Showing posts with label Hitchcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hitchcock. Show all posts

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive

by Robert Lopresti

When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  

In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.


All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.

22 November 2015

Long Shots

© MGM and Kotaku
by Leigh Lundin

By happy happenstance, I found myself in conversation with our resident filmologist John Floyd discussing the single-camera, continuous tracking shot that opens Spectre. This phrase, ‘single-camera, continuous tracking shot’ or SCCS, refers to using one camera only to follow the action even as it moves uninterruptedly, sometimes over relatively great distances. (The 5½-minute tracking shot of the beach landing in Atonement stretched over a quarter of a mile.) Such a technique gives a sweeping sense of place and an immediacy of time.

Sure, your cousin Jenny shoots with a single camera all the time with her cell phone. Great Uncle Spassky did it before her with his compact video recorder. Of course he forgot he left the camera on during that inglorious argument during Louise’s wedding and Jennifer’s phone was confiscated by Old Mrs. Henpecker in English class after she documented Tonya Thurible really wasn’t wearing panties. But to be sure, they weren’t making epics to be shown at international film festivals, let alone your local Cineplex.

Plot Shots

You may have heard variations of single-camera, continuous tracking shot in connection with last year’s acclaimed Birdman. Virtually the entire movie appeared as one uninterrupted shot.

    Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu …

Iñárritu used a number of extremely clever cinematic tricks to fool the eye, visual sleight-of-hand, sneaky editing, and a smidgen of digital magic. He learned from a master.

I’d love to word-playfully tie Birdman in with The Birds, but my target is a different movie entirely, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Candidly, I appreciate it more as a film study than a film story. Hitch innovated two things: For the first time, he filmed in color. And, for the first time in a major movie, he elevated to an art form single-camera shooting…

… including cheating.

At least five times, Hitchcock used a fade-to-black technique, standard in films with cut scenes, but here the lens loomed close to the back of an actor’s dark jacket and when it pulled back and swung right, the audience found itself viewing a newly set-up scene without realizing it.

As mentioned last week, the opening scene in Spectre uses a fast-moving, single shot technique, and like Rope and Birdman, they cheated as well when entering and leaving the hotel room, and again when the building collapses. The hotel suite was on a sound stage not in Mexico, but London. We can forgive them for that.

On the Move

Quentin Tarantino’s often flawed story-telling enchants me less than his film techniques. Kill Bill was no exception and here the show became fascinating. As continuous filming moved about the building, stagehands rushed to remove and replace walls and lay in a camera ramp on the fly. That is old-fashioned movie magic.

Tarantino’s efforts sometimes remind me of Japanese martial arts epics. Kung-fu cameras love long tracking sequences, the bigger the better. While the action may appear cartoonish, the cameraman– and the audience– get a workout. On at least one epic, filming stopped so they could replace an exhausted cameraman.

In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick employed the recently invented Steadicam. Kubrick and the camera’s inventor, Garrett Brown, continued developing and refining the Steadicam and its potential. The result was one of The Shining’s most famous scenes featuring the plastic tricycle. A camera, mounted mere centimetres above the floor, followed little Danny as he pedaled his Big Wheels trike through the hotel hallways.

My favorite example is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, made in 1958, a decade after Hitchcock’s Rope. I rarely watch movies more than once, but I’ve studied that opening sequence many times.

Rope, like Rear Window, was largely shot within a single room, but Touch of Evil sweeps through a city, even from one country to another. Welles had a reputation for blowing budgets and schedules, not to mention cars. When studio execs heard Welles spent an entire day rehearsing the opening shot, they rocketed someone off to give him hell. But Welles had fooled the studio. That one amazing shot put him days ahead of his shooting schedule.

I rewatched it after seeing Spectre. Clearly, Touch of Evil majorly influenced Spectre’s director, Sam Mendes.

Lest you think this type of immersive camera work is reserved for the big screen, season one episode four of True Detective contains a heart-thumping scene where Rusty Cohle, embedded with white supremacist bikers in a black, gang-ridden, crack house neighborhood, tries to get himself and an uncooperative neo-nazi out alive, while protecting innocents, especially a black child. Look for a possible cut in a black screen when the camera swoops up to frame a helicopter and then drops to pick up Cohle again.

It seems directors of our crime genres love single-camera, continuous tracking shot. I’ve mentioned several examples, and you can find others documented here and here and here. But single-camera shooting is showing up another place without a crime in sight… music videos.

