Film buffs will approach The Extraordinary Image with eager anticipation. Robert Kolker, former president of the Society for Cinema Studies, has enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career. He is best known for his landmark study A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman (1980), now in its fourth edition, as is his influential textbook, Film Form and Culture (1999). Kolker has also edited volumes on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Looking back from the vantage of these accomplishments and experience, what might he have to say about the holy trinity of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick?
Canonization has fallen out of favor in the twenty-first century (perhaps fittingly, Kubrick left us in 1999), but there is good reason that cinephiles and scholars find these particular titans irresistible. The career of the prolific Hitchcock can be divided into four phases: British Silents, British Sound, American Studio, and American Independent, periods that loosely coincide with his output by decade from the 1920s through the 1950s. Had his oeuvre been limited to any one of those periods, he would still be considered one of the greats. Welles was all of twenty-five years old when he made Citizen Kane (1941), the Empire State Building of movies, and for the rest of his career, incompatible with the Hollywood way, he made astonishing, invariably dazzling films under impossible circumstances. Kubrick, a cerebral diamond cutter, released his films at a glacial pace but every one can be studied with interest shot by shot, if not frame by frame.
Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick shared the ability to rise above the ordinary, the conventional, and the banal.
The Extraordinary Image takes as a welcome point of departure the notion that filmmaking is essentially the craft of building images, and telling stories by way of their composition and juxtaposition. Kolker’s project is especially well-tailored to that insight, as the directors under consideration are among the most purposefully cinematic of filmmakers; each aspired to make movies that could only be understood as movies, a distinct art form with a language and a grammar of its own. Hitchcock held in contempt films he described as “photographs of people talking,” and he came to this position honestly: his apprenticeship, first in Germany and then in England, was in the silent cinema, movies that were necessarily exercises in almost purely visual storytelling. (The arrival of sound in 1929, which in its early days required massive, clumsy equipment, was a step back in this craft, one reason why Peter Bogdonavich considers 1928 the greatest single year in the history of movies.)
Almost all of Hitchcock’s greatest scenes are wordless. This does not detract from the often smart dialogue to be relished in his work—it is simply a matter of fact. Psycho is about one-third silent, including its famous shower scene; so is much of Vertigo (1958). Rear Window (1954) offers a multiplex of silent cinema as Jeffries watches his neighbors, seen but not heard across the courtyard, with each set of frames offering intimate, personal dramas. Dozens of other examples quickly leap to mind, including the superb farmhouse sequence in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and the climactic murder in Sabotage (1936). Similarly, although Welles was a gifted writer and his mastery of radio and theater informed his extraordinary command of sound and space, his films endure because of his virtuosity with the camera (breathtaking even in the studio-redacted The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942), and near obsession with the editing table (1973’s F for Fake offers a virtual clinic in this craft). Kubrick was avant-garde in his ambition to push the possibilities of visual storytelling, evident always but most obviously in the largely wordless 2001.
But there are pitfalls inherent to this promising enterprise. Over lunch with writer-director (and estimable film scholar) Paul Schrader, Kolker is warned that his subject matter is “a well-trod road,” which indeed it is. There are easily a dozen first-rate books on Hitchcock and his films; François Truffaut’s marvelous Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966) is so well-known that it was the subject of a recent documentary. The output on Welles is similarly ceaseless. Recent notable additions include Alberto Anile’s Orson Welles in Italy (2013) and Patrick McGilligan’s 2015 Young Orson (800 pages about Welles before he directed Citizen Kane). And there is Simon Callow’s massive, still-in-progress, four-volume Welles biography (the second volume is the jewel in that crown to date). The Kubrick literature lags, but only in a relative sense—it too is enormous, including Taschen’s invaluable The Stanley Kubrick Archives (2004), edited by Alison Castle, and Kubrick: The Definitive Edition (1999) by esteemed film critic and historian Michel Ciment. This of course puts pressure on Kolker both to have something new to say, and to navigate a tightrope of providing necessary information for the uninitiated without belaboring the obvious.
