Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’
Note: I’m discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.
In the famous book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director François Truffaut observes of The Birds: “This happens to be one picture, I think, in which the public doesn’t try to anticipate. They merely suspect that the attacks by the birds are going to become increasingly serious. The first part is an entirely normal picture with psychological overtones, and it is only at the end of each scene that some clue hints at the potential menace of the birds.” Alfred Hitchcock’s response is very revealing:
I had to do it that way because the public’s curiosity was bound to be aroused by the articles in the press and the reviews, as well as by the word-of-mouth talk about the picture. I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story of the two central characters. Those references at the end of each scene were my way of saying, “Just be patient. They’re coming soon.”
Hitchcock continues: “This is why we have an isolated attack on Melanie by a sea gull, why I was careful to put a dead bird outside the schoolteacher’s house at night, and also why we put the birds on the wires when the girl drives away from the house in the evening. All of this was my way of saying to the audience, ‘Don’t worry, they’re coming. The birds are on their way!’”
I kept this advice constantly in mind while plotting out “The Proving Ground,” which is the closest I’ve come to an outright homage to another work of art. (My novelette “Inversus” contains many references to Through the Looking-Glass, but the plot doesn’t have anything in common with the book, and the parallels between “The Whale God” and George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” didn’t emerge until that story was almost finished.) I knew that I had to quote from the movie directly, if only to acknowledge my sources and make it clear that I wasn’t trying to put anything over on the reader, which is also why I open it with an epigraph from Daphne du Maurier’s original short story. When I tried to figure out where to put those references, however, I realized that it wasn’t just a matter of paying tribute to my inspiration, but of drawing upon the very useful solutions that Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter had developed for the same set of problems. Any story about a series of bird attacks is going to confront similar challenges. You have to build up to it slowly, saving the most exciting moments for the second half, which leaves you with the tricky question of what to do in the meantime. Hitchcock and Hunter had clearly thought about this carefully, and by laying in analogous beats at approximately the same points, I was able to benefit from the structure that they had already discovered. “The Proving Ground” follows The Birds overtly in only a handful of places—the first attack on Haley, the sight of the birds perching on the trellises of the wind tower, the noiseless attack in the supply shed, the mass assault on the seastead, and Haley inching through the silent ranks of birds at the end. But they all occur at moments that play a specific role in the story.
The result taught me a lot about the nature of homage. I was well aware that “The Proving Ground” wasn’t the first attempt to draw on The Birds to deliver an environmental message, and I even thought about including an explicit reference to Birdemic, which is one of my favorite bad movies. If there’s a difference between the two, and I hope that there is, it’s that I ended up at The Birds in a roundabout fashion, after realizing that it lent itself nicely to the setting and themes at which I had independently arrived. At that point, I had already filled out much of the background, so I was able to use Hitchcock’s movie as a kind of organizing principle to keep this unwieldy mass of material under control. It wasn’t until I actually sat down and started to write it that I realized how big it was going to be: it became a novella, although just barely, and the longest thing I’d ever published in Analog. This was partially due to the fact that the background had to be unusually detailed, and the story would only make sense if I devoted sufficient space to the geography of the Marshall Islands, its environmental situation, and the physical layout of the seastead. I also had to sketch in the political situation and provide some historical context, not just because it was interesting in itself, but because it clarified the logic behind the protagonist’s actions—the Marshallese have had to deal with the problem of reparations before, and Haley is very mindful of this. This meant adding several thousand words to a story that might have played just as well as a novelette, at least from the point of view of pure action, and I found that the structure I borrowed from Hitchcock allowed it to read as a unified whole, rather than as a collection of disparate ideas united only by the setting.
This became particularly helpful after the circle of associations expanded yet again, to encompass the history of the atomic bomb tests that the United States government conducted at Bikini Atoll. I hadn’t planned to set the story on Bikini itself, but it eventually became clear that it was the obvious setting, simply from the point of view of the logistics of the seastead. An atoll provides a natural breakwater against waves—Bikini is even mentioned by name in the relevant section in Patri Friedman’s book on seasteading—and the location had other advantages: it was uninhabited but livable, with plenty of infrastructure and equipment left behind from the nuclear tests. Placing the seastead there added another level of resonance to the story, and instead of trying to reconcile the different elements, I ended up placing the components from The Birds side by side with the material about Bikini, just to see what happened. As it turned out, the two halves complemented each other in surprising ways, and I didn’t need to tease out the connections. “The Proving Ground,” as the title implies, is about a proof of concept: the Marshall Islands were chosen for Operation Crossroads because they were remote and politically vulnerable, and they end up as a test case for the seastead for similar reasons. Haley tries to use the lessons of the first incident to guide her response to the second, but the birds have other plans. In both du Maurier and Hitchcock, the attacks are left unexplained, while in this story, they’re an unanticipated side effect of a technological solution to a social and ecological problem. Any attempt at an explanation would have ruined the earlier versions, but I think it’s necessary here. The birds are an accidental but inevitable consequence of a plan that initially failed to take them into account. And that’s how they ended up in the story, too.
