Thursday, December 17, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea and Hitchcock/Truffaut

             Old Masters Come Back To Life (in somewhat faded form)
                                           Reviews by Ken Burke
 While the two options under consideration in this posting don’t share enough overlap to be merged into a combined review they do have the similarity of being based-in-fact with In the Heart of the Sea (but not quite as much as you’re led to believe) and using full-on-documentary-factual-mode in Hitchcock/Truffaut, plus they both deal directly with masters of their modes of expression (literature, although it bleeds a bit too much into the reality of the former subject of exploration here; cinema, the latter just tells it like it is, at least regarding superlative accomplishments) so let’s see what’s going on in these in-my-opinion-not-as-successful-as-they-seem-like-they-ought-to-be-offerings.

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                       In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard)
Based on the true story that helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, this is an account of the whaling ship Essex that set out from Nantucket, MA in 1819, then the next year was attacked by a huge white whale in the central Pacific Ocean, leading to a lengthy ordeal for the surviving sailors as they desperately tried to overcome starvation while attempting to return to South America.
This is a good example of the lovely Rembrant-esque
lighting used in the interior scenes of this movie.
What Happens: In 1850 aspiring-to-be-a-more-successful-novelist-Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) travels to Nantucket Island, MA in order to persuade Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last surviving crew member of the Essex whaler, to confirm and expand upon the rumors that Melville’s long heard about this ill-fated-ship.  Nickerson initially sticks to his story that the vessel simply ran aground during its final voyage, but Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley) is more demanding that her troubled husband unburden himself about what happened so long ago (begun on August 12, 1819) when Thomas was just a teenager (Tom Holland).  In flashback we meet dashing Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), promised by his whaling company to be promoted to captain on his next trip (due to ongoing past successes), although wife Peggy (Charlotte Riley) would rather he command a merchant ship in order to face less danger and not be away so long on each mission.  She nearly gets her wish when Chase finds that his next assignment, on the Essex, is as First Mate due to the classism of the esteemed-Nantucket-whaling-business-hierarchy, given that the intended Captain, George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), is inexperienced but from a prominent whaling family while Chase is the son of a jailed farmer, raised by a foster family.  However, upon the written promise that if the Essex returns with 2,000 barrels of whale oil he’ll get the long-awaited-promotion next time, he sets sail but immediately has problems with Pollard, exacerbated when the captain insists on sailing into a storm in order to toughen up the crew, a poor decision which results in damages to the ship.

 Pollard wants to return to Nantucket for repairs but Chase convinces him to push on (fearful that his contract will be nullified, further delaying his chances for advancement).  Soon they successfully have their first kill (thanks to Chase’s willingness to risk his harpooner’s boat be pulled under water by a speared, diving whale before the animal dies, then floats back to the surface), but the Atlantic seems depleted of prey so they go on the long journey around South America’s Cape Horn into the Pacific's waters (January, 1820).

 As they restock in Ecuador they’re told of plentiful whales about 1,000 miles westward, yet there's also the danger of a fierce attacker who’s recently caused great damage to a Spanish ship.  Desperate to prove his mettle, Captain Pollard sends the Essex westward (despite the crew’s mutinous-mutterings) where they do find an abundance of their prized victims, but just as they’re about to harpoon the first one an attack comes from a huge, white-ish (not fully achromatic, as Moby-Dick is usually depicted) male sperm whale who disrupts the small boats, then crashes into the ship, greatly disabling it so that the men must rush to offload what little food and water they can into their 3 lifeboats; the Essex would have sunk anyway, but its demise is hastened when the oil they’d previously gathered spills, then catches fire, a blaze that consumes the damaged ship (November 16, 1820).  Once again, Pollard accepts the demand of Chase that instead of heading toward South Sea islands they instead return to South America, a grueling task under hot sun with little nourishment.  Finally, they do see an island where they hope to find food, but before they can reach its shore the massive whale attacks again, although their boats and most of the sailors are safely washed onto land.  After a short respite (and finding the skeletons of other castaways, indicating that no rescue is likely to come this way), they’re off again (4 stay behind, with the promise that they’ll eventually be retrieved); soon thereafter, though, 1 of the lifeboats strays away never to be seen again.  As starvation and exhaustion continue to deplete the survivors (the actors likewise lost considerable weight, in tune with their characters’ plight), a man on Chase’s boat dies so the others hesitantly turn to cannibalism for their own survival.

