Ten Favorite Hitchcock Films

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Someone on Facebook (sorry, can’t remember who) posted a link the other week to a website (sorry, can’t remember which) that had ranked all Hitchcock films from good to bad with some slightly bizarre decisions.  That made me think that it would be rather nice to revive the “ten favorite” series of posts with a Hitchcock entry.  As with previous entries, I don’t pretend these are the best Hitchcock films, or the most worthy, just ten personal favorites.

Downhill (1927)

Downhill (pictured above) is one of the Hitchcock silent films that very few people have seen, and which garners relatively little attention.  The film tells the story of a schoolboy (played by 35 year old Ivor Novello) who finds himself wrapped up in a scandal through no real fault of his own and whose life then goes on a downward spiral.  Not much of a story really, but that doesn’t matter a great deal as this is a film where Hitchcock experiments more than usual for the period and, while the plot is almost non-existent, there are some directorial flourishes that make it really worth watching.  Novello is too old for the role, and certainly lacks the intensive on-screen persona he brought to The Lodger, but Hitchcock effectively makes something out of nothing and this little oddity is well worth a watch.

The Ring (1927)

This silent film from the same year is a favorite partly for sentimental reasons – it was the first silent film I saw at the cinema.  I actually saw it by mistake.  I had gone to the local arthouse cinema to see Wilde starring Stephen Fry, but had read the times wrong in the newspaper and found myself faced with the BFI reissue of The Ring.  Luckily for me, the opening of this tale about boxing is stunning and drew me in.  I can’t say my concentration was fully given over for the entire 110 minutes, but it certainly sparked an interest in silent film that I had not had before, and for that The Ring will always hold a special place.

Young and Innocent (1937)

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What a wonderful film Young and Innocent is, and yet it seems to be pretty forgotten these days.  When I was a kid, it was shown on television with alarming regularity, although neither my mum or myself ever learned the title at the time, always referring to it as “that film with the bloke with a twitch.”  My analysis skills even at that early stage were, clearly, stunning!  Young and Innocent is very much in the mode of The Thirty-nine Steps and,  like so many innocent-man-on-the-fun Hitchcock films, is rather episodic in nature.  It’s also great fun, and the wonderful shot near the end of the film where the camera slowly closes in on the villain remains stunning.

Jamaica Inn (1939)

I’m not sure why  people don’t like Jamaica Inn.  This tale of smuggling and adventure might not be very Hitchcockian, and Charle Laughton is laughably over the top, but this is wonderful hokum, ideal for a rainy afternoon with a pot of tea and a slice of Victoria Sandwich.

Rebecca (1940)

Hitchcock’s final British film was Jamaica Inn, based on a book by Daphne du Maurier, and his first American film was based on a book by the same author.  Many will cite the 1950s films for Universal as the peak of Hitchcock’s career, but films like Rear Window, Vertigo and others all seem to be rather self-conscious attempts at making a Hitchcock film.  Rebecca manages to be a remarkable piece of cinema, but without that self-conscious element and, for me, that makes it in the top three films that Hitchcock made.  Outside of this film I don’t care much for either Laurence Olivier or Joan Fontaine, but here they are perfectly cast and the movie is a joy from the first shot to the last.

Saboteur (1942)

I confess that Saboteur evaded me until only last year, when I finally got around to watching it.  I hadn’t intentionally avoided it, but I’d just never sat down to see it.  It’s not Hitchcock’s most original film – it’s another “wrong man” movie – but it’s difficult to see how it could have been done any better, and it certainly deserves to be better known than it is.  What’s more, the finale is one of Hitch’s best.

Spellbound (1944)

I have always like Spellbound, from the first time I saw it as a kid.  Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are superb together and, while the script is littered with psychobabble in places, it remains literate and totally engrossing.  It’s a wonderfully romantic movie as well, not just because of the Bergman/Peck combination but also because of the wonderful score by Miklos Rosza.

I Confess (1951)

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Rather like Jamaica Inn,  I Confess has always come in for rather a lot of criticism over the years, although it appears to be held in higher regard than it used to be.  Montgomery Clift is superb as the tortured priest who is unable to disclose the name of the murderer because he was told it in confession, and therefore becomes a suspect himself.  There are moments when the script becomes a little creaky (it’s based on a 1902 play), and the pace slackens just a little bit too much, but this is still wonderful stuff and still packs quite a punch.

