Saturday, 23 October 2004

The Golden Age of Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchock's career as a director went back to the Silent Era. He directed his first film all the way back in 1922. And while Hitchcock produced a number of classics throughout the years (The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, and Rebecca among them), I have always thought that he hit his stride in the years from 1951 to 1963. These were the years when, in my humble opinion, Hitchcock made his greatest films.

Hitchcock's best era began in 1951 with the release of Strangers on a Train. The film dealt with the novel premise of two strangers meeting on a train who then discuss exchanging murders--psychotic Bruno would kill tennis pro's Guy's wife (Guy wants to divorce to marry his paramour), while Guy would kill Bruno's overbearing father. The idea is that without any clear motive, both would evade suspicion. Hitchcock's directorial prowess was at its peak, while both Farley Granger (as Guy) and Robert Walker (as Bruno) give excellent performances.

In 1953 Hitchcock's I Confess was released. This was followed in 1954 by another one of Hitchcock's greatest movies, Dial M for Murder. Like Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder has a novel premise. In this case, the movie is almost entirely from the murderer's perspective. Like tennis pro Guy from Strangers on a Train, former tennis pro Tony (Ray Milland) would like to see his wife dead. Unlike Guy, Tony actually intends to go through with it. His wife Margot (Grace Kelly) has been carrying on an affair with mystery writer Mark (Robert Cummings) for some time. And that whole time Tony has been plotting his revenge. Indeed, Tony believes he has concocted the perfect murder. Unfortunately for Tony, he did count on a few tiny details that would undo him... Dial M for Murder tends to be a bit talky and does not totally escape its origins as a stage play. That having been said, however, Hitchcock's direction is again at its peak and the actors' performances are top notch.

It was with Rear Window in 1954 that Alfred Hitchcock really hit his stride. Rear Window deals with a theme that recurs throughout Hitchcock's career--that of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. In this case, photographer Jeff Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), temporarily wheelchair bound with a broken leg, is convinced that he has witnessed a murder from his rear window. Alongside Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho, Rear Window is definitely one of Hitchcock's greatest film. His direction is at its absolute best. Nearly the entire movie takes place in Jeff's apartment, and yet Hitchcock makes incredible use of that location. He lets us look through Jeff's binoculars at the apartments across from his rear view window and lets our eyes roam about the apartment. What is more is that the performances are top notch, from Jimmy Stewart as Jeff to Grace Kelly as his girl friend to Thelma Ritter as Jeffs nurse Stella. Of course, these performance would be nothing without a top notch script. The screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, is full of twists and turns and a fine attention to detail.

As great as Rear Window is, it would soon be matched, if not surpassed, by Vertigo, released in 1958. Vertigo begins simply enough, with old college pal Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster) hiring detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) to watch his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Scottie, who is deathly afraid of heights, slowly becomes obssessed with Madeline. From there the plot grows more complex and soon nothing is as it seems. Jimmy Stewart gives a great performance as Scottie, at once trying to come to grips with his past and falling in love with Madeline. Hitchcock makes great use of San Francisco as a backdrop (the worst place in the world for an acrophobe like Scottie). What is more, Hitchcock sustains a atmosphere of suspense throughout the movie. Even the score of Vertigo is excellent.

Nineteen fifty eight and 1959 seem to have been Hitchcock's best years, as 1959 saw the release of another masterpiece, North By Northwest. North By Northwest once more finds an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill has the misfortune of being mistaken for a spy. This leads him to a cross country chase where he is pursued by both enemy agents and our own government. North By Northwest is Hitchcock's best spy thriller, with plenty of suspense, plenty of thrills, and even a good deal of action. Indeed, except for the shower scene in Psycho, the scene of Thornhill fleeing from a plane is perhaps the most famous Hitchcock's most famous.

It was the following year, 1960, that saw the release of Psyco. Hitchcock had not ventured into the horror genre since he'd directed The Lodger in 1927, yet he directed Psycho as if he was born to direct horror films. Norman Bates and the Bates Motel have both become a part of pop culture, while the shower scene is one of the most famous scenes from any film. Psycho was considered intense in its day and even now, after the gore drenched spectacles of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, it still packs a punch. With only a hint of blood and not one point where one actually sees the knife contact Marion Crane's body, Hitchcock created something absolutely terrifying with the shower scene.

