Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Once Upon a Time in The Burbs

Joe Dante has a way of placing his movies in a world that exists just outside reality. Dante's worlds are like our memories of past decades where only the good moments remain, and their shortcomings are just a little too hazy to recall. Gremlins is in a quaint winter town -- soon to be invaded by devlish creatures. Explorers exists in the childhood realm where everything is possible -- even spaceflight. Even Gremlins 2, which is designed to look like today's corporate landscaped is just slightly twisted because the movie Gremlins exists in this world -- but so do the characters who were in that 'movie.' The Dante door I would choose leads to the street where Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman and (occasionally) Dick Miller all live. Watching The 'burbs for the first time in probably a decade, the outlandish expectations my memories heaped on it were fully met, reaffirming my long-held thinking that it is one of the most well-crafted comedies ever made.

The movies that stay in our memories longest are the ones with the least to remember -- that is, the simplest of stories. The 'burbs is wonderfully simple: three neighbors in the dog days of summer trying to convince themselves that the streets newest inhabitants are up to no good. But there's hardly ever any sense of dread surrounding the characters, because they WANT to find trouble, because the other option is going back to their everyday routine. The true genius of The 'burbs, though, is that it walks the sometimes impossible line between camp and horror, while carrying an overflowing fishbowl of funny. Too much one way or the other, and it doesn't work -- even when we think it's going to topple over into true camp and throw away any horror intentions, Dante balances the delicate load. In the midst of this beautiful genre amalgam is quick but steady pacing and a script that holds its cards close to the vest until the final act.

Unlike many of his other movies, The 'burbs contains next to zero pop culture references -- allowing it to age seamlessly. In fact, the most prolific pop culture references made in the movie lie in its genre winks: a nod to Rio Bravo here, a glance toward Sergio Leone there, and most prominently, a tribute to the The Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. Dante obviously was a Twilight Zone fan after lending his talent to the 80s revival of the series as well as the Twilight Zone movie, and The 'burbs' theme of suburban boredom-cum-paranoia is a clever takeoff on one of the series' best episodes. Inside this classic framework is The Street: the small strip of a neighborhood in Anytown, U.S.A. that serves as the lone setpiece.

Since there's never a moment when our characters are outside of The Street, The 'burbs has a way of drawing the viewer in and making them feel at home with the cast. We gain a gradual familiarity with this area, which is the quintessential suburban utopia of green lawns, open doors and friendly neighbors. My feelings have always been like Feldman's character, who says multiple times: 'God, I love this street!' In this way, The 'burbs resembles many Westerns, most notably Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Hawks' masterpiece essentially gave us one stretch of a dirt town and a few buildings ... and it was more than enough to hold the gigantic movie happening within its walls. The real nod to Rio Bravo, though, is in our core characters -- played by Hanks, Ducommun and Dern. In Hawks' Western, the trio of John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Dean Martin all functioned as one unit throughout the film, with each having a distinct skill set but one ultimate goal. Wayne was the unquestioned main character and star of the bunch, but the script never forces him to carry the story. Much is the same with Hanks, who appears by himself on the one-sheet but never goes too long on screen without either of his sidekicks nearby.

This last aspect is what puts The 'burbs on another level. The three leads all have different comedy styles, and none of them get the spotlight to themselves for long. The script perfectly caters to each of their skills as well: we get Hanks' annoyed house husband ('I've been blown up, take me to the hospital'), Ducommun's pestering stand-up skit that served him well in his brief moment of comedy fame ('Now they know that we know that they know that we know') and Dern's patented hard-ass humor ('Smells like they're cooking a goddamned cat in there'). All three are in their natural elements and are allowed to play off each other, never once feeling like they're passing the mic off to one another.

But the laughs are hardly limited to the big three. Like all Dante pictures, we are treated to a visit from Miller (an original that guy), this time in the guise of a garbage man. Dante wisely drops Miller into the scene that is perhaps the film's comedy centerpiece: starting with oddball touches of two garbage men picking apart the fabric of society with one curiously sporting a rainbow patch (never explained), moving on to a half-shaven Dern and insanely driven Ducommun rifling through the trash and ending with my favorite line of the movie:

Miller: 'Who's going to pick up all this garbage?'
Dern: 'Well you're going to pick it up, because you're -- the garbage man!'

