Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Flash in the Upstairs Rear Window Apartment

I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class on https://learn.canvas.net/courses/1679. One of the features of the class is a Daily Dose, a short clip from one of the films under study that is used to discuss certain aspects of the film. In one of the Daily Doses, the opening of Rear Window is shown. I have seen Rear Window somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 times, and there is something I had never noticed until I watched the Daily Dose this morning. 

It occurs approximately 1:30 measured from when James Stewart's name appears in the opening credits (Stewart's name appears before the title and is the first text in the opening credits). I chose this timing because I figured that different versions of the film would have different company logos tacked onto the front of the film. Anyway, at this point the film there is a slow pan of the apartments outside Jame Stewart's Rear Window. During the pan, there is a flash in the window, diagonally above the window where the couple is sleeping on the fire escape. 

I know that the apartments on the set were furnished and had working lights. It's possible that at just that moment a light bulb burned out. Possibly this was noticed and possibly not.  Maybe it was noticed but by the time they noticed it was too late to retake the shot, but I like to think that nothing in an Alfred Hitchcock film happens by accident. So if that flash was not an accident, that means that possibly there was another photographer living in the apartment across the way from James Stewart.

Now what would a photographer running a studio out of his or her apartment in Greenwich Village in 1954 be doing as a means of support? Taking portraits of the neighborhood kiddies? Well, considering there aren't many children in the neighborhood, it seems more likely that the other photographer might be doing something else that paid a little better, like girly pictures. Still, this seemed like a bit of a stretch, but you never know with Hitchcock. 

Then I decided to watch a little further. At  approximately 3:50 to 4:10 (again from James Stewart's name in the opening credits), while James Stewart is talking on the phone with his editor, you see this apartment again. Two women come out on the balcony wearing robes. They lie down on the balcony deck, and you see them drape their robes over the railing above the brick wall that borders that balcony. No indication is given as to whether the women are wearing bathing suits or birthday suits, but they are scantily clad enough to make a passing helicopter come what seems dangerously close to the roof of the building. So does that make the girly pictures thing seem a little less far fetched?

Motivated by this I decided to rewatch the whole film again in fast forward, looking for that window. It is shown again a number of times, but I didn't see anything that would lend more credence to my girly pictures theory. That window appears when the dog is killed. Two man-woman couples are standing in that window, when the woman is yelling about her dog. Nothing indicates that anything unusual is going on. Just two couples having dinner or whatever. Possibly, I'm just imagining things. Possibly, it is Hitchcock's private joke to himself. Likely, we will never know. 

But let's just say that I am right about this girly pictures thing. That means that the whole time James Stewart was obsessing over Miss Torso and worrying about Miss Lonelyheart's love life. He should have been looking in that top floor apartment, where the real action was going on. Then again, if he did that, Raymond Burr might have got away with murder. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

'Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon – Body Heat

This post is part of the 'Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven's ESSAYS from the COUCH.

I first saw Body Heat in college in a film class. In this class, the professor compared and contrasted classic films with contemporary films, like Casablanca with The Graduate (it was the early 1980s, so The Graduate was still considered contemporary). I don't remember all the film pairs, but I know Double Indemnity and Body Heat was one of them. The comparison of the two is pretty natural. Per IMDB, Halliwells Film Guide called Body Heat an uncredited revamp of Double Indemnity, and The Thriller Film Guide said that the "plot (although not credited as such) is a virtual reworking of Double Indemnity."

Though the basic concept (man and woman conspire to kill her older husband for the money) is identical, Body Heat works just fine. If anything, it takes the idea further and to a much darker place. As neo-noir goes, it's one of the best and for me, Body Heat holds its own with Double Indemnity quite well.

I hadn't seen Body Heat in probably 20 years until I watched it again a couple of weeks ago. I was confident that I would not be disappointed, and I was right. The film was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, a name that looked familiar to me when I saw the opening credits. He also directed, The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon, and others, and wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, yes, the good Star Wars movie. Body Heat was his directorial debut, and at the time, he was afraid he might not get another chance. Thus, he wanted to do a modern film noir, like his favorite classics, Double Indemnity, The Asphalt Jungle, and Out of the Past. Suffice it to say, he succeeded.

Wikipedia calls Body Heat a "neo-noir erotic thriller," and there is no denying the raw sexuality of the film. Even today, I would call it one of the most erotic films I've ever seen. It's about as explicit as a film can get and still retain an R rating. Director Lawrence Kasdan was concerned about the sexuality and wanted to make sure it didn't come off as a male sex fantasy. He hired a female editor, Carol Littleton, the first of many collaborations between the pair. The sexuality is integral to the story and is deftly handled. It doesn't come across as gratuitous. Okay, maybe it does, but you won't care.