The outdoor lighting is harsh but effectively-naturalistic.
 Soon, it’s clear that the same food-source-tactic is needed on Pollard’s boat, where he draws the short straw, but he’s suddenly saved when his cousin commits suicide instead of shooting the Captain, becoming the next meal for these desperate men.  Once more the pursuing whale appears, but this time Chase declines to harpoon it (much to Pollard’s dismay, more for revenge than for sustenance at this point), then the currents separate their boats.  Both are rescued, though (February 1821), returned to Nantucket (although by the time anyone returns to the stop-over-island those who stayed there have died) where the ship owners concoct the “run aground” story to dispel fears of sea monsters, even though Pollard and Chase give true testimony at the inquiry.  The former returns to the Pacific in search of the white whale (but truly does run aground that time, ending his nautical career), the latter turns to the merchant marine, pleasing his wife—and daughter born in his absence.  In the 1850-present Melville sets off to write his novel; as he departs, he discusses with Nickerson the report of oil found in the ground in Pennsylvania, a story they dismiss as more of a myth than one about a killer white whale.

So What? I don’t think you could ask for a clumsier title for a movie that’s supposed to draw in big crowds in mainstream theaters, but Howard was likely limited by taking much of his source material from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), although some key dramatic elements have apparently been added (more on that soon) to give this rendition a sense of the mystical, allegorical elements to found in Melville’s Moby-Dick, enhancing what Philbrick explores about a most unusual (but not so completely unique) situation in the annals of whaling.  Philbrick himself was beholden to 2 first-hand-accounts of these events, one published in October 1821 by Chase, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, and the other, The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats, written by Nickerson in roughly 1876, then lost until 1960, finally published in 1984.  I haven’t read Philbrick’s book, although from accounts of it I sense the following elements of Howard’s film are not part of the actual history of the assault upon the Essex by an 85-ton-white-whale: (1) While Melville had read Chase’s book he never saw Nickerson’s nor apparently ever met with him (much of how Chase’s account was transformed into Moby-Dick was inspired by Melville’s own sea-experiences in 1839-’40, followed by some time on a Pacific whaling ship from very late 1840-mid 1842); (2) After the Essex was destroyed by its whale attack the beast vanished from their lives instead of following the survivors, damaging their lifeboats as they approached refuge on that island; (3) While I’m sure the whaling-industries-powers-that-were in Nantucket didn’t want to promote the danger to their business’ profitability from awareness of the hunted becoming the hunter of the Essex’s crew, I sense that there was no whitewash (or “greywash,” to dilute the concept of an ivory-toned-monster) of the testimony of Pollard and Chase about their ill-fated voyage.

 In any case, Chase’s story was public knowledge the same year he returned to Massachusetts so that anyone could know the truth, even Melville who’s presented in Howard’s tale as needing Nickerson to confirm secret rumors, refuting the supposed-explanation of the ship’s demise (even as that fate ironically befell Pollard in the Sandwich [Hawaiian] Islands, ending his sailing career in a rather shameful manner but not because he was on a hunt for an elusive white whale).  Another minor problem for me is the older version of Nickerson, in that in 1850 he would have been about 45 years old; if Nickerson looked as old as Gleeson does here (Gleeson himself was 45 a good bit over 15 years ago), then things must have been as horrible during the voyage and aftermath of the Essex as he begrudgingly-describes in this movie because the years have taken a terrible toll on his appearance.  But that’s a minor quibble (likewise, I’m still not able to look at Trumbo [Jay Roach; review in our December 2, 2015 posting] and recognize Michael Stuhlberg as famous Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson [Little Caesar {Mervyn LeRoy, 1931}, Key Largo {John Huston, 1948}, among many more]—I was going to try to make my case when I did my review but the comparison-photos just took up too much space—although that’s just a minor distraction from an excellent film, just as no one would argue that Michael Fassbender looks much like most of his depictions of Steve Jobs [the turtleneck helps in the final act] in the film of that same name [Danny Boyle; review in our October 30, 2015 posting], so you just have to accept  Stuhlberg and Fassbender for the emotive-embodiment of whom they’re portraying, while a quick math check does prove quite distracting in the Gleeson/Nickerson case, unless you even-more-quickly buy into that advanced-aging-by-trauma-theory) in relation to what I cited in the paragraph above where 2 of the most gripping aspects of Howard’s movie—that the Essex whale wasn’t just protecting his pod but was consciously seeking further vengeance on these hunters of his species even across about 1,000 miles of open ocean and that the Nantucket whaling honchos were as corrupt as the oil barons of today in keeping secret the unknown danger to their profession from highly-sentient-whales—are just fabricated additions to the actual Essex events, which undercuts the power of the whale-tale Howard sets out to share with us.

