Sunday 29 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - Rear Window

My favourite Hitchcock: Rear Window
Hitchcock made a career out of indulging our voyeuristic tendencies, and he never excited them more skilfully, or with more gleeful self-awareness, than in Rear Window

Killian Fox
Wednesday 25 July 2012

The first time I watched Rear Window, I was 14 or 15 and living in a remote part of Ireland. There was a mile and several hills between us and our nearest neighbours, so the concept of looking out the window and being able to closely survey the lives of an entire community was alien to me, and totally fascinating. I was nurturing an ambition to visit New York at the time and Rear Window, more than any other film I'd seen, gave me a powerful sense of that city's atmosphere: noisy, breathless, intoxicating – even though the whole thing was filmed inside a Hollywood studio.

It's a sweltering New York summer and James Stewart, playing a restless magazine photographer, is cooped up in his West Village apartment with his leg in a cast. The humid air is filled with languorous music: versions of hits by Dean Martin and Nat King Cole, fragments of Bernstein. Everyday domestic dramas unfold in the box-like living spaces across the courtyard and Stewart is their captive audience. Two details I vividly remember from that first viewing: the middle-aged couple sleeping outside on their balcony and frantically trying to save their mattress when it starts pouring rain; and the tip of Lars Thorwald's cigar glowing red in the darkness of his living room after the neighbours' dog is found strangled in the garden.

When I watched Rear Window again at university, I was able to appreciate what the film was saying about the cinema-going experience – of sitting in a dark room and gazing into other people's private lives. "We've become a nation of peeping toms," complains Thelma Ritter, Stewart's nurse and the film's ostensible voice of sanity, when she sees her patient glued to the window in the opening scenes. But before long she's just as transfixed as he is.

If the film was critical of voyeuristic behaviour, Stewart and his co-conspirators would be proved wrong in their suspicions of Lars Thorwald at the climax, after they'd blundered into his life and destroyed his reputation. But this is Hitchcock, connoisseur of the perverse, and the film ended up saying the opposite of what I thought it should. Voyeurism has its rewards; keep a close eye on your neighbours and you might just root out a murderer.

Watching Rear Window recently, I realised Stewart's voyeurism yielded another reward. What stood out for me this time was the film's panoramic view of romantic attachment and its pitfalls. What Stewart is really observing, in his multi-channel display of neighbourhood life, is marriage in its various stages and possibilities: the excited newlyweds pulling down the blinds in their new apartment; the bickering older couple who can no longer conceal their loathing for one another.

Stewart, of course, is in the rather unlikely position of being hotly pursued by Grace Kelly and is – even more implausibly, though the screenplay does a good job of making us believe it – dubious about the merits of shacking up with her. He is the rugged, nomadic type who views marriage as an extension of the cast on his leg; she is a Park Avenue socialite who seems ill-adapted to the one-suitcase life of adventure. It's only by confronting the worst-case scenario of married life – uxoricide, followed by the distribution of spousal body parts up and down the East River – that Stewart can reconcile himself to the idea of settling down. Marrying Grace Kelly might be a drag but it couldn't possibly be as bad as that.

What's extraordinary, for a film that works on these different levels, is that it also manages to be a riveting thriller. The murder scene, which you can only appreciate as such on a second viewing, is a masterpiece of suggestion and ellipsis. In contrast to the in-your-face killings in Hitchcock's Psycho, six years later, this murder happens out of sight, behind lowered blinds. The scream almost goes unnoticed in the New York night and in the bloody aftermath not a drop of blood is seen. The rain falls, Thorwald shuttles in and out of his apartment carrying his silver-coloured salesman's suitcase and we are left to imagine what, exactly, it contains.

Then there is the scene of perfect suspense when Kelly's character steals into Thorwald's apartment while he's momentarily out. Powerless to intercede, Stewart can only look on with mounting anxiety and implore her in a strangled whisper to "Get out of there", like a jumpy audience member in a horror film, when he knows that the murderer will be returning any second.

Hitchcock made a career out of indulging our voyeuristic tendencies and he understood, better than any other film-maker, how to excite them. I don't think he ever did it more skilfully, or with more gleeful self-awareness, than in Rear Window. I've been keeping a close eye on my neighbours ever since.

Friday 27 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - Blackmail

Hitchcock – a lesson for modern filmmakers

Emily Jupp
Saturday 14 July 2012

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a one-off screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 silent film Blackmail in the grand setting of the grounds of the British Museum, where part of the story is set. The film is one of the “Hitchcock 9″ – nine surviving silent films made by Hitchcock that have deteriorated over time. The BFI has undertaken a massive project to restore the films to their original glory and show them this year as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

The screening was accompanied by a live new score by composer Neil Brand and performed by the Thames Sinfonia. If you think old black-and-white films are boring this is the one that will prove you wrong. It feels fresh. The themes of power, class and deceit are all equally pertinent today as when the film was first made and each scene was amazingly tight. No action was redundant, every gesture moves the plot on and it was really fast-paced. The story follows a young woman who gives her steady boyfriend the slip to spend the evening with an enigmatic artist, who coaxes her into his flat where he tries to rape her. From behind the bedcurtain we see her hand reach out for a knife and in typical Hitchcockian style she stabs him, out of our view, behind the curtain. The theme of blackmail then ensues.

Perhaps the most striking element of the film was the acting itself, which – because of the lack of sound – was focused on physical expression, particularly minute facial twitches, sometimes unpleasant to observe.

We were told that the lead actress, Anny Ondra was Czech, and Hitchcock had imagined her character with a cockney accent, so in the “talkie” version of Blackmail (yes, Hitchcock filmed it twice) another actress, Joan Barry spoke her lines, while Ondra had to lip-synch, creating a less spontaneous performance than in the silent version. But in this version her execution is flawless, her expressiveness mesmerising. After the murder, her focus turns inward as she enters what Hitchcock called a fugue state. Almost catatonic, her character wanders around London all night, until dawn, unfocused and lost, any sudden movement causes her to relive the murder in her mind.

