Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory

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

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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.

Juggling Wolves: BFI Film Classics: Marnie

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

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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.

Aspects of Innocence and Experience: some reflections on literature and film analogy, with particular reference to Henry James and Billy Wilder

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One of the finest and most influential books of film theory, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has, I think, one particularly fine but not very influential sentence. At the end of his chapter on the auteur theory, he writes: ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Hawks with Faulkner.’1 I used that observation as the starting point of one of the chapters in my book, Filming Literature (which is itself nearly 30 years old now) and it was always my favourite chapter of the book. I called it ‘Kindred Spirits’; and the kindred spirits I compared were Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and John Ford, Joseph Conrad and Orson Welles, and Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.2

Such comparisons have continued to interest me; and certainly in those particular cases I’ve discovered many more points of contact than I realised at the time. In the case of Dickens and Chaplin, I’d no idea at that time that Chaplin had actually given a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in London in 1955, attracting a record attendance of over 300 members and calling his talk ‘The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens’; or that, during the last year of his life in 1977, Chaplin had obsessively read and re-read Oliver Twist, obviously because it reminded him so sharply of his own appalling childhood and experience in the workhouse. In the case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, at time of writing that chapter and comparing Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I had no idea that Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights of Our Man in Havana nor that he had once approached Greene to write the screenplay of his most overtly Catholic film, I Confess (a fact, incidentally, that is still surprisingly omitted from most Greene biographies). I was later to expand on this comparison in my book on Graham Greene;3 and, in fact, the writer-director Neil Jordan has commented on the connection between these two and wondered about what he called Greene’s ‘strange miasma about the work of Alfred Hitchcock’, without doubt Greene’s biggest blind-spot as an otherwise exceptional film critic, which he never corrected and which Jordan rightly thought seemed a little suspect: ‘And there must be another book to be written,’ as he put it, ‘about the lack of contact between these two poets of English criminality and bad conscience’.4

Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock

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I was tempted to sub-title this talk ‘The Mistress of Romance meets The Master of Suspense’, except that there’s more to Daphne du Maurier than Romance and more to Alfred Hitchcock than Suspense. Actually, to the best of my knowledge, they never did meet, certainly not socially, and there are slightly unusual aspects to this. For example, Hitchcock was actually a friend of Daphne’s father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, who appeared in one of his films, Waltzes from Vienna (1933) and whom Hitchcock described to François Truffaut as ‘in my opinion, the best actor anywhere’. He did want to make a film of one of the Bulldog Drummond stories with Gerald du Maurier; and it is sometimes said that the main character of one of Hitchcock’s early talkies, Murder (1930) – about a distinguished actor who is on a jury that finds a young woman guilty of murder but who then begins to suspect that there may have been a miscarriage of justice – was actually modelled on Gerald du Maurier. (The part is played in the film by Herbert Marshall.) Both of them, incidentally, were great practical jokers and Hitchcock’s most successful one played on Sir Gerald was an occasion when he invited him to a fancy dress party. Sir Gerald turned up in greasepaint and wearing a kilt, only to discover that it was a formal black tie and tails affair, and he had to bid a hasty retreat.

Capsule: Vertigo (1958)

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‘A completely unbelievable story told with such a spellbinding logic that you feel the same thing could happen to you tomorrow’: this was Alfred Hitchcock’s description of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. It could equally apply to Vertigo, a tall story about a detective (James Stewart) who becomes the dupe of an elaborate murder plot involving an old college friend (Tom Helmore) and his mysterious wife (Kim Novak). At the beginning of the film, Stewart has a vertigo seizure that leaves him clinging for life whilst yearning for oblivion; and this sets up the swoops and falls of the film’s physical and emotional landscape. The narrative spirals rather than develops, and Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous score weaves an incredible web of yearning, as love and hate, life and death contend for supremacy. James Stewart’s extraordinary performance represents masculinity at its most tormented and oppressive; and, with unbearable poignancy, Kim Novak projects femininity at its most alluring yet vulnerable. Dismissed on its first release as a botched suspense thriller, Vertigo is now widely recognised as a masterpiece of romantic obsession. It is Hitchcock at his most personal, profound, perverse and poetic: how could it not be one of the greatest films ever?


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Capsule: Notorious (1946)

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François Truffaut’s favourite of all Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is a spy story without violence but with uncommon emotional intensity. The daughter of a convicted Nazi (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited by an FBI agent (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a nest of Nazi sympathisers in post-war Rio, particularly through exploiting her attraction to their leader (Claude Rains). Hitchcock’s thriller technique is flawless, particularly at moments such as the famous crane shot that starts at the top of a balcony and ends on a stolen key concealed in Bergman’s hand, or a scene of high tension organised around a drugged cup of coffee. Yet the main suspense comes through the tormented relationships and from whether the central couple can break through their neurotic uncertainties about each other to a (literally) life-saving understanding. Scripted with superb economy by Ben Hecht, the film’s plot moves with implacable logic to the moment when a locked car door becomes a death sentence; and espionage becomes a metaphor for the kinds of betrayal and deceit that poison all communication, personal or political. As the ostensible villain, Claude Rains is, perversely, all aching sincerity, whereas the supposed hero, Cary Grant has a dark cynicism that chills the blood, the actor’s impeccable timing giving his wounding words an extra twist of the knife. No actress suffered more exquisitely for love on screen than Ingrid Bergman and this is her noblest, most courageous performance. Hitchcock might have been the Master of Suspense, but Notorious added another dimension to his creative personality: artist of erotic anguish.


