Saturday, October 24, 2009

Worst SFX Shot In a Hitchcock Movie?

Comments on a previous post bring up a good point about special effects: it seems like every Hitchcock movie has a special effect or process shot that's just plain terrible. It often involves rear projection, which Hitchcock embraced enthusiastically but never used convncingly; Notorious, where rear-projection shots were used for every outdoor scene in Brazil, makes the characters look like they're standing in front of those flimsy stage backdrops from A Night At The Opera. I don't know, though, if I can think of a rear-projection shot in a Hitchcock film that's particularly bad; it's just that he did so many of them. Same with the use of studio sets in the middle of scenes otherwise shot on location: everybody did that (every John Ford movie has some studio bits picked up after the crew got back from Monument Valley), but Hitchcock did it so often and so unconvincingly that it's sort of become associated with him.

It's not like Hitchcock movies never had decent special effects. The Birds has its share of effects that don't come off, but it has plenty of effects that work (if it didn't, it wouldn't be watchable). But Hitchcock's preference for control, which meant staying in the studio as much as possible, and not turning too much of the movie over to editors and effects departments, meant that there were always going to be some bits that looked very studio-bound. Ernst Lubitsch was another control-freak director whose movies often had poor special effects. You'd think that the more controlling a director is, the more care he would take over the effects, and that's sometimes true, especially if he helps make the effects (Kubrick on 2001). Otherwise, it seems that a SFX shot almost requires the director to sit back and let someone else help direct it. Hitchcock wasn't the kind to do that.

But for me, as I said earlier, the model village at the beginning of The Lady Vanishes has always been the standout when it comes to unconvincing effects. It's so fake-looking that when the little toy car goes by -- the only sign of life in the whole village -- you wonder why they even bothered.




20 comments:

moopot said...

It's the little boy being attacked by the plastic bird in The Birds. We watched that in Media Studies in high school, and the whole class just cracked up laughing. It's the mixture of the terrible special effect and the terrible acting - that's what really makes it. Although THe Lady Vanishes probably comes a close second.

Thad said...

I don't think it counts as a special effect, but I absolutely hate that shot of the harbor-side town in MARNIE that screams "blown-up photo." It was so offensively fake that it put me off from liking the whole movie.

Stephen Rowley said...

It doesn't excuse all the instances - in fact, barely a few percent - but you do see Hitchcock trying for shots they just couldn't do then. In the Lady Vanishing example (and elsehwere, like the start of Psycho) Hitch is trying for the "fly in from a long way and in the window" shot, which can be done with mdoern effects but was basically impossible then.

One of the interesting things about the van Sant Psycho is seeing him realise that shot. While I'm always supsicious of any pronouncement that a later director is doing something just as the earlier one would have if he could, I have little doubt from examples like this that Hitchcock would have loved to have done that shot as van Sant did.

Anonymous said...

a little reality check...Hitchcock not leaving the studio? except for some unforgettable location shoots in Morocco, the French Riviera,Quebec, Vermont, New York, Dakota, Santa Rosa Cal., San Francisco and environs, London...he thrived in the studio and when appropriate he thrived outside of it

Anonymous said...

oh moopot
if only hitchcock could live up to the
creative standards of your cackling
Media Studies high school students...

Rick Roberts said...

Though it wasn't really a Special effect, I recall a hilarous bad sequence in MARNIE when the namesake character fell off her horse. Then her desperation to shoot the thing after it fell just made me burst out in laughter.

And again one scene not nessecarily constituting as a special effect but possibly the worst dubbing in film history in North by Northwest, the scene were Roger Thornhill trying save Eve from plummenting to here death off Mt Rushmore. Thornhill's all of sudden change in tone, because of obvious dubbing, to pleasure and then we all of a sudden cut to him and Eve in a train on their honeymoon. I couldn't believe something so sloppy would be in such a brilliant film. 130 some odd minutes of pure genius and then that crap.

Rick Roberts said...

Anon:

"But Hitchcock's preference for control, which meant staying in the studio as much as possible,"

moopot said...

