lights. It's possible that at just that moment a light bulb burned out. Possibly this was noticed and possibly not.  Maybe it was noticed but by the time they noticed it was too late to retake the shot, but I like to think that nothing in an Alfred Hitchcock film happens by accident. So if that flash was not an accident, that means that possibly there was another photographer living in the apartment across the way from James Stewart.

Now what would a photographer running a studio out of his or her apartment in Greenwich Village in 1954 be doing as a means of support? Taking portraits of the neighborhood kiddies? Well, considering there aren't many children in the neighborhood, it seems more likely that the other photographer might be doing something else that paid a little better, like girly pictures. Still, this seemed like a bit of a stretch, but you never know with Hitchcock. 

Then I decided to watch a little further. At  approximately 3:50 to 4:10 (again from James Stewart's name in the opening credits), while James Stewart is talking on the phone with his editor, you see this apartment again. Two women come out on the balcony wearing robes. They lie down on the balcony deck, and you see them drape their robes over the railing above the brick wall that borders that balcony. No indication is given as to whether the women are wearing bathing suits or birthday suits, but they are scantily clad enough to make a passing helicopter come what seems dangerously close to the roof of the building. So does that make the girly pictures thing seem a little less far fetched?

Motivated by this I decided to rewatch the whole film again in fast forward, looking for that window. It is shown again a number of times, but I didn't see anything that would lend more credence to my girly pictures theory. That window appears when the dog is killed. Two man-woman couples are standing in that window, when the woman is yelling about her dog. Nothing indicates that anything unusual is going on. Just two couples having dinner or whatever. Possibly, I'm just imagining things. Possibly, it is Hitchcock's private joke to himself. Likely, we will never know. 

But let's just say that I am right about this girly pictures thing. That means that the whole time James Stewart was obsessing over Miss Torso and worrying about Miss Lonelyheart's love life. He should have been looking in that top floor apartment, where the real action was going on. Then again, if he did that, Raymond Burr might have got away with murder.