It doesn't hurt that there's not one weak link in the tidy cast. In addition to the aforementioned, Dante also serves up Henry Gibson, Gale Gordon (best known as Mr. Wilson) and even a cameo from Nicky Katt as the 'lame-o in the yard' (Katt is best known as Mr. 'Isaac Fucking Newton' in 'Dazed and Confused'). Given a long leash on his infrequently-seen comedic skills, Dern lets loose and becomes the rascally crazy middle-aged man he was born to play. Hanks is also in a natural role as the lazy, indifferent and skittish Ray Peterson, but smartly reins in his sometimes dominating presence as the lead funnyman in an ensemble of comedians. The wild card is Ducommun, who was at the absolute apex of his career and would never have more than a bit part. Around the time of The 'burbs, Ducommun was a fixture on HBO, whether on his two standup specials on the cable network or in the obscure John Travolta movie The Experts, which the channel overplayed. The role of Art was perfect for the Canadian comic, who used his unapologetic flab and odd voice to great effect.

I had been holding out for a more suitable DVD of The 'burbs, but as part of the Tom Hanks Comedy Favorites Collection, it was too good to pass up for only $15. It's clearly the star when paired with Dragnet (which is more of an Aykroyd vehicle) and the clunker The Money Pit, and you even get an amusing alternate ending, which wouldn't have made anyone mad if it was left on.

Friday, February 23, 2007


At Melbourne Film Blog, Paul Martin presents an objective eye toward Australian cinema, as well as beyond. Not only is Paul able to take in the wonderful programming of the Melbourne Cinematheque, but he also serves on the theater's committee -- a position that led him to the world of film criticism. Paul's inaugural review -- of his favorite movie, Lost Highway -- was distributed among the audience for a twin bill of Lost Highway and Eraserhead. Paul's Lost Highway review is a must-read for any Lynch fan, as it's a movie that often falls through the cracks when talking about the director's best. Paul also tackles a lot of Australian films (and no Adam, neither Mad Max or Picnic At Hanging Rock are among his favorites, but you had to ask, didn't you?), and some -- like Em 4 Jay (his favorite 2006 movie) -- are rarely distributed outside the country.

WE'VE MET BEFORE, HAVEN'T WE?: 'There are about fifty that would compete for second place, but only one that is a clear favourite – Lost Highway. No film has ever affected me like this one, and I don’t know if any film could ever do it again. Pure mind-bending magic!'

'The first film to really overwhelm me with a desire to discuss it with others was Lost Highway. I pestered my significant other that night, and the following two days discovered the power of the internet by researching it online. This was also the first film that I wrote a significant review on, which was only relatively recently.'

IT'S BIG, IT'S FAT AND IT'S CHEESY!: Fat Pizza (2003), One of Paul's guilty pleasures.

I see just about every contemporary film that comes out that I want to see.'

I’ve seen every Almodóvar film since All About My Mother, and none of them have particularly overwhelmed me. When I saw Volver, I started to understand what it is that I don’t like about his films. I’ve since taken up watching all his films starting with his first, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and am currently up to High Heels (1990). I’ve never felt so compelled to like someone’s films that have so many things about them that I don’t like. I can’t explain it. But I still think his films are not particularly good.'

WATCH THIS: Takashi Miike's Audition -- Paul's go-to horror movie.

'It doesn’t matter how tired I am, a good film will wake me up.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Tests.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bicycle Thieves: The Criterion Collection

My first viewing of Bicycle Thieves remains one of the most memorable for me. I saw it, like many it seems, in a college class -- and the film didn't immediately shake me, but as I walked back to my dorm it was all I could think about. Gradually I started to take in the story, characters and themes as a whole, and was able to penetrate it more easily. Finally, as I explained Bicycle Thieves to my future wife I simply broke down in tears when I got to its famous, heart-wrenching climax. The emotions in Bicycle Thieves may catch you off guard because you are not watching acting, and it doesn't feel like a documentary -- it is the definition of neorealism and everything that genre strove for.