 There’s one more notable addition as well in this movie, with Chase’s dramatic scene after the survivors move on from the island when the whale appears again but Chase refuses to launch his multi-pronged-harpoon, seemingly in respect for how this presumably-mindless-prey is actually just doing the same thing as the human species, trying to maintain its way of life in an environment where Nature often proves hostile, requiring harsh choices for survival.  You wouldn’t know any of this important extra material was added if you just watch Howard’s version of Philbrick’s account of this generally-unknown-situation (until now), but even the little extra research I’ve done really challenges the larger-context-connection that Howard seems to me to be constructing to more emphatically link his Essex movie to the greater legend of Moby-Dick.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Melville first published his book in 1851 (with its title morphing from The Whale to Moby Dick to the final version as Moby-Dick, although various visual adaptations don’t always retain the hyphen), but it wasn’t all that well received critically nor financially during his lifetime.  Since then, however, it’s grown into a monstrous-modern-classic (with the understanding that “modern” here is a relative term, differentiating literature [and other arts] from its initial-post-Renaissance period into something that changed dramatically as political revolutions began to open up new post-monarchal, post-religious explorations in the arts beginning roughly in the 19th century) that many consider the “great American novel” because of its extensive collage of fiction about the whalers, fact about whales and whaling, influences from the Bible, Shakespeare, etc.  While many may bemoan it as required reading (because of its length, those extensive-non-narrative-asides, and the interweaving of various styles making it anything but a “quick read”), it has a serious presence in the artistic accomplishments of our nation with its lofty themes of God’s will vs. that of egotistical humans (Jonah, Ahab), including whether it’s God, us, or just some overriding power of Fate controlling how our lives evolve (to give you a sense of this here’s a clip from a well-respected-film-adaptation of the novel, John Huston’s Moby Dick [1956], where Father Maple [Orson Welles] gives a sermon [from a pulpit like the bow of a ship] about pride, punishment, and redemption just prior to the Pequod’s tragic voyage under Ahab’s maniacal command—also note the memorials on the walls of the church to previous mariners who’d died in their failed pursuit of whales).

The overall color scheme of In the Heart of the Sea isn't 
as green as many of these photos look, but that hue's 
so dominant in the publicity stills it's proven almost 
impossible for me to correct any better than this.
 Given all that Howard had to work with in possibly addressing himself directly to Melville’s famous book—rather than trying to capture aspects of its mood to further extend the actual parallels with the disaster of the Essex—I can’t help but think that if he wanted to make a high-seas-adventure complete with a large schooner for the sailors, harrowing-harpooning of whales, tension between captain and first mate, and the stunning creation of a huge creature (even if done with computers rather than large models as in Huston’s version) to destroy that ship, I just wish he’d gone all the way and attempted a contemporary take on Moby-Dick (given all that current special effects could render, relative to the clumsy technology available to Huston) rather than having to distort his Essex info so much in order to make In the Heart of the Sea as intriguing as it is with its later themes of respect for nature and corruption by the whaling chieftains.  After all, Melville had already done a similar thing (even though presented as fictional in his case) with his extensions/rearrangements of some of the Essex facts—Melville’s whaler departs from New Bedford (in 1841, reflecting the author’s experience) rather than Nantucket (in 1819 for the Essex); both ships have inappropriate captains (Pollard being too inexperienced for such a task, frequently surrendering his command decisions to the intensity of Chase’s arguments; Ahab abandons his divinely-appointed duty [according to his dissenting-First Mate, Starbuck—Pollard spouts similar stuff in Howard’s movie] to gather whale oil for the betterment of human existence, as well as his fiduciary responsibility to the ship’s owners and his crew to provide a comfortable profit for their work rather than setting out on his own revenge-quest); both crews endure a fierce storm in the process of their voyages (early on for the Essex, setting up the first clash between Pollard and Chase; just prior to the climax in Moby-Dick); the Essex crew enjoys an early kill in the Atlantic but then requires considerable sailing to another ocean to find more prey (similar plot line in the Huston film) while the Pequod must travel all the way to the Indian Ocean before the crew’s initial victories in their intended kills, although they have others after that before their sole focus turns to finding Ahab's hunted-whale; both voyages end with total destruction of their ships by a huge white whale (although all but Ishmael die at sea in Moby-Dick).