Droning On

Take, for example, the group OK Go, known for continuous single-camera shoots as well as loyal fans in North America and Japan who participate in their intricate videos.

They came to my attention through ‘This Too Shall Pass’, known as the Rube Goldberg vid. (A Rube Goldberg Machine is the equivalent of a Heath Robinson Contraption in the UK and eine Was-passiert-dann-Maschine or Nonsens-Maschine in Germany. Australia’s Bruce Petty inventions came much later.) Watch the video; you won’t be disappointed.

Most of OK Go’s videos feature single camera shots, but in this intriguing video, they use a drone. The result is … uplifting.

How Girls Do It or Saving the Best for Last

Not sure how I stumbled upon it, but I’ve watched ‘The Voice Within’ fifteen or twenty times. It’s fun studying the old theatre, trying to figure out how the crew accomplished the camera work while unwrapping power cables as they moved around. (And Christina Aguilera doesn’t look exactly awful either.)

And that’s it for now. Some movie examples like The Player I haven’t seen and I didn’t include Gravity in my list because so much CGI was involved. Other than Kill Bill, my examples have shortchanged martial arts movies, not because they’re terrible, but because I’m less familiar with the genre.

Feel free to chime in. What are your favorites? Let us hear from you.

Our friend ABA sent in a pair of articles relating to last week’s article about James Bond and Spectre. Thanks, ABA!

Notes specific to Spectre
For example, the movie-making wrecked some £24-million in cars, about $36-million dollars. The entire film cost £250-million or about $380-million.

Notes about Bond movies
For example, both Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino wanted to direct Bond films. Whew! 007 might just have dodged a bullet there.

15 April 2015

Incident on the CTA

by Robert Lopresti

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to Chicago to visit our favorite offspring.  We knew it was going to be a late arrival, but it turned out to be later than we thought, because the plane that was supposed to become ours was delayed by a medical emergency.   After the paramedics got the person off the plane, and then everyone else deboarded, there was more of a wait while they replaced the medical equipment that had been used.

And as a crime writer, naturally I was wondering what happened to the poor soul.  Another story I will never know the end of.  None of my business, I know.

By the time we picked up our bags at O'Hare it was after 1 AM.  We climbed into a metro train and headed toward the kiddo's apartment.  A few stops later a man got on board.  He was in his thirties, leather jacket, looked like he might have Irish ancestry.  Ignoring the half dozen people in the car he sat down, flipped open his phone and made a call. 

"Yeah I'm on the Blue Line. Meet me at Addison. I had to take the train cause the law was circling around. I'm at Addison. I'm getting off. Meet me here."

And off he went.

Oddly enough, my first thought was not writerly, i.e. why is he running from the cops?  It was readerly: If this  was Detroit I would think I was in an Elmore Leonard novel  Boston: obviously George V. Higgins.  But who writes books from the criminal's point of view, set in Chicago?  Brian suggested Sean Chercover, but I have not had the pleasure.

My second thought was: Maybe this was that guy's elevator story.  If you aren't familiar with the concept, watch Peter Bogdonavich retelling what happened after he interviewed Alfred Hitchcock in a hotel in New York City.  

After that, I admit I started thinking like a writer.  But I felt I didn't have enough background to build a story about it.  On the other hand, my friend Andi Mahala Schechter promptly suggested he was dropping off a ransom payment.  I dunno.  Felt like he more sinister than that.  My sister Joann Scanlon asked if I called the police.  And told them what, I replied.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I'm okay with that.  Have you ever felt like you walked into a novel?  By whom?

12 March 2014


by David Edgerley Gates

Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.

First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.

Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1.  Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.

VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.

Directors loved it. Ford used it for THE SEARCHERS. John Sturges, in a couple of pictures. Anthony Mann, always contrary, shot with it in black-and-white, the blacks coming out deep and crisp. Hitchcock used it five times, most strikingly in VERTIGO, where the color becomes part of the story.

But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.

The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear

you were shooting in low light. The seduction scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
TO CATCH A THIEF is a good example, or the chase across the rooftops at the end of the picture.

The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.  

30 January 2013

A story about a story in a story

by Robert Lopresti

'Tis a time for great joy and merry-making, at least around my house, because the April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has arrived, bringing with it "Shanks' Ride."  This is my twentieth story in AHMM, and  the eighth published tale about Leopold Longshanks, a curmudgeonly mystery writer who occasionally finds himself reluctantly thrust into the position of crime-solver.

