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‘Opium’ at the movies.

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2018

Perhaps it is my sensibilities but there seems to have been an awful lot of religion on film this summer. We had Apostasy, on which I have already posted. Here one had to sit through an amount of Jehovah Witness theology.

This turned up again in The Children’s Act (2017): another victim declining a blood transfusion. In fact I felt that this was not the prime focus of the film but rather the emotional cataclysm for the liberal judge. The film had the merit of treating the issue from the legal rather than the theological point of view.

Both had been preceded by First Reformed (2017) with another fundamentalist character. He is effectively a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, an organisation which tends towards Calvinism. Their lists of ‘do nots’ is not quite as extreme as the Jehovah Witnesses. This was a higher quality film, though I found the writing by Paul Schrader stronger than his direction. The film seemed to follow the style of a Robert Bresson film for much of its fairly long running time. But the climax suggested the masochism one finds in the Catholic Church; and it also reminded me of some of the themes in the writings of Ian McEwan.

Better than these was The Apparition (L’apparition, 2018). In this film a sceptical journalist is asked to investigate a claim of an apparition by the Virgin Mary. Parts of the film depicted the processes of the Roman Catholic Church in such instances. At times these sequences felt like they could have been written by John Le Carré. The actual investigation and the blessed recipient of the apparition were equally fascinating. And the film managed to effect a surprising climax and resolution, the latter rather indefinite.

Also an improvement, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018). A teenager caught in a Lesbian embrace after a school prom is packed off to ‘God’s promise’ by her conservative guardian. This religious camp supposedly is able to cure her ‘affliction’. The film is critical, funny and, at times, dramatic. As in Apostasy watching and listening to the fundamentalist characters was hard work, though the performers make these characters convincing. What intrigued me most is that the film seems to recycle the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). We have equivalents of Nurse Ratched, the Native American chief, excited viewing of television, a suicide and therapy sessions. And the ending has parallels though it is less dramatic. The film is adapted from a novel of the same name: I am unclear as to what degree the novel shares these parallels. The film certainly changes some things, Cameron is older in the film than the novel.

In Puzzle (2018) we get Roman Catholicism; but this is with irony and sly subversion. Agnes discovers she has a talent for puzzles and teams up with Robert for the National Championships. This enables her to assert herself in the patriarchal family set-up. This is small-town USA with regular church going. Intriguingly religion does not resolve the oppressive situation. Robert, a New Yorker, remarks that ‘life is chaos’ but that when completed puzzles offer a ‘perfect picture’. In fact we never see Agnes reading a bible though we do see her carrying the ‘ash cross’ that marks the beginning of Lent. By the film’s end she is emerging from this wintry fast.

And one I have not seen is Pope Francis: a Man of his Word. This is by Wim Wenders and I would rather see his excellent Buena Vista Social Club (1999) or the more recent Pina (2011), neither especially laden with religious tropes.

At least I was able to enjoy a snippet of Richard Dawkins puncturing the balloon of such superstitions. But only briefly at the opening of Ex Libris. And, of course, The Young Karl Marx offers the greatest modern hatchet job on religion.

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Jane Eyre on film

Posted by keith1942 on July 21, 2016


I was able to revisit C20th Fox’s classic film version of this story in a good quality 35mm print at the National Media Museum. There was also a panel discussion before the film. This is an adaptation from one of the most potent novels in English literature written by Charlotte Brontë  and published in 1847. I first encountered it at the start of my teens, and read it twelve times in the space of a couple of years. Jane Eyre’s passionate, tenacious and truculent resistance to being put down and patronised struck a strong chord with me.  I have since seen at least six official translations to the screen and a number of other films clearly influenced by the novel.

This 1943 version is one of the most famous and was preceded only by four fairly short silent versions [varying in length from one to seven reels] and a relatively short feature length version in 1934. The latter is stagey and suffers from the limitations of early sound. It also rewrites the plot in a way that diminishes the story. So we get quite  a lot of the book, but extremely condensed. Unlike some later versions we meet [St] John Rivers (Desmond Roberts), but only in one short scene. Jane is played by Jean Darling as a child and Virginia Bruce as an adult. In both cases she is too attractive and too stylishly dressed. Both Adele (Edith Fellows) and Blanche (Aileen Pringle) describe her as ‘pretty’. Colin Clive as Rochester is miscast. He completely lacks the dark mystery of the novel’s characterisation. And the film also lacks any Gothic trappings. The house is affluent and cosy: indeed the staircase to the attic where Bertha (Claire Du Brey, who hardly seems mad at all) resides looks like any ground to first floor stairs. And to cap this Rochester is daily expecting his marriage to be annulled. We do get the fire and subsequent blindness.

The 1943 version does to a great degree dramatise the book and has become one of is the most influential film versions. It was filmed at the C20th studio at Century City and runs for 97 minutes in crisp, black and white Academy ratio. It has a crew of stellar names, both in front of and behind the camera and microphone.

It is worth restating one of the models frequently used in analysing adaptations of literature to film. There is the adaptation that aims at relative fidelity to the source novel. Then there are the versions that reinterprets or even deconstructs the novel. And the third approach is one that re-imagines the novel, using selectively whatever fits. The 1943 Jane Eyre is clearly a film that aims at a degree of fidelity, allowing for both the stylistic conventions and dominant values of the studio film. Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ could be seen as a novel that deconstructs the original, and the film (1940) follows suit. While Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ would seem to re-imagine the original: a filmic equivalent would be Val Lewton’s production of I Walked with a Zombie (1943). All of these later works offer interesting illuminations on the novel and on the film adaptations.

The screenplay for the film is credited to Aldous Huxley, the film’s director Robert Stevenson and John Houseman. The latter was a key associate with one of the stars of the film, Orson Welles. Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on Air had broadcast a radio adaptation in 1938 of the work with John Houseman collaborating in the writing. This film, to some degree, was developed from the that version. Welles also produced ‘Rebecca’ for his later radio series The Campbell Playhouse. Bernard Hermann, composer for the film, provided music for that broadcast.

Lowood school in the 1943 version

Lowood school in the 1943 version

The screenplay deftly cuts the novel to fit the reduced space in a 97 minute running time. So scenes are cut or abbreviated. A good example is right near the opening of the film. We see a candle [repeatedly used with low key lighting throughout the film] held by Bessie (Sara Allgood) accompanied by a manservant as he opens the door to let Jane [Peggy Ann Garner] out of what is [in the book the red-room] some sort of or cellar store room.. This follows the altercations with her cousin John which is elided though referred to in the subsequent dialogue. Far more drastic changes occur later in the film. The characters of Miss Temple at the Lowood School and St John Rivers, who with his sisters provides shelter for Jane late in the film, are both missing. However, they are in a way substituted by an additional character, Doctor Rivers (John Sutton) who is seen several times in the sequences at Lowood School. He stands in for Miss Temple, especially in relation to the illness and death of Helen Burns (Elizabeth Taylor). He is also given some of the maxims that St John Rivers opined in the book. After the death and burial of Helen he tells Jane, with reference to ‘duty, that she needs,

“to do God’s work…” and that this requires “an educated woman”.

Much of the dialogue is taken from the novel or is fairly close to that. Moreover the film uses literary devices common in Hollywood adaptation of classic literature. The film credits present first the embossed cover of the novel and subsequent pages setting out the title and production credits. Then we see the opening page of the opening chapter. A voice [that of Joan Fontaine] reads out the opening paragraph. This device is repeated five more times in the film. On each occasion we are shown the page and particular paragraph in the novel, read out by a voice-over. However, at the end of the film Jane’s voice reprises the end of the novel without any use of page or book.

