This was the first of four productions that Alfred Hitchcock made for the Warner Brothers studio. The early fifties were the height of Hollywood attempts, through technological innovation, to roll back the tide of television and the new world of leisure. Most spectacularly, but also the most short-lived, 3D offered a unique cinematic experience. For a time, with a film like Warner’s House of Wax (1953), audiences were seduced. But by the time Dial M for Murder came out in 1954 the craze was in its last days. The unevenness of presentations in the new format, and to a degree the basic cardboard and gel spectacles, soon dented audience interest. Most audiences, certainly in the UK, saw this film in a 2D version. Despite these problems the film was a success, it took at least $6 million on a budget of under $1.5 million.
The 2D version has been the standard release on both 35mm and video for years. In fact Hitchcock and his production team use the traditional techniques to produce a sense of depth in many shots: lighting, colour gradation, size and placement, . . . Like the earlier Rope (1948) the film is adapted from a stage play confined to one interior set (written by Fredrick Knott, first for television then the theatre). The film opens this out a little, with additional scenes, including exteriors. Apart from the 3D version, Hitchcock and his crew, including Robert Burks on cinematography, had to adjust to the new wide screen format – 1.85:1. They also had to manage the new colour film process, Eastmancolor. So there were all sorts of technical challenges involved in the production.
In terms of plot we have Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) married to Margot (Grace Kelly) who is in love with a writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cunnings). Since Margot is the partner with the money Tony sets up a murder scheme involving C A Swann (Anthony Dawson). As invariably happens in the movies, the plot goes awry. Nothing daunted, Tony implicates his wife in the death of Swann. Mark attempts to solve the mystery by using his ill-suited skills as a writer of murder mysteries. But the real solution relies on Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). As usual in Hitchcock films there is a MacGuffin, which is the key, which passes round the characters. But thematically it is about the threatened heroine, a sexual triangle, guilt and innocence, and a touch of voyeurism.
The real star of the film is Ray Milland who projects the husband as cynical but charming. By comparison Robert Cummings is passé: it seems that Grace Kelly shared this view as according to Donald Spoto her affair during the production was with Milland not Cummings. It shows in the finished film: her tender glances are to Tony not Mark. Dawson and Williams are both excellent. And Patrick Allen has a walk-on part with a handbag.
The handbag, and a woman’s workbox, along with the telephone and the key are the props that Hitchcock and Burks highlight through the 3D process. Most 3D films had ‘in your face` sequences, literally. This film eschews these, apart from the credits (personably by the studio), a telephone dial, one shot of the key and in a really dramatic sequence, a pair of scissors. However, right through the film the distinctive sense of depth, which is 3D’s virtue, is used to great effect.
The 3D process was cumbersome, required additional lighting to cope with the two-camera set-up and filters, and was not that good for close-ups. One notices that Hitchcock’s fondness for the large close-up is mostly absent in this film. In exhibition the 3D version is dimmer than the 2D version. And process shots are problematic, especially noticeable in the street scenes which act as transitions. However the digital 3D process is more audience friendly than the 1950s 35mm process. The glasses don’t often fall off and they work even when askew. And generally the 3D effect seems to work across the auditorium. I did see a 35mm 3D version of Dial M for Murder in the 1990s. We were advised to sit at the back of the auditorium to get the 3D effect: it did work, but other people elsewhere in the auditorium were less fortunate.
I tend to agree with Mark Kermode about the process generally. However Dial M for Murder, as you might expect with Hitchcock, utilises the technology to intelligent effect. In the famous interview with Truffaut he is fairly dismissive about the film. But I find it difficult to think of another 3D film where the sense of depth is so impressive.
Moreover the film is full of the touches and motifs that one associate with Hitchcock. So there are crossovers with Blackmail (1929), Rope, Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951) and, still to come, Vertigo (1958). It possibly affected Hitchcock’s collaborators. The music is by Dmitri Tiomkin, but frequently it sounded as if I was listening to Bernard Herrmann. It is not the best of Hitchcock’s films: however, it has many of his virtues and is vastly entertaining. One of the remakes, A Perfect Murder (1998, Andrew Davis) demonstrates what is lost when lesser hands are at work.
The Life of Pi is an interesting phenomenon in contemporary cinema. I watched it in 3D from the front row of a small cinema – not necessarily the seat I would have chosen (I usually go for the third or fourth row) and the sensation of animals jumping into my lap was definitely odd. I can’t decide if the overall film was just an enjoyable traveller’s tale or whether there is a more profound narrative that I wasn’t reading properly. What is clear is that the film has captivated audiences around the world and set the electronic bulletin boards aglow with questions, theories and seemingly whole packs of ‘trolls’. Like Scorsese’s Hugo, this 3D presentation by a filmmaker with great skill in visualising a story and carefully handling his characters has gone some way to justifying this still cumbersome technology.
