Saturday 30 June 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - The Lady Vanishes

My favourite Hitchcock film: The Lady Vanishes by Jonathan Coe
The novelist relishes Hitch's prewar comedy adapted by Gilliat and Launder because it both satirises and celebrates the English stiff upper lip

Jonathan Coe
The Observer
17 June 2012

It might not be his best film, but Hitchcock never made anything warmer or more lovable than this. I must have seen it 20 or 30 times and can't imagine ever growing tired of it.

Kudos to his collaborators, first of all. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's screenplay is sharper than anything written for Hitchcock's other British films (or his American films, come to that – except possibly for North by Northwest) and you could make a strong case for regarding it as a Launder and Gilliat film rather than a Hitchcock one, if authorship has to be decided. That sometimes endearing indifference to nuances of dialogue and characterisation that marks even some of Hitchcock's best films is nowhere to be found here: the edgy banter between Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood really sparkles.

And then, of course, there are Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), two of the finest creations in British cinema: a blissful satire on stiff-upper-lip Englishness, but also (at a time when the country was gearing itself up for war) a celebration of it. In one scene, Charters gets shot in the hand by an enemy gunman, bringing home to him, for the first time, the gravity of the danger the Brits are facing. "You were right," he says to Gilbert calmly, while dabbing at the bloody wound with a handkerchief. It's a moment that never fails to elicit gasps of admiration as well as disbelieving laughter from the audience.

Ethel Lina White's original novel, The Wheel Spins, is a leaden affair. Hitch seems to have briefed his writers, as usual, to read it through once for the story and then forget about it. Launder and Gilliat relocate the action to the imaginary middle-European country of Mandrika, and turn the whole of the first half hour into a low-key but brilliant bedroom farce. Once the characters are all aboard the train and homeward bound, the mystery kicks in and the film becomes more "Hitchcockian".

But it always remains a comedy as much as a thriller, and I suppose it's my own love of British film comedy that gives it a special place in my heart. Redgrave's impersonation of Will Hay aboard the train reminds us that Hay was one of the biggest British stars at the time and, looking forward 20 years or so, the cinematic world the film foreshadows belongs more to Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael than Scottie Ferguson or Norman Bates.

Thursday 28 June 2012

This afternoon's weather...

Alfred Hitchcock - Rebecca

My favourite Hitchcock film: Rebecca by Bidisha
Hitchcock converts du Maurier's dark, convoluted tale into a slick satire of the upper classes

The Observer
Sunday 17 June 2012

In Rebecca, Joan Fontaine is heartbreaking and hilarious as a twitchy waste of space with no personality, no self-esteem, no money, no friends and a cracking Electra complex.

Adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca won the 1940 Oscar for best picture and preserves the novel's famous first line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again". Hitchcock lifts the story out of du Maurier's dark, obsessive claustrophobia and presents a riveting satire about the toxicity of the gentility. Fontaine's character has married widower Maxim de Winter and moved to his ancestral home. She stumbles around Manderley like a temp on her first day at an investment bank, mortified, confused, intimidated by the legacy of her predecessor, Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who's said to have died in a boating accident.

There are vivid female characters such as shrewd society woman Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates) and Maxim's bossy sister Beatrice (Gladys Cooper), but best is housekeeper Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, a gliding serpent of scorn with a Viking crown of braided black hair, an archetype ripe for parody, imitation and comic inversion. In a superbly creepy and funny scene, she picks up Rebecca's negligee and says, "Have you ever seen anything so delicate? Look. You can see my hand through the lace."

The horror of Rebecca slides imperceptibly from beneath the comic weirdness. Maxim de Winter bullies, manipulates and insults Fontaine's character, but she's too naive to notice. In a scene of pseudo-revelation which Olivier cannily acts with overt staginess, de Winter declaims his ex as a lying, cheating, malicious flibbertigibbet who taunted him that she was pregnant with another man's baby. He mumbles insincerely: "I suppose I went mad for a moment – I suppose I must have struck her." She tripped, hit her head and died. A doctor then claims Rebecca was dying of cancer and unable to have children. So … it was OK to kill her accidentally because she was going to die anyway? In the novel it's even more nasty. Hitchcock shoots this sordid tale with light, slick cynicism.

As de Winter's cronies collude to absolve him, a beautiful fire ravages Manderley, representing Rebecca's rage at being so slandered. The house's charred remains are the perfect image of a great woman destroyed by smears, stories and sabotage.

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York (with Ron): -

Sea Of Heartbreak
Let It Be Me
Scarborough Fair
Sweet Dream Baby
Bye Bye Love

At 9pm the bar was empty - after the match it was heaving. Some great turns inc. Colin Rowntree doing Stormy Monday Blues and I'll See You In My Dreams; and another guy whose set included Tainted Love and Space Oddity - amazzzz-ing!

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Ian Hamilton - Hammerhead Revisited by Terry Kelly

Image result for ian hamilton
Hammerhead Revisited
The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 152pp, £13 (paperback)
Gazza Agonistes, Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 192pp, £12 (paperback)
Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951, Ian Hamilton, Faber and Faber, 336pp, £14 (paperback)

Terry Kelly
27 June 2012

Tough critic, acclaimed biographer and stringent but tender-hearted lyric poet, Ian Hamilton, was one of literary London’s most iconic figures.For much of the 1960s and 70s, Hamilton wielded considerable influence in the world of letters, his early acolytes including Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.

Hamilton first made his mark as editor of The Review, a small but influential literary magazine he launched in 1962. While championing the work of such future leading British poets as Douglas Dunn, Hugo Williams and David Harsent, its editor proved the sardonic, famously thinlipped scourge of certain literary elements, including the Liverpool poets and anything deemed pretentious or populist. Hamilton went on to launch the larger, glossier and often financially troubled The New Review in 1974.

Operating from a small office in Soho’s Greek Street, the chain-smoking and hard-drinking Hamilton also ran his blue pencil over manuscripts in the nearby pub and virtual office extension, the Pillars of Hercules. The pub later provided the title of a book of literary criticism by Clive James. It was the Aussie polymath James who christened Hamilton ‘Ian Hammerhead’in his satirical poem in rhyming couplets, ‘Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World’. (‘The TLS’s frozen-eyed Enforcer/Who thought that poetry went wrong with Chaucer!’) Hamilton’s influence extended to The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), where he was poetry and fiction editor for eight years, and he also edited both The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English and The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays. His acclaimed literary biographies included studies of Robert Lowell, J. D. Salinger and Matthew Arnold. While a kind of literary machismo was the better known feature of Hamilton’s literary personality, he was also a parsimonious but emotionally-charged poet, chiselling out fewer than eighty lyrics over several decades. Small in size – rarely extending beyond ten lines – and number, Hamilton’s poems circle obsessively around two basic subjects: his father’s death and a wife’s mental illness; yet they carefully eschew any trace of confessionalism. Hamilton died in 2001 and his Collected Poems, edited by his literary friend, Alan Jenkins, appeared posthumously in 2009 (a paperback edition is overdue).