The Criterion Collection version of Bicycle Thieves arrived on shelves last Tuesday, giving it the elite treatment it so well deserves. In what is likely the best DVD of the young year, Criterion serves up a new transfer, three documentaries and an assortment of essential essays. But the biggest change of all is made up of two words: Bicycle Thieves. Until this DVD, the film was known in North America as The Bicycle Thief, whose singularity is factually incorrect when relating to the movie. Each title will give first-time viewers a different prejudice of the film, with the singular acting as somewhat of a spoiler since it must be referring to the main character (Damian at Windmills of My Mind has a great post devoted to this topic).

The extras appear on the surface to be light by Criterion's standards (no commentaries or galleries), but the biggest gems of the lot are housed in the companion booklet. Included is an essay written by Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Cesare Zavattini during the height of neorealism. In describing the challenges posed to neorealist filmmakers, Zavattini remarks that in an American film there might be a two minute scene depicting a woman buying a pair of new shoes -- whereas in neorealism that would be a two hour movie. Zavattini isn't bluffing either, he maps out just how he would go about making this shoe purchase movie, and it explains the brilliance of Bicycle Thieves beautifully: taken on its own, the plot is nothing. French film critic Andre Bazin expounds on this idea in his essay: 'the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray dog column.' This is why Bicycle Thieves has endured through generations and remains just as relevant in any culture today. We have all lived this movie -- a seemingly simple pratfall which cannot truly be explained to someone who has not lived it.

It's too easy to compare neorealism to today's reality television. Neorealists used non-actors and worked exclusively on location, but they also crafted stories that were neither fantastical, spectacular or exploitive. With Bicycle Thieves, the story is a crime that means nothing to the thousands of other poor Italians walking Rome's streets, but it is a journey the viewer takes with Antonio and Bruno that feels coldly realistic because of the absence of film canons. There are no motives that can be questioned or reactions that can be doubted.

Contrary to the film's style, the making of Bicycle Thieves seems all Hollywood. Director Vittorio De Sica held large auditions to find the perfect any-persons for his roles, yet found none of the main cast by this method: Enzo Staiola (Bruno) was a 'clown-faced' boy trying to catch a glimpse of the production, Lianella Carell (Maria) was a journalist trying to get an interview from De Sica and Lamberto Maggiorani had brought his son to audition for the role of Bruno. In all these cases, it is reported that De Sica instantly knew he had found his characters, and this is how the genius of a neorealist works. In Maggiorani, he saw a beaten but hopeful man who had been through the wild highs and lows that his character experiences. Staiola's clownish face and awkward build made him perfect for the young boy whose childhood never existed. Maria looked capable of projecting the pain of an Italian wife and the love of an Italian mother. All of these 'actors' would not be asked to act, but simply live their parts as they would live their own life.

De Sica was renowned for his ability to work with children, and this is best apparent with Bruno -- perhaps the film's most memorable character. We see Bruno as a man, not a boy, who provides for his family just as his father does. When Antonio brings home the bicycle that ensures him a job, Bruno is fast at work mending and polishing the bike, and even makes jabs at his father for not noticing a dent. Bruno -- probably six years old -- has some kind of job on the street, and he barely glances toward his father when he hops off the bike and gets right to work. Bruno lives in a world where he is not allowed to be a child, and he takes great pains to not act like one. Bicycle Thieves reaches new heights when Bruno's adult facade starts to wear away and begins to naturally act his age -- his response to 'how about a pizza?' is too natural to be called acting and is possibly the film's greatest moment.

Antonio is a man who understands the weight of this terrible day, when reclaiming his bicycle will make him the father and husband he strives to be, while coming home empty-handed takes him back to the despairs he felt only one day prior as a penny-less provider. The more dead ends Antonio finds, the more driven he becomes in his quest, and the more he realizes that there is no way out of his existence. The circle Antonio finds himself in starts with the police who can't try to care about his problem and ends with the thief community that vigorously supports their own and makes their members nearly invincible by providing infinite alibis. Antonio finds himself retreating to the one place where he is allowed to exist -- his home -- before trying in vain to get in a desperation punch to the world that robbed him, and failing just the same.

