Ella Fitzgerald Live in Paris (3 CD set)

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This new 3CD set from the Fremeaux label is absolutely remarkable.  The material was released previously in download form from other companies at various points, but in inferior quality to that presented here. Seven (maybe eight?) concerts from six dates are included here on three discs, all recorded in Paris during the period 1957-62.

The set starts with a five-track set from a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert during May 1957. While most of these songs are familiar Ella repertoire, it’s true to say that this is the best-sounding concert from 1957 so far released – far superior sonically to the familiar Newport and Stockholm releases. Ella is in great form (much better than at Newport) and includes Singing the Blues in her repertoire – a song she never recorded in the studio, and that fans only have in one other officially released concert. This version is better than that recorded in Stockholm, and contains a lovely seamless segue into Blues in the Night. The first disc continues with three songs from another JATP concert, this time from 1958. No explanation is given why Ella’s full set isn’t included, but it’s nice to have a rare live outing for A Fogy Day.

Next up are two sets from JATP concerts on February 23, 1960 (presumably matinee and evening performances), just a few days away from the Grammy-winning Ella in Berlin album. My guess is that the first track from this set is missing as she starts with a ballad, but the sound is once again remarkable. With a couple of exceptions, the repertoire is familiar – hardly surprising given that we already a concert from the same month. Still, its nice to hear a live version of S’wonderful from the recently released Gershwin songbook, complete with the rarely heard verse.

The first concert from 1961 is in slightly inferior quality, but that doesn’t mean there are any major problems, it’s simply not quite as clear and there are a few minor tape defects. Repertoire is much the same as from the forgotten Ella Returns to Berlin release. We then move forward to April 1961 for a set (possibly two) that features rare live outings of Every Time We Say Goodbye, Love Is Sweeping the Country, I was Doing Alright and the first ever release of Ella singing Straighten Up and Fly Right, a song which was in her live repertoire for at least forty years but was never officially recorded.

The 1962 concerts (again, two sets from the same day) which rounds out the set are really rather special, with a totally unexpected ballad version of C’est Magnifique, as well as live rarities More Than You Know and Spring Is Here.

I have highlighted various rarities, but unless you have the expensive Twelve Nights in Hollywood set released a few years ago, there are many songs here not available from Ella in live format elsewhere. Why does the live format matter? Well, the Ella represented here is a very different singer to that featured on the well-known Songbook albums from the same period. On those albums, she is a pop singer, backed with orchestral arrangements for the most part. Here, she is a jazz singer, working with anything from a trio to a quintet. This is, in many ways, the REAL Ella Fitzgerald. The performances are loose, spontaneous, and totally stunning. The squareness of Buddy Bregman’s arrangements for the Cole Porter album, for example, fade away when Ella presents the same songs here in very different formats.

The set is remarkable, and has been released with little fanfare (unlike the similarly themed Sinatra set out next week). The discs come in double jewel case with a twelve-page booklet. The notes, to be fair, don’t really tell us anything exciting, but it’s the music that counts, and it is presented here in mostly stunning quality – a remarkable feat given their age and rarity.

Are there any complaints at all? Well, the booklet could be more luxurious, and I’m certainly not a fan of splitting concerts across two discs, but I understand why it was done here to prevent a fourth disc being required. Otherwise, this is very special indeed.

Elvis Presley: The Memphis Sessions (1969)

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The following is an excerpt from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, currently available in paperback and as a download for the Kindle.  These pages discuss Elvis’s remarkable 1969 recording sessions in Memphis that produced two albums and four hit singles.

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January 13-16 and 20-23, 1969:  Studio Sessions

The TV special that had been filmed in June and which has become known as the “Comeback Special” finally aired on December 3, 1968 and, with If I Can Dream, Elvis scored his first real hit single in years.  Around the same time, or shortly after, Elvis made the decision that his next scheduled recordings should take place at American Studios in Memphis rather than Nashville.  Those sessions, recorded in January and February 1969 formed the second act of Elvis’s comeback.

