Charles Barr on Vertigo: The Greatest Film Ever Made?

 

This week, an array of scholars on Alfred Hitchcock descend on Dublin for a one-day conference to celebrate the director’s masterpiece at Vertigo: The Greatest Film Ever Made? 

Paul Farren talked to one of the speakers, Professor Charles Barr, ahead of the event about what makes Vertigo such a unique film in the history of Hollywood.

 

You’ve written a book on Vertigo yourself for the BFI – so you’re coming at the film from a particular angle.

Yes – I have my own particular angle on Vertigo and on Hitchcock. I think one of the key things about Hitchcock is that he spans film history in a particular way – firstly, he was a key figure at the two turning points in film history: one of them is the conversion to synchronised sound when he made Blackmail; he was there pioneering the aesthetic  commercial possibilities of sound cinema. And then you jump 30 years and he is the key figure really in the transition from classical cinema to post-classical cinema with that extraordinary trio of films: North by Northwest, that archetypal, glamourous celebration of the pleasures of classical cinema; then Psycho, moving into a completely new kind of era, new subject matter, new aesthetics; and then Vertigo, spanning the two, being so beautiful and romantic and glamourous and at the same time undercutting the pleasures of classical cinema.

 

On the day, you are the first speaker with your paper “Why Vertigo?” – can you give us a little preview?

Basically, I’ll set the scene for the day and remind people of the way in which the critical status of Vertigo has changed over the years. It wasn’t received with enormous enthusiasm at the time and now, suddenly along with Citizen Kane, it’s almost the flagship film for the whole of commercial cinema.

 

Indeed, it recently replaced Citizen Kane at the top of the Sight & Sound poll of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time.

Yes it did, if you believe in these things. Dee Martin [Festival Director] has provocatively called the event ‘Vertigo: The Greatest Film Ever Made?’. That may be a cause for debate but it certainly has that status in a sense of the most celebrated in film history.

 

It was a long time coming. It was the French who tended to reassess American cinema and were the first to appraise it from an artistic point of view rather than an entertainment point of view. But that’s as late as 1968 – 10 years after the film was made.

The French did actually welcome Vertigo when it first came out. They certainly responded more positively than the Americans did.

I can remember that for quite a long time you couldn’t see Vertigo because, for contractual reasons, it was not available. For a long time, you could only see it in a 16mm black-and-white print – imagine seeing it for the first time in black and white . It wouldn’t make as much impact. Plus it’s 16mm, which is quite a ropy, domestic projection. And then, for contractual reasons , his estate held back a number of his films for 8 or 10 years I think it was. That helped to create a mystique around two of them especially, Vertigo and Rear Window. Then they were re-released, they lived up to the expectations – obviously, because they were such incredibly crafted films.

 

Why, in your opinion, is Vertigo seen as the greatest film?

On the one hand, it is a supremely romantic and beautiful film. Beautiful colours, a beautiful woman at its centre, wonderful locations. It’s a seductive and beautiful film, which gives you visual pleasure and at the same time it undermines all that. It brings you face to face with the romantic self-deception of the man – the every-man figure – so it gives you the pleasure of classical romantic narrative while it also absolutely pulls the rug out from all that pleasure by disillusioning the main character and disillusioning the spectator. And it leaves you at the end with this completely empty figure – so you have it both ways… Hitchcock has it both ways. He gives you the pleasure and he shows you the mechanics behind it and the  hollowness of it and the romantic self-deception. It’s that balance, that fluctuation, between the two. As opposed to something like North by Northwest, which is an absolutely wonderful film but is much more simple – you have the romantic ending and everybody goes away happily rather than torn it two. Vertigo tears you in two.

 

People say it’s about obsession – but it’s as much about illusion, and I think Hitchcock is happy to punish us for having illusions…

In my little booklet on Vertigo, I have 4 chapters: the first is obsession, the second is construction, then illusion and then revelation – so we are definitely singing from the same song sheet.

________________________

Event Details:

Date: Thursday 14 September 2017

Time: 9am-4pm

Conference Venue: Central Hotel Dublin, Exchequer Street.

Film Screening Venue: Lighthouse Cinema Dublin @ 5.30pm

Conference Tickets: €30 / Concession Rate €25 (Price includes film screening at Lighthouse Cinema)

Tickets on sale at the Conference reception area in the Central Hotel from 8.45am on Thursday 14 September.

For more details visit: www.vertigogreatestfilm.com/

 

 

 

 

Share

Fred O’Donovan: not just Knocknagow

knocknagow_still_2

Knocknagow

Charles Barr examines the career of Fred O’Donovan, the director of the Film Company of Ireland’s ambitious feature-length adaptation (1918) of Charles Kickham’s novel Knocknagow.