The new transfer of Bicycle Thieves is a richer, crisper image than previous incarnations, easily handling the chaotic rain sequence and showing the movie's deep focus well. The mono soundtrack is about as good as it can be, and an English dub is now available.

The extras on Disc 2 include 'Working with De Sica,' an assortment of recent interviews with surviving Bicycle Thieves collaborators, presented in anamorphic widescreen. Included in this bunch is none other than Staiola, who recounts the shock of being selected by De Sica, and screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico, who talks vividly about how the ending was her original idea. 'Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy' works as a near-lecture from genre scholar Mark Shiel, who gives rich insights on the history of the art, and how it affected the world cinema. While this feature is interesting, it is also somewhat disappointing to have Shiel being the only participant. 'Cesare Zavattini' is the most impressive of the DVD extras, it is a 2003 Italian-made documentary on the life of the Bicycle Thieves screenwriter. Many of the heavyweights of Italian (including Bernardo Bertolucci) weigh in on Zavattini, and we learn about his life from beginning to end. As a whole, the three digital supplements are impressive not only for their individual insights, but also in the fact that their information almost never overlaps.

The accompanying booklet (lavishly bound and printed) is a fascinating collection of contemporary analysis, period theory and remembrances from cast and crew. Zavattini's writings on neorealism provides a look at the genre from an individual who was driving it, and Bazin's exploration contains a wealth of keen talking points, including this knockout: 'It is our intelligence that discerns and shapes it, not the film. De Sica wins every play on the board without ever having made a bet.' The final entry is a collection of memories from those involved in the film, ranging from De Sica himself to none other than Sergio Leone -- who at age 16 (!) played one of the German priests in the rain scenes and also helped behind the camera. All of the collected memories were originally published in the 1997 Italian book Bicycle Thieves.

All in all this is another home run from Criterion, which continues to raise its high standards and gives this treatment to a monumental and timeless film.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Good will can be hard to find on the Internet these days, but I can safely describe Edward Copeland as a blogger philanthropist. How else to put in words his epic Oscar surveys? For the benefit of everyone, Copeland began last year with a wide-reaching survey for the best and worst of the Best Picture winners, presented wonderfully with his own editorial combined with the surveyed's (survees?) comments. Copeland followed that up this year with a best and worst poll for Best Actress. These two projects have left readers of Edward Copeland on Film with but one question: can 2008 hurry up and get here already so we can have our best and worst Best Actors survey already?? But there is more to Copeland than the Oscars, as he writes on a wide variety of topics cinematic and entertainment -- even taking us back in time occasionally (his 1989 review of a show called Baywatch is fun, and his 1993 River Phoenix eulogy is a somber reminder).

WAKING LIFE: 'There are certain films that if they are on, and nothing else is worth watching, they can soothe me even if I doze or wake up, such as Die Hard, Groundhog Day and Jaws.'

SPELLBOUND: 'I've always had great fondness for Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners, so much so that I've been afraid to ever revisit it for fear it might break the spell. As for the opposite, I'm not dumbfounded as to why I dislike them as much as I am as to why others like them (say, Dr. Zhivago or The Thin Red Line).'

IN GOOD COMPANY: 'The insane praise that Babel has received has frustrated me, though at least I know there are plenty who agree with me about it.'

10 AND (BARELY) HOLDING: 'I can only narrow [the best] down to 10: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, Goodfellas, Nashville, Network, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Rear Window, The Rules of the Game and Sunset Blvd.'

FILM BLOGGERS DO IT EVERY DAY: 'About 1 a day, maybe more on weekends. Also depends on the time of year. Right now, it's the busy season.'

STILL KICKING: The Dead Girl -- the movie that most recently surprised Edward.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM, BUUUDDDDY?: Guaranteed to scare -- 'the scene in Bio-Dome when Stephen Baldwin chews off Pauly Shore's toenails.'

ADMIT ONE: 'I would have loved to have been able to have seen Psycho in a theater before everyone knew its secrets so the shower scene would have been a surprise.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Tests.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peckinpah's Valentine

Note: This post is part of the Lovesick Blog-a-thon at 100 Films.

