Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory

Book review: Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 435pp.

Sinyard_Understanding Sound Tracks review_bookcover
This is a fabulous feat of film scholarship, both for the range of material it encompasses and the lucidity with which it handles complex ideas. The book is aimed primarily at undergraduate and postgraduate students of film; and, as a concise scholarly introduction to the thorny theoretical topics of Genre, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Queer theory, it could hardly be bettered. The theory is then applied to a variety of film soundtracks, and familiar films are paired with less mainstream examples for purposes of analysis, comparison and contrast. In the process dazzling insights are offered into acknowledged classics such as The Searchers (1956) and Rebecca (1940) as well as less well known films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ten Canoes (2006). One of the most revelatory sections is devoted to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), where, through a closely argued commentary on the way in which the soundtrack reflects the hero’s difficulty in pulling things together, the chapter offers a convincing critical rehabilitation of a film that was widely derided and misunderstood on first release. A coda combines all these theoretical approaches in a brilliant reading of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which makes the film sound a lot more interesting to hear than I found it to watch.

A primary aim of the book is to challenge what has been called the “visual chauvinism” of much film analysis and give equal attention to a film’s soundtrack. This yields some remarkable and challenging interpretations. For example, there is a detailed account of the way Max Steiner’s score for John Ford’s The Searchers seems to run counter to the film, in the author’s words “obfuscating threat and emphasising reassurance” in a way that adds yet another layer of complication to what is already one of the most troubling masterpieces of the American cinema.1 (I would love to see a similarly forensic analysis carried out on Steiner’s equally contentious score for John Huston’s 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Huston claimed he only first heard at the film’s premiere.) The soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is then used as a compelling visual and aural contrast to the Ford film. There is a similarly engrossing comparison and contrast between Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Ten Canoes to show the different ways they voice the Aboriginal experience. The visual elements of Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) might seem to reinforce Laura Mulvey’s influential description of the dominant patriarchal discourse of classic Hollywood film, but the author argues that aurally things are more complex, with Lauren Bacall’s vocal performance (and, contrary to movie myth, it is her actual singing voice on the film) challenging and even countering the film’s ostensible reinforcement of gender inequality. Conversely, a more overtly feminist film, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) “reveals some irresolvable mixed messages when it comes to the endurance of a female ‘voice’ in a patriarchal context.”2

Elsewhere the author demonstrates how David Raksin’s “consistently alarmist” score for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) is “an important regulator of [the father’s] power, since no one in the film world itself is able to exert clear-cut control of him”;3 the way Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, and not Maxim, “hold the primary aural power” in Hitchcock’s Rebecca;4 and how Peter Dasent’s score in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) assists in “helping us to understand the extreme and emotional multi-dimensionality of its subversive protagonists who were all-too-easily labelled monsters in their own time.”5 The implications of all these assertions are eloquently followed through. The result is to make you want to experience all these films afresh – and through new ears as well as new eyes.

Neil Sinyard

Two random afterthoughts, as stimulated by a couple of observations in the book:

1) In the chapter on Rebecca, the author notes that “in placing emphasis on the mesmerizing power of Mrs Danvers’s silent entrances in terms of her impression on us more than on ‘Fontaine’s’ experience, we are reading against the grain of what the auteur said. Though recognizing the significance of Hitchcock’s directorial role, we nevertheless explore meanings beyond the delimitations set out by him.”6 Although authorship is not one of the theoretical areas discussed in detail, the book cleverly intimates how consideration of the soundtrack inevitably complicates an auteurist approach to the cinema. John Ford’s legion of critical admirers often cite his method of cutting in the camera so as to minimise the possibility of editorial or studio interference with his footage, but that same control did not seem to extend to the soundtrack, which makes the discussion of Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers all the more intriguing and important (Ford grumbled about the score in his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, saying “with that music they should have been Cossacks not Indians”). This issue of ultimate authorial control was surely partly behind Hitchcock’s legendary falling out with Hollywood’s most distinctive and original musical personality, Bernard Herrmann. To Hitchcock’s probable discomfort, Herrmann’s “voice” over the soundtrack was becoming too individual and insistent in its own right and competing for attention with Hitchcock’s, and you can’t have two auteurs in one film: not in a Hitchcock film, certainly.

2) In the chapter on The Piano, the author compares Michael Nyman’s score with Georges Delerue’s music for a roughly contemporaneous film, Steel Magnolias (1989), and writes: “the whimsicality, light textures and delicate timbres of the Delerue score seem innocuous and clichéd in comparison with the exuberant energy and stridency in Ada’s music as performed by [Holly] Hunter”.7 It is a curious comparison (the musical requirements of the two films are quite different) and also rather oddly expressed (Delerue’s “delicacy” is viewed negatively whereas Nyman’s “stridency” is seen as a virtue). Anyone who knows Delerue’s concert music as well as his film scores will readily appreciate that he would have been more than able to rise to the complexities of Campion’s film if he had been offered the assignment. Indeed, for me, it is a pity he was not, for I always find Delerue’s music infinitely more engaging, touching and beautiful than Michael Nyman’s, which, to my ears (and even when acknowledging its dramatic effectiveness in a film such as The Piano), invariably sounds like Philip Glass on an off day. But then: Benjamin Britten couldn’t stand Brahms; Andre Previn’s idea of musical torture would be having to sit through a Wagner opera; Leonard Rosenman described Maurice Jarre’s much-loved “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago as “amateurish” and with “actual wrong notes” etc. etc. There’s no accounting for musical taste – even theoretically? Discuss.

  1. Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 36. 

  2. Ibid, pp. 238-239. 

  3. Ibid., p. 285. 

  4. Ibid., p. 363. 

  5. Ibid., p. 388. 

  6. Ibid., p. 356. 

  7. Ibid., p. 216. 

Six British Films in Search of an Auteur

Lovers of British cinema owe a debt of gratitude to Network Distributors, whose DVD and blu-ray releases of British films have offered a fascinating mixture of acknowledged classics; worthy programme fillers that are revealing about the tastes and social attitudes of the time; and obscure or neglected works that, in some cases, never found an audience and, in most cases, deserve to be much more widely known. It is this third category that I wish to highlight in the following notes on six recent Network releases of films from the mid 1960s and early 1970s.

These six films are directed by film makers whom critics would be disinclined to view as auteurs, though all have their distinctive directorial personalities; and, anyway (and for better or worse), auteurs are relatively thin on the ground in British cinema. It is also true that, if some of the directors here failed to live up to their early potential, the reason might have as much to do with lack of opportunity as with lack of talent in a national cinema that has always struggled for stability and continuity. None of the films has achieved canonical status (some do not even get a mention in some published histories of British film); none of them has been widely shown since first release, even on television; and none of them is easy to classify, which is a tribute to their originality. Four out of the six deal with the subject of childhood, a theme at which the national cinema, for various reasons, has excelled. Carol Reed, Alexander Mackendrick and Jack Clayton are amongst the best directors of children in the history of the cinema. And so to the six films:

Nothing But the Best (1964: directed by Clive Donner)

This sprightly satire was well received at the time but seems since to have been lost in the margin between the end of the British New Wave and the start of ‘Swinging Britain’. A slightly miscast Alan Bates (he never seems quite ruthless enough for the role) plays a working-class clerk in a real estate office who is determined to enter the upper echelons of society. Like the hero of Kind Hearts and Coronets, he is not beyond committing murder if it will further his goal. Like the hero of Room at the Top, part of his strategy involves marrying the boss’s daughter (Millicent Martin); but unlike Joe Lampton, his planned ascent up the social ladder is not so much through ability and ambition as through a studied imitation of the manners, views and values of the ruling classes.

