Amanda McQueen on Billy Wilder's FEDORA

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Billy Wilder's Fedora was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A new DCP restoration of Fedora will screen at the Cinematheque on Friday, November 14 at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

In 2008, I spent a month in New York City chaperoning my little sister. Luckily, the summer dance program she was attending was located just down the street from the Walter Reade Theatre, so I spent my afternoons watching whatever films happened to be playing. The Film Society of Lincoln Center was doing a retrospective of William Holden at the time, and sandwiched between movies like Sunset Blvd. (1950), which I'd seen over and over, and movies like S.O.B. (1981), which I'd been wanting to see for ages, was this movie called Fedora, which I'd never heard of. They only had a beat up 16mm print, but even through the scratches and fading, Billy Wilder's penultimate film shone through and stuck with me.

 Based on a novella by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tryon, Fedora has been seen as a companion piece to Sunset Blvd., albeit with some role reversals, a bit more autobiography, and a dose of Dorian Gray. Another of Wilder's films about Hollywood, Fedora tells of down-on-his-luck producer Barry "Dutch" Detwiler (Holden), who travels to an island near Corfu to try and convince retired, reclusive actress Fedora (Marthe Keller) to return to the screen and help revive his career. Though middle-aged, Fedora has mysteriously retained her youthful beauty, and Detwiler learns she is also being held prisoner on the island by the Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer). Moreover, the secret of Fedora's youth leads to a dramatic plot twist and a further series of melodramatic turns.

Comparisons to Sunset Blvd. appeared throughout Fedora's initial reviews. The films share a bitter commentary on Hollywood and stardom; the use of voiceover and flashbacks; and William Holden in the lead. And like Sunset Blvd., Fedora’s inside-Hollywood authenticity is aided by a number of people playing themselves - Michael York, Arlene Francis, and Henry Fonda - and veiled references to other stars and films, even Wilder's own. Fedora looks back on the films of the 1940s in a way analogous to Sunset Blvd.'s reflections on silent films of the 1920s.

But Wilder would not have the success with Fedora that he had on Sunset Blvd. While the latter film was blessed with what the writer-director called "a miraculous series of lucky incidents," Fedora was a struggle from beginning to end. In 1976, when Wilder first began work on the project, it had been several years since he'd had a big hit, and he was hoping his one-picture deal with Universal would turn things around. He pitched them Fedora. Studio executives initially agreed to the film, but changed their minds a few months later, deciding it didn't have commercial potential. So Wilder, still working on the screenplay with his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, bought out Universal's share in the project and began looking elsewhere for financing. Like his own Dutch Detwiler, Wilder found himself desperately searching for someone to fund his comeback film. The money eventually came from West Germany, where Wilder had a strong critical reputation. Geria Films, a tax-shelter subsidiary of Bavaria Films Studios, put up $6.7 million, and Wilder shot everything abroad in Greece, Paris, and Munich in the fall of 1977.

But even with production completed, Fedora's troubles were not over. Lorimar Productions was supposed to distribute the film in America, yet after some disappointing preview screenings, during which viewers reportedly laughed at inappropriate moments, Lorimar backed out, leaving Fedora without a domestic distributor. So United Artists, who had handled some of Wilder's films in the past, stepped in; although the decision to do so was perhaps solely, as executive David Picker put it, "for old time's sake," rather than out of any real faith in Fedora itself. And indeed, although Fedora had a splashy premiere at Cannes in May 1978, UA waited a full year to release it and put little effort or money into the marketing.

Fedora also failed to garner the same critical acclaim as Sunset Blvd.. Most American critics saw the film as decidedly old fashioned and overly melodramatic; even those who liked it described it as "an old man's film." Roger Ebert also found the film predictable, noting that audiences will guess the major plot twist in the first fifteen minutes and that Wilder's insights and observations were, by 1979, rather clichéd. These negative reactions were reflected in the film's poor box office performance, suggesting that audiences - those who had snickered during the previews - agreed that the director was out of touch with contemporary filmmaking.

For his part, the 73-year-old Wilder embraced this criticism with some bravado, admitting that he was unable - and unwilling - to change his method of filmmaking to fit the mores and conventions of New Hollywood: "They call it old-fashioned; that's the only way I know to work. [So] that's the way I'm going to do it until they take the cameras away." Moreover, Wilder insisted that the charge of being "out of touch with the times" was, in fact, a compliment, retorting, "Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?"

It is perhaps this particular attitude of Wilder's that spoke to those critics, like Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who liked Fedora and saw it as "old-fashioned with a vengence, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become." For Ebert, the way to enjoy Fedora was not to take its matinee romance clichés at face value, but to "accept the dumb parts, and the unsurprising revelations, as part of the film's style," and to recognize that Wilder's "movie is about movies like this."

As often happens with certain films from the great auteurs, Fedora has more recently been reclaimed as one of Wilder's best works. And now that it is more readily available with a new digital restoration, I would heartily recommend it to those who like Sunset Blvd. and especially for those who like Billy Wilder. Fedora is - in Vincent Canby's words - "a seasoned, elegant, and funny film" from a "brilliant, irascible man." And if you've never seen it before, just remember what Maslin wrote in 1979: "It is rich, majestic, very close to ridiculous, and also a little bit mad."

When SUNSET BLVD. Went to Broadway

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the Broadway version of Sunset Blvd. is by UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A restored 35mm print of Sunset Blvd.  will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, November 7, 7 p.m.

