Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli

I caught two very different movies at two very different theaters, Friday night. Both films were very much worth catching.

The Wrong Man

The Pacific Film Archive has been running its Alfred Hitchcock series since January, but it took me until Friday to actually get to one of the screenings. I’m really glad I went.

Hitchcock made The Wrong Man at the height of his powers. His next three films would be Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Like Vertigo, The Wrong Man was a critical and commercial flop on it’s original release. Unlike Vertigo, it has remained obscure. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I know that it deserves a better reputation.

Although it uses one of Hitchcock’s favorite plots–the innocent citizen imagewrongly accused of a crime–it’s unlike anything he ever made. Based on a true story and apparently following it quite closely, it realistically shows you the reality of that situation. Manny, a professional musician with a steady, modest-paying gig (Henry Fonda), doesn’t escape from life-threatening adventures, track down evil spies, or meet and romance a glamorous blonde. He gets fingerprinted and put in jail. He gets out on bail, and hires a lawyer he probably can’t afford. His wife (Vera Miles–who is a gorgeous blonde) has a nervous breakdown.

Even Hitchcock’s cameo is different than any other. The film opens with him, in long shot and shadow, directly addressing the audience, and telling them this is unlike any of his other thrillers.

And yet, in many ways, this is very much an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Right from the start, as Manny leaves work in the wee hours of the morning, takes the subway home, and talks about money with his wife, Hitchcock’s sense of camera angles, editing, and sound provides an overwhelming sense of dread.

In many ways, this is one of his scariest movies. We know that we will never be mistaken for a spy, or discover that a favorite uncle is a serial killer, or be attacked by huge flocks of crows. But if we’re sufficiently unlucky, we might actually someday be arrested for someone else’s felony. And even if we’re eventually proven innocent, the experience could have lasting emotional and financial effects.

Warner Brothers provided the PFA with a seriously scratched print that has seen better days. Good thing this was a black and white movie; at least the print wasn’t faded.

From Up on Poppy Hill

From the PFA on the UC Berkeley campus, I walked west to downtown Berkeley’s California Theater, where I caught the latest animated feature from Japan’s fabled Studio Ghibli. It was a very special screening.

Like all Ghibli films, From Up on Poppy Hill has been dubbed into English for its wide American release. But for this week, the California and Embarcadero are showing the original Japanese version–with English subtitles–for the last screening of the day.

That’s well worth catching.

Set in the early 1960s, From Up on Poppy Hill can best be described as whimsical. A dramatic comedy about first love, it focuses on a teenage girl falling on love for the first time, against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse.

This is a warm, sweet, nostalgic, and mild movie without villains or real disasters. Frightening things have happened in the past, and the scars of war–although no longer on the buildings–are still in everyone’s hearts and family histories.

Of course first love never runs smooth. This young couple run into obstacles, one of them serious enough to derail a romance.

imageThis is the rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings.

Which brings up an interesting question: Why bother with animation? Why not tell the story with live action?

Two reasons:

First, because hand-drawn, 2D animation is with Studio Ghibli does, and does better than anyone else these days.

And second, because they can do so much with it. With astonishingly simple brushstrokes, the Ghibli artists can evoke a place, a community, and a human face’s emotion. It’s a joy to watch.

Catch this picture–preferably in the subtitled version.

Unfortunately, the California is screening From Up on Poppy Hill on one of their upstairs theaters–once part of this aging palace’s balcony. The screen is small, and the sightlines off. Worse, when something loud happens in the big downstairs auditorium, you hear it upstairs.

Other than these problems–which existed when the theater screened film–I had no complaints about the digital projection.