As part of the Faber Finds initiative – ‘devoted to restoring to readers a wealth of lost or neglected classics and authors of distinction’ – three Hamilton titles have been republished. They have been repackaged in a plain, rather utilitarian paperback format that seems highly suitable for these recessionary times. The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, Gazza Agonistes and Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951 demonstrate Hamilton’s range of interests and unfailingly persuasive prose style. Devoid of tonal wobbles, highly informed and – in the case of the Gazza book – infused with a simple passion for the glory game, all three reissues are very welcome. Originally published in 1976, The Little Magazines is a modestly proportioned book that was almost certainly close to Hamilton’s heart. As the editor of first The Review (1962-1972) and later the even more financially precarious, The New Review (1974-1979), which boasted the same glossy format as Vogue, Hamilton was acutely aware of the discrepancy – if not the yawning chasm – between the lofty literary ambitions which inspire small magazines and their creators and the typically mundane and fraught reality of their situation. The New Review was often pursued by debt collectors, bailiffs and even unpaid contributors. (Ian McEwan recalled going into the Pillars of Hercules in the 1970s with Seamus Heaney and persuading Hamilton to divulge his rarely-seen chequebook – ‘I came away with thirty pounds and Seamus with ten’.) In his cogently written study of such famous editors as T. S. Eliot (The Criterion), Cyril Connolly (Horizon) and Geoffrey Grigson (New Verse), and possibly half-forgotten ones such as Margaret Anderson (The Little Review) and Harriet Monroe (Poetry), Hamilton skilfully delineates what he calls the ‘arrestingly largescale ambitions’ of such personalities, labouring outside the usual literary mainstream, often sustained by little more than an evangelical fervour. Rather than attempt a comprehensive overview of small magazines over a hundred-year period, Hamilton opted for a detailed examination of three English and three American editors, each of whom made their mark in terms of embodying a movement, championing a select band of writers or shaping the literary tastes of their time.

Hamilton believed little magazines generally make their mark and are most exciting in their first decade. (His own ten-year editorship of The Review and The New Review’s even shorter run appear to bear this out.) Calling a decade ‘the ideal life-span for a little magazine’, Hamilton also provides this neat summation of why small magazines matter: ‘It is in the nature of the little magazine that it should believe that no one else could do what it is doing’. It is precisely this crusading, individualistic spirit which distinguishes some of the literary pioneers in Hamilton’s sharp pen portraits. Little magazines are often fertile breeding grounds for micro-dramas and power struggles. This was certainly the case with The Little Review (which may have given its name to the small magazine genre). Its editor, Margaret Anderson, found herself grappling with the zeitgeist-maker and literary lightning rod, Ezra Pound. The author of The Cantos offered his services as the magazine’s foreign editor, filling the pages of The Little Review with new and important work by Eliot, Yeats and Wyndham Lewis. Protests duly followed from outraged readers and the Post Office eventually stepped in, seizing and burning one issue and accusing the magazine of obscenity for printing an offending article by Lewis. Soon acquiring a taste for aesthetic martyrdom, The Little Review saw several of its numbers destroyed for including instalments of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Pound’s messy departure from the magazine left the way open for the appearance of the classic eccentric, Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven. Her off-the-wall verse was matched by a similarly Dadaist dress sense, which incorporated everything from kilts to a velvet tam-o’-shanter and spoons hanging from her person.

Despite Hamilton’s reputation for critical toughness and his nose for literary pretension, he also understood the essentially pure instincts which fuel little magazines. His post-mortem on The Little Review’s fifteen-year run contains an almost autobiographical sympathy: ‘Frivolous, absurd and simple-minded, it had some kind of buried instinct for the genuine.’

When Hamilton launched The Review in the spring of 1962 from an address in Woodstock Road, Oxford it was billed as ‘a bi-monthly magazine of poetry and criticism’. (But as his literary friend, Dan Jacobson, later noted, Hamilton’s creation occasionally suffered ‘money-induced gaps’.) The magazine was set in Gill Sans typeface as a tribute to Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse. Certainly, Hamilton’s own cold-eyed literary personality seems to chime with that of Grigson rather than any other editor profiled in The Little Magazines, T. S. Eliot included. Rating New Verse as ‘the toughest and most entertaining of all the little magazines’, and describing Grigson as ‘a natural dissenter’, Hamilton could almost be defining the combative, take-no-prisoners spirit of The Review: ‘There was more than enough vitriol to go round’. Grigson’s critical severity, often tipping over into an almost personal animus, can be seen as a literary precursor of Hamilton’s own no-nonsense stance. But Hamilton believes Grigson’s ire was often justified: ‘Almost always, some genuine critical point was being made; some real weakness in the work at issue was being isolated. And more often than not the venom, when it appeared, was as much a rejoinder to the polite and tepid procedures of the general run of weekly book reviewers as it was to the specific book.’

Often Hamilton’s study of more notable little magazines is also a sounding board for his own critical beliefs. The literary scourge of Soho, who ‘spoke from the side of his mouth, like a mafioso’ (Blake Morrison), Hamilton essentially believed that even the very best literary magazines have a limited shelf life before they start to lose their critical bite. Neither is New Verse spared the rod, with Hamilton pinpointing its incipient decline from the moment it abandoned its wholesale advocacy of Auden. After this it ‘was never to be quite its waspish, absolutist, self’.

Like T. S. Eliot, Hamilton often paid a high price for steering a literary magazine through parlous financial waters. Staring down creditors and seeing off bailiffs eventually took their toll, with Hamilton’s hair falling out with stress. Eliot suffered too for his dedication to The Criterion, which he launched in 1922. The back story of a right-leaning magazine, often containing an awkward cocktail of poetry, sociology and polemics, is of a sensitive man with a fragile, unstable wife, trying to sustain both a senior banking career and a heavyweight literary journal. The Criterion threatened to push Eliot over the edge, as the poet confided to his friend John Quinn: ‘I am worn out; I cannot go on.’ Often a platform for Eliot’s high Toryism, The Criterion, more damagingly, remained resolutely silent on the rise of Nazi Germany. And, despite Eliot’s totemic cultural status and the magazine publishing new work by such significant literary figures as Auden, Empson and Proust, Hamilton concludes that The Criterion failed to achieve two of the basic objectives of a little magazine: ‘There was no talented group of poets or novelists contributing to it regularly,and no sense of it encouraging particular literary movements.’ (The same could not be said of either the spartan Review or the plusher The New Review. Both of these espoused acerbic reviewing standards and terse,imagist poetry with a lyrical emphasis on leaving out rather than putting in.) Ultimately, The Little Magazines can be seen as Hamilton’s vicarious, rueful reading of the essentially doomed nature of literary ambition.

English association football may be a cultural world away from Eliot and The Criterion, but Ian Hamilton’s passion for the glory game could be said to have matched his love of the written word. Not many leading critics and poets have edited an anthology of football writing. In his introduction to The Faber Book of Soccer (1992), Hamilton admits that football, unlike cricket or rugby, ‘is notoriously a sport without much of a literature’. Yet Hamilton defends the voice of the fans tired of the ‘yob label’, and – surprisingly for a critic with such stringent literary standards – applauds the raw, untutored voice of the terraces as showcased in football fanzines:

'What’s heartening about the fanzine movement is that it manifests energy in search of eloquence – and the character of that energy is not just impudent or grumpy. At its best, it really does seem to want to make imaginative sense of all those weird Saturday sensations.'

Signing off his introduction, Hamilton, a devoted Spurs fan, pays admiring homage to his favoured footballing trinity – Jimmy Greaves, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne.

It is the wayward, Geordie footballing genius that Hamilton hymns in Gazza Agonistes. First published as Gazza Italia in 1993 and re-titled for two later versions in 1994 and 1998, the book is as sharp and perceptive as the best of Hamilton’s literary criticism. Like Paul Gascoigne, Hamilton was brought up in the North-East – specifically, Darlington. Indeed, he admits this geographical affinity was one of the reasons he was drawn to the naturally gifted Newcastle United midfielder, having first spotted him in 1987 and making a mental note to see more of the twitchy but highly talented nineteenyear-old Tyneside player.

