The 70mm film Festival at Seattle’s Cinerama is almost a moot point by now. So many theaters offer a premium movie experience Cinemark’s XD is the one closest to my house, it’s hard to imagine driving to Seattle to see it there would be much better than what I could get within 3 miles. Still, the big reissues don’t make their way to the suburbs often, so when WeMissE said we had an opportunity to see one of our favorite Hitchcock films along with another of our favorite films in the Alien franchise, I couldn’t pass it up.
When it comes to Hitchcock, I offer not much in the way of expertise, certainly not as much as WME, the author of the Alfred Hitch-Blog. I doubt any one of my friends or acquantances are as invested in the Xenomorphs as CPE. So I figured we compliment each other enough to give it our best back and forth.
To start, let’s go to the nearly 60 year old Jimmy Stewart classic performance as John “Scottie” Ferguson. Watching this movie, I became aware of many things. Primary among these: I don’t know if anyone could play the role of a man as completely as James Stewart. I can’t say I have ever seen any male actor express the curiosity, bravery and vulnerability so completely. My appreciation for his skill has never been higher. The big screen allows us the rare opportunity to view nuance that we kind of assumed, based on his voice and mannerisms. Seeing him in this detail brought out something more than the small screen ever afforded us before. What do you think?
Yes, seeing Jimmy Stewart on the big screen was a revelation. I’ve seen this movie before at least 5 times, so I felt like I knew it pretty well. But seeing Stewart’s face in close up on that big Cinerama screen showed me things I’d never seen before. There is always something going on behind those bright blue eyes of his. You can see his thought process, as his character goes from interest, to love, to loss, to obsession, to anger. For anyone who thinks of Stewart as a lightweight, this movie is exhibit A to refute that. Funnily enough, Hitchcock said years after the movie’s release that maybe one of the reasons Vertigo didn’t perform better at the box office was because Stewart was too old for the part. I think Hitch was dead wrong on that count. This role needed a seasoned actor, because Ferguson is someone who has been around the block a few times, which makes the final act all the more profound. And I agree, I don’t think any other actor could have given the shadings to the character that Stewart does.
How about Kim Novak? Specifically seeing her on the big screen. Novak as Madeline, in the first half of the film, is exquisitely beautiful. She as an almost other-worldly beauty, particularly in a couple of scenes. What do you think about Novak?
So many things came to mind when seeing Novak’s Madeline waking topless, strategically covered after Scottie rescues her from beneath the Golden State Bridge. First of all, it’s one of the most overtly sexual scenes I have seen from that era. The feeling that Stewart is in a bedroom with what we know of as a married woman feels wrong. That feeling of dread grows slowly, to the point where we are in a near frenzy by the time he kisses her for the first time. We know this is all horribly indecent. We know it has to happen. Hitchcock plays the audience beautifully. Never before did this scene or those after it move me, even though I have seen it easily a half dozen times.
That is the power of Hitchcock on the big screen for me. The overly descriptive eyes of Stewart exploring every inch of Madeline. We become just as obsessed as Ferguson, to the point where we too are ignorant of the very pretty Bel Geddes in our quest to complete the journey with Scottie. We have to play this out .
By the time we get to the scene with Judy coming out of the green haze, it makes complete sense to us, even though we’ve made it through some pretty silly and dated dialogue (“Judy, please, it can’t matter to you.”) by that point. Hitchcock uses every inch of the very large frame to capture us in his ever shrinking world. It’s incredible how he can do this, but it’s often his casting of Novak isn’t any kind of mistake.
Kim’s frame is very statuesque and her acting is never sharper than it is here. She is completely a captive to her time. Manipulated by one man (Bailey’s Elster) and then another. She completely commands the screen early on with a helpless Scottie, only to be commanded by him after the death of Elster’s wife. It’s a completely mesmerizing experience on the big screen. One I completely dismissed up to now.
Is it possible for us to be cheated so badly of Hitchcock’s power by not seeing all of his films the way he intended for us to see them?
Very insightful points about Kim Novak. Interestingly, Vera Miles was originally cast in the role of Madeline/Judy. She became pregnant, and the film was locked into a tight shooting schedule because Jimmy Stewart was already committed to another project after this. Hitchcock was furious with Miles, and had to find a replacement in relatively short order, ultimately settling on Kim Novak. As fine an actress as Vera Miles can be (I’m thinking of The Searchers, and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and Psycho) she has a wholesomeness that would not have worked at all for this role. Her pregnancy was a blessing from the movie gods, because Novak gives a career-defining performance. I would go so far to say that she is the ultimate Hitchcock blonde, the perfect idealization of what he was constantly trying to portray with his leading ladies.