The Extraordinary Image reads fluidly, but is hampered by its choice of rhetorical style. Kolker frames it as a personal book, in which he is ever-present; the insights are styled as his thoughts about and his relationship with various movies. As a result there is more I, me, and mine here than in the George Harrison lament from Let It Be (1970). At times this comes across as self-indulgent, even when Kolker is making an intriguing point. (“Looking closely at a film’s characters is an interesting exercise for me because I tend to see characters as part of the spatial totality of the film.”) This approach also encourages assertion over argument (“this is the paradox of deep focus . . . the more we see, the less we know”), which can raise doubts in the reader that might have been anticipated and met head-on with some supporting elaborations.
Almost all of Hitchcock’s greatest scenes are wordless.
An unavoidable challenge of Kolker’s project is that although it is common to speak reverently of Hitchcock, Welles, and Kubrick in one breath, their work does not integrate seamlessly, and Kolker’s often strained efforts to unify the volume thematically tend to fall short. Certainly, “What each of these filmmakers have in common is an uncommon control over their medium and their filmmaking lives.” In the most Kubrickian sentence you will ever read, Kolker quotes from a letter the director wrote to Columbia Pictures: “I must have complete total final annihilating artistic control over the picture.” Hitchcock’s fame and commercial power got him close to that level of autonomy; Welles chose the more quixotic path of financing his own films.
And there is that Welles-Hitchcock-Welles triptych of Touch of Evil (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Trial (1962) that does weave through the careers of the two men. In Touch of Evil, Janet Leigh is menaced in a shabby, remote motel overseen by the strange, lanky Dennis Weaver; in Psycho Anthony Perkins slips into Weaver’s shoes and Leigh meets with a more gruesome fate; in The Trail it is Perkins who has fallen into (literally) Kafkaesque disorder (and Jeanne Moreau can be seen as the mirror-image descendant of the previously tormented Leigh).
But there are few other ties that bind. Ultimately, these were very different artists, as suggested by their popular personas: Hitchcock the droll Englishman, invariably in character and costume; Welles the gregarious raconteur; Kubrick the reclusive genius. These differences leave The Extraordinary Image often reaching either for broad platitudes (“Wellesian space overwhelms; Kubrickian space astonishes by its calculation”) or strained analogies, such as the tentative, qualified, but nevertheless repeated comparison of the obsessive protagonists of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The effort to find more than superficial parallels between Welles’s The Trial (1962) and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956)—both pictures feature the unfairly accused—seems forced, as does the attempt to draw comparisons between Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) and Welles’s The Stranger (1946). Both films do touch on “the remnants of Nazism,” but that is where the similarities end. Welles is concerned, not so much about Nazis per se, but the endurance of latent fascism in postwar America and Europe (The Stranger was the first commercial film to include footage from concentration camps). Hitchcock, by contrast, saw the Nazi theme as a “McGuffin,” his term for a nominal plot device to get the audience engaged in a movie that is actually about something very different (in the case of Notorious, the triangular relationship between Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains).
A chapter on the theme of “dream worlds” illustrates how widely the net must be cast to bring the filmmakers together. The discussion of Hitchcock’s films as occupying this twilight state—and of characters “that get caught in bad dreams that seem to take place in a palpably awake world”—rings true. I would argue this is especially the case for Jimmy Stewart’s performances in Rope (1948), Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo. Rear Window and Vertigo play explicitly with the grey area between consciousness and unconsciousness; in Rope and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart’s characters are slow to process the fact that they are indeed being confronted with their worst nightmares.
But as a unifying theme, the dream world only gets us so far. Kolker quite properly notes that Eyes Wide Shut is inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s Freudian Traumnovelle (Dream Story, 1926)—and, indeed, one of the film’s principal themes is the relationship between dreams and “reality.” And he argues quite plausibly that “The Trial is Welles’s nightmare film.” But ultimately the dream theme is not one that brings these artists together in some distinct way. Most movies, after all, can be seen as dreams of one sort or another, or, as Kolker puts it, “There is a common notion that all films are like dreams.”
Still, there is much to appreciate in The Extraordinary Image. Kolker is on firmer ground when he sticks to considering these talents individually, engagements that fortunately make up the bulk of the book. And for some readers (myself included), the topic is virtually foolproof. “I want to be engaged over and over again with Vertigo or Touch of Evil or just about anything by Kubrick,” Kolker announces along the way—and those who share this sentiment will find much to like.