Janet Moat astutely thought the hero ‘eerily prescient of the Thatcher years’, which certainly gives the film an additional retrospective resonance. At the time it seemed very much in the iconoclastic spirit of the hugely successful BBC TV programme That Was the Week That Was (1962-63), which launched the career of David Frost, and which regularly featured Millicent Martin, Willie Rushton and Bernard Levin, all of whom are to make an appearance in the film. The glittering screenplay is by the Cambridge-educated American, Fredric Raphael, who catches the social nuances with all the observation and skill of the intelligent outsider. He was to go on from this to win an Oscar for Darling (1965) as was Julie Christie, who apparently had been tested for the leading female role but had lost out, astonishingly, to Millicent Martin.

As directed by Donner and photographed by Nicolas Roeg, the film has great visual panache. Donner has a way of wrong-footing you to suggest the deceptiveness of appearance: what looks like the establishing shot of a stately home, for example, turns out to be the design on a biscuit tin; what seems to be a wedding scene turns out to be only its rehearsal, and so on. Donner had learnt his trade as an editor of films such as Genevieve (1953), and, on becoming a director, he was one of the few British film-makers tolerated by the young critics of Movie magazine, who tended to share Truffaut’s view that there was some incompatibility between the notions of ‘British’ and ‘cinema’. He went to Hollywood and directed the Woody Allen screenplay, What’s New Pussycat? (1965), which Allen disliked but which Andrew Sarris at the time preferred to Some Like It Hot. His next Hollywood film, however, Luv (1967) was a disaster, despite a cast of Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May; and he returned to the UK to make Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), a youth sex comedy that does not hold up too well. His later career never matched his work of the early 60s (I should mention his exceptional 1963 version of Pinter’s The Caretaker, also photographed by Roeg), although I retain a regard for his TV movie, Rogue Male (1976), starring Peter O’Toole, and two estimable Dickens adaptations for television in the early 1980s, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, both starring the great George C. Scott in formidable form.

If Nothing But the Best deserves remembering today, it is particularly for the performance of Denholm Elliott as the seedy aristocrat to whom Bates turns for advice and tutoring on the art of one-upmanship and on how to acquire the requisite upper-class style. So long cast as the soppy second romantic lead in British film, Elliott suddenly delivered a magnificent character performance that was to transform his career. There had been earlier intimations of his untapped talent in Seth Holt’s Station Six Sahara (1962), but that film had sunk without trace (and would be worth resurrecting). Graham Greene had spotted his potential a decade earlier when Elliott played a weak colonial officer in The Heart of the Matter; and, with typical shrewdness, Raymond Durgnat was to compare Elliott’s role in Nothing But the Best with that of the hero of Greene’s novel, England Made Me, another public-school loser who thinks his background gives him a passport to idle prosperity; but who will wind up (metaphorically in Greene, literally in Nothing But the Best) throttled by his old school tie.

The Uncle (1964: directed by Desmond Davis)

Having championed Desmond Davis’s first feature, Girl with Green Eyes (1963), the magazine Films and Filming made a particular fuss about the virtual disappearance of his next film, The Uncle, which, to the best of my recollection, never did get a circuit release in the UK. Thoughtful films about childhood that are not really aimed at children sometimes have difficulty in finding an audience, seeming to slip between both the adult and youth market. The Uncle is a particularly notable example because it is actually about a child in an adult situation and feeling completely lost and disorientated as a result.

Gus (Robert Duncan) is a seven-year-old uncle by virtue of the fact that he is the child of elderly parents but has a much older sister who has a young son. This state of affairs gives Gus a rather cockeyed view of the world and the film replicates this with often witty distortions of visual scale. At one moment the world can be looking down upon Gus; then some complicity is visually suggested between child and adult; but then occasionally the two worlds come into disturbing collision, where Gus seems at one and the same time older than his friends but also more naive and innocent. When he is first taunted by his playmates with the chant, ‘Gus is an uncle!’, he is dressed up in a Charlie Chaplin disguise, and the association is suddenly apposite and poignant, with Gus looking a bit freakish and clown-like but also giving the impression of being, like the young Chaplin, old before his time, or at least feeling something of the cruelty of life before fully understanding its cause. Behind the children’s games is a vision of childhood that also encompasses loneliness and pain, and an awareness of sarcasms and insinuations being whispered behind one’s back. To counter this Gus has discovered a hideaway in a deserted house and in it he tries to teach his pet budgie how to say ‘Bloody damn!’ in a way that will give vent to his own feelings of frustration. It takes the death of a kindly shopkeeper (the infallible Maurice Denham) to give him a new insight into time and age and prompt him to effect a tender reconciliation with his rather remote father, finely played by that splendid actor (and television’s definitive Inspector Maigret), Rupert Davies.

The child performances, particularly that of Robert Duncan, are all excellent, with John Moulder-Brown making a welcome appearance several years before his memorable roles in Skolimowski’s Deep End and Visconti’s Ludwig. Manny Wynn’s photography has the kind of vivacity that one associated at the time with the Nouvelle Vague. The film has its awkward moments and winds up a little more cosily than at first seemed likely, but even so, it is a delight overall, and another example of a promise not quite delivered.

Like Donner, Davis had come up through the ranks and had been camera operator on films such as Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and Tom Jones before Richardson had given him a chance to direct Girl with Green Eyes. During the 1960s he was to make a film of another Edna O’Brien story, I was Happy Here (1966), a slight but moving tale and beautifully acted by Sarah Miles and Julian Glover; and George Melly scripted Smashing Time (1967) for him, a sequel to Girl with Green Eyes with the same actresses, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave but cut from a coarser cloth than the original. After that, and apart from an intriguing noir-ish take on an Agatha Christie tale, Ordeal by Innocence (1985), which featured Donald Sutherland and a memorable jazz score by Dave Brubeck, Davis’s main work has been for television; and even the best of that is hard to track down. I count his adaptation for the BBC of L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy as being one of the very finest television dramas of the 1970s, but it is currently unavailable, and not even listed on his CV on some movie databases.1

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970: directed by Basil Dearden)

This was to prove Basil Dearden’s last film and a grimly ironic finale in that the film will end with a fatal car accident and Dearden himself was to be killed in a crash on the M1 only a year later. It is based on a short story by Anthony Armstrong, ‘The Case of Mr Pelham’ (though the idea goes back to Dostoyevsky) about a businessman who finds his identity being taken over by a mysterious doppelganger. Hitchcock directed a version of the story for his TV series in 1958, with Tom Ewell as Pelham. In Dearden’s film, Pelham is played by Roger Moore, shortly before he was to become the new James Bond. It is a challenging dual role, because, rather like Dirk Bogarde in Anthony Asquith’s Libel (a challenge Bogarde seemed to undertake with great relish), he is required virtually to parody his own screen image. In one guise he is the uptight respectable English gentleman and a pillar of probity and propriety; in the other he is a risk-taking ruthless opportunist, both commercially and romantically. A debate over whether a business deal is a ‘merger’ or amounts to a ‘takeover’ connects with the film’s psychological themes. Hildegarde Neil and Olga Georges-Pinot are the contrasting women in Pelham’s life (or lives); and Freddie Jones gives an exuberant performance as an eccentric psychiatrist whom one suspects is more unbalanced than his patients. The finale is a visual tour-de-force.

