Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve Champagne Tips Courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock

A few tips from the Master of Suspense to guide you through your champagne toast into 2012:

Tip #1: When popping the cork, aim away from your guests (or the camera).

Tip #2: Try not to spill it all when opening.

 Tip #3: Make sure you have enough on hand and chilled to last the entire evening. Don't be like Alex Sebastian.

Tip #4: If you're hosting, try not to drink too much before your guests arrive. You'll end up morose, sitting at your piano, and not a very good host. Sorry, Philip.

Tip #5: If it's just the two of you, really try to gauge her mood before you hand her a heavy wine bucket or any other object that can be hurled in your direction.

Tip #6: Don't fill the glasses for your toast too much before midnight. It'll just go flat.

Tip #7: You know it's time to cut off your guest(s) when they begin slurring their speech. Sparling burg-le-dy. Indeed!

Tip #8: Don't be such an oaf that you just sit there drinking while your wife dances with another man. Get on that dance floor!

Tip #9: No, on the rocks isn't okay. Even if you do sound like James Mason. Make sure it's chilled, dammit.

Tip #10: Don't let your guests overstay their welcome. And if you're the guest, leave before overstaying yours. Make a toast. Have another drink or two, then go. That means you, too, Uncle Charlie!

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Twelve Days of Hitchcock Christmas

A bit of fun with the Twelve Days of Christmas from a Hitchcockian perspective. Thanks to Eboni Cameron, Edri Hill and Tyena Smith for lending their voices and enthusiasm. Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 7, 2011

John Michael Hayes In His Own Words on Writing with Hitchcock

John Michael Hayes would have turned 92 this week, so I thought I'd share some excerpts of our conversations for Writing with Hitchcock. Hayes discusses what the collaboration did for he and Hitchcock, the process of breaking down scenes into a shooting script, Hitchcock's method of working with actors, and much more. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Writing with Hitchcock: Mondays with Hitchcock — Fall 2011

Writing with Hitchcock: Mondays with Hitchcock — Fall 2011: If you're in the New York area I hope you will join me this fall for Mondays with Hitchcock . I've put together two programs for Westchester...

Mondays with Hitchcock — Fall 2011

If you're in the New York area I hope you will join me this fall for Mondays with Hitchcock. I've put together two programs for Westchester Community College, six sessions each, where we'll be screening and discussing scenes, sequences and films of Alfred Hitchcock. Each night will have its own theme, and some rare items will be screened as well, including a the silent version of Blackmail.

Hitchcock’s Signature Style: The British and Early Hollywood Years

An examination of the signature elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema. From his perfecting of the double-chase, to his ability to extract every ounce of suspense from a situation, he took ownership of a genre with films like Blackmail, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage. On his arrival in Hollywood, he upped his game through more character-driven stories like Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt, demonstrating that his true talent was not in directing his performers, but in directing his audience. Through screenings and discussion, we'll explore the elements which made Hitchcock the preeminent director of psychological and suspense thrillers.
Monday evenings, 7-9 PM  from  9/26/2011 - 11/7/2011
Writing with Hitchcock: Masterworks of the 50s and 60s

A re-examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema from the perspective of his most frequent writing collaborator in Hollywood, John Michael Hayes, whose scripts include Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hayes set the tone for a decade’s worth of masterworks that have come to be known as the Golden Period of Hitchcock’s cinema. Through screenings and discussion, the course explores the elements which have made Hitchcock the preeminent “auteur,” while also pointing out the contributions of his most significant writers.
Monday evenings, 7-9 PM  from   11/14/2011 through 12/19/2011
Where: Ardsley High School, 300 Farm Road.Ardsley, NY

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hitchcock's Repeated Compositions

We were discussing the similarity of the technique used in creating these two "trick shots" which reveal simultaneous action from The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo at the WWH Facebook page, and it got me thinking about other images and juxtaposed shots that Hitchcock repeated in his films—kind of like the second Mrs. De Winter's father who liked the paint the same tree over again.

Here are just a few that come to mind:

Of course Hitchcock used stairways so very often, but the framing he used in The Lodger, Blackmail, and Vertigo were strikingly similar.

Designer Saul Bass had a hand in both the Vertigo title sequence and the shower sequence in Psycho, but it was a design that Hitchcock chose in two of his key films.

The Catholic Hitchcock repeated variations of his own Pietà, but the images in The Lodger and Topaz are most similar.