Vertigo (1958) & North By Northwest (1959)

I place these two final films together because their inclusion here is probably not going to surprise anyone.  As mentioned earlier, these films are Hitchcock consciously making a Hitchcock movie – particularly in the case of North By Northwest.  If Hitchcock’s intention at this stage was simply to entertain, then he totally succeeds in both cases.  What’s more, the leads in both films are perfectly chosen: it’s hard to think of anyone other than James Stewart playing the role of Scottie in Vertigo, and who else but Cary Grant could have found himself running away from that plane during the crop-dusting scene.  It’s scenes like that which betray Hitchcock’s attempts to out-Hitch himself, playing on his own trademarks by this point, and yet he manages to do it so well.  The pacing of both films is expertly judged, and the two-hour plus running times just fly by.

So, did Hitchcock not make great films after 1959?  Yes, of course, but the last two entries in my above list were probably as good as it got.  Many will, of course, cite Psycho, but I’ve never been totally convinced that it’s the masterpiece that everyone tries to persuade me it is.  A good film, yes – even a fun film in many ways – but for me it oversteps the mark, and goes from self-consciously making a Hitchcock film to almost self-parody.  Both The Birds and Frenzy nearly got included as well, but neither are personal favorites at the time of writing.  I used to like Frenzy  very much, but on a recent viewing I was curiously disappointed.  And let’s not forget Hitchcock’s forgotten horror film – Topaz.  Horror as in horrific, that is.  Never watch it alone.  You won’t last ten minutes before you switch it off and find something to watch which does make sense instead!

 

On the Move!

Over the past few months, this blog has had a number of posts made with regards to issues relating to mental health and portrayals of it within film, television etc.  In order to get this blog back to its original purpose, I’ve decided that a separate site be created for the mental health comments and reviews etc.  That blog can be found here:  mentalhealthmediame.wordpress.com/

The posts already here on these issues will remain, but will also be copied over to the new site.

Naive Nick’s Mental Health Pledge

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Are those with mental health conditions meant to be jumping for joy at Nick Clegg’s announcement today that a target would be set that all sufferers will have access to talking therapies within eighteen weeks should the current coalition find themselves still in power after the next election?  This will, apparently, mean that around £120m of extra funding (more about the “extra” later) will be spent over the next two years – this will, I guess, go towards restoring some of the funding that has been cut over the last four years since the coalition  has been in power.

For me, the whole thing smacks of empty rhetoric, grave naivety and a cynical touting for votes.  No-one is going to moan that waiting times are going to be cut or that more spending on mental health will take place, but the ridiculous simplicity with which mental health is being treated is rather insulting to those who are suffering from these conditions.  It’s thought that up to 10% of sufferers die as a direct or indirect result of their condition.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  If those stats were related to a form of cancer, there would be a considerable outcry if a waiting time for treatment was reduced to eighteen weeks.  Reduced.  God knows how long the wait must be now if you’re not one of the lucky few who lives in the right postcode.

The lack of understanding of mental illness by those spouting these latest wonders is only too evident with the announcement that suicidal patients will get the same priority as those with a suspected heart attack.  That’s all very nice, but people with a suspected heart attack ring 999 – people who are suicidal do not.  Suffering from a mental health condition for up to eighteen weeks without access to certain treatment might be enough to turn someone suicidal in the first place. And there’s also this strange notion that people are either suicidal or they’re not – something which fails to take into account that people might be fine one day and not the next.  That MPs are simplifying conditions in this way is insulting – the least they could do is try to understand the issue in the first place.   But to do so, and to acknowledge the complexities doesn’t make for such rousing speech-writing.

And how about reviewing the benefits process for those with mental health conditions.  The Personal Independence Payment form might give an indication of how serious a physical disability is, but it’s a joke when it comes to mental health, with half of the questions not even applying to people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like.  Can we use the loo?  Well, yes, thank you very much – but why aren’t you asking us about issues of concentration that prevent us doing things, or panic attacks that might stop us going to a supermarket.  And, wait for this one folks, if you can’t use public transport due to your condition you might be awarded a free bus pass.  I kid you not.