When Yann Martel’s original novel won the Booker Prize, I remember being put off reading it by the usual nonsense that surrounds awards ceremonies. I’m usually interested in Canadian literature but I didn’t explore this title further. If you don’t know the story, it begins in Montreal where a novelist visits Pi (Irrfan Khan) looking for inspiration for his next project. Pi tells him the fabulous tale of how many years earlier he survived months drifting across the Pacific in an open boat accompanied by a fully-grown Bengal tiger. The narrative mainly comprises a long flashback to when Pi was first a small child in Pondicherry, the French enclave in Tamil Nadu which finally joined the Union of India in 1954, and up to the disaster when Pi was trapped with the tiger as a 16 year-old. Pi’s father owned a zoo in Pondicherry but changes in his financial circumstances forced him to sell-up and take his family to Canada – along with some of the animals which he hoped to sell in North America. At the end of the fabulous tale, the novelist learns that there is another, alternative story about what happened to Pi in the boat and he is invited to choose which one he believes.
For those of us who don’t profess any religious beliefs, the film might seem a little off-putting since the novelist is told that the story will make him think again about the existence of God. Yann Martel is certainly interested in ideas about religions and he travelled to India partly to see temples, mosques and churches. As a 14 year-old, Pi tries out Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in his attempt to understand the world. Especially in North America, audiences (and critics) seem to want to focus on the religious dimension. For those of us in the increasingly secular UK (shown in the 2011 census) I suppose it’s good to be reminded that millions of people around the world do have religious beliefs. However, I don’t think that Life of Pi has to be understood through religious metaphors and allegories. It’s a mixture of fantasy and realism that exposes the central character’s humanity.
What’s most interesting about the film for me is that a Hollywood studio (Fox) thought that it had acquired a ‘property’ to develop into an American blockbuster movie only to discover eventually that while the film remains ‘American’ in terms of its script by David Magee and the excellent CGI effects work by Rhythm and Hues, everything else about the film is truly ‘international’. The proof is in the box office. Released first in North America, the film made $88 million in what Hollywood calls the ‘domestic’ market – making it a ‘flop’ given its budget of over $100 million. But in the ‘international’ market (i.e. the rest of the world) it has already made over $220 million with the Chinese and Indian markets together making over $100 million. That has to mean something.
The film is visually spectacular without the need for much dialogue in many scenes and its story is ‘universal’, but much of the credit must go to director Ang Lee and his refusal to use Hollywood/Bollywood superstars – Tobey Maguire and Shah Rukh Khan are reported to have been considered at some point. Irrfan Khan and Tabu represent the cream of Indian acting talent (note to self – must find more Tabu films) and Gérard Depardieu makes a suitable villain – hiss! – in the present climate (he’s a tax dodger). I thought Suraj Sharma, the 17 year-old student who played the lead, was terrific. Lee made the film in Taiwan, India and Canada and it doesn’t at any point feel like an American film. It was worth staying to the end of the credits to hear the golden voice of Lata Mangeshkar on a song which I think comes from a 1970s Hindi film.
I’d like to watch the film again – on a bigger screen – and really get to grips with what Lee and his crew have been able to put together. There is a sequence in which the aspect ratio changes. The action at that moment was itself spectacular so I barely registered the change in ratio. Later I read that there are four different ratios used in the film at various times. In the opening credits sequence, the credits themselves are animated and the 3D effect is pronounced as animals move through the depth of the image. I found this very beautiful and quite arresting – although at other times I didn’t notice the use of 3D at all (apart from the darkened image and the heaviness of the glasses over my own specs). The other success is of course the digital effects that create the tiger on the boat. I can’t imagine that there are many cat lovers (or even dog lovers) that didn’t experience an emotional jolt when Pi lifts the massive head of the tiger weakened by hunger onto his lap. I felt the weight of a ‘real’ tiger and wanted to stretch out and scratch its ears.
To return to the India/China axis, Life of Pi seems like a breakthrough of sorts. I don’t think that it was just the presence of Irrfan Khan and Tabu that made me think of The Namesake, a film by Mira Nair, an Indian based in the US adapting another tale of a journey from India to North America. Ang Lee has already demonstrated his ability to make films about different modes of American culture as well as a British literary adaptation and explorations of his own Taiwanese film culture. He’s moved between very different genres and very different cultural contexts with ease. Perhaps with Life of Pi he’s begun to point towards the greater exchange of ideas about cinema between India, China and North America. I think that is where the future lies for cinema in global terms and Lee seems much more adept than the more conventional Hollywood forays into separate productions in India and China.
I’m glad that I saw Hugo in 3D on a big screen and I enjoyed watching the film despite the effort of stopping those glasses sliding down my nose. On reflection, however, I’ve got mixed feelings about the enterprise. I was impressed by Martin Scorsese’s use of 3D as a medium and the ways in which he used the format to explore/promote the use of special effects in cinema – including the bizarre presentation of clips from the films of Georges Méliès in 3D! But I’m not sure that I like it as a format. It makes the cinema feel like a theatre with the over-dramatic sense of separation of characters in the depth of presentation. I much prefer the use of deep focus and staging in depth. This occurred to me in a scene which included an older man, a small boy and snowflakes – surely a reference to the famous ‘staging in depth’ scene in Citizen Kane?