O’Donovan’s career began as an Abbey Theatre actor from 1908, and then director, after which he was a freelance actor in theatre, film and radio, before going on to become prolific pioneer director of live drama for BBC Television, in 1938-39, and again, after the wartime closedown, from 1946 till his death in 1952. He was celebrated for his long-take one-camera style, of which there are fascinating anticipations in Knocknagow.

This article derives from an all-day event organised by Ruth Barton at TCD in May 2016, in honour of Professor Kevin Rockett on his retirement. Fifteen papers were presented by a range of Kevin’s associates and admirers. This one is given topical interest by the approaching centenary in 2018 of the landmark film of Knocknagow.

 

 

I owe my interest in Fred O’Donovan to two notable scholars. One is, appropriately, Kevin Rockett, the other is John Wyver.

 

Sometime in the early 1980s I heard Kevin give a pioneering film history talk in Dublin, and became aware for the first time of a pre-Independence Irish cinema; in 1987 came the Cinema in Ireland book, after which I watched the British archival print of Knocknagow (1918). That interest lay dormant for 25 years until the film acquired a sudden new prominence, as subject of an issue of the Australian online journal Screening the Past. Even that made little reference to O’Donovan as the film’s director, but the omission was soon rectified, for me, by encountering John Wyver’s work-in-progress on his career as a director of live drama in the early days of BBC Television, in the late 1930s and, after the wartime closedown, for another six years up to his death in 1952. Wyver’s initial online essay begins thus: ‘Among major creative figures in British television drama, there are few who are as forgotten, as lost and as neglected as Fred O’Donovan.’ A main reason for this obscurity is the fact that no example of his work survives, since recording of the electronic image did not become seriously feasible until the year after his death. But to call him ‘a major creative figure’ in TV may be no exaggeration.

 

Could this really be the same Fred O’Donovan? There is more than one media figure of that name, as a Google search at once confirms. But the director of Knocknagow did indeed go on to become a pioneer television director. He had been a central figure at the Abbey Theatre for a decade from 1908: as an actor in Dublin and frequently on tour, and latterly as director of plays and, for a short time, of the theatre overall, before he left in early 1919. Nearly two decades later he began his equally intensive association, either side of the war years, with BBC TV. How can these two distinct phases be linked, in personal career terms and also in cultural and aesthetic terms?  Wyver had established that he stayed active in the interim, in a much less settled way, as a freelance actor and director, mainly in England, for theatre and, increasingly, radio, and playing occasional small parts in films; and he traces his TV career assiduously through BBC files and through printed records, mainly the weekly Radio Times and intermittent press reviews. These show O’Donovan quickly becoming noted for a distinctive TV-studio strategy. He preferred ‘to use just a single camera to shoot very lengthy scenes, often lasting 20 minutes or more’.  A contemporary commentator on his work noted that  ‘One-camera production demands the highest degree of precision, and when perfect co-ordination is achieved between cast, cameraman and producer the result is often a smoother and more polished presentation than the more complicated many-angle technique.’

 

Already in Knocknagow there are striking anticipations of this strategy. The print we have is a bit of mess, uneven in visual quality and with evident gaps that at times make the narrative hard to follow. Even allowing for this, there are ways in which the film seems ‘primitive’. With Ireland offering no access to a film studio, interiors had to be open to the elements in order to get adequate light, and tablecloths are seen to flutter in the breeze. There is an absence of point-of-view shots when we might expect them, and more generally of shot-reverse-shot constructions. Typically of its Hollywood-centric viewpoint, Variety, when it eventually got to review the film, was ready to patronise it, seeing it as stylistically backward for 1921. It had of course had been shot four years earlier, in 1917, the precise year which historians have seen as a decisive transitional point into the mature ‘classical’ system: the standard 1985 book on Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson carries the subtitle ‘Film Style and Production from 1917’. It is not surprising if Ireland, with its lack of a studio and of any kind of solid native industry, in some ways lagged behind. But the standard Hollywood way is not the only one, and many scenes in Knocknagow embody an attractive alternative. For much of the film’s length, O’Donovan focuses on conveying maximum information and affect without cutting within scenes, or moving the camera, rather in the manner of the early work of D.W. Griffith (ahead of Birth of a Nation) or of Victor Sjostrom in Sweden, both of whom had, like him, long experience in theatre. Whether or not he would have gone on, like them, to develop a more fragmented style we cannot tell, since he directed no further films; the evidence of his TV work suggests that he would have done so in a limited way at most, and that he could indeed have gone on, given improved resources and support, to become a distinctive stylistic presence within cinema, as he later became in early television.

 

I shall focus on three early scenes and one late one.