The film is about the duality of human nature (a very Hitchcockian theme) and about trying to shed an imprisoning repression for emotional liberation. In this sense it could be seen as a very personal film, in which Dearden himself is trying to break out of his comfort zone and plunge into riskier thematic territory. I’ve always been moved by the recollection of Dirk Bogarde (whose career owed a lot to Dearden) of an occasion when, at a party to celebrate the rave reviews for Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Dearden had literally knelt at Losey’s feet and asked him, ‘How can I make a film like this?’ (Not an easy question to answer: very few films are as good as The Servant.) Behind the sincere homage, one can sense the insecurity of a man who rarely received – nor, one suspects, gave himself – the credit he deserved. Although he made several films that, for different reasons, could be regarded as milestones of British cinema – The Blue Lamp, Sapphire, Victim – he was treated with contemptuous disdain by Movie; and even Charles Barr acknowledged that he had underestimated Dearden in his book on Ealing Studios. He was a fine craftsman whose films (one thinks particularly of underrated works like Frieda, All Night Long and Life for Ruth) often revealed a strong social conscience. Moreover, in thinking again about The Man Who Haunted Himself, I was reminded that a number of his films are about people leading double lives, wishing or attempting to adopt (or occasionally suppress) a different persona or personality: films such as The Captive Heart, Sapphire, Victim and The Mind Benders. His reputation has risen in recent years, thankfully; but who knows what The Man Who Haunted Himself might have portended about Dearden’s later career development, had his life not been so brutally terminated in that car crash?

The Special Features on the disc are interesting. They include a 2005 commentary by Roger Moore and Bryan Forbes; and an isolated soundtrack of the score by Michael J. Lewis, who, for my money, is up there with William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold and Clifton Parker (not to mention Vaughan Williams and William Walton) as one of the great British film composers. His score for Jack Gold’s marvellous thriller, The Medusa Touch (also available on Network) is an absolute classic.

The Nightcomers (1972: directed by Michael Winner)

This is Michael Winner’s art movie: an intriguing proposition. Michael Hastings’ screenplay is a prequel to Henry James’s Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, venturing an interpretation of what really happened between the servant Peter Quint and the former governess Miss Jessel that has so affected the children in their charge. In the James story they will return as ghosts seemingly to possess the souls of these children; or are the ghosts a figment of the new governess’s overwrought, over-active imagination, as she contemplates the horrors (primarily sexual) the children might have seen? Whereas James’s story conveys its horror obliquely and ambiguously (something magnificently realised in Jack Clayton’s classic film version of the story, The Innocents), this prequel is all explicit exposure: bondage, voyeurism, sadomasochism and ultimately murder, as the children are drawn ever further into the adults’ decadent and dangerous pursuits.

The film’s main fascination was, and is, the performance of Marlon Brando as Quint, which came at the end of a dismal run of box-office and critical duds for the actor but which was to be followed by his Don Corleone in The Godfather, the film that rejuvenated his career. Brando plays Quint with a curious Irish accent, which might not be as bizarre as it sounds: I was reminded of a critical essay I had once read, arguing that James’s description of Quint’s physical appearance was inspired by that of the young George Bernard Shaw. It’s an appropriately unsettling performance, with a sinister charm that oscillates between naughtiness and downright nastiness. He is well supported by Stephanie Beacham as the hapless Miss Jessel, head over heels in a relationship beyond her understanding or control; and by Thora Hird, no less, as the beleaguered, outraged housekeeper, Mrs Grose. The other remarkable feature of the film is the baroque-style score by Jerry Fielding, who was to write a number of scores for Winner as well as collaborating regularly with Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. It was a labour of love, apparently, and it is worth quoting what Fielding said about the score in an interview with Tony Thomas in Film Score: The View from the Podium (1979), as it gives a real sense of the ambience of the film. ‘It was beautifully filmed in winter landscapes in England, largely in and around a country manor,’ he told Thomas. ‘The task, as I saw it, was to deal with the period… and that peculiar scent which must brush the ear ever so gently to remind us that all is not quite right and that we are dealing with two sweet children, who have become depraved killers in all their honest, naive sweetness. For the most part, the score is tonal, classical, pastoral, …but with intimations of tragedy. Of all my output through the years, it is among the film scores of which I am most proud.’

Baxter! (1973: directed by Lionel Jeffries)

Before his directing career was capsized by disastrous encounters with Wombles and Water Babies, that grand character actor, Lionel Jeffries had made three impressive and quite distinctive films. They had all focused on childhood anxiety, dysfunctional families, and absent fathers; and although generally upbeat in mood, they had shown great empathy with the fears of children as they negotiate their way through an often treacherous adult world. The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr Blunden are rightly recognised as gems of family entertainment, but Baxter!, arguably the most audacious of the three and the only one to be set in modern times, is hardly known, which makes this release all the more welcome.

The title might be off-putting, but it is meaningful. It is the surname of a maladjusted 12-year-old boy, and the exclamation mark signifies exasperation more than assertiveness. He is in the habit of referring to himself by his last name, because a speech impediment makes his first name ‘Roger’ impossible for him to pronounce properly. This is only one symptom of the boy’s all-round feelings of alienation: as an American in London; as a misfit at school; and as an irritant in a broken marriage. His extrovert manner only thinly masks a deep sadness and desperation that will spill over into a catatonic nervous breakdown.

It is invariably the mark of a good film that, however long ago you last saw it (a good 40 years in my case here), there are scenes and feelings associated with it that have remained with you. I could still remember Scott Jacoby’s remarkably sensitive performance in the title role; the maternal anguish and exasperation of Lynn Carlin; Patricia Neal’s powerful contribution as Baxter’s speech therapist, made doubly poignant when one remembers Neal’s own recovery from a near-fatal stroke that had robbed her of speech. Most of all, I could recall the scenes with Jean-Pierre Cassel and Britt Ekland, the neighbours who befriend Baxter and who become a kind of second family to him. These are the trickiest scenes of all, because they could have become dangerously cloying and sentimental, and yet they are crucial to the film’s impact. All credit, then, to actors and the director that they work. Perhaps Jeffries wears his heart a little closely to his sleeve in some scenes, but nothing seriously deflects the film’s compassionate look at a youngster in emotional turmoil. There is a lot in the film about names and identity; bold mood changes; and a final scene that, because it has been so skilfully prepared, is overwhelmingly moving.

Incidentally, the film’s trailer, which is featured on the DVD, is a real collector’s item, an absolute travesty that gives a completely misleading impression of the film’s mood and themes; shows not an inkling of understanding of what the film is about; and generally offers no compelling reason why audiences should not stay away from this film in droves. Who on earth can have approved it?

The 14 (1973: directed by David Hemmings)

Like his fellow actor, Lionel Jeffries, David Hemmings was also an accomplished director who never quite seemed to have the opportunity to fulfil his full directing potential. (He was also the never-to-be-forgotten boy soloist in the first production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera of The Turn of the Screw: I wonder what Hemmings would have made of The Nightcomers?) The 14 was his second feature film and tells the story of a family of fourteen children who try to stay together after the death of their mother. In some respects, it resembles Jack Clayton’s haunting film on a similar theme, Our Mother’s House (1967), except that here there are twice the number of children; also, whereas the children in Clayton’s film conceal their mother’s death from the outside world and try to create a private world of their own, in Hemmings’ film (which is based on a true story) the outside world cannot be held at arm’s length and is soon attempting to impose unwelcome solutions to the children’s desperate plight.

One of the most likeable aspects of the film is that there are no villains. Although the attempts of the Welfare Services and various institutions to socialise the children are generally (and sometimes hilariously) resisted, you do have the sense that the adults are genuinely trying to help and find a satisfactory solution to a complicated social situation. For their part, the children are keen to retain a spirit of rebellion for as long as they can before routine and regularity become the pattern of their lives. Rather in the manner of Michael Apted’s brilliant 1970s TV adaptation of the Graham Greene story, ‘The Destructors’,2 childhood here is seen more as a state of anarchy than a state of innocence. The performances of the children (who were mostly untrained juveniles) are pleasingly natural and, if nothing else, this release might stand as a memorial to Jack Wild, who is very poignant here as the eldest of the group; who was the definitive Artful Dodger in Carol Reed’s Oliver!; but whose tragic adult life was to become something of a cautionary tale. (The story goes that Wild wrote to Daniel Radcliffe warning him of the traps that can befall a child actor in his pursuit of an acting career.) Hemmings’ direction is lively, authoritative, and yet unobtrusive. Although the film is finally a celebration of home, family, and the resilience of childhood, it still has compelling and relevant questions to ask about society’s reactions and responsibilities towards those compelled by circumstances to live on its margins. The film was deservedly awarded a Silver Bear at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival.

