Breakdown: An Immobile Nightmare

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I’m very happy to participate, for the 3rd time, in the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by the great Terence from A Shroud of Thoughts! This time, I’ve decided to go with my favourite Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode: Breakdown (1955). This is the first episode of this tv show I ever saw and it has always been the one I liked the most ever since.

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Breakdown was the 7th episode of the series and it was directed by Hitchcock himself. It is important to precise this because, if Alfred Hitchcock produced and introduced each episodes, he didn’t necessarily direct them all. Well, the good thing about this is that Breakdown probably is one of the most Hitchcockian episode of the show and surely among his most suspenseful work.

The story is simple. Businessman William Calley (Joseph Cotten) is in Florida. After talking on the phone with one of his employee who has just been fired, it is revealed to us that he is a cold man without compassion and without pity. Soon after, he takes his car to go back to New York. On his way, he is the victim of road accident as a tractor bumps into his car. The man is in pretty bad condition as he is, in fact, completely paralyzed. He can’t move a single inch of his body. Hoping for someone to come and help him, he isn’t much lucky as the only people in the area are prisoners who have escaped the jail. None of them bother to check if he is still alive, but don’t hesitate to steal his stuff, including his clothes. Eventually, William tries to concentrate and, surprise, is able to move one of his fingers! He decides that this will be his way to have the people’s attention so they can realise that he is not dead. However, each time he tries to, it seems that something prevents him to succeed. There’s too much noise or people just don’t look at it. The situation becomes more and more nightmarish and we all anticipate the worst…

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Breakdown is pretty much a bad karma story and, in a way, a story of revenge. Is William Calley sort of punished for having been so cold-hearted toward his poor employee? Well, he surely finds himself in a pretty bad situation. However, if we don’t like him much when he is introduced to us, we eventually feel compassion for him as his accident is not something we would wish to anybody (except maybe to a very bad person or if we have a truly twisted mind), and the distress that is expressed by him is real and transmitted to us in a way that we can actually feel it.

After Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949), Breakdown was the 3rd collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and the underrated Joseph Cotten. In this tv episode, the actor’s acting is different from the one in the previously mentioned films. Why? Because, for the majority of the episode, Joseph Cotten can only act with his voice. He is completely immobile you see (well, except for that finger). But, we do hear his thoughts, his thoughts full of desperate hope, and, at one point, full of sadness and anxiety. Joseph Cotten manages to give the right tone of voice so we can understand what he is feeling and how he is planning to solve the situation, even if it seems hopeless. The interesting thing is that, even if most of the story turns around these thoughts, these don’t contain any unnecessary flourishes. The episode, fortunately, , doesn’t fall in the obvious clichés, such as the man starting to think about his wife and children or about his childhood. Ok, maybe he doesn’t have children and a wife, but you get the point. His thoughts are only concentrated around the immediat situation and that’s what’s important.

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I’m taking a seminar dedicated to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock this year at university and, as our teacher made us observe, Alfred Hitchcock was pretty much a “montage” director. Breakdown support this brilliantly. Indeed, editor Edward W. Williams chose plans that have a connection between each other and there seems to be a reason and  significance for each of them. For example, at one point, William Calley starts to ear something, a tapping sound and he and we wonder what it is. In the next shot, we see his finger taping. So, we understand where the sound comes from. Edward W. Williams won a Primetime Emmy for Best Editing of a Television Film for his brilliant work on this tv episode.

The episode also focuses a lot of the sound dimension, not only because of this tapping finger and the out-loud thoughts but, as I was explaining in the synopsis, most of the obstacles the businessman encounter are created by sound. At one point, the character wonders if he has not become deft because everything around him seems so quiet. However, we can hear the almost quiet sound of birds singing which indicates us that he hasn’t lost the hearing.

With this idea in mind, we can notice that the episode is pretty much constructed in a way that everything is seen and felt from Joseph Cotten’s point of view. This is a brilliant way to involve the spectator in the story, not only by making him watch the episode. But of course, Hitchcock alternates between objective and subjective shots as it is sometimes necessary for us to see things from an external point of view, to understand the situation better, to note the bad physical condition in which the protagonist is. For example, at one point, we hear him think that he feels a pressure on his chest. If the movie would have been shot from subjective points of view only, we wouldn’t have known that this was caused by the wheel pressing on his chest. Not until that prisoner says it out loud anyway. On their side, the subjective shots are used to make us understand how much of the situation the main character can actually witness and see. For example, right after the accident, he has difficulty to see as if he had dust in his eyes. There, the image is sort of blurry. There’s also a highly interesting shot when he is taken to the morgue by two men. What Joseph Cotten sees is one a very low angle shot of one of these men’s chin and nose. This accentuates the nightmarish situation, not only because this view is pretty odd, but also because the man never bothers to lower his head and notice Joseph Cotten’s finger moving.