St John Rivers is a character that is frequently missing in film adaptations, though he gets fully developed characterisation in the 2011 version. Another character, but minor, also frequently missing in film adaptations is the gypsy fortune teller, who turns out to be Edward Rochester in disguise. In this adaptation the plot information that was presented in this way is covered by an additional scene, differently scripted, between Edward Rochester (Orson Welles) and Blanche Ingram (Hilary Brooks). This is one of at least two sequences where the narrative departs from what Jane herself can know. The other is a sequence between Rochester and Mason (John Abbott), the brother of Rochester’s actual wife Bertha. Note, the actress or extra playing Bertha does not appear in the credits, probably because she is only glimpsed briefly through a doorway.

Through the use of the voice-over the film attempts to provide the personal narrative voice which is one of the real successes of the original novel. But, apart from the scenes mentioned, this device is not consistently used in the film. Whilst Jane’s voice is a constant in the book, not only explaining the plot but commentating both on the characters and her own feeling and responses, in this film I counted seven such sequences, all only a paragraph from the book. We get leaving Gateshead, arriving at Lowood, Jane’s early thoughts on Rochester, her first awareness of the ‘mystery in the tower’, her thoughts after Rochester has proposed marriage, her return to Gateshead, and the final summing up for the conclusion. Key sequences, as that involving the actual Bertha or Jane’s subsequent flight from Thornfield, offer no such comment. Moreover, despite the presentation these are not the words that Brontë wrote. The opening page and voice-over offers,

“My name is Jane Eyre …. I was born in 1820, a harsh time in England.”

After more on social conditions and attitudes we get a reference to Gateshead and to Aunt Reed. But the original novel opens with,

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. “

It goes on to describe the events that led to Jane’s incarnation in the red-room. It is only half-way through chapter two that Bronte allows Jane her comments on Mrs Reed. The same is true of the later ‘extracts’ and only the final un-illustrated voice-over comes close to the novel with the details of Edward Rochester’s recovering sight and his first-born. The novel though goes on toe inform the reader about the sojourn of St John Rivers whose religious commitment closes the book. I incline to think that these passages are taken from the earlier radio version and are designed to help the audience into the story and to follow its plot.

Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane catches her rebellious spirit. In both the Reed household and at Lowood, she resists the impositions on her by adults. The film’s emphasises the power of this world by using low angle shots from Jane’s point of view of both her aunt Mrs Reed (Agnes Moorehead) and of Mr Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell) . Agnes Moorehead is suitably icy as the uncaring Aunt. Daniell is a little overbearing as the sadistic head of the Orphanage. The film emphatically stresses this aspect with an additional scene which shows Jane and Helen burns forced to perambulate in the rain with signs bearing the label ‘rebellious’ and ‘vain’. The latter notice refers to Burns’ ringlets. The punishment exacerbates Burns illness and it is after her funeral that we hear the religious strictures from Doctor Rivers.

The rebellious spirit is more muted when the Jane transforms to the adult woman played by Joan Fontaine. However, she still displays a firm determination, especially in the exchanges with Edward Rochester. This is a much more confident and determined young woman than the unnamed heroine of Rebecca. However, the film leaves out all the plot and discussion about her paintings, an aspect of the story that brings out Jane’s imaginative world. So the film lacks the intellectual relationship between Jane and Edward described in the book..

Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:

“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).

Fontaine does have a problem in the overbearing presence of Orson Wells as Rochester. Once he appears he dominates the film and even after tragedy strikes he is till the most potent presence on screen. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,

“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “

And it is worth noting that at their first meeting, when in an unexpected encounter Rochester is thrown from his horse, he does not need Jane’s assistance to remount as he does in the book.

Adele (Margaret O’Brien) is pleasant but clearly cannot achieve the French quality which is important tin the book. Blanche Ingram is suitably arch. Mason is underdeveloped and, as noted, we do not really see Bertha at all. The film does essay presenting Jane’s point of view, but not consistently. Two shots stand out, as the camera, sited behind Jane, includes her in a shot of Rochester with Blanche in deep staging. In fact the film uses deep focus/staging and chiaroscuro for much of its length. In that and other ways it resembles Citizen Kane. Here though we have cinematographer George Barnes. He had worked on the earlier Rebecca, where equally there was a frequent use of chiaroscuro sand a gothic feel.

Jane Eyre 06

This gothic feel is emphasised by the Production Design of William Pereira, who also acted a second unit director. Together with the Art Designs by James Basevi (who worked on Wuthering Heights) and Ward Ihnen and also the set decoration of Thomas Little the film seems to come from some C18th Gothic novel rather than the C19th Brontë. Thornfield is like a castle and most rooms have bare stone walls. There are battlements and a tower where Bertha resides. And there are frequent shots of the battlements as the plot darkens. Thornfield is a building full of shadows. The film was shot in a studio but through back projections, matte shots and the use of models it generates a feel of a Yorkshire landscape, wild and turbulent. There are frequent dissolves as transitions between scenes, the work of special effects specialist Fred Sersen. Another trope is the use of staircases, a conventional Hollywood setting for moment so drama and transition. There are at least nine sequences set on a staircase, more than a in any other version of the novel that I have seen. They appear when Jane leaves Gateshead, when we meet Helen Burns for the first time, in several scenes involving Jane with Rochester and, of course, as a spiral, in the tower where Bertha is hidden.

The director of the film was Robert Stevenson, who had worked in the British film industry and then moved to Hollywood. But this gothic-style film is unlike his other films of the periods. However, it is very like the work directed by Orson Welles, and seems at times to borrow from the style of Citizen Kane (1941). Welles, when negotiating the film, asked for a producer credit, but was only contracted as an actor. However, it is clear from reminiscences that he also ‘assisted’ in some of the direction. Citizen Kane, of  course, had an immense influence among the Hollywood craft community. The expressionist style and atmosphere can be seen in numerous examples across the studio films. But Welles was also assisted in this case by the number of his associates working on the film. John Houseman worked with Welles in the theatre and radio in New York. Welles apparently picked a member of the Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead, for the role of Mrs Reed. The Jane Eyre film also crosses over in at least one way with I Walked with a Zombie. This was filmed at RKO , Welles old studio, where he was still working when not acting, on re-cutting his It’s All True [only to see the light of day in 1993]. And the score for Jane Eyre by Bernard Herrmann at times seems to recall that in Citizen Kane: in fact, it appears that Herrmann used orchestrations and themes in this film from the score he composed for the earlier Rebecca.

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1943 version

Welles, like the dominant studio model of the time, was not strong on independent women. And the film does not generate the sense of female autonomy for which Jane struggles throughout the novel. There is no mention of the inheritance which gives her economic independence in the novel. When Rochester and Jane meet again in the ruins of Thornfield, it is almost as if the former is the savaged persona of Kane. There is a brief but passionate kiss between the couple, dominated by Rochester. Then Jane’s final comment tells the audience that Edward recovered enough sight to see his first-born son.

There have been several film versions of the book since the C20th Fox feature. Ellis and Kaplan note that a later film of Jane Eyre, a UK/USA TV film production in 1971, came after the period of Hollywood’s flirtation with film noir and when values around the representation of women had changed:

“But Mann’s [The director Delbert Mann) version made in the period when the new wave of feminism was at its most exuberant, optimistic phase, humanizes Rochester and Bertha …”

The film is in Eastmancolor, with George C. Scott as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane. In some ways the film returns to the 1934 version, with a more obviously attractive Jane and Thornfield as an elegant mansion, though more in keeping with the period of the novel. Bertha is a catatonic character, rather than the violent person of novel and the earlier film. This version omits the opening in the Reed household but does include St. John Rivers (Ian Bannen, excellent) and his sisters. There is no mention of an inheritance for Jane. And when she returns to Thornfield her meeting with the now blind Rochester is in a wooded walk where he first proposed to her. She tells him “I’ve  come home, Edward, to stay.” ‘Coming home’ is one of the classic endings in Hollywood films. The film did have a theatrical release in the UK but was shot for television. It does have some odd ellipsis which may be due to this, cuts where one feels that material is omitted. And the Eastmancolor does not serve the drama as well as black and white film.