Although the period from 1944 to 1949 is often cited as the Golden Age of British Film, for me the period between 1967 and 1974 is one of the richest eras of the national cinema. Not a Golden Age perhaps: the sense of crisis is too deep. But it includes an astonishing array of unusual and sometimes inspired films from artists of the calibre of Jack Clayton, Richard Lester and Joseph Losey; the best of Ken Russell; the early features of Nicolas Roeg, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Jack Gold, Mike Hodges, Peter Duffell; horror classics from Michael Reeves, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher and Roy Ward Baker; controversial masterworks from outsiders such as Polanski, Kubrick, and Peckinpah; the return of Alfred Hitchcock; and a lot, lot more besides. There is still much to reassess and discover about British cinema; and one awaits the future releases of Network with the keenest anticipation.

  1. Eustace and Hilda (BBC2), three episodes: ‘The Shrimp and the Anemone’ (30 November 1977), ‘The Sixth Heaven’ (7 December 1977), (14 December 1977). Adapted by Alan Seymour, directed by Desmond Davis. 

  2. Shades of Greene: ‘The Destructors’, ITV, tx. 21 October 1975. Dramatised by John Mortimer, directed by Michael Apted. 

Making Time in Barry Lyndon

Book review: Maria Pramaggiore, Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: Art, History, and Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), £16.99, 216pp.


Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was a modern adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Victorian novel about the rise and fall of an 18th century scoundrel. To put it another way, it was an adaptation by an American film-maker of an English novel set in Ireland. The significance of these temporal and national disjunctions are at the heart of the argument behind this stimulating new book on what has long seemed to me Kubrick’s greatest movie. In America, it was the most commercially unsuccessful film of his career and was memorably lampooned by MAD magazine under the title of Borey Lyndon. In the final chapter, assessing the place of the film in the context of 1970s cinema, Maria Pramaggiore suggests that its failure with American audiences was to do with its ‘non-Americanness and its non-manliness’.1 This book sets itself the task of examining the highly original way ‘emotion and thought find a place in the rhythms of the film’.2

Kubrick’s modernist sensibility was often expressed through the complicated time-structures of his films, which rarely followed conventional chronology. This was as pronounced in early films like Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Lolita (1961) as it was in later works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980). ‘In Kubrick’s universe,’ Pramaggiore writes, ‘the past and the future are never far apart.’3 She is alert to the fact that the way time passes is very important in a Kubrick film, and also very important for the way an audience responds. Certainly many critics at the time found Barry Lyndon cold and slow-moving (which has always been the exact opposite of my experience), and thought that whatever drama the tale contained tended to collapse into a series of pretty pictures. Whilst Pramaggiore is very good at illustrating and discussing the portraits and paintings that might have inspired Kubrick’s compositions, she appreciates more importantly what is behind these civilised surfaces, and how Kubrick, like Thackeray in his novel, is delivering a lethal critique of social hierarchy and hypocrisy. In a succinct sentence she summarises the entire thrust of the film when she characterises Kubrick’s understanding of his hero as ‘a hot-headed Irishman with a proclivity towards violence, who has become trapped within an artfully arranged picturesque landscape, a land to which he has no claims and a place where he does not belong.’4 She is right, I think, to suggest that, by the end, Kubrick is more sympathetic to the hero than Thackeray was, a sympathy perhaps deriving from his American perspective that traditionally values iconoclasm and independence and also from his perception of the difficulties of an outsider Irishman trying to progress through the forbidding corridors of British military and aristocratic power. In the novel, the hero is a rogue and a hypocrite who gets his deserved comeuppance. In the film, he is a more complex figure, at times brutal and unscrupulous, at other times pathetic and vulnerable, and finally undone when playing by the rules of a society whose acceptance he covets but which fundamentally despises him.

There is an interesting account of the production background of the film; and we are usefully reminded that its genesis might have arisen out of Kubrick’s now legendary aborted Napoleon project. (The narrative of Barry Lyndon ends quite pointedly in 1789.) Among a host of thought-provoking insights, the author makes a suggestive comparison between Kubrick and Max Ophuls (a director Kubrick much admired), but this time in terms of music and characterisation more than visual style, which is how the comparison is usually conducted. If Barry Lyndon is sometimes seen as being something of an anomaly in this director’s work, Pramaggiore shows convincingly that it abounds with familiar traits, such as his fascination with the military, which links the film with Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and with authority figures ‘who find an obscene enjoyment in their roles.’5 She is attentive to the ominous symmetry of the film’s construction, noting, for example, how the loss of Barry’s father in literally the first shot of the film foretells the sorry fate of father figures throughout, with Barry himself ending up as the sorriest father figure of them all. (I had not noticed before the significant role that horses play in Barry’s gathering misfortune, culminating in a duel in a stable that will literally cripple his future.) In contrast to what seems, for the most part, a statically composed film, she notes that there are two outbursts of violence filmed with a handheld camera that emphasise the shift in Barry’s fortunes. The first shows his victorious fist-fight against a fellow soldier, which momentarily seems to lift his prospects; the second shows his disastrous uncontrolled attack on his stepson during a music recital, a savage violation of decorum which will bring his upward social mobility to an abrupt end. Deadly duels open and close the film, both predicated on gentlemanly codes of honour but whose outcomes will prove traumatic.

In her opening page, Pramaggiore picks up a telling parallel between Kubrick’s film and The Sopranos, and the violence in both which lurks beneath the civilised conduct. Forty years on, Barry Lyndon, she proposes, ‘still has something important to say about image-making, culture and power.’6 Over the book’s succeeding pages, she proceeds to demonstrate that importance with eloquence and authority. When I was contacted by Sight and Sound in 2012 for my choice of films in its ten-yearly round-up to find the All-Time Greatest Movies, I put Barry Lyndon in my Top Ten. After reading this book, I have not had second thoughts.

Neil Sinyard

  1. Maria Pramaggiore, Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), p. 187. 

  2. Ibid, p. 10. 

  3. Ibid, p. 18. 

  4. Ibid, p. 139. 

  5. Ibid, p. 104. 

  6. Ibid, p. 13. 

It’s the Pictures That Got Small

Book review: Anthony Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, December 2014), £23. 95.


After a brief spell at RKO, Charles Brackett became a staff writer then producer at Paramount from 1934 to 1949; and his journals covering that period provide a riveting perspective on the daily routine of a Hollywood studio in its prime. Brackett also became half of the most celebrated screenwriting partnership in Hollywood history. In just over ten years he and Billy Wilder collaborated on thirteen screenplays, most of them critical and commercial successes, some of them enduring classics of the screen. They wrote two of the greatest screen comedies of the late 1930s, Midnight for Mitchell Leisen and Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch (both 1939). After scripting Ball of Fire (1941) for Howard Hawks, they became a producer-director as well as writing team, with Brackett as producer and Wilder as director; and proceeded to make audacious trailblazing dramas such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). As most film buffs will know, the title of this book is a famous line from Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden’s down-at-heel screenwriter has recognised a former star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and said: ‘You used to be big.’ ‘I am big,’ she has retorted imperiously, ‘It’s the pictures that got small.’ Less well known is the fact that it was Charles Brackett who was savvy enough to see the importance of that moment and recommend that the line be re-shot in close-up, probably also sensing how it foretold the devastating final close-up of that magnificent film.