The cast consists of at-the-time mostly unknown actors, Kathleen Turner's film debut, and William Hurt's third film role. Though Ted Danson had been getting regular TV work, Body Heat precedes Cheers by by over a year, so he was largely unknown as well. The only well-known member of the cast is Richard Crenna as the ill-fated husband.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a slimy lawyer, not a slimy insurance agent, but to carry on with the Double Indemnity reference, he plays Ned Racine way slimier than Fred MacMurray. In fact, the Ned Racine almost seems to embrace his sliminess. Fun fact: Body Heat was produced by The Ladd Company. Alan Ladd, Jr., made one demand of the film, that William Hurt shave his mustache. He thought it made Hurt look slimy. He even had a rep at Warner Brothers threaten Lawrence Kasdan that if the first dailies came in, and Hurt still had the mustache, it would be a big problem. Lawrence Kasdan was uncertain what to do but ultimately decided to ignore it. To his relief, he never heard anything more of it. The mustache does make William Hurt look slimy, and it's perfect.

The Ned Racine character is portrayed as a womanizer from the very start. In the very first scene, he is standing covered in sweat in his boxers, as the woman behind him is getting dressed. When he meets Kathleen Turner's Matty Walker character the sparks fly. The dialog in Body Heat is crisp and funny like you would expect in a film noir, but between Ned and Matty, it crackles. The chemistry between William Hurt and Kathleen Turner is palpable.

Kathleen Turner wanted the part of Matty from the very beginning, but as her professional credits were mostly a TV soap opera she couldn't get an audition at first. She was working out of New York at the time, and when she returned to L.A. to audition for a different movie four months, she found out that they still had not cast Mattie and finally was able to get an audition. Lawrence Kasdan liked her immediately and said that when he closed his eyes, she sounded exactly like he had heard the character in his head. Her sultry voice is reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, and it sure doesn't hurt that at 26, Kathleen Turner was insanely hot.

Again, there's the temptation to compare Matty to Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. If anything, Matty is better, or worse. There are no cracks in the veneer. At the beginning of Double Indemnity, Walter Neff sees through Phyllis and goes in anyway. For Ned Racine, he doesn't have an inkling until it's too late, and later, as the layers fall away, and he sees how smart and manipulative and bad she is, he can't even do anything about it. He just gets more and more screwed. There isn't even a chink in her armor, not a tear or furrowed brow, until possibly the very very end. 

In Body Heat, Ted Danson plays Ned's friend and a young assistant district attorney with a penchant for dancing like Fred Astaire. They never explain this. It is just a quirk that he has like chewing gum. In fact, William Hurt talks about it with another character, that he finds it weird that he's so good at it. While all of the dialog is smart and funny, Ted Danson's character gets many of the best lines.

Best known among the cast at the time was Richard Crenna as Matty's older husband, who only comes home on the weekends. They leave a lot of Crenna's character up to the imagination. He is unrespectable in a respectable sort of way. He says he was/still is a lawyer, but no longer practices. He is involved with real-estate investments, but you get the feeling he is a gangster but up high enough that he no longer needs to get his hands dirty unless he really needs to. There is an impression of danger about him, like he would kick your ass or shoot you if you messed with him.

Rounding out the cast are Mickey Rourke as an ex-con arsonist/client of William Hurt and J.A. Preston as a police detective and friend of both Hurt and Danson. Mickey Rourke is only in two scenes, but both are great. Though he doesn't know what Ned is up to, only that it involves arson, he tries talk him out of it and even offers to do it for him knowing that William Hurt would make a mess of it. Mickey Rourke tries to protect him, because he owes Ned (wouldn't be on the street without him). He knows that whatever Ned is doing, the reward can't justify the risk. Rourke has a speech about crime that hits about as hard as Edward G. Robinson's actuarial table speech in Double Indemnity does. 

J.A. Preston has made a career out of playing detectives and the like.  He is cynical and tough, but mostly an honest cop, who cares about William Hurt, even though he considers him a screwup. When he is he is put in charge of investigating Richard Crenna's murder, he too tries to warn William Hurt about not doing anything stupid, but by this time, he's in so far over his head, there's nothing he can do. Preston has a bulldog intensity and uses it to try to clear William Hurt, but too many loose ends have unraveled.