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

Rochester and Jane in the 1970 version

There was another TV film version for London Weekend Television in 1997. This has Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciarán Hinds as Rochester. The film opens as young Jane (Laura Harling) is bundled into the red-room after the incident with John Reed. There is quite an amount of play with the effect of this on  Jane. This leads to her moving to the Lowood School, Miss Temple (Emily Joyce) does appear here but is an undeveloped character as is Helen Burns (Gemma Eglinton). Eight years pass and she takes up employment as the Governess at Thornfield. It is at this point that we get the first of the occasional voice-overs with Jane’s comments. Rochester and Jane are well presented, and include the responses to Jane’s paintings. When we come to the climatic revelation of Bertha she is vividly portrayed and with quite a lot of sympathy. The film does address how much or how little knowledge Mrs Fairfax (Gemma Jones) has of Bertha, something the novel is slightly ambiguous about. Jane’s journey from Thornfield is detailed and we meet St John Rivers (Rupert Penry-Jones), but with only one sister, Diana ((Elizabeth Garvie). Again there is no reference to an inheritance and when Jane returns to Rochester the emphasis is on the union and subsequent children. The film makes quite a lot of play with landscapes, though shot in Cumbria rather than Yorkshire. This version also uses less of the dialogue from the book than other versions but with the most distinctive Pilot, a Newfoundland / Landseer.

A family ending in the 1997 version

A family ending in the 1997 version

The 1996 film version is produced by Miramax and involved several European film companies. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. For much of its 112 minutes it has a high degree of fidelity to the book, but takes bizarre turn late in the film. There is a strong cast, led by William Hurt playing Rochester in a low key and Charlotte Gainsborough as an admirably determined Jane. There are also some Yorkshire landscapes. The film opens with a powerful rendering of the red-room incident. When Jane moves to Lowood we have a recognisable Miss Temple and Helen Burns, with the original religious emphasis. And an interesting detail, we see Helen and Jane’s locks loose before Mr Brocklehurst as he wields the scissors. This is the only time in the film that Jane’s hair is completely loose. When we arrive at Thornfield the building has the recognisable battlements, and the interiors are affluent but also limited in the C19th style. Rochester and Jane study and discuss her paintings. Later she makes the trip to the dying Mrs Reed. At this point St John Rivers appears as the local vicar and with only one sister. Also at this point we learn about the inheritance that waits Jane. Here as with Bertha the film brings in the West Indian connection. After the interrupted wedding and the revelation of Bertha Jane leaves Thornfield. Immediately Bertha starts the fire that kills her, and Grace Poole and maims Rochester. Jane meanwhile receives a perfunctory proposal from Rivers but returns to Thornfield. Now the couple are united. In this final scene it is Jane who is passionate in the kisses and embraces. So the film offers an effective representation of the original, marred by some careless plotting.

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

Jane kisses the blind Rochester in the 1996 version

The most recent version on film was produced by Focus Features and BBC Films in 2011. It was scripted by Moira Buffini, whose earlier Byzantium (2012) was impressive in its treatment of a pair of vampiric sisters. The director was Cary Joji Fukunaga whose earlier Beasts of the No Nation (2015), set among child soldiers in Africa,  was good, though I thought the plotting was slightly problematic. This colour film retains much of the plot and dialogue of the novel but changes the structure. So the film opens with the adult Jane standing in a doorway. She leave Thornfield [following the attempted wedding ceremony] and endures a difficult and distraught journey to the door of the River’s household. As she convalesces Jane has a series of flashbacks, first to the red-room incident at Gateshead and then [briefly] to Lowood school and her friendship with Helen Burns. Now follows her taking up the post of governess to Adele at Thornfield. For this we  have one long and uninterrupted flashback. She meets Rochester as he falls from his startled horse. Note, this is the most undeveloped Pilot in the whole cycle. At Thornfield Rochester discusses her painting with Jane: their conversation brings out the imaginative side of Jane’s character. The film uses a series of visual motifs and tropes to illuminate the developing relationship. One example is picture that Jane examines twice, a nude woman reclining on a sofa. This is a film where the sexual aspect of the relationship is acknowledged. The other, possibly a subtle point, is a brief glimpse of a black coachman when Jane arrives at Thornfield. When Blanche Ingram appears we also see Jane’s journey back to Gateshead and Mrs Reed’s confession of Jane’s relative John Eyre. The only voice-over in the film gives us the wording of a letter that Jane writes to him.

Back at Thornfield we hear Rochester’s proposal, see the interrupted wedding and the mad Bertha. This flashback includes part of the journey already seen at the film’s opening. There are two differences: one is a shot of a distraught Rochester calling after Jane at a window: the other a dramatic overhead shot of a distraught Jane lying in the heather. Back into the film’s present, we see Jane working at the school and then St John River’s proposal. Now she also learns of her inheritance. In an open-air encounter Rivers questions her continuing passion for Rochester. At the sound of his name Jane runs off into the surrounding moors. We then see her in a carriage journeying to Thornfield. Finding Rochester, in the spot where he originally proposed to her, the couple are re-united. There is no dialogue about wedding or children,. just a long shot of the entwined couple.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The interrupted wedding in the 2011 version.

The organisation of the flashback is slightly odd. The series of flashbacks at the River’s house of Lowood draw a parallel between the two settings: places where Jane’s education, formal and informal, occurs. However, the later shot as she runs towards the moors does raise a question as to whether the final sequence is actual or imagined?

The panel discussion that accompanied the screening of the 1943 film version was chaired by Samira Ahmed with Lauren Livesey, Amber Regis and Michael Jackson. They were all interesting but none of them was a film specialist. This was an aspect that was not fully explored.

The three panellist talked about aspects of the novel and the various adaptations, both on film and on television. There are also several foreign language versions. The television versions, they suggested, offered much more detailed versions of the novel. It also appears that there have been a number of pornographic film versions based on the novel and that Fifty Shades of Gray is an example.  Laura suggested that this related to the master/servant relationship in the novel. This aspect is one that varies considerably in the film versions, though more recent films treat this with greater complexity.

They noted how the films tended to project a ‘brooding Byronic hero’ with Jane the ‘right kind of woman to tame him’. This is especially true of the 1943 and 1970 film versions. The more recent films tend to a less strident characterisation. But as Amber pointed out all the films in some way present ‘a damaged English character [who] needs saving’. They also noted how certain characters or events, Gateshead – the Rivers family, the Madeira inheritance – are not always included. And the sequence that is uniformly missing is Rochester’s impersonation of a gypsy and his fortune telling trick. It is worth adding that the characterisation of Bertha varies considerably. From a violent and malevolent hag to a damaged and catatonic woman.

Bertha raises the point that is dramatised in Jean Rhys novel, the West Indian connection. There is a hint of this in the 1943 version, which intriguingly in places has a similar feel to that of I Walked with a Zombie: filmed in the same year at RKO. Both film’s have the heroine walking in mist, and with an oppressive silence. The RKO film has a plot that includes voodoo, which is where it crosses over with the Rhys novel. It also brings out the horror aspect that is a sub-text in the Bronte novel. Whilst recent versions have shown the influence of feminism in treating the novel, the colonial subtext has yet to be exploited. This is present in the Rhys novel through Rochester’s first marriage in Jamaica and also through Jane’s inheritance of estates in Madeira, where the Portuguese operated a slave system.

There is a 1993 film version of the Rhys novel produced in Australia and a BBC TV film made in 2006. The 1993 film is the more faithful to the novel: it received an 18 certificate in the UK for sex, nudity, violence and profanity. The novel and the films chart Edwards Rochetster’s [but not named as such] relationship with Bertha, originally Antoinette and renamed by her husband. Antoinette is Creole and comes from a slave owning family. Her mother was mentally unstable and the same malady blights her marriage. However, in this version Rochester is not the victim and already in the early days of wedlock he has had sex with a servant. The novel takes in Antoinette’s childhood right up to her incarceration at Thornfield and the subsequent fire which will lead to her death. The novel has multiple voices, including Antoinette and Rochester. In this and in other ways the Rhys version picks up on the form, motifs and tropes in the Bronte original. The use of narrative voices is present in the 1993 film, as are a number of the motifs. The 2006 versions lacks most of these, certainly the narrative voices.

