2:26 pm Aug. 3, 2012
92Y Tribeca is about to kick off a short but sweet retrospective called "Bastards of Hitch," a six-film series of offbeat movies that either pay homage or are indebted to the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
The timing is fortuitous: Hitchcock's Vertigo was just voted the best film of all time by critics in Sight & Sound's decennial poll. Along with Psycho and North by Northwest, Vertigo remains one of Hitchcock's most influential works.
"Bastards of Hitch" pairs Magic, a brooding and unusual 1979 thriller about a magician (Anthony Hopkins) and his ventriloquist dummy, in a Friday double feature with Lost Embrace, director Jonathan Demme's exciting but emotionally flat 1979 Hitchcockian thriller.
Demme's film is the inferior tribute, mostly because of how "thin" it is, as New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film's scenrio, based on a novel by Murray Teigh Bloom. Once you get beyond Demme's considerable knack for storytelling and his infectious Hitchcock love, there's not much to it.
Demme ostentatiously announces that his film is a pastiche in Last Embrace's opening credits. Red text crawls across a black screen in a style similar to the idiosyncratically dynamic title sequences Saul Bass designed for films like Psycho and North by Northwest, as a bombastic theme by composer Miklos Rózsa plays over the credits.
Ironically, Rózsa only got the chance to score Hitchcock's Spellbound after Bernard Hermann, the collaborator most associated with Hitchcock, turned the job down. Hitchcock objected to Rózsa's score for Spellbound, saying that it got " in the way of my direction." Still, Rózsa's score for Last Embrace is one of the most satisfying callbacks to the Master of Suspense's films.
Likewise, Demme's playful direction keeps and some choice lines of dialogue keep the film's proceedings breezy but immediately involving. Roy Scheider plays Harry Hannan, a spy whose wife is murdered in front of him while he's on a mission. From then on, Harry is paranoiacally certain that he's being followed. His suspicions escalate once he finds a death threat written in ancient Aramaic in his apartment.
This plot coincidentally involves Ellie Fabian (Janet Margoline), a research scientist who has leased the apartment Harry was staying in, and the girl Harry predictably falls for. Like many of Hitchcock's haunted male protagonists, Harry feels he must protect Ellie, even as he jumps at every shadow that crosses his path. The most stirring scene in the film is thus the one where Harry finds Ellie in his apartment and instinctively draws a pistol on her.
As jumpy as he is, he still manages to find a way to chide Ellie for having poor self-esteem. Scheider's signature cool, haggard body language makes up for whatever the scene's dialogue does not already provide. That scene sets up a relationship that, like the film as a whole, is not as well-developed as it should be.
By contrast, Magic is character-driven, but its narrative does not progress with the same easy manner as the plot of Demme's film does. Directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, Magic follows Corky (Hopkins), a jittery, aspiring magician who catches on with audiences after he adds a ventriloquist dummy to his act.
Thanks to the longstanding rapport between Corky's ailing father and Ben (a typically charming Burgess Meredith), a bigshot agent at William Morris, Corky becomes a star in no time at all.
The ascent is dizzying, and Attenborough makes sure viewers feel it.
Magic, like Vertigo, is a personal journey into its lead character's psychosis. Attenborough directs skillfully enough to avoid simply replicating the mechanical details of a good Hitchcock film; he actually manages to recapturing the dizzying myopia of Vertigo and of Rear Window, for that matter.
The audience gets to see precisely how volatile the lead character's mindset is.
Corky runs away from New York City because Ben needs to get him to take a health exam in order to fulfill his contractual obligations. Corky, who by then is suffering from an increasingly acute split-personality disorder signaled by an obsession with his dummy's character, fears the test will reveal too much.
Ben confronts Corky, and in a startlingly precise and incredibly moving set piece, challenges him to go five minutes without talking as the dummy. Time passes at a snail's pace, as shown in a series of masterfully cross-cut close-ups of a squirming Hopkins and an aghast Burgess. And in this moment, you can see Hitchcock's influence at work in a drama that's not only a fitting homage but also a strong, self-sufficient work.