Monday, July 25, 2016

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Dark Night of the Hunter
(written in 2007)

1955 saw the directorial debut (and only directorial effort) in The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton.  Laughton was better known as an actor from films like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Spartacus (1960).  The film, like many classics, was ahead of its time and flopped in the box office. IMDB reports that the film made only $300,000 on its initial release while its budget was almost $800,000.  The critical reaction at the time was so negative that Laughton vowed to never direct again.

The film stars Robert Mitchum, who is notorious for playing each of his characters the same, however, in this film he manages to portray a convincing sociopath.  Also featured in the film is a young Shelly Winters.  She looked very different in her younger days, much prettier than she appeared when she was in The Poseidon Adventure in her later years.  Lillian Gish, who was already a Hollywood legend at the time of the film’s release, is strong in her role as Rachel Cooper.  Gish is one of the few stars from the silent era who successfully transitioned into the “talkies” and continued making films into the 1980s.  One of the shining stars of the film was the young Billy Chapin who portrays John Harper.  Chapin had a lot to carry with his role in the film and was quite successful in it.  Chapin only appeared in one more film before leaving Hollywood (IMDB).

The film’s opening sets us up for the themes that will later be explored.  These include the innocence of children, good versus evil, faith in God and explorations of the sexual nature of men (and women). Robert Mitchum portrays Harry Powell, a man who uses the guise of a preacher to commit crimes. He is caught, sentenced and is sent to jail.  While in prison, he shares a cell with Ben Harper and hears him talk about money obtained in a robbery in his sleep. Harper is executed for his part in a robbery, but he hid the money and entrusted his children, who are about 10 and 5 years old, with the money's location.  Upon his release from prison, Powell returns to masquerading as a preacher.  He woos and marries Harper's widow, Willa in order to obtain the robbery money, and eventually kills her.  The children, especially John, distrust and resist Powell.  After their mother's death, Powell learns the money's location from Pearl after threatening John.  The children escape with Rachel Cooper played by Gish.  He eventually finds them, but is stopped by Rachel, who figures out that he is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  The police are notified and he is arrested. He is then tried for multiple murders and then executed.

The film was based on a novel about a real person who lived the life that Powell’s character portrays. The thematic elements of the film are so universal that this film has often been referenced, copied, imitated and/or quoted by numerous films.  Do to the disturbing nature of the film, children as lead characters who are forced to stand up against a pedophilic faux-preacher; the film was not well received in its release.  As previously mentioned, this was just another case of the film being ahead of it’s time.  As time as show, this film is now considered a classic.

With the film’s beginning depicting Rachel Cooper reading a bedtime story from the bible to the children, the frame work is laid out depicting a child’s nightmare.  This is especially true as the story develops.  John Harper, who is only a boy, is forced to stand up for himself and his sister in an adult world.  He is essentially left to fend for himself after his mother is killed by Powell.  One can remember from their own childhood, the fear of being left on one’s own with no mother or father around for guidance.  The film also reminds us of those nightmares where we are being chased and cannot find anywhere to hide.  This film excels at forcing these fears to present themselves again in our minds.

The film further pursues the concept of how men are often the predators of the world.  Women and children must beware as to not become their victims.  Powell has killed children in the past and has no problem killing women.  The children in this film, along with Rachel Cooper are forced to stand up again this predator and ultimately win the fight.  This also coincides with the confusion for children as to who they should trust and believe in the world.  Even when Powell is arrested for the last time, John becomes upset and physically ill.  He turns over the Pearl’s doll with the money hidden to the police in some vain attempt to make everything stop and go away.  Even though Powell is the “evil-stepfather,” the children are once again victims as he is taken away for the murder of their mother.
As the film ends, Rachel’s final words are once again quoted from the bible.

”They abide and they endure.”  This is the moral of this nightmarish bedtime story for children, if you do what you are told, you will always end up alright.  The word “endure” does not insinuate that these terrible events won’t haunt the orphaned children for the rest of their lives, but it does suggest that obedience breeds survival.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Dark City (1998)

Dark City – Proud to be a Hybrid
(written in 2006)

In Janet Staiger’s article, “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History” she argues that Hollywood films have never been “pure” or easily arranged into categories nor are modern films hybrids of genres.  She hesitates to loosely call such films “hybrids” as some film scholars has done because of the suggestion that a hybrid as it’s own genre is invalid.  There is an inherent need for a reliable categorization for films, but Staiger argues that all modern films fit into multiple genres and categories. In her argument, she disagrees that movies such as sci-fi noir are hybrids.  She instead suggests, derogatorily, that the term “inbred” would be a better way to define these films, since they sample prior film conventions to create new ones.  I disagree and believe using the term “hybrid film” is a useful and helpful term in defining contemporary genres.  A recent example of this is found in Alex Proyas’ 1998 film Dark City.  This underrated film is a textbook example of how to successfully meld film noir with science fiction and validates the argument for the continued recognition of genre hybrids.

In an article by Rob Latham, he notes that “postmodernism tends to move toward an implosion of conventionally separate genres, creating multiple hybrids.”  (Latham 229) It is a rare sight in our modern times for completely conventional genre pictures to be produced.  While a discussion of genre study and theory is beyond the scope of this argument, it is worth noting that genre purity has become nothing more than a historical note in film history.  Virtually every movie borrows from earlier films or crosses conventions through two or more genres.  Laura Marks defines hybrid cinema in the following way:

The term "hybrid cinema" also implies a hybrid form, mixing documentary, fiction, personal, and experimental genres, as well as different media. By pushing the limits of any genre, hybrid cinema forces each genre to explain itself, to forgo any transparent relationship to the reality it represents, and to make evident the knowledge claims on which it is based. Hybrid cinema is in a position to do archaeology, to dig up the traces that the dominant culture, and for that matter any fixed cultural identity, would just as soon forget. One cannot simply contemplate a hybrid (or a work of hybrid cinema): one cannot help but be implicated in the power relations upon which it reflects. (Marks 8)

With Marks definition of hybrid cinema, she provides another clear explanation for the purpose of having the term.  This counters Staiger’s argument that hybrid is inaccurate or unnecessary. According to Marks, hybrid cinema allows us to push genres to every possible edge of their individual definition. We are then able to review and rethink the implications of that genre.  It also it takes us back to where we recall fears and concerns of the past that are also applicable to today’s time.  Film noir was very much reflective of the World War II paranoia that permeated society.  By forming a hybrid with science fiction, noir becomes applicable to our current times as we attempt to deal with modernist fears.  Fears such as: where is the world going?  Will it still be here for our children and our children’s children?  Will technology cause a greater sense of alienation between people?  Is the concept of a utopian society nothing more than a fantasy?  These themes are all present in the sci-fi noir hybrid genre.

