films as resources for boundary studies

These reviews have been sampled from web sources to show how great films can get both positive and not-so-positive reviews. Thanks to the reviewers, whatever their bent. Other films will be optional study sites for the course, including films suggested by participants and colleagues.

rear window (hitchcock)

Jeff Jefferies (James Stewart), an action photographer whose name is almost always spelled wrong in critical reviews, is stuck in his New York apartment with a broken leg. With nothing better to do, he observes the neighbors who share his interior courtyard and begins to suspect one of them (Lars Thorwald) of murdering his wife. With the aid of his fashion-industry girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and visiting nurse (Thelma Ritter), Jefferies builds the case against the neighbor and but loses his anonymity in the process and is confronted by the murderous Thorwald. The film is shot entirely on the set built in Hollywood to duplicate the New York City interior courtyard, and almost all from the same viewpoint inside Jeff's apartment, with only a few "reverse angle" shots. Its use of "iconicity" (self-reference to the work of art as such) is classic, particularly in the opening shot which frames Jefferies' three windows and their slowly raised blinds.


mulholland drive (lynch)

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Pandora couldn't resist opening the forbidden box containing all the delusions of mankind, and let's just say David Lynch, in Mulholland Drive, indulges a similar impulse. Employing a familiar film noir atmosphere to unravel, as he coyly puts it, "a love story in the city of dreams," Lynch establishes a foreboding but playful narrative in the film's first half before subsuming all of Los Angeles and its corrupt ambitions into his voyeuristic universe of desire. Identities exchange, amnesia proliferates, and nightmare visions are induced, but not before we've become enthralled by the film's two main characters: the dazed and sullen femme fatale, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), and the pert blonde just-arrived from Ontario (played exquisitely by Naomi Watts) who decides to help Rita regain her memory. Triggered by a rapturous Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison's "Crying," Lynch's best film since Blue Velvet splits glowingly into two equally compelling parts.

-Fionn Meade


lost highway (lynch)


The story revolves around jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who may or may not have killed his sultry, vampy wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette, in a magnificent, smoldering performance -- hardly a surprise, after her stellar work in "Beyond Rangoon" and "Flirting with Disaster"), and is sentenced to death. Before he fries, though, a mysterious thing happens: After having a frightening hallucination, he melts into another identity. When the guards make their rounds, they find Fred gone from his cell and grease monkey Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) in his place. Pete is freed -- there are no charges against him -- and he tries to go back to his old life and his old girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner, whose fragility is touching). Then, one day, the spitting image of Renee (Arquette again, reincarnated as a luscious blonde, a gangster's moll named Alice) slithers into his world only to split it apart. There's no need to even try to make sense of the plot: Lynch, who cowrote the script with "Wild at Heart" author Barry Gifford, is merely playing around with the idea of twisted, intertwined fates and the notion of the eternal return. This movie's big "meanings" are actually the most insignificant things about it. Aspiring to be the most artful and profound Lynch film yet, "Lost Highway" is really his most facile. The short guy in white-face makeup and dark-red lips (Robert Blake), who shows up now and then to make mysterious pronouncements and creep people out, is a symbol of the weirdness for weirdness's sake that does "Lost Highway" in. Most of the bizarre happenings seem to have come from a recipe, instead of being plumbed from the subterranean reaches of Lynch's heart, which is the effect Lynch's ideas have at their best.

Note: This review is typical for many viewers who, confused by Lynch's use of two actors to play one person and one actor who plays two people (among other devices), presume that confusion is the only goal. Boundary language reveals the precision by which Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive construct two distinctive points of view and interlace their narratives and characters throughout. Lynch's films are among the most rigorous constructions in film history, but it's always good to be reminded that 'the half-life of missing the point is forever.'


johnny stecchino (benigni)

from . . .