From Wilder to Lloyd Webber: Sunset Boulevard Goes to Broadway

By Amanda McQueen

Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's reflexive and cynical story of the fall of Old Hollywood, has become one of the undisputed classics of American cinema since its release in 1950. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 3 - for Best Screenplay, Best Black-and-White Art Direction, and Best Score (composed by Franz Waxman). In 1989, the Library of Congress included it in the first batch of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and it has remained a critical and popular favorite for decades. Even people who haven't actually seen the movie probably know its (usually misquoted) final line: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

It's probably unsurprising, then, that many saw Sunset Boulevard as ripe for adaptation as a Broadway stage musical. As early as 1952, Gloria Swanson herself, who had played aging actress Norma Desmond to great acclaim in the film, was involved in an attempt to bring the property to Broadway. But although several songs were written and several years were spent on the project - which was given the typically exuberant musical title Boulevard! - Paramount, the movie's distributor, ultimately withdrew its consent and the musical never materialized. In the early 1990s, however, Dickson Hughes developed some of the material he and Richard Stapley had written for Boulevard! into an intimate musical about his experiences working with Swanson, called Swanson on Sunset. Stephen Sondheim also considered adapting Sunset Boulevard on a couple of occasions in the 1960s and 1970s, but taking Wilder's suggestion to heart that any musicalized version of Sunset should be an opera, he decided against it. Finally, in 1993, Andrew Lloyd Webber, master of the international mega-musical, succeeded in bringing Sunset Boulevard from silver screen to the Great White Way.

Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard has a book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, but much of the original script by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr. remains intact. As is typical for a Lloyd Webber show, Sunset Boulevard also sported lavish production values which some critics thought overwhelmed the intimate story. The musical opened to somewhat mixed reviews in London in July 1993, with Patti LuPone as Norma and Kevin Anderson as jaded writer Joe Gillis (played by William Holden in the film). Another stage version opened in Los Angeles in December with Glenn Close as Norma and Alan Campbell as Joe. Both Close and Campbell took the show to Broadway in November 1994. Sunset Boulevard had strong advance sales and long runs both in New York and abroad and the show won several Tony awards including Best Actress in a Musical for Close (although there was only one other musical up for nomination that year).

Here is Close's performance for the 1995 Tony Award broadcast of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which Norma sings when she returns to Paramount Studios, under the false impression that she is about to relaunch her film career with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Though not quite as technically proficient as other actresses who have played Norma on stage, Close's performance is certainly packed with raw emotion and very powerful.

Despite its popularity, Sunset Boulevard did not recoup its exorbitant costs. Not only did Lloyd Webber's emphasis on visual spectacle make each production difficult and expensive to mount, but legal battles upped the show's expenses ever further. Webber was sued by both LuPone and Faye Dunaway for breach of contract; LuPone had been promised the role of Norma on Broadway and Dunaway had been told she would take over for Close in LA, but Lloyd Webber changed his mind on both accounts and was forced to pay large settlements to both actresses.

Sunset Boulevard has not become as well-known as some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's other musicals, but then it's hard to match the international phenomena of Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Nevertheless, the musical was revived in London in 2008 and it's become a staple of regional and touring companies all over the world. It was even featured on an episode of Glee.

For another little taste of Lloyd Webber's show, here's John Barrowman singing the title number on the 2006 BBC special The Sound of Musicals. Though perhaps best known in the US for his supporting role on Arrow and his signature character of Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood, Barrowman has a musical theater background and played the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard in the West End after the show was revamped in 1994, making him one of the first actors to play the part. "Sunset Boulevard," which opens the second act of the show, is Joe's reflection on the turn his life has taken since meeting and moving in with Norma, and it nicely captures the cynicism of the original through both lyrics and musical style

So whether on screen or stage, Sunset Boulevard is, and long will be, a cultural touchstone.


Friday, October 31st, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain was written by Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Torn Curtain will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, November 2 at 2 p.m.

Revisiting Torn Curtain

by Amanda McQueen

Torn Curtain was Alfred Hitchcock's 50th film, and many expected that the director would produce something great to mark this seminal moment of his career. Hitchcock had spent most of the 1960s producing psychological thrillers, but given the vogue for spy films ushered in by James Bond, he decided to return to a genre with which he was quite familiar, but that he hadn't tackled in several years. However, Hitchcock didn't want his film to be derivative of the popular Bond series, and so he attempted to make Torn Curtain a different type of spy thriller. Hitchcock explained, "In realizing that James Bond and the imitators of James Bond were more or less making my wild adventure films such as North by Northwest wilder than ever, I felt that I should not try and go one better."

Torn Curtain tells of double agent Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), a physicist enlisted to gather information about anti-missile technology in East Germany. Unlike Bond, but in keeping with the Hitchcockian tradition of ordinary people pulled into extreme situations, Michael is strictly an amateur spy. And because Hitchcock did not want Torn Curtain to be "a James Bond type 'comic strip' film with its invincible hero and mechanical gimmickry," Michael has no fancy gadgets or special combat skills. This is particularly evident during the film's murder sequence, which takes up nearly five, very tense minutes of screen time, and which certainly proves Hitchcock's point that it is "very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man."