As Hitchcock's films progressed in the 1950s he explored more deeply the frailty of the human psyche. Notice how these two scenes in consecutive films—The Wrong Man and Vertigo—are nearly identical. Here a desperate Manny goes into Dr. Banay's office to ask about Rose's condition. Dr. Banay leans back on his desk, arms crossed, explaining the healing will take time. Later Manny departs, walking away from the camera down the long corridor of the sanitarium. Below, an equally desperate Midge goes into the office of Scottie's doctor and departs down a similar corridor after telling the doctor Mozart isn't going to help.

In each of these scenes from The Wrong Man and Psycho as the discussion turns to someone being institutionalized or being "put someplace", both Rose Balestrero and Marion Crane begin clutching and rubbing an arm.

In both of these scenes from The Man Who Knew Too Much and Topaz, the listener is receiving information he'd probably rather not have heard.

It doesn't matter whether it's the police or a couple of henchmen, on the front steps of your own home or through the lobby of a New York hotel in broad daylight, Hitchcock knew that being taken into a car against your will could be equally frightening and filmed these scenes from The Wrong Man and North by Northwest in much same way.

Then, of course, there's the way Hitchcock filmed kissing scenes, but we covered that already!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Real "Rear Window" Courtyard

To mark the 58th anniversary of John Michael Hayes beginning work on Rear Window I decided to visit the actual Greenwich Village courtyard that was used as the model for the spectacular set of that was built on Paramount's Stage 18. Here you will how the architectual details and the proximity to the neighborhood police precinct inspired the setting and were incorporated into the set sketches, the finished film, and how this location has inspired other filmmakers to use the spot as well. Of course, full details on the writing and production of Rear Window and the selection of this location are in Writing with Hitchcock.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hitchcock Loglines

Early in his career Hitchcock said that his method of preparing a screenplay with his writers generally stripping the story down to the bare essentials which he would outline on a single page. The next step involved fleshing out that outline into a prose treatment of about 60 to 90 pages, from which the final screenplay with dialogue developed. Hitchcock said, if he was successful in the process, someone creating a synopsis from the finished film would have essentially the one-page synopsis he’d created at the beginning.
With that in mind, I thought we’d start an on-going thread on our Facebook page where I will pitch a logline for each Hitchcock film—a concise, one-line description of the movie including its essential hook—then we’ll discuss how successful Hitchcock and his writers were in carrying it out.

Some loglines will be as simple as "Acting in concert, birds start attacking people for no apparent reason" and others a bit less so, like today's for Family Plot
A bogus spiritualist and an amateur actor hope to con a wealthy woman out of $10,000 by locating her sole heir—a nephew given up for adoption under shady circumstances—but find they are in deep water as the nephew turns out to be a kidnapper who’d rather not be found.

Critique or defend the finished film, the story elements, the dialogue, the performances, or whatever you like. And if you'd like, write a logline of your own, I think it will be interesting to see just how many ways we all come up with to capture the essense of the same story. 

Join the conversation and enjoy!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hitch-Collaborators I've Encountered, Part II — Or Why I Didn't Call This "The Man Who'd Spew Too Much"

Before deciding to make this a two-part entry and include a few words about screenwriter Joseph Stefano, I had intended this piece to be strictly about Hitchcock's assistant director and associate producer Herbert Coleman and was going to title it something along the lines of The Man Who'd Spew Too Much. But thinking twice, I know that Coleman was merely trying to salvage his own reputation, albeit at the expense of someone else's, namely John Michael Hayes.

Henry Bumstead, Doc Erickson, Hitchcock and Herbert Coleman during production of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I have mixed feelings about my experience with Herbert Coleman. I think Doc Erickson said it best when he told me that, "Herbie was probably the greatest assistant director who ever lived." I believe that to be true. The extent to which Alfred Hitchcock and Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions relied upon Coleman during those six years from 1953 to 1959 is undeniable. The speed and the quality of Hitchcock's output during that period is due in no small part to the fact that Coleman was able to deliver Hitchcock what he wanted and needed in a timely and cost-effective manner. But speed and efficiency as an assistant does not make one a creative force or someone with a vision—at least not at Hitchcock's level. Herbert Coleman had a gift for assisting others achieve their vision and that gift meshed with Hitchcock best.
Coleman hoped to spread his wings as a director and felt he'd never get the chance if he continued with Hitchcock.

That said, it appears to me that Herb Coleman had long held the dream of becoming a producer-director in his own right. And after six faithful years as part of the Hitchcock troupe he felt that he deserved that chance. But the problem was he possessed a very different skill set than William Wyler or Hitchcock. A look at Posse From Hell and Battle at Bloody Beach, Coleman's two feature films as director, reveal a talent for B-pictures at best.