There was only time for one question, which raised the issue of female consciousness. All the panellists agreed that the narrative voice of the book is crucial to this. The films vary in their use of this. Only the 1943 and 1996 version use this extensively, though the 2011 version does essay a subjective viewpoint through the camerawork. What is interesting is the choice of dialogue. Jane’s intelligent response to Brocklehurst’s vision of sin and hell,

‘I must keep well and not die’

seems the most favoured. The missing line in most that strikes me is the rhetorical,

‘Reader, I married him’.

This decisive statement undercuts the seemingly conventional ending to the work, the bonding of heroine to hero. The closest to this is Charlotte Gainsborough’s Jane who ends with

“And so I married him.”

Judging by these adaptations even a work aiming at fidelity only offers a partial rendering. Condensing a book that can take many hours to read into the space of two hours has its impact. Television can offer a more leisurely perusal. And writing a story is rather different than rendering it in images and sound. Having noted that I found it odd that there is so little use of the voice-over in the film versions. Then there are the changing mores of the times. the original Jane Eyre has a concentration on religious values that do not speak to effectively to a more secular time. Likewise child rearing has changed in immeasurable ways in English/British society: even more true of the English-speaking society in North America. However the films do bring out aspect of the work. This is especially true of the gothic atmosphere of the novel and the implied horror. Jane actually uses the word ‘vampire’ when describing Bertha in the novel. In the sequence after Bertha attacks Richard Mason he claims,

“She  sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my hear,” ..

The 1943 version has “sank her teeth into me..”, the 1970 “she bit me..”, 1996 “drain my heart …”, the 1997 “bit and clawed me … like  a vampire..” whilst the 2011 version has a silent Mason. The later colour versions offer a more graphic depiction of the actual wounds, peaking in the 2011 version with exposed and bloody flesh.

From that point of view I prefer to have read the novel prior to seeing the film as this illuminates Bronte’s masterpiece: a status |i feel none of the films achieve.



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24 Window Frames a Second: Trains in British Films

Posted by keith1942 on February 20, 2015

Brief opening

This article aims to offer some general comments about trains in British films between 1900 and 1950, illustrated by a few key examples.

A number of authors have discussed how the Railways and Cinema are both not only key technologies and institutions of the nineteenth century, but how they also share certain characteristics. Ian Christie comments on one of the first moving images to be projected to an audience, the Lumière’s Arrival of a train. (Arrivée d’un train en gare a La Ciotat 1896).

Railways already loomed large in the common experience and folklore of the late nineteenth century. First there was the new experience of mechanical speed, both terrifying and exhilarating for those who had only known horse or wind power. Then there was literally, a new outlook on the world as it sped past the train windows. … From the carriage window to the screen was an easy transition. It’s tempting to say that sixty years of railways had prepared people to be film spectators. (Christie 1994)

Some of the earliest moving camera shots were taken from trains. ‘Phantom Rides’ were a popular early film genre, treating audiences to exotic locales in the Alps and the North American West. Closer to home British audiences could watch In the Scottish Highlands (1907) or Burnham Beeches (1909 – Fletcher 2003). An extremely popular variant was Hales Tours, where mocked up train carriages provided access to projected film scenery, a sort of reverse of the above. One of the most famous magical films by Georges Méliès, a few years after the Lumière’s pioneer actualités (actualities), is a train journey – to the stars (Voyaged travers l’impossible, 1904).

The most popular 1930s documentary from the GPO Film Unit led by John Grierson, and one of the few seen by audiences in commercial cinemas, was Night Mail (1936). There is an exciting rush as the train is

. . . Crossing the border … / Pulling up Beattock, A steady climb/ The gradient’s against her, But she’s on time.

The words of W. H. Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten accentuate the filming. (In fact, there is a low budget thriller from the year before with the same title, set on the London to Aberdeen express).

How can we explain this fascination the railroad holds for the cinema? Why does the silent film seem to privilege the train – including the trolley, elevated railway and subway – over other forms of transportation, both older (the horse, the coach) and newer (the automobile, the airplane)? Some would see the cinema’s interest in the train as that of a double: the cinema finds an apt metaphor in the train, in its framed, moving image, its construction of a journey as an optical experience, the radical juxtaposition of different places, the “annihilation of space and time.” As a machine of vision and an instrument for conquering space and time, the train is a mechanical double for the cinema and for the transport of the spectator into fiction, fantasy, and dream. It is a metaphor in the Greek sense of the word: movement, the conveyance of meaning. Like film’s illusion of movement, the experience of the railroad is based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous motion and stillness. In both cases, passengers sit still as they rush through space and time, whether physically and visually, as on the train, or merely visually, as in the cinema. The train would then be cinema’s mirror image in the sequential unfolding of a chain of essentially still images and the rapid shift of points of view that the train and cinema experiences entail. (Lynne Kirby, 1997)

This quotation suggests how trains work in films in a number of different ways. The audience view replicates to some degree that of the passenger in a carriage looking through the window. The combination of rapid motion and relaxed observation are common to both. The promise of new places and new experiences is part of the excitement of each. And while both also promise a definite end to our journey, we expect some interruptions and changes, even shocks, en route. We think we know our destination, but the lack of certainty offers a certain spice.

The Kiss in the Tunnel 1899

The Kiss in the Tunnel 1899

The parallels and connections between these two modern technologies were apparent to early filmmakers and audiences. Filmmakers were soon using trains in the emerging narrative films that were to become the staple of commercial cinema. A popular scene for early short films was The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899). Sometimes this was a risqué story, sometimes a joke with a twist when the man kissed the wrong female – in a darkened space just like the cinema. As a space for breaching or skirting taboos on sexual activity cinemas also crossed over with trains. A filmic advertising jingle ran,

Take your girlie to the movies (if you can’t make love at home). (BBC / WGBH 1995).

Trains provided the gateway to another world, often a world where the ties of normal life could be loosened. Mitchell & Kenyon’s early films show workers taking trains to the holiday resorts in Wakes Week. In Hindle Wakes (1927) the world of the Wakes holiday is signalled by the title card, “Ecstasy, Freedom” and a train journey. And it is in the holiday resorts of Blackpool, and then Llandudno, that the heroine Fanny finds sexual freedom and pleasure. A similar situation is played out in Bank Holiday, (1937). Catherine, a nurse, has an illicit holiday weekend with her boyfriend Geoffrey in Besborough (a fictional seaside resort, the actual locations were filmed in Hastings). On the train this modern, independent miss justifies the pleasures of ‘free love’.

You know my opinions. You know I think we are justified.

In fact, apparent morality intervenes and she returns to London without spending an illicit hotel night with Geoffrey. Instead she comforts a grieving (and sexually placid) widower.

The use of suspense and the expectations of shock are evident in the 1935 film The Last Journey.

“The protagonist – engineer (Bob) … experiences overwhelming psychological distress, which he attempts to resolve by running the train off the tracks. As the train heads for collision, the shots become shorter, the frame bursts with images of furious wheels intercut with the contorted face of a hysteric reflected against stroboscopic lights and signals working with a demented force of their own. The character, however, snaps before the derailment metaphor is translated into action. The locomotive slows down, and the train pulls safely into the junction.” (Laurence Kardish, 1991)

The Last Journey

The Last Journey

The crash is averted through the bravery of a consultant (Sir Wilfred) who uses hypnotism to calm the crazed engineer.

Look, along the rails – straight ahead – that’s it, watch them Bob, watch them.”

This use of the rails for medical hypnosis returns us to the viewpoint of the early Lumière film, which begins

at that point in the distance where all lines converge.” (Kardish, 1991).