Charities have welcomed today’s news – they have little choice: more funding is better than funding cuts, no matter how modest the targets that have been set.  Just six weeks ago, The Independent ran a story stating that mental health services are “dangerously close to collapse,” and that there were 3000 less nurses working in the sector than two years earlier.  57 mental health trusts had lost £253m in funding.  And yet we should be saying “well done” and “how wonderful” to the coalition for promising to put half of that money back.   That’s hardly “extra funding.”

I confess that I have been lucky during the twenty years I have had my own condition.  When I first fell ill, I got to see a doctor within hours (this was 1995 when you could do that) and, since then, I have always been treated by my succession of GPs with respect, concern and (thankfully) good humour.  The last in that list might seem like an odd addition, but actually it highlights the importance of striking up a rapport with your GP, especially with regards to mental health conditions where, more than ever, everyone is different.  I have a great relationship with my GP, not least because she knows I’m more than willing to find the humour within the issues that I have.   It’s the way I get through.  Another doctor wouldn’t get or understand that.

The problem is that seeing your own GP (including my own) is not that easy anymore.  Often the waiting time to see your regular doctor these days is two weeks, not two hours.  If I had a severe turn for the worse with my illness, would I even contemplate seeing a doctor I didn’t know?  Probably not – and with good reason: notes on a screen are not the same as talking to someone who has seen how your condition has changed (or not) over a number of years.  Mental health conditions aren’t a series of test results, facts and figures, where X+Y = medication A.  It’s far more complicated than that – which is why some of the rhetoric used by Nick Clegg today comes across as so naive.

Any increase in mental health budgets is to be welcomed, but it shouldn’t have got this bad in the first place – and the amount of money involved doesn’t get close to making up for the cuts from the budgets over the last few years.  And, while Clegg has said he wants to work to stamp out the stigma associated with such conditions, that promise seems very empty too.  There are few, if any, signs of how he plans to do that.  Does he mean well?  Possibly.  But, as with most things he does and says, his ineptness and lack of deep understanding of the problem is laughable or offensive, depending on your mood (swing).

The Sender (1982)

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Netflix in the UK is currently showing an obscure little horror film from 1982 called The Sender.  Directed by Roger Christian, the film tells the story of a young man taken to a mental hospital after trying to drown himself.   Whilst there, the doctors attempt to find out who the man is, why he tried to commit suicide and what role his strange mother has to play in his story.   Unlike many horror films from the period, this avoids the stalk and slash formula, opting for a mystery/thriller approach instead, but wrapped up in a packaging that is unmistakably horror.  The script is intelligent, the direction solid but unflashy, and the acting above-average for a horror film of the period.

These issues alone, along with its obscurity, would make the film worth seeking out while you can.  However, there is more of interest here to the horror fan than just a decent movie.  Indeed, it seems clear that this is a predecessor and inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street.  The horror element of the film is tied up in the fact that the young man at the centre of the narrative can “send” his thoughts and dreams to others around him, making them think and feel what he is thinking and feeling.  It’s telepathy, but almost in reverse.  It’s also Freddy Kreuger, but in reverse:  rather than entering other people’s dreams, he can make people enter his.   The whole feel of the film is very similar to Elm Street, from the invasion of dreams scenario to the eerie musical soundtrack which clearly bears similarities to the later film.  The “if I die before I wake” prayer even plays a prominent part here, too.   The connections are too many to be coincidental – and that’s before you take into account the even greater similarities between this film and the third in the Elm Street franchise.

Also of interest is that I have written a few times about the negative ways in which those with mental health conditions are portrayed in horror films.  Here, though, the portayals of patients are generally inoffensive – that’s not to say they are ideal, but for a film made thirty years ago, The Sender was clearly somewhat ahead of its time in this regard.  The young man at the centre of the story, for example, might unintentionally injure others thanks to his “sending” capabilities, and yet he is presented to us in a sympathetic way – he is shown to be a victim, not mass murderer who goes on the rampage.

All in all, this is a film that deserves to be better known, and quite why it isn’t is something of a mystery.  Even Quentin Tarantino is quoted as saying it was one of his favourite horror films of the early 1980s.  Its great to see Netflix presenting it over here in the UK (there has never been a UK DVD release), in HD no less.  These films are not often permanent fixtures, and so grab it while you can.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds (2014)

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Thank heaven for BBC4.