I had read many descriptions of Straw Dogs prior to seeing it, and all of them played it up as 'Dustin Hoffman goes mad, ruthlessly kills his enemies, Bloody Sam Peckinpah at his bloody best!' (which is admittedly an attractive plot), but none of them spoke of the complex study of marriage and love contained in it. Like many of Sam Peckinpah's films, the intriguing story was ignored by the public in favor of the bloodshed and violence contained in it. And while Straw Dogs is indeed violent and graphic, it uses these elements to convey a message of the sacrifices that must be made in a marriage and what becomes of love once that is the only thing two people have in common. Peckinpah shows that marriage can full of unrealized violence, that to co-exist for most of a lifetime, two people must sometimes treat each other like enemies.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan George (perhaps never more beautiful) are David and Amy Sumner, who are in the early stages of settling in Amy's hometown -- a decaying, ruthless rural English community. It could be interpreted that the couple left Vietnam War-embroiled America for a place where their pacifist views could be more widely accepted, but it also makes sense that Amy wanted to live in an environment where she could become the dominant figure in their marriage. David explains that they are living in the town so that he can finish some kind of grant-sponsored math study.

Right off the bat we can see inside the character of Amy -- as she is proudly walking through the streets in a thin sweater with no bra. The town is exactly how it was when she left, complete with a population of drunk and immature men, at least one of which has a sexual history with her (and he is not shy about reminding her of that fact). It is clear that the Sumners are now on Amy's turf -- a strange place where she knows the rules of the land, and knows that she is the object of affection for every male eye.

David is uncomfortable in this new place and perhaps regrets their decision to move. He soon finds out that life in the town is simply a series of tests of will between the men, and he witnesses one inside the bar -- with the lone constable seemingly rolling his eyes and the long-beaten characters (the barkeep) offering not even a thought of resistance. David is a pacifist at heart, who keeps to himself and simply wants a little peace and quiet while he slaves at his blackboard with equations. Since he is passive, David gets his way with Amy by exerting his intelligence on her and treating his wife like a child. Amy reacts like a child because her defense mechanism is her sexuality -- which is mostly useless against David who is always buried in studies. We see that though the Sumners exude an air of sophistication, their hearts have much growing to do and they live in a dysfunctional marriage.

David and Amy are only able to express their passion when they let down their guard and act like children -- such as the early bedroom scene that devolves from a lesson in chess (an attempt by Amy to appeal to David's intelligence) to an under the sheets whirlwind of junior high giggling. During this scene, the Sumners are spied on through the window by a few townsfolk who see this act as novelty, since it is so different than their buttoned down way of life where emotions are seldom seen or welcomed.

The Sumners' fragile relationship begins to slowly fray because of outside forces -- starting with Amy's old chums who are now employed to finish a roof on their garage. They eagerly watch as Amy gets out of her car in a dress, and accidentally flashes her panties. Amy is clearly disturbed by this event and their reactions, but it is also a discovery of where she can find the emotions so clearly lacking at home. She takes this a step further by walking near a window topless, explicitly letting them see her body. While Amy delights in the attention being paid her body, she is also unknowingly opening a door to the violent sexual hunger of the men, who see her act as an invitation.

As Amy is unwisely stoking the men's libido, David is being slowly ground down by the goons -- who use his pacifist tactics against him -- demonstrating that they can get into his house by stealing Amy's panties and leaving their dead cat hanging in the closet. The men trap David into one of the town's violent rituals of testing his tolerance, setting a precedent by seeing how far they can go before he snaps. A similar act is happening in the Sumners' home, as Amy is basically daring David to do something about the dead cat -- knowing full well that he is incapable of any retaliation. By calling her husband's non-shot, Amy has gained the upper hand in their marriage that she so desired. In her native land, she has the advantage over David, and is damn well going to use it.

