“Vertigo” in “Twelve Monkeys”

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Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian time-travel thriller Twelve Monkeys begins in the year 2035. We gradually learn that a virus released in 1996 killed off almost all of the world’s population. One of the underground-dwelling survivors, James Cole (Bruce Willis), is sent back in time to the 1990s to try to gather information about the outbreak. He winds up in an insane asylum, where his claims that he has come from the future don’t go over too well.

The TV-in-the-day-room is an essential fixture of such scenes, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on down. Often, mindless chirpy fare on the set comments on the grim reality before us. That’s the case in Twelve Monkeys, where, in addition, everything playing on the TV relates to animals. We successively see three 1940s Tex Avery cartoons:  “Swing Shift Cinderella,” “Little Tinker,” and “Who Killed Who.” We also glimpse a segment from “Horizon: The Cruel Choice,” a 1983 British documentary on animal experimentation (a theme of Twelve Monkeys), which itself includes a clip from the movie The Andromeda Strain. Then, to hit the monkey theme home, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business briefly comes on. (It’s heard more than seen.)

In a later scene, a television is playing “Prehistoric Super Salesman,” a 1969 cartoon. IMDB’s plot description: “Woody Woodpecker is sent back to the stone age by a mad scientist and his time tunnel.”

But the  big set-piece movie-in-movie scene comes late in the film, when circumstances have started to crowd in on Cole and Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist he encounters in one of his visits to 1996 and who becomes his companion on the mission he comes to believe is his destiny.

The segment begins with full-screen view of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in which the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are strolling among California redwoods. The dreamy Novak, who imagines herself the reincarnation of a nineteenth-century woman, points out “my” life span on an ancient tree’s rings; the parallels with Twelve Monkeys’ time traveling is clear.

We cut away to see Cole and Kathryn sitting in a Philadelphia movie theater that’s showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon also including (a marquee tells us) Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and Psycho. The parallels to Vertigo multiply. Cole say, “I think I’ve seen this movie before, when I was a kid.” And right after he says the word “before,” Stewart asks Novak (whose present-day character is named Madeleine, just like Stowe), “Have you been here before?”

Cole is mesmerized by the movie, and gets at a striking comparison: that watching a film at different times in your life might be similar to keeping on going back in time to the same moment.

It’s just like what’s happening with us. The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different.

Then someone in the sparse audience shushes him, a nice touch.

The next thing Cole knows, he wakes up alone in the theater, wearing a wig and fake mustache. On the screen is yet another Hitchcock movie, The Birds, reinforcing the animals-run-amuk thread of Twelve Monkeys. He runs out to the lobby and it’s almost as if we’ve literally stepped into Vertigo. Kathryn has on a blonde wig (making her look like so many Hitchock heroines) and actually is wearing the same style of coat Novak wears in Vertigo. At the moment when Cole sees her, the soundtrack is part of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score.

On the Twelve Monkeys director’s commentary, Gilliam describes how things got bizarre when he and his team looked at the scene from which they mined the music.

We discovered that the cuts between Kim and Jimmy Stewart are identical to the cuts between Madeleine and Bruce. Then it got even stranger. The scene [in Vertigo] ends when they embrace and the whole room turns around them…. The foyer of the cinema [in Twelve Monkeys] is circular. We put them on a a turntable and the whole room spins around them.

That scene was eventually cut out. Still, Gilliam says, “It was almost as if the ghost of Hitchcock was making this section of the film.”

 

“Saboteur”

In 1942, six years after Sabotage, Alfred Hitchcock made the similarly titled Saboteur. But so much had changed. Hitchcock was now based in America, and Saboteur–an earlier-day North By Northwest, in a number of ways–was his first film to exploit the landmarks of what would become his adopted country, including Boulder Dam, the Statue of Liberty, and, in the movie-in-movie scene, Radio City Music Hall.

The main character, competently played by Robert Cummings, works in a munitions plant in Los Angeles (which in the movie is always pronounced “Los Angle-ese,” the way I remember the baseball announcers of my youth saying it). Falsely accused of setting a fire, he goes on the lam and eventually crosses the country, along the way finding the real Fifth Columnists.

One of the traitors is played by Norman Lloyd, whose career has stretched from his debut on the New York stage in 1933 to a role in 2015’s Trainwreck (and included a memorable turn as Dr. Auschlander in the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere). The cops are on to him and track him down in Radio City, filled with folks watching a melodrama.

 

It’s a great set piece but a strange one. The audience is tittering, then laughing uproariously, at the film on the big screen (which isn’t a real movie but a scene shot by Hitchcock with B-list actors), even after jealous-husband Henry pulls out a gun and threatens to use it. At that very moment, the Lloyd character, cornered by the cops and hiding behind the movie screen, shoots through it with terrible consequences. Henry starts shooting, but the audience incongruously keeps  roaring with laughter–until a woman screams. Lloyd moves in front of the screen and darts across it, creating a riveting image that may have been Hitchcock’s most self-conscious commentary on reality and artifice and terror, and how mixed up they can become.

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“Who Killed Cock Robin?” in “Sabotage”

A broad theme of this blog is the way in which cinema is about cinema. Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) is in large part about a cinema, The Bijou, which the main characters–the Verloc family–own and operate, next to which they live, and where a good deal of the action takes place. That’s one (of many) departures from the source material, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. What both book and film share is that Verloc is a saboteur, his wife and her younger brother are unaware of that, and a bomb explosion is at the center of the plot.

(Spoiler alert.) In the film, Verloc (Oskar Homolka) gives his wife’s young brother Stevie the bomb, hidden in a bird cage, along with film canisters labeled Bartholomew the Strangler–another meta touch, as no such film exists. He gets on a bus and is supposed to drop the package off at an appointed spot at 1:30. The audience knows the bomb is set to detonate at 1:45, and, in the first great Hitchcockian set piece, we watch with mounting suspense and horror as the bus is delayed and the clock ticks ever closer to the fateful time. It finally arrives, the bomb goes off, and Stevie is killed.

In their sitting room next to the Bijou, Verloc confesses to his wife (Sylvia Sidney) what happened, trying to excuse his role in the tragedy. In a state of shock, she walks out and into the theater and the sound of laughter. The audience–mostly children–are watching the 1935 Disney short “Who Killed Cock Robin?” in which the robin, crooning a la Bing Crosby, is serenading a wren who talks and looks like Mae West. For a moment, Mrs. Verloc joins in the laughter, and it seems that the lesson might be the same as in Sullivan’s Travelsthe transporting and redemptive quality of silly comedy.

But then an arrow is shot and strikes Cock Robin, who falls to the ground, apparently dead. The spell is broken, and Mrs. Verloc’s face, in closeup, literally falls. She is back to her real-life world of mourning and pain.