 

Knocknagow opens with a slow pan in long shot across the Tipperary landscape. Then a title: ‘They speak friendly greetings one day in old Kilthubber, not seeing the  cloud in their sky, which as yet lies low on their horizon.’ A street scene then illustrates the title. A lot of care has gone in to the staging of this simple functional one-shot introduction. The camera is set at what Barry Salt, an early historian of film style, has termed the ‘cinematic angle’, placed at an angle to the setting and people, a rich variety of whom wander past: the placement allows us to see them, but does not block their movement, and there is incidental action to notice in doorways deep in the frame, enhancing the sense of a community (Fig 1). The shot ends (Fig 2) with one man coming a bit closer to the camera and veering off, separate from the friendly others: later we will get to know him as Pender the land agent, the ‘cloud in their sky’, but for now the visual hint is still restrained and mild, matching the line about the cloud being still ‘low on their horizon’.

 

od-fig-1

Fig 1

od-fig-2

Fig 2

 

Soon after this comes the first meeting between identified characters. Again it is a one-shot exterior scene with fixed camera, which this time observes from square-on. From the left of frame comes one couple, Mary Kearney and her mother, and from the right of frame another: Arthur O’Connell, played by O’Donovan himself, accompanied by the priest who has befriended him (Fig 3). Introductions are made, and the two young people retire to the background to begin an intimacy that will lead at the end of the film to marriage. Through the space thus opened up between the older and younger couples come first, from the left, a pair of passer-by girls (Fig 4), and then from the right a horse and cart driven by the film’s other romantic lead, Mat (Fig 5). He stops to offer Mary and her mother a lift, goodbyes are said, and the cart exits left; the two men watch it go (Fig 6), and finally exit right themselves.

 

od-fig-3

Fig 3

od-fig-4

Fig 4

od-fig-5

Fig 5

od-fig-6

Fig 6

This is plainly a theatrical kind of ‘blocking’, with the use of upstage and downstage areas, and entrances and exits from and into the wings, a system here lucidly carried over into cinema with the asset of its fixed spectator positioning – and of palpable location space. This factor is exploited more fully in the scene that comes  shortly after, still only eight minutes into the film, again featuring Arthur and Mat.

 

od-fig-7

Fig 7

od-fig-8

Fig 8

 

Here, they both walk towards us along a country lane, Arthur being some 50 yards in front. Successively, they stop to have a word with the comic figure of Barney, who is leading his donkey-cart along the road in the other direction. At the start of the shot (Fig 7) Barney enters from back left to be accosted by Arthur, who asks for directions and moves on; meanwhile Mat has been walking steadily from deep in the shot, and himself speaks to Barney (Fig 8), looking out beyond the camera as he refers to Arthur, now out of shot, and to his love for Mary; Mat in turn exits, and we cut to Mary in her garden. Throughout this shot, the camera has again been static. It is a pity in a way that it is broken up by two dialogue titles, but the shot/scene – plan-séquence in French terms – is still very pleasurable, in line with the pleasure one feels that O’Donovan and colleagues must have felt in setting it up and executing it, playing with space within the frame, and also beyond it in the unseen space behind the camera. How satisfying it is to have placed Mat so precisely in the distance and given him the cue to start walking at just the right moment. It doesn’t seem forced, because the road is straight and narrow; there is only one realistic place to put the camera, and how effective it is to let it run.

 

Putting the three scenes together, one senses a real exploratory relish in covering so much in single shots, and in handling space and movement in a variety of ways, the composition and movement being successively diagonal, lateral, and direct towards camera. Impressive in a different way is the much slower, solemn three-minute interior scene, much later in the film, around the bed of the youthful Norah Lahy, who is dying from tuberculosis.

 

od-fig-9

 Fig 9

od-fig-10

Fig 10

 

The master shot (Fig 9) encompasses the whole space, but O’Donovan does not make a fetish of the plan-séquence, and cuts unobtrusively in the middle of the scene to a somewhat tighter shot (Fig 10) before ending back on the wider one. The takes must have been shot successively rather than by two cameras simultaneously, but strict continuity of time and angle is observed, and it feels like a single take. The mise-en-scene is very precise, incorporating important background detail and some movement of characters around the bed; O’Donovan is again clearly drawing on his Abbey Theatre staging experience while exploiting the greater closeness and control of viewpoint enabled by cinema.

 

The film’s cast is worth attention. The deathbed scene has in fact contained a third set-up, a single brief cut-in – still looking in the same direction – to frame Norah’s grieving father (Fig 11). He is played by Arthur Shields, who like O’Donovan had a long Abbey Theatre career. In the background of his shot, as of the other shots, playing Norah’s lover Billy, is Breffni O’Rourke (spelling of his name varies), who was also, more briefly, an Abbey actor; he and Shields and O’Donovan were on stage together there in November 1916 in The Playboy of the Western World, not long after Shields had been released from the prison camp where he was sent for his role in the occupation of the Post Office in the Rising of Easter week.

