Alfred Hitchcock, Bergman, Repost, Stanley Kubrick

Bad First Films

Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Bergman

What do Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, and Stanley Kubrick all have in common? They’re all considered some of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived. In addition, though, they have another curious connection in that all three have first films that are terrible.

The Pleasure Garden, Crisis, and Fear and Desire all show signs of the future masters’ talents, visual styles, and thematic obsessions, but they’re rough at the absolute best. Without the later context, the movies on their own are rather joyless slogs and not really deserving of attention. However, the later context does exist. That doesn’t make these films good by any stretch of the imagination, but it does make them interesting vessels through which to watch great artists take their first creative steps.

In the Beginning

Both Hitchcock and Bergman started in similar places. They were both products of studio systems at different times. Hitchcock came up in the British studio system during the silent era while Bergman came up in the post war Swedish studio system. Hitchcock was one of a handful of trailblazers, figuring out the new medium as it was first forming. Bergman was from the next generation with a mentor who was of Hitchcock’s generation. Both were given assignments by the studios in their early days. Hitchcock worked into his director’s job from title card designer, and Bergman started as a writer before he was commissioned to do his first picture.

Kubrick, on the other hand, went the independent route. He was in his twenties and decided to make a movie. He worked as a photographer for Look magazine. He raised the money for the money from his family and friends, and went out to the New York countryside where he made his movie with a cast of just a handful.

The three represent a cross section of how to start in the movie business, and, unfortunately, not everyone can start as well as Orson Welles.

The Pleasure Garden

Hitchcock’s first film is a curious little piece about a small town girl who moves to the big city and becomes an instant dance sensation. Except that, despite her dominating the first twenty minutes of the film, she’s not the main character and ends up falling off the film for long stretches. The main character is the girl who brings her to the theater for the first time and gets cozy with the girl’s fiancé after the girl promises herself to a prince.

It’s not the most interesting movie, and it’s mostly rather dull with flat camera placements like Hitchcock was filming a play (a common way to shoot scenes in the silent era).

However, that’s not all there is to a movie. We can see the beginnings of what Hitchcock would become in later sequences, in particular, with its final sustained bit. The unfamous girl gets married to a buddy of the big dancer’s fiancé, and both of the men work for a company that sends them to a tropical location for work. The husband is a cad and delays his bringing of his wife to meet him, but he’s really just hanging out with a local girl the whole time. He writes his wife a letter saying that he’s sick and, being a dutiful wife, she goes to be with her husband only to discover the truth.

We end up with a scene where the wife and the fiancé are trying to fight off the husband. It’s a solid piece of tension based filmmaking that points to the sort of thing that Hitchcock would later become really well known for. And it’s hidden in his very first movie that he took as an assignment from the studio.

Crisis

Ingmar Bergman’s first film as director came together a bit differently than Hitchcock’s. It was a studio assignment, but Bergman was also tasked with writing the film, and he had Victor Sjostrom, his mentor and the great silent Swedish filmmaker (director of The Phantom Carriage), at his side helping him.

Crisis is about a girl raised by a woman who is not her mother when her real mother comes to the small Swedish town to take her away to the big city. The woman has cancer and won’t tell the girl. The girl falls for the young swindler that hangs around her mother. It’s very maudlin, melodramatic stuff because it’s explicitly a melodrama.

However, when viewed in the context of Bergman’s entire body of work, interesting things come out. There’s his focus on women. You can easily see some of his visual tics coming out (obviously an influence from Sjostrom) like having two faces in frame, each looking in different directions without eye contact, and they speak to each other.

It’s a bit of a slog, but there are hints of the director Bergman was to become.

Fear and Desire

And we come to it at last, the worst movie of the three. Kubrick disowned this movie (along with two others, Killer’s Kiss and Spartacus) when discussing his own canon, and it’s exceedingly easy to see why.

The story of a handful of soldiers who end up behind enemy lines and need to find their way back is meandering, pretentious, and nonsensical. And yet, I say this as a Kubrick fan, it still feels much like a Kubrick film. Performances fit in with performances given by other actors in his films. Visually, it carries a similar aesthetic as the rest as well. It’s just a bad application of his talent. It’s visually fairly solid, but narratively, it’s a mess.

The greatest sin is, I think, when the rest of the soldiers leave the girl prisoner with the most obviously mentally unbalanced one who pretends to eat from a pretend spoon as soon as he’s alone with her before letting her go. Combine that will all the ruminations about war that feel like they were written by a 26 year old intellectual with no actual experience in war (which permeates the film), and you’ve got a frustrating experience.

If I had been a movie money man and this New York kid named Kubrick came up to me with Fear and Desire as proof that he could make a movie with my money, I’d tell him to get out of my office and become a dentist.

In Context

To a casual moviegoer, I wouldn’t recommend a single one of the above movies. To fans of any of the three, though, I would heartily recommend them.

Why would I recommend such faulty films?

I think to understand a filmmaker you have to see them at the height of their powers as well as the nadir. You have to appreciate their skill even when it doesn’t congeal into a cohesive product.

I call all three of the above films interesting almost solely because of their places in their directors’ filmographies, not because of any real strengths on their own. If Hitchcock, Bergman, and Kubrick had never gone on to make another film, these wouldn’t be worth talking about.

So, for those of you more casual movie watchers, I apologize, but I watched all three of these relatively recently for different reasons, and the thoughts just came to me.

For those a bit more into deeper dives of filmmaker filmographies, two of the three are actually in the public domain and available to watch for free. I’ve included links to both under the appropriate titles.

If you’re a big Kubrick fan and haven’t seen Fear and Desire, I think you should watch it, just to see Kubrick as he was in the beginning.

4 thoughts on “Bad First Films”

  1. Interesting essay, and I agree–if you have an interest in an artist, you really should see the highs, the lows and the midpoints. It’s the only way to get an idea of the curve he was working on.

    I’d include authors, musicians and composers…-pretty much anyone who works in a creative field.

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    1. I find the entire exercise interesting, watching style and thematic obsessions develop over time.

      Probably the best filmography to go through with the most cohesive thematic throughline is Terry Gilliam. It’s only 13 movies, and literally every one touches the same theme in different ways.

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