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The Conversations: Minor Hitchcock

Rope in particular is “minor” in large part because Hitchcock created so many majors.

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The Conversations: Minor Hitchcock

Ed Howard: Alfred Hitchcock is one of the eternal touchstones of the cinema. He’s been a major influence for many of the best filmmakers to work in his wake, and films like Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window and many others remain cultural markers that would be recognizable even to those who have never actually seen them. With a director this major, very little of his career hasn’t been explored in depth, with the possible exception of his fertile British period, which seems to get less attention than his later work. However, we’ve decided to discuss two of the master’s Hollywood films that, while perhaps not overlooked (indeed, both are remembered more or less fondly), are generally considered to be “minor” Hitchcock: Rope (1948) and To Catch a Thief (1955). My own perspective is that these supposedly “minor” films are, in their own ways, keeping in mind their quirks and undeniable limitations, major works nearly as rich and rewarding as Hitchcock’s better-known milestones.

They’re very different films, though, and there are very different reasons for their somewhat lesser stature in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Psycho is mostly remembered for its audacious formal gimmick: it is composed entirely of a series of unbroken 10-minute-or-less takes, and the cuts between shots are often disguised in ostentatious ways to create the (not very convincing) illusion of a single take weaving through the enclosed set. This trick dominates the film to such an extent that it’s all many people remember about it, and I think this is unfortunate. If Psycho is remembered as a formal experiment and little more, To Catch a Thief is often viewed as Hitchcock making a hangout movie with some of his favorite stars, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, on the French Riviera. Hitchcock said as much, and even opened the film with a shot of a tourism office’s front window (setting up the dark humor of the second shot, an abrupt cut to a screaming woman). So what we have here is one film that’s usually cited as a simple formal exercise, and another that’s considered a fun, sugary entertainment. Are these minor works from a major director? Or are they two more examples of Hitchcock’s mastery and genius, as well as his often-underappreciated range?

Jason Bellamy: How about both? Rope in particular is “minor” in large part because Hitchcock created so many majors. It isn’t as sinister as Psycho, as assaulting as The Birds, as epic (by Hitchcock standards) as North by Northwest, as taut as Rear Window, as moody as Vertigo, and so on. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it trails all of those more famous films (I’d certainly put it ahead of The Birds, for example). All it means is that against such iconic competition, Rope is most easily categorized by its gimmicky technique—those long unbroken takes. That’s what makes the film stand out, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. To Catch a Thief, on the other hand, is certainly more of a lollipop movie. It’s fun and sugary, yes, and not much more. And yet while I’d never make the argument that it’s an overlooked masterpiece, I don’t disparage its pleasures. As you said, this is a “hangout movie” with two of cinema’s most beloved stars, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. To Catch a Thief might not be a deep film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t genuinely entertaining (at least in places).

And that leads me to the second part of your question, because as minor as these films are in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, they certainly reveal his mastery, genius and often-underappreciated range, too. Put another way, Rope’s thrills remind of Rear Window while To Catch a Thief’s pleasures remind of (parts of) North by Northwest. I make those connections not because the former two films star Jimmy Stewart while the latter two star Cary Grant but because of the films’ designs: Rope and Rear Window are both gripping and claustrophobic pictures that play out mostly in a single set and mostly in real time; To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest are both films about a wrongfully accused man who engages in some delightfully saucy banter with a female companion. What’s interesting to me is that watching Rope and To Catch a Thief one could easily get the sense that Hitchcock is resting on his laurels, mailing it in, selling out, settling for pale imitations of his masterworks. But that would be inaccurate. It’s important to remember that Rope (1948) preceded Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) preceded North by Northwest (1959). Furthermore, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) all came after the two less-celebrated movies that are the subjects of this conversation. I don’t want to imply in any way that Hitchcock was some novice filmmaker still learning his craft when he made Rope and To Catch a Thief. But in retrospect it’s hard to ignore that these films seem to be warm-up exercises for the unquestionably major films that would follow them. Or is it just me?

To Catch a Thief

EH: In the case of Rope, certainly, it’s fair to call it a warm-up exercise. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make a film using as few shots as possible, simple as that. It’s the kind of formal challenge he’d set for himself on occasion, as when he decided to see if he could make a film set entirely on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean (Lifeboat, of course, which really is a formal experiment that isn’t too interesting beyond its gimmick). Rope and Lifeboat were perhaps both necessary first steps towards Rear Window, which further developed the claustrophobia and formal restrictions of the earlier films.

We’ll get back to Rope, but for the moment I want to defend To Catch a Thief, since I don’t really agree with your faint praise for that one. Sure, it’s sugary and light, and easy to enjoy on a surface level as a popcorn entertainment. And it has its structural flaws as well: I’d entirely forgotten just how dull and ungainly the first half-hour is, with the awful dubbing of the French actors and Cary Grant looking really uncomfortable in some ridiculous outfits and a horrible tan. It’s a waiting game: when is Grace Kelly finally going to show up, anyway? Once she does, though, as oil heiress Francie Stevens, it’s a whole different story. Her interactions with Grant (as the one-time cat burglar John Robie) are playful, charming and charged with barely restrained sexuality and—there’s no other word for it—naughtiness. Hitchcock was always pushing the boundaries of how he could have his characters talk about sex without actually talking about it, but the approach reaches its peak here and in The Trouble With Harry, Hitchcock’s other great “light” film of the mid-‘50s. There’s so much wonderful, naughty dialogue here, so much sexual energy. Francie’s mom Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) takes one look at Robie and says, “I wouldn’t mind buying that for you, dear.” Later, Francie promises Robie that “tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights,” then belatedly adds, “I was talking about the fireworks,” which of course only emphasizes that she was talking about anything but the fireworks. That’s without even getting into the famous banter about breasts and legs, or the whole extended fireworks scene, which is one of the best sequences Hitchcock ever filmed (more on that later).

More than any other Hitchcock film, then, this is a film about sex. In its basic form, it’s the most common kind of film that Hitchcock made, a “wrong man” mystery with a “saucy” love interest. Hitchcock made this film over and over again, and its roots are in his earlier British work, like The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent, both of which are built from the same basic template. Here, though, more than usual, the thriller mechanics are reduced to an afterthought, and Hitchcock, aided by screenwriter John Michael Hayes, instead concentrates on one opportunity after another to probe the mutual attraction of the leads. Does all this add up to a “deep” movie? It depends on what you mean by deep. The film doesn’t have the psychosexual darkness of Vertigo or Marnie, sure, but in many ways it’s another of Hitchcock’s characteristic examinations of sexual dynamics and sexual roles, just in a brighter and more optimistic context. And although its final joke makes marriage a trap for the man, a typical Hitchcock gag, throughout much of the rest of the film Kelly’s Francie is smart, confident and sexually open in a very refreshing way. Check out the seductive, leering look she gives Robie when he asks her what thrills her, or the “efficient” way she kisses him to signal her interest. Perhaps only Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep does a better job of generating sexual sparks from this kind of dueling banter, in which sexual prowess is evaluated by deftness with a one-liner, and the woman is at least the man’s equal in verbal dexterity and cleverness. It’s easy to say that this kind of stuff is “fun” and make it sound like a dismissal, but I think there can be—and in this case, as in the Hawks film, is—a great deal of substance in this fluffy romantic repartee.

