Setter’s ‘Spectives: Is ‘The 39 Steps’ Hitchcock’s Best Movie?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I don’t know, but I sure like it a heckuva lot.

What I wanna know is: Why doesn’t The 39 Steps get old or creaky? It’s just as fast-paced and fun as ever, with crackling dialogue, amusing performances (especially from Robert Donat … what a talent) and brilliant cinematography, which provides a wonderful snapshot of the old British music-hall entertainments.

Frankly, I can’t get enough of this flick.

I realized Hitch honed his craft greatly following Steps, providing much slicker pictures, but there’s something about this 1935 charmer that keeps me watching the screen when it’s on. There was a time when I preferred The Lady Vanishes to it, but now I’m not so sure. And there’s a seminal quality to Steps as well … it’s one of the films that introduced Hitchcock’s whole “wrong man” oeuvre to audiences, and there’s something to be said for that.

I’ll tell you something: I’m walkin’ these steps for as long as they’re around.

Skip’s Quips: Remembrance of Scares Past

Blog Sketch 082813Way back when, while I was still in college (so this is really back when), I attended a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window at the campus theater. I’d seen it before, but I was interested in observing how other people reacted to it, given its age and lack of profanity, graphic violence or anything else that might draw a contemporary audience.

I settled into my uncomfortable, non-stadium seating chair. So did everyone else. The movie started. We watched.

And then we got to the part where Grace Kelly’s Lisa is wiggling her finger to show Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff—who is watching from his window across the courtyard—that she has the ring once owned by the wife of Raymond Burr’s murderous Lars Thorwald. Thorwald notices what she’s doing. Gradually, he looks up at the camera. At us.

“Aaaaaaaahhhhh!” screamed the audience.

Yep. Quintessential movie moment. Proof that great films, no matter how old they are, can still affect people. And Rear Window is a great one.

This seemingly trivial incident made me happy. It was like the train in silents of old coming at you onscreen and scaring the daylights of everyone in the theater. The flick is so good that the audience believed it was there with Jimmy in his apartment, looking into places he wasn’t supposed to. This despite the old-time New York of the 1950s depicted in the movie. This despite the film’s age. This despite the lack of swearing or blood-squibby gunfights or … well, it did actually have a steamy interlude: that great, slow-motion kiss that Kelly and Stewart have at the beginning. And there was quite a lot of innuendo, in the manner typical of Hitch.

But this wasn’t beat-you-over-the-head filmmaking. This was director-in-control stuff.  And it had the right effect: making everyone watching it shriek. In joy, of course, like the shriek you expel while riding a roller-coaster. A true movie shriek.

One of these days, I’ll have to go see Rear Window again in the theater to observe how people react now. I suspect it will be similar. Great films don’t date; they remain pertinent forever. So viewers will scream afresh … as long as Thorwald looks at them in recognition.

That’s the kind of scream we need more of at the movies.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Sympathy for the Movies’ Devils

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To lift (and thoroughly mangle) a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of an irredeemable movie villain or one with nuance and definition.

On the one hand, I believe a great portrayal of a vile, two-dimensionally loathsome evildoer can make a film–Dirty Harry is one example, with Andy Robinson’s sinister “Scorpio” killer giving viewers every reason to boo him. But then you have pictures such as M and Precious,  whose ghastly, repellent villains both get speeches at the end that aim to suggest they remain human … despite their horrific acts.

Not surprisingly, those last two films are a lot harder to watch than Dirty Harry–or, for that matter, any other flick with baddies you love to hate. And I think it’s because making a choice about a character is much more difficult than having one already made for you.

There’s definitely a time and place for movies with clear-cut antagonists. Sometimes, these films can be masterpieces: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King offers evidence of this. Yet the main evildoer, Sauron, is hardly well defined. He’s just … evil. Even Darth Vader from Star Wars shows more love than mean old Sauron. You can blame the great actor James Earl Jones for infusing Vader’s voice with character.

Giving a frightening villain more than one shade doesn’t always work, and it’s not right for every movie. But good directors can make unwieldy things fit while asking questions you don’t want to answer. Alfred Hitchcock did just that in Strangers on a Train and Frenzy, both of which have scenes where the killers frantically try to retrieve misplaced pieces of evidence. Hitch makes us almost feel for these creeps as he forces us to watch their travails. That’s manipulative, folks–manipulative to the nth degree. But it’s something only a great artist can do.

Ultimately, characters with multiple dimensions–whether they’re good or evil–add heft to a movie. It may not be a heft you enjoy, but it’s solid nonetheless and often points to a film’s quality. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to watch them over and over to see if the villain gets his or her due, but it suggests that there’s something more about the picture than providing “you-must-pay-the-rent” thrills.

That’s risk in my book, and filmmakers who take it for art’s sake deserve a hand.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: ‘Psycho’ Viewers, Qu’est-ce Que C’est?

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s inimitable scare-fest Psycho last night on TV thrilled me more than it ever has in the past.

Why? Well, for one thing, I didn’t like it.

Yes, that’s thrilling. Really. Because last night, the reason became apparent.

It’s a negative movie. It’s oddly structured. The dialogue is bizarre. And Hitch spends a heckuva lot of time showing you these seemingly “mundane” details, like Janet Leigh packing and unpacking her suitcase and Anthony Perkins cleaning up the bathroom after he has dispatched her.

All of this is deliberate. I’m not saying Hitchcock wasn’t in command. But it’s almost as if the great director was trying to call attention to ordinary activities that aren’t normally seen in the movies.

That helps develop character…and I think that’s why the film’s so effective. Perkins’ obsessive mopping and post-murder preparations reveal how deeply disturbed he is, while Leigh’s behavior suggests an interior schism over the money she’s stolen. It’s all brilliantly done, and it’s an incredibly watchable movie, despite all of the minutiae.

Yet I still don’t like it. It seems more experimental to me than many of the master’s other pictures, a grim, stark-looking study rather than a finished product. Again: I don’t think anything is loose, here; Hitch was in control through and through. But for me, it’s hard to watch. I’d rather sit down to a viewing of The 39 Steps, you know?

Something where you don’t feel like you have to take a shower afterward.