Have you seen the fake birds in the birds? They look God-damn ridiculous.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Thornhill's all of sudden change in tone, because of obvious dubbing, to pleasure and then we all of a sudden cut to him and Eve in a train on their honeymoon. I couldn't believe something so sloppy would be in such a brilliant film. 130 some odd minutes of pure genius and then that crap.

But the change in tone happens because the dubbed line is supposed to be from the train scene, not the Mt. Rushmore scene. It's a time-jump, where we hear the audio from the next scene and then transition from Roger pulling Eve off the mountain to Roger pulling Eve onto the bed. That's fine.

Anonymous said...

The great Chris Fujiwara -- whose long-awaited book on Jerry Lewis hits the stores & websites this week -- wrote the best essay I've come across on the stupidity of "reality fetishists"(and their cackling students).

http://www.hermenaut.com/

(Old site without page addresses, Look for "I, Robot" by Fujiwara)

Somewheres else(will try to locate it) he goes into brilliant detail about exactly that end-of-the-street matte-shot from "Marnie" -- it is a weird, strange, messed-up image, which "opens up" at the end: a perfect representation of the main character's mindscreen(as is the entirety of the movie itself).

If Hitch wanted "reality," he could have sent someone down the friggin' freeway to Wilmington.

Rick Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Roberts said...

Actually I should say that sudden change from one scene to another was just stupid. You're right, the change in tone is fine.

Rick Roberts said...

Anon:

I agree about the stupidity of so called "reality" in films. That's why I don't mind the scene in Pscyho when the private dectective was stabbed and you his reaction before he fell down the stairs.

Slowjack said...

it's very easy to laugh at poor special effects in old movies, but I think they're sort of wonderful. As unrealistic as it is, I would rather watch the slow pan across that model than any number of "realistic" shots in current films produced by CGI. Especially in black and white films, I find that the old hoary model work creates a dreamlike atmosphere; in essence, the shot asks me to imagine what would be like to be in that little village, instead of telling me exactly what it should look like. I think of the Murnau version of "Faust," which is filled with images that stick in my head, but yet produced by special effects that aren't even good enough to be called cheesy today.

stevef said...

Watching that clip of "Vanishes" I couldn't help but compare that miniature shot to the multiplane camera work seen in Disney's "Snow White" a few months earlier, and the 3-D backgrounds being used at the Fleischer studio in that period. If that same shot appeared in a Popeye cartoon, we'd be calling it an amazing technical achievement.

Hitchcock believed if you wanted reality, you were better off looking out a window. All good stories ask us to stretch our imaginations. Even the great "Rear Window" asks us to believe that in an entire New York City apartment complex in 1954 nobody was watching television... including the protagonist.

Thad said...

Yeah, I've read that argument for the street shot in MARNIE. And I still think it's as artificial and bad as the movie itself. Relax, I'm not a sfx whore... that's the last thing I ever look for in a movie.

Rick Roberts said...

steveF:

Nobody watching television in 1954 was not too much of a stretch of the imagination. TV was booming that year yes but during the summer, most would out and active. In 2009, that would be asking way too much.

Jeff said...

I nominate the shot in "North by Northwest" looking down from the UN building as Roger Thornihill flees the building. I agree that "realism" in movies can be overrated (and I actually love the miniature shot in "The Lady Vanishes" because, really, the rest of the movie is no more "realistic" than that shot is)--but "North by Northwest" doesn't rely on unreality or theatricality. That shot's just a sore thumb, that always makes me think about Hitchcock's stated preference for planning shots over actually shooting the movie.

Anonymous said...

>>>>>>Nobody watching television in 1954 was not too much of a stretch of the imagination. TV was booming that year yes but during the summer, most would out and active. In 2009, that would be asking way too much.<<<<<<<<<<<

But they obviously weren't "out and active," they were all at home in their apartments being watched by Jimmy Stewart and not watching TV.

Rick Roberts said...

Jeff: In the atmosphere of North by Northwest, I think the shot works fine. The film was alot less down to earth then the earlier spy thrillers Hithcock made like 39 Steps of Notorious.

Anon: For the sake of the film, they had to at least be inside their apartments and I understand that.