To Catch a Thief

JB: Yes, there can be a great deal of substance in fluffy romantic repartee. But the sad truth is that there really isn’t that much of it in To Catch a Thief. Is it memorable? Oh, absolutely! It’s not only the best stuff of this movie, it’s some of the best stuff of Hitchcock. Bar none. But while you suggest that the thriller mechanics are an “afterthought,” and I don’t disagree, the truly naughty banter between Grant and Kelly actually gets less screen time. You alluded to this already, but it’s 22 minutes before we get a glimpse of Grace Kelly. Then it’s a few minutes more before she actually says something. A few minutes after that, 39 minutes into the movie, Kelly’s Francie and Grant’s Robie share their first embrace—and at that point Francie is so undeveloped that she’s nothing more than a pretty face (though Grace Kelly gets more mileage out of that than most). A few minutes later, Francie engages in the water-treading verbal spat with Brigitte Auber’s Danielle, while Robie grimaces between them. Then Robie and Francie have a few walk-and-talk scenes that really don’t amount to very much. And then, finally, almost an hour into a 106-minute movie, the two of them are in a car, Francie at the wheel and the police on Robie’s tail. “Why are we dawdling like this?” Robie asks, and indeed he might as well be speaking for the audience.

I don’t mean to imply that To Catch a Thief’s first hour is entirely without pleasure. (I’m always delighted by Francie’s spunk in the water-treading scene: “Are you sure you were talking about water skis? It looked to me like you were conjugating some irregular verbs.”) But the film is rarely worth watching when Kelly isn’t on the screen, and it takes about 45 minutes for her to be anything more than wallpaper. Beyond that, we both seem to agree that the film is at its best when Francie and Robie are engaged in their steamy repartee, but the terrific picnic scene (“Do you want a leg or a breast?”) is just four minutes long, and the fireworks scene, fantastic though it is, lasts just five minutes. Being generous, I could stuff maybe 15 more Grant-Kelly minutes into this package of goodness, but even then I’m struggling to find so much as a third of the picture that I can really rave about.

I realize I’ve just broken down the film like some baseball statistics geek debunking the legendary status of a great pitcher by talking about his WHIP and VORP, which isn’t my intent. But at the same time I find that, like you, the memory of all the wonderful Grant-Kelly verbal fireworks doesn’t line up with reality. So perhaps the thriller aspect of the film shouldn’t have been such an afterthought after all. And perhaps that’s the lesson Hitch took with him to North by Northwest.

To Catch a Thief

EH: But Hitchcock had been making films like North by Northwest for more or less his entire career—that film is a summation of his cinema to that point—and films like Saboteur, Young and Innocent and The 39 Steps have varying balances between the “wrong man” thriller plotting and the dialogue-driven romance scenes. I don’t buy that he learned any lessons from To Catch a Thief so much as he was willfully playing with the extremes of a balance he’d toyed with throughout his career. In that context, it’s possible to think of To Catch a Thief as a formalist experiment of sorts, albeit a less obvious one than Rope. The experiment here is to see how much Hitchcock can abstract the film’s focus from its ostensible suspense/mystery plot onto the romantic interaction of the leads. Is it entirely successful? No, no more than Rope is. Do I wish there was even more of that great banter? Of course, and to some extent Hitchcock delivered on that promise with The Trouble With Harry, which is all naughty banter and cleverly masked sexual metaphors. (There’s some great stuff in that one about crossing thresholds.) Maybe the problem then isn’t that Hitchcock didn’t stress the thriller plot more but that he stressed it too much. If he’d allowed it to evaporate completely, as he did in Harry, the film might’ve been even better, even more charming and funny and sexually adventurous.

As for the rest, for some reason I’ve now got this image of you sitting there watching the movie with a stopwatch in hand, or maybe a scorecard, to continue the baseball metaphor. I guess when you break it down like that, the Grant/Kelly scenes represent a surprisingly small proportion of the total screen time, especially since, as I already noted, those are the scenes that everyone remembers. It’s a good demonstration of the selectivity of memory: I’ve seen the film a few times now but I still never remember how long it takes for Kelly to appear on screen, or how shaky the film is before that point. Maybe all that matters is the memory, though. The great scenes might be statistically insignificant if we measure things in terms of screen time, but they make a powerful impact. This is a movie, not a science experiment, and a few minutes of thrilling screen time can pretty easily counterbalance a half-hour of less satisfying moments.

I mentioned Howard Hawks already, and he’s a pretty good reference point for this film, which in some ways feels more like one of his banter-packed comedies than a proper Hitchcock thriller. Hawks maintained that a good film consisted of “three great scenes, no bad ones.” In other words, the moments that stand out are the only ones that really matter. I don’t think To Catch a Thief meets that criteria about no bad scenes, but boy does it exceed its quota of great ones. That’s more important, to me, than the math. Sure, the film’s far from perfect, and it’s marred by those stretches where Grant and Kelly aren’t interacting. (Not that the rest is worthless; at the very least, there are some good scenes between Robie and Danielle, like the one where he urges her to distract a spying plane and gets an eyeful of her legs as a result.) But when I think back on the film, it’s the great scenes I remember: the fireworks, the picnic, Grace Kelly’s mischievous smile when she’s speeding along those back-projected mountain roads (a scene made poignant by subsequent real-world events), the bright artificial colors of the climactic party, the sharp wit of the dialogue in virtually every encounter between Francie and Robie. The rest just melts away, easy enough to ignore in focusing on the good stuff. So what do you think of Hawks’ criteria for judging movies? Does To Catch a Thief fare better when judged on that kind of scale?

To Catch a Thief

JB: I like Hawks’ test, but I don’t think To Catch a Thief passes it. As you said, there are some truly bad scenes here, particularly early: that awful dubbing of the French actors, the goofy scene at the market that is neither as suspenseful nor as funny as it seems to want to be, plus all the initial plot exposition in a film that doesn’t particularly care about its narrative anyway. To Catch a Thief does well upon reflection, you’re right about that, because our brains preserve those scenes we want to cherish. I have fond memories of the movie, too. But if I’m honest, part of that fondness is tied to my basic affection for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the scene in which Robie and Francie walk around the gardens of that mansion, with Robie surreptitiously surveying the grounds, trying to determine the ways in which the imitation cat burglar will strike. In memory, flickering against the movie screen in my imagination, that’s a delightful little scene—beautiful people in a beautiful location. In the film itself, it’s nothing. There’s not much to it beyond the beauty of the subjects and the landscape.

That’s not a serious crime, don’t get me wrong. As I said at the outset, this is indeed a “hangout” picture. Simple pleasures are genuine pleasures just the same. But To Catch a Thief can be downright tedious in segments and it’s only mildly entertaining quite a bit of the rest of the time. That’s the point I was trying to get across earlier. You argued that “a few minutes of thrilling screen time can pretty easily counterbalance a half-hour of less satisfying moments,” and I don’t disagree in principle. But I wonder if the take-away “greatness” of To Catch a Thief is evidence of something else: the importance of finishing on a high note. Rightly or wrongly, most moviegoers are tremendously forgiving of a lackluster first 30 minutes so long as the final 30 minutes deliver thrills. The conclusion of To Catch a Thief doesn’t exactly pack a wallop, at least not by Hitchcock’s standards, but it’s a back-heavy film, no question about it. Even the final moment is one of its best, when we realize that the film’s title refers less to Robie’s nabbing of Danielle than to Francie’s nabbing of Robie, a quintessential Hitchcock gag.

I’ve always been torn over the added weight given to a film’s conclusion. On the one hand it’s perfectly justifiable: a movie’s early scenes are setting the stage for something later; they aren’t necessarily meant to fulfill in and of themselves, but ultimately they’re an integral part of a film’s success. On other hand, beginning or end, it’s all the same movie, and thus praising an otherwise lackluster film for the strength of its final act is just as problematic as condemning a mostly outstanding film for an arguably awkward conclusion. All of that said, it would be incorrect to imply that the first half of To Catch a Thief is truly expendable, but I don’t think this is a case in which the opening half of a picture is integral to the pleasures of its second half.