David tries to win over his wife by agreeing to go hunting with the men, but in doing so only enables the final part of their plan: leaving Amy home alone. Amy's old flame Charlie sneaks away from the hunting group and tries to make like old times inside her house. Amy resists his advances, but is powerless against his brute strength and is conflicted because she probably realizes how in this environment it is actually her fault because she was asking for it by exposing herself to Charlie and his friends. Equally conflicting to Amy is that she is finally receiving the lust and physical passion she has been begging for since she and David moved to England. For a moment we see Amy semi-enjoy Charlie having his way with her, and then it is gone as she tries to process the emotions and feelings she is experiencing.

The American in Amy wants to tell David about the rape, but her upbringing tells her to forget it -- since it was partially her fault. Meanwhile, shooting a shotgun during the hunt seems to have energized David, who fires Charlie's men for abandoning him on the hunt. Things come to a boil when David tries to harbor the village black sheep Henry (David Warner), who accidentally suffocated the young granddaughter of the town's drunken patriarch. The young girl probably mirrors Amy of years ago, as she struts around in skimpy clothing through the streets of an environment not made for her. After trying to find attention from the town's men, she goes after Henry -- who is mildly retarded and serving a lifetime of penance for a previous advance on a young girl.

David knows the mob will kill Henry, and keeps him safe while plotting a plan to exact his revenge on all of them -- and in effect his wife, by showing her what he is capable of. During this process, David and Amy enjoy a fleeting moment of shared passion as Amy begins to see her husband as the kind of man her town produces, and is obviously turned on by it. In the end, David's pacifist ways come to an end, but so does his marriage, as in 'winning' the war within he and Amy's relationship -- he has only found the door to escape.

Thanks to Movie Screenshot blog for the excellent screenshots.

Friday, February 09, 2007


DVD Guy has been writing movie reviews on the Internet longer than most of us have been ... um, watching reality shows? A founding member of the Online Film Critics Society, DVD Guy has penned content for a variety of sites, but now focuses most of his attention on his blog The Watercooler, where in addition to film reviews you'll find the fruits of his intensive You Tube surfing and many other pop culture tidbits that you'll rarely find anywhere else. The Watercooler has a vast reserve of content that goes far beyond movies, including remarkably candid accounts of his career stops -- including a fascinating read about his time at a failed HD television network.

THE GHOST AND MR. DVD GUY: 'I thought the Blair Witch Project was sufficiently creepy, with creepy vibes given off that would last for quite some time after the initial viewing.'

SEE YA, PSYCHLO: 'Battlefield Earth made me quit Scientology.'

THE 10 CENT CONCESSIONS AREN'T BAD EITHER: 'I'd love to experience the 50s and 60s sci-fi/horror movies in a theater with that era's crowd.'

ROCK OF AGES: 'I recently watched The Family Stone over the holidays with family. I fully expected to hate the thing but it wound up being the best film I'd seen all year.'

THE LOST WEEKENDS: '[I watch] one or two films during the week. 3-5 on weekends. Sometimes more during the summer or outside of football season.'

LISTEN HERE, YOUNG WHIPPER SNAPPER: '12 Angry Men, The Ox-Bow Incident or Ruggles of Red Gap' -- movies DVD Guy would show to someone who hates anything not in color.

AQUA LUNG! Anchorman never fails to rise DVD Guy's spirits.

BE NICE: 'Road House' . . . 'awesome cheese.'

WELL, ALLOW ME TO RETORT: Pulp Fiction is DVD Guy's easy answer for all-time favorite film.

Contact DVD Panache if you would like to contribute to Friday Screen Test.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cut to The Chase

One of the first posts I imagined myself writing when I started this blog was an expansive essay on Vertigo. After picturing the myriad of messages, images and oddities my complete Vertigo essay would need -- not to mention sections on composer Bernard Herrman and his themes -- I became a little intimidated by my own expectations and backed off. Recently I compromised on a post that would try to list all the things I loved about the movie, but as that list evolved it became clear that one entry would be enough for one whole post, which I present today.