The John Huston version of Moby Dick's not in
black & white, but such photos are all I could find.
 Really, if you just want the facts about the Essex you can read Philbrick’s book (let me know if you do in case I’ve misinterpreted what I think Howard added to this source material) and/or you might want to watch this 45:41 doc (from TV’s History Channel, where you’ll find that the Essex sinks, following the plot of In the Heart of the Sea, but doesn’t burn up in the process; further, when cannibalism became a reality on Pollard’s lifeboat it wasn’t him that drew the short straw but his young cousin, Owen Coffin [appropriately named, it turns out; played here by Frank Dillane], so there was no dramatic sacrifice by Coffin, as shown in Howard’s movie, to keep the captain alive), as both of these options provide a fascinating prologue to what Melville will accomplish with his acclaimed novel that for me is still the more compelling story (especially now that I know how much Howard embellished the Essex material with compelling but completely fictional aspects) so I’m recommending that instead of paying full (or even bargain) price for In the Heart of the Sea (well-produced, well-acted as it may be, with some spectacular imagery—although some of the 3-D-renderings result in a background that looks like a painting from a 1930s-movie-studio-attempt at depth-illusionism) you choose instead the Huston Moby Dick which you can likely rent easily or, even more directly, watch on YouTube for free (with the following notable considerations: its running time is about 1:32:00, a bit shorter than the 1:46:00 officially listed for this film so either there’s been some minor editing or it may just run a bit faster than it should in places on the computer [you can tell from the occasionally-higher-pitch of the dialogue]; the color is very desaturated; there’s a bright light in the center of the screen as if you’re looking into a projector; you’ll probably get ad interruptions on the average of every 7 minutes [10 for me in total, all with Blythe Danner promoting Prolia, a post-menopausal-osteoporosis medication {more delightful each time!} although you can quickly skip the ads]—all of this can get damn annoying, but you get what you [don’t] pay for, so it might be still be worth it to you in order to get a better version of what the deadly-white-whale-story implies than what Howard provides, especially given Gregory Peck’s haunting performance as Ahab, the reasonable compression of Melville’s hefty novel, and the seeming-inability of any visual production of this story since then to notably improve upon Huston’s version [with screenplay by him and famed sci-fi-writer Ray Bradbury, although no Oscar nominations were forthcoming for any aspect of this generally-faithful-adaptation of the novel]).

 Finally, if you want to get really deep into what Melville was exploring (and Howard’s just barely hinting at), here's a 47:29 lecture by Hubert Dreyfus (noted Professor of Philosophy at the Univ. of California Berkeley) on “Moby Dick, Existentialism, Heroic Nihilism, Polytheism—Herman Melville” (all audio, though; not much visual accompaniment).  I admire Ron Howard as a filmmaker (especially for Splash [1984]
Cocoon [1985], Apollo 13 [1995], A Beautiful Mind [2001; won 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director], and The Da Vinci Code [2006]), but In the Heart of the Sea is just too much of an attempt to use an interesting premise to capture something grander which that premise once provoked rather than go for the grander-Melville-material directly.  (I’d loved to have seen Howard cast Fassbender as Ahab [now that he’s already taken on another power-mad-antihero in Macbeth {Justin Kurzel}], especially given that he already had to provide the needed technical elements for Moby-Dick just to tell this “premise” story.  Still, I was relatively generous with my 3 stars given the Rotten Tomatoes miserable collection of only 43% positive reviews, with just 48% from Meteoritic; more details in the links much farther below if you're interested.)