Producer Chips Moman pushed Elvis in a way that no-one had done since Sam Phillips (and possibly not even Sam).  The recordings that resulted are, arguably, the best that Elvis made.  Many would argue in favour of the Sun recordings, but the tracks cut in Memphis in 1969 are deeper and darker from a lyrical point of view.  They are performances that only the older Elvis could give.  Elvis now had life experiences to draw on and that shines through almost every song recorded here.

A few months earlier, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the bell sounding at the beginning of Long Black Limousine was a death knell for Elvis’s career.  Instead, it signalled the start of the sessions.  Elvis bases his version of the song on the recording by O. J. Smith, or, at least, uses that as a starting point.  As good as Smith’s recording is, Elvis’s is a tour-de-force.  His voice retains some of the harshness utilised in the TV special, but there is something more than just “sound” going on here.  Elvis had seen that there was a chance that his flagging career could be revived and he was determined to work at that chance with everything he had.  Long Black Limousine tells the story of a girl from a small town who left the narrator behind to go and live in the city, boasting that she would return rich and in a “fancy car,” only to fulfil her prophecy at her own funeral.  Elvis gives everything. He knows this story, he knows the frustrations the girl felt, and he also knows that he could one day be her.  By the end of the performance he sounds totally exhausted.

This is the Story might not have the same depth, but Elvis is again in stunning form.  The song itself follows unusual chord progressions, particularly in the verses, and this provides a slightly awkward melody line which Elvis negotiates with ease (and the second take was the master).  The lyrics might not be the most original, but Elvis still digs in deep and gives a performance that is totally sincere without becoming maudlin.

Elvis yells out the opening lines of Wearin’ that Loved on Look, the effective mix of soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll that would become the first track on the first album released from the sessions.  As he worked on the third great song in a row, he must have wondered why he had been so content singing bland songs for so long.  This was a track that was perfect for Elvis, and he’s clearly having a ball, even adding his own “shoops” during the chorus almost as if he is singing to (and with) himself.

You’ll Think of Me is different and unusual.  It’s a long song that is simple in structure.  There are no real choruses, just verse after verse with a nice twist in the lyrics at the end.  It’s not the most commercial song from the sessions, but it does show Elvis being interested in more challenging material.   As with Long Black Limousine he appears to be relishing the chance to get inside a character and tell a story.

A Little Bit of Green has a more relaxed feel than those recorded so far.  Written by the same writing team as This is the Story, this is a nice mid-tempo ballad with a lovely melodic hook in the chorus that stretches Elvis’s range to the limit.  Once again, Elvis puts in a superb performance and is totally committed to the song.

I’m Movin’ On is an old country standard that Elvis gives a makeover, injecting the song with an element of soul.  While this might at first seem like Elvis using his old technique of transforming a song to suit his own style, he did at least have a version to base his own on here.  The Box Tops had included a great rendition of the number on their third album, Non-Stop, and this was the one that Elvis used as the basis for his own.  What’s added in the Presley recording are his soul-filled vocals and the brilliantly-judged backing vocals during the choruses.

Gentle on my Mind was a much newer song, but it had already become a country standard by the time Elvis recorded it in 1969, with the number having received two Grammy awards in 1968.  The recordings by John Hartford and Glen Campbell had been pure unadulterated country, but Elvis’s version has, in many ways, a much heavier sound that mixes the country sound with elements of soul and even gospel – the latter thanks to the nature of the backing vocals throughout the song.

Don’t Cry Daddy kept things in a largely country vein, and the song would provide Elvis with one of four hits from the two sets of sessions in Memphis.  Views on the song vary depending on how much the listener can stomach the rather saccharine nature of the lyrics.  Billboard called the song a “potent tearjerking ballad handled in standout style.”[1]  Elvis sings the song beautifully and with sincerity, but to this author the song hasn’t grown old particularly gracefully and is just too maudlin for its own good.

The same can be said about Mama Liked the Roses.  However, this brings up the issue of association of where we first hear a song and if and when that matters in our appreciation of it.  Many first heard this (as I did) as the final track of the Camden issue of Elvis’ Christmas Album and, because of that, it holds a special place because of the memories of hearing that album when growing up.  That doesn’t make it any more or less maudlin than Don’t Cry Daddy, but happy memories of childhood Christmases tend to result in us making allowances.  The song itself, though, isn’t a happy one as the singer remembers his now-deceased mother. Considering Elvis’s close relationship with his own mother, it’s hardly surprising that he wanted to record the number, and the fact it first appeared as the flip-side of The Wonder of You can hardly be seen as coincidental given the lyrics of both songs.

