Retro Review: Darkness in Daylight: The Plaza Theatre Descends into Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO

Posted on: Nov 19th, 2012 By:

VERTIGO (1958); Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes; Fri. Nov. 23 – Sun. Nov. 25; Plaza Theatre (visit Plaza Theatre Website for showtimes and ticket prices); Trailer here.

If the film noir is defined by its most typical set-up—that of a doomed man swept up in events outside his control, often by a manipulative female figure—then Alfred Hitchcock’s towering VERTIGO is that most rare of films noir. It trades the genre’s high-contrast black-and-white for rich Technicolor. It places its characters not in the dimly-lit nightshade world of seedy bars, backrooms and private dicks’ offices; but in art museums, redwoods forests and the sunny streets of San Francisco. In the world of VERTIGO, the shadows of night may still hold mysterious threats, but the stark light of day reveals their constant presence all too clearly. There is, truly, no escape.

In this film, James Stewart paired with Hitchcock for their final collaboration. Stewart had long been one of Hitch’s archetypal actors. Whereas Cary Grant represented the Idealized Man in his cinematic world, Stewart was the Everyman. Grant was the go-to guy when Hitch needed a lead that viewers would either want to be or want to bed. Stewart was the guy next door, bringing a down-to-earth sensibility to his roles, and much of the attraction of him as a lead in Hitch’s films was in seeing this average Joe rise above his limitations to triumph at the end.

In VERTIGO, however, Stewart’s average Joe is taken far away from next door; his obsessions and fears exposed as he is broken beyond repair.

Stewart stars as former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, whose vertigo and fear of heights manifest in a rooftop police chase and result in the death of a fellow officer. Stricken by depression, he has retired from the force and struggles to overcome his fears. He is enlisted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, to trail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he claims has been possessed by the spirit of the long-dead suicide victim Carlotta Valdes. Scottie witnesses Madeleine attempt to kill herself by jumping into San Francisco Bay and rescues her. They then become ensnared in an obsessive and doomed romance that can only result in death, a break with sanity, or both…

James Stewart and Kim Novak in VERTIGO. Paramount Pictures, 1958.

Kim Novak perfectly essays the role of a most unusual femme fatale: manipulative without being forceful, cool and reserved yet with a barely-concealed sexuality, strong yet fragile. However, Barbara Bel Geddes (whom viewers would later come to know as “Miss Ellie” Ewing on the TV series DALLAS) is perhaps the most overlooked character in the film: Scottie’s long-suffering ex-girlfriend Midge, a bohemian clothing designer, who represents the polar opposite of Madeleine. Where Madeleine is cool, Midge is warm. Where Madeleine is perfectly poised and elegant, Midge is natural and almost frumpily grounded. And where Madeleine represents everything that will tear down Scottie, Midge represents that lost potential for true happiness. Madeleine may be an impossible ideal, but Midge is real, there, now. And her love and devotion to Scottie may be the only path for his salvation, but how can he see that path with the dream that is Madeleine beckoning him from just beyond his reach?

The film was a critical and commercial failure upon release. Some felt it was too long and too complicated for a simple psychological mystery. Hitchcock believed that James Stewart’s age was a factor in the film’s failure, and replaced him with Cary Grant in the following year’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (four years older than Stewart, true, but eternally youthful). Many, however, were disappointed that this movie was not another romantic mystery along the lines of 1956’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. In fact, the mystery is practically subservient to the film’s depiction of obsession—it’s solved two thirds of the way through the movie. Hitchcock often referenced the term “MacGuffin”: the mechanical element that sets a story into motion, yet which is ultimately unimportant to the plot’s progression. In John Huston’s 1941 film THE MALTESE FALCON, for instance, it’s the titular sculpture. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s a cache of microfilm. In the case of VERTIGO, it’s the mystery itself. The whys and wherefores of how Scottie has become obsessed with Madeleine are not important; his fears and obsessions are, instead, the focal point, and how they emerge and re-emerge during the course of the story are what carries us along the inevitable path to the film’s particularly noir conclusion.

However it was dismissed in the past, in more recent years VERTIGO has been reevaluated. Beginning with Robin Wood’s seminal 1965 work HITCHCOCK’S FILMS, critics have paid closer attention to the film and what it attempts to accomplish. Many have come to regard the film in retrospect as Hitch’s most personal work: a fully-realized exploration of his own obsession with a particular “type” of woman, embodied in Grace Kelly, and his need to craft the images of his actresses to fit this particular model. This was an obsession, as depicted in Donald Spoto’s THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS and the HBO original film THE GIRL, which would be ultimately destructive to his professional relationships with women. But despite the speculative personal aspect of VERTIGO, most have come to realize that as a film on its own merits, that it stands as a masterpiece. Indeed, it has topped the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll as the greatest film ever made.

VERTIGO’s relative failure at the time meant that preservation wasn’t as much of an issue. Thankfully, the film was meticulously restored by film historian Robert A. Harris and his team, using materials ranging from the original camera negatives (which Harris notes “looked hideous”), to damaged black-and-white color separation masters, to fuzzy film prints as many as eight generations removed from the original negatives. Using all of the materials at their disposal (including a preserved green paint sample from a model of car featured in the film which was utilized for color timing), Harris and company worked miracles, producing an almost immaculate presentation of what many consider Hitchcock’s true masterpiece.