To Catch a Thief

EH: To me, there’s no question that a truly great film should be satisfying more or less the whole way through and, as you say, To Catch a Thief doesn’t meet that test at all. On the other hand, there’s a solid half-hour, maybe even an hour, of entertaining and enjoyable material here, once the opening exposition is dispensed with and Hitchcock delivers one dazzling Grant/Kelly scene after another leading up to a denouement that’s perhaps not thrilling as a solution to the (non-)mystery but is thrilling in its romance and its artificial visual beauty. Part of that is the intrinsic appeal of Grant and Kelly, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate the pleasure of seeing these Ur-glamorous megastars trading all those sexually charged lines.

I think it’s easy to underestimate how much of that is Hitchcock, too. He’s not often thought of as an actor’s director—he did famously compare his stars to cattle, after all—but there are few directors who could get as much from a star persona. Grant and Kelly aren’t exactly delivering complex performances here; they’re channeling their celebrity aura into these characters, making the characters charming and exciting and interesting merely by virtue of the people playing them. Compare the Hitchcock films with Grant, Kelly, James Stewart, and Ingrid Bergman, and the ones with outrageous villains like Joseph Cotten or Anthony Perkins, to the ones where he was unable to cast a big, charismatic star, and you can often feel that subtle absence, no matter how many other pleasures the films might offer. Like you say, Hitchcock creates this atmosphere where it’s enjoyable just to watch these people walking around, watching Robie/Grant surreptitiously surveying the estate, and Francie/Kelly doing that sidelong smirk she does so well, mysterious in its meaning, both sweet and knowingly ironic. The characters and the actors are inseparable, and it’s a delight to spend time with them.

Maybe that’s a relatively minor success, in the grand scheme of things, and Hitchcock has undoubtedly made many more sophisticated and substantial films. Still, you could do worse than this elaborate excuse to photograph exquisite French countryside vistas (with some stunning helicopter shots in the early car chase) and admire two of classic Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. There’s an attention to detail, too, that suggests that even in a lazy vacation picture like this, Hitchcock’s visual imagination was always firing on all cylinders. My favorite example: the subtle rhyming between the famous, if peripheral, moment where Jessie puts out a cigarette in an egg, and the earlier shot where the angry kitchen staff throws an egg at Robie, shattering against a window and forming an abstract smear blotting out his face. And of course all the other structural rhymes and embedded gags: the cops getting held up first by sheep, then by chickens, the chicken breasts and legs at the picnic, the down-the-blouse shot of a woman’s breasts as Robie plots to drop his gambling chip into her cleavage, Francie saying “hold them” as she hands Robie her… necklace. For me, it’s so easy to just pretend the film’s weaker moments never happened because there’s so much else here that makes me laugh with pure delight. And I still haven’t even gotten to the pivotal fireworks scene.

To Catch a Thief

JB: I think we agree on the film’s pleasures. I just seem to be more irritated by the dry patches in between. As I said previously, those more tedious moments tend to be any scenes not including Grace Kelly. I mean, good lord, what an amazing presence she has! I’m not sure any actress has ever been so effortlessly gorgeous or loveable (and, yes, I’m considering Audrey Hepburn). Furthermore, I can’t think of another actress who could be so daintily feminine while so convincingly mixing it up with the boys. The car chase is a terrific example: Kelly’s Francie wears a sheer pink top and scarf, looking like she’s dressed for Easter brunch, as she puts pedal to the metal to elude the police, an unconcerned smile on her face, all while Grant’s Robie cringes in the passenger’s seat. Every time I watch this movie I marvel at how truly girlish Francie is in that scene and yet I never doubt her tenacity or courage. Saying this, I fear that I come off like some kind of caveman who thinks that it’s impossible to be both “ladylike” and “tough,” but that’s not it at all. My amazement stems from the fact that we almost never see this combination at the movies—unless it’s some heroine in a Jane Austen adaptation or an equally plucky young queen who won’t take shit from nobody. In recent years, we’ve seen more of the sculpted, sexualized, cleavage-baring ass-kickers in the mold of G.I. Jane and Lara Croft, etc., but they’re so far removed from Kelly’s Frances “Francie” Stevens, who never stops being rose-petal soft even while she’s digging a thorn into you.

Hitchcock is famous for his universally thrilling suspense, but I think another reason that so many of his films remain so popular today is because of the strength of his female leads—women who are beautiful, bold, daring, smart, girlish and yet rough-and-tumble. Francie might not be quite as macho as Lisa Fremont, her character in Rear Window, who eagerly climbs a fire escape to enter the second-story window of a presumed murderer, but she isn’t far off. In so many Hitchcock movies, women wear the pretty dresses and the metaphorical pants. And even when they are eye-candy victims, like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho, they are almost never meek. (Marion is a thief before she’s a murder victim, remember.) Their glamour and their sexuality aren’t strikes against them. They are women, hear them roar… or purr, or both. Hitchcock heroines could be sexually enticing and predatory, as here: even in the moments when Robie leans in to kiss Francie, she has already implicitly made the first move. Watching this film it occurs to me that if To Catch a Thief were remade today, the depiction of Francie’s gung-ho sexuality would seem almost progressive, would it not?

To Catch a Thief

EH: Well, almost progressive is right. I don’t want to get into the whole Hitchcock misogyny debate, but it seems odd to talk about Hitchcock and women without acknowledging the ambivalence and contradictions about women that are tangled up in his oeuvre. Hitchcock’s women are frequently compelling, but remember that as often as he’s focused on strong-willed, independent women like Francie Stevens and Lisa Fremont, he’s also crafted characters like Tippie Hedron’s titular role in Marnie, a troubled woman who’s controlled and manipulated before heading towards an implied happy ending with the guy who raped her. And even with Kelly’s characters, who never suffer the abuse that Hitchcock heaped upon Hedron in Marnie and The Birds, the “sexually suggestive and predatory” qualities could be seen as both progressive signs of a woman who knows what she wants and the manipulations of a woman trying to trap a man into marriage.

Still, those uglier aspects of Hitchcock’s perspective on women have rarely seemed as remote or as incidental as they do in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, in part because of Kelly’s natural charm and screen presence, and how perfectly Hitchcock captures the barely restrained mischievous streak behind her elegance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that famous fireworks scene, which I’ve kept alluding to mainly because I’m so completely bowled over by it. It’s perfection. I love the editing and pacing of it, the way Hitchcock follows Francie around the room as she turns the lights out one by one, gradually letting in that unnatural green glow that represents night in this film. Slowly, everything gets bathed in shadows, leading towards that wonderful shot where Francie leans back so that her face is obscured in the darkness, emphasizing both the jewels glistening at her neck and the bare skin of her shoulders: such an abstractly sexy image. Throughout the scene, as in the film as a whole, the jewels stand in for the body, with Francie’s dialogue about the jewels (“even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking”) doubling as an awareness of her own body, her own sexuality.

And then the pair sit down, facing each other on the couch, and the editing settles into this graceful rhythm where, in between exchanges of romantic banter, Hitchcock cuts away to the fireworks outside, and every time he cuts back inside, Francie and Robie are closer together, and the camera has moved in closer. The editing is like breathing: in, out, in, out, this measured rhythmic repetition of shots. The intimacy of it is almost overwhelming, particularly when Francie kisses each of Robie’s fingers in turn and then places his hand on her necklace, whispering “hold them.” The sexual double entendre is so obvious already that the added metaphorical implications of all those bursting fireworks make it practically seem like porn.