When we look at the origins of film noir, we find that it is made up of many elements and is a virtual hybrid of concepts in itself.  “Film noir is a mood, a tone, a play of shadows and light and beyond all of these, a visual consideration that in its narrative structures embodies a world view.” (Tuska) Paul Schrader in his groundbreaking essay “notes on film noir,” believes there were four main causes for noir, “World War II and post-war disillusionment, post-war realism, the German influence (meaning the work of German expressionists), and the hard-boiled tradition of gangster films. (Schrader)
This is further supported by Alain Silver and James Ursini where they describe noir as a “group movement” much like Italian Neo-Realism and German Expressionism. (Silver and Ursini)  Classic film noir is considered to have ended in the early 1960s but following that time, there were films that borrowed from noir conventions and combined them with other genres.  This style was given the name of neo-noir. By its name, it harkens back to German Expressionism and Italy’s Neo-realism, two genres which greatly influenced the more popularly known genres which came along after.
In the post-classical Hollywood era, one of the most significant trends in noir crossovers involves science fiction. This post-modern sci-fi noir emergence began with Blade Runner (1982) and grew even larger in the late ‘90s with films like Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Gattaca (1997). Representations of film noir continue into the 21st century with films like Brick (2005) and even The Black Dahlia (2006), a film which seems to be little more than an exercise of the film noir genre. Dark City stands out among all of these films as yet another postmodern variation on the genre of film noir, with science fiction being a framing element to the story.

To critically study genre conventions within Dark City, we must place the film within contemporary culture where “film noir has not only made a comeback as neo-noir pastiche, but in which genre boundaries have become so permeable that noir tropes have infiltrated adjacent popular genres” (Hantke).  Many contemporary films use elements of film noir to heighten their aesthetic.  For Dark City, the noir aspect is almost a character itself within the film.  The term “Dark City” has been used to describe the look of many early gangster/mob films which were later given the label “film noir.”

The title of the films prepares you, if nothing else, for the look of the film that you about to see.
Within film noir and Dark City the city represents the horrors of the modern world.  No one is who they appear to be nor are they who they think they are. In Dark City, this is due to The Strangers switching around everyone’s identity each night.  This is a reflection of our modern times as we come to terms that we are really strangers to one another and that no one really knows anyone, much less themselves.  The control that The Strangers have over the Dark City world brings in the science fiction element.  The mechanical system that powers the Dark City world is portrayed as a big machine that lies deep underground where The Strangers dwell.  The big machine is representative of the corporate world that we live with in these modern times and controls our lives in the real world.  It also harkens to the Orwellian idea of “Big Brother” controlling the world around us.  This element of the film works well within this genre hybrid of science fiction and noir.

Throughout the film, John Murdoch, the protagonist, has reoccurring memories of Shell Beach, a place he thinks that he enjoyed spending the summers during his childhood.  Try as he might, he cannot remember how to get back there.  Eerily, everyone that he asks knows the place but cannot remember where it is either or how to find it.  On his various attempts to find Shell Beach, he hits dead ends.  In this way, the city is called into question.  Questions begin to arise in the audience as to what the city is all about.  This is foreshadowed early in the film as we are shown a circular rat maze with a rat heading deeper into the maze as opposed as heading out of it.   In our modern lives, we often feel as if we are running in circles and hitting dead ends as we make our way through the world, with no way out.  This theme is commonly found in films of noir based hybrids.

Noir commonly also features amnesia storylines where a man awakens to find he is accused of a murder that he does not recall committing.  The amnesia subplot has also become extremely popular in the last decade with successful films like Momento (2001).  This film is no exception.  Dark City begins with Murdoch, waking up in a state of amnesia and finding a dead body in his room with a bloody knife next to him.  He has no recollection of who the woman is or of a murder.  The film continues, true to the genre conventions, as Murdoch then finds himself running from the police who are pursuing him as the murderer.  This concept of amnesia within the noir genre is for an even greater purpose as it forces the audience to experience “a nagging sense that, even in our relatively untraumatized middle-class lives, something is missing and we can’t quite recall what it is.” (Rafferty) The individual identity crisis of Murdoch is symbolic of the worldwide identity questions of: Who am I really?  Why was I created?  What is my purpose?  Variations of these questions are addressed throughout hybrid genres such as sci-fi noir.

The theme also continues to resonate with audiences with a deep rooted fear that the lives we are living are nothing but illusions.  This anxiety which continues to be played out in neo-noir films, like that of Dark City is the fear that lies in the back of our mind that our lives and identities have been created for us, like those of the citizens in the film.  Everything is synthetic and artificially created around us.  This is most often attributed to our political leaders, who frequently “cultivate historical amnesia.” (Rafferty)  Our culture of consumerism, represented by “the city” also encourages amnesia as we are encouraged to believe that the next “big thing” is better and supersedes that which was created before it.  This exemplifies the sense of loss we all experience as modernity robs us from tradition.  Modernity states that everything and everyone is disposable and recyclable.  Like the constantly changing world of Dark City, our world is changed around us whether we approve of it or not.  That which is in the past is gone and future has yet to be created.  Tradition and comforts are uprooted by those that exercise control over us and there is little, if anything, that we can do about it.
Films using noir in recent times have often utilized it to reflect a specific time period in America’s past.  It seems to often portray the postwar 1950s such as in a film like L.A. Confidential (1997).  “The current versions of noir are too self-conscious to transmit the same anxieties of the original noir films. Instead, they trade on an even spookier notion: All emotions are a thing of the past, gone the way of the traditional virtues.” (Sharrett 79) This does play into the characterizations in Dark City, where the Strangers change the memories and identities nightly of the humans in the city. Everyone experiences a form of subconscious amnesia, since they cannot recall that fact that they held a different identity on the prior day.  All emotions between those characters are not truly theirs, since no one is really who they think they are, which is another feature of noir films.   In the film, the noir element is not played so much to set a time period, but more of sense of nostalgia that is played in the background to the over-riding science fiction storyline.

This amnesia also breeds paranoia and confusion which grows within Murdoch’s psyche.  The unknown elements of the city feed the paranoia and terror.  It is presented in the science fiction portion of the hybrid genre by showcasing the lack of knowledge of the world that they characters live in.  Vivian Sobchak points to three things found in science fiction films to deal with the paranoia. There is a look to magic, religion and science.  The magic is sought out to reconcile with unknown powers.  Religion is used to reconcile one’s own existence, while science is used as an empirical way to explain the unexplained.