 For a Musical Metaphor to speak to In the Heart of the Sea I’ve chosen “To the Last Whale …” (actually 2 songs: “Critical Mass” [a cappella chanting] and “Wind on the Water,” from the David Crosby and Graham Nash 1975 album Wind on the Water) at, with appropriate whale imagery added in this video version; its lyrics about how whaling continues into our day—long after the need for lamp oil—threatening the survival of this magnificent species just so we can continue to use their innards to enjoy the luxuries of makeup, pet food additives, etc. gives thoughtful insights into why Owen Chase, at least in Ron Howard’s telling of the tale of the Essex, opted not to slam his deadly harpoon into his oceanic-adversary when that deadly whale appeared for the final time, out of respect for how this “beast” was simply returning the favor to these humans after all of the death they’d caused to the most majestic creatures still alive on this planet, all for our benefit, all for their destruction (so that even in the mid-19th-century there were already shortages of these animals, especially in the waters of the Atlantic, just as now our singers tell us that “Over the years you swam the ocean Following feelings of your own Now you are washed up on the shoreline I can see your body lie It’s a shame you have to die To put the shadow on our eye…”) because, unlike Mr. Chase’s final revelation that cooled his previous destructive anger toward his antagonist, we still hunt the remaining whales—at times to threatened levels—even though “Its not that we don’t know It’s just that we don’t want to care,” a fine message from director Howard but one superimposed upon the history of the Essex’s catastrophe, leaving us with the impression that a more-factual-rendition of that event wouldn’t have been impactful enough, that additional environmental-editorials were needed to complete this plot, while I’d prefer to somehow see those sentiments incorporated into a lavish-retelling of Moby-Dick where literary license with existing fiction—if needed—(as is so often done with stagings as well as films of Shakespeare’s classics) seems to me to be a more appropriate vehicle for these messages than yet another twisting of history for audiences unlikely to know better (including me at first).
                Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones)
In 1962 emerging French New Wave superstar-director François Truffaut conducted a series of interviews with established-directorial-superstar Alfred Hitchcock, with the transcripts leading to a celebrated book; in this documentary we revisit audio recordings of some of those insightful conversations plus getting biographies of both men along with glowing testimonials about Hitchcock.
 ln the case of Hitchcock/ Truffaut history has been preserved to be presented to us as it happened (complete with audio transcriptions of the famous 1962 dialogues between 2 of cinema’s greatest directors, conversations that ultimately led to Truffaut’s 1966 book from which this film takes its name) rather than putting in dramatic embellishments to up the ante on the impact of a docudrama such as In the Heart of the Sea, although you could argue that the testimonies given about Hitchcock—and Truffaut, to a lesser degree—serve as glowing enhancements to those transcripts and straight-biographical-accounts, in that the opinions of these several other directors (noted just below) are all intended to further praise the already-lofty-reputations of the principals in this doc, just as Truffaut’s original intention was to replace the perception of Hitchcock as a mere crafty entertainer with an understanding of the man as a cinema artist of the same caliber as Sergei Eisenstein, Eric von Stroheim, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles (to name a few), so that we get a litany of unmitigated-praise about Hitchcock rather than any attempt to even address in some detail the concerns about disturbing voyeurism and misogyny in his work.  This current documentary is certainly a useful introduction to the careers of its 2 principals, with a hefty amount of working footage and photos of them, enhanced with many clips from their films (especially where Hitch is concerned, given that he’s really the main subject here, with Truffaut’s life and films added for a small bit of balance but not in the equal-treatment-mode I’d hoped for, although I should have known from the start that as a somewhat-visual-equivalent to the concept—if not the structure—of the book that Hitchcock would be the primary focus).