Beyond its obvious formal brilliance, though, what impresses me most about this scene is how it’s simultaneously so naughty and so adult. So naughty because of its wink-wink, nudge-nudge representation of sex through fireworks and coded dialogue, which makes it so much fun; though I’ll never lament the death of censorship, I do admit that I miss this kind of clever stand-in for actual sex scenes. So adult because, at a time when Hollywood’s depictions of sexual relationships were hardly progressive, here we get a couple obviously sleeping together and both enjoying it, both engaging in this playful mutual seduction as equals. We in the audience are seduced, too, as much by Hitchcock’s formal structuring of the scene as by its content; he’s establishing the rhythms of the seduction, to the point where by the end of the scene I find I’m actually breathing in sync with the edits, that’s how powerful its subtle effect is. I doubt there’s a better encapsulation of romantic love in the cinema, because each shot, each cut, adds to the accumulating mood of swoony late-night desire. By the time the final over-the-top explosion of fireworks cuts in, it’s exactly the beautiful, fiery release that’s required.

To Catch a Thief

JB: The mutual seduction you mentioned is the core of the spirit I was referring to in suggesting the depiction of Francie is almost progressive. I’m fine skipping the Hitchcock misogyny debate as a whole, but, looping back a moment, I’m glad you brought it up. Yes, movies like Marnie are more problematic in their depictions of women, and I should have called attention to that. However, I don’t see the attempts of Francie to snare Robie in marriage as anti-progressive except under some extremist view that would suggest that progressive women aren’t allowed to desire marriage, which is an attitude that seems hardly progressive at all. In the case of Francie and Robie, or Lisa and Jeff in Rear Window, marriage is something an already well-to-do woman simply desires. These women don’t need a man. They just want one. So they go out and get one, indeed partially outsmarting their targets, who come off as unthinking goons foolishly devoting themselves to some empty single-man code—the ultimate implication being that the man in question benefits from a female influence. Sure, maybe that attitude isn’t actually progressive, but even today how often do we come across movies where women are allowed to go get what they want? It’s important to note that while Francie isn’t exactly loose, she’s not withholding sex on the promise of marriage or using any other conservative or antiquated tricks. Instead she’s giving Robie exactly what she wants to give him, utterly confident that he’ll want more. If not, oh well. Again, maybe that isn’t progressive today, but for a film released in 1955 it’s surprisingly modern.

As for the fireworks scene itself, I share your affection, though I’d stop short of suggesting that it’s one of the utmost portrayals of romantic love. Maybe more like one of the ultimate encapsulations of lust or desire. That’s not a lesser achievement in my book, just a different one. You’ve exhaustively listed the highlights of the fireworks scene, and while I think the silly playfulness of the fireworks cutaways undercuts the sexual tension to a degree, I mostly agree with your analyses, including this one: I, too, miss some of the ways that filmmakers used to cleverly suggest sex without actually depicting it, whether it’s the naughty coded banter in To Catch a Thief or, more than a decade later, the erotic game of chess in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair. And that leads me here: The modern film that makes me think of To Catch a Thief each time I see it is Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, with its much celebrated seduction scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. In that film, Soderbergh cuts between the flirtation and shots of actual embrace, so in at least that way Out of Sight’s seduction scene is much different than the one in To Catch a Thief. Then again, both scenes unfold in front of window views of the night sky. Both of them show characters playing with fake identities. Both of them, in different ways, show the man and the woman getting increasingly closer until finally they are locked in an embrace. Both of them have that erotic in-and-out breathing rhythm you cited. And, perhaps most importantly, both of them make us feel like we’re watching two people fucking long before they actually touch one another.

To Catch a Thief

EH: That’s a great way of putting it. I think the romantic comedy genre—to which To Catch a Thief arguably belongs more than it does to the thriller genre—has suffered from the dearth of such clever back-and-forth verbal seduction in many modern takes on the form. Out of Sight is a great counterexample, proving yet again that George Clooney is consistently the closest modern Hollywood comes to the suave, Cary Grant-style classic movie star capable of getting this kind of material across. The seduction scene between Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Jason Reitman’s recent (and uneven) Up in the Air is also very verbally clever, as these two habitual business travelers talk about frequent flyer cards and rent-a-car franchises and manage to make it sound steamy. So there are occasional flashes of this type of repartee in modern films. Soderbergh uses Clooney especially well, of course, evoking that classic Hollywood style, the banter and “hangout” feel, in both Out of Sight and the Ocean’s 11 remake. It’s a reminder of how much fun it can be just to watch talented movie stars chat and joke around: a lesson that directors like Hitchcock and Hawks understood very well, and that for all the worship of movie stars nowadays, few enough people today really seem to get.

Turning to the other Hitchcock film we’re here to discuss, there’s also a lot of talk in Rope, and a lot of rather funny talk at that, but it’s far from the sparkling banter of To Catch a Thief. Instead, as Hitchcock’s camera wheels through the enclosed space of the apartment where all of the film’s action takes place, these characters engage in cocktail party chatter in which the real meaning—the dark, morbid truth hidden beneath the party’s veneer—is obscured by the pleasantries. This is a very different kind of Hitchcock film. If To Catch a Thief is all about the glamour of movie stars and the pleasures of romantic courtship, Rope is about its own formal constraints, and also about some of Hitchcock’s favorite pet themes: the eternal allure of crime and deviancy, and the close connection of these darker undercurrents to what we call “civilization” or “society.”

Rope

JB: Rope is an interesting film to discuss alongside To Catch a Thief, because for all of their differences they do have at least one thing in common: playfulness. Oh, sure, the subject matter of Rope is dark, but the mood is often light, in large part because John Dall’s Brandon considers his crime to be a clever party game. Brandon spends most of the film grinning ear to ear, tremendously proud of himself—proud of the murder itself, proud of leaving the body in the room, proud of offering food right off the trunk containing the corpse, proud of bundling some books with the very rope that only an hour before had been used to commit murder, and so on. For Brandon, it’s all a gay affair, by both meanings of the phrase. Brandon and his accomplice Phillip (Farley Granger) are clearly suggested to be a homosexual couple, and the murder is committed not out of malice so much as, well, romance. Brandon intends his demonstration of superiority—his justification of murder—to serve as a big bouquet of roses for James Stewart’s Rupert, the old mentor who Brandon clearly adores.

Brandon is a weasel of a character. As if murdering a fellow classmate weren’t bad enough, he feels the need to meddle in the relationship of one of his ex-girlfriends—another act of playing God. Brandon’s arrogance is so extreme that, against all odds, by the end of the film it manages to be more offensive than his crime; we want Brandon to be caught not so much because he did a terrible thing but because he’s such an obnoxious jerk. Maybe that’s just my reading, but I doubt it. After all, for much of the picture Hitchcock manages to let the audience identify with Brandon and sort of admire him. Rope tempts us to wonder if we could pull off his crime and whether we’d be as bold as Brandon in the artistry of the act. In that sense, there’s something strangely appealing about Brandon’s cocksure swagger, at least for a while.

On that note, one of my favorite shots in the film is the one in which Brandon goes into the kitchen to dispose of the murder weapon. Preserving the film’s structure of long takes, Hitchcock captures Brandon not by actually entering the kitchen but by catching a peek of Brandon through the swinging kitchen door: Brandon enters the kitchen and briefly disappears, but then when the momentum of the door causes it to swing open again we see Brandon delicately drop the rope into a drawer with lighthearted glee. It’s a perfectly executed stunt, one that if mistimed would have ruined the entire take, and it’s undeniably playful—both Brandon’s handling of the rope and the way that Hitchcock captures it.