Note: I’m discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.
The editor John W. Campbell once pointed out that an industrial safety manual is really the perfect handbook for a saboteur—you just do the opposite of everything it says. You see the same mindset in a lot of science fiction, which is often founded on constructing an elaborate futuristic scenario and then figuring out all the things that could possibly go wrong with it. This is central to most forms of storytelling, of course, but it takes on an added resonance in a genre that purports to tell us how the future will look. At times, it can be hard to distinguish between the author’s own views on the subject and the conflict required for a good story. It’s why dystopias are so much more common than utopias; why hubris is usually punished rather than rewarded; and why you frequently see a streak of what looks like technophobia even in writers who seem otherwise inclined to celebrate all that technology can accomplish. (This is especially true when you start out with the intention of writing a thriller. In the case of someone like Michael Crichton, it can be difficult to tell where his instincts as a novelist leave off and his genuine pessimism begins. Nothing goes right in Jurassic Park, but this has less to do with chaos theory than with the conventions of suspense.) When I started work on “The Proving Ground,” I had a wealth of information at my disposal from the seasteading movement, much of which was devoted to arguing that an ocean colony would be viable and safe. But along the way, it also inadvertently provided me with a list of story ideas, as soon as I began to read it with an eye to the worst that could happen.
For instance, in an online book about seasteading by Patri Friedman, the former executive director of Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, we read: “The ocean is a dangerous environment. There are massive waves, hurricanes, and even pirates.” Taken out of context, this is either an argument for risk mitigation or a line from a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer. And while I didn’t think much about the possibility of pirates—although for the life of me I can’t remember why—I spent a long time looking into waves and hurricanes. A hurricane or typhoon seemed like a better prospect, mostly because it provided more of a natural buildup than a wave, and it would be easier to structure a story around it. I even read The Perfect Storm from cover to cover to see if it would spark any ideas. What I ultimately concluded was that there was probably a good story to be told about a seastead that was hit by a hurricane, and that if I could work out the logistics, it would be pretty exciting. But it felt more like a disaster movie, and so did most of the other possibilities that I explored for damaging or destroying my seastead. (Looking back at my notes, it seems that I also briefly considered building a plot around a sabotage attempt, which seems a little lazy.) The trouble was that all of these crises were imposed from the outside, and none seemed to emerge naturally from the premise of climate change in the Marshall Islands. So after almost a week of pursuing the hurricane angle, I gave it up, which is a long time to devote to a wrong turn.
I was saved by an idea that came from an altogether different direction. One of the first things I had to decide was when the story would be set, both in the chronology of the seastead itself and in the world as a whole. Was the seastead under construction, or had it been occupied for years or decades? Were we talking about a scenario in which the threat of rising sea levels was still a distant one, or had it already happened? And what was taking place elsewhere? I spent a while looking into the various proposals that have been floated for the technological mitigation of global warming, such as the idea of releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (Even if it wasn’t central to the story, it seemed like it might make a good ironic counterpoint to the plot: the Marshall Islands probably won’t survive, no matter what else we do in the meantime.) I was especially interested in iron fertilization, in which tiny pellets of iron are released into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that can suck up carbon dioxide. It’s unclear how well this works, however and there are other potential issues, as I found in a paper with the unpromising title “Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas.” In particular, it can lead to high levels of pseudonitzschia, a plankton species that produces the poison domoic acid, which accumulates in fish and squid. And it turned out that the Marshall Islands leased its offshore waters in the nineties to a private company to conduct iron fertilization on a limited scale, before it was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping.
At this point, I presumably had a vague idea that it might be possible to build a story around iron fertilization in the Marshall Islands and an ensuing outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which can cause seizures and death. But then I came across a paper that proposed that a similar outbreak might have been responsible for the unexplained incident on August 18, 1961, in which the towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz in California were attacked by mobs of seabirds—an event that also caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Which meant that I knew the following facts:
- The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
- Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
- Domoic acid can cause brain damage in seabirds that eat contaminated fish and squid, and it may have been responsible for the attack that inspired The Birds.
Needless to say, I immediately forgot all about my hurricane. If there’s one thing I love about being a writer, it’s when a long process of shapeless research and daydreaming suddenly crystalizes into a form that seems inevitable, and this felt about as inevitable as it gets. Somebody was going to write this story eventually, and I figured that it might as well be me. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I brought The Birds to the Marshall Islands, and how I ended up combining it with the ghosts of Bikini Atoll.