Inherit the Wind returned Elvis to rhythmical ballad material that had made up much of the session so far.  The song was hardly top-drawer, especially when compared to some of the songs Elvis recorded at the session, but, by this point, Elvis seemed unstoppable and put in a great performance, almost snatching and biting at words at some points, most notably at the beginning of the final verse.

Similarly, My Little Friend is hardly a great song musically, but the lyrics about a man remembering his first love are interesting and often manage to capture the innocence and excitement of adolescence.  It’s a surprisingly adult song in many ways, if not explicitly then buried just beneath the surface:  “I learned from her the whispered things/The big boys at the pool hall talked about.” We all know what the narrator is talking about and probably also remember those overheard conversations of older kids as we grew up too.  Elvis tells the story simply, and we believe every word.

Between 1968 and 1970, Elvis recorded a number of songs with a social conscience theme – something he never did in other periods during his career.  Following on from Clean Up Your Own Backyard and If I Can Dream, In the Ghetto didn’t, therefore, appear out of nowhere.  Written by Mac Davis (who also wrote the maudlin Don’t Cry Daddy), the track was described in one newspaper as a “message song of the disadvantaged in a Chicago ghetto.”[2]  Elvis immerses himself totally in the story at the heart of the song.  Peter Guralnick writes that “the singing is of such unassuming, almost translucent eloquence, it is so quietly confident in its simplicity, so well supported by the kind of elegant, no-frills small-group backing that was the hallmark of the American style – it makes a statement almost impossible to deny.”[3] Guralnick’s description sums up the number far more articulately than I could ever dream of, and so let’s move on by simply saying that this is Elvis at his very best.

Rubberneckin’, by comparison, is far from being a message song and yet coincidentally turned up in Change of Habit, Elvis’s last scripted film – and one that has a social message at its heart.  The song itself is an infectious mix of rock ‘n’ roll, funk and soul that might not make a great deal of sense lyrically, but which Elvis attacks with abandon, seemingly letting off steam after over twenty takes of In the Ghetto.

This sense of simply playing around and making music at the same time is also apparent in both From a Jack to a King and Hey Jude.  The former is a playful romp through Ned Miller’s song, but it all seems inconsequential compared to almost everything else recorded at the session, and the overdubbed female voices really don’t help matters.

Meanwhile, Hey Jude is an unmitigated mess.  The number was held back from release until 1972 and some commentators suggest we shouldn’t take the song seriously as it was just an informal or incomplete recording.  Had it been released posthumously then it would be easier to take that view, however it was released during Elvis’s lifetime in the guise of a finished master and so that’s how it should be judged.  That Elvis doesn’t know the words doesn’t help, but that’s the least of the problems in a recording that sees the singer hitting a bum note at the same place in each and every verse.  That Elvis thought that this was OK to release shows the lack of interest he must have had in his own career by 1972 and, arguably, a sign of contempt for his fans who were paying good money for a half-finished recording.

The next night, things were back on track.  Without Love is a powerful ballad that Elvis infuses with a gospel feeling.  It’s a song that follows the format of so many Elvis “big ballads” during the 1970s, but here it is performed without the bombastic vocal and arrangement that would mar so many of the later recordings.

I’ll Hold You in My Heart is incredible.  Elvis takes this old country song and sings it over and over in the same manner as take 2 of You’ll Never Walk Alone and Saved during the TV special from the year before. Elvis wrings every last drop of emotion out of the song and yet, surprisingly, none of its lengthy running time seems forced or contrived. Peter Guralnick raved in Rolling Stone, writing that “nothing could better exemplify the absorbing character of Elvis’ unique and moving style.  At the same time nothing could more effectively defy description, for there is nothing to the song except a haunting, painful emotionalism.”[4]

With I’ll Be There, Elvis turned his hand to a pretty pop song written and originally recorded by Bobby Darin nearly a decade earlier.  Darin’s version suffers from a tinny, almost toy-instrument sounding instrumentation and an unusually forced and unconvincing vocal.  Elvis once again doesn’t know all the words, but shows Darin how great the song could be.  He tears it up, giving it a natural flow that is completely missing from the original.