Before the publication of his own memiors, Herb Coleman told me that he felt a backlash from those closest to Hitchcock as a result of Donald Spoto's biography, The Dark Side of Genius. The statement to which he was referring most concerns his decision to not continue with Hitchcock through the production of Psycho
[Hitchcock] just couldn't understand me, and he wouldn't even talk to me for weeks afterward. I think he felt he owned me and my family for life. He felt this way about others, too. He just couldn't imagine that we'd want a change in our careers, or the chance to broaden our experience. I said I wanted to remain a friend, but for a while he made that difficult. I don't think Hitch ever really formed any lasting friendships. He was afraid that if he did, he would have to give of himself, and he simply didn't know how to do that in any way except in a movie. (The Dark Side of Genius, p. 417, Coleman to Donald Spoto interview conducted July 31, 1981)
There seems little wrong to me with what Coleman told Spoto. Nevertheless Coleman related to me during our interview, "That book caused me a lot of problems. I lost some friends in England. I lost some friends at Universal. People who read it, who didn't really know me very well, who were not friends, but were business friends, just couldn't believe that I would say such things about Hitch."

In later years Coleman sought to mend those fences by revising his story and trying to rewrite history and his own statements by seeking to get his memiors published. Coleman told me at the outset that he would be guarded in our interview so he wouldn't reveal any of the "bombshells" he was planning to include in his own book. Nevertheless he ended up tipping his hand to what I felt would be the most damaging outright fabrication in his then yet-to-be-published book, and this allowed me to obtain and include documented proof to refute his claims. This was one of the reasons I went into such detail on when and how and to whom John Michael Hayes delivered his completed treatment for Rear Window in Writing with Hitchcock. Yes, I was writing to refute something that hadn't even been published yet.

When I interviewed Coleman he claimed that one morning Hitchcock had told him to have a chair and a typewriter set up in his newly occupied office at Paramount. Coleman said he arranged for this and then when John Michael Hayes came in, Hitchcock began dictating what was to become the treatment for Rear Window. Coleman's claim for how and why he remembered this so clearly and so distinctly is that the treatment is dated September 12, 1953. Coleman went on to tell me that when he was deposed for the 1990 Rear Window lawsuit and asked if he remembered when the treatment was turned in, he said:
September the 12th at 5:30 in the afternoon. And they said, how in the world did you remember a thing like that? I said, "You know, all the years of our marriage, one thing I always insisted on was a party for my wife on her birthday." And I said, "September the 12th is her birthday, and the year before was the only time in all those years that I missed having a birthday party for her was when I was in Rome on Roman Holiday with Willy Wyler. That was in 1952. And I was determined that in I arranged a big party for her that night, and here I was stuck in the studio. And I lived in Newport Beach which is sixty miles away. And I was fuming because I knew it was coming in and yet it wasn't coming so my assistant and I were sitting there waiting for it. And finally it came at 5:30. I don't know if it was exactly the minute, but about 5:30 in the afternoon, and I sent my assistant up to the mimeograph with that story right then." Those two lawyers, the ones that were suing, the story people, and the Hitchcock people, both of them sat there with their mouth open.  

That makes a great story. But there are a few holes in Coleman's tale. Ones which I couldn't dismiss as icebox talk. First of all, a simple look at the production correspondence showed that John Michael Hayes had actually turned in his completed treatment on September 11, 1953, a Friday. He turned it in to his and Hitchcock's agency at the time, MCA Artists. The agency then delivered the treatment to the story department at Paramount where the studio typing pool retyped it on September 12, hence the date on the "official" treatment.

Why all this handing off from writer to agency to departments at the studio? Quite simply, Hitchcock hadn't yet taken up residence on the Paramount lot. Hitchcock wasn't busy dicating the treatment to Hayes under the observation of Coleman as he was eleven and twelve days behind schedule at Warner Bros. filming Dial M for Murder.
Dial M for Murder Production Report for September 11, 1953

Dial M for Murder Production Report for September 12, 1953.

I finally did get a chance to read Coleman's memior The Hollywood I Knew, and as I suspected it's full of instances where Coleman paints himself as the hero. Wherever things went well, he credits himself with advising Hitchcock to take that course of action. When Hitchcock makes a mistake in casting or on a production matter, Coleman says Hitchcock had ignored his advice.

Funny thing, Coleman claims he wrote his book to undo damage to Hitchcock's reputation he felt had been done by Donald Spoto. Yet, to me, Coleman's memoir paints a portrait of Hitchcock far worse. Did he really expect the reader to come away wondering how Hitchcock was able to get as far as he did before meeting Coleman?!?