When I look back at many of my favorite movies, I’m troubled by a common thread that they share. It’s the theme of the control of a vulnerable woman by a man in a position of power. The Red Shoes, my favorite film of all time, is about artistic control, while Blue Velvet, my second favorite, is about sexual domination. Even Citizen Kane has that curious subplot about Kane’s attempt to turn Susan into an opera star, which may have originated as an unkind reference to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but which survives in the final version as an emblem of Kane’s need to collect human beings like playthings. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that some of these stories secretly mirror the relationship between the director and his actresses on the set. Vertigo, of course, can be read as an allegory for Hitchcock’s own obsession with his leading ladies, whom he groomed and remade as meticulously as Scotty attempts to do with Madeline. In The Shining, Jack’s abuse of Wendy feels only slightly more extreme than what we know Kubrick—who even resembles Jack a bit in the archival footage that survives—imposed on Shelley Duvall. (Duvall’s mental health issues have cast a new pall on those accounts, and the involvement of Kubrick’s daughter Vivian has done nothing to clarify the situation.) And Roger Ebert famously hated Blue Velvet because he felt that David Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini had crossed an invisible moral line.
The movie that has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny most recently is Last Tango in Paris, after interview footage resurfaced of Bernardo Bertolucci discussing its already infamous rape scene. (Bertolucci originally made these comments three years ago, and the fact that they’ve drawn attention only now is revealing in itself—it was hiding in plain sight, but it had to wait until we were collectively prepared to talk about it.) Since the story first broke, there has been some disagreement over what Maria Schneider knew on the day of the shoot. You can read all about it here. But it seems undeniable that Bertolucci and Brando deliberately withheld crucial information about the scene from Schneider until the cameras were rolling. Even the least offensive version makes me sick to my stomach, all the more so because Last Tango in Paris has been an important movie to me for most of my life. In online discussions of the controversy, I’ve seen commenters dismissing the film as an overrated relic, a vanity project for Brando, or one of Pauline Kael’s misguided causes célèbres. If anything, though, this attitude lets us off the hook too easily. It’s much harder to admit that a film that genuinely moved audiences and changed lives might have been made under conditions that taint the result beyond retrieval. It’s a movie that has meant a lot to me, as it did to many other viewers, including some I knew personally. And I don’t think I can ever watch it again.
But let’s not pretend that it ends there. It reflects a dynamic that has existed between directors and actresses since the beginning, and all too often, we’ve forgiven it, as long as it results in great movies. We write critical treatments of how Vertigo and Psycho masterfully explore Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women, and we overlook the fact that he sexually assaulted Tippi Hedren. When we think of the chummy partnerships that existed between men like Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, or John Wayne and John Ford, and then compare them with how directors have regarded their female collaborators, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. (The great example here is Gone With the Wind: George Cukor, the original director, was fired because he made Clark Gable uncomfortable, and he was replaced by Gable’s buddy Victor Fleming. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were forced to consult with Cukor in secret.) And there’s an unsettling assumption on the part of male directors that this is the only way to get a good performance from a woman. Bertolucci says that he and Brando were hoping to get Schneider’s raw reaction “as a girl, instead of as an actress.” You can see much the same impulse in Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall. Even Michael Powell, one of my idols, writes of how he and the other actors frightened Moira Shearer to the point of tears for the climactic scene of The Red Shoes—“This was no longer acting”—and says elsewhere: “I never let love interfere with business, or I would have made love to her. It would have improved her performance.”
So what’s a film buff to do? We can start by acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it continues to affect women in the movies, whether in the process of filmmaking itself or in the realities of survival in an industry that is still dominated by men. Sometimes it leads to abuse or worse. We can also honor the work of those directors, from Ozu to Almodóvar to Wong Kar-Wai, who have treated their actresses as partners in craft. Above all else, we can come to terms with the fact that sometimes even a masterpiece fails to make up for the choices that went into it. Thinking of Last Tango in Paris, I was reminded of Norman Mailer, who wrote one famous review of the movie and was linked to it in another. (Kael wrote: “On the screen, Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature.”) Years later, Mailer supported the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott, a gifted writer with whom he had corresponded at length. Six weeks later, Abbott stabbed a stranger to death. Afterward, Mailer infamously remarked:
I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.
But it isn’t—at least not like this. Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece. It contains the single greatest male performance I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t worth it.
I first saw Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain when I was fourteen years old. In a weird way, it amounted to a peak moment of my early adolescence: I was on a school trip to our nation’s capital, sharing a hotel room with my friends from middle school, and we were just tickled to get away with watching an R-rated movie on cable. The fact that we ended up with Raising Cain doesn’t quite compare with the kids on The Simpsons cheering at the chance to see Barton Fink, but it isn’t too far off. I think that we liked it, and while I won’t claim that we understood it, that doesn’t mean much of anything—it’s hard for me to imagine anybody, of any age, entirely understanding this movie, which includes both me and De Palma himself. A few years later, I caught it again on television, and while I can’t say I’ve thought about it much since, I never forgot it. Gradually, I began to catch up on my De Palma, going mostly by whatever movies made Pauline Kael the most ecstatic at the time, which in itself was an education in the gap between a great critic’s pet enthusiasms and what exists on the screen. (In her review of The Fury, Kael wrote: “No Hitchcock thriller was ever so intense, went so far, or had so many ‘classic’ sequences.” I love Kael, but there are at least three things wrong with that sentence.) And ultimately De Palma came to mean a lot to me, as he does to just about anyone who responds to the movies in a certain way.