Train of Events (1949) opens with the crash of a locomotive. Then the film traces the events that led to five passengers and the driver being on that train. The passengers are all escaping from something. A composer (Raymond) attempts to end an extra-marital affair with his concert pianist mistress. An ex-German POW (Richard) tries to avoid returning to Germany. His English girlfriend (Ella), who has stolen to buy his ticket to a new life in Canada, aids him. And an actor (Philip) carries the body of his murdered wife in his prop basket. The interest is held by the set of portmanteau stories and by the desire to find out which of these characters will live and which will die. In the end the crashing train becomes an instrument of justice, and Philip and Ella are the ones who die.

Lynne Kirby explores the idea that there is a facet of railways expressing certain masculinity. And in this film, as in many railway films, women suffer disproportionately. Two of the three deaths are female.

The Last Journey includes a trio of crooks and Train of Events a murderer, attempting to evade justice. Criminality and law enforcement, especially pursuit, soon became associated with trains on film. One of the earliest surviving narrative films in British Cinema, Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) culminates in a train journey. The police apprehend the thief at the end of his ride.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock, as might be expected, are rich in their use of the trains and pursuits, both by criminals and by spies. In Secret Agent (1936) the German spy, Marvin, dies in a crash, killed by the train rather than the British Agent, Ashenden. The 39 Steps (1935) has Richard Hannay on the run for a supposed murder, evading both police and enemy agents. The train provides his means of escape from pursuers. It also carries him to wild and romantic locales in Scotland. And the train enables Hitchcock to reprise an earlier film motif when Hannay kisses an attractive female, but a complete stranger, to escape detection. (Hitchcock plays another variation or homage to early film for the end of North by North West, US 1959).

Entering the tunnel, 1899.

Entering the tunnel, 1899.

In The Lady Vanishes the heroine, Iris, becomes involved in spies and intrigue on a continental express. Suffering from concussion after a suspicious blow on the head, she is assisted by kind English matron, Miss Froy. However, Miss Froy disappears and Iris, with increasing desperation, searches for the missing lady. An eccentric English musicologist Gilbert assists her. He also turns out to be a hero, climbing bravely and with agility from one compartment to another as another train thunders by. In the course of the train journey we see also kidnappings, murder, unmasking, betrayal and violent conflict. But as well as utilising the train for melodramatic events, the film also plays on the visual connections. Miss Froy is a British spy kidnapped by enemy agents. Iris and Gilbert receive two visual revelations/clues as they investigate the disappearance. One is the abducted agent’s name, seen only by Iris, traced on the carriage window. The second is an incriminating tea label, spotted by Gilbert, momentarily stuck to the restaurant widow. Both are seen fleetingly and then gone. The audience shares their visual experience in the viewing of the film as they spy these clues in the unravelling mystery.

'Froy', at the bottom of the window.

‘Froy’, at the bottom of the window.

This play with the visual affinities of film and train re-appears in a wartime melodrama, Waterloo Road (1944). Expressing similar anxieties as those found in Hollywood film noir, the hero Jim goes absent from the army because he fears his wife is being seduced by a spiv, Purvis. Prior to the dramatic climax there is a scene where the wife, Tillie, stops in front of a photographer’s window and gazes at a picture of her wedding in the display. This leads to a flashback where husband and wife board the train heading off for their honeymoon destination, and the previously barred pleasures of marriage. In contrast, the Underground in the film is clearly domesticated within the community, providing alternative communal accommodation and sleeping during the Blitz. London’s subterranean transport network provides a parallel setting in the 1928 Underground. Scenes of violence occur there but stability is represented by Bill who works on the underground and is the romantic hero opposed to Bert who works in a Power Station.

But the key film expressing this visual affinity is Brief Encounter (1945). One reason that might explain the long-lasting appeal of this 1940s classic is that it is an intensively reflexive story. It is a film about cinema. This is clear in the scene that follows the opening sequence. The film has introduced the two lovers, Laura and Alec, at the moment of their parting. This is the end of the affair and the story. There follows Laura’s train journey home. Then, sitting in her front room, lulled by the romantic chords of the Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, Laura remembers her affair. Just as in a cinema, a projection appears before her and she, and we, enter the world of romance. It is an emotional world, signalled by the powerful musical strains, plotted as a radio broadcast. Laura is a similar position to that of the audience at the cinema, who, later in the film, watch the [fictional] feature, ‘Flames of Passion’.

In this film/flashback within the film the railway and the train are key actors. The affair begins in a station bar, sparked by the grit thrown up by a passing train. The affair continues on a weekly basis, courtesy of the local rail service when Laura makes her regular Thursday visits to the market town of Milford. Just over halfway through the film Alec and Laura openly declare their love. Then, her husband Fred calls Laura back from her dream, as he turns down the music.

Laura returns to her reverie. She remembers the train journey home after that declaration of love. On the train she fondly imagines an alternative ending to the affair, one where she and Alex romantically travel across Europe. Gazing out the train window as the evening landscape passes she has “one of those absurd fantasies just like one has when one is a girl.” As she stares “into the darkness”, she imagines “Alec and me” on a journey to romantic and exotic places. And this dream is shown projected through the carriage window as Laura dreamily stares into the night.

Laura's dream/film

Laura’s dream/film

But the love affair comes to an end; mostly, it would seem, because the lovers cannot cope with the deception and the pressure of social mores. On the last Thursday, after Alec has left, Laura contemplates throwing herself under a train. This would be a similar end to that Tolstoy’s famous heroine, Anna Karenina [filmed in the UK in 1947]. However, Laura draws back from the final act and boards the train bearing her back to comfortable married suburbia. Also, at this point in the plotting, she returns from her dream of forbidden love. If it is a dream, then for much of the film it is one induced by the lulling rhythms of the train.

The 1950s were rather an anti-climax after the 1940s. And indeed, in this period the train seems to lose some of its appeal and significance. The motor car and the aeroplane were replacing the railways’ key social role. Two of the more memorable train films of this period are exercises in nostalgia. And in both the train engine is a museum relic.

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) shows a group of train enthusiasts trying to resist the “closure of the oldest branch line in the world.” They set up an independent rail service, led by the vicar and the squire. At the climax, the rival Bus Company sabotages the engine the night before a crucial inspection. So the Titfield villagers raid the village museum and resuscitate the venerable old Thunderbolt locomotive. The film ends with this nineteenth century museum piece carrying the passengers seated in a redundant carriage, previously home to the local poacher. And the engine is driven by the vicar and stoked by his rail-enthusiast Bishop, clad in his scarlet bib.

Northwest Frontier also returns to the nineteenth century, as imperial warrior Captain Scott fends off the uncivilised tribal hordes to rescue the rightful, westernised prince. The escape is effected behind another museum piece engine, ‘Empress of India’, tended on this occasion by a loyal Indian, Gupta. In both films, the audience is invited to escape to the past.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

The Titfield Thunderbolt


Anna Karenina London Films 1947. Dir: Julien Duvivier, script Julien Duvivier, Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan, from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Cast: Vivien Leigh (Anna).

Brief Encounter, Cineguild 1945. Dir: David Lean, script Noel Coward, David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock­-Allan from Coward’s play Still Life. Cast: Celia Johnson (Laura), Trevor Howard (Alec), Cyril Raymond (Fred).

Bank Holiday, Gainsborough 1937. Dir: Carol Reed, script Rodney Ackland. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Catherine), Hugh Williams (Geoffrey).

Daring Daylight Robbery, Sheffield Photographic Company, 1903. Dir: Frank Mottershaw, 258 feet.

Hindle Wakes, Gaumont-British, 1927. Dir: Maurice Elvey: from the stage play by Stanley Houghton. Estelle Brody (Fanny).

The Lady Vanishes, Gainsborough, 1938. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script A. R. Rawlinson. Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy).

The Last Journey, Twickenham 1935. Dir: Bernard Vorhaus; script John Soutar and H. Fowler Mear: Julian Mitchell (Bob), Godfrey Tearle (Sir Wilfred Rhodes).

Night Mail GPO 1936. Dir. and script: Basil Wright, Harry Watt [with material by Alberto Cavalcanti uncredited].