It would be interesting to see who would be cast in Ondra’s place now if the film were re-made. I cannot imagine a young Hollywood starlet who could recreate her expressive range of emotions. With the contemporary focus in Hollywood on beauty and vocal expression, it seems that actual acting – movement, gesture, facial expressions (don’t get me started on actors who use Botox…) has become secondary.

How often have you watched a film where the lead female actor pouts, or cries, but mostly her face remains impassive? Despite its 80-odd years of age, modern filmmakers still look back at Hitchcock’s ouvre as a lesson in how to make a great film. Now that his silent works are being restored, maybe actors will look back at them, too, and think about where modern films are losing the plot.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Boycott the Trent House?

Hasn't been the same since they removed the Monkey God's penis.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Da's hopes dashed

Many thanks to the folks at the Trent House Open Mic night. Asked to be put on the list at about 9:20 and was told tersely "We're full". Stayed to hear a couple of songs during which other musicians came in and were put on the list.
Conclusion either 1. A clique, or 2. Ageist.
Thanks guys - won't be going there again.

P.S. for fans of the never-ending tour, tomorrow will see the unvailing of a new Men of the Tyne show in the lovely town of Jarrer - so no Habit setlist for yous. Sorry.

Amelia Earhart - Happy Birthday!

Monday 23 July 2012

John Hiatt at The Sage, Gateshead - review by Terry Kelly

John Hiatt at The Sage
Saturday 21 July 2012

AMERICAN troubadour John Hiatt is one of the music world's finest exponents of country-rock.

Capturing small town dramas in songs blessed with great hooks, Hiatt's soulful voice is grainy as an old barn, making him sound like a backwoods Otis Redding.

Originally a frantic, New Wave-style tunesmith, Hiatt's 1987 album Bring the Family saw him reborn in the country mould.

That album produced such classics as Memphis in the Meantime and Thing Called Love, both of which proved highlights of his appearance at The Sage, part of the SummerTyne Americana Festival 2012.

Hiatt immediately established a rapport with his local fans, joking about the band's driver from County Durham: "Might as well be speaking Mandarin."

Backed by a brilliant, four-piece band called The Combo, there was no indication from Hiatt's high-energy, foot-to-the-floor performance that he'd already been on the road for several weeks.

Hiatt standards Perfectly Good Guitar and Real Fine Love went down a treat with the fans, while Cry Love was a spine-chilling highlight.

But tracks from his most recent album, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, proved his songwriting muse is still very much alive.

Emotional closer Have A Little Faith In Me was followed by the bluesy encore, Riding With the King.

Perfect gigs don't come along too often, but Hiatt's came pretty close.


Sunday 22 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - Reasons to Be Cheerful

Alfred Hitchcock: the great Pretender

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 24 June 2012

It's been a long time since anyone claimed that Alfred Hitchcock was simply a man who made thrillers. Now a comprehensive BFI season aims to put Hitchcock properly on his plinth as a modern great. A three-month retrospective covers his entire oeuvre, including "the Hitchcock 9" – restored prints of nine of his seminal silent films. Here, then, are a few of the many things that the protean, portly genius was – and some of the reasons why film-watching could never be the same after him.

1. Master of espionage
Look at any modern spy film and you'll see Hitchcock's stamp. He defined the espionage premise: people chasing after an all-important but often nebulous object of desire – the "MacGuffin", as he called it. Hitchcock was the father of the modern spy film, but not its inventor: that would be Fritz Lang, who made Spione in 1928, and whose early work was closely watched by the English director. But Hitchcock went on to make a host of espionage-themed films of various colours – from the John Buchan yarn of The 39 Steps (1935) to the downbeat Cold War drama Topaz (1969). He declined approaches to make the first James Bond film, but he'd already created a template for the 007 series in his quintessential sex-and-travel thriller North By Northwest (1959).

2. The silent artist
It's often forgotten that Hitchcock made classics in the silent years too – which is partly the point of the BFI season, to highlight early achievements such as Blackmail (1929), which Hitchcock made both as a silent and as a ground-breaking sound film. Another early landmark is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – a 1926 film that looks back to Jack the Ripper, and forward to the chills and apprehensions that would provide suspense cinema's basic language for decades after. As for The Mountain Eagle, it's still missing, and top of the BFI's Most Wanted list: you might call it the Hitchcockians' ultimate MacGuffin.

3. The Englishman
Perhaps it's not true that Hitchcock's dark humour could only have come from an English background; after all, his French acolyte Claude Chabrol had a similar streak. But what seems quintessentially English about Hitchcock's absurdism is the love of extracting strangeness and menace from the mundane – something he inherited from writers such as G K Chesterton. Take the sound version of Blackmail, in which the word "knife" keeps jumping hysterically out of idle breakfast chatter. Or take the counterpointing of high drama against the blathering of two Englishmen worried about the Test match scores in The Lady Vanishes.

4. The Svengali
Hitchcock created one of cinema's enduring female archetypes in the elegant, composed but inwardly simmering "Hitchcock blondes" of the 1950s and 1960s – although arguably the first was the rather larkier Czech actress Anny Ondra in the 1920s. Among the classic Hitchcock femmes were the already established Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint – while Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) appeared to have sprung fully formed from the master's libido. Hitchcock liked to act the admiring gent – "A woman of elegance," he declared, "will never cease to surprise you." But the darker, more brutal resonances of the master/ muse relationship were dramatised in Vertigo, in which a deranged James Stewart re-moulds Kim Novak as the star of his personal cinema of obsession.

5. The director as brand
"I'd put my arse on the poster if it made people see the film," Claude Chabrol once told me about an ad in which he owlishly puffed a pipe. Chabrol learned a lot from Hitchcock, including the art of imposing your own auteur stamp. Few directors perfected their identity as a "brand" as thoroughly as Hitchcock did – it comprised a clownish, drily jesting persona on and off screen, in interviews, and on television, as well as an instantly identifiable cartoon silhouette, even a theme tune. His appearance in trailers for his later work was a way of branding the films with his authority, ensuring that viewers would see them the way he wanted them to.