Gazza Agonistes allows us to hear a different Ian Hamilton. It gives a greater sense of the real man and his basic sporting passions, and often makes for a more sympathetic or humane prose style; but Hamilton never loses the sharp, analytical qualities he brought to contemporary verse, fiction and biography. He portrays the often mixed-up nature of Gazza – the man famously dubbed ‘daft as a brush’ by the managerial great, Bobby Robson – with enormous sympathy. Noting Gascoigne’s poor beginnings on the banks of the Tyne in Dunston, Hamilton comments: ‘Even in Gateshead terms, his family was perceived to be hard-up.’ And the sardonic poet-critic is often willing to give his Geordie footballing hero the benefit of the doubt, despite Gazza’s many alcohol-fuelled antics, reckless tackles and frequent tabloid cameos. Hamilton’s football writing is as pin-sharp and pointed as a football chant. Possessing all the anorak-y knowledge of the committed fan, he has equal facility for local football detail and wider cultural commentary. Describing Gascogine’s brilliance for England in the 1990 World Cup, and the Geordie player’s eventual tears, he notes: ‘It was the tears in Turin that pitched Gascoigne from soccer bad-boy to the status of national celebrity.’

Neither is Hamilton afraid to get his literary hands dirty. He delves through red-top tales of Gazza’s ‘benders’ in the Bigg Market in Newcastle city centre with his constant drinking partner, the memorably named ‘Five-Bellies’ Gardner. Dutifully, he also reports on the various romantic dalliances that preceded the often madcap Geordie’s discovery of true love in the arms of the married mum, Sheryl Kyle – only for that relationship too to dissolve, almost inevitably, in a tabloid haze of wife-beating and drunken buffoonery.

Reading the book with the benefit of hindsight, we can see Gazza’s personal and sporting problems mounting like a wave at sea. As Hamilton notes in a stark postscript: ‘Wasn’t the whole drift of Gazza’s story a drift towards some calamitous comeuppance, some terrible bringing-down-to-earth?’But Hamilton – who, at one point in the book, christens himself a ‘Gazzamane’ – is often willing to forgive and forget his Tyneside footballer-hero’s boozily destructive ways. He offers Gazza the kind of critical sympathy he rarely afforded certain sensitive poets. A great admirer of the similarly wayward Jimmy Greaves, Hamilton seems drawn to those mavericks of football who burn the candle at both ends.

Friends and admirers of Ian Hamilton often spoke of him as literary London’s answer to Humphrey Bogart. It is highly appropriate, therefore, that one of the Hamilton titles given a new lease of life in the Faber Finds series is Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951. Hollywood was composed of as many myths as ancient Greece, and Hamilton’s detailed study is partly an attempt to debunk many of the writerly myths which enveloped the silver screen. Among them is that of the fragile literary sensibility chewed up by the Hollywood factory. First published in 1990, the book aims to provide a more complex and comprehensive insight into the role of writers who, as Hamilton notes, were mostly in Hollywood ‘by choice: they earned far more money than their colleagues who did not write for films, and in several cases they applied themselves conscientiously to the not-unimportant task at hand. And they had a lot of laughs.’ Laughs and copious amounts of drink certainly formed part of the core mythology of the writer in Hollywood. William Faulkner and the writer-producer Nunnally Johnson allegedly went on a three-week drunk after meeting for the first time – another movie myth? More realistically, Hamilton drily speculates that they ‘did bury a few drinks. They may even have stayed up all night’.

Writers in Hollywood tells the back story of such illustrious literary names as Brecht (for whom screenwriting was ‘a racket’), Chandler, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Huxley inside California’s dream factory. It also probes the fraught, collaborative nature of movie making itself, and the fluid role of the written word.

Hamilton’s love of film was as genuine as his passion for association football. As an undergraduate at Oxford he would see five films a week and soon developed a literary-critical interest in certain screenwriters. An early passion was the work of Ernest Lehman, who co-wrote the powerful 1957 film, Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster. He followed Lehman’s other screen credits with keen interest but was dismayed when he discovered he was also the author of The Sound of Music. The story is instructive. As Hamilton’s book confirms, the purity of the written word never had any part to play in the movies; by definition they are a collaborative art form. Hamilton contrasts the more elevated literary mavericks of the golden era of Hollywood with contemporary screenwriters such as William Goldman or Paul Schrader, who fully acknowledge the organic nature of their job. It was Schrader who succinctly noted that ‘screenplays are not works of art.  'They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art, but they are not in themselves works of art’.

Hamilton brilliantly captures the competing screenwriting claims and narrative confusions still surrounding such film classics as Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Despite the now iconic status of Casablanca and its famous one-liners, the reality is that neither the director, Michael Curtiz, nor its baffled co-stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, had much idea where the film was heading from day to day. When an exasperated Bergman asked Curtiz exactly with whom she was supposed to be in love – Bogart or Paul Henreid – the director’s reply was a classic example of Hollywood’s unwritten belief in serendipity: ‘We don’t know yet – just play it well – in between.’

This jokey anecdote neatly illustrates the divide between the definitiveness of the written word and the complex, often confused nature of celluloid magic. Casablanca’s script was in reality a chaotic mess extracted from the four winds, composed by different hands, all approaching the story from various angles. Hamilton memorably defines it as ‘the comic-cynical, the soppy-elegiac, and the solemn-propagandist’. Ironically, most of the people involved in Casablanca believed it would sink like a stone. Only when the film proved a success did the battles over authorship begin. The case shows that the sanctity of the written word often played little or no role even in the very best produced by Hollywood. Writers in Hollywood is a detailed and illuminating instalment in the ongoing and welcome Ian Hamilton reissue programme.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Tonight's setlists

At the Waggon & Horses, York: -

Set 1: -
I Am A Pilgrim
Give Me Strength
Is It Only The Moonlight?
So Close

Set 2: -
Walk Right In
Till There Was You

A quietish but enjoyable evening of open mic music. Four turns, so everyone got two sets.


Sunday 24 June 2012

Paul Buchanan interview with Bob Harris

Andrew Sarris RIP

Andrew Sarris, Village Voice Film Critic, Dies at 83

His wife, the film critic Molly Haskell, said the cause was complications of an infection developed after a fall.
Courtly, incisive and acerbic in equal measure, Mr. Sarris came of critical age in the 1960s as the first great wave of foreign films washed ashore in the United States. From his perch at The Village Voice, and later at The New York Observer, he wrote searchingly of that glorious deluge and the directors behind it — François Truffaut, Max Ophuls, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa.

Film criticism had reached a heady pitch amid the cultural upheavals of that time, and Mr. Sarris’s temperament fit that age like a glove on a fencer’s hand.

He took his place among a handful of stylish and congenitally disputatious critics: Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon and Manny Farber. They agreed on just a single point, that film was art worthy of sustained thought and argumentation.

“We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone,” Mr. Sarris recalled in a 2009 interview with The New York Times. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much.
“Urgency” — his smile on this point was wistful — “seemed unavoidable.”

Mr. Sarris played a major role in introducing Americans to European auteur theory, the idea that a great director speaks through his films no less than a master novelist speaks through his books. A star actor might transcend a prosaic film, Mr. Sarris said, but only a director could bring to bear the coherence of vision that gives birth to great art.

He argued that more than a few of Hollywood’s own belonged in the pantheon — including Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller, not to mention a British director whom purists had dismissed as a mere “commercial” filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock — and he championed them.

Mr. Sarris also embraced, albeit with an occasional critical slap about their heads, Young Turks like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola.

“We were cowed into thinking that only European cinema mattered,” Mr. Scorsese, who once shared a closet-size office in Times Square with Mr. Sarris, said in a 2009 interview. “What Andrew showed us is that art was all around us, and that our tradition, too, had much to offer; he was our guide to the world of cinema.”