The Marx Brothers meet the Godfather in this hilarious tale of mistaken identity that proves there's nothing organized about organized crime. Part Charlie Chaplin, part Peter Sellers, Roberto Benigni is Italy's number one box office sensation. Benigni (Night on Earth, Son of the Pink Panther) stars as Dante, a naive bus driver who's dead-ringer for Johnny Toothpick, a notorious mafioso on the lam and under the gun. When the beautiful Maria, Johnny's drop-dead gorgeous wife accidentally discovers her husband's twin, she schemes to switch the two men. Outrageous and hysterical, Johnny Stecchino is "one of the best comedies in years!" - ABC Radio Network.

Note: Johnny Stecchino is a near-perfect example of a chiasmus formed out of the 'reality' plot using the bus driver, Dante, to subsitute for the gangster and the Real plot imagined by Dante that 'turns out to be the Real one' when the gangster's wife gets her way.


dead of night (cavalcanti)

from . . .

Ealing's first post-war film was Dead of Night, one of the best films ever made about the supernatural. It was the first 'portmanteau' film made at Ealing, wherein a number of different directors were able to contribute an individual story without unbalancing the unity. An architect (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a house party in the country where a number of other guests are assembled. Immediately he feels a sense of deja vu, that he has been through it all before. He realises that a recurrent dream has suddenly come to life, and he knows, but cannot quite remember, that there is an evil climax. His revelation provides a talking point for the gathering, and by one the others relate various supernatural experiences they have heard about, or have actually witnessed, which are then shown in flashback to provide several films-within-a-film. The first story is a simple haunting.

During a Christmas party in an old house, a teenage girl finds a small boy sobbing alone in a room at the top of a hidden, narrow flight of stairs. He tells of unspeakable cruelties that are being enacted and she comforts him. Later there is no trace of him or the room. It seems that she has stepped into the previous century. This sequence was directed by Cavalcanti, and was taken from a story by Angus MacPhail.

The next tale, the first official directing credit for Robert Hamer, came from a chilling story by John V. Baines. It follows the progress of an engaged couple. The girl (Googie Withers) sees an early Victorian mirror in an antique shop and buys it for her fiancé. As he is using it, he suddenly has an impression that the room reflected is not his own dressing-room. The couple marry, but the husband becomes sullen and morose, with bursts of sharp temper. The mirror is now dominating him; in it he sees himself in a large, heavily-furnished Victorian bedroom with a four-poster bed and a fire in the grate, though his wife sees only a normal reflection. He goes to a doctor, who suggests that it is a psychiatric problem, but when the man becomes violent and jealous his wife goes back to the antique dealer to find out the provenance of the mirror, and discovers that it came from a house where in early Victorian times the owner had been confined to his bedroom after an accident. He had then killed his wife and himself before the mirror in frustration and madness. After that, the contents of the house were put away until the present. Returning to her husband with this knowledge, she is attacked by him before she can reveal the mirror's secret. As he begins to strangle her, she, too, sees the hideous room in the mirror. She is able to smash it, whereupon her husband becomes normal again, unable to recollect what had happened.

This was followed by a short tale of premonition, directed by Basil Dearden from a story by E. F. Benson. Recovering in hospital from a car crash, a man (Anthony Baird) wakes up in the middle of the night to find that it is broad daylight outside. He looks down and sees a horse-drawn hearse. The driver looks up at him, nods towards the coffin and says "Room for one inside." The man gets back into bed, realises that it is the middle of the night and that he must have been dreaming, and goes back to sleep. When he is discharged from the hospital he waits at a bus stop to go home. A loaded vehicle pulls up and the conductor says to him, "Room for one inside." It is, of course, the man in the dream. He steps back from the bus stupefied, the conductor shrugs and rings the bell, and the bus goes off without him. Suddenly, it is involved in a collision with a truck, goes out of control and crashes over the parapet of a bridge, falling on to a railway line and presumably killing all aboard.

Note: The reviewer's memory is batty. The race-car driver's tale comes first, followed by Sally's tale, then the storywith the mirror. The golfers' tale was inserted for 'light relief' to allow the audience to catch its breath before the final and longest story, the psychiatrist's.