6. The joker
There's no surer way to make people take you seriously than to make the odd joke – the darker the better. Among Hitchcock's grimmest and juiciest gags is the bickering between Norman Bates and his "mother" inPsycho: "No, I will not hide in the fruit cellar! You think I'm fruity, huh?" But Hitchcock was his own best joke, notably in his signature cameos. His self-mockery went furthest in his intros to the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which no hat was too silly for him to wear, and in which he even played himself as loser in a Hitch lookalike contest. Johan Grimonprez's 2005 docu-essay Looking For Alfred contains a treasury of such appearances, proving that Hitchcock's favourite disguise was as himself.

7. The conceptualist
Hitchcock liked to set himself steep technical and imaginative challenges – an entire film set in a small vessel bobbing at sea (Lifeboat, 1944), or telling a story in what seemed to be one single extended take (Rope, 1948). The success of Psycho (1960) was so dependent on keeping punters in the dark about what they could expect to see – Hitchcock engineered a public relations and exhibition campaign to keep the secret – that the whole film was a sort of conceptual project, in which the act of conditioning viewer perceptions was the artwork as much as the film itself.

8. The anti-typecaster
Hitchcock liked to use stars in ways that must have startled their fans – and given their publicists conniptions. He liked to cast perennial nice guys in dark roles – like ever-affable Joseph Cotten, an avuncular killer in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Hitchcock was even capable of making a sunny Doris Day performance crackle with narrative tension ("Que Sera Sera" in 1956's The Man Who Knew Too Much). Casting against type was an Alfred Hitchcock game right from the start – ever since he cast the 1920s matinee idol Ivor Novello as a fog-skulking murder suspect in The Lodger.

9. The student of obsession
One actor that Hitchcock cast brilliantly against type was much-loved drawler James Stewart; he'd already played desperate men in Anthony Mann's Westerns, but Hitchcock took him further still in Rear Windowand Vertigo. Both films are about morbid erotic fascination, and have been a boon to psychoanalytic film criticism. In fact, Hitchcock introduced Hollywood to Freud – and to Salvador Dali – in Spellbound (1945). The cycle of films about mental aberrations also included Marnie, Psycho and Frenzy. Hitchcock was supremely aware of cinema as a psychic process: in interviews he talked less about what his films were about, than about their effect on the viewer's mind.

10. The artist as entertainer – and vice versa
Another inescapable Englishman, Graham Greene, labelled some of his novels "Entertainments" – so diverting attention from the fact that, while the themes were lighter and the tone seemingly casual, deep down the resonances were just as formidable. Hitchcock too blurred the distinctions between what appeared to be "just" entertainment and complex art. He often pretended to offer the cheapest of thrills, so as to disarm the audience: thinking we were just getting an efficient scare was the only thing that made the seismic experience of Psycho bearable. Little wonder that Hitchcock's oeuvre offered prime evidence for the French critics' case that it was when cinema seemed most innocent that its deepest poetry was really at work.

"The Genius of Hitchcock" runs till October: The book '39 Steps to The Genius of Hitchcock' is published by the BFI

Saturday 21 July 2012

J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories

“Nine Stories,” J. D. Salinger

The first post in a series where we ask New Yorker writers what book they have revisited most often.

For a long time, I read in an acquisitive way, to own books. I didn’t reread, because there were too many to get through. Eventually, I started abandoning the ones that didn’t pay off. At about the same time, I started rereading favorites. Maybe I thought I had earned extra time by leaving some unread.

Sometimes I listen to the audio version of a book that I’ve already read, which is a different experience. I listened to Susanna Clarke’s wonderful “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” not long after reading it, and I could see better how it was put together, knowing what was to come. But the only book I’ve read three times (or more) on paper is J. D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories.” It helped me understand what a story collection was, and should be.

“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” was my favorite story the first time I read the book: the narrator looking back on his ghastly younger self, narcissistic and miserable and teaching a correspondence art class from Montreal. It was a story about desperate loneliness that made me laugh, which seemed a hard trick to pull off. “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” was charming and lovely but already overfamiliar, because of other people’s attachment to it. Later, I became partial to the odd and quasi-supernatural “Teddy,” and to the way “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” changes as you read it: the way it turns.

The last time I read the book, my favorite story was “The Laughing Man,” a story I had barely remembered from before, about love and storytelling and baseball. I’m pretty sure that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the opening story, will never be my favorite, but who knows? The collection reminds me of those pencil marks on the wall, recording childhood height: a way to measure how we become different people, over time.

And in the news...

Bill backed by J.D. Salinger’s heirs vetoed in N.H.

The New Hampshire governor has vetoed a bill championed by the family of the late J.D. Salinger that would have allowed heirs to block the commercial use of a famous person’s identity — for example, that cool J.D. Salinger t-shirt you might wear while hitting on sensitive, bookish girls — for 70 years after their death. Gov. John Lynch said the specific legislation was too broad and could curb uses of images that are protected as free speech, reports the AP. The reclusive “Catcher in the Rye” author’s son Matt told reporters his father specifically moved to New Hampshire because believed it was a state where he’d be left the heck alone and his rights would be protected.

Friday 20 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - lesser-known gems Part II

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock at the BFI: 10 of his lesser-known gems Part II

By Pamela Hutchinson and Tony Paley
Wednesday 4 July 2012

Sabotage (1936)

Darker in tone and more harrowing than its reputation allows, Sabotage is arguably the most underrated of Hitchcock's still undervalued British period. A loose adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent about a shadowy network of anarchists, the film deserves to be remembered for much more than Hitchcock famously regretting his decision to let the bomb go off at the end of one of the director's most celebrated and manipulative suspense sequences.