Murdoch’s character is imparted with the same “magic” power as The Strangers have and is able to use it to defeat them.  This same magic is then used to change the Dark City world into the world that he wants.  The darkness element of noir is eliminated as the sun rises and lights up the city.  Science is portrayed in the film by Dr. Schrader (Kiefer Sutherland) who is a “human” psychiatrist who agreed to help The Strangers in exchange for not having his memory erased every night.  As the film progresses, he uses the science of The Strangers against them by empowering  Murdoch with the ability to defeat them.

Religion is featured in the film within the character of Murdoch who is portrayed as a messianic figure.  Much like that of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (1977) or Neo in The Matrix (1999), the messianic figure is prominent in science fiction genre films.  Murdoch’s defeating of The Strangers portrays him as the savior of the Dark City citizens and hints at a “happily ever after” conclusion, but it does not wrap up all the loose ends.

Dark City concludes with an ambiguous ending, also common to the noir genre.  Much like reality, we never know how things will eventually turn out.  Murdoch manages to cause the light to shine on the city and bring in large bodies water, the moisture of which, kills off The Strangers. However, we are left with not knowing what becomes of the people there.  It is never even disclosed if the people were originally from Earth or if they were even human.  Murdoch is also able to create Shell Beach, which he had never been able to find in his prior attempts to seek it out.  The event of him creating Shell Beach again brings up the notion that reality is nothing more than what we want it to be.  Nothing is ever solved; the mystery of life, both in the movie and reality continues to draw questions.

While they may not all be historically accurate, the noir conventions of 30s and 40s American iconography portrayed in the film were never meant to be.  Both within the story and for the audience, the iconic noir representations are there to set a mood for the film as a whole.  Some of the noir conventions of the eternal 1940s in Dark City are presented as the cars on the street, the wardrobe of the people and even the appearance of an all-night automat.  The look is very reminiscent of the artwork of Edward Hopper, whose most popular work was created in the 1940s and reflects his vision of that time.  One scene in the film takes place in the automat as Murdock goes in to retrieve a lost wallet.  The harsh lighting contrasted with the darkness outside the automat, like that of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, portrays the isolated feelings of the characters in the film.  Even when they want to eat, they are forced to get their food from the mechanical device.  Human interaction is at a minimum and even then is usually cold and unfriendly.  The seedy hotel where Murdock lives is watched over by the man at the front desk who is lit by a single lamp hanging over his head.  He reminds Murdock constantly of the rent being due in an unkind tone.  Due to the fact that the thoughts and memories are traded around each night, Murdoch is faced with interacting with different people each day who are sharing the same identity. For example, the front desk man at the hotel where Murdoch lives one day is swapped out with a different person who still knows his name and still demands the rent money.  This constant change of identities represents the impossibility of a utopian society.  No one ever really knows anyone. The Strangers are all very similar to each other in appearance and personality.  They live in a form of utopian society below the Earth, but it a cold, disaffection life they lead.  This further destroys the myth of a perfect utopian world.

The Strangers are representative of the horror genre as they seem to be part vampire, zombie and the living dead.  This is yet another genre hybrid which exists within this film and it cohabitates comfortably with sci-fi noir.  Much like the sci-fi noir hybrid, sci-fi horror is concerned with the same broad thematic territory.  It addresses the terror of the unknown, especially for Murdoch as he learns more about whom The Strangers are and what they want from him.  As the film progresses, we discover that The Strangers are some sort of alien that are using corpses for a body as a means to interact in a world with humans (or whoever the human-like people are, since it is never disclosed if they were abducted from Earth or where they come from).  Aliens are most always symbolic of those that are different from us, whether its race, gender or philosophy.  In the sci-fi horror hybrid forms, they are presented as being terrifying creatures, sometimes, like in the case of Dark City, they take on a human form to make their identity indistinguishable from the humans.  Other examples of aliens in science fiction and horror hybrid films that combine those two genres are Alien (1979), The Thing (1982) and Species (1995).

It is a challenge to find any film that does not combine multiple genre conventions.  Going back to Staiger’s article, she argues that film genre purity has never existed.  That argument is an agreeable one since every film has always utilized various concepts.  Even film noir took gangster films and utilized German Expressionistic aesthetics to create the kind of hybrid film that was later defined as noir.  However, her claims that post-Fordian Hollywood films should not be called hybrids because of the fact that genre purity has never existed is a ridiculous one.  Modern Hollywood films are virtually all hybrid films that combine genre elements to create fresh approaches to film narratives.


Dark City. 1998. New Line Cinema. DVD 1999.
Hantke, Steffen. Encapsulated Noir: Hybrid Genres and Social Mobility in Alex Proyas’ Dark City.  6 October 2006.  15 November 2006. From Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies.

Latham, Rob (2002) Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. Questia. 13 Dec. 2006 <>.

Rafferty, Terrence (2003-11-02). "The Last Word in Alienation: I Just Don't Remember". 13 December 2006.

Schrader, Paul (1996) Notes on Film Noir, in Alain Silver and James Ursini (eds.), Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, pp. 53-65.

Sharrett, Christopher. "The Endurance of Film Noir." USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) July 1998: 79. Questia. 13 Dec. 2006 <>.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini (1996). Film Noir Reader, vol. 1 Pompton Plains, N.J.: Limelight Editions.  pp.

Sobchack, Vivian (2004). ‘Cities on the edge of time: the urban science fiction film’, in Liquid Metal,. ed. S. Redmond, Wallflower Press, London, pp. 78–87.

Staiger, J. (1997). “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History." Film Criticism. 22(1): 5-21.

Tuska, Jon. Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.  p. vii

Monday, July 11, 2016

Blackmail (1929)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail

       Considered by most to be the first true British talkie, as well as Hitchcock’s first sound film, Blackmail is a historical film in the British cannon of cinema.  My thesis will compare and contrast the silent version of Hitchcock’s original creation to the “new” sound version.   I will examine the film and discuss whether the sound version improved upon the original with the scenes featuring sound as well as its influence on the British cinema and Hitchcock’s career.