Northwest Frontier, Rank 1959. Dir: J. Lee Thompson; script Robin Estridge, Frank Nugent, Robert Westerby from the novel by Patrick Ford. Cast: Kenneth More (Captain Scott), I. S. Johar (Gupta), Govind Raja Ross (young prince).

Secret Agent, Gaumont-British 1936. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Jesse Lasky Jr, Alma Reville from the play by Campbell Dixon and the stories by Somerset Maugham. Cast: John Gielgud (Ashenden), Robert Young (Marvin).

The Kiss in the Tunnel, George Albert Smith 1899; also director. Distributed by the Warwick Trading Company. 75 feet in length.

The Titfield Thunderbolt, Ealing 1952. Dir: Charles Crichton; script T.E.B. Clarke. Cast: Stanley Holloway, George Relph, John Gregson, Naunton Wayne, Godfrey Teale.

Train of Events, Ealing Studios 1949. Dir. Sidney Cole, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, script Basil Dearden, T.E.B. Clarke, Angus Macphail, Ronald Millar. Cast: John Clements (Raymond), Lawrence Payne (Richard), Joan Dowling (Ella), Peter Finch (Philip).

The 39 Steps, Gaumont-British 1935. Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; script Charles Bennett, Alma Reville, Ian Hay from the novel by John Buchan. Cast: Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela).

Waterloo Road, Gainsborough 1944. Dir: Sidney Gilliat; script Sidney Gilliat.

Joy Shelton (Tillie), John Mills (Jim) Stewart Granger (Purvis).

Underground, British Instructional Film 1928. Dir: Anthony Asquith, also scenario. Cast: Elissa Landi as Nell, Norah Baring as Kate, Brian Aherne as Bill, Cyril McLaglen as Bert.


BBC / WGBH 1995, ‘The Great Escape’ from The People’s Century 1900 – 1999, shown on BBC Television.

The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon, BBC / bfi 2005. A selection from this early UK film archive which toured Regional Film Theatres.

Tony Fletcher 2003, films from the BFI Archives presented at Location! Location! Location! Landscape, place and travel in pre 1930 Cinema, The Sixth British Silent Cinema Weekend 2003, Nottingham Broadway.

Ian Christie (1994) The Lost Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World, bfi. The book accompanied a series of programmes shown on BBC Television. [Pages 16, 17, 18}.

Laurence Kardish (1991) in Junction and Journey Trains and Film, The Museum of Modern Art. [Pages 11 and 12.]

Lynne Kirby, (1997), Parallel Tracks The Railroad and Silent Cinema, Duke University Press. [Page 2).

This article has been developed from an illustrated talk given by the author at the Redbridge Museum in Ilford, (arranged through the BFI Associate Tutor Scheme, now defunct), to accompany ‘On the Move’, an exhibition on Transport. It was originally printed in MEJ (Media Education Journal) Issue 37, Spring 2005: thanks to the editor for agreeing to posting it here.


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Threatened Heroines – Sleeping Heroes

Posted by keith1942 on March 3, 2010


Sleeping Mitch in The Birds

Sleeping Mitch in The Birds

In this presentation I want to comment on a motif found in a number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally accepted in film criticism both as an ‘auteur’ and an outstanding filmmaker. [For example in Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited]. I use auteur here in a straightforward sense, a director in whose films can be discerned recognisable style and themes.

The motif studied might best be described as ‘the heroine in danger’. It is found in examples of Hitchcock’s work from both his British and Hollywood periods. The sequences, which contain this motif, also display the thematic and stylistic ‘signature’ of the director. This motif can therefore be seen as reinforcing arguments that recognise Hitchcock as an auteur.

The films I have chosen to feature are Blackmail (UK 1929). Sabotage [UK 1936], Rear Window [USA 1954] and The Birds [USA 1963]. The motif is found in a number of other Hitchcock films: it features in the plot of Psycho [USA 1960] and is the kernel of one of Hitchcock’s finest films, Vertigo [USA 1958]. It seems to me that this motif raises interesting questions about how Hitchcock’s films treat women, an aspect of his ‘auteur’ presence that has evoked considerable discussion.

The basic motif shows us a woman, already established as the heroine in the narrative, menaced and in danger, usually from a male villain. The hero, her potential partner, is absent or unable to intervene. This basic situation is rendered more complex by the use of a familiar Hitchcock device: the focus on voyeurism and consequent reflexivity for the audience.

Blackmail provides an early example of the motif. Alice (Annie Ondra) is going out with a police detective, Frank (John Longden). However, she has also attracted the attention of an artist (Cyril Ritchard), who seems more exciting than the staid policeman. Frank leaves after a tiff in a Lyons Cornerhouse and Alice is ‘picked up’ by the artist. He later invites her to visit his flat and studio. Slightly reluctant, Alice is persuaded. In the Studio the artist persuades Alice to pose in a ballerina dress. This leads to an attempted rape and Alice stabs the artist with a bread knife. Her seizing of the bread knife is presented in a close-up of her hand groping through a curtain. Then in panic she flees the scene. The rest of the film develops tensions around Alice’s fate, with her detective involved in the investigation.  In this case he is absent rather than ‘sleeping’ when the heroine is in danger.

Sabotage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, has a somewhat similar sequence. Mrs Verloc (Sylvia Sydney} is married to the older Verloc (Oscar Homolka), who runs a suburban cinema. The marriage ensures a home for her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). Unknown to her, Verloc is also involved in a secret anarchist plot: planting bombs around London. In one of these her young brother is killed. Meanwhile the wife has also caught the attention of a plain-clothes policeman, Ted (John Loder) who is working on the case. Late in the film whilst he is out on the investigation the wife realises that her husband is connected to the bombings. At the dinner table, he realises her suspicions. She snatches up the carving knife just before him and stabs him. Like Blackmail the scene uses close-ups of the hands and knife as both grapple to seize it. Once again the imperilled heroine suffers whilst her romantic interest is absent.

The situation is clearly displayed in the sequence from Rear Window [1954]. Photojournalist L. B. Jefferies [Jeff – James Stewart] is incapacitated with a broken leg. He whiles away his time spying on his neighbours’ apartments. He starts to suspect that one neighbour; Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. In this scene Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) search the garden for evidence. Lisa, who is a model and wants to impress action man Jeff, decides to climb up to Thorwald’s apartment and search there. She finds a ring that possibly belongs to the [dead] wife and holds it up at the window triumphantly. However, at this point Thorwald returns. The helpless Jeff can only watch and desperately ring for the police. They arrive just in time.

In this sequence the villain menaces Lisa. Jeff is immobilised by his cast, unable to intervene, but he has to watch and endure the suspense that usually only the audience endures. The instrument of the voyeur, Jeff’s 500mm camera lens, is part of the plot of the film. Hitchcock has also developed his use of mise en scène and the audiences focus is carefully pointed, less by close-ups and more by points of attention [windows] in the frame.

The various meanings offered in this sequence could include that suggested by Hitchcock regarding a ring that Lisa finds during her search:

“the dual significance of that wedding ring. Grace Kelly wants to get married, but James Stewart doesn’t see it that way. … To Grace Kelly, the ring is a double victory:”[Hitchcock by F. Truffaut, 1968, page 276].

This scene of the threatened heroine continues to recur in Hitchcock’s films, reaching a notable climax in The Birds. Socialite Melanie Daniels [Tippi Hedren] is attracted to young lawyer Mitch Brenner [Rod Taylor]. She visits his hometown of Bodega Bay. During her stay increasingly vicious attacks on humans are made by all manner of birds, seemingly acting in concert. Now she is imprisoned in Mitch’s family house, with Mitch, his mother and younger sister. They rest after a particularly ferocious night-time attack by birds.

Melanie wakes and hears noises. She climbs to the attic to investigate. Here she is attacked by a mass of birds, and badly pecked: Mitch drags her to safety.