An astonishing scene in Kubrick's Killer’s Kiss, in which scores of mute, naked female mannequins are mutilated in the midst of a fight between two men, is a textbook example of every charge of misogyny ever leveled at film noir.
But even those who read the book with pleasure may find themselves wanting a bit more. Kolker is least sure-handed with Hitchcock, though the analysis is often informative. For example, he observes that when the Master of Suspense reaches for a high-angle shot, the characters are in trouble. And Kolker’s take on Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s favorite Hitchcock, is right on: “ostensibly about a serial killer and his niece . . . it is also a film about America and World War II.”
With regard to Welles, it is admittedly a challenge to find something new to say about Citizen Kane, but it is surprising that Kolker does not follow up on his smart analysis of the geometric constructions in early scenes with, for example, some discussion of the shifting triangular compositions during the confrontation at Susan Alexander’s apartment. Welles’s telegraphing of the changing interpersonal balance of power in that scene is a tour de force of visual choreography. The Extraordinary Image is sharper when rising to the defense of some of Welles’s least celebrated efforts, including The Stranger, Mr. Arkadin (1955), and (with an uncommon enthusiasm) The Immortal Story (1969). Better still is Kolker’s assessment of Touch of Evil, and the observation that the film’s greatest long take is not the (marvelous and justly famous) opening shot, but the interrogation scene in Sanchez’s apartment, a scene in which “six to eight people (they come and go) in a crowded space are covered in a shot that lasts about seven minutes,” followed by a “return to the apartment [that] constitutes another long shot of almost five minutes.” Going out on a limb (and I am happy to join him there), Kolker concludes that “Touch of Evil is amazing in ways that Citizen Kane . . . is not.”
The treatment of Kubrick illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book’s hit-and-run style. Are his films “almost always about diminishing lives”? Maybe. The notion that “all of Kubrick’s characters get trapped, often because the circumstances they set up become out of their control” sounds right, as do many of Kolker’s observations about Kubrick’s camera placement, endings, and—who knew—bathrooms (it turns out they are ubiquitous across his oeuvre). In his discussion of Eyes Wide Shut, Kolker shares the relationship that many have with Kubrick films: he finds that he likes it more and more with each screening. Initially indifferent to the movie, he now “can’t seem to stop talking about it.” But those elaborations, however well informed, are ultimately prosaic, and could have pushed harder on the ways in which Kubrick’s films express their key themes. And the observation that Kubrick is “a brilliant manipulator of color” demands more commentary than “just note the palette of Eyes Wide Shut.” Even within the confines of a 1,500-word review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin was able to offer this: “it overpoweringly deploys certain colors, most notably red and blue. The conjugal life is bathed in red, at first, and death and danger in blue—until the film begins switching and juxtaposing them incessantly to create underlying tension. The advent of purple, first on the dress of a young prostitute and later on the sheets where Alice sleeps, has its own innate drama.”
Despite having a chapter on “Power and Sexuality,” The Extraordinary Image also skims the surface when it comes to sex, even though this is one area that might present an opportunity for thoughtful comparisons across these filmmakers. Kolker’s analysis of Lolita (1962) is thought provoking, arguing that Humbert Humbert is not so much undone by his charismatic rival Quilty, but by Lolita’s “becoming an ordinary, crushingly banal hausfrau.” But his treatment of sexuality in Dr. Strangelove (1964) is superficial, not venturing much past the usual suspects of “the very names of the characters are hilariously sexualized,” General Ripper’s madness, and Major Kong’s phallic ride on the H-bomb. But Kubrick was not a snickering middle-schooler; influenced by Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, he wanted to consider how repressed sexual impulses might find dangerous expression elsewhere. Throughout the film, the ubiquitous presence of food and eating indicates the sublimation of a voracious but repressed sexual desire—note the contents of the survival kits provided to crew members on the B-52: “nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics.” And the men in the war room eagerly understand that repopulating society from post-apocalyptic coal mines will regrettably require the abandonment of monogamy—goodbye civilization, hello free love.