Hitchcock began his early film career with Gainsborough Pictures under Michael Balcon.  He learned aspects of the trade including spending some time with German filmmakers in Germany before getting his first attempts at directing in 1925, at the age of 26.  He utilized aspects of what he learned from the German expressionists.   In 1926, he directed The Lodger, a film loosely based on the Jack the Ripper legend.  The film was a hit and in 1927 Hitchcock left Gainsborough for the larger British International Pictures, and his new contract made him the highest paid director in Britain.  Blackmail was his first assignment there which eventually became the first British talkie.  “At the time, many cinephiles thought that 'talkies' would reduce cinema to being only 'pictures of people talking' but Hitchcock's inventive and expressionist use of sound demonstrated that the new technology actually opened a new realm of possibilities.” (14)  
In the late 20’s, the British industry was having a difficult time competing with the more refined cinema being produced in Hollywood.  Film production in Britain dropped from 136 features in 1921 to 37 features in 1926.  This caused the British film industry to analyze their situation and see what they could do to turn their studio system around.  In 1927, a quota system was established which required a certain percentage of the screens to be set aside for domestic films known as the Cinematograph Films Act.  “It introduced a requirement for British cinemas to show a quota of British films, for a duration of 10 years. Initially this was 7.5% for exhibitors, which was raised to 20% in 1935. It was later blamed for the emergence of the 'quota quickies.’ ” (12) 
While the Cinematograph Films Act helped improve attendance and increased production, the arrival of sound film in the late 1920’s further complicated matters.  A report that ran in Variety in 1929 stated that "13 out of 14 first run London houses have American talkers or synchronized pictures." A major problem that the British studios had was that their films often sat on the shelf for about a year before finally being released.  Since the introduction of sound in the late twenties and early thirties involved such a major technological change for both studios and exhibitors, the films that Britain was producing became in danger of becoming obsolete before they were even released to the public.  Even today, most films that the studios shelve appear dated once finally released.   In addition, the expense of converting to sound drove many exhibitors out of business. (9)  1929 was a big year for films.  The first animated sound cartoon was produced, Steamboat Willie and the first feature length film in color was also filmed.  However this was all going on across the Atlantic in the USA.  The British had some catching up to do.
When Blackmail went into production, the film was planned and initially filmed as another British International Pictures silent film.  The movie was produced at Elstree Studios.  It was just two years earlier in 1927 that Warner Brothers produced The Jazz Singer, considered the first sound film feature.  History tells us that sound films were initially thought to be just a passing fad, but this was not the case.  Since the industry’s conversion to sound was gathering so much momentum, management at British International Pictures decided to add some dialogue to make the film a “part-talkie”, which was becoming increasingly common for films at that time.  British International Pictures’ competition, Gaumont, was trailing behind in their conversion to producing sound pictures.  BIP produced twice as many sound films at Gaumont from 1928-1931. (12)  They were able to use this to their advantage to keep Hitchcock on board with them until Hitchcock reconnected with Michael Balcon later 1934 at his new studio Gaumont-British. 
The original source material for Blackmail was a play by Charles Bennett; Tallulah Bankhead, incredibly, played the leading role on the stage.  Bennett assisted Hitchcock in the construction of the film adaptation but did not write any of the dialogue.  The first film he actually wrote for Hitchcock was the original The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1933.  He went on to write several more films with Hitchcock.  Benn Levy actually wrote the dialogue for Blackmail.
With Blackmail, starting in pre-production Hitchcock had been careful in his crafting of the film that with some reshooting and reworking, he was able to produce a version of the film that could actually be released as a “full talkie” which had scenes of dialogue throughout the picture.  What many are not aware of is that the silent version of the film also was released into theaters.  However, this version did not go out until two months after the sound version.  It was exhibited mostly to suburban and rural areas where sound equipment had not yet been installed into theaters.
The silent version of the film is widely known to exist within the archives of the British Film Institute, but has been seen by few.  In the USA, the silent version is not available on VHS or DVD.  A DVD copy of the sound version of Blackmail that includes the silent version was tracked down on – Germany.  It is in PAL format and cannot be played on Region 1 DVD players.  This DVD was obtained in order to screen the silent version for this paper.  It also includes the famous sound check between Hitchcock and Ondra, showing her what her Polish accent sounded like on screen.
Hitchcock cast his film with Anny Ondra, his first blonde leading lady.  She began her film career in 1920 in Czechoslovakian films as a comedian.  John Longden was the leading man.  In 1929, he appeared in one of the first films about the Titanic, Atlantic.  He also went on to star in several more of Hitchcock’s films, including his last British film, The Jamaica Inn.  The role of Mr. Crewe, the artist turned rapist, was played by Cyril Ritchard.  He would go on to be well known for his musical theater performances, especially that of Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan.
 Another film, Kitty by Victor Saville was being made with British International Pictures.  It was started several months prior to Hitchcock’s Blackmail.  Kitty was shot and released initially as a silent film in 1929 and then withdrawn only to have its last two reels reshot with sound.  The replacement of a reel with sound was common method for creating some “part talkies” of that time.  In the case of Kitty this ruined the film by taking away from the melodramatic storyline to drawing the audience’s attention to the novelty of the talkie section of the film.  The rest of the film was unchanged except for music which was also synchronized with the silent reels.  The added scenes took away from the fluidity of the film and seemed out of place.  Hitchcock was able to avoid this mistake by making the sound scenes incorporate smoothly with what had already been shot for the silent version. (3)  While there were other films from Britain that began to use partial sound, like Kitty, Blackmail was the first to be considered a “full talkie” and therefore considered the first British talking picture.
It is often assumed that much of the dialogue-free scenes in the sound version of Blackmail were taken straight from the silent version.  Upon watching the two films many of these scenes seem identical.  But as Barr points out in his book, English Hitchcock, it was common in those days for films to shoot two good takes of each scene so that they could provide a negative for a local release of the film as well as one for overseas.  It would appear that Hitchcock may have foreseen the adaptation of his film for sound and actually shot two good takes of each scene.  The similar scenes in both films often bare slight differences between one another when closely compared.  For example, when Alice is sitting along in the restaurant after Frank steps away, she pulls out a small slip of paper telling her when Mr. Crewe plans to meet her there.  In the silent version she looks at her watch to see that its 6:49, while in the sound version the same shot of her watch shows the time being 6:52.  There are other subtle differences throughout the film but are they are virtually undetectable.
“Hitchcock integrated documentary-like presentations of the mechanics of crime, detective, and legal work in many of his films: the best early examples are Blackmail and Murder’.” (7)  The opening of Blackmail features an exercise in this documentative style.  We follow the police as they are sent on a call to track down their criminal.  He is captured and brought to jail where he is interrogated.  Then he is placed in a line up where he is identified by a witness, fingerprinted and then locked up.  While this scene has nothing directly to do with the storyline, it does let us know that we are going to be watching some sort of crime drama as well as illustrating the impersonal power of the police.