Last week I was channel surfing and came across a handsome young guy in a nifty suit talking about be-bop in New York in 1951.   There are worse things to stumble upon.  The young guy was Dr James Fox (who I’d never seen or heard of) and the programme in question was the last episode in a three-part series called Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds which tells the stories of three cities in three pivotal years.  Through the wonders of catch up TV, I got to see the series in its entirety and, it has to be said, it’s a great reminder of the wonderful programmes that the BBC can make when it puts its mind to it.

I confess that I had not seen Dr Fox’s previous series, although no doubt I will watch should they get repeated – and, in the days of mult-channel TV, that’s highly likely, I’m sure.  Ironically, the whole premise of this series is a little dubious.  Vienna was discussed with regards to 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.  It’s likely that those same cities could be focussed on in different years and a similarly worthwhile programme could have been made, but that’s hardly the point.  If you’re happy to put that small problem to one side and go along for the ride, there is much to enjoy and learn here.

I saw the series out of order, but that doesn’t seem to make too much difference, although perhaps the first programme was the best of the three.  With great skill, the viewer is taken on a joyride through Viennese culture in the early 1900s, from art to music to science to politics and back again – and cleverly underpinned with the reminder that Adolf Hitler was also persuing an artistic career in the city at that time.  Each segment based on a key figure cleverly manages to encapsulate the key elements of their work, but manages to do so without sounding like a list of “key points.”

Fox’s presenting style is energetic and enthusiastic without being gushing.  Perhaps most importantly, in all 180 minutes of the series, he educates without becoming either condescending or too intellectual, and certainly never becomes dull.  He seems slightly less confident during the section on the music of Arnold Schoenberg – a novice to the notion of atonal music is probably none the wiser by the end of it – but if that’s the biggest complaint about the series, then it’s fair to say it’s pretty damned good. And it is pretty damned good.   It’s clear Dr Fox has learned from the best.  There are moments when he’s discussing a painting by Klimt or Jackson Pollock in the same hushed tones and barely concealed enthusiasm as David Attenborough explaining the mating habits of a lizard found in the Amazonian rainforest. In a good way.

The Paris episode is probably the weakest of the three, but the one on New York more than makes up for it as it stunningly pulls together a number of disparate elements from advertising to baseball to Thelonious Monk and somehow makes them into a coherent whole which results in a rather mesmerising sixty minutes of TV.

In a sense, it’s a shame that the series was shown on BBC4 rather than BBC2, where it probably would have garnered a bigger audience.  What it does show is just how good the BBC still is at this kind of stuff.  The range of material we get from the BBC is still remarkable, and the quality is still better than any other channel.  Channel 4 used to give the Beeb a run for its money when it came to making documentaries but, while they’re now delighting viewers with semi-offensive crap like Benefits Street and documentaries about One Direction fans, the BBC are providing fine documentaries on the arts and remarkable seasons of programmes such as the BBC3 It’s a Mad World season from last year, probably the first season of programmes in the world aimed at young people about mental health conditions.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds is still available on the BBC iPlayer at the time of writing – and here’s hoping that a second series appears in the future.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): A Treatise on Grief in the Most Unlikely Place

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On Sunday August 24th (today, if you’re reading this on the day I post it), I shall be heading to the stage in a village hall for what has become a yearly concert.  They were twice-yearly once, but that’s not possible these days.  It’s been a weird year since the last one.  There have been the highs of passing my PhD and the lows of a really shit time with bipolar.  When I hit the stage (“hit” makes it sound a little more dynamic than it actually is) this time I shall be singing some old favourites for the first time since my Dad passed away two and a half years ago.  It’s odd singing songs I know he loved, and strange knowing that he won’t hear or see them – not even on videotape.

The day before the show is always a case of “killing time” and not being able to settle to anything constuctive.  So, I sat down in front of the TV and watched the blu-ray of Spiderman 2 from 2004.  The excitement of my Saturday nights hold no bounds.  It’s not exactly a great film, it has to be said, lacking the pace of the first one in the series, just plodding on from one set-piece to another.  However, I did find it interesting given the fact I had been thinking about my Dad, for the film, rather surprisingly, seems to be more honest than most about grief.

The film is set two years after the first, but Peter Parker and his aunt are seen still mourning the loss of his uncle.  It’s an oddly moving element of an otherwise rather vacuous film, not least because of the genuine and touching way in which these scenes are portrayed.  All too often, grief and mourning is dismissed in a film or a book or a play as something very temporary.  Someone dies, people cry, the funeral takes place, everything returns to normal. In a space of two weeks life is back on track.  That, of course, is bullshit.   It’s not the way it works.  Things never really go back to how they were.  We get back into a routine, for sure.  But it’s not the same routine, because there’s always someone missing from it.

