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: There’s a Gaffe in My Soup

Blog Sketch 082813I look back in bemusement whenever I recall the original 1977 Star Wars.

It’s a terrific flick, don’t get me wrong. But each time I start thinking about it, I summon up remembrance of continuity issues past—specifically, that scene where Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, out cold after being beaten up by mean-spirited Sand People, somehow shifts his head’s position on the ground without allowing the audience to witness the change. In the first shot, it’s facing the side. In a later shot, it’s facing up.

The Force is strong with that one, right? He moves so quickly, the camera doesn’t even capture it.

Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and it’s too small an issue to ruin the film. Yet it strikes me as bizarre that in such a slick, polished production, a little continuity error like this could slither past. Wouldn’t someone have caught this before it reached the theaters?

Perhaps director George Lucas was concentrating more on the big picture when reviewing the film. He definitely had a lot to oversee, all things considered. Still, the paradox of great movies featuring tiny gaffes remains a constant. One can turn to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which allegedly saw the director order the set rebuilt after viewing a component that wouldn’t have appeared in the story’s era, yet contains a visible cut jumping from Toshiro Mifune’s still-alive Washizu to one pierced through the neck with an arrow. Or check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Kim Novak’s faux Madeleine disappears into a house with no other exit, thereby befuddling both Scottie (Jimmy Stewart), who has followed her, and the audience. Or look into Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, where the army attacking Mordor finds itself mounted on horses in one shot and dismounted, with the steeds nowhere to be seen, in another.

There’s nothing we can so about this but suspend disbelief. These flicks are good enough to wave off continuity quibbles. As an audience, however, do we have a right to perfection for our money? Or just greatness? Am I asking too much that a film be error-free?

Perhaps. I’ll keep enjoying all the movies above, of course—nothing’s different there. I may, though, break a smile each time I watch these continuity-challenged scenes, in recognition of the idea that even masterpieces aren’t infallible.

It’s a good way to feel good about a good movie, isn’t it? I’ve already convinced myself that that’s true.

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 ‘Spective: When Filmmakers Lose Their Zip

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Willie Mays and Alfred Hitchcock had a lot in common.

“Huh?” you say. “Stop kidding me.”

But it’s true. Both started inauspiciously: Hitch with silent films, Mays on the baseball diamond. Neither hit their stride until a few years into their careers, and then they produced brilliantly season after season until declining in their later days.

And no, I don’t think Family Plot holds a candle to the master’s greatest works. Same with Mays’ Mets experience. You got flashes of their old selves, but they couldn’t bring back everything. Ultimately, what you retained was nostalgia.

And that’s what I’m thinking about many other talented filmmakers. They often peak like athletes, then may lose their inspiration, as a pitcher loses his fastball or a hitter loses his bat speed. This happened, I feel, to Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut. And I think it’s happening to Martin Scorsese.

I’m concerned that this terrific American director has already given us his masterpieces–that we’ll have to be content with flicks like Shutter Island and Gangs of New York: flawed, intermittently enjoyable movies that lack the risks taken in his greatest works (Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are three examples). You still see that fluid camerawork in his movies, those crisp cuts, but the cohesiveness and definition that marked his earlier films aren’t there.

I’m sad about this, but I understand. I think it’s quite natural. You rarely find a director or an athlete who produces through the end of his or her career. Luis Buñuel, I think was one, as was Ted Williams. But they don’t appear often. Most humans ultimately decline.

I’m not saying Scorsese should stop making movies or that his career is over. Far from it. Frankly, I hope he crafts hit after hit after hit. But it’ll be hard for him to match the quality of his output from the 1970s to the mid-1990s.

You may tell me it isn’t fair to expect that–that he’s evolved as a filmmaker. I’ll agree. It isn’t fair.

Yet you always expect a home run from your hero, right?

Me, I always do.