This post is in conjunction with For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which this year is raising funds for online access and a commissioned music score to 1923’s THE WHITE SHADOW. Alfred Hitchcock was screenwriter, film editor, and production designer on this film, so the blogathon’s focus is on his work. DONATE to the the National Film Preservation Foundation by clicking here.
In May of 1958, Alfred Hitchcock released his most complex, personal and ethereal work, VERTIGO, to a less-than-enthusiastic public and critical reception. The film’s thought and craft had shown a master at his peak, yet the rewards had been meagre.
But summer had arrived so his popular anthology TV series needed attention: that autumn would begin its fourth year. Traditionally Hitchcock directed the inaugural show for each season.
Between his feature films VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST Hitch directed two episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, both adapted from stories by Roald Dahl. (In the near future, Dahl himself would have a short lived Hitchcock-esque TV series, WAY OUT, presenting macabre short tales bookended with on-camera black humor monologues.) Hitchcock had ended Season Three with his wry version of Dahl’s A Dip in the Pool, while Season Four’s kickoff had the intriguing title of Poison.
Poison was a perfect Hitchcockian challenge: generating and maintaining suspense via two or three actors in a single set. On a Malayan plantation, Harry Pope was reading in bed when he felt a krait (the pocketsized, more deadly cousin of the cobra) crawl onto his stomach and fall asleep. Unable to call for help, he waits motionless for hours until his former business partner, Timber Woods, drops by. Unfortunately for Pope, his old pal also brought along some unresolved issues about money and a woman. After a halfhearted attempt to help Pope, Woods pulls up a chair and tries pushing Pope into a rage, while Pope fights to maintain a board-like stillness and silence.
For Hitchcock, Poison was a mixture of the new and the familiar: source material from Dahl, cinematography by John Russell who shot Hitchcock’s Four O’Clock that kept America glued to the TV set the year before; plus actor Wendell Corey from REAR WINDOW.
New to the creative mix was screenwriter/producer Casey Robinson, who adapted Dahl’s story for TV. Robinson made a name at Warner Brothers scripting a string of Bette Davis dramas including DARK VICTORY, and then taming big, unwieldy novels for the screen such as KING’S ROW, NOW, VOYAGER and SARATOGA TRUNK. (Without screen credit, he also helped write CASABLANCA.) By the 1950s Casey Robinson had moved to Fox where his bailiwick was producing and scripting Hemingway adaptations, making him a perfect choice for this story of near-unfilmable interiority in a men-without-women environment.
Like Hemingway, Robinson’s dialogue had a perfect sparseness and elliptical tone: we never know the history of the money and sex issues behind Woods’ resentment, but his foot-dragging and disinterested speech as he searches for a phone book to call for help (brilliantly executed by Corey) gives us the color and intensity of his hatred.
As Harry Pope lay afraid on a humid night on the Malay peninsula, his face wept perspiration, captured in glistening black-and-white by cinematographer John Russell. A good match for Hitchcock since he was both fast and good, Russell had learned the craft by working in low-budget productions helmed by great directors. A decade earlier he shot Orson Welles’ initial descent from the Hollywood A-List, MACBETH, when it was filmed at Republic Pictures’ B-Movie studios in the East San Fernando Valley. (The same year as Poison Russell worked with Welles again, as camera operator on TOUCH OF EVIL.) He was also responsible for the light and shadows of Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW, Frank Borzage’s MOONRISE, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s THE MAN FROM PLANET X, all visually remarkable works made in a few days for minor production companies.
His luminous, fluid chops were the right speed for the demands of Hitchcock’s TV series, where he shot the majority of its episodes. Ironically, this long-term gig on the small screen led to his only Oscar nomination: PSYCHO, which was originally slated as a two-night special to be broadcast on Hitchcock’s show, before Hitch decided it would play better as a movie.
Aside from the dramatic challenges of a small cast and limited set, why did Hitchcock choose to approach this story? Perhaps because the motionless, silent Harry Pope is the apotheosis of Hitchcock’s “trapped man.” Or going deeper, this male-only work gets inside the constricted gender roles of men in Hitchcock’s world.
Much has been written on the gender demands placed on women in MidCentury America. However, Hitchcock seemed to explore the dark side of similar demands in males of that era, who were also given impossible lives to lead: unwavering and stoic, the price of having the “power and freedom” (to quote the script of VERTIGO) in society. A classic example is in his NOTORIOUS, when government agent Cary Grant is told the girl he’s falling for (Ingrid Bergman) must try to seduce ex-Nazi Claude Rains. Protesting at first, he relents to the pressures of an ‘appropriate’ male response where personal feelings take a back seat to duty and show of strength. Grant returns to Bergman’s flat and acts like a jerk to alienate her, manipulating her into the sex trap. Frequently misinterpreted as a misogynist attitude, Grant’s performance embodied the era’s pro forma male posture that created oppression in the opposite sex, while denying men themselves the chance of honest interior lives.
In Poison we see two elements of this posture from NOTORIOUS playing off each other in one scene: having to “Man-Up” (the petrified man in bed) and being an asshole by taking advantage of another’s weakness (his friend attempting to get a rise out of him). At the time of Poison‘s production, Hitchcock and his Male Baggage were producing a stream of subversive images representing the darkest side of male taboos on weakness and surrender. The notion of a Hero Protagonist was thrown out the window in VERTIGO (pardon the pun), when the leading man loses his footing in the first scene and hangs helpless from a seventh-story rain gutter. Two years later, his leading man surrendered id, ego and even gender as Norman Bates became his mother in PSYCHO.
And here in Poison lay Harry Pope: intimidated, subjugated, tormented. Of all three characters (Harry, Timber, and a doctor who arrives with a risky plan to chloroform the snake) Hitchcock invited us to inhabit the mind of the one who literally could not move.
Willingly we go into this world, hypnotically projecting and empathically experiencing some of our deepest unexamined feelings. That’s the beauty and terror of Hitchcock, who more than anyone understood how film is the most Rorschachian of art forms. From him we learn disquieting axioms about our true nature, while momentarily living vicariously in dark solitude.