 

Shields made no more films until John Ford took him to Hollywood in 1936 as assistant director of his film of The Plough and the Stars, and to play the role based on Pearse (Fig 12); thereafter he had a steady career in American cinema and TV. O’Rourke became a prolific character actor in British films for some years up to his death in 1947; his weightiest role is in the Launder-Gilliat comedy-thriller I See a Dark Stranger (1946, set in 1944). Like Shields in real life and in the Ford film, his character was active in the Rising, but his role in this British film three decades later is to serve British purposes, assuring Deborah Kerr’s militantly anti-British  Irishwoman that all of that bad feeling is now history, and that the annoyance of Partition is sure to be sorted out in friendly fashion once the war is over (Fig 13). Something very similar happens with the young Cyril Cusack, who vigorously plays the young son of Knocknagow’s evicted O’Brien family (Fig 14). With virtually no more Irish films to be part of for decades after, he too becomes a familiar British film presence, available likewise to serve British ideological interests when required, as in another film set in 1944, The Man who Never Was (1955). As an Irish taxi-driver in London (Fig 15), he receives and supports another Irishman, a pro-Nazi spy – played by Stephen Boyd, Irish actor of a later generation – who has been sent from Berlin to attempt to unravel British plans ahead of D-Day (Fig 16).

 

od-fig-11

Fig 11

od-fig-12

             Fig 12

od-fig-13

Fig 13

od-fig-14

      Fig 14

od-fig-15

 Fig 15

od-fig-16

Fig 16

 

The point of this is to reinforce what we already know to be the importance of Knocknagow, a landmark film ‘made in Ireland by Irish men and women’ at a pivotal historical moment, which for complicated reasons led nowhere, so that several of its great talents went on to serve other cinemas, as well as Irish and other theatres. Among them Fred O’Donovan himself.

 

It is possible that recordings exist of some of his radio productions, particularly from the war years. But almost certainly the only visual footage to survive, after Knocknagow, derives from his minor acting roles in some British films of the 1930s and 1940s. Only two are of any real interest. Ourselves Alone (1936) is a rare film of the period to be made mainly by Irish men – but not, now, by Irish women, and in England rather than Ireland, though it is set in the rural south during the War of Independence. Director is the Belfast-born Brian Desmond Hurst, who wrote the script in tandem with Abbey Theatre playwright Denis Johnston; a number of the cast are Irish, including Niall McGinnis as the local IRA leader, Abbey veteran Harry Hutchinson as an informer, and O’Donovan as barman at the pub that functions as a nationalist HQ.  He takes the lead in hiding guns when Black and Tans mount a raid, and has a great moment (Fig 17) when their officer demands a glass of porter, and complains of it being undrinkably sour: the barman responds that ‘Maybe it’s the blood that does be pouring into the waters of the Liffey these days that makes it so’, and turns his back contemptuously.

 

A year later he has an uncredited role in the comedy-thriller Young and Innocent. He is just about identifiable as a detective helping to investigate the murder of a woman washed up on the beach, at the start; only for a brief moment is his face visible beneath his hat, and he does not reappear (Fig 18). The director is Alfred Hitchcock, and that connection will be worth returning to.

 

od-fig-17

    Fig 17

od-fig-18

Fig 18

 

His main work meanwhile has continued to be in theatre. It’s impossible to know, pending new biographical evidence, whether he will have regretted leaving the intensity of the Abbey and Ireland for a less rooted career in England, but he certainly stayed busy, as is demonstrated by a trawl through the records. To sum up: he worked variously as actor and director, on long commercial runs and more specialist short seasons, and on Irish and non-Irish drama.

 

Many times between 1921 and 1934 he is found linking up with the London-based Irish Players, Abbey exiles who had left before he did, playing alongside actors like Arthur Sinclair, Sarah Allgood and her sister Maire O’Neill for runs of several weeks. 1921 and 1930, as Christy in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. 1926 and 1930, as Jack Clitheroe in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. 1927 and 1934, in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, latterly as Joxer Daly. Occasionally he directs as well. There is nothing Irish after 1934 apart from three short plays by Yeats and Lady Gregory, a few performances of each in specialist venues. But O’Donovan makes up for this in a big way when he moves into Television.

 

If one continuity between his years in Dublin and, decades later, with BBC TV is the renewal of the long-take aesthetic of Knocknagow, another is his privileging of Abbey playwrights.

 

His first work for the newly-launched BBC TV service, in 1936, is an acting role, as Michael Mikell in the short play by Lady Gregory, The Workhouse Ward. He had himself created this role as early as 1908, soon after he joined the Abbey company, and played it frequently thereafter in Dublin and London.