The treatment of women in Kubrick’s films can (and has) filled volumes—that astonishing scene in Killer’s Kiss (1955), in which scores of mute, naked female mannequins are mutilated in the midst of a fight between two men wildly swinging axes and spears can be read as a summary of every charge of misogyny ever leveled at film noir. And the connection between sex and death in Kubrick films goes back at least as far as Paths of Glory (1957), when one soldier realizes that he hasn’t had a “single sexual thought” since learning he had been condemned to face a firing squad. But once again The Extraordinary Image more commonly gestures than investigates. A summary of the sexual banter between Joker and Cowboy in Full Metal Jacket (1987), for example, was particularly unfulfilling, as this reader at least has always struggled with how to read that scene. Regrettably, Kolker does little more than describe the action. Yes, Joker’s sexually aggressive banter is accompanied, (incidentally and subtly), by “the fly on his shorts coming open,” but is this indicating a sexual relationship between the two men? The film (and this book) doesn’t say.
Hitchcock's obsession with sex and fetish are on full display in his films.
Welles, on the other hand, shied away from sex—at least on screen. The globetrotting charismatic genius had well more than his share of tabloid-filling romantic adventures. But despite the fact that his characters were often motivated by overwhelming passion, with regard to the portrayal of overt sexuality on the screen his films were virtually chaste, reflecting a nostalgia for the genteel nineteenth-century social values expressed by characters in The Magnificent Ambersons, and by Welles himself in countless interviews. He playfully chastised Peter Bogdonavich for making a “dirty movie” (1971’s The Last Picture Show), but soon after that shot his first erotically charged scene for his (finally forthcoming, it would appear) The Other Side of the Wind, if under the cover of a film-within-the-film.
In contrast to Welles, Hitchcock’s sex life has typically been described as both modest and repressed. While many have drawn conclusions about Hitchcock’s sexuality from Tippi Hedren’s accusation that she was sexually assaulted by the director, this link is not necessary: Hitchcock’s obsessions are on full display in his films, which burst at the seams with sexual guilt and fetishization. Hitchcock often falls into the lazy trap of what Norman Mailer described, in one of his finest essays, as deploying “The Homosexual Villain” (whereby dramatists adorn sociopathic antagonists with stereotypically homosexual traits, as if to suggest that one form of “deviance” from social norms implied or even explained another). Examples in Hitchcock’s films include Murder (1930), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rope, and Martin Landau’s character in North by Northwest (1959), but there is much more than that going on. Hitchcock routinely reveals a fascination with sexual power and control; handcuffs play an especially notable role in the first three decades of his filmmaking (e.g., The Lodger , The 39 Steps, Saboteur ). If shedding the overt bondage, what Hitchcock called “the fetish idea” became even more pronounced in late career. In Marnie (1964), Hitchcock described this manifesting as the compulsion of “a man [who] wants to go to bed with a thief because she is a thief,” explaining to Truffaut that he thought expressing the fetish was less successfully executed in Marnie than in his other films because to make the point adequately clear “we’d have had to have Sean Connery catching the girl robbing the safe and show that he felt like jumping at her” on the spot.
Quite understandably, Hitchcock counts Vertigo among his “fetish” pictures. Among other things, consider that it is clear to the viewer (but apparently not the censors) that when Scotty rescues an unconscious Judy/Madeline from San Francisco Bay, he subsequently disrobes her completely; later we learn that she was actually only pretending to be unconscious, and so was awake for the entire episode. One would have hoped that Kolker would have more to say about how what each character knew (or thought they knew) about this informed their subsequent relationship, with its layers of obsession and duplicity. Ultimately, however, The Extraordinary Image catalogues rather than interrogates the sexual idiosyncrasies and frustrations of the characters that appear in all of these films.
There is still plenty to say about Alfred, Orson, and Stanley. And if you are among those who enjoy such things, The Extraordinary Image will offer a good read, and you will likely find it a pleasure to argue with the book along the way. But ultimately Kolker’s ambition is too modest. The book is littered with keen observations readily savored, but the reader is unlikely to come away from the discussion with a novel appreciation of a film, or a scene. The book concludes with the observation that our heroes shared the ability to “triumph” over “the ordinary, the conventional, the banal.” Certainly they did. But surely there was more.