The movie's central couple run a cinema, which Hitchcock uses to masterful effect in an intriguing and rich sequence contrasting Walt Disney on the screen with the heartbreak of the wife following the tragedy at the centre of the narrative. The scene involving the "murder" (or is it "willed suicide"?) of her husband foreshadows the most brutal and shocking killing in Hitchcock's canon 30 years later, that of the East German agent Gromek in Torn Curtain (1966). Tony Paley

Young and Innocent (1937)

The attention devoted to The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) has ensured that Young and Innocent has remained the poor relation of Hitchcock's three 1930s comedy thrillers – but it's not hard to see why this hugely enjoyable film was reportedly Hitchcock's personal favourite among his 23 British movies. The class elements, so central to his best British films, abound in a double-chase story, involving an innocent man wrongly accused of strangling a famous actress and his involvement with the alluring daughter of the chief constable charged with recapturing him.

There are plot points and directorial flourishes here that would resurface in his more mature masterpieces The Birds (1963) and North By Northwest (1959) while the birthday party sequence introduces us to Aunt Margaret, one of Hitchcock's formidable matriarchs. It's worth the price of admission alone to see on the big screen the most famous single piece of camerawork of Hitchcock's British output, the marvellous travelling crane shot which takes the audience the full length of a hotel ballroom and into the eyes of the man the protagonists are desperately searching for. TP

Lifeboat (1944)

Hitchcock's most celebrated cinematic experiment was his dazzling use of the continuous take in Rope (1948), to present the film as if it was happening in real time. Rope also revelled in its restricted setting – something tried out again in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window; but his first audacious use of that method of shooting was in Lifeboat.

All 96 minutes of action take place in a lifeboat containing eight survivors of a ship carrying American and British passengers and the captain of a German U-boat following the sinking of both vessels during a battle in the second world war. Press reaction was hostile after Hitchcock, far from producing a piece of propaganda, delivered a complex drama as tense dramatically as it was brilliant technically in which the characters, and by implication the audience, are made to face up to what is required to win a war.

The captain, as in so many of the director's films, is no stock villain but revealed to be the best equipped of any on the boat for survival and the circumstances of the two murders that ensue are in turns, shocking, and brutal. The film ends with a character pointing at the enemy and asking, "What are you going to do with people like that?" Hitchcock's achievement in the previous hour and a half is to make it clear that there are no easy answers. TP

The Paradine Case (1947)

Hitchcock's rough-cut of The Paradine Case, with which producer David Selznick tinkered extensively in post-production, was lost in a flood in the 1980s. That's a shame as its restoration would surely have revived interest in a film now almost wholly neglected but which has at its core themes the director was to return to with such devastating effect in Vertigo. In no other Hitchcock film, bar that 1958 masterpiece, is the central male character so undermined as he is here, with Gregory Peck as a barrister who ends up destroying the object of his obsession, the woman he is supposed to be defending on a charge of murder. Peck's wife's plea to him to win the case, despite her knowledge of his love for her rival, and her protestation that "if she dies you are lost to me forever" undercuts the notional happy ending here in a film darkened even moreby Charles Laughton's scene-stealing role as the grotesque judge, Lord Horfield. TP

Dial M For Murder 3D (1954)

Though Dial M for Murder is now given cursory attention by film scholars and critics, the screenings of the movie at the BFI Hitchcock retrospective could well be the hottest ticket on the London repertory film circuit this summer. Memories of the version film seen by the vast majority of audiences, whether at the cinema or on television, will be swept away after the chance to see it afresh in 3D.

Film historian Ian Christie says the 3D presentation is the highlight of the season: "Hitchcock was always looking for ways to implicate the audience in the drama of a scene and 3D offered him a way of bringing the audience into the room with Grace Kelly." Hitchcock uses 3D effects sparingly in a film almost wholly shot in one room, but the gripping scene in which Kelly's character is attacked and strangled is a legendarily stunning use of the format. Bill Krohn, in his book Hitchcock at Work, said that in 1954 the studio "decided to give theatres the option of playing the film 'flat', and most of them did but [Dial M for Murder] should really be seen 'in depth' ". TP

Thursday 19 July 2012

Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway

London, 1944.

Last night's setlists

At The Habit, York : -

With Ron: -
Dream Baby
The Price Of Love
Sweet Virginia
The Air That I Breathe
Yes I Will
Sloop John B

In answer to a request after closing time: -
Old Man

No befuddled lasses tonight but a guest appearance from the Juan Carlos of Stockton Lane plus an inebriated mackem who demanded Old Man!

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - lesser-known gems Part I

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock at the BFI: 10 of his lesser-known gems
Everyone knows the classic Hitchcocks: Psycho, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes. But the summer-long retrospective also includes wonderful films you may not have heard much about; here's 10 often-overlooked Hitchcocks you won't want to miss

Paula Hutchinson and \Tony Paley
Monday 4 July

Born in Leytonstone, east London, but destined to be the toast of Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock learned the business of film-making in London, not LA. The business at that time was silent cinema, and the young Hitchcock had a full apprenticeship.

He spent years at Gainsborough Pictures in Islington, north London (or Famous Players-Lasky as it was when he arrived) crafting caption cards, editing scripts and designing sets before he was given the chance to direct his own films. His early features are far more accomplished, and more personal, than many a director's debut. And if you're familiar with his famous sound movies, you'll find much in them that prefigures his most celebrated suspense-filled sequences.

The British Film Institute in London has prepared a full Hitchcock retrospective for the summer of 2012, with full restorations of the director's lesser-known features at the heart of the festivities. So, here are 10 usually-overlooked Hitchcock films – five silent, five sound – you won't want to miss.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

The Lodger is one of the director's earliest efforts, but it's distinctly, horribly Hitchcockian. In this twisted thriller, handsome Ivor Novello plays a mysterious stranger whose late-night comings and goings seem to coincide with a string of violent murders. Could he be the "Avenger", who preys on blondes in dimly lit backstreets? His landlady thinks so, and you will too.