 

Once he joins the small BBC staff, he continues to direct Abbey material, presumably by his own choice. Abbey plays make up about a quarter of his output in the years that follow. In summary:

 

Lady Gregory          3 plays (+ two of her translations from French)

J.M. Synge              3

W.B. Yeats              2

Sean O’Casey          2

Lennox Robinson     2

Denis Johnston        2

 

The two most ambitious productions are of Juno and the Paycock in 1938, and of The Playboy of the Western World in 1946. Floor plans of the former survive in the BBC archives. Critics at the time were impressed by the effects achieved by depth of field, even on the tiny screens of that era.

 

It must have been a strange experience for O’Donovan, in his fourth production after TV resumed in 1946, to direct The Playboy. He had himself played the youth of the title, Christy Mahon, more often, surely, than any other actor has ever done, starting in 1909. W.G. Fay had originated the role at the Abbey, when it famously provoked an audience riot during its first run, but he left the Abbey soon after and O’Donovan took over, playing it repeatedly thereafter in Dublin and in England, Canada and America. Indeed he had his own riot experience in 1911 in New York (fig 19).

 

fig-19

Fig 19

 

The newspaper – undated, but it must be from the last week of November 1911 – gives an account of the passions stirred up in Boston and New York by conflicting groups of Irish-Americans over its depiction of, especially, Irish women. James Joyce is on record as having praised O’Donovan’s characterisation over that of Fay, his predecessor in the role.

 

How different it will have been in 1946. One wonders how much time he spent in reminiscing to his new Christy, played by Patrick Boxill – not a famous name, but he had played Johnny Boyle in the Juno production of 1938. O’Donovan did at least have Arthur Sinclair from the old days in Dublin and London, as Michael Flaherty, as well as his own wife, Joyce Chancellor, as Sara Tansey, and Maureen Cusack, wife of his Knocknagow child star Cyril, as Susan Brady. That production would be high on the wish-list for recordings, had such a process then existed.

 

O’Donovan’s continued loyalty to Abbey material and Irish players, after decades away from Dublin, is revealing, and indeed rather moving. It would be nice to argue that he was helping to fly the flag effectively in Britain for Irish culture after the tensions of the war years, but it must be remembered that TV still had a very small audience, restricted for technical reasons to a small area around London, and also by the high cost of TV sets. Nevertheless, plays did get some press reviews, and they may have had a certain cultural impact out of proportion to the size of their audience.

 

What is certain is that O’Donovan’s long-take strategy, likewise dating back to his formative Irish years, attracted interest in and beyond the BBC. In the early days of TV broadcasting in France, he was brought over to Paris in order to demonstrate his single-camera system, part of a wider Anglo-French exchange but also, it seems, in order to provide a specific form of masterclass for French technicians. The result was broadcast there in late June 1952, and was well received. It turned out to be his final production. Already ill, he went into hospital on return, and died in London on 19th July.

 

That final production, in the French language, was of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which had been the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in 1940. When O’Donovan was refining his single-camera strategy for TV in the late 1940s, Hitchcock was doing something very similar in cinema, for the ‘ten-minute takes’ of Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). Ten minutes was the maximum time for a Hitchcock take before the film ran out; in live TV, O’Donovan could run on for longer, creating an unbroken theatre-style continuity. A review in the French weekly Radio Cinéma Television took the production very seriously, exploring the comparison with Hitchcock’s Rope, and asking in its headline: ‘Single Camera: is this the future for televised drama?’ The caption to an illustration draws admiring attention to the effects achieved by profondeur du champ (depth of field; composition in depth).

 

A regular reviewer of broadcasts for that magazine at that time was the great film critic André Bazin, whose TV reviews are only now starting to be collected. It is frustrating that he did not review the TV Rebecca: with his strong attraction to the cinema aesthetic of long takes and profondeur du champ, he is sure to have had interesting things to say about it. Instead, the review is by Janick Arbois, wife of the journal’s founder, both of them being good friends and associates of Bazin; it is almost a Bazin review by proxy, but it would be a more satisfying end to O’Donovan’s career if it were by Bazin himself – and would belatedly give him more exposure, when Bazin’s collected TV writings are published.

 

Somehow this is typical of the ill luck which has kept him neglected for so long. He was not in the original cast of any of the major Abbey plays, as opposed to minor ones and short ones: despite acting Synge’s Christy Mahon for so long, he did not originate the part, and he left the theatre before the advent of O’Casey, which helps to explain the wide neglect of him in Abbey histories. The films he directed for the Film Company of Ireland are lost, other than Knocknagow, and his input even to that as actor and director has often been overlooked; the collapse of the company at a time of political turbulence meant that he had no successor film to direct. He acted in the second London staging of Juno and the Paycock, but not the first, the production which made such a strong impression on Alfred Hitchcock, otherwise he might well have been cast in Hitchcock’s early-sound adaptation of it. Above all, there is the ill luck of having none of his TV work survive, because of the dates of his career and the time of his death, just before the first telerecording of a BBC TV play in 1953. And the last of these plays was evidently not seen by the Frenchman who might have given it a solid critical after-life.