Mr. Sarris’s book “The American Cineman: Directors and Directions 1929-1968” stands as his magnum opus. If Ms. Kael more often won points as the high stylist, Mr. Sarris was cerebral and analytic, interested always in the totality of a film’s effect on its audience and in the sweep of a director’s career. He opened his essay on Fritz Lang, the Austrian-born director, this way: “Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable and the philosophical dissertation. Mr. Lang’s apparent weaknesses are the consequences of his virtues. He has always lacked the arid sophistication lesser directors display to such advantage.”

Andrew Sarris was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1928, to Greek immigrant parents, George and Themis Sarris, and grew up in Ozone Park, Queens. His romance with movies was near to imprinted on his DNA. He remembered sitting in a darkened theater at the age of 3 or 4 entranced by a movie based on a Jules Verne story. “The liquidity of the scene and the film,” he recalled, “was truly magical, especially to someone not many years out of the womb himself.”

He attended John Adams High School in Queens, his time there overlapping for a year or two with the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin’s. But his concerns lay elsewhere. He recalled, as a teenager, sitting in his Queens aerie, listening to the Academy Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle award ceremonies, and developing his ideas, idiosyncratic and polemical, on film.

He graduated from Columbia College in 1951 and served three years in the Army Signal Corps. He returned to live with his mother — his father had died — in Queens, passing his post-college years in “flight from the laborious realities of careerism,” as he put it.

On a footloose outing he passed a year in Paris, drinking coffee and talking with the New Wave directors Mr. Godard and Mr. Truffaut, who were the first to champion auteur theory. (Later, in the United States, he would edit an English-language edition of the influential auteurist magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.) Always his love affair with movies sustained him. He recalled sitting through four dozen showings of  "Gone With The Wind" as besotted with Vivien Leigh on the 48th viewing as on the first.

He began to write for Film Culture, a cineaste outpost in the East Village. But he was restless. He was 27, which he described as “a dreadfully uncomfortable age for a middle-class cultural guerrilla.”

In 1960, this self-consciously bourgeois man persuaded the editors of the The Village Voice to let him review films. He quickly asserted his intellectual writ; in his first review he tossed down the gauntlet in defense of Alfred Hitchcock and "Psycho."

“Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” Mr. Sarris wrote. “Besides making previous horror films look like variations of ‘Pollyanna,’ ‘Psycho’ is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.”

To praise a commercial director like Mr. Hitchcock in the haute bohemian pages of The Voice was calculated incitement. Letter writers demanded that the editors sack this philistine.

The editors instead embraced Mr. Sarris as a controversialist; argument was like mother’s milk at The Village Voice. And he survived to review films there for 29 more years. In defense of his favorites he was ardent; but to those who failed to measure up, he applied the lash.

John Huston? “Less than meets the eye.” Stanley Kubrick? “His faults have been rationalized as virtues.” And Antonioni took such a grim and alienated turn that Mr. Sarris, who had admired him, referred to him as “Antoniennui.”

In 1966, at a screening of Kenneth Anger’s "Scorpio Rising." Mr. Sarris noticed an attractive young woman, Ms. Haskell. He wandered over. “He had this courtly-as-learned-from-the-movies manner,” Ms. Haskell recalled. “Afterward he took me out for a sundae at Howard Johnson.”

They married in 1969. She and Mr. Sarris lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Ms. Haskell is his only immediate survivor. A younger brother, George Sarris, died at age 28 in a 1960 sky-diving accident.
Andrew Sarris gained renown as an intellectual duelist, battling most spectacularly with Ms. Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker. She delighted in lancing the auteurists as a wolf pack of nerdy and too-pale young men. Mr. Sarris returned the favor, slashing at her as an undisciplined hedonist. Devotees of the two critics, in Sharks-vs.-Jets fashion, divided themselves into feuding camps called the Sarristes and the Paulettes.

A rough cordiality attended to the relationship between Mr. Sarris and Ms. Kael, but that is not to overstate their détente. When Mr. Sarris married Ms. Haskell, the couple invited Ms. Kael. “That’s O.K.,” Ms. Kael replied. “I’ll go to Molly’s next wedding.”

In another celebrated exchange of critical detonations, the often acidic John Simon wrote in The Times in 1971 that “perversity is certainly the most saving grace of Sarris’s criticism, the humor being mostly unintentional.”

To which Mr. Sarris replied, “Simon is the greatest film critic of the 19th century.”

Besides writing about film, Mr. Sarris taught the subject, chiefly as a film professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts but also at Yale University, Juilliard and New York University, among other institutions. He obtained his master’s from Columbia in 1998. And he continued to write on a typewriter into old age, eschewing a computer.

For all the fierceness of his battles — he once took a poke at his former student and fellow Voice reviewer J. Hoberman, saying he was “freaking out on art-house acid” — he remained remarkably open to new experience. Told once that Mr. Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" worked better under the influence of marijuana, he cadged a joint, went to the movie and found it a very different and agreeable experience.

Asked a few years ago if he had soured on any of the directors he once championed, Mr. Sarris smiled and shook his head. “I prefer to think of people I missed the boat on,” he said. 

Saturday 23 June 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - Notorious

My favourite Hitchcock film: Notorious by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The moral ambiguities of Hitchcock's tale of an attempt to trap a group of Nazi spies give this thriller its lasting power

Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Observer
17 June 2012

Notorious is perfect. Everyone knows that. It's a testament to Ben Hecht's complex, headlong script that so many people have tried to rip it off and a testament to Hitchcock's genius that no one has ever succeeded. Take a look at the gabby, inconsequential, forgotten Mission Impossible II and you'll see what I mean. The more obvious glories of Notorious include a revelatory performance from Cary Grant as the morally exhausted American agent Devlin, a terrifying Nazi-mother super-villain played by Leopoldine Konstantin and cinema's most cunningly prolonged kiss.

According to the Hays censorship committee, no on-screen kiss could last longer than three seconds. So Hitchcock had Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for two seconds, then break, nuzzle and start again, until he had three minutes of highly charged smooching. Watching it, it's impossible to believe that an assistant director with a stopwatch was just out of shot yelling: "OK. Lips … and … stop."

The film also includes one of Hitchcock's most famous shots, when the camera plunges over the bannister of a high staircase into the glitter and bustle of a party, shimmies through the guests and comes up behind Bergman to find a key hidden in the palm of her hand. The shot goes to the heart of Hitchcock's aesthetic – which is all about control. Notorious gets its unremitting suspense not from tooling up the bad guys or sending in the helicopter gunships but from narrowing the focus so that the opening of a bathroom door shakes you like an earthquake and a stolen glance burns you like a ray gun. As Truffaut said, it "gets the maximum effect from the minimum of elements".

You can see this in the mileage Hitchcock gets out of bottles and drinking in this film. The first time we see Bergman's Alicia, she is drunk. When she gets together with Devlin, they buy a bottle of champagne, but it stays unopened when their celebration is cut short by the arrival of her orders. At the climax of the film, Alicia – who has been trying not to drink – has to ensure that the wine flows so freely that she has a reason to go down to the wine cellar where "the MacGuffin" (plot device) is stored. Montages of bottles and glasses reappear like a musical theme.

But the film's real triumph is its emotional and moral complexity. Devlin headhunts Alicia and then falls in love with her. Alicia is the "notorious" daughter of a Nazi spy. Her disgrace makes her ideal bait for the honey trap that Devlin has to set for Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), the linchpin of a group of escaped and unrepentant Nazis hiding in Brazil. So Devlin is a good man, on the side of right, who pimps out the love of his life. Sebastian, on the other hand, is a Nazi who truly loves someone. A great artist – Michael Haneke perhaps – might create and explore these moral contradictions. Only Hitchcock could milk them for tension.