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EH: I love that shot with the swinging door. It’s all that’s best about this film: the morbid humor, the streak of playfulness, all executed with this formal flair that calls attention to its own virtuosity and to the themes of the shot. I think you’re really onto something in saying that Hitchcock invites us to initially root for Brandon before pulling the rug out from under us, and in this shot the arrogance and superiority of Hitchcock and of Brandon are one: the killer showing off his brazenness with his murder weapon and Hitchcock showing off his total confidence in his timing and ingenuity. There’s certainly a relationship between the killer eager to prove that he can commit the perfect crime and get away with it, and the director eager to prove how little he needs to cut, how long his shots can be maintained without errors. So although Brandon is more and more revealed as an insufferable asshole who richly deserves his ultimate comeuppance, there’s no question that Hitchcock also has some admiration for his daring and cunning, his artistry. It’s like in Se7en, when Kevin Spacey’s John Doe compares his crimes to an artform and it’s obvious that the director, David Fincher, is also nodding to his own cunning in devising these fiendish cinematic crimes.

For Hitchcock, it goes beyond that, even. I think it’s interesting that as the film’s alignment moves further and further away from the slimy, despicable Brandon, it doesn’t necessarily move towards anyone better. After all, Rupert is ostensibly the hero of this story—he’s the one who finally uncovers Brandon and Philip’s plan and reveals the truth—but in many ways he’s as much of a jerk as Brandon is. The two of them engage in some repartee of their own at the party, talking about how murder can be an art, a privilege of the superior few, a class that of course includes them. It is, in its own way, a kind of flirtatious banter on a par with To Catch a Thief’s dialogues about jewel robbery; Brandon is hitting on his mentor by hinting at his crime, suggesting that he’s been able to take the next step from words into action.

In the end, of course, Rupert rejects Brandon’s actions, horrified by what his pupil has done in his name. But for all the moral outrage that Rupert unleashes at the climax, doesn’t it feel a little hollow? Not too long before, he’d been playing along, saying how great murder could be, delighting in the way he was scandalizing the other party guests—and engaging in some mockery of the “inferior” Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) that it’s obvious Hitchcock agrees with. Sure, the ending reveals the terrible end result of Rupert’s philosophy, and makes him repent of his ideas, saying that Brandon had misinterpreted Rupert’s words. That always struck me as fairly silly; Rupert outright says that murder is okay, then he’s surprised when one of his students follows through on the concept. What a shocker, Rupert. I have to think that Hitchcock intended for the moral outrage of that final scene, in which Rupert storms around the apartment lecturing his wayward student, to come across as hypocrisy.

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JB: It’s tough to know what Hitchcock wants us to take away from that final lecture by Rupert. There’s some hypocrisy, no question, but how much? Stewart, like Tom Hanks after him, has a quality that tends to make him effortlessly likeable and relatable, which is one of the reasons Hitchcock liked to cast Stewart as an Everyman in films like Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the latter film there’s a terrific scene in which Stewart’s Benjamin struggles to figure out how to sit comfortably at a Moroccan restaurant. Stewart’s character is an educated man, a doctor, but he’s not so elite that he isn’t disoriented by his inability to cross his legs under the table or to lean back in his chair, and this fish-out-of-water discomfort keeps him at our level. In Rope, however, Stewart’s Rupert is far from an Everyman. He is both elite and elitist.

Rupert’s entrance into Rope is notably unusual. Like Harry Lime in The Third Man, Rupert is much talked about long before he shows up, but unlike Harry Lime he doesn’t get a memorable introduction: Phillip is playing the piano while others listen quietly when the camera slowly pans left to reveal Rupert, who has just walked into the room unnoticed. His first line is a backhanded compliment—by noting that Phillip’s “touch” on the piano has improved, Rupert reminds Phillip that his touch used to be worse, while also asserting himself as something of an expert on the subject. Soon after, Rupert is introduced to Janet (Joan Chandler), who he says Brandon has mentioned before. “Did he do me justice?” Janet asks. “Do you deserve justice?” Rupert responds dismissively, stunning Janet with the remark. Then Rupert is off to shake hands with Kenneth (Douglas Dick) who tells his old teacher that it’s good to see him again. “Why?” Rupert responds, intentionally turning a congenial gesture into an academic exercise. Rupert, it’s obvious, is above social niceties and eager to demonstrate as much. He’s out of touch with the everyman, and intentionally so. Later on, when Janet and Mrs. Atwater discuss movies they’ve seen recently, Rupert observes them like they are an alien species, perplexed not only by their inability to remember the names of films (“The something and the something.”) but by their fondness for a kind of entertainment that Rupert obviously doesn’t think is worth his time. (Though he says he’s seen a Mary Pickford film, it’s quite likely that Rupert doesn’t go to the movies at all. He’s above it.)

All of this makes Rupert surprisingly unlikeable despite the somewhat irrepressible Stewart charm. And then the film gets to the talk about murder. The scene in which Rupert explains his theories is especially difficult to read. Rupert insists that he’s serious that “superior” people should be able to commit murder, but at the same time he throws in obvious jokes that there should be some kind of murder season—“Cut a Throat Week” or “Strangulation Day”—and he notes that one of the benefits of murder would be shorter lines at popular restaurants. Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) can’t tell whether to take Rupert seriously on the whole, and it’s hard to blame him. Brandon, of course, identifies with Rupert’s comments, but he does so while entirely ignoring the jokes mixed in. Just as Rupert suggests he’s seen a Mary Pickford film in order to get a reaction, perhaps his murder routine is merely talk. Regardless, Mr. Kentley hits the nail on the head when he says that all the theorizing on murder reveals “contempt for humanity.” Of that, certainly, Rupert is guilty.

Given that Rupert’s contempt inspired Brandon’s, Rupert is proven to be the architect of the murder at the same time he is clearly demonstrated to be an unknowing and unsupportive accomplice. Hitchcock confronts Rupert’s culpability: Rupert admits that Brandon merely acted out his own words, and as he identifies his unintentional role in Brandon’s crime he frequently glances down at the wound he suffered when wrestling the gun away from Phillip. Literally, as well as symbolically, Rupert has blood on his hands. And yet after Rupert’s kinda-sorta admission of guilt, Hitchcock allows him some wiggle room. Rupert mentions he’s ashamed, and he seems to mean it. He says that he’d never have gone through with murder himself, and we believe that, too. But does Rupert not murder because underneath it all he has strong morals, or is it because underneath it all he’s a coward? That’s the question, because as Rupert screams at Brandon that there must be something wrong with him, he seems to be trying to wash himself of any responsibility. Thus I find it fascinating that before Rupert fires the gun out the window in an effort to summon the police, he doesn’t say that Brandon and Phillip will be imprisoned for their crimes. Instead he twice yells, “You’re going to die!” So, in the end, Rupert is playing God again without actually taking action, just like before. So it’s worth asking: Does he not kill the boys himself because that’s the “right thing to do,” or is it because he’s too cowardly to carry out the death sentences he believes are perfectly justifiable?