Sunset Boulevard was the culminating triumph of the Brackett-Wilder collaboration and it begs the question: why then did they split up? Shortly before his death in 1969, Brackett was asked that very question by the writer and biographer, Garson Kanin and, according to Kanin, he replied as follows: ‘I never understood it….it was such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it….I loved working with him. It was so stimulating and pleasant.’1 Whether this is verbatim what Brackett said, or whether Kanin was creatively glossing the gist of what he thought he meant, or whether he was just giving his own spin on what he thought was the truth, has never been fully established. What is beyond dispute is that Kanin’s account of the break-up’s being sudden and unexpected could not have been wider of the mark. From Maurice Zolotov onwards, Wilder’s biographers have plotted in detail the persistent strains of the collaboration, but this is the first time that we have been told the tale entirely from Brackett’s point of view. From this account, the surprising thing is not that they split up but that they managed to stay together for so long.

On August 17, 1936, Brackett writes that ‘I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year and like very much… He has the face of a naughty cherub.’2 Brackett can help Wilder with his then imperfect English, but it is not long before he is becoming irritated by what he sees as the young man’s pedantry, his arrogance, and his tendency to claim credit for ideas that have originated from his partner. As early as September 1938, he is welcoming the possibility of a permanent severance from Wilder, and this will develop into an almost annual refrain. On August 2, 1942, he is ‘wondering whether our successful collaboration is over.’3 On March 18, 1943, he writes: ‘Gravely doubt that I can ever bring myself to work with Billy again. At the moment the idea of doing so takes all the joy out of life.’4 Even after their Oscar-winning success with The Lost Weekend, the tensions in their fraught relationship show no signs of abatement. On August 18, 1947, Brackett records that ‘I am gloriously sure I will never write with him again’;5 and a little later he writes that ‘to work with Billy again is a prospect that makes my innards curl.’6 Contrary to Garson Kanin’s interpretation, by the time Brackett and Wilder got round to their greatest collaboration, Sunset Boulevard (which Brackett’s friend Christopher Isherwood was justifiably to call ‘the best thing ever done about Hollywood’), neither they nor anyone close to them seemed to have any doubts that this would prove the parting of the ways.

In any long-standing collaboration, one can expect occasional differences and even passionate disagreements, but this particular partnership seemed unusually volatile. On one occasion, Brackett, who was generally a mild-mannered man, became so incensed that he pulled the flute Wilder was playing from out of his mouth and broke it over his knee. A principal reason behind the constant conflict was that, in almost every way, they were complete opposites: temperamentally, emotionally and politically. Brackett was quietly spoken, modest and reserved; Wilder was loud, egotistical and extrovert. Brackett kept details of his personal life very much to himself; Wilder was constantly bringing his personal life into the office. Brackett was a diehard Republican; Wilder was a left-leaning Democrat. Unusually for a writing team such as this, the relationship was conducted entirely within office hours, for they were so different that their social lives very rarely intersected.

However, the fact that their partnership was entirely professional might go some way towards explaining why it endured for over a decade. Success helped, of course; but there is also no doubt that a bond they did share was a mutual professional respect. For all that Wilder drove him crazy, Brackett never doubted his exceptional talent nor the fineness of his dramatic mind. At one point he does acknowledge in his Journals that ‘he is not as good without Billy’, though, significantly, he adds that he thinks he is still ‘pretty good – and more self-respecting’.7 Some critics have felt that Wilder also was not as good without Brackett, who, as well as being creative in his own right, was a valuable touchstone and restraining influence, curbing his partner’s wilder excesses, as it were. This view was supported when Wilder’s first film after his break with Brackett, Ace in the Hole (1951) was a resounding flop. Wilder always insisted it was one of his greatest films (and I agree with him), but some felt that, away from Brackett’s civilised script counselling, he went too far in his tough critique of journalistic exploitation and gullible humanity and only succeeded in alienating both critics and audiences.

The book would be worth acquiring alone for its disturbing yet dazzling portrait of Billy Wilder, an authentic Hollywood genius if ever there was one. But this is only a part of what it has to offer. There are few more compelling accounts of the reality behind the romance of the Dream Factory, the daily grind of working in a big Hollywood studio, hammering away at your own scripts; occasionally being required to doctor other people’s; having to re-write after unsuccessful previews; or being at the behest of temperamental stars and tempestuous studio heads. At one stage he writes: ‘I am actually filthy of hair and scraggy of finger nail and unbarbered, to try and get something done for Paramount.’8 He never loses that sense of dedication and professional pride amidst all the entanglements of finance and ego with which he has to contend. Yet, for all his conservative leanings, he is no blind respecter of authority. He describes the head of Paramount, Adolph Zukor as ‘a tiny, dim little man sitting in his enormous office, like a mouse in a cake-box.’9 He is contemptuous of the way Goldwyn and DeMille bully and berate junior employees. And there are no stars in his eyes (and indeed a notable absence of heroes or role-models in the whole text) when it comes to dealing with Hollywood royalty. He is effortlessly unfazed when Joan Fontaine is having a critical spasm over a perfectly grammatical sentence which she claims is ungrammatical. On Ginger Rogers, he will write: ‘It is the old trouble with Ginger: she hasn’t a very good brain but she insists on using it.’10 He is tactfulness personified when pacifying Jean Arthur, who feels she is being deliberately upstaged by Marlene Dietrich in the Brackett-Wilder collaboration, A Foreign Affair (1948). In his Journal he reports the encounter thus: ‘“I have sex appeal,” she said calmly, but inaccurately…’11

What steadily emerges from the Journals is not simply a picture of Wilder and of Hollywood but also an unwitting self-portrait. Brackett was forty years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1932. A Harvard Law School graduate and a former drama critic of The New Yorker, he was a fringe member of the Algonquin Circle and had published a handful of short stories and novels, which these days are largely unread and almost totally forgotten. Even his most famous novel, Entirely Surrounded (1934), satirising the Algonquin set and personalities such as Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott, was to be upstaged by the Moss Hart and George Kaufman Broadway hit, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), with its thinly disguised portrait of Woollcott possibly influenced by Brackett’s portrayal. He might have come to Hollywood in a disdainful frame of mind (in his excellent introduction, Anthony Slide does suggest that Brackett was something of a snob), but he also recognised that what he had achieved thus far in his career was unspectacular. ‘I have an interesting, scattered life,’ he wrote in 1942, ‘and have gotten nowhere, and I am getting nowhere.’12 Whatever else could be said about his time in Hollywood, he certainly got somewhere.

In his deeply sympathetic and loving Foreword to the book, his grandson, Jim Moore describes Brackett as ‘a lonely man, prone to deep introspection and self-loathing.’13 Certainly the impression given in the book is that of a serious, rather mysterious person who in Hollywood commanded respect more than affection. He does not give much of himself away. We learn next to nothing about his social life away from the movies or the kind of music he likes, say, or the kind of reading he enjoys in his spare time. He is discreet about his sexual life to the point where a number of commentators on the Hollywood scene have concluded, without any evidence other than conjecture, that he was a repressed homosexual. (Anthony Slide deals with this matter thoroughly in the Introduction; Jim Moore more or less says, ‘So what?’). His family life certainly seems to have been an unhappy one, involving the alcoholic depression of his first wife and the violent death of his elder daughter; but we must await Jim Moore’s promised biography to learn more of this.