When Sebastian's mother discovers the truth about Alicia, for instance, she poisons her. Alicia therefore fails to make her meeting with Devlin. He can interpret this in two ways – either Alicia is in danger or she has fallen for Sebastian. The next twist thus turns not on a piece of information or action but on whether Devlin's jealousy is stronger than his love. It's both heart-racking and sickeningly tense.

People tend to be dismissive of Hitchcock's MacGuffins. In Notorious, though, the MacGuffin deftly amplifies and deepens the moral resonance, implicating the whole western world in its twisted emotional drama. Because the MacGuffin here is a cache of uranium, hidden – of course – in wine bottles. The film was released within months of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, an act that reflects the moral ambivalence and apparent necessity of Devlin's pimping of Alicia.

Hitchcock is the great Catholic artist, returning again and again to the themes of the fallen nature of creation. Sometimes – The Wrong Man, The Birds – this comes out as a bleakly thrilling feeling that everyone is guilty. In Notorious, however (and in Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo), it plays the opposite way – that the world is fallen and therefore the best are only different from the worst by the grace of God; that our worst failings are forgivable and repairable; and that no matter how compromised we are, we can – and must – love one another. It's the reason his great thrillers are also great love stories. It's the source of the power of that last shot – a hungover pietà – of Grant carrying Bergman out of the house of shadows and into the possibility of love.

Tom Kelly: back online...

Friday 22 June 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - The 39 Steps

My favourite Hitchcock film: The 39 Steps by AL Kennedy
The writer and comedian explains how Hitchcock's 1935 thriller persuaded her that a relationship should begin with inexplicable kissing, running and shared peril

A. L. Kennedy
The Observer
17 June 2012

When I travel, I always carry DVDs with me to maintain my affection for the human race, despite missed trains, dodgy hotels and fumbled logistics. The 1935 version of The 39 Steps – the original and the best – is always among them.

The plot is, of course, exultantly unlikely. John Buchan's book makes a kind of sense, full of manly vigour, dastardly foreign threat and the ultimate triumph of British pluck. Long-time Hitch collaborator Charles Bennett adapted Buchan with the ideal level of disrespect and produced a joyful confection of subversive humour, intelligent twists and wild sexual tension. The movie has all the elements I love in film – it likes people, doesn't stand on its dignity and knows that if your characters are right you can get away with anything. It allows its inhabitants to talk to one another and understands proper seduction is about how cleverly you can play with inexcusable transgression.

It introduces us to Richard Hannay, as played by the flawlessly beautiful, smoky-voiced Robert Donat in his charming and funny prime. Hannay is semi-accosted in an anarchic music hall by mysterious Annabella Smith. Annabella is clearly all kinds of trouble. She insists on being taken back to Hannay's flat, where he cooks her fish in a manly manner (that's not a euphemism) and she announces she's a spy. She's then murdered while he's asleep, having given him just enough information to spend the rest of the film defeating an extremely ill-defined spy ring who are using the music hall speciality act "Mr Memory" as a kind of living photocopier. Hannay is framed for Smith's murder, flees to Scotland, displays endless ingenuity and meets, beguiles and falls in love with feisty and resilient Pamela, played by the incomparable Madeleine Carroll.

Pamela – like so many of Hitchcock's women – has the gift of immaculate presentation. She climbs fences, falls over in the rain, struggles with wrongly accused men of mystery and spends exhausted and morally ambiguous nights asleep without her hair or clothes ever suffering. For most of the film, she sports one of history's most impractical blouses, which bears unruffled witness to her feminine qualities.

Together, Pamela and Hannay share adventures, swap lovely dialogue, bicker, flirt and scramble about a Scotland indistinguishable from Brigadoon.

Which brings me to why this film has probably slightly ruined my life. I watched it first when I was young and impressionable and, as a result, I will somewhere always believe a proper relationship begins with inexplicable kissing and a pure-hearted man in trouble, followed by running, a spot of shared peril and a happy ending.

I wasn't, initially, able to appreciate what is one of cinema's sexiest and funniest and wrongest scenes. And then I got older and I was. It has undoubtedly set my expectations of life very far adrift. To summarise, Hannay and Pamela have just run away from two fake and murderous policemen. They reach a quaint Highland inn, where Hannay pretends they have eloped and obtains a single room – and double bed – for them to share. Pamela isn't sure whether she's being abducted by a charismatic murderer or a handsomely decent chap. Nevertheless, she remains witty, lovely and chaste throughout, because those were the days when film-makers weren't threatened by classy, intelligent parts for women.

Pamela handles being swept up into a situation that combines kidnapping, romance, humour, irritation, play-acting, marriage, sexual threat, tenderness and handcuffs. It's intoxicating. Eventually, the couple – who aren't a couple and yet clearly are a couple – are left alone in the bedroom. They have been handcuffed to each other since the faux-police faux-arrested them. Pamela's stockings need to be removed because they are damp. (Yeah, right.) And slowly, marvellously, they are removed, Hannay's hand involuntarily assisting hers with just the right level of gently, unavoidable contact. The stockings are duly hung near the fire to dry and then – otherwise fully dressed and chaste – our pair go to bed, still chained together in a parody of a nervous wedding night. Few of reality's interludes will ever be that strange and lovely. Needless to say, it has set me up for a number of disappointments.

Still, I forgive the film every time I watch. I feel it is aspirational in all the right ways. The final shot – subtle, funny and tender – lets several varieties of mayhem recede while Hannay's hand reaches for Pamela's and Pamela's reaches for his. Her half of the handcuffs hangs free from Hannay's wrist. From now on, they have chosen to be together. Perfect.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - The Birds

My favourite Hitchcock film: The Birds by Geoff Dyer

A film 'replete with the visual and linguistic trappings of imprisonment' is let down by its creaky special effects

Geoff Dyer
The Observer
Sunday 17 June

The Birds starts out in a pet shop with birds in their cages; it ends with humans besieged in their home with windows and doors boarded up so that no birds (or light) can get in.

From the outset, the film is replete with the visual and linguistic trappings of imprisonment. In the pet shop where they meet, randy Rod Taylor tells mischievous Tippi Hedren she "should be behind bars". The man in the general store who gives her advice on how to get to Bodega Bay, where Rod lives with his sister and widowed mum (Jessica Tandy), works behind some kind of cage. The harbour from which Tippi sets sail is lined with lobster nets and traps. And the women are variously imprisoned by the feminine necessities of heels too high to run in, perfectly constricting clothes and ozone-threatening quantities of hairspray.

Tippi is the potential exception. She accidentally frees a bird from its cage in the pet shop and is – or was – wild enough to have once leapt naked into a fountain in Rome. Relatively speaking, she's an animal – well, she's wearing a fur coat anyway. Attacked by a gull on the boat to Bodega Bay, she is both the birds' first victim and is later accused, vampire style, of bringing the avian plague with her. (This is notionally true: the pretext for her visit is to deliver the lovebirds Rod was hoping to buy for his sister's birthday.)

Guilt by association is compounded when she takes off the coat and reveals her true colours: a stunning jacket and dress in lovebird green! (Is it a coincidence that two of cinema's great green outfits appear within a few years of each other, first this number modelled by the ravishing – and ultimately uccello-ravaged – Tippi, and then the coat worn by the psychologically tormented Monica Vitti in Antonioni's Red Desert? Or did Antonioni somehow glimpse the chromatic potential of chicks in green from Hitchcock and quickly borrow the look from him?)

As for the titular birds, what's their beef? And what – if anything – do they represent? Symbolic harbingers – talk about blaming the victims! – of impending ecocide? Or, in the allegorical scheme of things, perhaps they're a plague of invading immigrants, of Mexican origin presumably, coming over here, taking our crops and turning a nice little Wasp town into a place where it's no longer safe to walk the streets. Certainly, this is a view supported by the guy in the diner who, as the bird attacks intensify, translates the racist's standard rant into full-blown speciesism.