Film, at least popular, commercial film, very rarely acknowledges this.  And neither does popular TV or fiction.  When was the last time you watched Midsomer Murders and saw someone really grieving?  It’s hard to tell why such basic human emotions are missing.  After all, most of us like to be able to “identify” ourselves with the character on the screen.  Of course there are arthouse films that are all about grief and mourning and loss.  But there are certain subjects that are avoided in more commercial ventures, it seems, simply because the makers don’t really know how to deal with them.

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been much discussion about mental health issues on TV and the social media.  These are issues that, again, we rarely see portrayed in TV or film dramas.  Like mental health issues, it appears that death and grief is still a taboo – something that people feel remarkably uncomfortable discussing.  And with both of these issues, it’ s  a highly individual experience.  No two people grieve in the same way.  But, if we were to go by Hollywood filmmaking, people just don’t grieve at all.  They wake up one morning, about a fortnight after the event, and everything’s fine again.  It’s not. I miss my Dad now more than I did in the weeks after he died over two years ago.  Is that normal?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  It’s my normal.

Is it wrong that these emotions are absent on our cinema and TV screens?  I’m not sure about that, but it certainly seems to be an easy option – and something we don’t necessarily notice until we’re suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronted with these scenes in the most unlikely film.  And Spiderman 2 is, certainly, the most unlikely film to deal honestly with the fact that we miss those no longer with us for the rest of our lives and not just until the funeral is over.

Mental Health: Don’t Forget It

depressionA man died this week and suddenly a discussion of mental health issues has started.  There is an outpouring from twitter users, as they retweet messages about depression.  Statuses of support for sufferers of depression are being shared over and over on facebook.  There’s even a multitude of new videos on YouTube on the subject.  The problem is that, last week, most of these people didn’t give a fuck about depession.  And, after the funeral of a well-loved celebrity, the furore over how sufferers are let down by the system and by society will die down to a quiet murmur once again. 

Depression, bipolar and other mental health conditions DO need to be talked about, not least because the lack of understanding about these issues is so severely lacking amongst many members of the public – and it is that stigma that prevents many from seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem.  There is something of a backlash about comments made on TalkSport radio by Alan Brazil (I have no idea who he is) in which he said he had “no sympathy” for Robin Williams.  Shep Smith, a newscaster on Fox News in America, referred to Williams as a coward.  Both men, bizarrely, still have their jobs.  The truth of the matter, though, is that many members of the public have the same lack of understanding of depression as these two men – and twitter and facebook have shown that too in the last few days. 

Suicide is thought to be the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us at some point in our lives.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, around 30% of sufferers will attempt suicide, and it is thought that around 10-15% of sufferers die as a consequence of the condition. 

A 10-15% fatality rate.

So, what are we doing about it?  Well, we’ll talk about if for a few weeks and then forget it.  Public figures and politicians will tell us that support has to be given to sufferers.  However, mental health budgets in the UK are being slashed.  For example, six weeks ago the BBC reported that the budget for child and adolescent mental health services at Birmingham City Council were cut “from just above £2.3m in 2010-11 to £125,000 in 2014-15, a drop of 94%.”  Mental health trusts have had their budgets slashed by 20% this year.  NHS England has cut budgets for mental health by 2%. 

There has to be a link here between the lack of education on the subject (and thus its perceived seriousness) and the cutting of budgets.  It’s still thought people can “snap out of it” or that it isn’t a “real” illness.  If the condition had the word “cancer” or “disease” at the end of it, we would all be looking at in a very different way.  It is as real as diabetes or heart disease.  The fact it doesn’t show up in a blood test robs it of that reality. 

What I’m trying to say here is that, for a few days or weeks, mental health issues will matter to more people than ever before because someone they liked on the telly has died as a result of it.  But those deaths (and attempted deaths) are happening all the time.  It’s a reality that people and governments need to wake up to.  More than ever it is time to educate, talk, support and treat. 

In the four minutes it took you to read this article, six people will have attempted suicide in the USA alone.  Five of them will have had a known mental health issue at the time.