What makes this particular story special to me (although I love all the little darlings equally, of course) is that it belongs to a specific subgenre:  one character relates a story containing a puzzle and another character solves it.  It is the first Shanks story of that type I have gotten published, though not for lack of trying.

Here is the opening scene:

            “I don’t think my alcohol level is over the legal limit,” said Leopold Longshanks.  “I could probably drive home all right.  But I figure there’s no point in taking chances.”

            “I know,” said the taxi driver.    “You’ve told me that three times.”

            “Oh.”  Shanks considered.  “Then maybe I do need a ride.”

            “Hop in.”

You can probably guess that the taxi driver is the one with the story to tell.

The earliest example of this story type of which I am aware is "The Tuesday Night Club," (1927) by Agatha Christie.  It is also the first appearance of one of literature's great detectives, Miss Jane Marple.  In this story a group of friends gather and discuss a genuine crime.  To everyone's surprise the elderly spinster solves the crime.  Christie published a series of stories about this club, published as The Thirteen Problems and The Tuesday Club Murders.

Another great example is (are?) the Black Widower stories of Isaac Asimov.  He acknowledged Christie as his inspiration for them, by  the way.  These short tales featured a group of men whose meetings were enlivened each month by a guest who, inevitably, had a puzzle in need of solving.  After all the clever and sophisticated members had picked the problem to pieces Henry, the waiter, would provide the solution.

You'll notice that both of these series are not only stories-within-stories, but examples of the least-likely-detective syndrome, since Miss Marple and Henry would appear to be the least qualified members of their groups to solve a mystery.

My friend Shanks doesn't qualify for that, of course.  He is a reluctant, but highly logical choice for detective. He is so logical, in fact, that he complains the concept is ridiculous: no one could possibly get enough information from a tale-teller to figure out whodunit.  Alas, I am cooking the books so he has no choice but to succeed.

 And I think I will leave it there.  If you want to know more, you know where to find the rest of the tale.

14 January 2013


by Janice Law

When I was reading a review of a new biography of Thornton Wilder, I came across the information that he had collaborated with Mrs. Hitchcock, among others, on the screenplay for the great Shadow of a Doubt. Any who do not know this classic psychological suspense movie from 1943 are in for a treat. It’s Hitchcock at his bland, safe, suburban best (but don’t you relax for a minute) and Joseph Cotton is perfect as the visiting relative who may, or may not, be a lady-killing serial  murderer.

Thoughts of Shadow of a Doubt led me to think about the importance of doubt in mysteries in general. Sure, we tend to think of mysteries as the genre of certainty. Detectives spend their time trying to establish the perpetrator to prosecutors’ satisfaction, and much of the pleasure of the genre rests in a tidy wind up with a ‘sure thing’ result.

But on the way to certainty, doubt can be a very useful device and one that produces a maximum amount of painful reflection and anxiety in the characters it afflicts. Young Charlie in Shadow loves her uncle, enjoys his company, and appreciates the whiff of big city sophistication he brings to sleepy Santa Rosa. The arrival of a detective with suspicions arouses first, her indignation, then her suspicion, and finally a realization that all is not right with her beloved uncle.

I’ve used a similar progression twice in novels. In Night Bus, the heroine must decide if she is paranoid or if her husband and sister-in-law are really plotting against her. This is an admittedly venerable story line but a useful variant of the much-favored ‘woman in jeopardy’. In Voices, the shoe is on the other foot. A family must decide if the earnest and vulnerable young woman who comes to call really is their long lost child or a deluded (or larcenous) intruder.

Doubt in short stories presents a greater challenge than in novels because everything must unfold quickly, preferably, as close as possible to the climax of the action. Nonetheless, I’ve tried stories with a high doubt quotient several times. In The Armies of the Night, a return to her old home forces the narrator to confront fearful, but hitherto suppressed, suspicions. In The Helpful Stranger, a woman is caught between her natural courtesy and a fear that the helpful stranger with his offer of a ride has another, more sinister, agenda.