 As with the book, the foundational information here comes from various audio transcripts of the men’s dialogues, visually supported with still photos (including contact sheets of those shots) taken during the conversations, so that we get to directly appreciate Hitchcock’s responses to Truffaut’s questions (although, given that a French-to-English/vice-versa-translator was needed, often you’re straining a bit to hear what Hitch is saying because of the equal volume of the simultaneous French statements; when Truffaut’s speaking—or someone is talking about either of these directors in French—we’re provided with subtitles, if at all a distraction a minor one at most, less so than the overlapped bi-lingual-audio).  Added to this is narration to provide historical context on both men along with a lot of testimony in praise of them from a good number of notable filmmakers, some that I’m familiar with—Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich (like Truffaut, primarily a cinema critic before turning to directing), David Fincher, Paul Schrader (another critic-turned-director, but also with a notable career as a screenwriter prior to working directly behind the camera)—along with those I don’t know much about (whether I should or not)—Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the more famous [in my opinion] Akira Kurosawa), James Gray, Oliver Assayas [whom I do know just a bit from Clouds of Sils Maria; review in our May 14, 2015 posting]).  From this group we get a lot of informed comments on our subjects of this documentary 
(a cinematic form that normally confounds my What Happens, etc. review structure, so I’ve abandoned it here), including such evaluations as “fetishism” (even a hint of “necrophilia” in the “perverted” Vertigo [1958]) along with a focus on the Catholic emphasis on guilt and Original Sin in the work of Hitchcock (he was an adherent of that religion [you can search for quite a bit about this aspect of his life, including this article], remaining connected to it long after my own abandonment), compared to the “fierce attachment to freedom” regarding Truffaut.  These observations are strengthened by the directors’ own statements regarding faithful adherence to the prepared script (Hitchcock) vs. openness to improvisation (Truffaut).

 We also get some useful analyses of Hitchcock’s use of high-angle-shots (at times directly overhead, as when detective Abrogast [Martin Balsam] is killed in Psycho [1960]), use of space to give meaning to his scenes, lack of concern with plausibility as long as the plot functions effectively for a large audience rather than a single viewer, and his self-conception as a “writer with the camera” making statements that exist only in audiovisual form rather than stories that are literary in nature.  Hitch died in 1980, at the accomplished age of 80, not that long after an American Film Institute lifetime tribute (including honors bestowed by Truffaut), but tragically his French counterpart followed just a few years later in 1984 at only age 52 (said by the guy who's just now turning 68), with a potentially-extensive-career brought to an untimely end (even as he was preparing another edition of his noteworthy book).  Critical response to this dual-biography has been quite impressive (96% positive from Rotten Tomatoes, 79% from Metacritic; details in the links far below), but I’m not as overwhelmed by it as I first assumed I’d be so I'll now attempt to explain why that's the case.

 Where I can’t be as objective as I’d like to be concerning Hitchcock/ Truffaut is not knowing how engrossing and informative this documentary is for someone who previously didn’t know much about either of these cinematic titans because, while I enjoyed revisiting their careers, I didn’t come across much that I hadn't already learned from years of familiarity with the inspirations, motivations, and films of these men, both of whom are the subjects of innumerable explorations from both scholarly and pop-culture perspectives.  (I note a bit farther below an extensive look at the life and life-work of Truffaut that runs about the same length as this current study; meanwhile, “old master” Hitchcock, who’s the main subject of Jones’ film, has previously been explored in a wealth of existing material, including the book that inspired this most-current-retrospective [still available from Amazon, although paperback copies of the 1985 2nd edition are considerably more affordable], along with other documentaries and interviews that can also easily be found—I’ve cited a couple of them in the links much farther below connected to this film—that might easily preclude you needing to pay for Jones’ version unless it’s playing nearby and you’d just like to see what the most recent take on this topic presents.)  One thing that doesn’t emerge in any of my citations (or Jones’ doc) is how Hitchcock, long lauded by the Hollywood establishment that he was such a successful part of, never achieved what many would consider to be his greatest honor, an Oscar for Best Director (even though popular-actors-turned-first-time-directors have done it with what seems like considerable ease: Robert Redford, Ordinary People [1980], Warren Beatty, Reds [1981], Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves [1990]—OK, Reds was Beatty’s 2nd-direction but he was Oscar-nominated for his 1st, Heaven Can Wait [1978]).  You could make an argument that he didn’t show the expansive genre-range of someone like Howard Hawks (who never got one of those statues either, although was nominated for Sergeant York [1941]) or whose work with thriller stories didn’t allow for big-themed and/or big-budgeted showpieces (such as with multi-winners John Ford and William Wyler, for example), but given the consistent praise that Hitchcock enjoyed during his lengthy career it’s still one of those Hollywood anomalies that he had to "settle" for the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1968) for “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production,” a big honor but where directors are concerned it’s more of a consolation prize.