Hitchcock also avoids presenting a straightforward binary between good and evil - such as that between Bond and an enemy organization like SPECTRE. Instead, the director wanted to show that "a spy is a hero in his own country but a villain in enemy country." So Torn Curtain does not have a traditional villain. Instead Michael is pitted against characters that have no openly evil intentions - they just happen to be communists. Some are even quite likable, particularly Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), Michael's East German bodyguard, who lets out humorous quips and never operates outside the law. Even though James Bond is often described as an anti-hero, he is still meant to be likable and we are still meant to take pleasure in the skillful way he takes out the bad guys and completes his missions. Torn Curtain, however, asks us to consider how we would respond if roles were reversed and raises the audience's doubt about whether Michael is fully justified in his actions.

Our doubt about Michael is also partially determined by our strong identification with his assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews). The idea for Torn Curtain came from the true story of British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who spied for and defected to the USSR, but Hitchcock was less interested in the spies themselves than he was in Melinda Maclean, who helped conceal her husband's actions and eventually followed him to the Soviet Union. Torn Curtain thus focuses a great deal of screen time on Sarah's reactions to and participation in Michael's mission, and for the first half of the film, the audience is aligned with her, rather than with our spy hero. Though Sarah proves to be just one of several women who supply Michael with much-needed assistance, she is also the film's moral center.

Hitchcock's attempts to differentiate his film from the Bond series were tempered somewhat by Universal. It was the studio that wanted Hitchcock to hire Paul Newman, in part because he was one of Hollywood's hot new stars, but also because he possessed an athleticism and sex appeal akin to that of Sean Connery (and Newman's body is often on display in Torn Curtain). But where the James Bond connection is perhaps most apparent is in the film's score. The Bond films were known for their soundtracks - for the unique themes written for each installment by John Barry and for their profitable pop songs. Since 1955, Hitchcock's films had been scored by Bernard Herrmann, who was responsible for some of the director's most memorable and lauded soundtracks, including Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). For Torn Curtain, however, Universal didn't want the same old Herrmann style, and he was instructed to write something more in keeping with contemporary popular music - something that would sell. When Hitchcock rejected Herrmann's attempt, which is structured around repeating and inverted simple scale patterns and unusual juxtapositions between brass and woodwinds, the composer replied, "You don't make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don't write pop music." Herrmann was fired and replaced by John Addison, who wrote a score built around identifiable themes, or leitmotifs, quite similar to those found in the Bond films.

Torn Curtain was not well received, and comparisons to James Bond were perhaps inevitable. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for example, complained that "alongside such Bondian adventures as From Russia With Love . . . [Torn Curtain] looks no more novel or sensational than grandma's old knitted shawl." Hitchcock himself was disappointed with the film, and found it interesting only as an experiment with light and color; he relied heavily on natural light and shot through a gray gauze. But the film also displays Hitchcock's continued interest in psychologically complicated characters and manipulation of audience expectations, and the murder sequence is a set piece that holds its own alongside similar moments throughout the director's oeuvre. So even though Torn Curtain is often pushed aside as an aesthetic failure, remembered primarily for breaking up the long-standing Hitchcock/Herrmann collaboration, it has a great deal to offer and is worthwhile viewing for any Hitchcock fan.

How to Watch HOW I WON THE WAR

Thursday, October 30th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

How to Watch How I Won the War

By Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant

I'll admit, the first time I sat down to watch How I Won the War, I didn't make it all the way through. I just wasn't in the mood for a film that asks so much of the viewer. Richard Lester's comedic war satire is deliberately difficult - just as much today as it was for audiences in 1967. Those who didn't understand the film upon its release disliked it; those who did understand it - or, more often, who misunderstood it - were offended. The Rank Organization found the film traitorous and refused to screen it in its theaters on Memorial Day. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther also attacked the film, insisting "war isn't funny." Of course, that was precisely Lester's point: war is not funny, or glamorous, or entertaining. Though it hasn't quite gained the status of an overlooked masterpiece, How I Won the War is a film that bears revisiting, and Steven Soderbergh has called it a fascinating work that only gets better with age. So here are some thoughts about how to watch How I Won the War.

1. Don't worry too much about the plot. Adapted by English playwright Charles Wood from Patrick Ryan's 1963 novel, How I Won the War tells of the comically incompetent Lt. Earnest Goodbody (Michael Crawford), who is given a mission to set up a cricket pitch in enemy territory in North Africa in order to improve morale and impress a visiting officer. While this plot provides a basic through-line, your experience of the film might be more rewarding if you approach it not as a conventional narrative, but as variations on a theme: war may be necessary but it is never noble.

2. It's OK if you don't get all the references.  How I Won the War is a dense film, and although it can be read as commentary on Vietnam, the satire is mobilized through British experiences of World War II. Indeed, it is because Lester is criticizing the Good War - rather than a more controversial conflict - that his film was declared unpatriotic. But it is through this historically and culturally specific lens that the film's satire should be read. So the cricket match - that typically British pastime - becomes a symbol not only for the idea of war as a game, but also for the film's commentary on the upperclass military officers. There are also the recreations of actual battles: Dunkirk, Dieppe, El Alamein, and Arnhem. Staged as skirmishes in which Goodbody's men fight and die, these battles serve as reminders of real-life tactical errors and a critique of British Army commander Bernard Law Montgomery's leadership. Some of this is made evident in the film, but if you’re not aware of things like the irreverence toward Montgomery or the classist associations of cricket, then the satire can be hard to fully grasp. However, that's all right, because the film has another point of entry.