I found these fun to do, especially The Helpful Stranger where I was able to combine rising doubt with a reversal of the two character’s roles. But in every case, doubt adds another layer to suspense. Someone pursued about an old dark house by a bad guy lives in straight-forward terror. But someone who is uncertain whether to be wary of a companion is in a different, more complex place, where fear of bodily harm is enhanced by fear of making a crucial social gaffe. The latter is often a feature of older UK mysteries, Eric Ambler making good use of it in Journey into Fear for one.

Film buffs and mystery fanatics will undoubtedly have a long list of stories with ambiguous characters and doubtful situations – Gaslight and Notorious come instantly to mind. But one of the great masters of doubt is neither a mystery writer nor a filmmaker. Nathaniel Hawthorne summed up the psychology of doubt as well as anyone: “Blessed are all simple emotions,” he wrote in Rappaccini’s Daughter, “be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the internal regions."

This is literally so in perhaps his greatest story, Young Goodman Brown. Young Brown ventures out to the night woods (bad idea) to attend a witches’ Sabbath (worse idea) for just this once (one of the few things my students understood immediately about this tale). He meets a stranger who strongly resembles his father, but neither Goodman Brown nor the reader has any doubt that this is the Prince of Darkness or, as the old Calvinists termed him, the Old Deceiver.

Rather, Brown’s doubt turns out to be of a fundamental and existential nature. Should he believe the fantastic events in the forest, the evidence of his senses? Should he conclude that his neighbors are all bound to the devil and only he has escaped damnation? Or is the deception the other way around, and is he the one, who, succumbing to momentary temptation, has had his life, his faith, and his happiness destroyed by the devil?

Now that is doubt with a capital D.

31 March 2012

A Familiar Face

by John M. Floyd

I think it's safe to say that most people enjoy the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Even my mother, who doesn't watch many movies at all, watches Hitchcock movies. It's not that suprising, really. He was successful for the same reason that writers like Stephen King are successful: their first priority is to entertain. Hitch knew how to hook viewers right away and keep them interested throughout the story.

Holding us Spellbound

For those of us who love his work rather than merely like it, there's a little bonus we get with every film. For some reason--probably egotistic--the Master Director himself appears on screen, for just a moment, in almost every one. In some of his movies you never know where the cameos might pop up; in the later ones, though, he decided to restrict most of those surprise appearances to the first few minutes of the film. Why? Because moviegoers had learned to watch for them. Hitchcock--always the professional--didn't want anyone to be distracted from the story, and if the cameo happened early, alert viewers could get it out of the way and direct their undivided attention to the plot.

I heard or read someplace that one Hitchcock documentary (a DVD bonus feature) mentioned plans for a cameo where Hitch and a deaf woman are walking down the street, and he says something to her using sign language and she slaps him in the face. I've watched most of those "special feature" documentaries on Hitch and his movies, and so far I haven't seen the one that talks about this--but I love the idea.

To Spot a Director

Anyhow, here's a recap of the fifteen most recent Hitchcock cameos. I started with 1954 for a couple of reasons: (1) I don't want to go all the way back to the late twenties, and (2) '54 was the year that two of my favorite Hitchcock films were released (I couldn't ignore those).

See how many of these Hitch "pop-ups" you remember . . .

Rear Window (1954) -- He's winding a clock in the songwriter's apartment, seen of course from Jimmy Stewart's window. The songwriter, who's playing the piano at the time, is real-life composer Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.

Dial M for Murder (1954) -- My favorite of all his cameos. He appears in a framed photo of Ray Milland's class reunion, sitting in a tuxedo at a table with Milland, Anthony Dawson, and others.

To Catch a Thief (1955) -- He's sitting beside and to the left of Cary Grant on the rear seat of a bus. Grant gives him a curious look, but Hitch stares straight ahead and neither of them says a word. On the seat to Grant's right is an old woman and a cage that contains two fluttering birds.

The Trouble With Harry (1955) -- One of the hardest cameos to spot. He's seen through a window, walking in a tan overcoat down a rural lane past a parked limousine. The old man who owns the limo is studying an outdoor exhibition of artwork while his driver waits beside the car.

The Wrong Man (1956) -- He is seen only in silhouette, while narrating the film's prologue. This probably shouldn't be counted as a cameo; according to a biography by Donald Spoto, Hitch chose to make an actual appearance rather than a cameo because this movie, unlike his others, was a true story.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) -- He walks up and joins a crowd watching acrobats in a Moroccan marketplace. He's facing away from the audience and standing several feet away from Doris Day and The Man Who Would Soon Know Too Much.