Hitchcock is famous for using pretty blondes and putting them in compromising situations.  With Alice, she is apparently unhappy in her current relationship with Frank, decides to spend time on a fling with Mr. Crewe, the artist.  She seems to use the excuse of him getting off work late as a reason to be upset with him.  She agrees to go to dinner at a restaurant that she had already planned on meeting Mr. Crewe at.  Once she sees that he has arrived, she becomes indecisive in her plans with Frank.  This eventually angers Frank enough for him to leave.  He is outside the restaurant as Alice and Mr. Crewe walk out arm in arm.  Hitchcock then begins spinning his web of danger.  Mr. Crewe invites Alice into his apartment so that he can see his art studio.  Alice agrees to be led into his trap.  Once inside he convinces her to try on a skimpy dress and pose for him.  In the sound version, he plays a funny little tune on his piano that is best summed up as creepy.  She comes out in the little dress and playfully poses for him.  She then returns behind the changing panels to take off the skimpy dress, meanwhile Mr. Crewe takes her dress and makes her come out in her underwear.  He then forces her to his bed where he attempts to rape her.  It is there that Alice manages to reach a bread knife to stab him to death with.  A bread knife is not known to be much of a lethal weapon but it is mentioned later that she got him in the jugular vein.  
              After Alice kills Mr. Crewe she goes into shock.  Exhausted, she leaves his apartment in a zombie-like state.  Her conscious immediately begins to affect her as her mind starts to play tricks on her.  She becomes startled as she sees arms that are similar to the arm of dead Mr. Crewe.  The arms are all reminders of the murder she just committed.  As she stumbles along through the city, she sees a sign advertising “Gordon’s White Purity” with a flashing animated neon sign of a martini shaker that she starts to envision as a hand with knife in a stabbing motion.  The arms and the neon sign allow the audience to experience what Alice is feeling at that moment.  
          Hitchcock also uses his first “shock cut” in this sequence when Alice screams at the arm of a beggar the scene cuts to the scream of the landlady discovering Mr. Crewe’s body.  This is yet, another example of Hitchcock’s creative use of the new medium of sound in his movies.
               Hitchcock again finds a strategic new place for sound inside Alice’s bedroom.  After stumbling through the streets she makes it home and crawls into bed.  Within a short time, her mother comes in to wake her up for the day.  One of the first things the mother does is to remove the birdcage cover which prompts the finches to begin chirping away disturbing the silence.  This is the first of many uses of bird noises that Hitchcock will employ throughout his career to coincide with a character in a distressed state.  The bird noises in Blackmail act as an annoyance to Alice.  The birds were notably missing in the original silent version of the film.  Hitchcock letter said, "There have always been occasions when we have needed to show a phantasmagoria of the mind in terms of visual imagery. So we may want to show someone's mental state by letting him listen to some sound--let us say church bells--and making them clang with distorted insistence in his head."
The scene which follows features Alice going downstairs for breakfast.  This is a famous scene in the film that has been addressed by many authors on the topic.  Alice sits with her family for breakfast.  A pest of a neighbor stands there talking about the murder and knife.  The word “knife” itself seems to lunge out at Alice.  This all builds the audience for what comes next when the blackmailer, Tracy, shows up and essentially takes over the house.  The growing tension mounts until the moment when the parlor window shatters, and Tracy flees.  This all represents the sort of 'crucible' situation that Hitchcock would sometimes make the subject of a whole film, such as Rope. (10)  Mogg believes that a misconception about the famous scene on the morning after the artist's killing, in which a gossipy neighbor repeatedly uses the word “knife”, is merely a clever use of sound by Hitchcock.  The repetitive use of the word “knife” appears to jump out at Alice.  Striking the scene may be, but it works for other, deeper reasons.  It draws attention to itself for a purpose, being a study in the psychology of Alice, who has gone all night without sleep.  She walked the streets in a virtual comatose state.  It is in these times that the mind plays tricks.  The silent version is just as effective without the verbal “knife” references.  Alice’s father asks her to cut the bread.  Alice slowly reaches for the knife.  We see the shadow of her hand crawl over it as she slowly grabs it.  The blade of the knife glimmers in the light.  Then someone walks in the door of their store, ringing the bell which startles Alice causing her to drop the knife.  This is followed by a title card of her father saying, “You should really be more careful with knives dear.” The silent version of this scene fares better since the humor of the chatty neighbor is non-existent allowing the tension to build and it provides a much more dramatic moment. 
The sound version of the film carries some of Hitchcock’s signature light moments.  The scene with the neighbor mentioning the knife also has a very comical line which further pushes Alice’s nerves over the edge: “A good, clean honest what over the ‘ead with a brick is one thing.  There’s something British about that.  But knives.  No, knives is not right.”  This is one of a few light moments in the film.  Another is when Mr. Crewe’s landlady describes to the police the blackmailer.  She describes his hair as not blonde nor brunette but “mousey.”  She also mocks the slightly deranged expression on his face.  It is timed perfect as the film builds toward Alice’s impending doom of being discovered.  This is one of the few scenes that are actually improved by having sound.
In addition to being known for being the first sound film, Blackmail also features many of the first Hitchcock trademarks.  While his brief cameo in The Lodger was his first, Blackmail features what was probably his most prominent cameo, as well as longest.  He is seen sitting on the London Underground facing the camera in a way that forces the audience to notice him.  He is pestered by a small boy while attempting to read the newspaper.  He is shown yelling at the parents of the child as if to say “control your child!”  In the sound version, the only noise heard is the loud sound of the train rolling along.  No dialogue is discernable.  Hitchcock also features creative shots of staircases as he does in later films like Vertigo and Psycho. (2)  When Alice and Mr. Crewe first arrive they climb several flights as the camera follows them straight up with a boom shot in a cut-away fashion of the staircase.  This shot, however, is not seen in the sound version of the movie.  Also, there is an overhead shot looking down several flights of stairs within Mr. Crewe’s apartment when Alice makes her escape after his murder.
Another first in this film is the use of a prominent location for the climatic finale of the film.  For Blackmail, Hitchcock chose the British Museum where the blackmailer is chased by Frank.  The blackmailer climbs to the roof and just as he is about to give himself up, he falls through the glass ceiling.  “The British Museum climax was suggested to Hitch by Michael Powell, who was familiar with the Reading Room and its glass dome.” “Hitchcock develops still further his trademark emphasis on subjectivity, an emphasis both technical and thematic.  It had featured in practically every one of his silent films, and by now was capable of yielding profound effects and commentary”. (10)
This final scene in the museum also utilized early special effects.  The rather complicated effects were done in a way known as the “Schüfftan Process.”    It was named for the cinematographer who invented the process while shooting Metropolis.  Schüfftan placed a plate of glass at a forty-five-degree angle between the camera and the miniature buildings. He used the camera's viewfinder to trace an outline of the area into which the actors would later be inserted onto the glass. This outline was transferred onto a mirror and the entire reflective surface that fell outside the outline was removed, leaving transparent glass. When the mirror was placed in the same position as the original plate of glass, the reflective part blocked a portion of the miniature building behind it and also reflected the stage behind the camera. The actors were placed several yards away from the mirror so that when they were reflected in the mirror, they would appear at the right size.  Overall, it achieved a very realistic result. (13)