If all this might suggest that the Journals are unexciting and unrevealing, this is certainly not the case, for although he might seem evasive on some personal issues, he is remarkably outspoken in his opinions and preferences where people are concerned. Indeed, in contrast to the way he seemed to present a façade of gentlemanly calm to his employers and peers, the Journals positively bristle with invective, as if they are letting something out of his system. Dr Johnson always professed to like a ‘good hater’ and Brackett was a very good hater; mere dislike never seemed sufficient. So he describes Charles Laughton as ‘the most repellent human being with whom I have ever had to share a table’,14 a dubious accolade he will transfer to Charlie Chaplin a decade later. ‘A day at Howard Hawks’s is always a day of hell’, he writes, as they confer on the screenplay for Ball of Fire.15 Anatole Litvak is described as ‘detestable’;16 and he dislikes Frank Capra ‘intensely’.17 He is equally rude about a whole range of actors and actresses. Some of these outbursts perhaps derive from a sense of personal frustration but many of them seem prompted by his antipathy to anyone belonging to the political Left. ‘He had no problem in dealing with, and maintaining a friendship with those fellow writers with a strong liberal slant,’ writes Anthony Slide in his Introduction.18 This is certainly not the impression one gets from the text, where Brackett loses no opportunity to disparage the views and even the dress sense of the likes of, for example, Clifford Odets, John Dos Passos, John Garfield, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and Philip Dunne.19 Yet one always suspects that we are being made privy to private thoughts here rather than public utterances. He might have been steadfast in his views, but there is no record of his being dogmatic or discourteous: quite the contrary. Indeed, as a counterbalance, one should also note his horror at hearing over the radio Adolph Menjou’s despicable denunciation of all Democrats as Communists during the HUAC investigations of Hollywood.20 Solid Republican that he is, even Brackett balks at the extreme right-wing utterances of the appalling Hedda Hopper, feeling the need, after two meetings with her in one week, to be, as he put it, ‘disinfected… and to divide my goods and give them to the poor.’21 In January 1938, he wrote: ‘Wish I didn’t suspect in myself a nasty rightishness, and hope devoutly I never let it make me unfaithful to Democracy, who is really my lady.’22 This commitment will have been tested during the post-war political turmoil in Hollywood, but he appears never to have deviated from this fidelity. He was a man of conviction, but also a model of fairness and integrity, with an engaging streak of self-criticism and self-deprecation.

Will there be a second volume? One hopes so, for what happened to Brackett and Wilder after their split is equally fascinating. Wilder went on to even greater successes and discovered a writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond who was to prove completely compatible (or maybe Wilder had mellowed by then). It culminated with Wilder achieving a personal triple-Oscar triumph with The Apartment (1960), after which, like most directors of his generation, he found the going increasingly tough in a changing Hollywood. Although they were less prestigious, Brackett also had his fair share of successes post-Wilder: an Oscar for his contribution to the screenplay for the 1953 version of Titanic; the producer of solid and varied mainstream hits such as the thriller, Niagara (1953), the musical, The King and I (1956) and the fantasy adventure, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). His final years were dogged by ill-health; and his brutal (and unlawful) sacking by Twentieth Century Fox following the reinstatement of Darryl Zanuck could only have fuelled his disillusionment with the industry.

In a Journal entry of August 29, 1942, he records that he has been to see Holiday Inn, best remembered now as the film which first featured Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’. ‘It is the type of picture,’ he writes, ‘which, while not unpleasant in the least, makes one ashamed of being connected with the pictures.’23 Why? Throughout the Journals there is a sense that Brackett never really adjusted to the film world or respected or valued his contribution to it, and might even have had delusions of a more respectable and successful literary career that corresponded more closely to his idea of personal fulfilment. Yet he had no reason to be feel any disappointment with his achievement. His work with Wilder will endure for as long as cinema itself; and even without Wilder, his name on the credits invariably guaranteed a film of taste and integrity. This superbly edited and annotated book is a worthy testimony to a troubled individual in an industry he unjustly denigrated but which he undoubtedly enriched.

Neil Sinyard

  1. See Garson Kanin, Hollywood, p. 164. 

  2. Anthony Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 87. 

  3. Ibid, p. 189. 

  4. Ibid, p. 213. 

  5. Ibid, p. 302. 

  6. Ibid, p. 328. 

  7. Ibid, p. 216. 

  8. Ibid, p. 7. 

  9. Ibid, p. 122. 

  10. Ibid, p. 246. 

  11. Ibid, p. 314. In fairness to Jean Arthur, she may have had a point. Andrew Sarris never quite forgave Wilder for what he called his ‘needless brutalisation of Jean Arthur in A Foreign Affair‘ – see Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film: History and Memory, 1927-1949, p. 327. Richard Corliss wrote that ‘she is made to wear what, after much morbid consideration, I can only describe as the ugliest dress in a forties movie’ – Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, p. 146. I would nominate Jeanne Craine’s dress in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) as a close runner-up. 

  12. Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, p. vxv. 

  13. Ibid, p. xvii. 

  14. Ibid, p. 60. 

  15. Ibid, p. 61. 

  16. Ibid, p. 356. 

  17. Ibid, p. 233. 

  18. Ibid, p. 5. 

  19. The writer (and later director) Philip Dunne was one of the most prominent liberals in the American film industry at this time, particularly admired for his screenplays for John Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green was my Valley (1941) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s romantic masterpiece, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947). Whenever he appears within Brackett’s sights, he is disparaged as being at best ‘dull’ and at worst ‘the most unendurable young man I know, an absolutely stinker’ – Ibid, p. 379. Ironically, in Dunne’s own memoir, Take Two: Life in Movies and Politics, a superb account of politics and power in Hollywood, his references to Brackett are unfailingly respectful, even though he recognises they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. They were to work together in the 1950s, even though in his Journals, Brackett thought the prospect unimaginable. 

  20. Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, p. 295. 

  21. Ibid, p. 219. 

  22. Ibid, p. 110. 

  23. Ibid, p. 191. 

Juggling Wolves: BFI Film Classics: Marnie

Book review: Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 96 pp., £12.99

Fifty years after the film’s release, the jury is still out on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 suspense melodrama, Marnie. It was widely condemned and even derided on its first release for its apparent technical incompetence, artificial sets, and dubious sexual politics, though it found an eloquent early champion in Robin Wood, who proclaimed it a masterpiece in his trailblazing monograph, Hitchcock’s Films (1965) and thereafter never wavered in that opinion.1 More recent accounts include a thoughtful and sympathetic book by Tony Lee Moral about the film’s production (2002),2 and Donald Spoto’s latest, increasingly disillusioned volume on Hitchcock, Spellbound By Beauty (2009), where the film’s aesthetic quality takes second place to Spoto’s allegations about the director’s sexual harassment of his leading actress.3 Inspired by Spoto’s book, the tv movie, The Girl (2012) dramatised the relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren; and it prompted an article in The Guardian, which described Marnie as ‘a terrible movie and a cruel one: the idea that a woman sexually traumatised by her childhood can be saved by submitting to a controlling rapist, is offensive and plain wrong.’4 Yet might it not be the article, rather than the film, that is ‘offensive and plain wrong’? Reading it, one could almost hear Robin Wood turning in his grave.

In his stimulating new study of Marnie, Murray Pomerance, to his credit, does not spend time remonstrating with the film’s detractors, which could be a wearisome exercise; when he does quote a fellow critic, it is invariably in a positive spirit and with a view to augmenting his own argument. The film’s quality emerges quite naturally from his enthusiastic, intelligent and insightful commentary. He plunges the reader straight into the film’s opening (one of the cinema’s great opening sequences). The camera focuses on a bulging yellow handbag (already suggestive of money) being carried under her arm by a mysterious female whom the camera follows along a deserted train platform, then stops, then follows again briefly, then stops, as if exhausted by the pursuit: its quarry has escaped. As Pomerance emphasises, a dominant theme of the film is flight: at this stage from a crime (the heroine is quickly established as a thief); then from her surrounding stifling society (the following scene with the outraged employer from whom she has stolen suggests she may have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment); but crucially from herself and from her own identity. It is some time before we are allowed to see her face. It has been calculated that Tippi Hedren as Marnie has 32 costume changes in the film, which, as well as keeping Edith Head on her toes, is expressive not only of the character’s external fluidity of appearance but also of the internal fragility of her sense of self. Soon we are to become aware that she harbours secrets deeper than her criminal activities, or her dislike of men, or an unusually tense relationship with her mother. There is also an irrational fear of the colour red at moments of stress or distress, and nightmares triggered by storms that seem linked to some fearful event from her childhood. The film’s narrative trajectory is dedicated to closing off her successive retreat from these demons to the point when she must finally confront them: only then will she able to find herself.

When Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) comes onto the scene and falls in love with her, Marnie’s flight from self becomes increasingly difficult, particularly when he discovers her theft from his office and virtually blackmails her into marriage so as to escape prosecution or an inevitable later apprehension by a male victim who might be much less forgiving. Is Mark’s behaviour that of a ‘controlling rapist’ (to borrow the phrase in the Guardian article) or that of a potential saviour prepared to defy conventional morality to save the woman he has come to love? There have been many accounts of the central relationship in Marnie, and particularly of the motivation behind Rutland’s actions, but I know of none more sympathetically attuned to the tone of the film than the following account in Pomerance’s book:

Mark’s sole project in Marnie is to rescue this girl from her amnesia, help her locate the memories of ‘old times’ so she can live in the present. He must time-travel with no map. Clues not placed in the narrative so Mark can cut a path to Marnie’s rescue are there so that viewers can share willingly in his concern. We must come to love Marnie because of her blazing pride, her animality, the elemental warmth buried within the frozen sheath of her fear.5

One of the particular pleasures of the book is the attention to the numerous felicities and subtleties of vocal intonation and dialogue delivery of the two leading actors. It is refreshing to see Tippi Hedren’s performance so eloquently celebrated, when some of the mythology surrounding the film (partly encouraged by Hitchcock himself) has been the suggestion that Hedren was an inadequate substitute for Hitchcock’s preferred choice of Grace Kelly, who had regretfully decided that her royal responsibilities as Princess Grace of Monaco compelled her to decline the role. In fact, I have often wondered whether her eventual rejection of the part was her suspicion that it might be beyond her capabilities. She could certainly have conveyed Marnie’s frosty exterior, but could she have conveyed the vulnerability of a frightened child that Hedren so courageously and capably assays in the extraordinary revelation scene at the end, where the actress has to simulate the tormented state of mind of a five-year-old girl? I wonder.

With the aid of a detailed study of the film’s preparatory production notes, Pomerance has no difficulty in defending Hitchcock from the charges of technical sloppiness and demonstrating that the stylised artificial backdrops are part of the film’s aesthetic design. It is not as if Hitchcock has not done this sort of thing before. In the famous love scene in the hotel room in Vertigo, when James Stewart’s hero thinks he has brought his love-object (Kim Novak) back to life, Hitchcock has incorporated back projection of a livery stable from an earlier scene to suggest the depth of Stewart’s delusion, the sense that this re-creation of the past is a fantasy inside his own head. Hitchcock’s use of back projection during Marnie’s ride on her beloved horse, Forio has a similar expressive implication. The director wants simultaneously to convey both Marnie’s sense of release but also the sense that this is not a genuine release and that her feeling of freedom is illusory. As Pomerance points out, Tippi Hedren was an accomplished rider, so there would have been no need to use back projection unless it were at the service of some other expressive purpose.

The back-projection debate is familiar territory in Marnie criticism and can never be wholly conclusive (one can acknowledge the deliberate and valid intention behind Hitchcock’s aesthetic strategy without necessarily being convinced by the result). Less familiar in Marnie criticism is what the blurb at the back of the book describes as the author’s ‘sharp-eyed understanding of American society and mores’, which extends to a particularly illuminating discussion of the North/South divide in the film and even the symbolic significance of the pecan pie baked by Marnie’s mother.

There is also a particularly good analysis of the fox-hunting sequence, where he argues that Marnie’s trauma here is not simply due to the sudden sight of the colour red but also by what he calls her ‘profound identification with the victimised animal. All too plainly, Marnie can see how society is little more than a fox hunt, with the callous, brave, unforgiving, and desperate (Strutt and Co) ganging up on the weak, vulnerable, feelingful and innocent…. She is the fox, a race with the hounds behind.’6 That section of the text took me back to the film’s first scene after the opening, announced by Strutt’s ‘Robbed!’ and where, joined by Mark who is visiting the premises, Strutt (Martin Gabel) affirms his conviction that the robbery has been committed by his former employee Marion Holland (one of Marnie’s aliases). Simply the way he describes her to the police is very revealing about the male classification of women against which Marnie rebels. Strutt can describe her appearance and indeed measurements in great detail (the secretary’s reaction whilst he is doing so is a picture: she has clearly seen all this before). Mark also joins in with this callous classification, saying ‘Oh, that one’ and recalling her as ‘the brunette with the legs.’ Strutt particularly remembers her habit of ‘pulling her skirt down over her knees as if they were a national treasure’, and it is a gesture that will later give Marnie away when she comes to work at Rutland’s: Mark will remember Strutt’s description. What is being implied through all this is a motive behind Marnie’s kleptomania: namely, a form of revenge against the patriarchal world in which she lives and the sexist attitudes she has to endure. (Significantly, we will learn that she steals in order to win her mother’s love.) One of the most sympathetically observed themes in the film is that of the situation of the modern woman trying to operate in a man’s world and how difficult it is for someone like Marnie in this society to maintain her sexual and financial independence. It reminds me of that superb moment in Rear Window when Jeffries (James Stewart) is spying on Miss Torso in one of the apartments opposite as she entertains a number of gentleman acquaintances in what seems to be a formal cocktail party. Jeffries rather leeringly refers to her as a queen bee, but Lisa (Grace Kelly), a successful career woman, has a much clearer perception of the situation and puts Jeffries straight (and the animal imagery looks ahead to Marnie). ‘I’d say she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,’ she explains. ‘Juggling wolves’.

There is another key moment in Marnie where a comparison with Rear Window suggests itself, and it occurs in the revelation scene when Marnie finally recalls the incident in her childhood when she has killed the sailor. It is activated by her sight of a struggle between a white-shirted Mark and her mother, at which point the memory she has so long repressed takes over and is visually recalled. Pomerance valuably reminds us that Mark can see none of this recollection and ‘is experiencing a form of paralysis akin to what besets Jeff Jeffries in Rear Window when through his long focus lens he sees his beloved Lisa Fremont caught in a murderer’s grip and, hobbled in his wheelchair can do nothing to save her.’7 Similarly in Marnie: far from being controlling, Mark is at this key point in the story completely helpless. Pomerance describes this moment as ‘the paralysis of dramatic involvement’.8 I would take this further and suggest that it is the moment in both films when the hero is confronted with the full consequences of his obsession and where it has led; the perilous terrain into which his obsession might have plunged the person he most loves; and, perversely perhaps, the moment in the film more than any other when he recognises the intensity of that love.

Appropriately, the most contentious section of the book deals with the most contentious section of the film (it led to screenwriter Evan Hunter’s removal from the project): namely, the honeymoon sequence. Is the scene when Mark finally has intercourse with his wife a ‘rape’ scene? The screenwriter Evan Hunter thought it was, which is the reason he was removed. The new writer, Jay Presson Allen always thought the scene was dealing with a difficult marital situation, and the word ‘rape’ was never used in her discussions with Hitchcock. There is a lot of sensitive detail in Pomerance’s description of the whole sequence (the reference to Klimt is a particularly lovely observation), but there is also an element of tentativeness and imprecision not present elsewhere in the volume. ‘What precisely can Mark take her to mean when Marnie bellows “No!”?’ he asks.9 Well, precisely: ‘No’. It is difficult to see any ambiguity in Marnie’s response; the rejection could hardly be plainer. Pomerance posits the suggestion that Mark’s entry into her bedroom might have awakened another occasion in her past that she is trying to suppress rather than signifying a rejection of any form of sexual congress with Mark himself. He writes: ‘When Mark kissed her in his office during the thunderstorm, and again in the stables at Wykwyn, we saw her fondness for sex, at least with him.’10 Not exactly. In the scene in his office, Mark could be seen as taking advantage of Marnie’s obvious terror, certainly comforting her, but also using the opportunity to make a romantic advance. His line, ‘You’re safe… from the lightning’ has the undercurrent of ‘but not from me’. It always reminds me of that moment in Vertigo when Scottie is comforting a similarly distressed Madeleine, and says, ‘No one possesses you, you’re safe with me’, which, in the full context of the film, will become profoundly ironic. Similarly with the love scene in the stables: it concludes not happily, but with Marnie looking away from Mark and with an expression on her face of profound anxiety. Her robbery of Rutland’s safe directly follows that love scene in the stables and suggests a connection: the theft could almost be a kind of rebuke directed at Mark’s romantic presumption. It certainly indicates her intention to effect a closure of the relationship and her desire to flee from it.