Hugo is stuffed with references, making it an over-rich feast for cinephiles. But this is ostensibly a film for children (and their parents). We watched the film at the end of its run in a large multiplex auditorium with only a modest audience. The children were quiet throughout the film – which I take to mean that they were engrossed as I suspect that they would have complained if they were bored. At the end, eavesdropping on a couple of families, I understood that they had quietly enjoyed the film – but it wasn’t the film that they were expecting. I’m not competent to judge what makes a good children’s film but I think Hugo probably works best as a spectacle rather than as a story. I thought that the script was weak in places and some scenes lacked the spark that they might have had if there wasn’t so much focus on the beautiful matte paintings and 3D staging. I enjoyed all the performances, although Sacha Baron Cohen was irritating – but I can see why others found him entertaining. The promotional materials keep telling us that this is Scorsese’s ‘first family film’, but it does have several elements in common with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), one of Marty’s lesser-known movies. And if Kundun is included, he has made three films with important younger characters – mercifully not treating them with the sugary confections of Spielberg. He also cast a young Jody Foster in a very different kind of film – Taxi Driver.
Hugo is a long film but it doesn’t deliver as much narrative as I expected. There seem to be three parts to the film. One is a story about Hugo himself and how as an orphan he needs to keep out of the clutches of the authorities in Paris in the late 1920s – personified by the ‘Station Inspector’ (Baron Cohen), a war veteran who was himself an orphan and who now seems obsessed with rounding up waifs and strays who stray onto his patch. The second is a mystery in which Hugo and a slightly older girl, Isabelle, eventually join forces to discover the secret of the automaton which Hugo’s father was attempting to repair when he died. These two narrative strands combine to provide the ‘action adventure’ material in the film. But a fair amount of the final third of the film is taken up with what is essentially a rather conventional, but brilliantly presented visual essay on early cinema delivered by Scorsese – chair of the World Cinema Foundation and prime conservator of great films. This offers a different kind of spectacle in 3D, didactic perhaps but I’m sure we are all pleased that future film audiences are shown clips from films up to 1930 in the correct ratio and colours (i.e. with all the correct tinting of prints).
Hugo is adapted (by John Logan) from a book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2008). Selznick is a designer and illustrator as well as an author and there is a link on this website that shows some of the book’s many illustrations. This demonstrates very well that many of what might be assumed to be Scorsese’s ideas for framings and compositions are taken directly from the book. This doesn’t detract from Scorsese’s artistic achievement but it does tend to reinforce the idea that the whole project is driven by a desire to recreate a Parisian environment of the late 1920s, possibly at the expense of a coherent narrative. I’ll have to watch it again, but there were aspects of the chronology of the story that didn’t make sense to me and there are weaknesses of characterisation. Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelleis rather wasted I think as the character is given little to do. I just wonder if Marty was so entranced by the excitement generated by 3D and the enormous sets, real and virtual, he had to play with that he forgot about the story. This is surprising since he must have thought about some of the other films that aspects of the story were likely to provoke in his imagination. Two that struck me were the boy’s constant observation of the station crowds which reminded me of the boy looking at the ‘forbidden’ in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (UK 1959) (one of Scorsese’s favourites) and the ‘underworld’ existence in Paris which reminded me of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Hugo is a children’s film but that doesn’t mean it has to lose the possibility of a complex and intriguing story.
There are some very polarised reviews of Hugo, especially in North America. I don’t think it is the masterpiece that deserves to win awards but neither is it the flop that commits the sin of boredom. I think that Scorsese spent too much money ($150 million plus?) but at least you can see it on screen. I’d urge any doubters to see the film in 3D in a big screen cinema if you can still find it. It’s perhaps the first production to really explore what 3D in modern cinema can do.
I’ve been pretty much unconvinced by the current fad for 3D but Wim Wenders’ documentary on choreographer Pina Bausch suggests there is a reason to wear two pairs of spectacles in the cinema. I was entirely unfamiliar with Bausch, however I’m now craving for more having found the excerpts offered in the documentary frustrating in their brevity. This isn’t a criticism as it’s not primarily a filmed performance of her work and, in fact, the extracts are extended; I just wanted the whole lot. Her distinctive, twitchy, ballet seems to offer a brilliant rendition of alienation.
The film’s mostly dance with interpolated talking heads of her company predictably offering a hagiography; however, by the end I believed what they said about Bausch.
I didn’t find the 3D perspective convincing, however as ballet is inherently stylised the distorted space presented to us probably intensified the action. What it did add was a sense of the physicality of the dance as the movement was more obvious in three dimensions. It no doubt helped that Wenders is an experienced director who’s spent 20 years pondering how to render Bausch’s work.
The cinema I saw it in – the National Media Museum’s little Cubby – was packed so hopefully it will come back again.