Slavoj Zizek reckons the birds coming down the chimney and erupting from the fireplace of the Taylors' besieged home are "explosive outbursts of maternal superego". This is nonsense; the correct diagnosis is that Rod and his sister have a dead Father (Christmas) complex.

The subtler question, for the critic David Thomson, is "why Jessica Tandy and Tippi Hedren have such similar hairstyles". Hairstyles, it is worth adding, which make them both look – in the Michael Caine-ish argot of the day – like birds. Tandy in particular twitches and flinches as if fearing that she could at any moment get pounced on by a cat – or might have to watch her son pounce on Tippi.

Thomson is right to move the discussion indoors, so to speak, since the worst thing about The Birds is, of course, the birds themselves. Not just because the special effects look so creaky by the hyper-real standards of CGI. No, the film would be much better off without them. Alert to this, the Dutch artist Martin Hendriks digitally removed the birds, turning it into a tale of extreme psychological torsion and pure paranoia. Tippi sits outside the school house, smoking Cindy Shermanly, oblivious to the fact that the climbing frame behind her is … just a climbing frame! I say this but I've never seen the bird-free version, because, I'm guessing, some killjoy claim of copyright infringement means that it too has been removed from sight.

This is a shame, since Hendriks's intervention finds its justification within the film itself. One of the flaws of the special effects is that the birds cast no shadows, suggesting that they might not exist, that they are no more than a collective hallucination. The original, let's not forget, came out in 1963 and is set just a short drive north of San Francisco, which would soon become the centre of mass experimentation with LSD. Hendriks's act of inverse spiking persuades us of what should have been clear all along: that everyone is in the grips of the ultimate bad trip, an apocalyptic bummer, a freak-out premonition both of Altamont's Hell's Angels (with their patches depicting a death's head with wings) and Charles Manson's home-invading murderers.

Pity he couldn't find a Hitchcock he actually liked, rather than one he would like had it been different...

Note that in the picture above, you CAN see shadows cast by the birds. However, he has his theory and he's sticking to it.

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York (with Ron): -

Bye Bye Love
Devoted To You
The Price Of Love

A very busy night in terms of players, but the bar was not exactly packed for most of the time. Some new tunes from host Mark Wynn who will be recording them very soon.

For followers of the never-ending tour, the open mic at the Waggon & Horses last night was partially displaced by the footy, so after the match there was a Cumberland Arms-style jam in the 'music room'. A splendid time was had by all.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Happy birthday, Brian Wilson!

Men of the Tyne at the Customs House

RIVER FLOW ... from left, Customs House director Ray Spencer, Ian Ravenscroft, Andrew Hagan, Ted Cuskin and Tom Kelly.

Tyne-inspired play heads for dry land

Paul Kelly
20 June 2012

AN arts project based on the history of the Tyne is heading for dry land.

Men of the Tyne was a sell-out success when it was staged on the cruise ship Fortuna from South Shields to Newcastle and back last autumn.

The production featured a film, songs and stories – all inspired by men who had worked on the river.
Jarrow-born playwright Tom Kelly, who wrote stories and lyrics for the show, was delighted at the positive response to the work.

Now Men of the Tyne is to be staged in a one-off performance at the Customs House in Mill Dam, South Shields, on Friday, August 17.

It will feature monologues from Mr Kelly, the showing of an accompanying film made by Andrew Hagan and Tyne-based songs performed by songwriter Ian Ravenscroft, singer Ted Cuskin and organist Ron Smith.

Mr Kelly, who wrote the Tom and Catherine musical, among many others, said: “The response to the original production on the Tyne was so positive that it was clear there was a demand to put on a more ambitious stage show, and there was no more appropriate venue than the Customs House, where the project originated.

“I have written new songs with Ian Ravenscroft to expand on the original concept and make it bigger and, hopefully, better. One of the delights of the original production on the river was the number of former Tyne workers who came to see it. We’re hoping to see more former seafarers in August.

“The river itself is so inspiring, as are the men who worked upon it.”

The show features the songs Ghosts of the Tyne, This River and The Blacksmith’s Song, among others.

Tickets for the production are £14.50, which includes the price of a meal at the Mill Dam venue served from 6.30pm, with the show itself starting at 8pm.

To book a ticket, call the venue’s box office on 454 1234


Tuesday 19 June 2012


The Last Days of Bill Haley

Falling Comet

In 1955 "Rock Around the Clock" went to the top of the charts and turned Bill Haley into the king of rock and roll. Twenty-five years later, he was holed up in a pool house in Harlingen, drunk, lonely, paranoid, and dying. After three decades of silence, his widow and his children tell the story of his years in Texas and his sad final days.

by Michael Hall

In the last desperate months of his life, he would come into the restaurant at all hours of the day and take a seat, sometimes at the counter and other times in one of the back booths. He was always alone. He wore a scruffy ball cap, and behind his large, square glasses there was something odd about his eyes. They didn’t always move together. Barbara Billnitzer, one of the waitresses, would bring him a menu and ask how he was doing. “Just fine,” he’d say, and they would chat about the traffic and the weather, which was always warm in South Texas, even in January. He’d order coffee—black—and sometimes a sandwich, maybe turkey with mayo. Then he’d light up a Pall Mall and look out the window or stare off into space. Soon he was lost in thought, looking like any other 55-year-old man passing the time in a Sambo’s on Tyler Street in downtown Harlingen. He had moved there with his family five years before, in 1976. It was a perfect place for a guy who wanted to get away from it all. And he had a lot to get away from. Twenty-five years before, just about everyone in the Western world had known his face. In fact, for a period of time in the mid-fifties, he had been the most popular entertainer on the planet. He had sold tens of millions of rec­ords. He had caused riots. He had headlined shows with a young opening act named Elvis Presley and had inspired John Lennon to pick up the guitar. He had changed the world.

More at:

Monday 18 June 2012

J. M. W. Turner and the Thames

Turner's Thames

In this documentary, the presenter and art critic Matthew Collings explores how Turner, the artist of light, makes light the vehicle of feeling in his work, and how he found inspiration for that feeling in the waters of the River Thames. JMW Turner is the most famous of English landscape painters. Throughout a lifetime of travel, he returned time and again to paint and draw scenes of the Thames, the lifeblood of London. This documentary reveals the Thames in all its diverse glory, from its beauty in west London, to its heartland in the City of London and its former docks, out to the vast emptiness and drama of the Thames estuary near Margate.

Turner was among the first to pioneer painting directly from nature, turning a boat into a floating studio from which he sketched the Thames. The river and his unique relationship with it had a powerful impact upon his use of materials, as he sought to find an equivalent in paint for the visual surprise and delight he found in the reality of its waters.

By pursuing this ever-changing tale of light, Turner also documented and reflected upon key moments in British history in the early 19th century; the Napoleonic wars, social unrest and the onset of the industrial revolution. His paintings of the river Thames communicate the fears and exultations of the time. Turner's greatness as a painter is often attributed to his modern use of colour. Many of his paintings are loved by the British public and regularly celebrated as the nation's greatest art. This film reveals for the first time on television a key inspiration for that modernity and celebrity; a stretch of water of immense importance to the nation in the early 19th century but which today is often taken for granted - the River Thames.