To answer your question, there is something to be said for seeing a movie like this on a big screen, as the director originally intended. This is the second Hitchcock movie I’ve seen on the big screen, the other being North by Northwest. While I was impressed with that one in the theater, the difference was not as profound as in this case. I think the subtle psychological complexities of Vertigo can be missed on a small screen. I am sure that seeing it in a theater has altered my perceptions, and will affect future viewings. And I definitely have a short list of other Hitchcock movies that I think would benefit from a big screen viewing.
One of Hitchcock’s great strengths, on his best films, was recognizing and surrounding himself with an incredibly talented team of filmmakers. This film basically features the Hitchcock all-stars: Bernard Herrmann as composer, Edith Head as costume designer, Saul Bass as title designer, Bob Burks as cinematographer. How important do you think it was for Hitchcock’s overall vision to have such a great team? How much do their individual talents contribute to the vision of the movie as a whole? Is Hitchcock ultimately the auteur, or is there more than one hand guiding the creative output?
There can be no question of the combination of skill, talent and drive of which Alfred Hitchcock is comprised. I don’t even think I am qualified to assess exactly how much this combination was pollinated or did the pollinating.
Indeed, there is an incredible wealth of talent for this film, and this is not the only film that he made that approached this amount, even if they didn’t all work with him every time. What’s more amazing is that the film was such a complete non-event at the time of its release. Barely making its money back and significantly under-performing many of Hitchcock’s other releases. It did receive two Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Sound.
From a Hitchcock layman’s point of view, I have to say the film is incredibly moving, in spite – no maybe because of its unusual plot, its incredible attention to detail and its spiraling, obsessive soundtrack. These things grab your attention when you are watching on a huge screen and the true vision of a genius takes a hold of the crowd and doesn’t let you go. If I were more a fan of his popular work, would I have enjoyed this as much?
Which is to say, how much does what one expects affect their enjoyment of what they see?
I think expectations can definitely impact enjoyment. I believe this is precisely why this movie was not a bigger hit upon its release. It certainly did not bomb; it made around $7 million upon its initial release. But compare that to the $36 million that Rear Window had made just four years previously. Audiences had come to expect certain things from a “Hitchcock movie.” And this movie subverted those expectations. Hitchcock was always very conscious of what the audience was seeing, and how they would interpret his images. But in this case, he was self-indulgent; he made the film he wanted to make. Audiences were expecting the thrills, but they also wanted to see some some typical Hitchcockian humor, and a happy ending for the romantic leads. But these elements are lacking here. A 1958 audience was not ready for these dark themes.
One final note, while Hitchcock often called Shadow of a Doubt his own personal favorite of his own films, he described Vertigo as his most personal. Many critics have taken this to mean that he saw himself in Scotty Ferguson. Hitchcock took actresses, molded and shaped them, told them what to wear, how to walk and talk, made them into idealized versions of themselves, and then discarded them when the filming was complete. I’m not sure if I believe this was a conscious choice, but I do think this movie is one of the most visually haunting films I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Speaking of haunting, Aliens is one of the few sequels that actually expands on the first film. Just like Empire Strikes Back, this sequel is seen by many as the best in the series. Indeed, there likely would not be a “series” continuing to present day were it not for this powerful film. This is one of only two films that I had not seen on the big screen and I am so happy I was able to partake on this special adaptation, given that I don’t think it was originally intended at 70 mm. Even so, the conversion process is magnificently rendered, except for a few uneven spots in the third act.
Everyone knows the story by now, but the story we all know is not the version that was originally released, or even re-released. Primarily what we miss this time is some implied plot points (Hadley’s Hope being sent to the derelict ship by Burke is spelled out and a little more set up in the barricade being two). The biggest thing that we miss with this version is finding out that Ripley had a daughter. This is pretty important to the future of the franchise as well as the movie itself. Having that cut out just takes some of the resonance from the story, not to mention her Oscar worthy performance.
How does this affect the film in 70mm? For me it brings more focus on the gifts inherent in Cameron’s pure vision. The press for the film has emphasized the militaristic imagery. We have space marines heading into the fight with much gusto and little forethought. The best thing about this take is really how quickly those who weren’t “listening” to Ripley’s warnings are dispensed with and we’re really just back to basics in record time. Still, it’s great to see all of that macho shit in a big screen. It makes the fall seem that much more drastic.