In his own words, Hitchcock explained how he liked how the standard plot of Blackmail could adapt into a film.  The basic theme is love versus duty.  Both versions of the film open with Frank doing his duty by arresting the criminal.  Once his day ends, he then tends to Alice, his love.  Later, when he realizes that she is implicated in the murder, he becomes torn between love and duty.  The audience immediately can make this connection and is brought into the film. (7) According to Hitchcock, he originally wanted to end the film with Alice being pursued by the police, bringing the young detective's moral conflict ("love versus duty") to a head. This ending, he claims, was turned down by the producers for commercial reasons.  Alice could not be left to her own fate because audiences want a conclusion.   However, the ending as it was made, with its ingenious use of a clown painting to symbolize Alice's lingering feelings of guilt, is if anything darker and more subtly ironic than the ending Hitchcock originally had in mind. (9)  This clown painting is used in both the silent and sound versions of the film and is just as effective in both.  The ending leaves an eerie feeling, since it is not a happy resolution.  Alice and Frank must now spend the rest of the lives with the guilt of her crime.
The title of the film comes from a character within the film named Tracy.  He was the only witness to see Alice go up to Mr. Crewe’s apartment.  Tracy shows up at the home of Alice the morning following the murder to harass Alice and Frank, who by now knows that she was with him last.  Tracy’s character is a minor one, at best.  His plans fall apart when the Mr. Crewe’s landlady picks him out of a mug shot book.  The police believe him to be the murder.  They give chase to him and wind up at the British Museum.  Incidentally, Hitchcock had him heart set on the museum and when he found out he could not shoot there due to the lack of lighting, it was decided to use the special effects instead.  Tracy tries to explain that he is the wrong man when he meets his untimely death by falling through the glass domed ceiling.  He is essentially a red herring to the situation of Frank having to split himself between being a detective investigating a murder and his girl friend being the person who committed that murder.  Only a couple of scenes for the chase sequence were reshot for sound.  Namely the scene of Tracy attempting to explain his innocence just he falls through the ceiling.
Hitchcock’s was known for being a dirty old man which is further supported by a screen test of Anny Ondra, apparently done so that Ondra could hear why her thick Polish accent would not work for the sound version of the film.  In that screen test he interacts with Ondra and asks, “Have you been a good girl?” To which she responds laughing, “Oh no!”  Hitchcock responds, “Oh no?  Have you slept with men?”  She responds that he is making her nervous and moves away from the microphone.  Hitchcock then directs her, “Now come over here, or it won’t come out right – as the girl said to the soldier.” (1)  Hitchcock was never shy about sex or his flirtatious nature with his leading heroines.            
Due to Ondra’s unusable voice, Hitchcock devised an ingenious way to provide her a British voice.  Since post-synchronization had not been devise, Hitchcock had the actress Joan Barry stand just off camera and speak the lines into a microphone while Ondra mouthed the dialogue in sync.  In most scenes, this is virtually undetectable.  Most, without knowing this, would problem never even notice the fact.  Ondra’s performance in the silent version is arguably better than that of the sound film, due most in part to the fact that she relied on her physical acting and facial expressions to convey her character with very little dialogue via the titles.  In the sound version she comes off much more as a whiny, self-centered female.  Without actually hearing her verbalize her expressions, she is much more likable.  The audience can relate more to the silent version who just seems like a simple female who makes one big mistake.  In the sound version she comes across as being much needier for the help of Frank, the man she cheated on to begin with.  Had she stayed faithful to him, she would not have gotten herself into the problematic situation.  Critic Robin Wood points out, “Blackmail introduces the motif of the "guilty woman" that made for some of Hitchcock's most profoundly resonant films: Rebecca, Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie.  The latter two, both featuring Tippi Hedren, who it seems was born to be “the damsel who caused her own distress.” (15)
             Hitchcock enjoys depicting consequences for the actions of these guilty women.  In Alice’s case, she was forced to defend her virtue in a situation that she brought upon herself to begin with.  Of course, a virtuous woman would never have gone up to the apartment of a man she barely knew.  Hitchcock plays it as if this flirtatious woman gets what’s coming to her.  This scene involving Alice is consistent with sexual scenarios in which Hitchcock enjoyed placing his lovely leading ladies.  Virtually ever movie he made has a scene where a woman is placed into precarious circumstances due to her sexuality and often punished for it.  
          Critically, the Blackmail was well received, due mostly to the fact that the film featured sound.  On June 24, 1929, a reviewer for the Daily Mail said the film was “the best talking film yet – and British.”  A reviewer from Variety noted that the film “silent would be an unusually good film; as it is, it comes near to being a landmark.”  Mind you those all-talkie films were still relatively a new format, especially in Britain.  This would explain such raving reviews.  However, this positive reaction from both critics and moviegoers is what propelled Hitchcock into being a first rate, top notch director in Britain.  It was the first film that the British felt could compete with the quality of films coming from the foreign competition.
          When Hitchcock was later in his years, he looked back on Blackmail with negative criticism.  He felt the dialogue did not flow and that it sounds more like spoken titles than natural speech.  Actors in the early days of talking pictures referred to saying their lines as “speaking their titles.” On the same token, since the film was made in the early days of sound in film, the dialogue scenes are used only when it seems useful.  (5)  Hitchcock could have been a little kinder to himself if he remembered that the use of the apparatus of sound was a new medium that still did not know if it belonged.
          While Blackmail showed that Hitchcock and British International Pictures could produce successful films with sound, it did not being any immediate help to the British film industry.  Their studios still could not afford to pay their actors what the Hollywood studios were playing.  Plus in Britain, movies were still considered entertainment for the working class.  Subsequently, most British actors still preferred working in the theatre, where the upper-class went for their entertainment. (2)  It would be many years before Britain would become the “it” place for cinema.
          Even though the silent version of the film was stronger, once sound was added, Hitchcock was able to add a new dimension to the film and pioneer techniques that he and other film makers would use, even to this day.  While the sound additions did not necessarily improve the film, Blackmail left an indelible mark upon the face of British cinema and changed its future.  The film was a huge success not only for British International Pictures but for the British film industry as a whole.  At last a film was made that could stand up to all those films coming out of America.  The rest of the British studios could comfortable settle into the fact that sound was here to stay.  Additionally, the success of Blackmail propelled Hitchcock into celebrity status as a director that knew how to make a financially successful sound picture.  Even with the few road bumps that he faced immediately following this production, Hitchcock galvanized his career in this film.  The face of British cinema would never be the same after the 30 year old Hitchcock made this contribution.  It was now proven that sound could be utilized in a creative and productive way that brought more to a film than just the novelty of voices talking on the screen.  


1. Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

2. Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius, New York: Plexus, 1994. p. 136.

3. Barr, Charles. English Hitchcock, Scotland: Cameron & Hollis, 1999. p. 81-82

4. Condon, Paul and Sangster, Jim.  Hitchcock, Virgin, 1999.

5. Taylor, John Russell. Hitch, New York: Berkeley Publishing Corporation, 1980. p. 87.

6. Auiler, Dan. Hitchcock’s Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2001.

7. Gottlieb, Sidney.  Early Hitchcock: The German Influence, Hitchcock Annual [1999-2000] p. 100-130.

8. Barr, Charles. BLACKMAIL: SILENT AND SOUND. Sight and Sound 52:2 [Spring 1983] p. 122.

9. Steffan, James.  “Blackmail.”  October 2005.,,103555%7C103556%7C18625,00.html.

10. Mogg, Ken. “McGuffin.”  30 November 2004. 3 December 2005.

11. Telotte, J. P. “The Sounds of BLACKMAIL: Hitchcock and Sound Aesthetic - Critical Essay.” Journal of Popular Film and Television,  Winter, 2001. 

12. Murphy, Robert (ed.). The British Cinema Book (2nd edition), BFI Publishing, 2001 pg 30-31

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Walt Disney Productions Presents Robin Hood (1973)

Disney’s Animated Robin Hood

During Walt Disney’s lifetime, he proved that audiences would sit through a feature-length cartoon with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  Before that time, animation comprised only short cartoons and was never viewed as a serious cinematic genre.  Disney, working as an independent producer with total creative control, set the standard for animated feature films. While cartoons existed before Disney, he managed to colonize animation by making it his own. The result was that animation became synonymous with Disney.  While it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the fact that Disney was an auteur as producer, it is widely accepted that he was one.

Animation that came after Snow White essentially was a reaction to what Disney had produced. (Wells 45) Other animation studios like Warner Brothers and the Fleisher’s noted the potential of animation and attempted to distinguish themselves from Disney in their style and content, but Disney remained king.  Throughout his life and after, Disney studios continued producing quality animation.  Walt Disney enabled this ability when he established an assembly-line process for the creation of the animated features which created a level of visual quality in its finished form that stood apart from the competition and was highly recognizable.  The creative process began with adapting an existing story or creating a new one.   In the earlier years, Walt himself would act out the characters and key sequences.

Walt was involved to some degree with each of the animated films up until his death.  The amount of time that he dedicated to each film varied and eventually lessened as he became distracted by other parts of the business (Solomon).  The company struggled with creative decisions following Disney’s death, many of his veteran animators were retiring and it seemed that Disney animation was going to die.  By the time Robin Hood (1973) was released, it was obvious that there was the critical decline in the quality of Disney feature animation.  No longer was there Walt’s final approval for the start or end of any animated feature.  Robin Hood is an example of the creative problems that the company faced as it went through this period of leadership transition as they attempted to live up to the expectations of the “Disney” brand.

As the years passed Walt Disney grew busier with all the different facets of the company and less involved with the day to day operations of the studio, specifically, the animation department. According to Ollie Johnston, one of Walt’s original “Nine Old Men,” Pinocchio (1940) was the last films that he was heavily involved with (Solomon).  Disney did, however, seem to put the wheels of creativity in motion which allowed the studio to continue producing popular animated films.  Even with the limited involvement, no story idea or adaptation went forward without his approval.

The Disney method that enabled the animation studio to produce hit after hit, seemed to continue almost flawlessly after Disney’s death.  Audiences still came to see the films and each did more business at the box office than the previous film (until The Black Cauldron in 1985, when the audiences stayed away).  Following Disney’s death, the studio went through several transitional phases attempting to maintain the Disney style of feature animation production.  The pinnacle of this struggle occurred with the 1973 production of Robin Hood.

Robin Hood was Walt Disney Productions 21st animated feature. The film was a talking animal version of the Robin Hood legend with a fox portraying the rogue of Sherwood Forest.  The Disney studios had previously released a well received live action version, twenty years earlier, but that is where the connection with Walt and this film ended.  The film featured a strange mixture of country-western music and characters thrown against a setting of medieval England.  Some characters, like Robin Hood, played by Brian Bedford, spoke with an English accent while others like the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Balladeer speak with southern accents.  This mish-mash of characterizations was only one problem that Robin Hood suffered.

The film was not popular with critics at the time of its release.  Time Magazine said:
Even at its best, Robin Hood is only mildly diverting. There is not a single moment of the hilarity or deep, eerie fear that the Disney people used to be able to conjure up, or of the sort of visual invention that made the early features so memorable. Robin Hood's basic problem is that it is rather too pretty and good natured. The animation matches the generally pasteurized quality of the film…

By reading the reviews of critics at the time, it is apparent the film failed to evoke the Disney “magic” that had come to be expected.  The magic that critics sought was a coherent storyline [the critics were appalled by Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) for the same reason] and characters that people cared about. (Maltin 263)  Furthermore, the film also lacks Robin Hood aspiring for anything greater than stealing from the riches of Prince John and giving them to the poor who have been taxed into poverty as well as a small subplot regarding Robin Hood’s love interest in Maid Marion.  This version of the story adds nothing new to the Robin Hood legend, other than telling it with animals instead of humans.

The film also lacks any character arc that was found in previous Disney animated features such as Pinocchio or Cinderella (1950).  Pinocchio learns about the world and that he should listen to his conscience.  Cinderella learns about her hidden potential with the help of her fairy godmother.  There is no such development of characters in the simplistic storyline of Robin Hood.

The lack of a storyline was a major problem for the film. (Koenig)  Past features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Sleeping Beauty (1959) were based on popular fairy tales and had fleshed out storylines which were worked through.  Time and money was dedicated at Walt’s behest to create the best possible product.   Instead of an actual plot, Robin Hood connects several sequences which are mildly related.  While this type of narrative in film can work in some occasions, it is not the case with Robin Hood.  The sequences have been described as “fairly bland and uninspired.”  The film lacks a clear story with a beginning, climax and ending. (Jacobson)

Leonard Maltin, Disney animation historian writes, “The biggest problem with Robin Hood was in its story development – or lack of it.”  It was described as a “loud mouthed vaudeville show.” Maltin also stated, “There’s something wrong when Robin Hood is the dullest character in the film. (Maltin 264)  The film struggles to hang on to visual elements that made previous animated features great, such as fluid motions and bright colors.  But with minimal musical numbers, which were prominent in many of the earlier animated features, it fails to elicit any emotional response from the audience. Paul Wells has noted that  causing emotional audience responses to the films is a key element to Disney narratives in animation.