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EH: Hitchcock makes very interesting use of Stewart’s Everyman persona in this film, twisting the actor’s laconic charm into this snide elitist who has offhand insults ready for everyone—an attribute that he seems to have passed on to Brandon, who responds to Mrs. Atwater’s admission that she “used to read” with the sarcastic, “We all do strange things in our childhood.” Stewart turns in a very different performance from his unhinged obsessive in Vertigo, but it’s a similar subversion of the actor’s likeability. All his charm here is dedicated to getting in subtle, ostentatiously clever digs at the “inferiors” he meets at this party, as though he’s always concerned with proving his superiority to everyone he encounters. It’s interesting, too, that, as you note, he uses movies as a sign of inferiority: I wonder if Hitchcock genuinely does see the movies as low-class or if Rupert’s condescension to the movies is yet another of his crimes.

For all the reasons you cite, Rupert is a very ambiguous character, and his fuzzy ethics extend to the film as a whole. It’s obvious that Rope is, in addition to a technical exercise, a moral exercise. It’s about broad moral questions probing the very nature of laws and class. Who do laws protect? What is the purpose of the law? To maintain order? To punish immorality? To codify society’s values? Should anyone be exempted from the prohibitions or protections of the law? And yet, though the “right” answer seems obvious—Brandon, his actions, and his reasons for those actions are all distasteful—only Mr. Kentley argues even remotely convincingly against the justifications for murder advanced by Brandon and Rupert, and even then Rupert manages to make Kentley seem merely over-sensitive and easily ruffled. The killers don’t get away with it in the end, but otherwise the deck seems stacked for the side of evil, when even the eventual hero of the piece has to push aside all his previous views on the subject in order to protest their crime.

There’s another question here, one that’s implied by all of Brandon and Rupert’s rhetoric about superiority. Is society truly structured to protect all equally, or are there certain “superior” classes that are placed above others? This last question is especially loaded within the context of a film where all the characters are obviously upper-class and privileged, where it seems apparent that in countless ways they are superior to the lower classes, in terms of wealth, status, opportunities, privilege and education. Brandon and Rupert, of course, view themselves as superior even in relation to these high-society aristocrats; at the very least, they believe that they possess superior taste and refinement to, say, Mrs. Atwater. But it’s obvious that Mrs. Atwater, despite what Rupert regards as her lowbrow taste in culture, is herself a cultural and societal elite. In a way, it makes the film’s surface message—that all lives are equal and equally worth protecting—ring somewhat hollow. What does a message like that mean in the context of a movie where all the characters belong to the “superior” class, where all the characters are elites and elitists?

This is a very hermetic world, where everyone has gone to the same private schools and knows the same small circle of wealthy friends. Rupert and Brandon aren’t different from Janet or Mr. Kentley (or, for that matter, David, the victim) in class, only in degree; they’re merely more elitist than even their elitist peers. It’s hard to deny, in this context, that all people within society are not treated equally, that some are placed on higher rungs than others, that there are hierarchies in which the privileged few are given greater material goods and opportunities. By emphasizing the class barriers that fence these people off from the rest of the world, the film is both providing the basis for Brandon’s arguments and confirming his impression that he’s in an elevated station. He doesn’t possess the moral superiority he believes he does, but Brandon—who obviously comes from a wealthy family and can afford a servant and a fancy apartment with a panoramic view—is unquestionably not one of the masses.

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JB: Those are good observations. On top of them, the fact that Brandon’s apartment seems to be the building’s penthouse further adds to the uppity air of these characters and their interactions. And then of course the hermetic environment you spoke of is further emphasized by the film’s one-set design.

That said, I suppose it’s time to talk in more detail about Rope’s famous construction—about the way that Hitchcock more or less attempts to provide the illusion of the whole film happening in one shot. Inspired somewhat by actual events, Rope is based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton that was then made into a BBC television drama. It was from the latter, if legend is correct, that Hitchcock was inspired to use long takes. But we should be careful with such legends. After all, some legends suggest that Hitchcock used the long takes merely as a way to keep him interested, as a game, a personal challenge. Others, however, say the long takes had a more legitimate purpose: making us feel ever aware of the body in the room. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

You mentioned before that Hitchcock is only somewhat successful at splicing together two takes to appear cut-free. Due to the limitations of the camera, the longest take Hitchcock could film was around 10 minutes (otherwise he ran out of film). So in some cases he had to cut where he didn’t need to or want to. In those instances, Hitchcock has the camera focus tightly on an object—the back of Brandon’s jacket in one instance, the open lid of the trunk in another—to camouflage the cut. This gimmick is so memorable that it’s easy to forget that Hitchcock doesn’t attempt to disguise every cut, and in fact one of his blatant cuts is also one of the film’s richest moments.

The transition in question happens after Rupert has arrived at the party and mingled long enough to remark on Brandon’s “excited” stuttering and Phillip’s curious behavior. At Rupert’s urging, Brandon tells a story about Phillip strangling chickens and struggling to finish them off. (There’s a sexual metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Impotence? Ineptitude?) Phillip reacts to this too-close-to-home public humiliation by screaming that the story is a lie, and then—wham!—Hitchcock cuts to the face of Rupert, who knows the story is true, and who now detects more than ever that something unusual is going on. Rupert had suspicions before, clearly, but now he’s sure that something is amiss. This cut to a reaction shot, which in any other film might have gone unnoticed, here is remarkably powerful—a visceral symbol of Rupert’s awakening.

Hitchcock’s decision to break from his long-take form in that scene mirrors the way that he liked to judiciously employ closeups for effect. In previous conversations, particularly when we discussed David Lynch, but also when discussing Werner Herzog, we’ve debated the significance of intent and whether deliberate actions by a director have any greater value or meaning than accidental, ambiguous or abstract ones. I’m not looking to have that discussion all over again, but I will say this: as much as I think that it’s the finished product that counts, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent and regardless of the means by which the filmmaker created the shot, I find something thrilling about the obvious consciousness of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, the way nothing seems accidental. I don’t think this in and of itself makes Hitchcock a superior filmmaker, but I can’t deny that I find that naked purposefulness especially appealing.

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EH: Hitchcock is, even under ordinary circumstances, definitely one of those directors where every cut, every shot, betrays the filmmaker’s hand. There is, indeed, a sense of “naked purposefulness” to his filmmaking, a sense that everything that appears onscreen is part of a tightly constructed framework in which no object, no character, can exist for its own sake but must have some larger—often symbolic—meaning within the narrative. (In that sense, David Lynch is actually an obvious descendent, it’s just that Lynch’s symbols aren’t often as crystal clear as Hitchcock’s are.) It’s a very artificial approach to narrative, certainly, an impression enhanced by Hitchcock’s frequent reliance on rear-projected backgrounds and matte paintings and, in this film, a cityscape view that’s about as convincing as a child’s cardboard diorama for a school project. We’re constantly being reminded that this is a construction, an artifice. It’s this purposefulness and self-consciousness that gives objects such weight in Hitchcock’s work: the ROT monogram in North by Northwest, the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, the glowing glass of milk in Suspicion, the handcuffs in The 39 Steps, the film reels in Sabotage, the wedding ring in Rear Window, the jewels around Grace Kelly’s neck in To Catch a Thief. Things are never just things for Hitchcock, precisely because every shot in his films comes with an implicit “look at this” stage whisper from the director, furiously underlining the images that will be important, either thematically or narratively, throughout the rest of the film.

This impression is even more pronounced in Rope, where the design of the film calls even more attention than usual to Hitchcock’s authorial presence behind the camera. (And in front of it as well; his famous cameos are yet another way in which the director reminds his audiences that we’re watching his creation, we’re watching precisely what he wants to show us.) Once again, objects take on great symbolic and thematic heft beyond their relevance to the plot. The rope that’s used to strangle David is of course central; the film’s title refers both to this object and, perhaps, to the movement of the camera, threading its way through the apartment. The rope first appears after the first cut, the abrupt shock cut following the opening credits sequence. The camera, which had been outside on the balcony, looking down at the street, pans up towards the curtained windows of the apartment, and then after a scream Hitchcock suddenly cuts to the tortured face of David as he’s killed, panning back to reveal his killers on either side of him (his death is a very homoerotic ménage a trois, after all).