The session ended with the recording of the classic Suspicious Minds, a track that Billboard referred to as an “outstanding performance.”[5] This song of romance gone bad would ultimately become one of Elvis’s most well-known and best-loved recordings.  For a recording so artistically brilliant it was also remarkably commercial.  The sudden drop to half speed during the bridge makes the listener take notice even on the first hearing and, while the fade out-fade-in ending could (and perhaps should) be viewed as a gimmick, it also meant that the song was instantly memorable and recognisable.

The sessions had finally come to an end, but that wasn’t the end of Elvis’s greatest set of recordings – another set of dates were pencilled in at the studio for the following month, and Elvis would pick up exactly where he left off.

February 17-22, 1969:  Studio Session

Rather than seeming like the start of a new session, this seemed simply like a continuation of the previous one.  The personnel were, by and large, the same, and Elvis, buoyant after the January recordings, was in good spirits and ready for work.  However, before getting down to business there was time for a short jam with Elvis and the musicians working their way through a medley that included This Time (written by Chips Moman) and I Can’t Stop Loving You, a song which would become part of Elvis’s live act just a few months later.

Then it was down to the real work.  The first song recorded was the rather clumsily-titled True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, a song that had been recorded the previous year by Duane Dee.  Dee’s version was strictly in the country genre but, as in the previous recordings in January, Elvis took the country element and mixed it with a generous helping of soul.  He also gave the song a more driving rhythm than the original and ornamented the melody a little, giving a looser feel to the number overall.

Stranger in My Own Home Town had been written and recorded by Percy Mayfield in 1963, but here Elvis doesn’t just alter the feel of the song but gives it a complete transformation.  The length of Elvis’s version is nearly double that of the original, with Elvis singing the same two verses over and over again, subtly changing the melody each time.  Unusually, there is an instrumental introduction lasting a full verse, and then a number of instrumental breaks over which Elvis improvises partly off-mic and tells the band to “give it clout.”  Everyone seems to be having a great time and, more than almost any other Elvis recording, this portrays the great joy that music-making can bring.

Neil Diamond’s And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind is quite different again.  Here, Elvis gives a gentle, delicate performance, while also negotiating the huge vocal range that the song requires.  The overdubbing of the female backing vocals and strings might be a little saccharine, but it can’t hide the beauty of Elvis’s vocal.

Power of My Love is an edgy rock number in waltz time that sees Elvis digging deep and giving a dramatic, almost threatening, performance.  It seems almost bizarre that this great number, one of the highlights of the session, was written by Giant, Baum and Kaye – one of the most prolific (and bland) of all the songwriters of the Hollywood years.

Elvis continues with the same style of attacking vocal with After Loving You, a country song that had been recorded by both Eddy Arnold and Della Reese, although Elvis’s version seems to be based on neither.  As with Stranger in my Own Home Town and I’ll Hold You in My Heart, Elvis seems unwilling to let go of the song, not unlike Reese’s own recording of Someday, in which she repeats the last lines over and over.

Do You Know Who I Am sees Elvis firmly back in quiet, understated ballad territory in a song that lyrically seems like a distant cousin of Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello.  In that song, the narrator has just spotted an ex-girlfriend across a crowded bar or in a restaurant.  In Do You Know Who I Am he takes the opportunity to go over and say hello.  Once again, Elvis gets to develop his story-telling skills, and gives a far more convincing acting performance here than in many of his movies.

The same can be said for Kentucky Rain, a rather more dramatic song with a strong narrative.  Here, the singer is looking for the lover that left him without saying goodbye the week before.  The song was the last of the Memphis sessions to be released as a single, and the only one not to reach the top ten in America, stalling at #16, and only reaching #21 in the UK.  It’s hard to figure out quite why the track did less well than its predecessors for it’s a strong song and Elvis’s performance is totally compelling.  Indeed, James E Perone wrote that Kentucky Rain is “among the strongest 1960s’ performances that Elvis gave” and that it has enough “genre-blurring vitality [that it] transcends many other releases from the 1960s.”[6]

Only the Strong Survive sees Elvis back in soul territory, covering Jerry Butler’s U.S. hit single.  Elvis puts in another strong performance here, but his version follows the original very closely, which is rather a shame when compared to the songs from these sessions where Elvis took a song and transformed it into something purely his.  Even though it took nearly thirty takes to get it right, the arrangement barely moved away from Butler’s own at all.