3. If you're not a WWII history buff, focus on the critique of war movies. Lester found films like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) condemnable for presenting war as entertainment. So How I Won the War attempts to deconstruct conventional war films by undermining tropes like the important assignment, the noble sacrifice of those killed, and the fostering of camaraderie under adversity. Humorous references to these conventional war films, such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), also abound. Though many critics chastised Lester's film for not treating war with respect, the director believed that it was far more respectful than something like The Dirty Dozen (1967), because it was "doing everything in one's power to say, 'For God's sake, don't use war as entertainment: aren't you ashamed?'" And since we are still surrounded by mediated images of war - the Brad Pitt vehicle Fury being just the most recent example - we are well equipped to handle this aspect of the film's indictment.

4. Embrace the Brechtianism. Like Jean Luc Godard's Les carabiniers (1963), How I Won the War attempts to bring Bertolt Brecht's techniques of distanciation into mainstream cinema. So Lester continually disrupts the narrative, reminding viewers that they are watching a movie and refusing to allow them to identify with characters or experience sympathy for the situations. As Neil Sinyard notes, the film is "structured like a minefield, ready to explode" when you least expect it. There are dramatic jumps in time and space. Actors break the fourth wall. Archival footage is intercut with new footage, in both color and black and white. And there are odd, surrealist touches, such as the brightly colored dead soldiers that follow Goodbody's troop. Lester has admitted recently that some of these techniques were perhaps a mistake, as they alienated audiences, but they seemed the best way to achieve the film's goals at the time. And today, they still offer a fascinating example of political argument through stylistic and narrative experimentation.

5. Enjoy Roy Kinnear. How I Won the War is perhaps best remembered for John Lennon's appearance as the kleptomaniac Gripweed. This was Lennon's third film with Lester - after A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965) - and it is reportedly the film to which one of the verses of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" refers:

I saw a film today, oh boy
The English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

But How I Won the War features other notable performances, including one from fantastic British character actor Roy Kinnear, who also appeared in several of Lester's films and was a close friend of the director. Personally, I always find a film improved by Kinnear's presence.

It's important to see How I Won the War as the product of its time. Lester was young and disillusioned and created an angry film that was determined to make audiences ashamed of what they were watching. Even if it takes more than one viewing to fully absorb what Lester's trying to do, How I Won the War is ultimately worth the effort.

A 35mm print of Charles Chaplin's Shoulder Arms begins a Cinematheque series honoring the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I on Saturday, November 1 at 7 p.m. Shoulder Arms will be immediately followed by a 35mm print of the decidedly World War II-based How I Won the War.


Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man  was written by Jenna Stoeber, Media and Cultural Studies Grad Student and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication Arts at UW, Madison. The Wicker Man: Final Cut will screen at the Cinematheque on Halloween, October 31, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue 4070 Vilas Hall.

The history of The Wicker Man is one mainly composed of cuts, from the original run time of 99 minutes (though some records suggest it was even longer) to the brisk 87-minute film that most audiences are familiar with. Large portions were removed so that it might run as a B-movie attraction to A-headliners like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (which screened earlier this month at the Cinematheque). Somewhere in the editing process, the clips of those 12 minutes were lost, and audiences have had to make do with the truncated version ever since.

Even in its trimmed state, however, the movie has been a hallmark of high quality horror cinema. For example, it was described by the film magazine Cinefantastique as being “the Citizen Kane of horror films.” Even for people who aren’t fans of horror, it’s not hard to see why this film is a classic. Few movies - and fewer horror movies, especially - can so adeptly reposition a viewer from one screening to the next. When first seeing the film, we, the audience, are very much positioned in the same role as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a deeply devout police officer who has come to the paganistic island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison. Seeing the story with fresh eyes, it’s impossible not to follow along with him as we all piece together what happened to Rowan, if indeed she exists at all. He canvases the town, but Mrs. Morrison insists she doesn’t have a daughter named Rowan, and the townspeople contend that they’ve never seen her picture. However, traces of her presence are seen throughout the village and every piece of information leads us closer to understanding what’s happening. As Howie investigates, we uncover more clues about the jubilant heathen religion practiced on the island. The villagers clearly know more than they let on, and each sinister hint we find and Howie finds only leads to more questions.

But something happens when viewed a second, third, or fourth time (or more, if you’re like me); once you know the mystery, you can’t help but identify with the villagers as they drop small hints about Rowan’s fate and about the unknown rituals they practice. Instead of helplessly allowing the coy barkeep Alder MacGreagor (Lindsay Kemp) to direct our gazes, we are free to watch as he smirks at the increasingly frustrated sergeant. We know, as the incisive Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) knows, the grim pagan lore that grounds their belief system.

The insight provided is astounding. In a particularly unsettling scene, Howie tears open a desk he believes is Rowan’s, only to find a beetle with a string glued to its back, circling around a nail until it can’t move any more. A school girl laughs and calls it a poor old thing, to which the sergeant snaps “Well, why in God’s name do you do it, girl?” But she can’t say just yet- that would spoil everything. For those re-viewing, the machinations are laid bare and we are encouraged to take part in the festivities.

For years, Christopher Lee, who plays the island’s eloquent patron, Lord Summerisle, insisted that a longer, more complete version must exist somewhere, in some canister waiting to be untombed- and he was right. As the movie’s 40th anniversary approached, film distributor StudioCanal called for a search for any existing prints that might contain the missing footage. After several months, a 92 minute version was found buried in the Harvard Film Archives.