The rope reappears, after Brandon and Philip have placed the body in the trunk, in the lower lefthand corner of the frame. In a neat trick, the rope is almost entirely out of view but nevertheless becomes the focus of the shot, this nagging presence that we can’t help but stare at, fascinated precisely because Hitchcock’s framing constantly threatens to cut off our glimpse of the rope altogether. It’s one of the first ways that Hitchcock subtly increases our sympathy for the killers, too; I doubt anyone, watching this shot can help but root for the killers to notice the potentially incriminating rope hanging out the side of the trunk. And they do notice, which gives rise to that gleeful swinging door shot and then, later, the re-emergence of the rope during the party, as Brandon audaciously ties up Mr. Kentley’s books with the very same rope that he’d used to murder Kentley’s son earlier. I think, yes, Hitchcock’s purposefulness, his stylized attention to objects like this, is thrilling and powerful. In the hands of a lesser director, it might seem like didacticism, like hammering home a point with a sledgehammer, but Hitchcock consistently creates self-contained worlds in which such heightened attention to symbolic details and metaphorical objects seems not only natural but compelling, in which choking a chicken and choking a friend are intimately related acts, mingling equal parts violence and sexual suggestion.

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JB: That’s right. Hitchcock had such a penchant for giving significance to key props that it’s tempting to read meaning into even the most insignificant ones. During the scene in which Brandon excitedly stutters through his first conversation with Rupert, for example, he’s grasping a champagne bottle in a way that would seem innocuously routine in most films but here seems sexually suggestive—especially when watching Rope in close proximity to the oh-so-suggestive To Catch a Thief. All that’s missing is the exploding cork, and the blatant “look here” closeup that Hitchcock did so artfully. On that note, though Rope often makes little effort to disguise its stage roots, that doesn’t prevent Hitchcock from harnessing the power of cinema, using the camera as a tool to focus our attention, whether tightening on an object, like the murder weapon, or pulling back to keep us ever aware of the proximity of the trunk. The actors deliver most of their lines in those stage-inspired open triangles, and we’re very much aware of the lack of a fourth wall in the apartment, but Rope’s roving camera allows us onto the stage and ensures that the film is cinematic as much as theatrical.

And yet, there’s at least one occasion in which Hitchcock seems to forget the inherent power of his camera. It comes in a scene you already mentioned: the moment when Hitchcock delivers a tight closeup of the bundle of books, wrapped in the titular murder weapon, as they emerge with Brandon and Mr. Kentley from the kitchen. It’s a powerful shot that disrupts a relatively tranquil mood, stunning the audience with the audacity of the prank as much as it stuns Phillip, who is standing talking to Rupert. Phillip flinches, and when he does we flinch, too, because we know that the more sympathetic of the two murderers has just given himself away. Rupert picks up on Phillip’s discomfort immediately, and in this moment all of us—Phillip, Rupert and the audience—are focused on the same menacing object: that bundle of books. Of course, Rupert doesn’t know why the bundle of books is so disturbing for Phillip.

To this point, it’s a great moment. But, noticing Phillip’s discomfort, Rupert then lightly interrogates Phillip, who draws attention to the rope itself by admitting that he doesn’t like the “clumsy” way the books are tied. And at that moment the scene’s tension begins to deflate. On stage, such prop-specific dialogue might be necessary, a way to ensure that the person sitting in the back row of the theater can tell that it’s the murder weapon, not some random string off a bakery box, that’s binding those books together. On the big screen, however, this dialogue is entirely unnecessary. The previous image, a closeup, speaks for itself. And so, once Phillip gives away that it’s the rope that bothers him, there’s no satisfactory way to explain why Rupert doesn’t press further and ask more questions. It’s as if Rupert, who is less an investigator than a courtroom lawyer, has the defendant on the verge of cracking and inconceivably lets him off the witness stand. And in that moment the previous closeup is robbed of its power.

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EH: I think that’s a fair criticism. As good as Rope mostly is, its dialogue is often a weak link, betraying its stagey origins with unnecessary exposition and some pretty contrived moments like that one. It’s frustrating, on a narrative level, that Rupert isn’t so much a good detective as he is blessed with criminals who at times seem almost eager to say or do whatever would be most incriminating. It strains credulity that Phillip, no matter how rattled he was, would simply blurt out that it’s specifically the rope that’s troubling him. And it strains credulity even further that Rupert, who’s otherwise so sharp, would let it drop like that, merely because the plot prevents him from figuring things out completely quite yet. It’s always a sign of lazy scripting when you get the sense that something is happening, or not happening, only because the script says it has to. Hitchcock generally got around those kinds of writing deficiencies by downplaying the importance of plot altogether; for all his renown as a master of suspense and twisty mysteries, many of his best films work more as a succession of clever set pieces and character moments, and quite a few of them don’t really hold up to closer scrutiny on a narrative level. That’s the point of the famed MacGuffins, plot devices that merely served to set the wheels of the plot into motion without really meaning anything in themselves. Because Rope takes place in such a confined place, with such a tightly constrained narrative, Hitchcock can’t resort to those kinds of dodges. He’s more bound than usual to his script’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s perhaps telling, then, that one of Rope’s best sequences is one in which the dialogue is intentionally relegated to the background, reduced to inconsequential chatter that is merely a counterpoint to the images. As you say, Hitchcock is at his best when the camera has primacy, and that’s certainly the case during the lengthy shot in which Brandon’s housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) cleans off the trunk, putting away the food, the candles, the tablecloth and finally bringing the books back over in order to put them inside the trunk. During this process, Hitchcock pans away from the partygoers and their idle chit-chat, settling into a familiar composition that he’s returned to several times throughout the film: looking across the trunk towards the dining room. In this case, the composition is mostly empty, as Mrs. Wilson appears, cleans a few things off the trunk’s top, and disappears for a few moments. It’s a very tense shot despite its static and minimal composition, since with each item Mrs. Wilson removes from the top of the trunk, she comes closer and closer to opening it and seeing what’s inside. The suspense is enhanced, too, because on the soundtrack we hear—but don’t see—the party guests continuing their inane conversation just outside the frame. The words don’t matter here, only the murmur of their voices juxtaposed against the steadily ratcheting tension as Mrs. Wilson cleans up around the trunk. It’s a great demonstration of Hitchcock’s ability to generate suspense from a deceptively simple set-up, conveying as much with what’s not shown—the nearby guests, the ever-present body within the trunk—as with what’s actually within the frame.

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JB: Most definitely. The scene with the maid is another example of how Hitchcock aligns us with the killers. Earlier you mentioned the scene in which the rope hangs out of the trunk, causing us to cringe at the thought that the murderers will overlook it. Likewise, when the maid begins clearing the books off the table, I presume I’m not alone in the fact that I don’t root her on. I’m not yearning for her to throw open the trunk and find the body to expose the crime. Instead, I’m on the edge of my seat wondering how Brandon (because we know Phillip is useless) is going to dissuade the maid from opening the trunk, not to mention wondering how close he’ll let her get to that point before intervening. This is essentially an instinctual reaction. At that point of the film, it’s not so much that I’m rooting for the murderers to “get away with it,” but, at the risk of sounding like Brandon, I am hoping that they will be exposed in a way befitting their crime. I don’t want the maid to stumble into it. I don’t want them found guilty accidentally. I want someone to spot the evidence of wrongdoing and put it together and crack the case. And so while I agree with you to a point that some of the thrill is removed by the way that Brandon intentionally drops clues in front of Rupert as if they were breadcrumbs, on the other hand the gamesmanship that Brandon displays also has a way of heightening the tension. He’s daring the others to catch him. He has to. It was, after all, the “perfect” murder, and so without tempting fate there would be no tension at all, because then Brandon would get away with it all too easily. It’s a credit to the film that Brandon’s outlandish fate-tempting actions seem entirely plausible: from serving dinner on the trunk, to binding the books with rope, to letting the maid come this close to flipping open the lid of the trunk. It’s Phillip’s actions that are hard to believe.