In 1963 Hitchcock made another horror film, in this case The Birds. The Birds is a tale of nature gone wild, as huge numbers of birds (everything from gulls to crows) descend on the small town of Bodega Bay and begin attacking people. Beautiful socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren), visiting from San Franscisco, finds herself in the middle of this feathery apocalypse. In some respects The Birds is more frightening even than Psycho, with such scenes as school children fleeing swarms of attacking birds.

These are not the only films of note that Hitchcock made between the years of 1951 to 1963. During this era Hitchcock also made the dark comedy The Trouble With Harry and the caper movie To Catch a Thief. It was also during many of these years that Alfred Hitchcock Presents was in production. There are two common misconceptions about this series. One is that Hitchcock was actively involved in the series' production. The other is that he had almost nothing to do with the show beyond his introductions. The truth is somewhere in between. Hitchcock directed 17 episodes of the series (roughly an average of two episodes per season). In fact, Hitchcock directed some of the best remembered episodes, among them "The Case of Mr. Pelham (in which the unfortunate Mr. Pelham finds his life is being taken over by a double)," "Lamb to the Slaughter (in which a housewife kills her husband with a leg of lamb)," and "Arthur (in which a gentelman farmer murders his lady love and disposes of the evidence in a unique way)."

Nineteen sixty four saw the release of Marne. And while in retrospect the movie is better than what critics believed it to be at that time, it still falls short of the films which preceed it. Following Marnie, Hitchcock seems to have lost some of the magic he had possessed from 1951 to 1963. Never again he would make films of the level of quality of Rear Window, Vertigo, or North By Northwest. Regardless, even if Hitchcock had made no classics prior to 1951, he would still be remembered for the remarkable movies he made from 1951 to 1963. The fact that he had made many fine films before this period only proves that he was indeed one of the greatest directors of all time.

Friday, 22 October 2004

Robert E. Howard

Much of the reason I have always gravitated to fantasy fiction has been the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, although he is not the only author to have influenced my taste for fantasy. As significant as Tolkien was determining my tastes, Robert E. Howard was perhaps just as significant.

I firat encountered the characters of Robert E. Howard in Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror comic books published Marvel in the Seventies. From the Marvel Comics I moved onto the many short story anthologies featuring the works of Howard (often referred to by his initials--REH). Howard was a markedly different writer from Tolkien. While Tolkien a rich and complex world, Howard's focus was on action. That is not to say that Howard's stories are simple by any stretch of the imagination. He could and did deal with some very complex concepts in his works.

Robert E. Howard was born in Peaster, Texas in 1906, the son of a physician. They moved half way across Texas to Cross Plains in 1919, where REH spent the remainder of his years. Howard started writing as a teenager. He made his first sale in 1924--Weird Tales bought the story "Spear and Fang," detailing the encounter between a Neanderthal and a Cro-Magnon. He worked a number of odd jobs, although eventually he was able to make a living entirely off his writing.

It was in 1928 that the first of his many continuing characters saw publication. Solomon Kane was a 16th century Puritan and master swordsman who often found himself in bizarre adventures. In various short stories, Kane faced the legendary Aztec Feathered Serpent, aided a lost group of Vikings in Greenland against werewolves, fought ghosts in England, and faced many other opponents that combined swashbuckling adventure with supernatural horror. In some respects Kane was Howard's most complex character, not quite a Puritan but no quite a Cavalier either, sworn to destroy evil where he found it.

It was in 1929 that what is possibly Howard's second most famous character made his first appearance. In many ways Kull was a prototype for Conan. Like Conan he was a barbarian. In Kull's case, he was an Atlantean who would go on to sieze the throne of the kingdom of Valusia. While Kull resembles Conan in many respects, even down to his appearance, his adventures tended to be much more fantastic than those of Conan. In various short stories, Kull faced Serpent Men, conspiracies in his court, and his archnemesis Thulsa Doom, the world's most powerful necromancer. I always preferred Kull to Conan, particularly as his adventures had a stronger fantasy element and were often rife with some fairly sophisticated concepts. Indeed, Howard's explanation of how Kull could travel through time to meet Bran Mak Morn, another one of his characters, in the story "Kings of the Night," was very original and fairly complex.