On BBC iPlayers until 26 June:

Alfred Hitchcock - The Man Who Knew Too Much

My favourite Hitchcock film: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) 

Hitch's second version of this film is dominated by a blonde who refused to be icy – Doris Day

Philip Hensher
The Observer
Sunday 17 June 2012

The second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which Hitchcock made in 1956, is a curious film. Some of it doesn't really work. The climax is at the Albert Hall, with 10 minutes of a chorale cantata leading up to a single cymbal crash, at which point the assassin will shoot. The shots of the cymbal part, one note preceded by hundreds of bars of silence, have a raucous comedy. The sequence shows Hitchcock, rarely, failing to ramp up tension effectively.

There is a reliance, too, as so often in Hitchcock, on the stilted performance, notably in the case of the villains. Elsewhere, in Marnie and The Birds, Hitchcock's enjoyment of the poised and glassy presence reaps rich rewards as the surface cracks. Here, the kidnappers present a face of ludicrous and obvious wickedness.

But the film has great beauties, too, especially when it returns to London. The south London scenes of deserted streets and a dusty Brixton chapel – it's St Saviour's in real life – where the child is being held have a grey poetry. And at the centre of the film there is a blonde whom not even Hitchcock could reduce to iciness.

Unlike those other Hitchcock blondes, Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly, Doris Day was only used once. In a nod to her huge fame, three years after Calamity Jane, Day is permitted a song – Que Sera, Sera. It occupies a crucial point in the plot, but in Day's hands it rises above a piece of mechanism. When Day's character sings the song at an embassy reception, hoping her son will hear her, the ripple of hope, despair and passionate attachment across Day's face is mesmerising, as is the simultaneous surface glitter and smile she puts on to entertain the audience.

Day, for me, is among the most wonderful performers of the 1950s and 60s and here she tears through Hitchcock's control. Often, in his greatest films, there is a beautiful, remote patterning – even in Rear Window and Marnie – which captivates. What is so striking about the second The Man Who Knew Too Much is that, for once, at the very centre, is a figure of passionate humanity. Hitchcock perhaps allowed the rules of his game to be shattered for once by Day's marvellous presence; perhaps he had no alternative and was thoroughly defeated. As I say, he never used her again.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Alfred Hitchcock at the BFI

Alfred Hitchcock: from silent film director to inventor of modern horror

The director's most powerful and abiding images can be traced back to his early work in silent movies, as the forthcoming season at London's British Film Institute makes clear

Bee Wilson
Friday 15 June 2012

Cary Grant runs through a desolate cornfield, pursued by a crop duster overhead. Ingrid Bergman risks her life to go into a wine cellar, looking for a secret. Eva Marie Saint clambers over the faces of the American presidents at Mount Rushmore. Tippi Hedren is pecked at by mysteriously aggressive gulls. James Stewart watches helplessly from a window as Grace Kelly creeps into a murderer's apartment. Kim Novak drives through San Francisco in a trance-like state wearing a grey suit. Janet Leigh takes a shower at the Bates Motel and never comes out.

These movie images could only belong to one director: Alfred Hitchcock, who from the end of June until October is being celebrated in a definitive season at the British Film Institute in London. What is most striking is that all these scenes are wordless. The new BFI retrospective, The Genius of Hitchcock, is a chance to see how his phenomenal instinct for generating moving photographs that etch themselves on the brain and under the skin went back to his roots in the silent era. Alongside his better-known later work, from both Britain and Hollywood, the season features gala screenings of Hitchcock's nine silent features of the 1920s, which, thanks to valiant fundraising from the BFI, have been fully restored. The pleasures of silent Hitchcock cannot compare with those of the polished all-American studio pictures of the 1940s and 1950s.

Nevertheless, it is startling to observe that his sensibility and knack for unsettling imagery were already formed. Take The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), about a landlady who suspects that her "queer" lodger is actually a homicidal maniac who targets blondes. With its mix of the domestic and the macabre, we are not too far from Strangers on a Train 24 years later. "Be careful – I'll get you yet!" the putative murderer smilingly warns the landlady's blonde daughter as they play a flirtatious game of chess. Hitchcock's final silent movie, Blackmail (1929), contains a murder with a hand thrashing out of a curtain, foreshadowing the shower scene in Psycho.

This retrospective is a reminder of how prodigious Hitchcock's body of work was. This greengrocer's son from Leytonstone in east London (born in August 1899) had the energy of Dickens and the facility of Picasso, able not merely to adapt his style to changing artistic values but to shape the entire culture of popular film. In Rear Window, he played with the idea that we are all voyeurs at the cinema. With Psycho, he invented modern horror. He was the master of the overhead shot (to signal menace, isolation or omniscience) and the MacGuffin (a plot device that motivates the characters without needing to make any objective sense). His influence is still everywhere. The character of Betty Draper in Mad Men – overgroomed blonde hair, mental fragility, love of horseriding and tailored dresses – is surely a copy of Tippi Hedren's kleptomaniac in Marnie. And would the final section of last year's Oscar-winning The Artist have felt anything like as powerful if it hadn't borrowed large chunks of soundtrack from Vertigo?

There's an endearing photo of the director from 1966, in his trademark black suit next to a tower of all his films. He stands on tiptoe to place the latest addition on the top: Torn Curtain. This was a rare disappointment, a cold war thriller starring Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. But taken as a whole, it is astonishing how many outright masterpieces he created, films you can watch repeatedly, sometimes noticing a new angle, sometimes just thrilling all over again to the same brilliantly framed moments of danger, humour or fear. My top 10 would be Notorious, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second colour version, not the first, though that is memorable too for Peter Lorre's glowering villain). But 10 is nothing like enough. I haven't mentioned To Catch a Thief from 1955. Ostensibly, this is a piece of fluff about cat burglary set in the French Riviera, but it is crammed with moments that are resonant, suspenseful or just plain fun, such as a cigarette being extinguished in a fried egg, Grace Kelly wearing the most ridiculous – yet stunning – gold frock, and one of Hitchcock's most delicious cameos, on a bus, giving Cary Grant a look of plump consternation.

Hitchcock's personal favourite of his movies – a surprising choice – was the relatively unknown Shadow of a Doubt (1943) starring Joseph Cotten as a serial strangler who comes to stay with his adoring older sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California. Bit by bit, the strangler's niece Charlie – who has always doted on her uncle – starts to suspect him. One of many visual cues is the moment when we see Cotten strangling a piece of toast at breakfast. As the tension builds to its climax, the film manifests what the critic Arthur Vesselo called Hitchcock's mastery of contrast, "balancing the normal against the abnormal, slowness against speed, sound against silence, humour against terror".

The cliché about Hitchcock is that the quality of the work was achieved through obsessive control freakery, but consider this: he never gave himself sole writing credit on any of his films. He was happy to work with a range of writers, including John Steinbeck (who wrote Lifeboat, a strange 1944 disaster movie featuring Tallulah Bankhead and a motley assortment of survivors, who end up being saved by the Nazi officer who torpedoed their ship), Thornton Wilder and John Michael Hayes, who wrote four scripts for Hitchcock, including the wonderfully witty Rear Window. Compare and contrast with Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane was directed by Orson Welles, was produced by Orson Welles, starred Orson Welles and was written by Orson Welles (albeit with the assistance of Herman J Mankiewicz). Having spent two formative years designing title-cards for a movie production company, Hitchcock always understood that film was a collaborative business. Vertigo is as much a showcase for Edith Head's costume designs and Bernard Herrmann's music as it is for Hitchcock's images.