What stood out for you, WeMissE?
The one thing that really stood out to me was the close-ups. Cameron gives Sigourney Weaver lots of close-ups, and you really feel the impact on the big screen. Also I was reminded how great Bill Paxton’s performance is. Of course, its all the more poignant now that he has left us prematurely.
I also thought, as I watched this on the big screen, that James Cameron had a very specific visual aesthetic in the 80’s and early 90’s. Ignoring his last two mammoth films, whose box office was exceeded only by Cameron’s ego, and focusing on the films from Terminator through True Lies, he has a distinct style and sure-handedness in his direction. I’m feeling like I haven’t given him enough credit. My question to you is: does Cameron get his due as a director? Was he never considered a serious director because he made nothing but Sci-Fi and action prior to Titanic? Or has he lost points in the ensuing years?
There has never been another director like Cameron. He’s not one to follow anyone’s path or expectations. I have absolutely no qualms with his choices, even if his last few movies have been bigger spectacle and less story. To the point when he directed Aliens, he had less power than he ever would again. It took exactly two releases to change this forever. You have to admire what he has done, and I look forward to what he does in the future, Avatar sequels or not.
We see his power with actors in Aliens. He takes a bunch of faces you’ve never been aware of previously and he makes them permanent fixtures in the national psyche. I have been a huge fan Henriksen and Biehn since this film. Paxton, what more can I say but he’s got his own category in this blog. Say what you want about Cameron’s technical prowess, it’s the fact that his actors keep coming back to work with him that makes me realize his skill with them is something special.
As for the closeups, yes, this film has perhaps the best closeups I have ever seen. From Bishop’s intensely ambiguous stare to the look between Vasquez and Gorman’s look before they meet their end and of course Ripley’s subtle tilt of her head when she makes up her mind in the last act, Cameron knows the power of adding one’s face into the puzzle to be solved.
Cameron is not the perfect director, but he is certainly one of the best we’ve ever seen. His optics have consistently improved with every film and his stories, while not perfect, are always HIS stories. His movement from the Abyss, through T2, then Titanic and finally Avatar have constantly pushed movie making technology forward. 70mm shows the technical precision in the most intricate practical effects of the time. One can’t tell where Winston ends and Cameron’s lens begins. For me, he’s beyond Spielberg in this realm and at least on par with Lucas.
Am I pushing the comparison too far?
No, I think that is an apt comparison. Hell, Lucas has only directed six movies. Just the fact that he is the creator of the most popular film franchise of all time elevates him to an almost mythic status. And the prequels were a perfect illustration of the limitations of digital trickery. And Spielberg is far more prolific than Cameron, but he tends to follow every good movie with two or three throwaways. I hadn’t really thought about it until I read the way you put it, but Cameron really has just kept slowly climbing that mountain, doing what he wants to do, and improving the medium.
Nice observation about Cameron’s use of actors, too. I guess that is one thing this movie shares with its predecessor. Every character is a genuine person, not a caricature. The soldiers have a genuine camaraderie; we can feel their backstory without even needing to hear it. This is a quality sorely lacking in the more recent entries in this franchise. But this one improves upon the original.
Just as was the case with Vertigo, I left Cinerama that night with a deeper appreciation for a movie that I thought I knew inside and out. Some movies really deserve to be seen on a screen as big as the directors’ ambitions.
Any final thoughts, CoolPapaE?
One thing that had amazingly never occurred to me is about that the drop ship that had the Alien aboard (“Spunkmeyer?“). All this time, after at least 30 viewings, I never could understand how an Alien had made it aboard when it seemed the ship had only dropped for a second at the beginning. Seeing this on such a huge screen made it clear to me that this was not the only time the ship dropped. After they get to the Med Lab and just as Bishop is getting set up, we see him pushing boxes on a wheel cart in the background:
All this time, I thought I had caught Cameron on a technical detail. Nope, he just was not obvious and transparent with every move.
Yes, this film has elevated the Alien franchise to a height and mythology that it hasn’t even approached since. Sure, Ridley seemed to be onto something when he posted what looked to be the Alien Queen on a mural in Prometheus. Now with the foolishness in Alien Covenant seems to have washed it all away though. It’s like Ridley is the only one in the universe that thinks a robot created the Xenomorph. What a waste.
It was a great night and a wonderful experience. It indeed broadened my appreciation and changed my vantage on two remarkable films. I can’t wait to do it next year.