 

I like to fantasise about the time his path did cross briefly with that of Hitchcock in 1937, during the shooting of Young and Innocent. In a lunch break, they discuss Ireland and O’Casey, and the novel Rebecca, which is not yet quite published, but they have heard advance reports, and both like the idea of dramatising it. They talk of the lure of the long take, of which O’Donovan has experience from way back; they resolve to pursue it systematically when they get a chance, and ten years later they are both doing so.

 

One famous; one forgotten, but not for ever. The work of John Wyver, distinguished TV producer as well as critic, is sure to make a difference. And Knocknagow survives, and is being more widely shown. It is likely to get more exposure at centenary time, at Festivals and elsewhere, especially if better print material can be found. The British archive has some tinted footage that could be printed up, and there may be fuller and better versions surviving in the US, where the film was shown widely and successfully at the time. Reader, please help if you can!

 

 

Author’s Note: I am grateful for various kinds of help and advice to Alain Kerzoncuf, Stephen Donovan and Dudley Andrew; to Barry Houlihan of NUI Galway; and especially to John Wyver, whose article on O’Donovan’s TV career is forthcoming in the Historical Journal of Film Radio And Television.

 

Charles Barr is Emeritus Professor at the University of East Anglia, has taught at UCD and at NUI Galway, and was a Research Fellow at TCD in 2014. His books include Ealing Studios and English Hitchcock.

 

A note on main sources 

 

Knocknagow. See issue 33 (2012) of the Australian online journal Screening the Past for a diverse collection of scholarly essays edited by Stephen Donovan, and for a link to the film itself.

http://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-33/

 

The Abbey Theatre. There are many books, but few that mention O’Donovan, except sometimes in passing. The online database is invaluable:

http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/

A link supplies information about the more extensive Abbey materials held in the Special Collections section of the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway, which also holds the Arthur Shields collection.

London Theatre. The fullest database is evidently still a printed one, the multi-volume The London Stage: A Calendar of Plays and Players, by J.P.Wearing, covering the years 1890-1959 – a great enterprise and a great resource. Original publication by Scarecrow Press, 1976-1993.

BBC Television. This excellent new database enables O’Donovan’s TV work to be traced in detail:

http://beta.bufvc.ac.uk/new/screenplays/

It derives from an AHRC-funded research project ‘Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television’, based at the University of Westminster from 2011 to 2015.  (Principal Investigator John Wyver, Research Fellow Amanda Wrigley.)

 

 

 

Share

Q&A with the authors of ‘Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films’

Hitchcock-high-res-cover-198x300

 

Ahead of the Irish launch of Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf and Professor Charles Barr’s recently-published Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, the authors outline their thinking behind the book in a Q&A with Cameron Ludwick of the University Press of Kentucky.

 

How does your book, Hitchcock Lost and Found, differ from other studies or biographies of the director?

The clue here is in the book’s subtitle – The Forgotten Films. We do not spend time on any of the landmark films like Rear Window or The Birds, or give a full account of Hitchcock’s career. We focus instead on periods and productions that have hitherto been obscure, in the belief (1) that, given his iconic status, any new information on Hitchcock is likely to be of interest, and (2) that it is precisely the obscure elements, and the periods of struggle, that are of crucial importance in helping us to get a fresher and fuller understanding of just how Hitchcock came to achieve his very special status in film history.

 

Is it difficult to research and write on someone so well-known and much written about? Are there any expectations or tropes you have to overcome?

Anyone who writes now on Hitchcock – as on, say, Jane Austen – has to ask: does the world really need yet another study of these celebrated works? The best justification is to find and pursue a fresh angle, and we have at least done this, whether or not readers welcome it! Some may resent an approach which does not focus on major films and on the unqualified, unassisted, genius of their author – but that kind of approach, and that kind of expectation, now seems dated, and hard to defend.

 

In your opinion, what makes Alfred Hitchcock and his films so fascinating? Why do we still study and watch his films today?

He is simply the closest we have to a universal representative of cinema – spanning 50 years, silent and sound, Europe and America, and adapting intelligently at every point to changes in the medium, the industry and the wider society. He was a brilliant collaborator, choosing and using some skilled partners, even though he did not often give them due credit. Early on, we quote the American critic Paula Cohen: ‘to study him is to find an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema’ – of cinema, that is, before the advent of VHS and DVD and downloads. He crafted films very precisely for the mass theatrical audience, aiming to give them ‘beneficial shocks’, both physical and moral. The films still deliver those shocks, and part of their power comes from our nostalgia for the pre-modern cinematic era in which, and for which, they were made.

 

What qualifies as a “forgotten” or “lost” film?