To see such an important film, preserved and restored so well, presented on the big screen is a treat to be savored by any film fan, whether casual or hardcore. And this treat is available at the Plaza Theatre for one weekend only. Some things simply should not be missed. Don’t let this one pass you by.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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30 Days of The Plaza, Day 29: Vintage Vertigo That’s Not Just for the Birds: Hitchcock Takes Atlanta by Storm at The Plaza and the Strand This November!

Posted on: Nov 1st, 2012 By:

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

With November upon us and the gusts of the coming winter already chilling our bones, what better time than now to pay tribute to the king of spine-tingling thrillers, Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Thanks to the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta and Marietta’s Earl Smith Strand Theatre, you can spend some quality time this month with the Master of Suspense in his preferred setting: on the big screen and even better – remastered and in high definition!

Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre’s series promises special guests and vintage Hitchcock interview footage before each screening (show times TBA). They kick off the month with 1948’s James Stewart-starring ROPE, showing November 2-4. Hitchcock’s first color film, ROPE was based on the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb “perfect murder” scandal and seemingly unfolds in one continuous take. (Actually, it was shot in 10 shorter segments, with editing trickery covering up the fact that the cameraman would have to change the film magazine every 10 minutes.)

Up next is the film that ushered in what is now considered Hitch’s golden age—1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, showing November 16-18. The tense story of two men—played by Farley Granger and Robert Walker—who agree (the former, however, unwittingly) to “swap” targets of murder, the film contains some of Hitch’s most inventive and still-studied optical effects.

The Plaza follows this with a weekend of VERTIGO, showing November 23-25. Frequent Hitch collaborator James Stewart returns to star with Kim Novak in this 1958 tale of madness and obsession. A critical and commercial flop at the time of its release, the movie today is acknowledged as one of Hitchcock’s most personal films and topped the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll as the greatest film ever made.

The Plaza closes out the month as THE BIRDS attack the coastal city of Bodega Bay from November 30 to December 2. The 1963 film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and was based both on a Daphne du Maurier short story and an actual case of birds infesting a California town. Though it was scored by Hitch’s frequent composer Bernard Herrmann, you’ll note that no actual music (aside from schoolchildren singing unaccompanied) is heard. Instead, Herrmann layers the soundtrack with electronically-created bird noises.

The Earl Smith Strand Theatre opens this month’s continuation of its series (all events begin at 8 p.m.) with a November 2 screening of THE BIRDS (tickets here). The pre-show entertainment starts with organist Misha Stefanuk (of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society, or ACATOS) accompanying vocalists Kennedy Bastow and Cierra Ollis.

On November 16, the Strand brings us what is perhaps Hitchcock’s best-known film, 1960’s PSYCHO (tickets here). The story of a boy (Anthony Perkins), his mother and the girl who threatens to come between them (Janet Leigh), the film was shot at the studios used for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and was independently produced by Hitchcock on a small budget. The famous “shower scene” took an entire week to shoot and contains 77 different camera angles.

The Strand closes its Hitchcock series with 1959’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (tickets here). Cary Grant comes as close to playing James Bond as he ever got in the role of Roger O. Thornhill, one of the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue’s advertising world, who finds himself mistaken for a secret agent and pursued across the country. Besides the film being recognized as one of Hitch’s best (and on a personal note, I’d say it’s also his most fun), GQ magazine voted Cary Grant’s gray suit (which he wears almost throughout the entire film) as the best suit in film history.

So escape the frosty autumn air this November for some big-screen chills and thrills with these Hitchcock classics. And keep your eyes peeled for Hitch’s cameos!

Editor’s Note: Remember every time you shell out a few bucks to see a classic movie on the big screen, you are keeping the theatrical experience alive in vintage independent cinemas that are Atlanta-area historic treasures. ATLRetro will be running separate reviews/essays on some of these films. 

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

 

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Retro Review: It’s a Wonderful Life With George Bailey in It: See the Capra Holiday Classic with Family and Friends on the Big Screen at the Vintage Earl Smith Strand Theatre

Posted on: Dec 18th, 2011 By:

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Writer

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946); Dir: Frank Capra; Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers; Wed. Dec. 21 8 p.m. at Earl Strand Smith Theatre; traditional TV screening on Christmas Eve on NBC (Channel 11) at 8 p.m.; Trailer here.

Short: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Medium: George Bailey is a man with big dreams and a big heart. As a youth he decides to set out for the big city and become an architect and explore the world. While he loves his family, he looks down with scorn on his small hometown, BedfordFalls. But on the day he is set to go out into the world, his father becomes ill. The problem is, George learns that the film’s villain, Mr. Potter (No Relation to Harry Potter of the Same Name), plans to take over the bank and remake the town in his dark image. George is forced to take up his father’s mantle and save the town, initially only for a little while, but as he puts roots and settles down, the years slog on. Until fate gives Potter a chance to destroy Bailey. Bailey is at the end of his rope and considers his life a total failure.