Vertigo (1958) -- He's walking down a city sidewalk wearing a dark suit and carrying a black trumpet case.

North by Northwest (1959) -- During the opening title sequence, he rushes to a catch a bus but just misses it--it closes its door and leaves him standing at the curb.

Psycho (1960) -- He's seen standing on a Phoenix sidewalk outside Janet Leigh's office window as she opens the door and walks in. He's wearing what looks like a cowboy hat.

The Birds (1963) -- He's leaving a San Francisco pet shop with two white dogs on a leash as Tippi Hedren enters it. Moments later she meets Rod Taylor there in the shop, and the plot is afoot.

Marnie (1964) -- He steps into a hotel hallway after Tippi Hedren and a bellboy walk past. He looks at them a moment, then turns and stares straight into the camera.

Torn Curtain (1966) -- He's sitting in a hotel lobby balancing a baby boy on his right knee, and after several seconds picks the boy up and shifts him over to his left knee.

Topaz (1969) -- My second-favorite cameo. He's in an airport being pushed in a wheelchair by a lady in a nurse's uniform, and suddenly he stands up from the chair, shakes hands with a man in a dark suit, and walks away.

Frenzy (1972) -- He's in the middle of a crowd, wearing a black hat and listening to a speech, and is the only person not applauding. A minute or so later, he's shown in a crowd again, standing next to a man with a gray beard.

Family Plot (1976) -- He's seen in silhouette on the other side of a door, talking with--and gesturing to--another man.

And remember, that was less than half of them. In all, I'm told Hitchcock made 36 cameo appearances--37 if you count the opening of The Wrong Man--in his fifty years of directing.

Dial T for Trivia

For anyone who's interested, here are some useless facts involving Hitchcock cameos:

In many of them--at least ten--he was just walking through the scene, and in several (Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and Vertigo) he was carrying cases for musical instruments.

At least three cameos (Rope, Lifeboat, and Dial M for Murder) are especially interesting because most of the filming for each was limited to a single location, which also limited the opportunity for Hitch to "appear." I've already mentioned Dial M; the cameo in Rope was a through-the-window glimpse of him strolling in the street below and the one in Lifeboat was a newspaper ad showing "before and after" photos for a product called Reduco Obesity Slayer.

He had two cameos each in five of his movies: Suspicion, Rope, The Lodger, Frenzy, and Under Capricorn.

Don't forget TV: In an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents--"A Dip in the Pool"--Hitchcock is shown on the cover of a magazine being read by Philip Bourneuf.

Back from the dead: In Psycho II (1983), when Tony Perkins and Meg Tilly enter "Mother's" bedroom, Hitch's silhouette can be seen in shadow on the wall just before they turn on the lights. (He passed away in 1980.)

The Trouble With Copycats

I think it's fun anytime I see directors appear in cameos in their own movies--Rob Reiner, M. Night Shyamalan, Ron Howard, John Carpenter, Sir Richard Attenborough, Oliver Stone, etc.--but I never see them without thinking of Hitchcock. And I usually enjoy the cameos more when they're very brief. If they're too long, they start calling too much attention to themselves.

One of my favorites is Roman Polanski as a thug with a switchblade in Chinatown--he's the one who causes Jack Nicholson to walk around for half the movie with a bandage on his nose. The cameo isn't short (although Polanski is), but I enjoyed it anyway. It's certainly memorable.

Even so . . . he's no Alfred Hitchcock.

29 February 2012

There's a Hitch in it, somewhere

by Robert Lopresti

Sometimes a road trip can change your life.  I took one with my parents in the late sixties to upstate New York.  I think we went to Lake George, but I don't remember that at all.  What I remember is seeing a fat, familiar face on a newsstand.

I wish I remembered which issue it was.  I looked on this helpful but incomplete page and the oldest story I can be sure I read in the magazine was from the October 1969 issue ("Scream All The Way," by Michael Collins. I remember the illustration - a dramatic drawing of  a man falling out of a building - so I know it wasn't a reprint in a book).  But I am confident that I was reading it before then.

What attracted me?  I don't think at that age (roughly fourteen) I had ever seen a Hitchcock movie, although I had certainly enjoyed his TV show, and his children's anthologies,

 and the Three Investigator books,
   and I believe I had discovered the anthologies that often included stories from the magazine. 