There are three categories. (1) A few ‘lost’ films, now found, including one feature. The first twelve films on which Hitchcock worked, for an American company in London, were thought not to survive, but we located one of them, The Man from Home (1922), in the Netherlands archive. (2) Several films that remain lost, on which we have found a lot of new information: these include Hitchcock’s first work as a director, the comedy Number Thirteen (also 1922), unfinished and never shown. (3) Many films which were known to survive but had been effectively forgotten: either neglected altogether, or treated superficially. On these, we supply a combination of new information and fresh analysis. Examples include the mid-1920s films on which Hitchcock worked for British director Graham Cutts, and the German-language version of Murder! which he made alongside the English version in 1930

 

In your book you mention that Hitchcock worked very hard on other directors’ sets before he directed his own first film. How do you think this helped shape his career?

Anyone’s time spent working as a youthful apprentice in any field is sure to be influential. Hitchcock spent five years working first for an American company in London, and then for a more successful British one. It was important that he had both those experiences. Not only did he get a great training, from both, in the various crafts of cinema: he first saw from the inside the ruthless ‘cultural imperialism’ of American cinema, already making it hard for British films to get a decent showing in their home market, and then worked from the other side in devising ways of resisting this imperialism. This grounding ensured that he stayed acutely aware of the technical and commercial realities of the film industry, throughout his 50-year directing career – one of the keys to his success.

 

What surprised you the most in your research?

For Charles, the main surprise was the range and intensity of Hitchcock’s war-effort activities, undertaken in the margin of his feature films, several of which themselves had a propaganda element. He took immense care in re-editing the early-war British short film Men of the Lightship in order to let it speak more effectively to American audiences; later, back in England, he took similar care in the crafting of two short dramas about the French Resistance, mapping out their shooting and editing shot by shot. Those two films have long been viewable, but new data and new analysis enable us to make fuller sense of them in their cinematic and historical context. For Alain, the major surprise and pleasure was meeting the star of one of them, Janique Joelle, an adorable lady: first the thrill of the phone call, ‘Je suis Janique Joelle de Bon Voyage’, and then, at her place in London, talking through her memories of the production and of Hitchcock himself. And there were other war-effort projects, as the book shows. It is amazing that Hitchcock managed to fit in so much!

 

Hitchcock Lost and Found talks about how World War II affected Hitchcock personally; how do you think it affected his work after the war?

The most obvious way is the continued dramatization of Nazi evil in Notorious (1946) and, less directly, in Rope (1948). Less obvious is the effect on him, and on his wife, of the hysterical criticism that he received from many sources in Britain early in the war, for not breaking his Hollywood contract and returning home. He stayed on, and carried out – as we show – a mass of effective anti-Nazi work. The criticism stopped, but it had been devastating at the time; the Hitchcocks thereafter only made brief return visits, and became American citizens. The events of the war must have influenced that decision.

 

Do you have a favorite “lost” or “forgotten” Hitchcock film?

There are many options here, but we both have a special attachment to The Man from Home, as the completest and earliest of the discoveries – found in the Netherlands Archive in a beautiful tinted print. At last we have a film from the very first period of Hitchcock’s career, throwing light on the kind of production he was involved in, even if don’t (not yet anyway) have the English-language intertitles that he designed.

 

If Hitchcock were alive today what do you think he’d say about how his work is perceived? How would he react to his enduring fame?

He would be amused, pleased, but not at all surprised. After all, he would say, who else has ever so fully articulated and practiced the principles of ‘pure cinema’?

 

How do you think film would be different today if it weren’t for Alfred Hitchcock?

Whether current cinema has been deeply marked by his influence, we are not sure – this may get exaggerated. But if it weren’t for him, we would be missing a whole lot of fine films. The repertory of cinema classics would be less rich.

 

Was there any moment in your research where you felt that Hitchcock was an entirely different person than you had originally thought?

In a word, no! We shared the general view that he was a secretive person, combining meanness with great generosity. And in the process of opening up some of the hidden or forgotten places in his career, the research kept confirming this.

 

Do you feel like Hitchcock is remembered and represented differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic? In the U.S. vs. Europe or U.S. vs. Britain?

In the past, there have certainly been big differences. Americans tended to discount the British work, partly because they knew so little of it, and to claim Hitchcock as their own – and the British resented this. Critics in both countries found the high French valuation of Hitchcock to be overdone, even ridiculous. But now the films are all available to see and indeed to own, and it is easy to check the critical claims against the work itself, and the early films against the late ones. The result is much closer to a consensus. And our book is itself a great symbol of this new international perspective! American publisher, French and British authors.

 

What is the most important thing that you want readers to take away from the book?

Enjoyment of the discovery of new material, and of new angles on forgotten material. A recognition of the importance of context and collaborators, in any consideration of Hitchcock and his body of work. And, most of all – let readers take away a determination to search for material that is still lost, or forgotten! Look in garages and attics and cellars and in archive depositories for the lost titles that we name, and especially for the one still-missing Hitchcock feature film: The Mountain Eagle from 1926.