Light relief follows with a tall golfing story, a version of a tale by H. G. Wells, somewhat modified by Charles Crichton, who also directed the piece. It featured Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as golf chums in love with the same girl (Peggy Bryan). They decide that the only way to solve the problem is to play for her, the loser to commit suicide. Naunton Wayne drowns himself as a result, and Basil Radford marries her. But the spectre of his old friend keeps turning up to ruin the proceedings. It seems that Radford won by cheating and is therefore not entitled to his prize.

The last of the stories, another directed by Cavalcanti, was to become the most celebrated. It concerned a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who is becoming possessed by his dummy, which has a repugnant persona. The dummy leads its host to degradation, murder, a prison cell and madness. The possession motif is one that has been revived in the cinema, and Richard Attenborough's Magic (1979) even used the idea of an apparently animate dummy inspiring murder. After the stories have been told, the film reaches its climax and in a bewildering nightmare they all intermingle with bizarre horror erupting to a point at which the man in the centre of the action awakes at home in bed. His wife reminds him that he has to go down to the country about a commission.

The film ends with him approaching the same farmhouse, and meeting the same host that we saw at the beginning. It is without doubt one of the most satisfying entertainment's ever offered by Ealing, brilliantly conceived and wrought by a fusion of creative talent, in the spirit of teamwork and the cross-fertilisation of ideas for which it was renowned. Dead of Night was for years shown outside the UK only in a crudely re-edited version, eliminating the Sally Ann Howes and the "golfing" vignettes. Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.


red (kieslowski)

from . . .

Red is an intricately constructed parable on the need for connection and the complexity of fate. Valentine (Irene Jacob) is a model whose vacuous existence is disrupted when chance intercedes and, one evening after a runway show, runs over a German shepherd. She meets the dog's owner, Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a reclusive, retired judge. We later see that the seemingly misanthropic judge has been intercepting the telephone conversations of his neighbors, and amplifying them through his stereo. Through a series of peripheral characters and events, we gain insight into the judge's traumatic past, and a sense of the universality of isolation. It is not accidental that the deepest secrets of the human soul are revealed in moments of absence and separation. But Red is also a love story - a deep intimacy that is cerebral and not corporal. There is an especially poignant scene where the judge, inside the car, places the palm of his hand onto the window, and Valentine, outside, presses her hand against the glass, to match his. It is obvious that they are deeply in love, but are separated by invisible barriers. This is a film of intoxicating beauty and profound revelation that continues to unfold long after the conclusion.



strangers on a train (hitchcock)

from . . .

What do you get when you combine a harmless conversation about the "perfect" murder, with the harsh reality of actually seeing it come true? What you have when these two elements evolve is one of Alfred Hitckcock's greatest thrillers...Strangers on a Train. Strangers on a Train begins innocently enough when tennis pro Guy Haynes (played by Farley Granger) meets a complete stranger named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) on a train. During small talk, Anthony jokes around about how an "exchange" murder between two complete strangers would be the murder no one could solve. After all, how could they find the murderer when he is a total and complete stranger with absolutly no connection whatsoever to the murdered victim? Anthony also joked around about how he could kill Haynes wife, and Haynes could kill his father. Haynes then leaves the train feeling that this stranger he just met is a little strange, but thinks nothing of it...until his wife is dead and Anthony wants him to finish the deal! The result is sheer terror and suspense! In my humble opinion, this is one of Hitchcock's most gripping movies. It grabs ahold of you and never relinqueshes until the shattering merry-go-round climax. The plot and storyline is first-rate, and the acting supurb. Walker's performance as pyschopathic Bruno Anthony is especially outstanding. When most people think of Hitchcock classics, they think of Vertigo, Psycho, or The Birds. Believe me, Strangers on a Train is right there with the others as one of the Master's greatest films. 



vertigo (hitchcock)

from . . .