Quite a cottage industry Hitch had going,  huh?  All of them might as well have been gateway drugs, preparing me for mystery magazines, I guess.

There were two other features back in those days that made AHMM unique.  First, each issue began with a note in solemn tones signed by Hitchcock himself, introducing all the stories.  I don't think that even at that tender age I imagined Alfred had anything to do with writing the notes, but it was another way of tying the mag to one of the most famous people in the world.

They also used to tuck him into a story illustration in most of the issues, like his famous cameo appearances in his movies.  There would be a tubby patrolman in the back of a crime scene, or a rotund waiter in a restaurant.   Or see this one, from 1981.

 By then AHMM  had been sold by H.S.D. and was published by Davis, the same company that owned  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Over the years I have heard the question a hundred times: what's the difference between Hitchcock and Queen?  My answer used to be: Hitchcock sometimes buys my stuff.  But since Queen gave in and bought one of my stories that distinction isn't as helpful anymore.  I usually say Hitchcock is fonder of humor, suspense, and twist endings.  Queen leans toward longer, darker, stories,  and is more concerned with the history of the field, so it features pastiches, fair play mysteries, and the like.

But I'm sure the main reason I have been published more often in AHMM than in EQMM (18 to 1, to be exact), is that I grew up on the former. My tastes in mystery stories were shaped by AHMM, so it is hardly surprising that my writing tends to match up with theirs.

How good are the stories in AHMM?  Well, here is a brief summary of the awards the magazine has collected:
*more than 20 Edgar nominations, including three winners.
*eleven Robert L. Fish Awards for best first short story.
*more than thirty Shamus nominations, and eight winners.
*more than twenty Derringer nominations, including three winners.
*nominations (and some winners) for the Spur, the Anthony, the Macavity, the Barry, the Agatha, the Arthur Ellis, and the Herodotus, the last of which I had never heard of.  

Impressive, you might say.  But you might also ask why I bring up this particular magazine in the first place.  If you don't already know all shall be revealed in the next few days, starting on Friday, when we will come back to AHMM in a big way. Until then, keep reading and writing.

23 February 2012

What weapon?

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

When someone offered me a penny for my thoughts, I laughed, but i didn't say what I was really thinking at the moment because his comment made me realize writers expect – or maybe it's just hope – to get paid a lot more than a penny for our thoughts.

In my original writing group, our members consisted mostly of beginners. We arranged to meet once a week on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss or current work. The feedback grew better with each meeting and I value the imput of those other writers struggling to find what works and doesn't in the publishing world. I don't remember whose idea it was to give ourselves a name, but somehow we decided on Tuesday Knight Writers.

Whether we considered ourselves a knightly realm of writers or simply thought we were being cute for making a play on the word "night" since we met in the evenings or both. I do know that as Texans, we almost always have to repeat our occupation to strangers that aren't from this area of the world. Often accents are misunderstood.

"Do you mean like a horse rider?" a lady asked me when we sat next to each other on a plane to Phoenix.

I remember smiling and being entranced as she knitted something delicate in a deliciously soft baby blue yarn. It wasn't her artistry I considered when I replied, "No, I mean like a mystery writer."

"Oh," she sat and started another row.

I waited a few seconds and asked the question dancing in my mind like sudden water sprinklers turning on as you walk across a lawn. My words tumbled out quickly, almost tripping over each other in my excitement of finding the answer since she'd first withdrawn her work-in-progress. I took a breath and blurted, "How'd you get those needles onto the plane?"

She stopped knitting and looked at me a bit puzzled.

"Couldn't those sharp ended knitting needles be considered a weapon?"

She shrugged. "I suppose so. Nobody said anything when they checked my carry on."

Her answer fed my mind with ideas, spilling over each other like the twisted loops she was making with the yarn, stirring up a plot for a short story I was already creating in my mind.

What sort of items are considered weapons in our modern times? A quick look at what is now vetoed from carry-on luggage provides a clue to some that are unusual to most of us.

One of the best weapons in a mystery – in my opinion– was the one used in "Lamb to the Slaughter", originally a short story by Roald Dahl. The story later appeared as the basis of an Alfred Hitchcock television episode.

I read that Dahl enjoyed horror and black comedy and it influenced his fiction writing. His writing certainly has influenced mine. Dahl thought outside the box when it came to weapons. I bet someone paid him a lot more than a penny for some of those thoughts.