Even with these flaws, it did not keep audiences away. They came in record numbers to see the film during its holiday premiere.  That said, aside from the box office success of the film upon its initial release, the film does not rank among the most popular of the classic Disney features such as Pinocchio and Cinderella, even if was created by some of the same animators. (Jacobsen)
When Robin Hood went into production, the animation studio still operated with the involvement of four of Walt’s original “Nine Old Men” including the director Wolfgang Reitherman.  It is possible that their older influence may account for the slow pacing in the film.  At the same time, there was a new generation of animators being trained by these originators of Disney animation.  Among the new blood was Don Bluth, who was being groomed to lead the animation department. Bluth later left the studio after the production wrapped on Robin Hood with a dozen other new animators to create his own films that he felt were closer to the classic Disney style which he felt the company had fallen away from doing.  Robin Hood features many of the industrial struggles which the studio was facing during this transition period which among other things reflects the financial struggles that the studio was facing in the ‘70s.  The studio had not had any box office success in years.  Their live action films were anything but blockbusters. Due to these factors, Robin Hood was allotted a lower budget which is likely what forced the simplicity of the feature.

The simplified storyline can be attributed to the fact that Disney animation had continued to use the same process for story creation for decades.  When Disney began toying with an idea to turn a fairy tale for fable into a feature length film, the studio would let the development department begin exploring all the possibilities for a story.  In the early years, this process would take months and sometimes years.  The general events of the film would be designed and only then would dialogue be created to fill in the rest of the story.  This decades old procedure for story creation of animated features became so ingrained as part of the system that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the studio had only one “official” screenwriter, Larry Clemmons.  He wrote all of the dialogue for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood.  Since Robin Hood was produced on a small budget, it seems likely that less time was spent by Clemmons or anyone else in the story development department fleshing out the story and characters to any greater depth than what was presented.

The supporting characters in the film include Phil Harris, essentially reprising the same role for a third time as Little John.  In The Aristocats, Harris played O’Malley the cat, who was very similar to Baloo in The Jungle Book except he was a cat.  In Robin Hood, his performance is identical to that of Baloo, including the fact that he once again is playing the role of a bear that even bares striking resemblance to an earlier character.  The difference being that the character of Little John is not nearly as memorable as Baloo, nor does the character add anything to the film.  The recycled bear character comes across as yet another attempt to simplify the production process for this film.  The other supporting cast in the film is made up by Peter Ustinov as Prince John, a character that while being one-dimensional, comes across as the most entertaining character in the film.  The character Sir Hiss is also extremely reminiscent of Kaa the snake from The Jungle Book.

Robin Hood’s character design utilized animal characters instead of human characters.  Audiences were just as entertained by the animals, but critically, this was viewed as a short-cut method taken by the animators since stylized humanoid animals were inherently easier to animate than human figures (Koenig).  It was the first animated feature to not feature a single human being.  Granted, Bambi (1941) does not actually show any humans, but their voices and presence are heard.  The next “all animal” animated feature from Disney would be 1994’s The Lion King.

The film took other short-cuts by recycling animation from both Snow White and the feature released just before Robin Hood, The Aristocats (1970).  It is widely recognized that the sequence at the end of the film featuring Maid Marion dancing in the forest was traced directly from Snow White dancing with the seven dwarfs.  This was another cost-cutting method to save time in animating that particular sequence.  An explanation given for the recycled animation was that the new animators who were being trained during that period were learning from the men who created the art. (Solomon)
The animation quality of Robin Hood has at times been compared to that of television animation in that it has the following qualities: repetitive animation, such as the charging rhinoceros guards which uses the same animation cells through several frames, simple and similar backgrounds since the action all takes place in or around the king’s castles.  The film was allotted a smaller budget than the typical animated feature due to the financial slump that the company was facing during that time.  Earlier Disney innovations like the multi-plane camera were no longer used because of the time and expense to create animation via that method.  There really were no innovations in this production.  Gene Siskel’s review of the film at its release cites the film for having a “lack of background details and principal character movement.”  He also compares the animation to that of Saturday morning cartoons. (Siskel)  Current reviews of the film on DVD are no better.  Colin Jacobson of the online DVD Magazine says, “Every expense was spared for Robin Hood.” (Jacobson)

Also worth noting, is that the film features less music than in any of the previous animated features. Once considered a hallmark of the Disney’s animated features, this film has only three songs, the least amount of music until The Black Cauldron was released in 1985, which features no music.  This lack of music also reflects how  the studio was scaling back its production methods during the 1970s.

Following Walt’s death, the studio released The Aristocats, which was the first film to go into full production without the omniscient presence of Walt.  That film reflected the classic Disney “style” in its animation, though it is not one of the more memorable films produced by Disney.  When it was followed with Robin Hood, Disney seemed to be struggling to regain that “style.”  It was also considered by critics and animation fans to be a test as to whether Disney could continue animating without Walt.  By the time The Fox and the Hound was released in 1981, Disney was trying to reinvent itself while still holding on to what was successful in the past.  Robin Hood, as it turned out, fell right in the middle of this major transition period for the animation department. The director, “Woolie” Reitherman was one of Walt’s original animators.  He worked with the Disney leadership as they tried to do what Walt would have done.  Unfortunately, this project comes off as an exercise in Disney mediocrity, which is not something Walt would have approved of.

While this film can be pointed out as having major flaws compared to other animated films in the Disney canon, it does continue to have a built-in audience.  There are and will continue to be connoisseurs of anything Disney studios puts on film, including this movie.  The studio has just released a new, special-edition DVD of Robin Hood, which as of this writing is ranked in’s top 100 selling DVDs.  The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that regardless of the inferiority of the film within the Disney canon of animation, audiences will still buy it because it has the “Disney” name on it and they believe in the Disney brand.  That said, it will continue to reflect the turbulent era for Disney following Walt Disney’s death and ending with the start of Michael Eisner’s leadership of the company.

Works Cited and Consulted:
Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Perf. Phil Harris and Peter Ustinov. Walt Disney Productions, 1973.  DVD. Walt Disney Video, 2000.
Cawley, John. “The Animated Films of Don Bluth.” 13 November 2006.
Jacobson, Colin. “Robin Hood: Most Wanted Edition” DVD Movie Guide. 28 November 2006.  10 December 2006.
Koenig, David. Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks. Bonaventure Press. 2001.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic. Plume, New York. 1987.
Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. 3rd Edition. Hyperion, New York. 1995.
Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune. 25 December 1973. p. B7.
Solomon, Charles.  “An Afternoon with Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Pinocchio.” Animation World Magazine. Issue 3.4 July 1998. 9 December 2006.
Wells, Paul. Animation and America. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey. 2002.
Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. Routlege, New York 1998.
Time Magazine. “Quick Cuts.” 3 December 1973. 13 November 2006.,9171,908239,00.html