As the landlady's fears gather momentum, her fair-haired daughter begins to fall for the lodger, while her boyfriend, a policeman supposedly on the killer's trail, hangs around making ghoulish remarks: "I'm keen on golden hair myself, same as The Avenger is."

The cloud of suspicion and guilt that surrounds everyone makes this a queasy, unsettling film – and essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan. There's visual flair here, not least in the elaborately designed captions, and a disconcerting ending that will make you question almost everything that went before.
Pamela Hutchinson

The Ring (1927)

Set in the east end of London that Hitchcock knew so well, this silent drama plays out in the sleazy business of boxing, made sleazier by infidelity, ambition and rivalry.

The Ring is a showcase for the young Hitchcock's editing panache: the experimental, Soviet-influenced montage that would surface so violently in Psycho. The title refers to the boxing arena, a wedding band and a bracelet that heavyweight champion Bob (Ian Hunter) gives to the fiancée (Hitchcock favourite Lillian Hall-Davis) of young hopeful Jack (Carl Brisson).

The theme continues and multiplies: Jack is even nicknamed "One Round". The fight sequences are giddily exciting, and the two contrasting party scenes are not to be missed. PH

The Farmer's Wife (1927)

In this adaptation of a popular play by Eden Philpotts, Hitchcock gives a knockabout rural comedy some painfully sharp edges. The usually suave Jameson Thomas dons outsize sideburns to play Samuel Sweetland, a gruff, widowed, well-to-do farmer. Having finally decided to remarry, Sweetland draws up a list of "possibles" from among the village women with the help of his winsome housekeeper (Lilian Hall-Davis).

What follows is a series of hilariously ungallant proposals, with the comedy of embarrassment leavened by slapstick.

Many people say Hitchcock didn't understand women; here he at least nails a portrayal of a man for whom they are an unknown, terrifying species. The film is an unexpected guilty treat, like eating pudding for breakfast. It's not what we expect from Hitch, although Francois Truffaut did say it was shot "like a thriller". The upshot is that the director's brutally economical style whisks the plot ahead before the gags outstay their welcome. PH

The Manxman (1929)

Another love triangle, similar in some ways to The Ring, but with a picturesque coastal setting: Polperro, Cornwall, standing in for the Isle of Man. Fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen) are upstanding chaps and firm friends, but then Pete goes to sea and asks his pal to look after his girl Kate (Anny Ondra) while he's away ... Sure, the plot is melodramatic and with little excitement of the violent and sinister sort we expect from Hitchcock, but this is a fine film.

Hitchcock teases the audience, and torments his characters, with a game of hide-and-seek. Someone always knows something that someone else doesn't: occasionally it's the audience who is in the dark. The clandestine affair here becomes the bomb under the table from Hitchcock's famous definition of suspense. The question is: when it will be discovered and how much damage will it do? PH

Blackmail (1929)

So good you'll watch it twice. Blackmail was Britain's first full-length "talkie", but Hitchcock shot a complete version as a silent too. Watch both and you'll see the height of Hitchcock's mastery of silent cinema, and a precocious confidence with sound design, typified by the famous "knife" sequence.

Anny Ondra is Alice, a young woman who one night defends herself against an attacker with, yes, a very large and lethal knife, and is subsequently targeted by a shifty blackmailer. Just like the landlady's daughter in The Lodger, Alice is stepping out with a copper, which only complicates matters, and increases her feelings of misplaced guilt.

Alice, who works in her parents' shop in west London, is rather plummily voiced by Joan Barry in the sound version (Ondra was Czech) and Blackmail was lumbered with possibly the worst tagline for a thriller ever: "Our mother tongue as it should be spoken." But, elocution aside, both versions of Blackmail are eloquent cinema. That knife sequence, for example, is just as chilling wihout sound: watch the shadow of Alice's hand hover over that gleaming blade. PH

Last night's jam session

At the Waggon & Horses, York: -

Ditties performed included (inter alia): -

You Better Move On
Heart Of Gold
Rockin' In The Free World
Sweet Virginia
Don't Talk About Ghosts
Love Song
Jealous Guy
Crippled Inside
Down By The Riverside
Under The Boardwalk
Stand By Me
Sweet Virginia
I've Just Seen A Face
Things We Said Today
He'll Have To Go
Out On The Weekend
I Don't Want To Talk About It
Mind Your Own Business
Dream Baby

Another eclectic mix of choons for the punters. They seemed to like them too.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Bob Dylan - Tempest

Press Release:


Columbia Records announced today that Bob Dylan’s new studio album, Tempest, will be released on September 11, 2012. Featuring ten new and original Bob Dylan songs, the release of Tempest coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the artist’s eponymous debut album, which was released by Columbia in 1962.

Tempest is available for pre-order now on iTunes and Amazon. The new album, produced by Jack Frost, is the 35thth studio set from Bob Dylan, and follows 2009’s worldwide best-seller, Together Through Life.

Bob Dylan’s four previous studio albums have been universally hailed as among the best of his storied career, achieving new levels of commercial success and critical acclaim for the artist. The Platinum-selling Time Out Of Mind from 1997 earned multiple Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year, while “Love and Theft” continued Dylan’s Platinum streak and earned several Grammy nominations and a statue for Best Contemporary Folk album.

Modern Times, released in 2006, became one of the artist’s most popular albums, selling more than 2.5 million copies worldwide and earning Dylan two more Grammys. Together Through Life became the artist’s first album to debut at #1 in both the U.S. and the UK, as well as in five other countries, on its way to surpassing sales of one million copies.

Those four releases fell within a 12-year creative span that also included the recording of an Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning composition, “Things Have Changed,” from the film Wonder Boys, in 2001; a worldwide best-selling memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, which spent 19 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, in 2004, and a Martin Scorsese-directed documentary, No Direction Home, in 2005. Bob Dylan also released his first collection of holiday standards, Christmas In The Heart, in 2009, with all of the artist’s royalties from that album being donated to hunger charities around the world.