His first and fondest collaborator was his wife Alma Reville, an editor and scriptwriter whom he met in 1921 when working for Famous Players-Lasky in London, on the set of a silent picture called The Prude's Fall. He delayed marrying her for five years, until he had three films under his belt, because – he later hinted – he needed this status to be sure of securing her. Alma's remained the one opinion he minded about most because – their daughter Pat said – "she was the one person who he relied on to tell him the truth". After watching the initial cut of Vertigo, Alma said it was terrific but he must ditch a shot of Kim Novak running across a square where her legs looked fat. "Well, I'm sorry you hate the film, Alma," Hitchcock responded. Sure enough, he cut the offending shot out, even though it caused continuity problems, because without the running, Novak seems to leap from one side of the square to the other. But to please Alma, he changed it. In 1979, when accepting a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, he begged permission to thank four people who had given him the most "constant collaboration". One was a film editor, the second a scriptwriter, the third the best cook he knew and the fourth the mother of his daughter, "and their names are Alma Reville".

The other enduring cliché about Hitchcock was that he was sadistic and controlling to his leading ladies. Donald Spoto's 1983 biography The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock depicted him as a creep with a mother fixation – a wannabe Norman Bates – whose films were autobiographical projections of his own sick erotic fantasies. For Spoto, he was a "macabre" artist whose unquenchable desire for perfect blondes led him to torture them both on screen and off. It is admittedly true that late in his career something went wrong in his relationship with Tippi Hedren, with whom he became fixated. She was a fashion model when he "discovered" her for The Birds, and he took it upon himself to mould her acting. "I controlled every movement on her face," he told a journalist. The relationship soured on the set of Marnie. Hitch made some kind of indecent proposal to her, as well as chiding her once too often. She then did "what no one is permitted to do. She referred to my weight."

With most of his actors, however, male or female, Hitchcock was remarkably hands-off. "One doesn't direct Cary Grant," he liked to say, "one just puts him in front of a camera." When it came to Grant's clothes, Hitchcock told him to "dress like Cary Grant". This did the trick. The pleasure of watching Cary Grant in a suit – he has a certain debonair way of putting a hand in one trouser pocket – is never greater than in his Hitchcock performances. The director had much the same confidence in James Stewart, mostly leaving him to do his own thing; and well he might, given that Stewart's presence in a Hitchcock film meant an extra million dollars at the box office compared with Grant (or so he told the actor James Mason).

Hitchcock also gave free rein to Doris Day, Stewart's co-star in the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, even though the role was a significant departure from her usual musical comedy. Day played Stewart's wife, a famous singer who is driven to hysteria when her only child is kidnapped on a trip to Morocco. After the location shoot was finished, Day was left feeling puzzled because "not once, in any situation, did A Hitchcock say a word to me that would have indicated that he was a director". When she eventually asked what was wrong, he replied: "But dear Doris, you've done nothing to elicit comment from me." Sure enough, her undirected performance is one of the best in any Hitchcock film, entirely convincing in its depiction of a controlled woman unravelling in grief.

If he did not allow the same latitude to Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (whom he needled into by far the best performance of her career as the nameless heroine) or Kim Novak in Vertigo, it was not because he was a sadist to women, but because it was what the part required. For Vertigo, the script stipulated that the lead character of Madeleine wore a grey suit; indeed it is integral to the plot. So it wasn't exactly helpful when Novak said she'd prefer to wear any colour "except grey". In forcing Novak to wear the grey suit – just as Scottie forces poor Judy to wear it – Hitchcock was only putting the work first.

Colour was not a trivial detail to Hitchcock: the shading of light and dark on a screen was the larger part of cinema. The critic David Thomson argues that an appreciation of Vertigo is a "test case" for whether you are "a creature of cinema"; if you find it implausible – "well, there are always novels". Hitchcock's movies always kept the strong visual sense of his earliest silent pictures. Patrick McGilligan, author of the finest Hitchcock biography (A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003) notes that the most "celebrated sequences" in his films "might as well be silent".

That is certainly true of the famous kiss in Notorious between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Bergman is Alicia, who agrees to go under cover in Rio de Janeiro, worming her way into the affections of a Nazi Claude Rains on behalf of intelligence officer Devlin (Grant). With its dream cast, it is the most romantic and – for my money – the most perfect Hitchcock film. The scenes in which Alicia is slowly poisoned by the Nazis are as tense as anything he ever did. The kiss between Alicia and Devlin – who spend most of the film proudly denying their love – was cooked up to circumvent the production code's ban on kisses longer than three seconds. Hitchcock asked Grant and Bergman to kiss for a couple of seconds, then disengage and nuzzle each other, then resume, as they talk in low voices about dinner plans. The embrace lasted a total of two and a half minutes, and Bergman said it made her and Grant feel "very awkward". But when you watch it now, the details behind its production fade away. It is so beautiful, you could just sink into it.

If Hitchcock's desires were creepy, it is a creepiness shared by millions of us. Hitchcock once remarked that the Notorious kiss gave the public "the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together". As usual, he was right. And though the stars were better and the budgets were bigger, the thrills such a kiss offered were not so very different from the dramatic pictures he and Alma dreamed up in their old silent days.

The Genius of Hitchcock at the BFI, Southbank, London SE1
28 June - 30 November 2012

Thursday 14 June 2012

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York (with Ron): -

Sea Of Heartbreak
True Love Ways
World Without Love
The Price Of Love
Sloop John B
Crying In The Rain

A lively night with some new players. Excellent sets from regulars Tony Jowando (inc. Hurt and Girl From The North Country) and Colin Rowntree (inc. I'll See You In My Dreams and Simon Smith & His Amazing Dancing Bear). A few beers sunk as well!

P.S. this late post is courtesy of Bt who have messed up my internet connection in York. I have not "gone to another place" as asked earlier!

The Blaydon Race 2012 - by Terry Kelly

The Writer Runs. Or is it the Runner Writes?  Our boy, disguised in jaunty cap, approaches nirvana on a wet Saturday in Blaydon (photo:

ALONG with 4,000 other hardy souls, I took part in the Blaydon Race on rain-lashed Saturday night.

It often felt more like surfing than road running, but there was the primeval satisfaction of taking on the very worst the British weather could throw at us.

And since this year also marked the 150th anniversary of the Blaydon Races itself, there was no way I was going to miss out.

The rain was gently pattering down by the time I emerged out of the Metro station, but it just got heavier and heavier.

For some reason, the famous - or infamous - underground toilets in the Bigg Market were locked, so large queues of blokes waited patiently to use a limited number of portable loos.

Realising I wouldn't make it in time, I set off down High Bridge, in search of blessed relief.

Going with strangers is not really advisable, but I noticed a group of male runners heading into a comedy cafe.

My need was great and no joke at all, so I tagged on the back, quickly realising they'd persuaded staff to allow them to use the downstairs toilets, which turned out to be state-of-the-art.

Suitably relieved, I stretched my legs with a jog towards Grey Street, before heading back to the assembled Blaydon racers, many huddling in a bookies' entrance opposite Balmbra's pub.

The sky was coal-black and the rain pulled out all the stops before we could even manage a verse or two of the timeless Blaydon Races song.

My lifelong friend, Jim McCullough, took part in the race for the first time on Saturday night, so there was a little added pressure, apart from the rain.

After wishing Jim all the best, I muscled my way into the already damp 4,000-strong crowd and headed off through Newcastle city centre.

A few brave Saturday night revellers emerged out of pubs to cheer or mock us, but being morally superior runners, we ignored their jibes.

The rain was inches deep as he went gannin' along the Scotswood Road, but I didn't feel like singing Beach Boys classics.

However, I received a boost towards the end when I met up with Corporal Andy Garthwaite, the South Tyneside soldier who lost his right arm when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while serving his country in Afghanistan.

Andy was doing well in the race, but admitted he was "canny tired." I knew how he felt, but pushed on towards the end.

The finish this year was at a place called Shibdon Ponds, where soaken race staff handed out goody bags, including the all-important Blaydon Race T-shirt.

Will I be back for more in 2013? Of course, but I hope the sun has got his hat on next year.

Terry Kelly