Vertigo enters my mind more frequently than any other movie. There's so much to like that I often find myself humming Herrman's Love Theme or just imagining the cemetery scene. It all comes back to The Chase, as I think of it: beginning with Scottie's first encounter with Madeleine at Ernie's and ending with the McKittrick Hotel scene. The chase sequence epitomizes what a cinematic experience Vertigo is and the decisions Hitchcock could make to brand his films so otherworldly and so uniquely his. The sound, the images, the story -- I'm in heaven when I watch it, and I'm going to try and explain everything that's perfect about it:

The Chase begins at the restaurant Ernie's, where Scottie is supposed to meet his mark, Madeleine. Ernie's is a great example to how committed Hitchcock was to making a complete environment in the Vertigo world: the restaurant set doesn't have much screen time and is not central to the plot at all, yet it becomes one of the most beautiful scenes in the most gorgeous movie of all time. The swanky Ernie's is covered rich crimson walls (looks almost like velvet) and filled with well-to-do San Franciscans. Ernie's is crowded, and yet when the camera pans into the dining room our eyes can't help but be drawn to the woman in the corner wearing a dark green dress. Her back is to the camera, but we all know it's Madeleine. She isn't even centered or focused on, yet because of the contrast in colors, it's apparent who we're supposed to be looking at.

Start your engines
No small detail is left to chance in Vertigo, including the cars of choice for Scottie and Madeleine. Scottie is driving a white DeSoto Firedome, while Madeleine is behind the wheel of a sea green Jaguar Mark VII. Watching Hitchcock, it's clear he was a car guy, as the automobiles in his movies are characters of their own (as I observed in The Birds, which features one of the rarest cars of its era). The Jaguar is a Union Jack touch in a movie that otherwise celebrates America, and also serves to set Madeleine apart while on the road, since almost all the other cars seen have nowhere close the elegance of her Mark VII. Scottie's DeSoto suits him similarly, as he's driving an obscure brand that would be dissolved only three years after Vertigo was released.

The early driving scenes lead us to a hallmark sequence of the film, as Madeleine turns off into an alley. The decision to have Madeleine enter from a backdoor in the alley not only serves to convey that she has done this quite a few times, but also enables Hitchcock to present a surprising reveal: Scottie opening the door from the dark alley to see a vibrant flower shop. This short scene of Scottie watching Madeleine purchase a corsage gives us two inventive techniques. First, the new DVD transfer of Vertigo allows us to better appreciate a subtle, yet brilliant bit of cinematography: there's such a contrast between the foreground characters and the floor, as well as from the foreground to the multiple planes of focus in the background, it's almost like a cinematic Where's Waldo. If you fix your eyes on the floor of the flower shop, it appears that it is the principle focus of the camera -- it appears sharper than anything else in the frame. This effect adds to the dreamy nature of The Chase, and is enhanced by the multiple planes of background that are still slightly in focus enough for us to observe their details. The other bit of brilliance in this brief scene is when we see Madeleine turn towards our (Scottie's) viewpoint -- we think she's spotted her pursuer, yet as the angle changes we see that she's actually admiring herself in a mirror. In this angle we see both characters looking at each other, even making eye contact, without Madeleine knowing he was there (or did she?).

See you in church
Throughout The Chase, Bernard Herrman's epic score has been pulling us through a variety of themes -- similar to how a silent movie score would, in that its many variances serve to further the story. As Scottie follows Madeleine into a church, we get a sort of Herrman/Hitchcock 'wink' through the score. When Scottie enters the church, the score suddenly switches to an organ playing a slow hymn -- the first reaction is that church is in session and the organist is playing, yet a split second later we see that save for our characters the church is dark and empty. What was originally presented as music in the story is revealed to be more of Herrman's atmospheric score -- a hymn whose ending note is played just as Scottie exits. I believe this maneuver to be a nod toward classic silent cinema, when the music would mirror where the movie was taking place (i.e. a maritime tune for a boat scene, a youthful jingle for children).

Scottie's exit of the dark church becomes another bold transition, as he finds himself in the adjoining cemetery, with blaring colors and gravestones that seem to glow in the light. Hitchcock uses the many flowers in the cemetery to play with perspective -- one such example is when Scottie is hiding behind a wall, when he begins walking again the camera pans with him and suddenly a rose branch comes into the frame right in front of the camera, and perfectly in focus. The Chase is so mysterious and suspenseful, Hitchcock's playful 'gotcha' jabs adds to its atmosphere.