When originally released in 1958 'Vertigo' didn't do too well at the box office or with the critics. Almost forty years later, 'Vertigo' is revered a Masterpiece; Alfred Hitchcock's greatest acheivement. The film has been recently re-released on home video as a restored/re-mastered edition. You can find a non restored (original) version of 'Vertigo' anywhere. The two versions differ in many ways. In my opinion the original version is better, mainly because I feel it's the closer version of what Hitchcock wanted. Although the restored version is nicer to watch, the soundtrack has been altered in ways too obvious, it's disturbing. But it does provide a better cinematic experience! Vertigo is a movie about obsession, love and over coming fears. Scottie (James Stewart) is a detective who after a traumatic experience with heights causing him vertigo, retires from the police force. He is convinced by his old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to go back on the job as a favor to follow his suicidal wife, Madeline (Kim Novak). Gavin believes that his wife is possesed by the spirit of his wife's great grandmother. Scottie is reluctant to follow her, but when he sees Madeline for the first time he is so taken back by her beauty that he is whisked up in this "dreamworld" of her's. The two fall in love. But when Scottie is unable to save Madeline from killing herself because of his fear of heights, he has a nervous breakdown. After he recovers he comes across a woman named Judy (Kim Novak), who bears a strong resemblance of Madeline. Because of Scottie's obsession and love for Madeline, he has Judy change herself to become his Madeline. Unfortunatly for Scottie there is more in store for him.



north by northwest (hitchcock)

from . . .

One of Hitchcock's absolute best "spy/innoncent man" romantic thrillers, North by Northwest is a film not to disappoint the viewers. Made a year after Hitchcock's most personal film, Vertigo, the film shines in romance and most of all in bubbly humour. After the difficulties encountered in the making of Vertigo and the not-so-good reviews it received, Hitchcock was pleased with the giant financial and overall success of North by Northwest. The film starred the "perfect in every way" Cary Grant along with the beautiful and cunning Eva Marie Saint. This was a great pair along with great supporting actors, in a movie with some of the most recognized scenarios known in film history, all delivered by the one and only, master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a slick business man, who is mistakenly taken for an american spy named George Kaplan. Roger is then kidnapped by foreign spy named Vandamm (James Mason) and his associate Leonard (Martin Landau). After numerous attempts to convince Vandamm that he is not the man they are looking for, an attempt is made on Roger's life, but he manages to escape! Frustrated, Vandamm manages to frame Roger for the murder of a United Nations official. Roger is now on the run from Vandamm, his associates and from the local police! Roger escapes on to The 20th Century Limited and meets up with a very lovley woman named Eve (Eva Marie Saint). Roger and Eve carry on a love affair, but Eve is not all she appears to be. As Roger becomes more involved within the chase, he learns more about Vandamm's and the American government's operations. Will Roger be able to prove his innocence to the police and uncover the secret operations behind Vandamm and his organization?



the 39 steps (hitchcock)

from . . .

Over a four day period, the suave, imperturbable and clever male protagonist (played by Robert Donat who had recently starred in the swashbuckler The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and was popularly known as the "Monte Cristo Man"), is paired (literally handcuffed) to a classic, cool and icy, intelligent blonde maiden - Madeleine Carroll. [She was the first in a notorious line of Hitchcock's female stars that later included Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren.] His cyclical journey to prove his innocence and to bring the spies to justice, in which he assumes numerous identities (i.e., a milkman, an auto mechanic, a politician, and a newlywed), takes him from London to the Scottish Highlands and back again. One of the film's major motifs is the confining, sexually-frustrating institution of marriage. [There are three married couples in the film that provide the commentary: Margaret and her abusive husband John, Professor and Mrs. Jordan, and the innkeepers who encourage romance.] The film's two MacGuffins are the nature of the 39 Steps and the smuggling of secrets out of the country - the mystery of which is only fully revealed in the final scene.

- Tom Dirks



young and innocent (hitchcock)

from . . .