The Wicker Man: Final Cut - perhaps named prematurely, as several minutes are still missing- features a restoration of roughly 5 minutes of footage that has been unseen for decades, as well as some familiar scenes shuffled into their original order. For fans of the movie, watching the extended version is like hearing a second punchline to your favorite joke. The additions include two fantastic extended monologues by the always impeccable Lee, including a salacious sequence in which he stands beneath the barmaid Willow’s window and recites Walt Whitman’s “I think I could turn and live with animals…” Also restored are some of the movie’s beautiful musical sequences, such as the subtle and demure “Gently Johnny.”

The restoration offers satisfying new sights and sounds even for old fans. The Wicker Man: Final Cut is a Halloween necessity, regardless of how many times you’ve seen it- and especially if you’ve never seen it at all. As Lord Summerisle would doubtless say in his assiduous way, “it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.” (Jenna Stoeber)

A Glimpse at SABOTEUR

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur was written by UW Madison student Blake Davenport. A 35mm print of Saboteur will screen on Sunday, October 26, 2 p.m. in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen 'More Hitchcock!' series.

High-octane excitement! Circus performers! Romance! A Dastardly gang of spies! Even Explosions! Although I may have led one to believe that I am simply describing one of the weekly parties thrown by the UW professors (you guys aren’t fooling us), these are just a few of the elements Alfred Hitchcock utilizes to construct his highly entertaining 1942 spy thriller Saboteur. Sandwiched between two of Hitchcock’s complex relationship dramas Suspicion (1941) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Saboteur finds our beloved Alfred in full action mode, showcasing early experimentation with grand locales and fast-paced plotting that undoubtedly laid the groundwork for his later masterpiece North by Northwest.

Set during the heated midst of World War II, the film almost immediately begins in disaster, as a massive fire breaks out at the airplane plant where our protagonist Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) also happens to work. When one of Barry’s friends and colleagues is killed in the fire, Barry is accused of sabotage and murder. From this point onward, the plot adheres strongly to Hitchcock’s oft-used “wrong man” formula, with Barry attempting to uncover the real perpetrators of the sabotage while simultaneously evading the police. Along his quest Barry encounters billboard model – and Hitchcock signature blonde - Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane). Although Patricia is initially extremely way of Barry, even attempting to turn him in, she becomes crucial to the hero’s quest as they team up to take down the group of saboteurs and clear Barry’s name.

Judging from the scene that signals the fire alone, one can immediately ascertain how a certain play with style comes to the forefront in Saboteur. Although the camera is static, thick billows of black smoke pour across the frame, alerting the audience to the ominous presence of the fire and the saboteurs. This shot is signature Hitchcock, as the heightened visuals work to expose action as opposed to simple dialogue or dramatics. Another moment like this is when the camera humorously tracks in to a novel entitled “The Death of a Nobody” as the saboteurs taunt Barry. Another Hitchcock flourish is the use of memorable locales, from deserted ghost towns to New York City, a touch that allows the director a greater flexibility in how the action is staged throughout the film. As the thrilling climax takes place on the Statue of Liberty herself, its clear that the spectacle of locale is almost as important as the story.

While directorial style is, of course, a huge contributing factor to the enjoyment of Saboteur, it is the personal opinion of this author that the colorful cast of supporting characters provides just as much of the fun. As the police refuse to listen to Barry’s side of the story, the ragtag supporting give Barry the solace and assistance he needs to clear his name. Ranging from a jolly truck driver to a troupe of circus performers, the supporting players provide an oppositional stance to the sort of “fascist” manner in which the police pursue Barry. It should also be noted that Patricia’s blind uncle, portrayed by Vaughan Glaser, might be one of the coolest Hitchcock characters of all time, acting like sort of 40s version of Morpheus who can see “intangible things,” such as Barry’s innocence.

Hitchcock held a certain sort amount of disdain towards Saboteur. While the auteur was famously known for attempting to control every aspect of his pictures, the parameters surrounding this particular picture didn’t quite gel with this aesthetic. David O. Selznick, Hitchcock’s usual producing partner of the time sold the script to producers from Universal, which largely impacted the budget and casting of the film. Hitchcock himself notes in his interview with Francois Truffaut, that Priscilla Lane, “Was imposed on me as a fait accompli. She simply wasn’t the right type for a Hitchcock picture.” Further along in the conversation Hitchcock makes similar comments about overall structure as well, noting how the plot is a “mass of ideas”. However, from just a single viewing of Saboteur, its quite clear that this was just Hitchcock’s complaints are a reflection of his usual perfectionism.  The film is very entertaining, suspenseful, and action-packed, and while Hitchcock may not have preferred his female lead, Cummings and Lane turn in very good performances that carry the narrative effectively. Retaining excellent use of setting and one of the most memorable Hitchcock climaxes of all-time, Saboteur is an exciting thriller that easily ranks as a must see for anyone looking to spend a little more time in the world of Hitchcock

A Strange Soundtrack for Your Body's Ears

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the music featured in Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears was written by UW Cinematheque Programmer and Chief Projectionist, Mike King. The Strange Color will have its only Madison-area theatrical screening on Friday, October 24 at 7p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

A Strange Soundtrack for Your Body's Ears

By Mike King

Belgian directing team Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani craft modern giallos with unbelievably vivid textural detail.  Their hallucinatory new film, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, is riddled with cinephilic allusions, yet wholly original.  Though clearly indebted to films of the past, the only thing Cattet and Forzani actually copy verbatim is music: much of the soundtrack is directly lifted from the 1970s cinema that inspires them.