Howard's next major character, Cormac Mac Art first appeared in 1930. Like Solomon Kane, Cormac was one of Howard's heroes who existed in an actual historical setting. Art was Gael in the Dark Ages who often fought alongside or against Saxons and Danes. Unlike many of Howard's other characters, Cormac was not successful. The fact that the stories were straight forward action adventure with little in the way of fantasy made them difficult to sell. Another character in a historical setting, Bran Mak Morn, would make his first appearance in 1932. Bran was a Pictish chieftain who fought the forces of Rome. Like Cormac, Bran was not quite as successful as some of Howard's characters and may well be the least known of his major characters.

Howard's most famous character, Conan the Barbarian, debuted only a month after Bran Mak Morn's first appearance. Conan was a Cimmerian babarian in the Hyborian Age, who had a number of adventures before becoming King of Aquilonia. The first Conan story was actually an unsold King Kull story, rewritten to fit the new character. What set Conan apart from Howard's other characters was that he existed in a much larger world (or at least he saw more of that world). This gave Howard much more flexibility in the sort of stories he could write about his Barbarian. A cross section of the genres of various Conan stories demonstrates this flexibility: pirate stories, oriental adventures, straight forward action adventure, outright fantasy, and even a detective story ("The God in the Bowl"). In fact, Conan was the only one of Howard's characters to whom he devoted an entire novel. It was perhaps because of the flexibility of Howard's Conan stories that he would become Howard's most popular character and one of the most popular characters featured in Weird Tales.

Howard was very prolific. Indeed, in addition to the large number of stories he wrote, Howard was also a prolific writer of letters. He corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and many others.

Howard spent his entire life in Cross Plains. Despite his success, REH often felt that he was a misfit out of touch with the world. By his own admission, he was subject to dark moods. Perhaps the strongest influence on Howard's life was his mother, to whom he was very close. His mother was ill much of Howard's life and Howard often found himself in the role of her caretaker. Another strong influence on Howard was schoolteacher Novalyne Price. Novalyne was the closest Howard ever came to a romantic relationship in his life. The two shared many interests and at different times even entertained the thought of marriage. Unfortunately, the relationship was often stormy and eventually Novalyne would leave Cross Plains for Louisiana State Univesity. Novalyne was strong willed and independent and refused to accept the Depression Era stereotype of women as mere housewives. She may have even been the inspiration for some of Howard's female warriors (Dark Agnes de la Fere). She does seem to have had an impact on Howard's attitude towards women, as Howard often expresses nearly feminist attitudes in many of his letters.

By 1935, the health of Howard's mother took a severe turn for the worse. She was in and out of hospitals for much of the time. Howard found himself sinking into a deep depression. Howard had entertained thoughts of suicide for years. Prior to his death Howard arranged for his agent to handle his stories following his passing from this world. He also borrowed a handgun from a friend. In June of 1936 Howard's mother went into a coma. Howard bought a cememtary lot for his mother, his father, and himself. It was on June ll, when Howard discovered that his mother would not recover, that Howard got into his Chevy and shot himself in the head. Howard lived for nearly eight hours, never regaining uncosciousness, before passing on.

Robert E. Howard has had an enormous impact on my life. As much as I love Tolkien, in many respects it is Howard that has determined my tastes in fantasy fiction. Many of the authors I favour, from Philip Jose Farmer to Roger Zelazney to Michael Moorcock, show more influence from Robert E. Howard than they do Tolkien. My own writing style also owes more to Howard than Tolkien (although admittedly my strongest influence in style has been Doc Savage scribe Lester Dent). Howard's stories, featuring sword wielding Puritans, brawny barbarians, powerful wizards, and dangerous monsters, have always appealed to me in a way that Tolkien's rich world cannot. I think it safe to say that Howard will continue to be a strong influence on myself and other fantasy fans and writers.

Tuesday, 19 October 2004

A Trio of Anniversaries

This month has seen or will see the celebratoin of the anniversaries of three things that have played a significant role in my life. The first was the 30th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons, also known as D&D. Over the weekend around 25,000 fans of the game gathered at gaming shops around the United States to celebrate the anniversary. It was in January of 1974 that Tactical Studies Rules first published Dungeons & Dragons in a three rulebook set. The original game was much simpler than the game with which most players are now familiar. There were only three character classes (fighters, magic users, and clerics) and four different races (humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings). Regardless, the game was a hit. It sold over 1000 copies in ten months. With the publication of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in 1977, the game reached the proportions of a fad. This spurred the creation of yet other role playing games amd a broader role playing fad.