 However, if you value critical opinion over usual-industry-accolades (which I often do, given the Best Director omissions I cite in the note just below, along with a string of my should-have-won-or-even-been-nominated-preferences for Best Picture over the years), then Hitchcock eventually comes to be recognized as the helmsman of the greatest film of all time, Vertigo, at least according to the most recent poll (2012) of international critics and other cinematic-insiders making such a selection once a decade by the British film journal, Sight & Sound, with one of Hitchcock’s most disturbing stories finally unseating Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941—still my All-Time #1) after its 50-year-reign at the top of this list (a point oddly not mentioned in Jones’ doc).  So, if you’d like to break for a moment here to indulge in this celebrated film (where James Stewart’s character could easily be considered as “psycho” in his own obsessions as was Anthony Perkin’s killer in Hitch’s famous slasher-horror-movie), then here’s the trailer, a very positive review from Siskel and Ebert (no idea of the date, but obviously long after the film was first released yet before both of them died), and another site that looks like the trailer again but it’s actually where you can rent or watch the whole thing if you care to.  (It’s well worth your time, but finish my review first, OK?  I’ve still got more dazzling insights to come.)*

*Regarding Oscar wins for Best Director, though, in all fairness cinema legends such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Stanley Kubrick never received this award either, although Bergman got several directing and writing nominations (as did Kubrick), Antonioni won an Honorary Award in 1995 and was nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay-Written Directly for the Screen for Blow-Up (1966), and Kubrick won the Special Visual Effects Oscar for 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]).  Hitchcock was nominated for Oscar’s Best Director for films from 1940 (Rebecca), 1944 (Lifeboat), 1945 (Spellbound), 1954 (Rear Window), and 1960 (Psycho).  He lost those directorial awards to, respectively, John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), Leo McCarey (Going My Way), Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend), Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), and Wilder (The Apartment).  He didn’t even get nominated for Notorious in 1946 (winner: William Wyler, The Best of Years of Our Lives), Strangers on a Train in 1951 (winner: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun), Dial M for Murder in 1954 (winner: Kazan for On the Waterfront), Vertigo in 1958 (winner: Vincente Minnelli, Gigi [Oh, justice, where art thou?  More so here than in any of these other results.]), North by Northwest  in 1959 (winner: Wyler, Ben-Hur).  If you’d like to see all of the nominees of those various years, please go here, then decide for yourself if he should have replaced one of the chosen few in any of these years (or any others, for another Hitchcock movie—or maybe movies—of high quality that I’ve haven’t noted).

 The other main subject of this current documentary, Truffaut, isn’t explored here as much as is Hitchcock, so if you’d like to know more about him you could watch (After you finish my review, of course!) a BBC biography (1996) about this famous French filmmaker, François Truffaut: The Man Who Loved Cinema, starting with Section 1 at https:// mE (14:48), which focuses mainly on the autobiographical aspects of his debut triumph, The 400 Blows (1959), along with his early love of cinema in post-war-Paris; on YouTube this one should flow right into Section 2 (14:48, at 10dRKU if you need to paste the URL directly to your Web browser to keep the segments running) which continues to show how Truffaut’s life was often reflected in his films and also talks of his friendship with the great cinema theorist/critic André Bazin, along with Truffaut’s beginnings as a filmmaker.  It then moves into Section 3 (9:38, at https://www. with commentary on Shoot the Pianist (1960)—as they call it in the UK, in the US we say Shoot the Piano Player, a marvelous film which I’ve gone far too long since watching again—the deterioration of his first marriage, then the scandalous triangle of Jules and Jim (1962), followed by Section 4 (13:38, at https://www. which starts with his first failure, Silken Skin (1964; called The Soft Skin in the US)— based too much on his own romantic affair and failing marriage which ended in divorce—then the influence of Hitchcock (including Notorious, 1946) leading to the famous book, followed by his next film, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), ushering in a period of commercial success, even in context of the socially-radical-1968 Paris riots.  Next is Section 5 (16:31, at with commentary on The Wild Child (1970), Truffaut’s reality as a great womanizer as reflected in The Man Who Loved Women (1977), the loyalty of his team of collaborators despite his demanding production processes which leads to related commentary on Day for Night (1973, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) as it’s a film about the making of a film, his bitter conflicts with fellow-New Waver-Jean-Luc Godard, his work as an actor in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) and his own The Green Room (1978).  Finally, there’s Section 6 (8:53, at about the critical success of The Last Metro (1980), his final years, and his early death from a brain tumor.