Of course, films have been repurposing each others’ music since the studio era, with examples ranging from sly commentary, as when characters in William Wellman’s hardscrabble Depression portrait Wild Boys of the Road ironically whistle “We’re in the Money” from Warner’s contemporaneous Gold Diggers of 1933, to the simply bewildering, as when “Over the Rainbow” appears as a refrain in the seedy 1941 noir I Wake Up Screaming (a title, incidentally, that would fit The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears like a black leather glove).  In recent years, Quentin Tarantino has become the king of this kind of sonic appropriation, curating Billboard-charting soundtracks that crib from blaxploitation movies and Ennio Morricone scores.  Tarantino traffics in deep cuts, but the more well known the source, the murkier the line between homage and theft—in 2012, Kim Novak cried foul when The Artist swiped Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Vertigo theme. 

Like Tarantino, Cattet and Forzani have enviable record collections, and playing DJ is an inextricable part of their creative process.  The duo assembles their soundtrack as they write; music selections are even indicated in the script, so the uncanny fusion of sound and image is embedded from the film’s earliest stages. In an interview with Electric Sheep, Cattet reveals that “music inspires the way a sequence develops. It gives us a rhythm, and ideas too… all of a sudden, there’s one track that strikes us, so we play it again and again.”  For Cattet and Forzani, old giallo scores become muses for the film itself: crate-digging is symbiotic with screenwriting.

Given their subject matter, naturally Cattet and Forzani use a couple of Ennio Morricone cues (his music appeared in their previous giallo, Amer, as well), including this chilling number, originally from The Short Night of the Glass Dolls:


Forzani cited the following Morricone composition from Maddalena as “the most important music” in The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.  The breathy vocals accompany one of the film’s most spellbinding sequences.


A few of Strange Color’s non-Morricone pieces exist online, as well.  Originally composed for a 1970 Italian take on The Picture of Dorian Gray (directed by erstwhile Sergio Leone cinematographer Massimo Dallmano), Giuseppe de Luca’s “Rito a Los Angeles” was also used by Steven Soderbergh for a sequence in Ocean’s Twelve.


Cattet and Forzani’s incomparably broad knowledge of exploitation sounds extends even to Italian ripoffs of softcore’s deathless Emmanuelle series.  Nico Fidenco’s “My Boundless” is one of the film’s most memorable cuts.


Just as every other aspect of the film is endlessly revised in the transition from script to screen, not all the music Cattet and Forzani had in mind made it to the final cut.  Cattet cites the theme for Seven Blood-Stained Orchids as “the very first piece we thought of for our film, and it inspired the first drafts.”  Even though it no longer appears in the film, its status as a key inspiration merits inclusion here - consider it a bonus track.



Monday, October 20th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

November 13, 3:30 p.m., UPDATE: Online ticket sales for this event have ended. A very limited number of tickets will be available at the will call table in the Point Cinema lobby beginning at 6 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $20, cash only.

The UW Cinematheque is proud to announce the only Madison-area screening of the latest feature from cinema legend Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage), the director’s first feature-length project in 3D. The 3D benefit screening will take place on Thursday, November 13, at 7 p.m., at the Marcus Point Cinema, 7825 Big Sky Drive, in Madison. Tickets for this screening are $20 and proceeds will benefit the UW Cinematheque’s efforts to bring digital 3D projection to our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

Half a century after igniting the French New Wave with his revolutionary Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard has produced his first 3D feature, a mind-blowing fusion of art and technology that seems beamed in from a future era of moviemaking.  One of cinema’s true visionaries, Godard applies his relentless creativity to 3D, using custom-made camera rigs to conjure breathtaking, eye-bending effects like you’ve never seen before, and that absolutely must be experienced on the big screen.  A magisterial meditation on philosophy, infinity, and the auteur’s own pet dog, Goodbye to Language is as dazzling and invigorating as anything in Godard's legendary filmography.  Far and away one of the most acclaimed films of the year, Goodbye to Language won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called it a “thrilling cinematic experience that nearly levitated the theater.” 

The UW Cinematheque presents the Wisconsin premiere of this awe-inspiring achievement; as an added bonus, our 3D screening will be introduced by UW Madison’s Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies Emeritus David Bordwell, who has declared Goodbye to Language “the best new film I’ve seen this year, and the best 3D film I’ve ever seen.” Professor Bordwell will also lead a post-screening discussion with the audience.

The benefit screening of Goodbye to Language will screen on Thursday, November 13, 7 p.m. at:

Marcus Point Cinema
7825 Big Sky Drive
Madison, WI 53719

France | 2014 | DCP | 70 min. | French with English subtitles
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdelli, Richard Chevalier

Special Thanks to Gary Palmucci and Jonathan Hertzberg of Kino Lorber, David Bordwell, Mike King, Ben Reiser, Christina Martin-Wright

Tickets, $20, can be purchased through the Wisconsin Film Festival’s ticketing system here.

Read David Bordwell on Goodbye to Language here:

Read David Bordwell's further thoughts on Goodbye to Language here.

November 13, 3:30 p.m., UPDATE: Online ticket sales for this event have ended. A very limited number of tickets will be available at the will call table in the Point Cinema lobby beginning at 6 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $20, cash only.


THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY: Hitchcock's Surrealist Romance

Friday, October 17th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Amanda McQueen, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Project Assistant

The Trouble With Harry is a bit of an outlier in Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. Though ostensibly about the discovery of a dead body, the film is really a droll - if somewhat macabre - romantic comedy, lacking in the suspense typically associated with the director's most celebrated works. Harry was also a commercial failure upon its release in 1955, and this seems to have played a role in the comparative lack of attention the film has received. In more recent years, however, critics have started to reevaluate the film, and rightly so.

Based on a 1949 novella by English writer Trevor Jack Story, The Trouble with Harry tells of a group of townspeople who find a corpse in the woods - that of the titular Harry. Each believing they are in some way responsible for Harry's death, they conspire to hide the body until a solution can be reached. In the midst of the discussions of mortality and murder that ensue, love blossoms and couples are formed. Paramount considered adapting the novella in 1950, but thought the scenario too whimsical and unworldly for an effective screen translation. The story's understated dark humor and romance appealed to Hitchcock, however, and he bought the rights - anonymously, in order to ensure a low price. Hitchcock had a multiple picture deal with Paramount at the time, and though the studio was still skeptical about the property's commercial potential, they were willing to bet on the director's reputation and put up a budget of $1 million.

To write the film, Hitchcock selected his favored screenwriter of the moment, John Michael Hayes. Hayes had just finished Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), to much acclaim, and would follow up Harry with the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). (But a disagreement over screen credit on Man severed Hayes' personal and professional relationship with Hitchcock permanently). Hayes' penchant for character development and sharp dialogue made him a good fit for Harry, which is peopled with quipping eccentrics. Moreover, Hitchcock had decided to set the film in a small town in New England in the fall, and this appealed to Hayes, who had grown up in that part of the country. To ensure the authenticity of the desired autumnal foliage, locations were selected in Craftsbury and Morrisville, Vermont, and though Hitchcock wanted to shoot the entire film there - setting up a make-shift sound stage in the American Legion building in Morrisville - uncooperative weather drove the crew back to California, bags of real Vermont leaves in hand.

Upon its release in October of 1955, Harry received mixed reviews; some critics found it slow and strained, others thought it sophisticated and funny. Though it performed decently overseas, it was a flop in America and ultimately did not recoup its costs. At first glance, we might understand why. Harry has no big-name stars and no pre-sold story; it had only Hitchcock's name to market it. And this might not have been a problem, had Harry been something more typical of the Master of Suspense. But as film critic Peter Bradshaw hypothesizes, while audiences expected Agatha Christie, Hitchcock gave them Waiting for Godot.

Aesthetically speaking, The Trouble with Harry has a great deal to recommend it. It features lush VistaVision cinematography by long-term Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks; solid editing from Paramount veteran Alma Macrorie (nominated for an Oscar for her work on The Bridges at Toko-Ri [1954]); and a jaunty, ostinato-based musical score from Bernard Herrmann. This was the first of seven soundtracks Herrmann did for Hitchcock over the course of their 11-year relationship, and it remained the director's favorite. Harry is also well cast, making good use of stalwart character actors Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, and Edmund Gwenn, and featuring an early performance from Jerry Mathers - two years before he would become beloved throughout America as Theodore "The Beaver" Cleaver. Most notably, though, Harry also marks the screen debut of Shirley MacLaine, who was reportedly cast after associate producer Herbert Coleman and unit production manager Doc Erickson took a break from location scouting to see The Pajama Game on Broadway. As luck would have it, dancer Carol Haney was out sick, and MacLaine, her understudy, was on that night.

It is ultimately the film's tone, however, that has really started to attract some critics back to The Trouble with Harry, ironically, since it was tone that deterred Paramount from adapting Story's novella in the first place and it was the tone that seemed most off-putting to contemporary reviewers and audiences. Harry is fairly frank in its discussion of death and sex - at least by 1955 standards. Certain concessions had to be made to the Production Code Administration, of course, to ensure the film's release: for example, Jennifer's son is illegitimate in the novella but not so in the film, and the film eliminates the novella's rather perverse scene where Harry offers to make love to Jennifer while pretending to be Robert - his dead brother and Jennifer's former lover. Nevertheless, double entendres and allusions abound, and there are explicit discussions about nude portraits and the scandalous double bed. More noteworthy, however, is the way characters discuss their love lives and their potential for murder with the same nonchalance and practicality. Death and sex are completely intertwined in the film and neither seems to be cause for much fuss. Harry's fictional town of Highwater, Vermont thus comes across like a strange dreamscape, populated with witty sleepwalkers. Indeed, it is this eerie, somnambulistic detachment of the characters - their muted responses to things that should be shocking or upsetting - that has sparked comparisons between Harry and surrealist works like Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

The Trouble with Harry has been called a pastoral comedy, a fairy tale, and an experiment in "radical, absurdist cinema." However you want to characterize it, it is certainly an unusual, perhaps even dream-like, but ultimately delightful experience. It is also an experience that Hitchcock stood resolutely by. The director blamed his "enemies" – the distributor and exhibitors – for the film's financial failure, and though he was forced to admit that it ultimately proved to be "an expensive self-indulgence," he also insisted that The Trouble with Harry was one of his personal favorites.

A 35mm print of The Trouble with Harry will screen on Sunday, October 19 at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Chazen Museum of Art.