Speaking of believability, I want to loop back to the artificiality of the setting, which you brought up earlier: According to an interview he gave at the American Film Institute in 1970, Hitchcock often used techniques like matte paintings and rear projections because he didn’t want his actors to be distracted by shooting on location. But Rope reveals how the intentional artificiality of a set can positively shape a film’s mood—much as a similarly intentional unreality shaped Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Rope, by never really cutting away from the action, even in the few instances it cuts to different angles, is supposed to unfold in “real time,” but, of course, it doesn’t. In the background, beyond the “cardboard diorama” of a cityscape you mentioned, the sun sets a little too quickly; all of a sudden, day becomes night. One could use this rapidly descending darkness as an argument against the film, I suppose, as evidence that it’s “unconvincing” or some such thing. But I love the effect, unrealistic though it is. The fast-arriving darkness perfectly coincides with Rupert’s escalating suspicions, nay growing certainty. It’s as if the night sky is swallowing Brandon’s previous sunny optimism that he can commit a crime and have his genius celebrated and still get away with it. There are instances in Hitchcock’s oeuvre when he certainly tried to fool us with such gimmicks—the bell tower in Vertigo comes to mind. Here, though, he’s not going for reality but is instead using darkness as a way to infuse his mostly sedentary drama with ticking-time-bomb suspense and urgency: We know, without anyone explicitly saying so, that if somehow Brandon and Phillip make it to morning without their crime being detected, they’ll have gotten away with it.

Rope

EH: That’s a great analysis of how the artificial setting works in this film. I’ve often heard the complaint that the matte paintings, rear projection and constructed backdrops in Hitchcock’s films are distracting, and the implication is that if Hitchcock could have come up with something more convincing—like CGI, I suppose—then he would have. Maybe, but I’m not so sure. He may have had practical and technical reasons for these flourishes, like avoiding location shooting, but this artificiality is so integral to his vision that I think there has to be more to it than that. The use of these devices is of a piece with Hitchcock’s holistic aesthetic, which is dedicated to a heightened sense of reality in which gestures and objects are magnified to emphasize their importance. As you say, there are times when Hitchcock uses artifice to create a more convincing illusion, but even then it’s not so simple: the bell tower added to the monastery in Vertigo is a realistic artifice, but it’s also the site of those dizzying zoom shots that make the stairway to the top seem so much steeper and higher than it is. More often, Hitchcock’s artifice is nakedly apparent, as in the matte paintings and rear projection of Marnie, which makes little attempt at verisimilitude. The titular character of that film often wanders through a flat, eerily beautiful world rather than a true 3D landscape, and in the famous horse-jumping scene she seems to be hovering ethereally against a motion-blurred nothingness. Of course, that impression is compatible with the themes Hitchcock is exploring in that film, of a woman disconnected from her own mind and from her surroundings. In The Birds, the obvious matte paintings, with their gorgeous evocations of impossible landscapes overshadowed by constant storm clouds, add to the film’s creeping sense of dread.

Which means that, yes, though Hitchcock may have been using the artificial cityscape and accelerated sunset in Rope for simple technical reasons, it’s also true that the artificiality of the set adds to the film’s claustrophobia. And the rapid changeover from day to night, as you contend, neatly signifies the shift that occurs when Rupert begins to suspect what’s going on. The “night” portion of the film culminates in his righteous speech, in which the neon signs outside the apartment provide a flimsy excuse for Hitchcock to bathe Rupert in alternating shades of red and green, suggesting the duality of this character and the stark moral dichotomy he’s talking about. In a recent post on the artificiality of Martin Scorsese, David Bordwell cites a closeup of Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver in which the actor’s face is bathed in red light, “vaguely motivated as reflected from the traffic light, but unrealistically saturated.” Bordwell argues that Scorsese frequently seeks “a realistic motivation for expressionist effects,” and I think to some extent Scorsese gets that tendency from Hitchcock, who often nods to realism while exaggerating his effects to get at emotional and thematic subtexts.

In Rope, that means constructing a set that acknowledges the film’s origins in a stage play, while also contributing to the sense of things closing in on the two murderers, who are as trapped by the confines of the apartment as by their situation. In To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s approach is equally stylized, if for different ends, using his aesthetic flourishes to visualize sexual desire and longing, to provide a lush counterpoint to the double entendres encoded in the dialogue. In many ways, we couldn’t have picked two more different films to represent Hitchcock, but they do share that total commitment to a hyper-stylized reality.

Rope

JB: I agree. What’s interesting to me about this topic specifically is the way it demonstrates that there are at least two different ways to think about “artificiality.” To illustrate what I mean, let me quote Hitchcock from that previously mentioned 1970 interview, which is anthologized in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute. Hitchcock says:

We have a very strange system in this industry, that the man called the art director leaves the set the moment it is painted and finished but not dressed, not even the carpet. And the new man, called the set dresser, walks on, and he is the man who reads the script and then proceeds to dress the set. He goes out and picks furniture and carpets; he goes into the prop room, gets ornaments and paintings. This man is in charge of what is the most vital element of the décor: the atmosphere. Instead of being a set dresser he should be almost a writer because he ought to know the character of the person who lives in that room. But he doesn’t, and that is why you see so many films that have an artificial look. It is because they are very badly dressed.

In that above passage, Hitchcock uses the word “artificial” to refer to things that don’t match the specific mood or atmosphere of a film. That’s a totally justifiable definition, but of course when we say that the cityscape in the background of Rope looks artificial, we simply mean that it looks synthetic or fake. What Hitchcock is getting at is the idea that the latter kind of artificiality is perfectly okay if it helps to combat the former kind of artificiality. The mood and the atmosphere are paramount; the factuality of the effects and the means by which a filmmaker achieves them are incidental.

Obviously there are exceptions. If a shot is distractingly fake, the intended ambiance is shattered. When it comes to watching Hitchcock in 2010, I think the obstacle for cinephiles is that we tend to associate rear projections with cheapness and cheapness with hackwork. To some degree, you and I might have fallen victim to this, too. Could it be that we’ve classified these films as “minor” Hitchcock because he seems less concerned with creating a feeling of authenticity in To Catch a Thief and Rope than in some of his “major” films? I’m sure that’s part of it. In the least, I’m sure that’s part of the reason why these films aren’t generally held in the high regard of movies like Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, among others. (And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting those films are actually more authentic; just that they have fewer moments of straightforward fakery.)

Of course, that’s not the only factor. To Catch a Thief and Rope are certainly modest pleasures compared to some of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films. And though the point of this conversation wasn’t to demonstrate as much, I think they meet the label of being “minor,” even if we could have easily picked some even lesser works to discuss instead. Despite their relative modesty, however, To Catch a Thief and Rope have moments that rival any film Hitchcock ever made. And so perhaps what we’ve learned, if we didn’t know it already, is that to be “minor” Hitchcock is to still be something very special indeed.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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