Body Heat is a dark movie. It picks up where Double Indemnity left off and takes it about three steps further. There are some great touches, nods to Body Heat's film noir roots. Matty gives Ned a fedora hat even though they were hardly in style in 1981. There's a great shot of him trying it on by looking at his reflection in the car window. In one scene, Matty stomps out a cigarette as she gets out of her car, and it just makes you go weak inside. My favorite little touch happens right before, they commit the deed. Ned is on the street and a very unusual car and driver go by, serving as a surreal and ridiculous warning to him. If you watch close, you'll see a number of great noir touches running throughout the film.

Body Heat is set in Florida in the sweltering heat, but the actual production was anything but. The original plan was have the film set and shot on location on the Jersey Shore. A Screen Actor's Guild strike delayed production by about four months. It was snowing in New Jersey by the time they could shoot. The best alternative was Florida, but it turned out to be the coldest winter Florida had seen in years. For nighttime shoots, the actors had to suck ice cubes to keep their breath from showing. The breeze that Matty complains doesn't make things cooler was practically gale force winds that had to be blocked with a truck to make it look like just a breeze. The sweat that covers the actors had to be spritzed on, and the actors were constantly cold from being wet all the time. It works though, I never would have known had I not watched the DVD special features.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the score by John Barry was excellent. He called the main title theme a jazz ballad with strident piano chords and low-end strings. He was going for the feel of a Humphrey Bogart film, and it works very well. I love 1980s music and electronic music, but there's a tendency for films of the period to embrace it, and the films seem very dated in retrospect. Sticking with a classic feel, Body Heat is timeless and perfect. Another tendency at the time was load films up with pop songs for the sake of selling a soundtrack. That would be have been all wrong. There is just one pop song, Bob Seger, "Feel Like a Number." It works perfect in the one scene, but then we are done.

I guess I should just come out and say it. I love Double Indemnity. It's one of my all-time favorite films. I love Body Heat too. If I had to choose one, I would pick Double Indemnity, but that doesn't take anything away from Body Heat. It's still as great film. The premise of the two films are the same, but Body Heat tells a unique story and places it in a modern context, while embracing the film noir roots it springs from. I could put Body Heat up against any classic film noir or neo-noir, and it holds its own.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much vs The Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock made the film, The Man Who Knew Much twice:
  • The Man Who Knew Much (1934) – Made in England, and starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, and Peter Lorre. Hitchcock considered this version the work of a talented amateur. For simplicity, I'll refer to this version as simply, 1934.

  • The Man Who Knew Much (1956) – Made in Hollywood, and starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Hitchcock considered this version the work of a professional. I'll refer to this version as 1956.

I always considered 1956 to be far superior, but I now realize that a lot of my problems with 1934 stem from seeing it on poor quality copies almost every time I watched it. Having recently seen a good copy of 1934, I've come to realize that I like both quite a bit. I still prefer 1956, but not by nearly as much as I had previously thought.

Between the two films, the basic story is the same but the way they are executed is enough different that watching one does not ruin your enjoyment of the other. Probably, the biggest difference is the ending, 1934 ends with a running gun battle, whereas, 1956 ends with 127 verses of the song, "Que Sera Sera." Remind me again, why I like 1956 better. Oh right, Jame Stewart and Doris Day.

Admittedly, the above is a bit facetious, but both film have their strengths and few if any weaknesses: 

  • 1934:
    • The pacing is excellent. It's a roller coaster ride, and even if there are parts that might seem a little hard to swallow, by the time you could even think that, you're already onto the next scene.
    • Peter Loree is a great actor, and he is kind of the prototypical Hitchcock villain, smart, refined, funny, and likable. If anything, he might be too likable, you kind of hate to see him go. 1956 doesn't really have a villian. Actually, it probably does, but I don't remember a thing about him. The couple that kidnap James Stewart and Doris Day's son are lower level, they take orders from someone, but I couldn't tell you who he was or anything about him. 
  • 1956:
    • Though 1956 doesn't have the break-neck pace of 1934 and adds scenes not in the original version, I never feel that it drags at all. The scenes that are added, though goofy in some respects, are hilarious, so you let it slide. The scene in the taxidermist shop and the friends waiting in their hotel for like 10 hours are stupid but in a fun way. Even Doris Day singing "Que Sera Sera" for 20 minutes still works  (okay, it wasn't that long).
    • Doris Day and James Stewart. For Doris Day, this is the movie that convinced me that she could really act, not just sing and do comedy, and James Stewart, it just doesn't get better than that. In 1934, I don't feel the anguish of the parents. That's what 1956 is all about, well that and the comedy. 
Both 1934 and 1956 are very good but for entirely different reasons.  I think Hitchcock is being too hard on himself with the talented amateur comment. Admittedly, Alfred Hitchcock made some films that are not good. 1934 is not one of them. It holds up well among any of the better Hitchcock films. I do still like 1956 better but 1934 is very good.