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As you can see, for a only 30-minutes tv show, there is a lot talk about. Well, it’s Hitchcock’s work after all. Not too surprising!

If you have never seen an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, this is a good one to start. Well, as I told you it is my favourite one and it certainly made me want to watch more of them! Those are like mini Hitchcock films where the suspense is installed in a very rapid way. I also believe that this tv show is a good source of inspiration for screenwriters who want to establish themselves by first writing short films. Breakdown‘s story was created by Louis Pollock and the teleplay was by Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock.

Anyway, if you want to watch it,  you can just here:

 

Hopefully, you will enjoy it as much as I did! I promise you, Hitchcock knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat!

I want to thank Terence for once again hosting this highly entertaining blogathon!

I invite you to read the other entries here.

See you!

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Dreaming in Hitchcock Movies

“Dream dream, filling up an idle hour
Fade away, radiate”
– Debbie Harry, Dreaming


I’m one of those persons who are quite fascinated by dreams. From the most ordinary ones to the most extraordinary ones,  I saw them in all their colours. When I can remember my dreams, I write them in a little notebook to make sure I don’t forget them later. Actually, this is also a way to stimulate my subconscious and the more I work on them, the more I can remember them. I sometimes read my dream notebook and I have some fun reading stuff I didn’t remember.

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Dreams inspire art; paintings, songs, and, of course, cinema. So I thought, why not discussing the dreaming world in movies. I cannot talk about ALL the movies with dreams. So, why not focusing on the dreaming world in Hitchcock’s films?!

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Spellbound (1945)

“Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast.” – Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov), Spellbound

When one thinks of dreams in classic films, I’m pretty sure the first scene that comes to his or her mind is the one created by Salvador Dalí for Spellbound. Well, when Dali, the master of surrealism, accepts to direct a dream scene, you know it’s going to be a winning result. Dali’s painting themselves seem to be inspired by dreams or, at least by something that mysteriously poped-up of his mind for whatever reasons. I must admit, I didn’t do any dreams where the objects were weird and misshapen like in Dalí’s paintings, but the importance here is the symbolism of this dream.

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In the 40s, psychoanalyse was a subject that was very “en vogue”. With Spellbound, Hitchcock had for desired to direct the first movie on the subject. Like he explained to François Truffaut, he consulted famous psychoanalyst during the making of his film. The Master of Suspense also explained that he had for break the tradition of blurry and confused dreams that we usually see in movies. That’s why he wanted to work with Dalí. This one would create a visually very clear dream with clear and acute traits.

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So, in a movie about psychoanalyze, dreams are of a high importance. If I’m not mistaken, Dali’s sequence originally laste around 20 minutes, but it was cut to only a few. Not to mention that some of Dalí’s ideas were a bit difficult to shot as Hitchcock explained to Truffaut.  In a way, there’s something interesting about that. Have you ever heard that, even if your dreams sometimes seem to last forever, they only last a minute or a few seconds? In Spellbound, JB (Gregory Peck)’s dream is of a central importance since it helps Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) and Professor Brulov (Michael Chekhov) to understand him and to help him regain his memory. It is said that dreams all have a meaning. Well, Spellbound‘s dream sequence is the perfect example of that.

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I feel that, in classic films, you had some of the most weirdly illustrated dreams. Of course, we all remember Spellbound’s dream for these curtains with painted eyes that are cut by a man with a giant pair of scissors. This is maybe the most iconic part of the sequence. Objects also have weird forms and proportions. For example, one can think of this crooked wheel or this giant table where a game of card is being interrupted by a man without a face. My personal favourite part of the dream is when Gregory Peck is running down a slope and followed by a pair of big wings (we only see their shadows). There’s something very beautiful in this shot that fits perfectly the dreaming world. Of course, we learn later in the film what is the meaning of all this.

 

Vertigo (1958)

“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere. ” – Madeleine (Kim Novak), Vertigo

The scene designed by Dalí isn’t the only memorable dream sequence from an Hitchcock’s film. In 1958, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart)’s nightmare had something truly terrifying. The mix between Bernard Herrmann’s score and the flashy colours create a haunting moment. Interestingly, Vertigo was the first film to use computer graphics, these being designed by Saul Bass. Those weren’t only used in the opening titles but also in the nightmare scene. The script doesn’t try to reveal the “meaning” of this dream like it is the case with Spellbound. However, the symbols are clear enough to understand that it reflects a part of Scottie’s life that begins to haunt him more and more.

