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The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

They’re in black and white, which was once an economical production medium. They’re shot on 35mm film. Most were made on a strict six-day schedule. They were shot almost entirely at Universal City. The series started out as a half hour show in 1955, and then switched to an hour format in 1962, ending its run in 1965. Each episode was shot like a feature film, in “single camera” format, rather than in sitcom format, and production values — especially story lines and guest stars — to say nothing of the physical execution of each segment were exceptionally high.

As an anthology series, there were no continuing characters; it was an entirely new show every week. Hitchcock’s own input into the series was minimal, but he directed a few episodes of the series, and watching the Universal TV crew work, he was inspired by their speed and efficiency to shoot his groundbreaking film Psycho there, breaking away from the slower crews at Paramount, where he had spent the 1950s. All in all, 363 episodes were shot over a ten year period.

An enormous number of exceptionally talented actors, writers and directors contributed to the series, including actors Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Bruce Dern, Brandon De Wilde, Angie Dickinson, Diana Dors, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Herbert, Lou Jacobi, Joyce Jameson, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Darren McGavin, John McGiver, Lee Majors, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Robert Newton, George Peppard, James Philbrook, Sydney Pollack, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Henry Silva, Barbara Steele, Jan Sterling, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Waring, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, and Keenan Wynn.

It’s an elegant, intelligent, well designed series, the like of which we will never see on television again. Black and white has vanished as a production medium, along with the artistic values that went with it. Film has also vanished, leaving everything to be shot with a slick, artificial digital sheen. The violence quotient has been upped so that gruesome rapes and murders are now commonplace on shows such as Law and Order SVU and the CSI series; it seems that plot, acting, and nuance have been left behind. Let’s raise a glass, then, to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of the most innovative and artistically ambitious television series ever produced — on a budget, on a schedule, on an assembly line, even — but with style, elegance, and wit, down to Hitchcock’s droll introductions and commercial break announcements, which the director performed himself.

Point Blank

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Lee Marvin  in Point Blank

John Boorman’s second feature film is also one of his best; Point Blank (1967) follows the mysterious hoodlum Walker (Lee Marvin, in one of his finest performances), who has been double crossed during a robbery by his erstwhile partner Mal Reese (John Vernon) at the deserted Alcatraz prison, now used by the mob for a money drop. Reese shoots Walker at “point blank” range and leaves him for dead, but against all odds, Walker manages to swim from the island and make it to shore, where he uneasily  joins forces with the equally slippery Yost (Keenan Wynn) to bring Reese down, and recover his share of the proceeds of the robbery ($93,000 — the figure is continually reiterated throughout the film).

Walker is Orpheus returned from the land of the dead; when he gets his first lead on Reese from Yost, he confronts his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker), who left him for Reese, but she’s catatonic, and useless to him; during their brief reunion Walker says not a word, while Lynne rambles on incoherently about the double cross, how she “just went with it,” and why she no longer wants to live. Shortly after this, Lynne dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Moving on, Walker enlists Chris (Angie Dickinson), who has her own scores to settle with Reese, and with her help moves up through the organization, eliminating one mob underling after another in pursuit of his ill-gotten gains. People fall out of windows, others are cut down by gunfire, and yet Walker still can’t collect the cash. Nobody has any cash anymore; everything is done with bank transfers. Throughout the film, Walker makes it clear that all he really wants is his $93,000 — if he can just get that, he’ll abandon his vendetta against Reese and the mob he runs with.

Lee Marvin returns from the dead in Point Blank

But no one believes this; they can’t understand why such a relatively trifling sum would matter to a man who has literally come back from the dead. Yet, that’s all Walker really wants, and he won’t stop until he gets it — if he can –

Immaculately shot in a cold, hard, metallic style, edited as if by Alain Resnais at the height of his New Wave powers, and featuring a roster of effectively hardboiled performances from Marvin, Dickinson, Vernon, and perhaps most of all, the ever-reliable Lloyd Bochner, as a mob boss who coolly sizes up the situation and blames Reese for the whole affair — “you’re trouble, Reese. I’ve always said so. Wherever you are, trouble finds you out” — Point Blank is another film that you should see immediately, if you haven’t already; more than forty years after it was made, the film retains its power, intensity, and its cutting social commentary.

Lloyd Bochner in Point Blank

The world of Point Blank is empty, hard and instantly disposable, and the film is classic, corrupt, and more relevant then ever in the equally uncertain  years of the early 21st century. Point Blank is a neon hell from which there is no escape, and no resolution — a world where you can’t win. You have no power, no agency, and no hope — nothing works. That’s what Point Blank is all about.

In an interview in 1998 with Alex Simon, Boorman had this to say about the genesis of the film:

“[Lee Marvin] was over in London doing The Dirty Dozen at the time and had a lot of time on his hands, so we met many times and I got to learn a great deal about him, and I could see that he’d been in WW II, had been shot, had killed people and had this compulsion to play out this violence. That’s why his on-screen violence was so compelling, because he’d been there. It was coming from a real place.

So in many ways, Point Blank became a film about him. In the end, we met a final time and he said “I’ll do this picture under one condition.” And he took the script, and threw it out the window!

[So he] committed to [the film on the basis of] a conversation. You could never imagine that happening today. So I came over here, to L.A., with Alex Jacobs, another friend of mine, and worked with Lee throughout the process. Lee called a meeting with MGM, with the head of the studio. [Marvin had] just won the Best Actor Oscar (for Cat Ballou) and was very hot. Lee said, “I have script approval, right?” They said “Yes, Lee, of course.” “I have cast approval?” “Yes, Lee, you do.” “I defer these approvals to John.” And he turned around and walked out!

So I had this kind of extraordinary power on my first film in Hollywood, which Lee knew I’d need, because the film was quite daring and avant-garde for its time [. . .] When I’d finished the picture, I showed it to the studio heads. Margaret Booth was the supervising film editor and head of post production at MGM then. She was Louis Mayer’s film editor, had cut Gone With the Wind, had been there for years, and years. She was greatly feared because she re-cut everything.

So the lights went up with all the executives mumbling about re-shoots and re-cutting, and she looked up and said “You touch a frame of this movie over my dead body!” And that was it!

I saw Point Blank recently for the first time in years at the New York Film Festival. And what struck me was the amount of silence on the film’s soundtrack. I think what we’re seeing in films today is a proliferation of soundtracks dominating the visuals. They’re leading the film and the audience is getting used to the idea of sound effects, music and dialogue forcing the picture and they rely on that, rather than the visuals leading the attack.

[When I was making the film] I shot what was, at that time, the lowest ratio of film in MGM’s history. I think I shot 70,000 feet or something [for the whole film]. I was determined to just shoot the shots I was going to use, so there would be nothing anybody could do about it.”

You can read a brilliant article on the film by Adrian Danks here, from Senses of Cinema 45. And then, by all means, see the film — as soon as you can.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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