When I heard about the recut version of Raising Cain—in an interview with John Lithgow on The A.V. Club, no less, in which he was promoting his somewhat different role on The Crown—I was intrigued. And its backstory is particularly interesting. Shortly before the movie was first released, De Palma moved a crucial sequence from the beginning to the middle, eliminating an extended flashback and allowing the film to play more or less chronologically. He came to regret the change, but it was too late to do anything about it. Years later, a freelance director and editor named Peet Gelderblom read about the original cut and decided to restore it, performing a judicious edit on a digital copy. He put it online, where, unbelievably, it was seen by De Palma himself, who not only loved it but asked that it be included as a special feature on the new Blu-ray release. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the true possibilities of fan edits, which have served mostly for competing visions of the ideal version of Star Wars. With modern software, a fan can do for a movie what Walter Murch did for Touch of Evil, restoring it to the director’s original version based on a script or a verbal description. In the case of Raising Cain, this mostly just involved rearranging the pieces in the theatrical cut, but other fans have tackled such challenges as restoring all the deleted scenes in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and there are countless other candidates.
Yet Raising Cain might be the most instructive case study of all, because simply restoring the original opening to its intended place results in a radical transformation. It isn’t for everyone, and it’s necessary to grant De Palma his usual passes for clunky dialogue and characterization, but if you’re ready to meet it halfway, you’re rewarded with a thriller that twists back on itself like a Möbius strip. De Palma plunders his earlier movies so blatantly that it isn’t clear if he’s somehow paying loving homage to himself—bypassing Hitchcock entirely—or recycling good ideas that he feels like using again. The recut opens with a long mislead that recalls Dressed to Kill, which means that Lithgow barely even appears for the first twenty minutes. You can almost see why De Palma chickened out for the theatrical version: Lithgow’s performance as the meek Carter and his psychotic imaginary brother Cain feels too juicy to withhold. But the logic of the script was destroyed. For a film that tests an audience’s suspension of disbelief in so many other ways, it’s unclear why De Palma thought that a flashback would be too much for the viewer to handle. The theatrical release preserves all the great shock effects that are the movie’s primary reason for existing, but they don’t build to anything, and you’re left with a film that plays like a series of sketches. With the original order restored, it becomes what it was meant to be all along: a great shaggy dog story with a killer punchline.
Raising Cain is gleefully about nothing but itself, and I wouldn’t force anybody to watch it who wasn’t already interested. But the recut also serves as an excellent introduction to its director, just as the older version did for me: when I first encountered it, I doubt I’d seen anything by De Palma, except maybe The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible was still a year away. It’s safe to say that if you like Raising Cain, you’ll like De Palma in general, and if you can’t get past its archness, campiness, and indifference to basic plausibility—well, I can hardly blame you. Watching it again, I was reminded of Blue Velvet, a far greater movie that presents the viewer with a similar test. It has the same mixture of naïveté and incredible technical virtuosity, with scenes that barely seem to have been written alternating with ones that push against the boundaries of the medium itself. You’re never quite sure if the director is in on the gag, and maybe it doesn’t matter. There isn’t much beauty in Raising Cain, and De Palma is a hackier and more mechanical director than Lynch, but both are so strongly visual that the nonsensory aspects of their films, like the obligatory scenes with the cops, seem to wither before our eyes. (It’s an approach that requires a kind of raw, intuitive trust from the cast, and as much as I enjoy what Lithgow does here, he may be too clever and resourceful an actor to really disappear into the role.) Both are rooted, crucially, in Hitchcock, who was equally obsessive, but was careful to never work from his own script. Hitchcock kept his secret self hidden, while De Palma puts it in plain sight. And if it turns out to be nothing at all, that’s probably part of the joke.
Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.
I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:
My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!
And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.
This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:
[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.
Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.
Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…
Like many great works of art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination—perhaps more than any other movie I’ve ever seen—because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and lush Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film ever produced in America. In many respects, it’s the most mysterious movie ever made, but whenever I watch it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics: the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, and the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, a sick joke or sucker punch that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair.
Vertigo takes so many insane, unjustifiable risks that it inevitably feels flawed in places, despite long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. As David Thomson writes: “It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.”
Next week: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.
Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.
If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.
And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:
The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!
Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.
I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…