Heaven itself hears the prayers of the town and sends an incompetent angel in the form of Clarence to help out. Clarence gets the brilliant idea of showing George Bailey the world without him in it. Horrified, George repents of his wish for death and rushes back to the happy ending typical of Hollywood movies of the era.

George Bailey (James Stewart) at a low moment in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife Mary (Donna Reed) and children try to trim the tree and enjoy Christmas. Copyright: Paramont Pictures, 1945.

Maximum Verbosity: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s not every day that a movie can establish a new kind of story that is copied over and over again in many mediums. There might be a story that did this before IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but this Frank Capra-directed holiday classic certainly turned the idea of showing someone what the world would be like them on its head if it did. I’ve seen more television episodes and cartoons that show how critical a piece someone makes in the lives of others roughly based on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE than I can even remember. And I can remember a lot.

When the film originally came out, it didn’t really do so well. In fact, it might have been doomed to an ignoble death like so many otherwise excellent Hollywood films until someone discovered that it had ‘slipped through’ the copyright trap, and thus became exceedingly cheap for small television stations to run over and over again around Christmas. So it became an American favorite and a classic. Now the American Film Institute, on one of its many arbitrary lists, calls IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE one of the 100 best films ever made—and I’d agree with them on this one. Of course, that was not to last, as eventually the zaibatsus managed to loophole the loophole and now only NBC can show it (Dec. 24 at 8 p.m.).

In a rare holiday treat, the film itself, however, is going to be shown at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, an art-deco former movie palace in Marietta. With all of the trouble iconic Atlanta film venues have been going through recently such as the Plaza up for sale; with the zaibatsus getting rid of their 35mm film collections; and even books themselves slowly going the way of the Kindle, supporting such grand old institutions as the Earl Smith is more important than ever. An artistic experience isn’t just about the performance, it’s who and where it is being performed. [Ed. note: this screening is not in 35mm, but we still think it’s mighty special to see even a digital print at such a cool Retro venue, esp. if the kids have only seen it in TV.]

Bumbling angel Clarence (Henry Travers) startles George (Stewart) by showing up in a nightgown. Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.

So why do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. Jimmy Stewart is the most awesome actor in all of Hollywood history, and given some of the people that have worked in film, that’s saying a lot. The man was humble and had a genuine all-American quality to him that I found fantastic. That combined with one of his [and Frank Capra’s] other great seminal works, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, to me sums up what it means to be an American. He is the true Everyman hero, the one who stands up for what is right when all others demand that you surrender to the wrong. Indeed, if every man would be as Jimmy Stewart, then the very foundations of evil would be shaken from the world forever. Not that that’s going to happen.

Let’s talk Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence is a delightful fuck-up. When one thinks Angel, one traditionally thinks Cherubim and a Flaming Sword guarding the Garden of Eden, not a bumbling old guy in a hat who doesn’t even have his wings yet. Of course, don’t underestimate old Clarence, because the old guy can turn visible or invisible at will and rewrites the very laws of reality to weave out George Bailey. If that’s what an angel without wings does, you can imagine how many power-up’s you’d need to take on a fully developed one. But his bumbling incompetence is why I like him. I like the idea that God, or at least his minions, are well meaning but not all powerful. But maybe that’s just me. It’s easier to accept the world the way it is if you think that.
We suggest there might be some difference depending on each ones physiology, but in case it does not respond the expectations indicated by your https://www.montauk-monster.com/pharmacy/phentermine attending doctor, report him immediately.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE also is a great romance. Donna Reed is easy to lose in the crowd among all of the things that are going on in the film, but as a subplot, George Bailey’s courtship—both before and after they are married—is a true classic. She went on later to have her own highly successful sitcom, but seeing her in this is like all of those obscure ‘80s movies that have actors in them before they became truly famous. Like Kate Mulgrew in REMO WILLIAMS (1985).

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a wonderful romance, too, between George (Stewart) and Mary (Reed). Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.

But I think above all, the philosophy of the film is why I love so much. Life isn’t about wealth. You can’t take it with you, and while it can certainly help in some circumstances, you can’t eat it and it won’t love you. “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends.” I guess somehow when I heard that, it translated in my mind as, “The true measure of the worth of a human’s life is in the quality and strength of the relations he keeps.” And I’ve lived my life that way ever since. People matter. Friends matter. Family matters. And this movie is the quintessential guide to that.

It might be hokey. It might even have a healthy dose of sappy cheddar compared to the realities of corruption, malfeasance and dereliction we have today. The world needs more George Baileys, because God knows we’ve sure as hell got enough Mr. Potters running around with their derivatives and their credit default swaps and their vast indifference to the suffering of humanity. Our world has come to more resemble the dark mirror of George’s life, where people don’t give a shit about each other. But this is the Holiday season, damn it, and whatever your affiliation (Kwanza, Hannikua, Christmas, Festivus, X-mas), they are all about love and being greater than yourself. (Well…maybe not X-mas which is largely about buying as much as you can and trompling your neighbor in the process.)

Celebrate Christmas by living a bit of it each day of your life. And the best way to do that, is to be like George Bailey. Merry Christmas.

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