Things only get more mysterious at the museum, where Scottie sees the resemblance between Madeleine and Carlotta. One aspect I recently noticed is how not only Madeleine mimics the painting, but also Scottie. Watch as Scottie turns to find the museum worker, at one point his face and eyes are in the exact same pose as Carlotta in the painting.

The lady vanishes
The Chase concludes at the McKittrick Hotel, home to the most vexing scene in the movie. The hotel itself fits right in with the rest of Vertigo's locations, as its dark gothic appearance looks out of place in the glowing streets of San Francisco. Madeleine's ghost-like exit is enhanced during Scottie's last glimpse of her in this scene, as he sees her raise the curtain in her room -- brightening up the grim exterior, resulting in a glow-like appearance for her. Hitchcock plays with perspective again here, as when Scottie is on the ground floor with the manager, the hotel interior seems small and narrow -- yet when he goes upstairs it suddenly looks grand and expansive, perhaps another minor jab at Scottie's fear of heights. We find Madeleine's room locked and undisturbed, despite the fact that we had just seen her open that curtain. It's a strange scene that doesn't really make sense even after later events occur, but it's a fitting conclusion to one of the most fascinating sequences ever seen.

Friday, February 02, 2007


At Lazy Eye Theatre, Piper gives readers his own unique programming. The posts often come fast and furious, with Tuesdays reserved for original Top 5 lists (Top 5 Pantiless anyone? How about Top 5 Missing Digits?). Piper recently published a generously-detailed ranking of his favorite montages (some may cry foul over The Karate Kid's low rating), and his clever Plot Farm posts are worth revisiting. If you're still not sold, try reading about what movies changed Piper's DNA -- to see what he's really made of.

WHEN CAN YOU START? 'Get Shorty ,Goodfellas and The Godfather all make me want to be in the mob. High Fidelity makes me want to own a record store. La Femme Nikita makes me want to be a professional assassin' ... 'All those films and many more make me want to be a film-maker. But the truth is, I love my career right now.'

IF YOU'RE GONNA SHOOT, SHOOT -- DON'T TALK: 'I sat downwith a friend and spoke for hours about Mulholland Drive. And I mean HOURS. I saw A Clockwork Orange way before I was old enough to and I think I talked with my buddies about that all night. Probably more about the sex and violence than what a good film it was. I rarely sit down and write about a
film. I'm not the best reviewer. I'm a much better talker.

TIME ENOUGH AT LAST: 'I am a husband and father of two so I don't get away to the theatres as much as I want. I probably watch 2 to 3 movies a week. And not always new movies as I am an avid re-watcher of my favorites.'

IN THE END, THERE CAN BE ONLY FIVE: 'I love so many different movies for different reasons. If I pick one over the other, it's like I'm picking one kid over the other. I can give you my top 5. The Royal Tennenbaums, Out of Sight, Fight Club, High Fidelity and Goodfellas. And now I feel guilty because I've left out so much.'

THE KID'S ALRIGHT: 'Seven Samurai is a bit long, but you watch it and see how so many current movies have borrowed from it. Even my eight year old loved it.'

THE FRIGHTENERS: 'Watch Halloween and The Thing and Hell Night and more recently, Malevolence. If [you] weren't scared by those, [you] are not living. Going to movies is about having fun. It's not a dare or a chore. You have to want to be scared. It's no fun otherwise.'

PLEASE VENTURE TO SHUT UP: 'I bought the first season of Venture Brothers on DVD and I can't quit talking about that show. Everybody hates me because I always talk about it and how funny it is and subtle and brilliant.'

HUGHES IT OR LOSE IT: 'Last year my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer (she is cancer free now). Those first few days were some of the darkest I have faced and all I wanted to do was watch John Hughes movies. Ferris Buellers Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science. Movies that made me feel young again when I didn't have to worry about all the shit I do now.'

AWFULLY GOOD TASTE: 'There are some who probably think Re-Animator is awful, but I love it for everything that it is. Or Phantom of the Paradise. Or Roadhouse, which I might argue might be one of the best action movies out there and I know a lot of people who think I'm crazy for saying that.'

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