This year, Bob Dylan was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. He was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” He was also the recipient of the French Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 1990, Sweden’s Polar Music Award in 2000 and several Doctorates including the University of St. Andrews and Princeton University as well as numerous other honors.


Monday 16 July 2012

Fred and Adele Astaire

The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley – review
The Astaires, a dazzling double act, now have the biography they deserve

Katherine Hughes
Wednesday 4 July 2012

Although their first film, Flying Down to Rio, had been a smash, Fred Astaire was adamant that he didn't want to be teamed with Ginger Rogers for their follow-up. It wasn't that Astaire didn't like Rogers – he had dated her briefly when they had both been hoofers on Broadway – but as he said in an uncharacteristically strident letter to his agent in early 1934: "I've just managed to live down one partnership and I don't want to be bothered with any more."

That earlier partnership had been with Adele Rogers, his older sister by three years. Starting as a child act on the vaudeville circuit, supporting flame-throwers and performing seals, the Astaires had developed into slick, serviceable "dancing comedians". Their big break came in 1923 when they appeared in Stop Flirting on Shaftesbury Avenue. Although the piece hadn't been tailor-made, it played to their strengths. Songs by Gershwin showcased the brother and sister's musicality without demanding huge vocal range, while the routines choreographed by Fred were perfect for their combination of loose elegance and pep. The London critics pronounced themselves not so much charmed by the Astaires' performance as winded by it. There had, spluttered one, been "nothing like them since the Flood".

It was Adele, though, who really shone. Her pixie quickness, boneless body and large, amusing face was the antithesis of blousy showgirl glamour. Credited with putting "all the flap into flapperdom", Adele raced about the London stage like an exquisite hoyden, managing always to keep in strict rhythm. Acknowledged as the better dancer of the two, she instinctively produced effects that Fred had to practice in the wings. She had, too, an older-child confidence that allowed her to work the audience with a quick and dirty wit while her little brother stood bashfully by. Straight men – PG Wodehouse, George Bernard Shaw – wanted to marry her, while gay men – Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton – wanted to be her. Bisexuals, such as Prince George who saw the show scores of times, wanted both things at once, but had to be content with writing her long, infatuated letters.

Over the next eight years the Astaires consolidated their position as theatre superstars, reproducing on Broadway the magic of their London debut. But then suddenly, in 1932, it was over. In a move that neatly symbolised the way the pair had used their chic modernity to conquer the British establishment, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the Duke of Devonshire and retired to Lismore Castle in Ireland. Left to try Hollywood alone, Fred put down his elegantly-shod foot (he had picked up a Savile Row habit in London) about this whole business of being partnered with Ginger Rogers. His reluctance was to do with the fact that no one could ever match "Delly". The fact that the movie moguls insisted that their new signing would be partnered with Ginger whether he liked it or not speaks volumes about the industry's perception that without his sister, or someone a bit like her, Fred was nothing more than a goofy-looking, slightly sexless, already veteran vaudevillian.

In this sprightly book whose every sentence shines with the author's love of her dual subjects, Kathleen Riley writes Adele back into the story of her brother. A relationship that usually gets squashed into the first three or four chapters of a standard Fred Astaire biography is now given a whole book. This also allows Riley to explore in detail the rich bank of dance practice from which Fred's later work emerged. The Astaires together laid down a library of beats, taps and turns from which Fred would go on to make some of the most sublime physical art of the 20th century.

The Astaires – or the Austerlitzes to give them their real name – have in the past been described as mid-Western and middle-class. Riley's careful foraging, however, reveals a family background far less corn-fed. Their mother was a first-generation German while their father had been born in Vienna to a Jewish family that had pragmatically turned Catholic. Fritz Austerlitz had fetched up in Omaha as a beer salesman, a job that fitted neatly with his growing alcoholism. It was to find a way out of this cramping existence that ambitious Mrs Austerlitz put her daughter on the stage. And since her little boy seemed to have a certain physical wit, he too was enrolled at the local dance school. Within a few years Adele and her sidekick Fred were supporting the family, sending home money to their father in a tactful recognition that he was no longer able to look after himself, let alone them.

That Adele and Fred were able to do this by the time they were barely out of their teens was all down to their extraordinary art. But what that art was exactly is hard to know. While from the mid 1930s we can see Fred's performances on film, there is no moving image of Fred and Adele together, or Adele on her own. And it is this absence of evidence, and the narrative problems it presents, that lie at the heart of Riley's thoughtful investigation. Her book is in part a meditation on the impossibility of capturing a performance, or series of performances, that happened 80 years ago. You can quote from the critics, you can scour letters and diaries for the reactions of people who were in the audience, but you will always be left with a gap, an absence at the heart of your story. Just what it was that made Adele quite so extraordinary will never, finally, quite be clear. All we have is what came after, those amazing recorded performances of her brother making magic with other female dancers.

The Astaires by Kathleen Riley
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199738410

Saturday 14 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - The Pleasure Garden

How the BFI gave Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden its rhythm back
The BFI's restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's first film, about the tangled love lives of two chorus girls, introduces us to a Hitchcock we didn't know

Henry K. Miller
Friday 29 June 2012

Until last night no one had seen more than an approximation of Alfred Hitchcock's first film since it made his name 87 years ago. Unveiled at Wilton's Music Hall with a new score by recent RAM graduate Daniel Patrick Cohen, the BFI's restoration of The Pleasure Garden (1925) makes clear that the 26-year-old Hitchcock, as the Sunday Herald's critic Walter Mycroft wrote on its release, "definitely arrived in one stride". Its themes of voyeurism, manipulation, and delusion are instantly familiar from his better-known later work.

Wilton's, itself appealingly unrestored, provided an apt setting. A Victorian venue in Jack-the-Ripper territory, of the kind that was being displaced by cinemas when Hitchcock was working in nearby Blomfield Street, it is also not unlike the Pleasure Garden of the title, where rich men go to leer at chorus girls.