UW Cinematheque's Ben Reiser on DON'T LOOK NOW

Thursday, October 16th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy


By Ben Reiser, UW Cinematheque Programmer and Accounts Manager

(There are some mild spoilers below, but if you want to experience this film the way it should be experienced, maybe wait ‘til after you’ve seen it…)

I first saw Don't Look Now on the tail end of a double bill with Rosemary’s Baby at Cinema Village in NYC when I was 14. My friend Steve and I had gone (and gotten some adult to buy us tickets to this R rated double bill) to see Rosemary’s Baby which I had seen parts of on TV. We didn’t know anything about Don’t Look Now, and weren’t really even planning on staying for all of it, unless it really grabbed us.

Well, by the end of the first scene it had indeed grabbed us. By the end of the movie I was a wreck, the wind knocked out of me, unable to get up from my seat or say anything to Steve. That’s only happened to me two other times at the movies (I saw Halloween in 1978 when I was 12, that was also the only time I’ve ever actually hid under a seat, and later, in 1988, I was unable to move for a good five minutes after the ending of The Vanishing).

Don’t Look Now immediately became one of the cornerstones in my lifelong love of scary movies. I’ve since seen it, talked about it, recommended it, thought about it, argued about it, and dreamt about it so many times I feel like I’m too close to it now to be able to say or write anything about it, but I’ll try.

To prepare myself I finally scouted out a copy of Daphne Du Maurier’s original short story of the same name to see just how much of the DNA of this film is Du Maurier’s and how much is Nicolas Roeg’s (and screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant). What I discovered is that the film is surprisingly faithful to the short story in terms of it’s plotting, but the overall tone is different and there are some rather important cinematic embellishments and differences in terms of character and theme:

First, the title. I’ve always wondered what, if anything, it signified. Ultimately I decided it was meant as a cautionary flag for the audience, and that at a certain point towards the end of the film, it was best to look away. Perhaps it should have popped up as an onscreen warning along the lines of the countdown clock that allowed viewers a chance to retreat to the "Coward's Corner" before the ending of William Castle's Homicidal (1961), or the infamous countdown before the climax of Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone (1998), but in Du Maurier's short story, which for most of its length is more of a comedy of manners, the most likely refers to the main character (John Baxter)’s humorous attempts to keep his wife from seeing a pair of sisters (twins in the short story) who claim to have a psychic bond with the couple’s dead daughter. The humorous tone and mild satire of British class warfare in the short story is replaced by a more somber meditation on grief and on the dangers of misperception and miscommunication in the film adaptation.

Towards that end, Roeg makes even better use of Venice as the setting of the story than Du Maurier does, doubling down on the language and cultural barriers only hinted at in the original story. By making Baxter an American with a British wife rather than a fellow European, and as played by Donald Sutherland, Baxter conveys a different kind of entitled arrogance than that of the original story’s upper crust Brit. He’s even more a fish out of water and his struggles to understand and be understood are a constant source of unease. Venice in the film is not only a dank, shadowy maze that feels like a twisty, open air haunted house (every hotel and restaurant in the film is shuttered, closing down, covered with sheets, it’s the end of the tourist season and it feels like there will never be another one) it’s also a very foreign land, with strange customs and a language that for the characters in the film and most American viewers is a definite roadblock, an obstacle where important nuances are lost, never to be recovered.

Roeg adds a haunting prologue not found in the short story that firmly establishes a mood of dread and sorrow as well as introducing a number of recurring visual motifs: water, broken glass, the color red. These elements provide a roadmap that viewers will find difficult to decipher upon first viewing, and indeed it’s this wonderful “form mirroring content” that makes Don’t Look Now such a master class in filmmaking. The film sprinkles clues and hints throughout in a way that leads the audience to come to the same conclusions as the characters, right or (frequently) wrong. We never get a clearer picture of events than the characters do, but it’s done so expertly that we don’t register the manipulation. Through his use of unconventional editing and sound design, Roeg disorients us as viewers much as Baxter and his wife, Laura (a radiant yet haunted Julie Christie), are disoriented in the back alleys of Venice and adrift in their lives as they struggle to deal with the death of a child. The visceral cinematography tends to put us in the center of the action, and in a terrifying sequence, we are dangling by a thread, high above a hard floor after some broken scaffolding leaves Baxter hanging on for dear life. We as viewers are right there with him, fists clenched, hearts racing.

The film’s infamous sex scene is but a mere mention in the short story. Much has been made of this scene between Sutherland and Christie in the movie, it frequently ends up on lists of the top sex scenes in cinema history. Eschewing a linear trajectory, we see shots of the couple making love interspersed with shots of the two of them going through the routine motions of getting dressed, post-coitus, for dinner. There is a vérité quality to the lovemaking that is rarely seen in such scenes using movie stars, awkwardly angled body parts, and the fairly explicit indication of cunnilingus. Perhaps what caused such a stir is that this sex more than most onscreen sex resembles the way an actual married couple might commingle, with a knowledge of each other’s bodies – what works and what doesn’t.

And then of course there’s the ending. I’ve always thought that Don’t Look Now has one of the best shock-endings in the history of cinema, but perhaps that’s not an uncontested opinion. I mentioned this week’s screening to a longtime friend recently and he said something about how he could never get past the dumb ending. I couldn’t disagree more, but it’s true that for as much as I love it I always assumed that it was a Roeg revision, not part of the original story design. I was happily surprised to discover this week that the ending is Du Maurier’s completely. I think it’s perfect, and devastating, and unforgettable. The same can be said for the film as a whole.

A 35mm print of Don't Look Now will screen on Friday, October 17 at 7 p.m. in the CInematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.