 I found it more difficult than usual to pick a Musical Metaphor as commentary on Hitchcock/Truffaut (I’d be glad to hear suggestions of other choices I might have made) because for me it was hard to find a song that spoke to the long, highly-renowned career of Hitchcock (ultimately what this film’s about, much more so than what the insightful observations that Truffaut—a significant cinema theorist and critic prior to becoming a groundbreaking-director in his own right—might have contributed to this study of a man he so greatly admired), even if I just tried to concentrate on the recurring themes of suspense in Hitchcock's plot elements, paralleled with subtle critiques of the supposed-stability of modern-industrial-life (except in such challenges to the norm as Vertigo or Psycho where a good number of inappropriate-deteriorations-of-societal-expectations are in the forefront of the narrative).  Finally, I came up with “Late Lament” at watch?v=SWAmICTFSok (the last entry on the Moody Blues’ 1975 album Days of Future Passed, with added imagery in this video) because not only does it address part of the essential aspect of the appeal of cinema (“But we decide which is right. And which is an illusion.”) but also it notes the underlying traumas that often haunt Hitchcock movies, where characters are more in distress (or denial) that they care to let on (“Breathe deep the gathering gloom, Watch lights fade from every room.”), where difficult choices force them to confront difficulties they’d rather avoid but to do so would only increase their peril (“Bedsitter people look back and lament, Another day’s useless energy spent.”), where even a seeming-happy-ending doesn’t guarantee that more troubles aren’t in store for these people who never wished to be part of a crisis to begin with (“Impassioned lovers wrestle as one, Lonely man cries for love and has none.”).  Hitchcock was a great artist, as well as a successful entertainer, a difficult combination in the economically-driven-world of cinema (although a few such as Chaplin, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg have achieved it, not necessary in each of their films but in their overall careers), but he was also a covert challenger of the assumed-protections of the status quo, a reality nicely reflected in this brief musical poem.

 I’ll leave you with these thoughts to contemplate for the next few weeks as I blend the year-end-holidays (beginning with my birthday on December 17Yikes! It's already here.  Will I ever get these damn things posted at a decent hour?  Probably not.) into a once-in-a-lifetime (at least for me and my wonderful wife, Nina) trip to Cuba into the new year, so I’ll return in awhile with more commentary on the current cinema but even Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams) will have to wait (not as long as we’ve had to wait for this series to continue, though).  As I exit for a bit, I’ll speak on behalf of Pat Craig (whose contributions to this blog have so far been even rarer than a new Star Wars movie but I still wait patiently) and myself to wish all of you a joyous end to 2015, however you may celebrate, with hopes for peace and better interpersonal, intercultural, international understanding and cooperation for all of us in 2016.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepageIf you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here, and what wins the awards)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2015.

Here’s more information about In the Heart of the Sea: (very short [2:35] interview with director Ron Howard [he also notes the possible return of the TV show Arrested Development]) and watch?v=DWxflhZUPt4 (3:50 featurette on the relationship of In the Heart of the Sea to Moby-Dick and its ongoing appeal)

Here’s more information about Hitchcock/Truffaut:

If you want to know more about Hitchcock’s career here are 2 other documentaries that also explore him, from the BBC Living Famously (2003) at (54:23, a full biography focusing on his mastery of suspense and terror, but normally in the realm of mysteries rather than horror movies [except for Psycho {1960} and The Birds {1963}]; lots of clips, quick testimonials, and statements from Hitchcock [also includes some commentary on the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents {1955-‘65}]) and in an even longer aspect (96 min.) at, a 1976 interview and Q & A with Hitchcock by former Time magazine critic Richard Schickel (wrote there 1965-2010) discussing what turned out to be Hitch’s last movie, Family Plot (1976), along with general comments on his working processes.

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Have not seen either of these yet but looking forward to your Star Wars commentary. Should be an interesting challenge given the already widespread analysis from all comers.

    While not a big scifi fan, I found it to be a worthwhile addition to the franchise, one in which Star Wars virgins as well as fan-antics should enjoy. For those who need a refresher before going to the IMAX, try this recent video Cobert Explains Previous Star Wars Plots

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your contributions. I'll be back soon with some comments on the continuing activities in a galaxy long ago and far, far away. Ken