It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin’ sees Elvis returning to country material.  Here he gives the song a nice, easy-going feel that is less “straight” than Johnny Tillotson’s original.   In a similar style is If I’m a Fool (For Loving You), written by Stan Kesler, who had written two of Elvis’s Sun sides.  In comparison to other material recorded by Elvis at American Studios that winter, these are unremarkable, but they are still good country performances.

Any Day Now, written by Bob Hilliard and Burt Bacharach, has an awkward, hard-to-sing melody, but Elvis seems to manoeuvre around it with ease.  The bridge of the song gives the appearance of dropping in tempo, but it’s just an illusion created by the sparser instrumentation.   Elvis’s performance manages to retain some of the soul aspects of the number that were present in Chuck Willis’s original, but also seems to merge them with a vocal that clearly draws on the influence of Tom Jones, who had released his own version on his Green Green Grass of Home LP in 1967.

Two songs were recorded on the final night of the sessions and, while neither are highlights, both are pleasant enough.  The Fair is Moving On is another song that clearly draws upon the influence of Tom Jones, not least in the big, belting chorus.  Meanwhile, Who Am I is an understated religious number which, while attractive, lacks any real commercial appeal.

The material from the Memphis sessions was spread over two albums, a number of single sides (including four hits) and budget albums, with Hey Jude escaping quietly three years later on the Elvis Now LP.  From Elvis in Memphis, the first album released, is probably Elvis’s greatest album and it received rave reviews.  Billboard stated that “he’s never sounded better, and the choice of material is perfect.”[7]  Meanwhile, Variety referred to the release as a “tightly socked disk with adept Memphis backup.”[8]

The second album, now generally referred to as Back in Memphis, was originally issued as part of a double album also containing an LP of live performances from August 1969.  From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the original, rather un-snappy title of the double album, also received very good reviews.  The New York Times stated that the “new pieces become quickly and comfortably familiar.”[9]  A week later, the same newspaper printed a second review, this time by Albert Goldman, author of a posthumous, controversial biography of the singer.  Goldman admits that “this is Elvis Presley’s year.”[10]

Despite the wonders of these sessions, some people still lived in the past, believing that nothing Elvis could do (even when it was this good) would match the wonders of his first recordings.  Despite giving From Elvis in Memphis a glowing review, Peter Guralnick still wrote “And yet it’s still not the same. …You can’t recapture the innocent ease of those first sides, you can’t bring back the easy innocence of new adulthood, whether for listener or singer. What is so striking about the sides cut for Sun Records, even today, fifteen years after their release, is the freshness of style, the cleanness and the enthusiasm.”[11]

The problem here is that Guralnick’s yearning for Elvis’s early style seemingly has little to do with Elvis himself.  In fact, he has just spent two pages of a magazine praising his most recent work.  No matter how much it might be denied, the comments he makes about the Sun sides here have little to do with their quality (wonderful though many of them are), and much more to do with Guralnick’s yearning to recapture the wonders of his own adolescence. By 1969, Guralnick was a grown man, and not a twelve or thirteen year old boy who was, no doubt, captivated by Elvis’s early records.  By his own admission here, no matter how good Elvis was in 1969 (or after), it would simply never be good enough.

Much has been written about Elvis’s work in the final seven or eight years of his life, and much has been said about the material he chose to record, the genre he chose to sing in, and the arrangements he chose to employ.  Blame has been put on all those things when critiquing Elvis’s final decade but they are often just a scapegoat.  Even if the quality of those final years was as high as these masterful recordings in Memphis, they still wouldn’t have been good enough for those critics who were not able to face the idea that they had to grow up, and that their idols had to grow up too and sing about more serious things than “playing house.”

The Memphis sessions provided Elvis with three top ten singles.  He had now conquered both television and the charts. All that was left was for him to return to live performing – the event that would be the third act of the Elvis comeback.