 

Professor Barr will be in Dublin on the 27th May 2015 for the Irish launch of his recently-published book, co-authored with Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf, Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films. Click here for full details

Professor Barr will also be taking part in ‘Cultivating Film-makers’, an open panel discussion considering the contemporary face of Third Level Film education in Ireland. Click here for full details

Share

voicesonfilm 3: Movie versus Sight and Sound

cropped-Slide1-300x62

 

voicesonfilm is an Open Access, co-curated videographic research initiative designed to record, format and share significant voices in the history and development of the medium and its study. With its intimate conversations, voicesonfilm brings you the history of filmmaking and analysis. Using direct interviews with filmmakers, historians and analysts, voicesonfilm offers the viewer the unique privilege of personal insight, comment, knowledge and memoir.

In this episode, film scholar Professor Charles Barr describes the significant changes that took place in British film criticism during the early 1960s.

 

 

 

Professor Barr will be in Dublin on the 27th May 2015 for two events at Filmbase:

 

The Irish launch of his recently-published book, co-authored with Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf, Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films. Click here for full details

&

‘Cultivating Film-makers’, an open panel discussion considering the contemporary face of Third Level Film education in Ireland. Click here for full details

Share

Launch of Alain Kerzoncuf & Charles Barr’s ‘Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films’ @ Filmbase

kerzoncuf.final.indd

 

Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films

Irish Launch

27th May 2015

Filmbase, Curved Street, Dublin 2

4.45-6pm

voicesonfilm and Film Ireland are hosting the Irish launch of Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf and Professor Charles Barr’s recently-published Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films. The launch follows ‘Cultivating Film-makers’,  an open panel discussion considering the contemporary face of Third Level Film education in Ireland. Professor Charles Barr will be in attendance.

While recent books and articles discussing his life and work focus on the production and philosophy of Hitchcock’s iconic Hollywood-era films like Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock Lost and Found moves beyond these seminal works to explore forgotten, incomplete, lost, and recovered productions from all stages of his career, including his early years in Britain.

All are welcome to attend both the panel and to celebrate the launch of this important contribution to the study of one of cinema’s most significant directors.

Share

voicesonfilm 1: 1960: New Words for New Waves

cropped-Slide1

Introducing voicesonfilm, an Open Access, co-curated videographic research initiative designed to record, format and share significant voices in the history and development of the medium and its study. With its intimate conversations, voicesonfilm brings you the history of filmmaking and analysis. Using direct interviews with filmmakers, historians and analysts, voicesonfilm offers the viewer the unique privilege of personal insight, comment, knowledge and memoir.

Film Ireland would like to thank voicesonfilm for allowing us to reproduce their content.

The first conversation from the voicesonfilm project is with the international film scholar Professor Charles Barr, recorded at Filmbase in Dublin, Ireland in June 2014.

In this first episode Professor Barr describes the significance of the year 1960 to not only his early career as a film scholar but also to new ways of thinking and writing about cinema.

 

 

Professor Barr will be in Dublin on the 27th May 2015 for two events at Filmbase:

 

The Irish launch of his recently-published book, co-authored with Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf, Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films. Click here for full details

&

‘Cultivating Film-makers’, an open panel discussion considering the contemporary face of Third Level Film education in Ireland. Click here for full details

 

Professor Barr is currently Professorial Research Fellow at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. Before this he spent three years as the Visiting Professor in Film Studies at University College Dublin, and also (in 2010-11) as Adjunct Professor at NUI Galway, in the John Huston School of Film and Digital Media. Prior to this he was Director of the Program in Film and Media at Washington University in St Louis.

Between 1976 and 2006 Professor Barr was based at the University of East Anglia where he initiated and played a key role in developing one of the UK’s leading centres for Film and TV Studies at undergraduate and graduate level.

Much of Professor Barr’s recent work has centred on Alfred Hitchcock, following on from his book on English Hitchcock (Cameron & Hollis, 1999). A new edition of his study of Vertigo, for the BFI Classics series, was published by BFI/Palgrave in 2012. Professor Barr’s current projects include Hitchcock: Lost and Found, co-authored with the Parisian scholar Alain Kerzoncuf for publication by the University of Kentucky Press in late 2013. This is based on extensive archival research in Britain and the US, funded by an Emeritus Fellowship from the Leverhulme Foundation.

His other main research area continues to be British cinema history; he was co-writer, with its presenter Stephen Frears, of Channel 4’s centenary history, Typically British (1996). He also has work in progress on the Swedish director Victor Sjöström and on the Hollywood melodramas of John M. Stahl.

Professor Barr’s current research profile can be accessed here

voicesonfilm is sharing in the following places VimeoYouTubeTwitterFacebook

 

Share