The tangled love lives of two of them, seemingly worldly Patsy and apparently guileless Jill, constitute the plot. Londoner Patsy (Virginia Valli), having offered provincial escapee Jill (Carmelita Geraghty) a place in her rented room – indeed, bed – and promised her homely fiancé she'll look out for her, ends up being proved the real innocent. While the unheeding Jill heads straight for the nearest sugar daddy, surprisingly emerging unscathed and enriched, Patsy falls for impecunious bounder Levet, played by the entertaining Miles Mander (a method cad by some accounts). A cute dog, if only she'd listened, had his and Jill's number all along.

It's not just that 20-odd minutes have been added to the extant hour-long version; it's that what we had didn't entirely make sense without them. The most widely available version before now was pared down to the narrative bone, often at the expense of what became known as the Hitchcock touch – and as Mycroft said at the time, The Pleasure Garden, adapted from a popular novel of 1923, is a story "transmuted by his treatment". Comic business of various kinds, and a signature cut from a pot of tea being poured to a glass of champagne being filled, were among the victims.

Above all, the film has got its rhythm back. Patsy and Levet's picturesque but curdled honeymoon sequence, shot around Lake Como, plays as Hitchcock inferably intended: longish, slowish, and sad, standing out from the rest. It is also in this section that the restored image comes into its own: almost unrecognisably cleaner, more detailed, pleasingly tinted and toned, and jerk-free. (A little alarmingly, Hitchcock and his assistant director Alma Reville took their own honeymoon at the same spot 18 months after filming there.)

Hitchcock joined the film business as a designer of what were called "art titles", embellishing the title-cards with themed backgrounds and illustrations, and though they fell out of fashion under the doctrine of "pure cinema", when positioned with care they reduced the need for Hitchcock's dreaded "photographs of people talking" by cutting to the dramatic chase, and provided a kind of punctuation. The sometimes florid originals, entirely absent from the home video version but happily reinstated here, help transform the picture.

The Pleasure Garden was filmed by a British company with American stars at a German studio, and on location in Italy, and in a similarly international spirit the new print, though assembled by the BFI, contains material from five archives in four countries. It has long been said that The Pleasure Garden's first shots, which show an exchange of looks between a voyeur and the object of his desire – his point-of-view of her legs; her unease-inducing glare back – announces the Hitchcock we know. The restored film introduces a Hitchcock we didn't.

Friday 13 July 2012

Laughter and Death...

Where does all the best comedy come from? Death and war
Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Eric Sykes and the rest all experienced war. That made their comedy different to today's

Andrew Martin
Friday 6 July 2012

Twelve years ago I interviewed Eric Sykes, who died this week. I was given just as long as it took him to sip down a small glass of white wine. He struck me as a melancholic, reserved man. He told about when he'd first seen Hattie Jacques, who became his comedy partner. "She was singing My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and holding a parrot in a cage. At the end of the number, she leapt in the air and did the splits. I'd never seen such charisma."

I asked him whether he fancied her, and he chuntered: "Not in the way that you think I fancied her." I asked him about his deafness (he was deaf since his early 30s): had fighting in the war caused the problem? "It didn't help."

Sykes had been shelled repeatedly at Normandy, and while appearing in an army gang show called Three Bags Full, he visited Belsen, wherre he saw some of its last inmates. In his autobiography, Sykes observed, " ... nothing angers me more than when some people today not only defend the Hitler regime but also deny that the death camps ever existed". Yet he was keen in later life on Ian Smith, leader of the white minority government in Rhodesia ("a tall, handsome man, bearing facial scars of a devastating crash in his Spitfire defending Britain … ", so it appears the war didn't give him any great moral overview. But I think it did allow him to access a beguiling minor key in his writing. In one episode of his sitcom of straitened suburbia, Sykes, Peter Sellers plays a leather-jacketed delinquent, who recalls his more innocent boyhood when he pumped the organ in church: "It was 26 pumps for Abide With Me and 48 for Rock of Ages. And when it came to the Hallelujah Chorus … me little arms was a blur."

Sykes's best work is perhaps in the Goon Show scripts he wrote with Spike Milligan, when the strain of producing them alone became too much for Milligan. Sykes was the only writer Milligan considered an equal, even if he did once attempt to murder him by flinging a heavy paperweight at his head. One collaboration, The Secret Escritoire, is among my favourite Goon Shows. It begins with the line: "That same afternoon, three weeks later …" and is set in the far east, among other places. Neddie Seagoon is fighting his way through thick jungle: "For weeks, we cut our way through the dense jungle that runs alongside the arterial road." The script reveals a fascination with the Oxford dictionary definition of the word "escritoire", as you might expect from two ambitious autodidacts.

Besides a threadbare education, Sykes and Milligan – and the other Goons – also had the war in common. Milligan first met his fellow Goon, Harry Secombe, in the north African campaign when Milligan was looking for a field gun that he'd "lost". You can see how comedy might have taken root for both of them in the discrepancy between the ideal of soldierly rectitude and human fallibility. At the battle of Monte Cassino, for example, Milligan had been afflicted with a terrible case of piles.

Later, he was hospitalised for shell shock, which is no doubt why people keep getting blown up in the Goon Shows. In The Missing Heir, a bomb features. "Is it dangerous?" Seagoon asks Major Bloodnok, who languidly replies: "Only when it blows up."

My own father joined the army just too late to fight, but did manage to exacerbate his varicose veins by excessive drill (or so the army charitably concluded, for which he was awarded a disability pension). He has speculated ever since about how he might have responded under fire, and he accorded heroic status to those older men who'd "been through it" – the comedians particularly, because there seemed something especially large-minded about turning to comedy after all that. I recall him watching Stanley Baxter on TV in the 70s. Baxter would be mincing around in a tutu, and my dad would say, "He fought in the far east, you know."