[1] “Top Singles of the Week,” Billboard, November 19, 1969, 48.

[2] “Elvis Cuts a Song of the Ghetto,” The Afro-American, May 3, 1969, 10.

[3]  Peter Guralnick.  Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. (London: Abacus, 1999), 332.

[4] Peter Guralnick, “Records,” Rolling Stone, August 23, 1969, 34.

[5] “Spotlight Singles,” Billboard, September 6, 1969, 110.

[6] James E Perone, “From Elvis in Memphis (1969),” in The Album: A Guide to Pop Music’s most Provocative, Influential and Important Creations, Volume 1, ed. James E Perone (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012), 224.

[7] “Billboard Album Reviews,” Billboard, June 7, 1969, 51.

[8] “Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elvis, ‘Midnight,’ Cowboy, & Lady Dead, Kaleidoscope Top New LPs,” Variety, June 11, 1969, 72.

[9] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[10] Albert Goldman, “A Private Bag of Mixed Beauties,” New York Times, December 14, 1969, D44.

[11] Guralnick, “Records,” 35.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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I will admit it from the very beginning:  this is a rant.    Rants are good for you, and we should all have them from time to time, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I had to watch Don’t Look Now this week for teaching purposes.  I last saw the film when I was about fifteen, and I remember not being exactly over-enamored with it back then.  But that was twenty-five years ago (I say this with a sudden realisation that I can recall things from a quarter of a century ago – I’m getting old).   So, I went into this latest viewing without any real expectations, other than the fact that it’s viewed as a “modern classic” (modern despite the fact it’s now 42 years old).

It will come as little surprise that I really and truly do not agree with those that have hailed it as a masterpiece.  On the contrary, I found it to be overlong, tedious, self-indulgent and pretentious twaddle.  It is a “clever film.”  I will grant it that much – but cleverness for the sake of showing off and being clever is pointless.  The editing of the film is brilliantly done – if you’re giving a lecture on what can be achieved by jump cuts and match cuts etc.  But most people watching the film are doing so because they want a diverting way to spend two hours, not because they want to sit at the screen and say “oh, that’s clever.”  In the end, it’s this clever editing that is the film’s downfall for me (or, at least, it’s biggest downfall).  Instead of producing a film that is seamless and engrossing, it produces a film that constantly reminds you that you are a watching a film.

This is, of course, relatively normal for an “arthouse” film, but Don’t Look Now doesn’t present itself as an arthouse film.  In fact it doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is.  Is it a horror film?  Kind of, but not really.  Is it to be viewed as entertainment?  Well, no, not really.  In fact what it seemingly tries to do is straddle the notions of horror, arthouse and entertainment – and ultimately fails at all three.  It’s like watching Kubrick – I would really like the hours back that I have spent watching Kubrick films.  In other words, it’s an entertainment that is just too damned clever for its own good.  It’s pretentious in the fact that it is trying to somehow elevate itself over the cinema of (for?) the masses and yet still be entertaining, and it tries to do that by stealing leaves out of  the arthouse book:  playing with time and space, showing how clever editing can be, a plot moving along at a pace slower than me with a dodgy knee and walking stick, and completely and utterly pointless shots of Donald Sutherland’s and Julie Christie’s hairy bits.

In short, Don’t Look Now encapsulates the very type of filmmaking that I abhor: cleverness for the sake of cleverness.  It might be clever but it sure as hell isn’t entertaining as it meanders along not really going anywhere and only providing a mystery by playing tricks on the audience.  It’s the equivalent of writing a whodunnit and only introducing the murderer to the audience on page 198 of 200.  Yes, the film is very “worthy,” but worthy of what?  I have no problem with arthouse cinema – you know what you’re getting when you walk into the cinema or when you put the DVD in the player.  But this type of no-man’s-land (and Roeg is one of the “best” exponents of it, at least in his earlier directorial efforts) doesn’t excite me at all.  It leaves me totally cold…and reaching for the DVD eject button or, at the very least, the fast forward option just to see what happens at the end.  And in the case of Don’t Look Now, don’t even get me started on that.

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)

i-confess-image-1

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

nick clegg mental health

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)

TheSender

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.