When Melanie climbs up to investigate the noises in the attic our hero is asleep. He presumably is awakened by Melanie’s screams, and is only just in time to rescue her. Underlying the film’s surface plot is a suggestion that the attacks by the birds are a punishment on Melanie.

“For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds … What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’ [Hitchcock by Truffaut, page 371].

The Birds, like Rear Window, displays the familiar style and themes of Hitchcock. As with Rear Window, the audience is likely to have conflicting responses: complicity with Melanie’s curiosity but also a shrinking horror at the likely outcome, confirmed with the attack by the birds. This film, in particular, focuses frequently on the pecking beaks of the birds, visually and dangerously similar to the frequent knives in other Hitchcock films.

Stylistically, all the sequences rely on the way Hitchcock uses technique to focus the audience’s attention. In Blackmail and Sabotage this is by cutting in a close-up of the weapon and the hand. A dramatic technique which seems to zoom in on this crucial detail. In Rear Window the sets are organised to focus attention on one area, in which stands the heroine. And in The Birds the camera follows Melanie into the den of horror. Hitchcock’s ability to use technique in this way can be seen across a range of films, including in some cases bravura tracking shots.

In Blackmail and Sabotage the heroes’ work interferes with his relationship with the heroine. She is thus left alone with a dangerous man. In both cases she has to kill to save herself, rather than being saved in the conventional manner by a male hero.

They and the two later films raise interesting questions about the content of Hitchcock’s auteurism. A number of writers have pointed to the misogyny in Hitchcock’s films, and indeed in his extra-diegetic comments. Misogyny connotes hatred but also fear of women: witness the brutal onslaught on Melanie. This motif would suggest quite complex strands of meanings in the representation of females in Hitchcock’s films. In the Rear Window example, effectively deserted by the hero, the heroine has to grapple and overcome the villain alone. The hero’s incapacity would appear to be intrinsically related to his voyeuristic activities. His function as the ‘viewer’ coming into conflict with his function as the ‘doer’. In The Birds it would seem that Melanie wishes to spare the exhausted Mitch and so ventures into danger alone. But it is her attraction to Mitch that has put her in danger: beneath the surface hovers the suggestion that it for this attraction that she is being punished.

The motif would seem to offer an interesting strand for of analysis for Hitchcock’s work. For example, how did this motif develop over time? What are the differences between the British and Hollywood films? In Blackmail and Sabotage the heroines kill the men alone: in Rear Window the police, summoned by Jeff rescues Lisa: in The Birds the heroine is actually rescued from assault by the hero. What can we deduce from this change in the motif over time?


The motif subverts [to a degree] the classical Hollywood situation where the hero rescues the heroine. Such a reversal is not peculiar to Hitchcock or even cinema. A literary example from before the age of film is Jane Eyre. In this book the heroine is preparing for her marriage to Mr Rochester. At night, his secreted wife Bertha, steals into her room and cuts up her wedding veil. Rochester, like the household is asleep. But the real cause of the danger to Jane is Rochester’s failure to own up to his dark secret.

Hitchcock give shis own spin to this trope and it also develops very interestingly over his film career. His two late masterpieces, Vertigo and Psycho, treat this motif in distinctive and fascinating ways. In Vertigo Scottie [James Stewart] suffers from acrophobia [fear or dread of high places]. An old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) recruits him to spy on Elster’s wife, Madeleine, who appears to be acting strangely. As Scotty follows Madeleine around a number of San Francisco locations he becomes increasingly romantically obsessed with her. They actually meet when Madeline jumps into the bay by the Golden Gate Bridge. As the relationship develops they drive to an old mission town. Here Madeleine climbs the tower of the mission church. Scotty is unable to follow as he suffers an attack of Vertigo. Helpless he sees Madeleine fall from the tower. Once again in Hitchcock a frozen hero fails in his central role of protecting the heroine.

However later in the film Scotty and the audience discover that Madeleine’s apparent suicide was a complex murder plot by Elster. That the ‘Madeleine’ that Scotty shadowed was actually a stand-in, Judy. This happens after Scotty has met the actual Judy and attempted to remodel her into a recreation of the dead Madeleine. Having discovered the deception Scotty returns with Judy to the Mission town and church. He drags her up the church tower, incessantly asking ‘why me’? At the top Judy recreates Madeleine’s earlier fall: though the instrument of this is actually the appearance of a nun, emerging like a ghoul from the shadows.  However, the cause is clearly Scotty’s realisation and anger. The final show of the film shows him arms spread, looking down after the fallen Judy: shocked, horrified but cured of his acrophobia. It would appear that in this film the hero and the villain have become one; [we never hear what happened to Elster]. And Judy is punished for Scotty’s own masculine obsession: he destroys what he most objectifies [rather than what he most loves].

Psycho develops this marriage of hero and villain even further. Marion Crane, fleeing with stolen money, stops overnight at a Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). She dies in a shocking fashion in the famous shower sequence. At this point the audience supposes that Norman’s mother killed her. He is apparently absent in the old gothic mansion and we hear his cries of ‘mother, mother’ when he ‘discovers the body.

Later in the film the replacement heroine Lila Crane (Vera Miles) is also threatened by Norman’s mother in the mansion’s basement. The shock of the film is when she and we discover that the mother is actually Norman. At the film ends there is a sort of an explanation by a psychologist, Norman has been taken over by his dead mother. In terms of this motif this explanation offers a pointer to the division within male protagonists, between the lover and the patriarch. In all these films, either wittingly or unwittingly, the male heroes allow and even encourage women to be placed in a situation of danger and punishment. The Birds, the film that follows Vertigo and Psycho, is probably the film where this point is made most explicit.

Overall this seems a very complex Hitchcock motif. Not all the films mete out punishment to women: nor do the other necessarily involve the subordination of the heroine to the hero. Both Black mail and Sabotage allow a female character to deal out violence to a male villain. Both also have very dark endings: In Blackmail Alice and Frank are joined together in guilt: in Sabotage Mrs Verloc has killed her husband, but her young brother, for whom she endured this union, is also dead. In The Lady Vanishes and Young and Innocent, much of the action depends on a strong-minded heroine. Whilst a number of the Hollywood films subjugate their heroine, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the stronger heroine survives in films like Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window and North By Northwest. It is interesting to speculate what factors or colleagues are in some way responsible for the variations in the films?

Other Movies by Hitchcock’s:

The Pleasure Garden, 1926.

The story centres on two showgirls: Patsy [hardworking and moral – Virginia Valli] and Jill [on the make – Carmelita Geraghty]. Jill ditches her fiancée Hugh (John Stuart) in favour of a wealthy admirer. Patsy marries a colleague of Hugh, Levet [Miles Mander – suggestive casting]: both men work in colonial West Africa. It transpires that Levet is ‘shacked up’ with a native girl (Nita Naldi). Patsy, arriving unexpectedly discovers the liaison. Levet’s response is to drown the native girl in revenge and then, haunted by his ghostly victim, to turn on Patsy. She is saved by one of Hugh’s colleagues as he, the official hero, is laid up with fever. He arrives just after Patsy’s rescue carried by two native porters: and it is Patsy who nurses him.

The Manxman, 1929.

Kate Cregeen [Annie Ondra] is caught between two friends, Pete Quilliam [Carl Brisson}, a fisherman, and Philip Christian [Malcom Keen], a lawyer. Whilst Pete is away at sea Kate and Philip have an affair. Kate marries Pete, but carries Philip’s baby. When Pete learns the truth Kate leaves him, though Pete retains custody of the child. However, Kate is unable to make Philip take responsibility for her. At this point, with both men failing her, she attempts to end her misery by jumping into the harbour. The failed suicide drives the story forward to a climax and resolution.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, UK 1934 and USA 1956.