I inherited this fascination, and I attribute the darkness and strangeness of the comedy made by that generation to the war. It is in the haunting gloominess of Kenneth Williams' diaries: "This was one of those dark, rainy mornings that I love." Admittedly, Williams had a cushy national service, but he was describing himself as a "suicidalist" from 1947, the year after his demob. The diary chronicles Williams' stockpiling of the "poison" (barbiturates) on which he eventually overdosed; I remember one Goon character, quavering Henry Crun, was always described as "partially dead".

A friend of mine is David Secombe, writer, photographer, and son of Harry, and he told me: "After the war, Spike and my father couldn't quite believe they weren't dead." They felt justified by what they'd been through. According to David, "They'd earned the right to be satirists, or just to be silly." The thing about the Goons was that it was both, and a whole generation subscribed to their take on the war as something horrific, but also absurd.

As a student of those comics I have developed a form of snobbery that says there's something missing from all subsequent comedy, and what is missing is a war. To refine the position: yes, there has been very good comedy since then, but the best of it – Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, Chris Morris – was directly influenced by the Goons, which arose from the war.

Eric Sykes rated Izzard highly, but he told me he found much modern comedy smug or, as he put it, "fireproof". I think he meant he was against the "high status" comedian: the patter merchant who points out the foibles of everyone else from some Olympian height. This fireproof character is well in with the broadcasting executives, and is not a comedian due to some life event, but because he chose to become one while at university. We know who they are. They tend to occupy the accursed comedy slot on Radio 4 at 6.30pm on a weekday. Their schtick has the lineaments of humour – timing, punchlines, observations – but it doesn't actually make you laugh. Or they crop up on panel shows, where they lounge about being quite funny, but seeming lazy, overentitled. In their own later years, the Goons had a word for the successful, confident comedian who had a distinctive persona that was inflicted on the audience in an almost bullying manner: they called it "achieved comedy." These sorts of performers are usually not personally eccentric, perhaps because nothing has made them so.

Eric Sykes was eccentric – not as bracingly mad as Milligan or Peter Sellers. The latter thought he was possessed by the spirit of Dan Leno, but Sykes ran him close here in that he thought he channelled in his work the spirit of his mother, who died giving birth to him. And so we come back to death, as it seems humour must, and which is why war is so useful in its creation. I wanted to broach this matter of the dead mother with Sykes, but I had been warned he wouldn't "go there" on the record, and in any case, he had finished his small glass of white wine.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Last night's setlist

At The Habit, York: -

Bye Bye Love
Crying In The Rain
Sweet Virginia
Dream Baby
Yes I Will

A manic night, full from the off, with many refreshed punters inc. a lass who had clearly overstepped the mark. Kept us entertained for most of the evening.  Another open mic classic!

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - Psycho

My favourite Hitchcock film: Psycho by Joe Dunthorne
The horror film that breaks many of the conventions of the genre still retains the power to shock

Joe Dunthorne
The Observer
Sunday 17 June 2012

My mother was inflating an airbed in the next room. The foot pump's high-pitched wheezing sounded exactly like the violin stabs in the shower scene from Psycho. Even though I understood that real murders did not generally have soundtracks, my first instinct was there's a killer in the house.

Even before I had seen Psycho, I felt like I'd seen it. But when I first watched it, I was surprised by how much was unfamiliar. There are all these scenes that aren't the shower scene. Almost all of the film, in fact. It's also strange it should be considered one of the archetypal horror films because, in a genre obsessed with fulfilling conventions, Psycho doesn't. Hitchcock kills off Marion, the protagonist, before the halfway mark. When we meet the villain, he's bumbling and likable.

Much of the film's genius lies in the ambiguous feelings we have towards the main characters. Even when we've seen Norman kill two people – even when he is doing the creepy half-smile and his face is fading into a skull – he's still sympathetic. We are never allowed totally to side with or totally despise anyone. Hitchcock blurs the boundaries between the warped love triangle: Marion is Mother is Norman. Even the sounds of their names overlap.

I once went to hear Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian psychoanalyst, analyse Psycho. He gave a live commentary over the film and, at one point, said: "Marion is a manipulative bitch. I am totally on Norman's side in this interaction." In Zizek's interpretation, the storeys of the Bates motel represent Norman's id (basement), ego (ground floor) and his superego (first floor), where his mother lives. The big moment, then, comes when he carries his mother's body from the superego down to the id.

It's a film that attracts reinterpretation. There was Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993), an installation that slowed the film to two frames per second, which, in turn, inspired Don DeLillo's novel Point Omega. For my contribution to the universe of Psycho spin-offs, I took part in a poetic reinterpretation: Psycho Poetica. I was one of 12 writers each given nine minutes of the film and asked to write a poem to represent that sequence. We didn't get to pick which scene we worked on but we all hoped to cover a murder. I lucked out and got Arbogast's last few moments.

Hitchcock packs a lot in. There's something of a dancer's hips in the way Arbogast climbs the stairs. A knife of light slides across the carpet as the bedroom door creaks open. Then, as though powered by the audience's collective intake of breath, the camera floats up to the ceiling in time to see Mother-Norman dash from the bedroom, the blade glinting. Arbogast floats slowly back down the stairs with the camera contra-zooming, before the knife descends and the cellos let us know it's game over.

When we performed the poems, we dressed in monochrome and were accompanied by Bleeding Heart Narrative, a string quartet, to create a faithful distortion of the original film. It was fascinating to hear snippets of original dialogue happily integrate themselves into new poems. "It's not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes." It felt appropriate to hear the words of Norman Bates, master ventriloquist, in someone else's mouth.

Last night's jam session

In the Waggon & Horses, York: -

Another romp through the collective memories of several musicians produced songs by The Byrds, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, CSNY, Hank Williams, Neil Young, The Kinks, John Martyn and Pete Seeger etc, etc.

The highlight was an extended Down By The Riverside with anyone who cared to chipping in with a bit of ordnance in the verses.