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Capsule: Spellbound (1945)

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‘Will he kiss me or kill me?’ was the original poster tagline for Spellbound, showing an apprehensive Ingrid Bergman in the arms of a preoccupied Gregory Peck, who is holding Bergman with one hand and an open razor with the other. It is a familiar dilemma for a Hitchcock heroine. Here Bergman’s psychiatrist has fallen for Peck’s doctor, who is a suspected murderer and amnesiac with recurrent nightmares that hold the clue to his past and identity. Hollywood had at this time only recently discovered Freud, and although Hitchcock tended to dismiss the film as ‘just another manhunt picture wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis’, it is a pointer to future Freudian themes and the proximity of film to dream in his work that will culminate in such masterpieces as Vertigo and Marnie. With a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali and a sumptuous Oscar-winning Miklos Rozsa score, this was Hitchcock’s biggest hit of the 1940s and has many audacious visual flourishes: fork-lines on a linen table-cloth that will trigger Peck’s trauma; a succession of opening doors as the couple first kiss; and a fine scene in a white bathroom where Peck, enacting the fear that roams Bergman’s subconscious, discovers the terror that can lurk in everyday objects. As the love-smitten analyst who turns dream-detective, Ingrid Bergman contributes many lovely touches and she is finely supported by some eccentric characterisation, notably from Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton) as her psychology professor. ‘Good night and happy dreams,’ he says to the honeymoon couple, before adding mischievously, ‘which we will analyse at breakfast.’


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Grace Kelly in Rear Window

According to Hitchcock’s associate producer, Herbert Coleman, ‘it was the most beautiful shot of a woman I have ever seen in my life.’ It is one of the most entrancing entrances of any screen character- a moment when, in a reversal of convention, a sleeping hero is awakened by a kiss from a Fairy Princess.

In Rear Window (1954), a professional photographer, L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), in a wheelchair with a broken leg after an accident at one of his assignments, is asleep in his apartment. Suddenly a sinister shadow falls across his face, which puts us slightly on our guard. Hitchcock cuts to a shot of a stunningly beautiful blonde coming into seductive close-up.

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He then cuts to a close profile shot almost in slow-motion to accentuate the dreaminess of the atmosphere as hero and heroine kiss. ‘Who are you?’ asks Jefferies, jokingly. Taking up the playful tone, the heroine introduces herself- ‘Lisa Carol Fremont’-, on every name switching on a lamp as if to emphasise the warmth and light she has brought into the room.

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Delighted with her contribution to Dial M for Murder (1953), Hitchcock was keen to work with Grace Kelly again, a feeling that was mutual: she turned down the offer of a role in On the Waterfront (1954)- which was to win Eva Marie-Saint an Oscar- to make Rear Window instead. This time Hitchcock was keen to create a part that was closer to her actual personality. ‘She’s stiff on film,’ he told the screenwriter John Michael Hayes, ‘and we have to open her out somehow.’ Hayes spent some time with her and wrote a part which brought out the gaiety and wit of her natural temperament. Hayes’ wife had been a professional model and that helped to create a background for the character that was authentic but also, to Jefferies, provocative.

Hitchcock vs Herrmann: the story behind the break-up of cinema’s finest director/composer partnership

I have called this talk ‘Hitchcock versus Herrmann’ because I want to tell the story behind the break-up of what to me is the cinema’s finest director/composer collaboration. But first I’d like to show two short extracts by way of introduction. The first represents the highpoint of their collaboration and is very famous:

The second is undoubtedly the partnership’s low-point and I guarantee that no one will have seen this sequence in this precise form in the cinema:


[Please note that, although Neil’s text describes the version of the Torn Curtain opening scored by Bernard Herrmann, the extract on this webpage is currently the version with John Addison’s music. The Herrmann version is, however, available on the DVD release of Torn Curtain.]

The first extract was, of course, the famous shower-murder in Psycho, made in 1960, the murder accentuated by perhaps the most celebrated musical cue in film history, Herrmann’s famous screaming violins that highlight the heroine’s screams but also the stabbing knife. The second extract was the credit sequence of Torn Curtain, made in 1966, and some of you might have noticed that it says ‘Music by John Addison’. Actually the music you heard was by Bernard Herrmann, arguably the most notorious piece of film music ever written because it brought to an end – and an abrupt and hostile end – this great director/composer partnership. The orchestra liked it: indeed, after they’d played it, they burst into spontaneous applause, so it came as something of a surprise to them that, when Hitchcock heard it, he was angry and upset, cancelled the remainder of the session, and severed a partnership that had served him well – nay, brilliantly – over 11 years and 9 films. My talk then is centrally concerned with what happened on that fateful day in March 1966 (surely the most dramatic recording session in Hollywood history) and why it happened. It is a complex and even mysterious story with some still unanswered questions, but very revealing about the individual personalities of two extraordinary artists and of two competing egos and insecurities. I also want to assess different accounts of what happened, offering my own interpretation but basing this too on what people who were close to the event have told me. But to understand it fully, one needs to contextualise it a bit; and in this regard, I want to say a few things about the partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann in its prime.