This is the only property that Hitchcock filmed twice, and there are intriguing differences between the British and Hollywood versions. In both films two distraught parents search for a kidnapped child. The child has been adducted to prevent the parents revealing an assassination plot. The actual assassination attempt takes place during a concert at the Albert Hall. As the criminal gang has seized the father, the wife has to attempt to prevent the murder alone. In the British version she [Edna Best] succeeds and the final part of the film shows the rescue by police of both father and daughter. In the Hollywood version the daughter has become a son. The mother [Doris Day] becomes almost hysterical during the concert and apparently unable to intervene, but at the last minute the husband [James Stewart] escapes and arrives to prompt action. This change in gender roles is accentuated by a further revision: in the British version the mother shoots the assassin during the final siege at the gang’s hideout. In the Hollywood version the mother is only allowed to sing, and it is the husband who actually retrieves the hostage son.

The 39 Steps, UK 1935.


A spy thriller. Richard Hannay [Robert Donat] offers shelter to a secret agent Annabella. But she is murdered in the night – whilst he is asleep.

Rebecca, USA 1940.

Max De Winter [Lawrence Olivier] marries the unnamed heroine and narrator of this story [Joan Fontaine]. When they return to his family mansion, Manderley, her life is haunted by the shadow of De Winter’s dead first wife, Rebecca. Yet Max is constantly leaving his young bride without support or protection. This includes a scene where the dead Rebecca’s former confidant, Mrs Danvers, encourages the young wife to ‘end it all’.

Suspicion, USA 1941.

This film offers a divided hero. In this case the division is ambiguous, and the film ends reassuringly: [apparently at the Studio’s insistence]. The ambiguity concerns the husband John [Cary Grant] of heiress Lina [Joan Fontaine]]. She increasingly fears that he is a spindrift and wastrel with murderous intent. The combination of hero and villain in this plot looks forward to the darker and more compelling plots of Vertigo and Psycho.

Notorious, USA 1946.

One of the most compelling examples of the endangered heroine. Alicia Huberman [Ingrid Bergman] is used by the US secret service to entrap a band of Nazis plotting in Brazil. The US agent Devlin [Cary Grant] not only supervises Alicia but is romantically involved with her. Yet he lets her actually marry one of the Nazis, Alexander Sebastian [Claude Rains] and become trapped in his family mansion. Alicia nearly dies from deliberate poisoning before Devlin finally rescues her.

Strangers on a Train, USA 1951.


This adaptation from the novel by Patricia Highsmith offers intriguing variations on the hero and heroine. There are several possible interpretations of how the film treats this trope. If Guy is the hero and Anne the heroine then an absence situation offers little threat. However, if we turn to Guy’s wife Miriam then when Bruno murders her Guy is lounging on a train travelling home from a tennis tournament. This situation is more potent as Bruno thinks he is acting on Guy’s wishes [and unconsciously this may be true). However if wee follow the gay strand, even more potent in the novel, then it is Guy’s absence that occasions Bruno as murderer. Guy is absent because he needs an alibi.

I Confess, USA 1952.

Set in Montreal, the romantic couple are Michael Logan [Montgomery Cliff] and Ruth Grandfort [Anne Baxter]. Michael interrupts the youthful romance to volunteer for service in World War II. During his absence Ruth marries Pierre Grandfort. On his return Michael has a brief reunion with Ruth and then departs to become a Catholic priest. His double absence rebounds when their relationship provides the motive for a charge of murder.

Dial M for Murder, USA 1954.


Another murderous husband. Seeking to remove his rich wife Margot [Grace Kelly] and inherit her money, Tony Wendice [Ray Milland] organises a substitute murderer whilst he has an alibi provided by Margot’s lover Mark Halliday [Robert Cummings]. The actual murder attempt involves strangulation [seeRope] but Margot defends herself with a pair of scissors: similar to the bread-knife in Blackmail. Meanwhile Tony is at a stag dinner with Mark. His telephone call is a prompt for the murder attempt: and his voice is heard on the phone by Margot as she recovers – a distant voice which is reminiscent of the voice that disturbs Alice’s breakfast in Blackmail.

The Wrong Man, USA 1957.

‘Manny’ Balestrero [Henry Fonda] is the ‘wrong man’ arrested for robberies. It is his absence at the police station and subsequently in jail that sparks off the mental illness of his wife, Rose [Vera Miles]. This is an illness that lasts long after his release and the proof of his innocence.

North By Northwest, USA 1959.

Roger O Thornhill [Cary Grant] is mistakenly involved in a spy plot. He meets the very attractive Eve Kendall [Eve Marie Saint]. In a glorious reversal she stays in Chicago whilst sending him to his likely death in the middle of nowhere. However, later in the film the plot develops more conventionally. A burly policeman knocks out Roger, thus stopping him from preventing Eve returning to the dangerous nest of spies. So he has to follow and save her.

Marnie, USA 1964.

The situation of the heroine Marnie {[Tippi Hedren] appear similar to Psycho and Vertigo: she is involved with a man, Mark Rutland [Sean Connery], who represents both romance and danger for her. The difference from the earlier films [appears to me] that the nominal hero is not divided: he engenders no sympathy, only fear and repulsion. This is partly due to the script, partly to the casting of Connery. We learn that Mark has an interest in zoology, and he treats his amour-cum-wife like some specimen in a cage or tank. The darker side of Hitchcock appeared to become stronger in his later films, and this seems to be a clear example. But the ending conforms to Hollywood conventions: Marnie is ‘cured’ of her mental illness and chooses to stay with Mark. At the start of the film Marnie is clearly able to handle and manipulate men to her own advantage. By the time the traumas arranged by her husband are over she appears the dependent female, willing to accept her position with him.

Topaz, USA 1969

This is probably the stodgiest film directed by Hitchcock and contains some of the most wooden acting in his output. This could be put down to failing powers, but equally the didactic cold war thriller [from a novel by Leon Uris], rather like its predecessor Torn Curtain (1966), is not really his forte. The film is full of his mannerisms but lacks his usual subtlety. The banality of the film is demonstrated by the use of a pieta pose for a couple of traitors after an interrogation.

The film is set in 1962 shortly before the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. The plot concerns a French agent André Dévereaux (Fredrick Stafford) working secretly for the USA and attempting to find out about Soviet activities in Cuba. His agent, and lover, is Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor), protected partly by being a widow of a Cuban ‘hero’.  Sure enough, Juanita is left alone when André is forced to leave by Cuban Security chief Rica Parra (John Vernon}. However Juanita, unlike most Hitchcock heroines and possibly because André already has a wife [and anyway she is Cuban] is shot by Rico. Sadly the film ends happily for André and the USA, but we do get to see Fidel Castro along the way.

Frenzy, UK 1973.

The hero Richard Blaney [Jon Finch] seems play the ‘absence motif’ in minor ways. The first actual victim of Bob Rusk [Barry Foster] that we see in the film is Blaney’s now-divorced wife Brenda [Barbara Leigh-Hunt]. And the second is Babs Milligan [Anna Massey] after she has left Blaney and returned to Convent Garden. But Richard is responsible in the second case. Whilst he kips at friends she returns to her work at a pub. Richard rings her there which results in argument with the landlord (Bernard Cribbins) and her packing in her job. It is then that she meets Rusk who offers to put her up: but in fact assaults and murders her. Bob is a sort of friend of Richard who has himself stayed in Rusk’s flat.

Family Plot, USA 1976.

Hitchcock’s last film has many of his familiar touches and motifs. And once more the heroine, Blanche [Barbara Harris] is left to face danger alone. George [Bruce Dern] has to go off to his taxi job. In his defence he warns Blanche to wait till tomorrow to investigate the dangerous kidnappers / jewel thieves Arthur Adamson [William Devane] and Fran [Karen Black]. And George does turn up for a last minute rescue, a classic confessional ending.


This was written and presented for A Level students as an example of the Auteur Project required in FS4 of the WJEC A2 syllabus. The presentation included screening the sequences from Hitchcock’s films, about four or five minutes each: here they are described in the text. I provided exemplar handouts with a brief biography of Hitchcock and a list of his most important films. The students were all given exemplars for the Catalogue and Evaluation required for the project.

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