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Vertigo‘s dream sequence is also the proof that this film used Technicolor to its full potential. I must admit, the first time I saw this scene, I felt slightly uncomfortable, but I think it is meant to be. What particularly frightened me is this moment when Scottie advances toward’s Carolotta’s tomb where a hole has been dug to put a coffin. I was only expecting to see Carolotta’s rotten corpse lying there, but, luckily, there wasn’t anything of the sort. I remember my sister coming in the living room right during this dream sequence and saying “Ah, that’s scary!” before leaving. But once you are more “used to it” you find it somehow fascinating. I love the short moment were Galvin Elster, Carlotta Valdes and Scottie are next to a window and the first two just stare at Scottie with a very cold look. The nightmare scene is also in perfect harmony with the music and, therefore, there’s something very choreographical about it.

 

Rebecca (1940)

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” – Mrs. DeWinter (Joan Fontaine), Rebecca

It’s with this iconic sentence that Daphné DuMaurier introduced her most acclaimed novel, Rebecca. Of course, Hitchcock had to use it in his Oscar-winning film. “I” De Winter (Joan Fontaine)’s dream evokes the memory she has of Manderley, the place where she used to live with her husband Max DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). In her dream, Manderley is burnt and now a desolate place. This is also a vision of reality and the rest of the film is a long flashback that will help us understand the mystery and the fatal faith of this rich domain.

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This dream scene at the beginning that introduces the film is filmed in a subjective point of view. It is seen through the narrator’s eyes, the second Mrs. DeWinter. Joan Fontaine’s enchanting and smooth voice adds a certain tranquility to the sad vision of the abandoned place. It’s interesting how this dream that is so calm is abruptly interrupted by a crash of waves in the following scene. This sequence wasn’t directed by Dalí, but we still can admire its beautiful black and white cinematography that gives it a vision of poetry.

 

Marnie (1964)

“You Freud, me Jane? “ – Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren), Marnie

Just like Spellbound, Marnie has psychoanalysis as a central subject. The main character, Marnie, is a cleptomaniac and also has a phobia of the colour red. Interestingly, in opposition to the previous movies, we actually never see Marnie’s dreams. We only see her dreaming. It is obvious that those are nightmares. To highlight her fear of red, these scenes are filmed with a red flashy lightning which makes the dream even more threatening than it already is. But what is the symbolism or this red that Marnie is so afraid of? The Devil? Violence? Blood? Marnie’s dreams always start with something knocking and the furious first notes of Bernard Herrmann’s score. Marnie constantly evokes her mother in her dreams and it seems that she is associated with some bad memories. Just like Spellbound, these dreams will help us to discover the truth about the title character. However, here the subject of psychoanalyse wasn’t as developed as it was with Spellbound.

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These are, I would say, the essential Hitchcock’s dream scenes. However, one can observe that some of his scenes, although they portrait reality and not a dream, are almost filmed like a dream because of the light, the colours, the blurry image, the way it is shot, etc. A few examples would be the weird trial scene in Dial M for Murder (Margot Wendice is living a real nightmare); the flashback scene in I Confess (which has a very clear and white image); when Margaret Lockwood’s faint in The Lady Vanishes; in Vertigo when Judy comes out of the bathroom metamorphosed into Madeleine, etc. François Truffaut even said to Hitchcock that, for him, many of his films, such as Vertigo and Notorious, looked like filmed dreams.

Dream scenes in movies give the occasion to the film crew to explore a different way to illustrate something. Of course, all dreams are different so, according to each movie director, a dream scene can be very different. We observe that Hitchcock’s dream scenes are mostly nightmare or, in Rebecca‘s case, the vision of something sad. Most of the time, these reflect the past of a character, a trouble hidden in his or her subconscious or a difficult situation.

Which Hitchcock’s dream scene fascinates you the most?

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Source:

– Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Gallimard. 1993.

 

 

My Hitchcock Movies Paintings

Remember this post where I told you that I had painted three little paintings illustrating Alfred Hitchcock’s films? I told you I would share them. Well, here they are! 🙂

As you can see, it’s not academic art, but I think that academic art is boring anyway. 😉 Well, I hope you’ll like them! I had a lot of fun doing this on my Hitchcock day!

The Birds

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The Trouble With Harry

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Suspicion

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Artworks by ©Virginie Pronovost

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This summer, I also painted a bunch of little artworks like these illustrating David Bowie’s songs. ^^ If you’re following me, I’ve shared a few of them on Instagram! 🙂