In discussing the actual ‘rape’ scene, Pomerance quotes William Rothman to the effect that ‘we have grounds for believing, as Mark does, that he is making love to her, not raping her. As Hitchcock films this moment, she even seems to move on her own accord to the bed, though backward, as if in a trance.’11 This rather glides over the fact that Marnie is to follow this sexual experience with an immediate attempt at suicide. To compound the impression of authorial unease, there is an odd misprint hereabouts in the text (along with the erroneous dating of Winston Graham’s novel as 1971, not 1961, it is the only such instance I spotted) when Pomerance writes; ‘There is no escape from the fact that he [Mark] is become the camera.’ I presume what is meant is ‘has become’, because the author then quotes Raymond Bellour as saying that ‘Hitchcock becomes a sort of double of Mark’. He then concludes that, like Mark, ‘we are all now very much wanting to go to bed with Marnie’ and being held back.12 On the contrary, it is equally possible, and arguably more plausible (because of the suicide attempt that follows) that Hitchcock is inviting us to identify with Marnie rather than Mark at this stage – the close up of Mark at the moment of intercourse looks more threatening than seductive – and share her feelings of desolation. As I have argued elsewhere, the character of Marnie (her repression, the private fears beneath the external calm, the sublimation and displacement of her sexuality) seems much closer to that of Hitchcock’s own personality than does the virile, self-confident hero played by Sean Connery. Ironically, much earlier in his book, Pomerance has made a very similar observation when he has claimed: ‘If ever he [i.e. Hitchcock] had a female alter ego….Marnie is her epitome.’13 Absolutely: and it is curious that he does not follow through this intuition in the film’s most controversial scene, because it could illuminate and even validate Hitchcock’s whole presentation.

Even in a detailed and rigorous study such as this, one cannot expect complete comprehensiveness in coverage of such a complex film. However, I was a little surprised by two omissions. There is no extended discussion of what has always seemed to me the key scene in the film: the ‘free association’ scene between Marnie and Mark, which brings together all the main elements of Marnie’s trauma; is the scene when she openly challenges Mark in suggesting that his obsession might be as ‘sick’ as her repression; where, for the first time, she is driven to concede that she needs and wants help; and where Mark’s genuine love for her is apparent in his gesture of protectiveness and concern. Hedren, Connery and Hitchcock are at their very best here. ‘It’s a very sad scene, isn’t it?’ Hedren said to Hitchcock at one of their script sessions. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but it comes out of anger,’ a remark I have always thought as being as revealing about Hitchcock as about Marnie. Perhaps Pomerance thought the scene had been analysed extensively elsewhere and that he had nothing to add. One would have welcomed his intuitions nonetheless.

The other striking omission – to me, at least – is the complete absence of any reference to Bernard Herrmann’s score. Over the years this has become almost as controversial as the film itself, because it foreshadows the calamitous falling out between composer and director over the score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966). No one could dispute the importance of Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock’s films, from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), but a number of critics have suggested that Hitchcock felt that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. In Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (2012), Gergely Hubai goes so far as to contend that ‘Hitchcock mostly blamed Herrmann for Marnie’s poor box-office showing, claiming that its old-fashioned style ruined his cutting edge “sex mystery”’.14 Memos at the time indicate that Hitchcock saw Marnie as a psychological suspense drama in the manner of Spellbound and that it should have a similar recurring musical theme, which Herrmann does indeed supply, though in his own distinctive style. It was actually quite unusual for Herrmann to highlight his main theme in that way. Although the theme itself is quite similar to one he composed for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (and indeed quite similar to Leonard Rosenman’s main theme for Rebel Without a Cause), he would have been entitled to quote Brahms when he was informed that a theme in the finale of his First Symphony was similar to a theme in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth: ‘Any donkey can see that.’ The important point is how the theme is deployed and developed. In this regard, I would think back to Pomerance’s fine visual analysis of the early hotel room scene when our mysterious heroine rinses the black dye out of her hair in the bathroom before facing the camera for the first time as the archetypal Hitchcock blonde. ‘In the explosion of that proud, beautiful face inside the wet ring of sparkling hair,’ Pomerance enthuses, ‘we already love her.’15 What is missing from that exultant description is an acknowledgement of the essential way Herrmann’s music swells, contributes to, and indeed completes that moment. In the words of musicologist Christopher Palmer (1990), ‘the burst of musical technicolor’ at that point ‘makes it one of the most memorable images in the film.’16 One could multiply instances of that kind. For me, Herrmann’s score, which appropriately combines rich romanticism with disturbing dissonance, has always been an inseparable part of Marnie’s greatness.

Let me end on the film’s finale, and on the book’s eerie cover illustration, which grows more haunting the more you look at it. It is an image of the children playing in the street, as seen by Marnie when she emerges into daylight after exorcising the childhood trauma that has paralysed her emotional development. One can also just see at the end of the street that disconcerting ship, a clue all along that Marnie’s mental blockage might have some connection with it (a sailor being at the centre of her forgotten nightmare). The children are very oddly arranged in the frame and look slightly alien: is there a potential future Marnie amongst them? When Mark emerges from the house, Marnie tells him she does not want to go to prison but would rather stay with him. Is that the nearest she can come to a declaration of love, or is it simply an expression of her preference for one kind of imprisonment over another? Mark replies: ‘Had you, love?’ Pomerance astutely picks up on the curious expression and grammar of that response: ‘had you’ rather than ‘would you’; ‘a delicious subjunctive’, as he puts it, ‘which invokes a potent “if”.’17 If Marnie is right that what has excited and attracted Mark to her is the mystery of her background, how stands the relationship now the mystery has been solved? Wonderfully appropriate that this most enigmatic of films should end on an Ivesian Unanswered Question.

Joseph Conrad once said that he would rather have the faults of Dickens’s Bleak House than most other novels’ virtues; and one can feel the same about Marnie. It is a film one can love irrespective of its flaws; after all, that is what Mark does with Marnie. Pomerance’s splendid monograph is a love letter that reads like a thriller. Hitchcock would surely have been delighted..

Neil Sinyard, November 2014

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  1. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (Tantivy Press, 1965). 

  2. Tony Lee Moral, Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (Manchester University Press, 2002). 

  3. Donald Spoto, Spellbound by Beauty: Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (Hutchinson, 2008). 

  4. Alex von Tunzelman, ‘Do Hitchcock and The Girl reveal the horrible truth about Hitch?’, The Guardian, 11 January 2013, available here

  5. Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie (Palgrave Macmillan for British Film Institute, 2014), p. 48. 

  6. Ibid, pp. 49-50. 

  7. Ibid, p. 77. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid, p. 34. 

  10. Ibid, p. 35. 

  11. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, 2nd edition (University of New York Press, 2012). Quoted in Pomerance, p. 33. 

  12. Pomerance, p. 37. 

  13. Ibid, p. 9. 

  14. Gergely Hubai, Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (Silman James Press, 2012), p. 62. 

  15. Pomerance, p. 8. 

  16. Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood (Marion Boyars, 1990), p. 291. 

  17. Pomerance, p. 83.