Role playing occupied a good portion of my youth and D&D was the first role playing game I ever played. My brother introduced it to me when he was home from college in 1981. While I would move onto other role playing games from Dungeons and Dragons, I still have fond memories of the hours I spent playing the game. Indeed, it can be argued that much of the current popularity of fantasy fiction can be traced back to that first publication of D&D back in 1974.

Arguably, Dungeons and Dragons would not exist if it were not for the second anniverary of something significant to me being celebrated this month. On October 21, 1954, the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston published the first edition of Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, here in the United States. The anniversary is being celebrated on October 21 at bookstores across the United States. In addition, Houghton Mifflin is publishing a new, one volume, collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings, complete with two, large, foldout maps.

Lord of the Rings was not an immediate success. It would not be until Ace Books published unauthorised paperback editions of the volumes of the novel in the Sixties that Lord of the Rings would see success in the United States. Long in coming though that success may have been, it was a huge success. It became a bit of fad on college campuses, where students eagerly read the books over and over. Eventually Lord of the Rings would become a part of Anglo-American pop culture, inspiring tons of merchandise and a large number of imitators. To this day Lord of the Rings tops many polls as the greatest novel of the 20th century. Given its success, it is hard to argue that it isn't. Lord of the Rings has produced an inordinate amount of merchandise, two animated feature films, and three major motion pictures. It also brought fantasy fiction to the forefront, giving newfound popularity to the genre and newfound respectability. And, of course, it was a principle inspiration behind Dungeons and Dragons, leading to the whole pheonmenon of role playing games.

I first encountered Lord of the Rings in fifth or sixth grade. The novel spurred my interest in fantasy fiction and was probably a factor in becoming a role player. Indeed, a large part of my interest in philogy, mythology, and folklore may be due to Lord of the Rings. I then owe Tolkien an enormous debt, as his book made me at least part of what I am.

The third thing to have an impact on my life which has an anniversary this month is the series now known as The Wonderful World of Disney. It debuted on ABC on October 27, 1954. It underwent various name changes over the years, changes in time slots, and even changes in networks, but ultimately The Wonderful World of Disney has aired in some form or another for well over four decades. Indeed, in its original network run, it ran uninterrupted for over 25 years.

The Wonderful World of Disney ran for the entire length of my childhood. I remember that my brother and I would watch it every Sunday night. Through the years they would show segments made especially for the series (Davy Crockett, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) as well as feature films (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), usually shown in two parts. As a child it was one of my favourite series on television. I have many fond memories of the show.

I don't know if Disney and ABC are planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Wonderful World of Disney, although I would be surprised if they don't. I would rather expect there will be some sort of 50th anniversary special during one of the sweeps months. At any rate, it is a signicant annivesary for television. Beyond the success The Wonderful World of Disney has had over its run, it was also perhaps the first TV show created by a major American movie studio. Given that and the fact that it has aired in some shape or form for literally years, I would think that ABC and Disney would have much reason to celebrate.

Sunday, 17 October 2004

Decades

The American Heritage Dictionary defines era in its second sense as "A period of time characterized by particular circumstances, events, or personages: the Colonial era of U.S. history; the Reagan era. b. A point that marks the beginning of such a period of time." Of course, one means people have naming various eras is by naming them for decades--that is, the Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties, and so on. It is a very convenient means of applying a label to a particular era. Unfortunately, often times a decade does not precisely match the decade for which it was named.

A perfect example of this is the Fifties. When most Americans think of the Fifties, they think of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, poodle skirts, Ford Thunderbirds, drive in restaurants, jukeboxes, and so on; however, the fact is that this popular image of the Fifties in America really didn't develop until after about 1955 or 1956. The early Fifties would probably best be considered a separate era (perhaps the Korean War era) or, at best, a continuation of the late Forties or Post War Era (the era following World War II).

Another example is the Sixties. I would imagine that when the average American thinks of the Sixties, he or she thinks of The Beatles, miniskirts, the British Invasion, hippies, psychedelia, and so on, but none of this was around before 1964. Prior to 1964 the Sixties were just a continuation of, well, the Fifties.

I suppose that it is just a fact of life that various eras do not always conveniently coincide with human time keeping. Wars do not always begin at the start of a decade and end five years later. Fashions come and go as they please. Musical styles change regardless of whether one decade turns over into another. Irregardless, most people will probably name eras for the decade in which they take place...