The English and American titles for Hitchcock's fifth film for Gainshorough are equally innocuous and bland. But then, Young and Innocent was an especially smooth thriller for Hitchcock. It is a film chock full of touches Hitchcock wanted to include in other productions but could never find a way to fit in. In a very real sense, the title describes the kind of film Young and Innocent is. Alma Reville and Charles Bennett created a screenplay based on Josephine Tey's novel A Shilling for Candles, and the result was a breathlessly paced movie which offers gripping suspense and melodrama.

It begins the way Hitchcock's 1973 hit, Frenzy was to begin. A woman's body is washed ashore with the belt of a man's raincoat, obviously the murder weapon. The body is found, and we're off on a double chase, the kind Hitchcock knows best. Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) is accused of the murder. He escapes to the Cornish countryside to search for the true killer, the man who stole his raincoat. With the police in pursuit, he is helped by a "young and innocent" girl, Erica (Nova Pilbeam). In the course of their chase the young fugitives call on the girl's aunt (Mary Clare) and uncle (Basil Radford), ostensibly to establish some sort of alibi. They find themselves trapped in a game of blindman's buff at a children's party. The scene slows the chase down but adds frustrating suspense and, at the same time, humour. You can't help laughing at the pair's predicament, yet you still worry about the time they are losing from their escape. It is a well-timed scene, lasting about five minutes but seeming much longer to the viewer. De Marney noted in an interview that Hitchcock used a stopwatch to time scenes. "Too slow," he would murmur. "I had the scene marked for thirty seconds and it took you fifty seconds flat. We'll have to retake." In later films, timing would become second nature to Hitchcock and stopwatches wouldn't be needed.

Erica and Robert finally find a hobo who can identify the man who gave him the beltless raincoat, the real murderer. Now the police are almost on top of them. A car chase ensues, ending with a climactic cliff-hanging coal mine cave-in. But it's probably the finale of the movie that most audiences will remember. a single scene created with such remarkable technique that it is worth the entire film. The hobo says that the man they are looking for has twitching eyes. Hitchcock takes us, in one sweeping and flowing single shot, across what was at the time Pinewood's largest sound stage-from 145 feet away to just 4 inches from the twitching eyes of the murderer. He is a drummer in a large hotel ballroom, where looking for a pair of eyes is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Hitchcock needed two days to complete the sequence, which required a special crane-mounted camera on tracks. It is a dramatic shot and probably does more to excite the audience than any other sequence.

The performances are all convincing, if slight. Nova Pilbeam. was England's major child star, and Derrick de Marney, a current matinee idol, fit into his role the way Cary Grant later filled similar American parts. Basil Radford, who makes a cameo appearance as the flustered Uncle Basil here, went on the following year to give one of his greatest performances in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. The film runs eighty minutes, but the American version had a full ten minutes chopped from it, much to Hitchcock's dismay. It was a cut that was to prepare the master of suspense for all the tampering with his films by studio executives in America. Not until he was his own man, his own producer, was he able (and then not always) to get exactly what he wanted, and what was usually best for his films.

Extract© Richard A. Harris, Michael S. Lasky: The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock.



shadow of a doubt (hitchcock)

This is a film with more barely noticed detailing than Mulholland Drive. A young girl (;Charlie) living in a generic Midwestern town is excited to learn that her namesake Uncle Charlie will make an extended visit. The two attempt to renew their close relationship but curious details intervene. Uncle Charlie is in fact a serial killer of rich widows, but we hold on to neice Charlie's viewpoint until it strains and breaks under the strain of signs, capped off by a ring with the 'wrong inscription' meant to be a gift to insure silence and complictiy.

The subtle detailing includes the father's interest in murder mysteries, the detectives investigating the Uncle, the particulars of words, stories, names, and filming that make this movie a web of associative meanings.

Despite its low-key demeanor and generally sentimental (for Hitchcock) plot, this is an important film, with detailing that shows how much Hitchcock disliked loose ends.

 © 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved