Roger Angell

There is an article of clothing I always associate with the great writer and editor Roger Angell, who died last Friday, at the age of 101. (Just writing about him made me stick in that last, ultra-New Yorker comma.) That article is the sport coat.

Kind of like the one he is wearing on the cover of Joe Bonomo’s 2019 biography, which I have yet to read but definitely will. I met Angell (pronounced like the heavenly being) on seven or eight occasions, the first in 1978 and the last in 2012, and in my recollection, each time he was wearing a well-tailored coat, with a crisp pastel button-down shirt, solid or striped, and a nicely-matched tie.

Clothes don’t really make the man (in my experience), but in Angell’s case, the jacket was fitting, in both senses of the word. Together with his firm handshake and upright posture, it bespoke a generational sense of, I don’t know, propriety and duty and respect.

As I say, I met Angell in 1978 but encountered him long before, in the pages of the New Yorker. For a kid who liked baseball and (I was slowly coming to realize) good writing, how amazing was it to find someone who combined both! Along with those of Calvin Trillin and Pauline Kael and, later, Woody Allen, John McPhee and Ian Frazier, his pieces gave me a literary model. It’s not that I imagined ever being as good as those writers. It was more like a basketball-loving kid digging on Michael Jordan. The sense of possibility is salutary.

Incidentally, Dwight Garner’sTimes obituary quotes Angell as saying that his baseball reportage started when New Yorker editor William Shawn told him to “go down to spring training” in 1962. When I interviewed Angell for About Town, my 2000 history of the magazine, he told me that he made the pitch, and Shawn — a great editor but not a sports fan — said: “What’s spring training?”

The obit and an appreciation by Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner have some quotes that give the flavor of Angell’s writing:

  • The Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk came out of his crouch like “an aluminum extension ladder stretching for the house eaves.” The Baltimore Oriole relief pitcher Dick Hall pitched “with an awkward, sidewise motion that suggests a man feeling under his bed for a lost collar stud.” Mr. Angell … described Willie Mays chasing down a ball hit to deep center field as “running so hard and so far that the ball itself seems to stop in the air and wait for him.”
  • On relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry: “His ball in flight suggests the kiddie-ride concession at a country fairgrounds — all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you’re standing close to it, your first response is a smile.”
  • On Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley: “Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a quick bat and a very short home-run stroke; he looks like a man in an A.T.M. reaching for his cash.” (That was written in 2009, when Angell was 88.)

But the essential Angell passage, to my mind, is the one he wrote about Fisk’s home run in game six of the 1975 World Series for the Boston Red Sox. The broadcaster and jazz writer Tom Reney posted it on Facebook, and I was so happy to be reminded of it:

Fisk, leading off the bottom of the twelfth against Pat Darcy, the eighth Reds pitcher of the night – it was well into morning now, in fact – socked the second pitch up and out, farther and farther into the darkness above the lights, and when it came down at last, reilluminated, it struck the topmost, innermost edge of the screen inside the yellow left-field foul pole and glanced sharply down and bounced on the grass: a fair ball, fair all the way. I was watching the ball, of course, so I missed what everyone on television saw – Fisk waving wildly, weaving and writhing and gyrating along the first-base line, as he wished the ball fair, forced it fair with his entire body. He circled the bases in triumph, in sudden company with several hundred fans, and jumped on home plate with both feet, and John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, played Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” fortissimo, and then followed with other appropriately exuberant classical selections, and for the second time that evening I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them – in Brookline, Mass., and Brooklin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damariscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont; in Wayland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters, and in Raymond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives), and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway – jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I suppose, and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy – alight with it.

I’m not sure what powers of persuasion were necessary to convince Shawn to allow that final 237-word sentence in the New Yorker, but I’m glad they worked (and no matter that the Sox lost game seven). That first time I met Angell was just three years later. His wife, Carol, was a copy editor at Horizon magazine, where I was doing freelance work, and at a magazine holiday party, there he was, my hero. I walked up to him and gushed about the passage. I don’t remember what exactly he said, only his model of graciousness and (unfeigned) modesty in the face of fanboy fawning.

Angell was and is most famous for his baseball writing, but he had been a fiction editor at the New Yorker since the ’50s. That in itself was remarkable, given that the two most important figures in the magazine’s history (other than Shawn and the founding editor, Harold Ross) were probably Angell’s mother, Katharine White, and his stepfather, E.B. White. Katharine White joined the staff in 1925, just months after its founding, and was a fiction editor until 1960. E.B. White contributed more than 1800 pieces, mostly essays, from 1925 until 1976, and did more than anyone else to establish the magazine’s sensibility and style. So the White-Angell line at the magazine runs from 1925 till 2022.

Taking advantage of our cocktail-party acquaintance, I started sending Angell submissions: not proper short stories, but (supposed) humor pieces. None were accepted, but each time Angell responded sympathetically, with specific and smart comments and suggestions.

The impetus for About Town was a short article in the Times in 1993 noting that the New Yorker was moving its offices to a block away in midtown Manhattan, and in the move was donating a large chunk of its editorial archives to the New York Public Library. I showed up at the NYPL just weeks after the material was opened up to researchers, and was asked to choose which of the 300-some boxes I wanted to look at. Tough call! In the finding aid, I happened to come across the name of the short story writer Ann Beattie, a favorite of mine, and asked to see her file. When I got it, I saw that her first submission was a story called “Blue Eggs,” in 1972. Note that Beattie was an unknown, unpublished college English instructor, and her story came in over the slush pile. A first reader must have been impressed with it, and sent it to Angell. I read the carbon copy (look that up, young ‘uns) of his letter to her:

“These little slices and moments are often surprisingly effective, but the story itself seems to get away from you as it goes along. It seems possible that there is more form than substance her, but perhaps that is unfair. What I most admire is your wit and quickness and self-assurance. I hope you will let me see more of your work,and that you will address your future submissions directly to me.”

Angell rejected thirteen more of Beattie’s stories over the next twenty-two months. Then, in November 1973, she submitted a story called “A Platonic Relationship.” Sitting in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, reading Angell’s reply, I found myself getting choked up. He wrote:

Oh, joy …

Yes, we are taking A PLATONIC RELATIONSHIP, and I think this is the best news of the year. Maybe it isn’t the best news for you, but there is nothing that gives me more pleasure … than at last sending an enthusiastic yes to a writer who has persisted through as many rejections and rebuffs as you have. It’s a fine story, I think — original, strong, and true.

At that moment, I knew I would write a book about the New Yorker, and even what type of book it would be. Roger Angell was one of the first people I approached for an interview, and I fruitfully spoke with him two or three times, at length. I am only now surmising that he may have had a hand in something that was crucially important for the book: the blanket permission I got from the magazine to quote not only from its contents but from the correspondence from its staff members — including Ross, Shawn, Mrs. White, William Maxwell, and many more. It was a huge deal, and without those quotes the book would have been immeasurably poorer. I’m guessing that Angell liked the cut of my jib, and helped, with his estimable institutional standing, to get me the okay.

All my other encounters with Angell over the years — in person, over email, or on a stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where I interviewed him at a public event in 2006 — were positive as well. The best one of all came in 1993. In 1932, the humor writer Frank Sullivan began publishing an annual poem in the New Yorker‘s Christmas issue called “Greetings, Friends”; it sent holiday greetings, with maximal elegant variation in the phrasing, to as many celebrities and noteworthy as could be squeezed in. Sullivan died in the ’70s and Angell took it over. (Ian Frazier took it over from him in 2000.)

What I found when I opened the December 27, 1993, is something so great that I still have to pinch myself to believe it’s true. Yes — there I was in “Greetings, Friends.” Roger Angell, thanks for that and so much else.

Gaslighting, Again

A couple of days ago, Roxane Gay (@rgay) took to Twitter with a complaint about the new movie “Being the Ricardos”:

“Lucy [Nicole Kidman] says ‘don’t gaslight me’ and it’s so annoying! There is no way she would have said that in the 1950s. How did that get through?”

Others took up the theme, inspiring me to repost my 2017 historical investigation of “gaslight,’ the verb. Here it is, followed by an update.

The American Dialect Society met in January and chose dumpster fire as Word of the Year. The winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb is defined as  to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)

There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special prominence in 2016?” Arnold Zwicky chimed in: “Over seven decades, in fact. The movie that’s the source of the expression came out in 1944.”

Similarly, when I posted the winners on Facebook, my friend Pat Raccio Hughes commented, “How is that on the list? Isn’t it supposed to be new stuff?” She added that she and her husband had been using it since 1990.

The society addressed this issue in its press release on the voting: “The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” So does that apply to gaslight?

Yes, I’d say. The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. But there were only nine additional uses through May of last year. From June 2016 through the end of the year, the Times used gaslighting 10 times, including a Susan Dominus essay called “The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump,” which riffed on Hillary Clinton’s line in a September debate: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”

As so often happens when you get a lot of language observers together, the discussion shifted: from whether gaslight was newly prominent to precisely how old its verb use is. The history begins with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street). It inspired a 1940 British film and the more famous 1944 American production, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. (Spoiler alert.) The Boyer character tries to drive the Bergman character (his wife) crazy, notably by insisting that the gaslights in their house did not flicker, when in fact they did.

But there is no verb gaslight in Gaslight. As I noted on the ADS email list, in response to Baker and Zwicky, this use emerged some 20 years later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first citation is a sentence from a 1965 article in the magazine The Reporter: “Some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’” The quotation marks around the word are a sign that it was a recent coinage.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, responded that he had noted in the book an oral use from 1956, by a 41-year-old woman, revealed to be none other than his mother. Lighter also said he has a strong memory of the verb’s being used in an episode of I Love Lucy the same year. That set Ben Zimmer to work. He posted:

There’s a 1956 I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” in which Ricky conspires with Charles Boyer to make Lucy think that Boyer is merely a lookalike. There are obvious parallels to Gaslight, but I watched the episode here and I didn’t hear anything about “gaslighting.”

Bill Mullins replied: “I vaguely recall an episode of the The Lucy Show [a later Lucille Ball sitcom] in which gaslighting is a plot element.” Mullins went to  Google and and found a web page titled “The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Six” (perhaps proving that there is a web page for every conceivable topic). One of the 10 was “Lucy Gets Mooney Fired,” which aired in November 1967. The web page gives a plot summary and commentary:

Lucy inadvertently gets Mooney [Gale Gordon] fired after she covers up a bank shortage. To convince Cheever [the bank president] to give Mooney his job back, Lucy gives him the Gaslight treatment.

I love how kooky this episode is WITHOUT managing to insult its audience’s intelligence. Taking a cue from Gaslight (1944), Lucy decides to make Cheever think he has gone crazy, so that he’ll agree to rehire Mr. Mooney. The script itself isn’t that funny, but the bits Lucy does to make Cheever flip are great. This is, deservedly, a fan favorite.

The estimable Zimmer wasn’t done. Consulting with Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, which has an entry on gaslight, he located and watched a 1952 episode of The Burns and Allen Show called “Grace Buying Boat for George.” (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) Zimmer wrote, “At 16:20 in the YouTube video, Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’”

Still no verb, you’ll notice. Zimmer took care of that a few hours later:

Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?…

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

Leading me to muse on the fascinating possibility that the writer of the Reporter piece heard the verb on Gomer Pyle and put it into print just a month later.

But then more detective work was done on the ADS list. Stephen Goranson discovered that an even earlier use of the verb far, in Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1961 book, Culture and Personality:

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame[….]

(The OED has the quote but credits it to a 1969 reprint.)

In any case, the term was picked up, especially in reference to abusers of spouses, partners, and children, and was commonplace by 1990, when Pat Hughes reports starting to use it. I myself first heard it the year before, when, on assigment for Rolling Stone, I interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone, who used it in a context I don’t recall. The word was new to me, and I meant to look it up, but I never got around to it.

Update, December 2021

Following the Being the Ricardos kerfuffle, reader Chris Philippo sent me a September 1948 use of “the gaslight treatment” from the Miami News:

He also sent, from Wiktionary, an impressive list of uses of the verb in the early 1960s:

• Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ]. February 12, 1962: describing the plot of the episode “Who Is Sylvia” of the television show Surfside 6:
“Sylvia is a beautiful woman whose business-partner husband is ‘gaslighting’ her. (That means he’s trying to drive her crazy.)”
•  Daily Press [Utica, NY]. November 18, 1963: , describing the plot of the episode “The August Teahouse of Quint McHale” of McHale’s Navy:
“[The men of McHale’s Navy] decide to ‘gaslight’ the already befuddled captain, to convince him he is going insane.”
• 1964, in an argument between the characters Jenny and Charley in William Goldman’s novel Boys and Girls Together:
“You’re gaslighting me, for chrissakes.”

R.I.P. Mr. Frishberg

Frishberg in 2011. Photo by Beth Nakamura, The Oregonian

There are two great things about my job. The first is that you can do it in a room in your house. The second is that you get to call up people like Dave Frishberg and, if they’re agreeable, hang out with them for a while.

Frishberg was very kind and generous to me when I contacted him for an interview for my book The B Side. He met me in a bar downtown Portland, Oregon (we both had coffee), and gave me great stuff, including a word-for-word memory of the advice Frank Loesser had given him about lyric writing, sixty years previously:

“Make every statement in the lyrics that you’re using refer to the concept that’s in the title. Don’t leave the listener hanging. Keep the listener interested and surprised, so he can appreciate it and be ready for your next thought. And when you pull off something flashy that you want the listener to remember, to be impressed by, that’s when you put in a riff, a couple of bars. Don’t pile climaxes or punchlines next to each other.”

“Take Back Your Mink”/”Peel Me a Grape.” QED

At the time he was talking to Loesser, in the mid-to-late 1950s, his songwriting was going nowhere and he was making a living as a (superb) piano accompanist to singers like Dick Haymes and Carmen McRae. (His jazz chops were never in doubt.)

He told me: “I tried to write for what I perceived was the market. I ended up writing shit, on purpose. I was trying to sound like this writer or that. A few country songs, a few folk songs–that was big at the time. After two or three years of futility, I abandoned that. I began to write songs as if it were 1937. The music that I liked to play, the music I liked to listen to, was music from the Gershwins, from Porter. I thought to myself, ‘If that’s the stuff you love so much, that’s what you should try to write like.’ Of course, when I said that, I abdicated from the market. But I began to enjoy songwriting more.”

There followed “Devil May Care,” “Do You Miss New York?”, “Quality Time,” “My Attorney Bernie,” “Van Lingle Mungo,” “I’m Hip” (music by Bob Dorough), “You Are There” (music by Johnny Mandel), and, all the obits remind us, “I’m Just a Bill.”

I talked to him by phone a bit after our Portland interview and he pulled out a postcard sent to him by Johnny Mercer, circa 1969 or ’70. He read it aloud in its entirety: “You are my favorite lyric writer at the moment. Boy are you uncommercial!!!” (Frishberg counted out the four exclamation points.)

When the book came out, Frishberg gave it a great blurb. Ever the mensch, he said he would play the piano and maybe recruit his colleague Rebecca Kilgore to sing if I could arrange a book event in Portland. The worst thing about my job are the regrets, and one of my biggest is that I didn’t do whatever it took to make that happen.

Alphabetical Publication Credits

In the bio at right, I note that I’ve written for publications that that start with every letter of the alphabet but two. Here’s a fairly complete list. A * indicates defunct.

A

*American Film

American Heritage

The American Journalism Review

The American Scholar

The American Spectator

American Speech

The Atlantic

*Atlantic City Magazine

B

Baltimore Magazine

Boulevard

*Brill’s Content

*Business Month

C

*Campus Voice

Change

*Channels of Communication

The Chronicle of Higher Education

*The City Paper

Columbia Journalism Review

Connecticut Magazine

D

The Daily Beast

Dissent

*Diversion

E

Esquire

F

*Fame

G

GQ

H

*Horizon

I

*In Health

*Inquirer Magazine

J

Jewish Daily Forward

K

[New York] Knickerbockers Program

L

*Lingua Franca

LitHub

Longreads

*Los Angeles Times Magazine

M

*Mid-Atlantic Country

N

*New Boston Review

*New England Monthly

New Jersey Monthly

*The New Leader

*New York Observer

The New Republic

New York Times Arts and Leisure

New York Times Book Review

New York Times Magazine

New York Times Metropolitan Section

New York Times Op-Ed Page

New York Times Sunday Review

Newsweek

NewYorker.com

*Next

Nieman Storyboard

NPR.org

O

Oklahoma Today

P

Pennsylvania Gazette

Philadelphia Daily News

Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia Magazine

Philadelphia Weekly

*PhillySport

Playboy

Q

QuickandDirtyTips.com/grammar-girl

R

Rolling Stone

S

Salon

*Saturday Review

*Self

Slate

Smithsonian

Sports Illustrated

*Stop Smiling

Swarthmore Bulletin

T

Texas Monthly

*Travel & Leisure

TV Guide

U

USA Today

V

The Village Voice

Vox

W

The Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post Magazine

The Week

The Wilson Quarterly

*Worth

Y

The Yale Alumni Magazine

O. Henry Collected

I’m pleased to announce that the edition of O. Henry short stories I edited for the Library of America has been published and is available for purchase. The early reception has been good, with nice notices in The New Yorker and the Washington Post and an excellent starred review from Kirkus:

A treasure vault of work by a master of the short story form. . . . Yagoda’s well-selected anthology follows O. Henry through all his phases, from Texas bank clerk to fugitive (on account of embezzlement) in Honduras, federal prisoner, and, finally, reasonably successful New Yorker. The volume’s highlight, of course, is Henry’s best-known and much-loved story, ‘The Ransom of Red Chief,’ in which two con men kidnap a ‘boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair the colour of the cover of the magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch a train,’ who makes their lives a bit of hell on Earth. Most of the stories, ‘Red Chief’ foremost among them, read as if freshly written. . . . The volume provides ample evidence for why one of American literature’s most eminent literary awards should be named for the author. Essential for students of the short story and for fans of Henry’s work.

Reading and evaluating all of O. Henry’s 350-plus works and tracking down every obscure reference for the end notes definitely were time-consuming, but the exercise was always painless and mainly enjoyable. That’s because O. Henry (born William Sidney Porter in 1862) was an excellent craftsman with a lot more tools in his box than the sentimentality and twist ending we know from his most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

I’ll have more to say on this subject in the weeks ahead. So watch this space.

Looks like “looks like me” has arrived

The shirts were the tipping point. After the 2020 election was finally called, they started trickling, then flooding, onto Etsy and other sites. At this point, a Google search for “t shirt” and the rhyming words on the item below yields about 45,000 hits.

Before the phrase was on people’s torsos, some version of it was in their mouths. A lot. To cite a handful of hundreds of published examples, all uttered within a few days of the election:

  • “I’m especially thinking about the little girls of all colors, but in particular, Black and brown girls, because there’s so much power in seeing someone who looks like you.”—ABS News anchor Linsey Davis
  • “So many little girls are waking up across the country saying it is possible. I can be anything I want to be because she looks like me.”—Howard University alumna Wendy Howard
  • “I’m so glad happy to finally have someone in the White House that looks like me.”—Lakhia Day, an official with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority

Leslé Honoré adapted one of her poems so that the opening lines read:

Brown girl brown girl

What do you see

I see a Vice President

That looks like me

Then videos of little girls reciting it, like this one, made their way across the internet.


Far from springing up out of nowhere, the “looks like me” trope, in reference to racial identity, has been building momentum for years. In past decades, it was a once-in-a-while thing, as when a Spelman University student told Essence magazine in 1993, “I think this environment is kind of a utopia in terms of race and gender. Everybody here looks like me. We’re all just Black women, and that really gives us a unique experience.”

The phrase picked up speed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, he inspired two similarly titled books: The President Looks Like Me & Other Poems, by Tony Medina, and Somebody in the White House Looks Like Me, by Rosetta L. Hopkins. Obama himself memorably invoked the trope in his remarks in 2012 after the killing of Trayvon Martin: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

But as with much else, it was probably Michelle Obama who cemented the phrase in the national consciousness. At the opening of the Whitney Museum in 2015, she said: “You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.”

At the 2019 Oscar awards, Phil Lord, the director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—in which the superhero’s secret identity is teenaged Miles Morales—said, “When we hear that somebody’s kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me,’ or ‘They speak Spanish like us,’ we feel like we already won.”

Later that year, while facing impeachment hearings, Donald Trump tweeted: “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here—a lynching.” Rep. Karen Bass responded: “You are comparing a constitutional process to the PREVALENT and SYSTEMATIC brutal torture of people in THIS COUNTRY that looked like me?”  And Rep. Bobby Rush: “Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.”

And then came Kamala Harris. A few weeks after the election, she doubled down on—and broadened—the phrase, lauding President-elect Joe Biden for his “commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America.” Biden himself invoked the phrase (mangling the syntax a bit) while swearing in staffers on Inauguration Day: “We ran on a promise that this administration would look like America looks.”

As I write, a Google News search of the phrase “looks like me” yields 122 hits in the last week, from an Ohio professor who said, ““As a woman of color myself, specifically South Asian, I cannot express what it means to have someone who looks like me and has had similar life experiences to me in this position” (seven days ago), to a Missouri student’s comment on Harris’s swearing-in: “It felt good because I saw somebody that looks like me and anything is possible” (19 minutes ago). And that of course doesn’t count variations including “looks like them,” “looks like America,” and many more.


“…who looks like me” belongs to a long history of American terms for racial minorities (itself one of the terms). You could almost distill a history of the country from a list of them: colored, Negro, black, African-American, people of color, black and brown people, Black, BIPOC. And those are only the printable ones. Especially for people who are part of the racial majority, as I am, all the terms are problematic, or at least complicated and not-quite-adequate, in ways that don’t need to be rehearsed here.  

And maybe the most appealing thing about “looks like me” is that it’s not problematic. In fact, it’s immune to the usual carping and criticism—it’s pretty much indisputable.

I’ve referred to “looks like me” and its variations as a trope, in other words, a figure of speech. This particular figure is a form of synecdoche, or the part standing for the whole, as in saying “the postal worker is having a tough year,” when you mean all postal workers. This terminology comes from literary criticism, which suggests another element of the power of “looks like me”: it’s poetry, not a prosaic and reductive label. It powerfully and economically particularizes a clunkier word, “representation.” Good poetry makes us see what we perhaps hadn’t seen before, and so it is here. 

A final attribute of the phrase is that it makes a rather brilliantly concise statement against racial essentialism. That is, it implicitly argues that our differences are a matter of looks, appearances, not something ingrained.

The only potential pitfall I see in “looks like me” is overuse. That wasn’t a worry in the nouns and adjectives that came before, but figures of speech can become cliches at warp speed (to use a cliché). So it might make sense to go easy on using “looks like me.” But maybe that isn’t for someone who looks like me to say.

Journalism’s Greatest Hits

Note circled book, with gold rectangle on the spine, on David Fahrenthold’s shelf.

Twenty years ago, I was honored to be asked by the NYU Journalism School to be a judge for the selection of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century. They asked me again ten years ago to help choose the best journalism of the first decade of the 2000s, and again some months back for the years 2010-2019.

The way it worked was that all the judges — comprising the NYU faculty, plus Madeleine Blais, Leon Dash, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Wesley Lowery, Greil Marcus, Nilay Patel, Dorothy Rabinowitz, Dan Rather, Frank Rich, David Remnick, Walter Shapiro, Sree Sreenivasan, Sarah Stillman, and yours truly — were asked to submit nominations. Then the full list of 122 nominees was sent out to everyone, and we were to vote for our top ten, in order.

My ballot, including the way I ordered my votes, was admittedly strategic. That is I put a couple of selections in high places not because I could or would make an air-tight case that they were the third and fourth best pieces of journalism of the decade, but because I thought they were absolutely great and they hadn’t quite gotten the recognition they deserved. Conversely, I left out a couple of works because I knew they would (deservedly) get a whole lotta love from the other judges.

Beyond that, I valued works that:

*Afflicted the comfortable.

*(Even better) Comforted the afflicted.

*Displayed disciplined, brave and indefatigable feats of reporting.

*Were stylistically excellent or innovative.

*Moved the national conversation.

*Represented work by a person or organization that had been doing great work for a long time and I felt deserved this level of recognition. (You could call this the John Wayne Oscar phenomenon.)

*I was a bit of a hard-ass on definition of journalism, meaning that I sometimes looked askance at works that seemed to belong more to memoir, essay, or history.

Six of the works on my ballot did not make the top ten. So I will list the six here, in alphabetical order, with descriptions provided by the NYU folks, which I’ll in some cases add my two cents to. And then I’ll give the works that did make it.

The six I voted for:

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. “An amazing work of immersion journalism.” “Gripping … offers not only a close-up examination of its subjects lives but a meta-analysis of the larger problem.” “The reader understands profiteering from the ground up.”

One thing that excited me about Desmond’s book was the way he landed it on the precise intersection between journalism and ethnography (with a good dollop of public-policy thrown in).

Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, with Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, Revelations of NSA domestic surveillance based on documents from Edward Snowden, The Guardian US, Washington Post. “Changed the world.”

Glenn Kessler and Fact Checker Team, Database of Donald Trump’s false or misleading statements, Washington Post. “A rigorously reported and continually updated list of false statements by the president, numbering more than 19,000 by June 2020. The project is a sterling example of what journalists should do — holding the powerful accountable by using reporting and facts.”

As of July 9: 20,055.

N.R. Kleinfield,The Lonely Death of George Bell,” New York Times. “A detailed examination of what happens after the death of an obscure hoarder — followed by an account of the man’s life that lifts him out of obscurity. Kleinfield’s article represents the pinnacle of narrative feature writing — scrupulously reported, ingeniously structured, and written with clear-eyed empathy.”

I think I actually wrote that, so I’ll add only that the fact that “Sonny” Kleinfield never won a Pulitzer for feature writing is a scandal and a travesty.

Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, Ben Calhoun, Alex Kotlowitz, Linda Lutton and Robyn Semien,Harper High School,” This American Life. “At Harper High School in Chicago, twenty-nine current or recent students were shot in the span of a single year. Learning of this staggering statistic, This American Life embedded three reporters at the school for five months” — Peabody Awards website.

This was an admirable package–but I wanted to recognize “This American Life” because Ira Glass’s now venerable program really did create a great and new form without which it would be hard to imagine “Serial” and just about any other worthwhile narrative journalism podcast that’s not just one or two people sitting around talking.

Frederick Wiseman, In Jackson Heights. “From-the-ground-up portrait of a Queens neighborhood in transition, from the dean of American documentarians. Wiseman has been doing amazing work for more than half a century.”

In Jackson Heights is a great piece of work, with the rigor, indelible characters, intermittent exhilaration and occasional frustration (10-minute dialogues in Spanish with no subtitles) one expects in Wiseman, but I voted for it in recognition of his amazing body of work.

And here’s the NYU top ten:

#1

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic.

“Beautifully written, meticulously reported, highly persuasive …” “The most powerful essay of its time.” “Ground breaking.” “It influenced the public conversation so much that it became a necessary topic in the presidential debate.”

#2

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

“It’s a masterwork by one of our greatest writers and most diligent reporters. Exquisitely written as it is researched, embracing breadth and detail alike, essential reading to understand America.” “A masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.”

#3

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. Based on their reporting for the New York Times.

“A chronicle of the #MeToo era.” “A pitch-perfect primer on how to take a hot-button-chasing by-the-minutes breaking story and investigate it with the best and most honorable journalistic practices.” “This is one of the defining issues of our times, one whose impact will be felt for a long time.”

#4

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

“Unbelievably well written and well reported portrait of a slum in Mumbai.” “Vividly reports on the life of this slum’s inhabitants.”

#5

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“The book demonstrates the ways in which the War on Drugs, and its resulting incarceration policies and processes, operate against people of color in the same way as Jim Crow. Powerful on its own terms and crucial as an engine toward transforming the criminality of our ‘justice’ system.”

#6

Julie K Brown, “How a Future Trump Cabinet Member Gave a Serial Sex Abuser the Deal of a Lifetime,” Miami Herald.

“Investigative journalist for The Miami Herald, examines a secret plea deal that helped Jeffrey Epstein evade federal charges related to sexual abuse.” “Brown essentially picked up a cold case; without her reporting, Epstein’s crimes and prosecutors’ dereliction would not be known.” “Great investigative reporting.” “Documenting the abuses of Jeffrey Epstein when virtually everyone else had dropped the story. “What makes this particularly compelling for me is that Brown did the reporting amid the economic collapse of a great regional paper.” “A remarkable effort to empower victims.”

#7

Sheri Fink, Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is narrative medical journalism at its finest: compelling, compassionate, and unsettling.”

#8

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Matthew Desmond, Jeneen Interlandi, Kevin M. Kruse, Jamelle Bouie, Linda Villarosa, Wesley Morris, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bryan Stevenson, Trymaine Lee, Djeneba Aduayom, Nikita Stewart, Mary Elliott, Jazmine Hughes, The 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine.

“Explores the beginning of American slavery and reframes the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” “A definitive work of opinion journalism examining the lingering role of slavery in American society.”

#9

David A. Fahrenthold, Series of articles demonstrating that most of candidate Donald Trump’s claimed charitable giving was bogus, Washington Post.

“By contacting hundreds of charities — interactions recorded on what became a well-known legal pad — Fahrenthold proved that Trump had never given what he claimed to have given or much at all, despite, in one instance, having sat on the stage as if he had.”

#10

Staff of the Washington Post, Police shootings database 2015 to present.

“The definitive journalistic exploration and documentation of fatal police shootings in America. In a decade defined, in part, by the emergence of Black Lives Matter, this Washington Post project set a new standard for real-time, data journalism and was a vital resource during a still-raging national debate.” “In the wake of Ferguson, newsrooms across the country took up admirable data reporting efforts to fill the longstanding gaps in existing federal data on police use of force. This project stands out both in its comprehensiveness and sustained dedication.

NYU put together a pretty impressive (all things considered) Zoom presentation on the night of the announcements, with almost all the winners on hand to offer appreciation for the honor and heartfelt words about what their projects meant to them.

The photo at the top of the post is a screengrab of David Fahrenthold’s remarks. I was moved to grab it because on his bookshelf (circled in black), I spotted a copy of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and me.

Olive-Picking: The Director’s Cut

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article by me, which you can read here. It had to be cut a fair amount; here’s the original version, with the added bonus of a bunch of photos.

Oddly, Tonio Creanza is not familiar with the expression “low-hanging fruit.” It’s odd because although he’s a native of Altamura, in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy (the heel of the boot), he has spent most of his time in Vancouver for years and is completely fluent in English. It’s also odd because the low-hanging fruit is precisely what he is instructing me to get.

On a cloudy but mild mid-November morning, we’re standing under an olive tree outside Altamura—one of 700 his family owns on seven separate plots, and, for six generations, have harvested to produce olive oil. It’s smack dab in the middle of the harvest, which is short (about two weeks) but intense: “non-stop running,” Tonio calls it. The operation is too big for the Creanzas to pick all the olives themselves, but small enough that if they hired workers, an already iffy balance sheet would plunge straight to deep red. So they rely on volunteers, one of whom is me.

Gigi wielding the rastrello.

The technique Tonio’s showing me is pretty simple, and, with minor variations, the way the harvest has been done for millennia. With one hand, grab a hand-rake (rastrello, in Italian). With the other, bunch some branches, laden with that low-hanging purple fruit. Then start methodically brushing the olives out. They come loose easily, landing on appropriately olive-colored netting (reto) spread out under the tree, with satisfying plunks. In fact, they’re so plentiful that after I’ve been at it for ten minutes, Tonio rushes over to gently inform me that as I move about, I have been stepping on the olives and crushing them, spilling the oil and ever so slightly diminishing the yield. “Look where you are putting your feet,” he says. “Work from there, then find a new spot for each foot. It’s a mindset.”

Olives on the netting.

And it’s a lesson I’ll absorb over the upcoming days of work: although the 700 trees will yield about twenty tons of olives, each one is precious.

I first encountered Tonio Creanza, 51, when my wife, Gigi, searching for opportunities to work on art restoration in Italy, came upon his program Messors  (www.messors.com). We signed on, and in July 2018 spend a fascinating nine days working to maintain religious frescoes, some nearly 1000 years old, in the underground caves that dot the Puglian countryside. Over dinner one night, Tonio mentioned that the family relies on volunteers each November to harvest the olives that go into Famiglia Creanza olive oil (which we were at that precise moment generously applying to home-made eggplant parmigiana).

The seed of the idea, thus planted, grew for a year or so, till we finally asked Tonio if he would take us on. Gigi and I don’t fit the mold: in his posting on Workaway (https://www.workaway.info/) – which connects volunteers and hosts worldwide – he asks for a commitment of three weeks in exchange for room and board, and chooses six hardy twenty-somethings out of sixty or more applicants. We are Medicare age, wanted to work for only four days, and preferred finding our own accommodations.

If he had said no, we probably would have signed on to a food-based Messors workshop, held in September, in which participants learn about, and cook with, “the fundamentals of southern Italian cuisine” — olive oil, wine, durum wheat flour, cheese, and seasonal produce, in the process hanging around with farmers, chefs, cheese-makers, and shepherds. (https://messors.com/shepherds-food-culture-cooking-culinary-heritage/)

But he said yes. And so, when November 11 rolled around, we flew to Rome, boarded a four-hour express train to the Puglian seaside city of Bari, rented a car, drove forty minutes to our elegant $55-a-day Airbnb in the heart of Altamura, a city of 70,000, then took a ten-minute walk to the Creanza house for dinner.

We were buzzed in and ascended to the second floor, where we found Tonio’s 85-year-old mother, Grazia, hard at work grating cheese. (In our experience, she was always hard at work, always wearing black, always, despite the barrier of her not speaking English and us not speaking Italian, making it clear we were welcome in her home.) At the stove was his sister-in-law Rosanna, who lives upstairs with Tonio’s brother Peppe and their two grown daughters. Tonio and the volunteers drifted in. There was Faith, on sabbatical from the food industry in New Orleans; Dylan, on sabbatical from construction work in Ontario; Marie, a native of Switzerland on sabbatical from her work as a chocolatier in Vancouver …. everybody seemed to be on sabbatical from something

They’d been together long enough to develop multi-lingual in-jokes and patter. Tonight, they were figuring out how to say “Sorry, not sorry” in Italian. (“Mi dispiace, non mi dispiace.”) Dylan – soft-spoken, tight-end-sized, and, we’d discover, the volunteer who took on the heaviest labor and never tired – had been consuming maybe a few more calories than the prodigious number he expended, and had developed a commensurate belly. His friends decided he looked “otto messi” – eight months pregnant. But despite our advanced age and newcomer status, the group immediately took us in as equals.

The day before, this olive oil was olives.

When we sat down to eat, I began to understand what happened to Dylan. The meal was fresh, local, and fabulous: pasta with cabbage (a Puglian specialty), dressed with home-made croutons and that grated cheese; delicately fried slices of zucchini; the characteristic yellow-hued bread Altamura is famous for; red wine from a neighbor’s vineyard; and, for dessert, caramelized onions and a local melon called gialetto. On everything but the dessert, we poured olive oil that had been pressed the night before from olives picked the day before. It was green, nutty in taste, and invitingly pungent. Tonio explained that while the oil the family bottles and ships at the end of the harvest is a mix of the different varietals found in their groves, Mrs. Creanza insists on bottles entirely from the Ogliarola trees. “The minerals in the limestone give it a special taste,” he says.

We drove to the Creanzas’ the next morning at 7:30, and followed two white vans to the Ogliarola groves about twenty minutes outside of town. The group, with a scant week of experience, worked like a well-oiled machine. Within minutes, the reti were laid under a group of four or five trees and the labor was wordlessly divided. Tonio, Dylan, and Faith poked the higher branches with long-handled pneumatic devices with two flapping rakes at the end (abbacchiatore); the rest of us took up rastrelli and started raking branches. It took fifteen or twenty minutes to denude a tree. At that point, a couple of people would pick up the reto at the corners so that the olives were bunched in the middle; kneel down to discard any sticks or small branches; then pour the fruit into crates. When three or four crates were full, four or five of us would form a “train” to pick them up and carry them to the vans. (Each one weighed about 30 kilos, or 66 pounds.) Then repeat.

The work was absorbing in the way repetitive but mindful labor can be, and before I knew it, it was lunchtime. Ah, lunchtime. The meal was laid out on a table cloth and served on china: a bread and tomato salad called cialledda, ratatouille-like caponata, a cold peppers dish called composta, olive oil, bread, wine, cookies, and local oranges. (The Creanzas aren’t vegetarian, but Puglian cuisine is sparing in its use of meat.)

Lunch.

Two separate cars slowed as they passed us, and the drivers each shouted something in Italian. Tonio told us, “They’re saying, ‘This is the way you work??’”

The answer to that rhetorical question is yes: the sit-down lunch is of a piece with Tonio’s feelings about maintaining and celebrating the ways of his region. Thus he doesn’t miss a moment to give Gigi, me, and the others deep background on what we’re eating, doing, or seeing. And he doesn’t just use the volunteers for labor, but, after the harvest is done, spends a week shepherding them to cultural attractions in the area, including the city of Matera, a UNESCO historical site because of its sassi, or caves.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that the his approach to the olive oil business is curatorial as much as entrepreneurial. He does sell the oil in boutique food shops in Vancouver, and worldwide via the Messors.com website, but 2500 liters (this year’s eventual output, making it an excellent year) isn’t going to make for a financial bonanza. When I asked him some bottom-line questions over e-mail, he replied, “Doing the numbers on this operation doesn’t really make sense because we can’t really count the number of hours spent by my brother and my dad in tending to the trees all year long. The olive oil production is more a mean for preserve a culture, connecting people and a vehicle to spread values of integrity about food.”

On site, he was more succinct: “Even if we had a ton more, it would be an economic disaster.”

Our final three days went much as the first. At the groves by 8, harvest and gather, great lunch, harvest and gather some more, work till it’s dark, go home for a shower and change of clothes, then reconvene for an astonishing dinner at the Creanzas.  A couple of times, I got to wield the abbacchiatore, which was satisfying but wearying, and made me appreciate the younger people’s muscular fortitude.

Me with the pneumatic rake.

One night Gigi and I went to the local press with Tonio and the 1000 kilos of olives the group had picked that day. When we walked in we were nearly bowled over by the rich and inviting smell. As Blanche DuBois says about the odor of cheap perfume, it was penetrating. We watched the Rube Goldberg process whereby the olives were crushed and oil extracted in a series of spotless stainless steel machines. Most of the Creanza oil went into storage, to be put into bottles and tins before Christmas, but Tonio brought home a few liters for home use.

Olives being processed.

Our last night, a Sunday, Grazia and Rosanna outdid themselves, with a meal of lasagna, porchetta (roast pork), and tiramisu. We finished with two kinds of home-made liqueur—limoncello and padre peppe, an Altamura specialty made from infusing green walnuts and spices in alcohol.

Before we said our goodbyes to Dylan, Faith, and the rest of the crew—who still had a week of work to go and were angling (unsuccessfully) for a day off, Tonio waxed philosophical about the annual olive rite.

“For me, it’s a regenerative process,” he said. “I regenerate my soul.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

The Hitchcock Project

alfred_hitchcockAs a coronavirus project, I decided to watch all the movies I hadn’t yet seen by my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. There were fifteen of them, here listed in chronological order.

  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (silent, 1927)
  • Blackmail (1929)
  • Murder! (1930)
  • Rich and Strange (1931)
  • Young and Innocent (1937)
  • Jamaica Inn (1939)
  • Rebecca (1940)
  • Lifeboat (1944)
  • The Paradine Case (1947)
  • Under Capricorn (1949)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • I Confess (1953)
  • The Wrong Man (1956)
  • The Birds (1963)
  • Marnie (1964)

Hitch buffs will probably immediately wonder why some other titles aren’t on the list. And so I’ll immediately acknowledge that I still haven’t seen any silent films other than The Lodger, or these early sound ones: Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931), Number Seventeen (1932), and Waltzes from Vienna (1934). None were readily available on Amazon Prime (which has the most Hitchcock films of any platform) or anywhere else I could find, though I have to admit I didn’t try that hard to seek them out.

My list of fifteen is to some extent a predictable one, consisting of relatively obscure or not-well-thought-of films, with two and a half exceptions. The half is Lifeboat, which I think is pretty high in the canon, though it’s probably most often referred to for the ingenuity of the directorial cameo. But it’s surprising that I’d never seen Rebecca, which won Hitch’s only Best Picture Oscar. All I can say is that it apparently never played at the college film society that supplied most of my movie education, or, to my knowledge, on television any night since I got my first TV in 1978. And there does seem to be something funky going on with the rights to the movie. It’s currently not streaming or for rent from any platform, not even the Criterion Channel, and I ended up watching it via a good-quality bootleg copy on YouTube.

The other surprising one on the list is The Birds. It’s famous and shown quite a lot, including currently on the free tier of NBC’s Peacock service. I haven’t seen it for a simple reason that I’m very scared of it. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I could brave myself to watch it for this project. No spoiler: by the end of this article you’ll find out if I mustered the courage.

In any case, the watching is done and I am ready to rank the movies, from very bad to very good, and give some comments. Before getting to the list, I’ll share a subjective list I compiled of elements that generally augur well for a Hitchcock film

  • Busybodies, especially English ones
  • Black and white
  • George Sanders
  • Dolly or tracking shots
  • High-angle shots (often used, according to the blog linked to, when a “character come to a realization of some terrible truth”)
  • Staircases (though ubiquitous enough to sometimes be a bad sign too)
  • Female protagonist

Wrong-Man-600px-High-Angle-Police-Station-02

High-angle shot from “The Wrong Man”

And ones that are worrisome or worse:

  • American children
  • Music (this is admittedly complicated)
  • Rear projection and/or matte shots
  • Normative love relationships, that is, a boy-girl romance absent any suggestions of deviance or obsession
  • Michael Wilding
  • Hairpieces
  • The Mid-Atlantic accent (the not-quite-English, not quite American way of speaking best personified by Grace Kelly)

In describing the films, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, especially as we move up the list. I did a minimum of research, mainly checking names, credits, and other basic facts on Wikipedia or IMDB, though I’ve passed along a few tidbits I picked up on those sites and elsewhere. All of the movies are available for rental or streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube or other platforms. And while on the subject of access, the app and website JustWatch is a helpful guide to where to find Hitchcock films, and indeed any available movie or TV show, though it properly doesn’t list YouTube bootlegs.

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15. The Paradine Case

Well, it’s in black and white, a staircase is prominent, and Charles Laughton livens things up in his inimitably kooky way (see entry three places below), but this is a dog. There are no twists in the story (indeed, there’s nothing that couldn’t be predicted by any sentient viewer), all depictions of love are unconvincing, and Gregory Peck looks uncomfortable, perhaps mulling the issue of why, since he’s playing an English barrister, he has been directed not to even attempt an English accent. Like Rebecca, it’s available only on YouTube via bootleg.

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14. Under Capricorn

Last place was a close call between Paradine and this technicolor period piece. The last three words of the last sentence almost gave Capricorn the nod—in fact, I should probably add them to my “bad signs” list. Plus, it’s dragged down by a weak plot, the insipid Michael Wilding, and Joseph Cotten’s performance and character (coming just six years after his brilliant turn in Shadow of a Doubt) as an Irishman (also no accent attempted) who had been brought to Australia as a prisoner and, after release, become a member of the gentry. Hitch’s direction apparently consisted of one note: “gruff.”

Vaulting it out of last place were, in no particular order, the star presence of Ingrid Bergman (though it’s far from her best performance for the director); Margaret Leighton’s Milly, a creditable creepy maidservant in the tradition of Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers; the many long takes, which Hitchcock had gotten adept at in Paradine and (especially) Rope and apparently wasn’t done with yet; and one brief affecting moment involving Cotten and a ruby necklace.

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13. Murder!

The second through fourth films on the chronological list, above, were all to some extent on the cusp of the transition from silent and sound. I’d judge that two of them successfully negotiated the in-betweenness. Murder! did not. (The exclamation point could be seen as trying too hard, and Hitch wisely eschewed it for his other crime titles, Sabotage and Blackmail.) It starts off great, with a dolly pan of an upper story of a row of flats that almost exults in the potential of sound; we hear screaming, bells ringing, windows opening and closing, people chattering, and an unexplained pounding. And the climactic scene is verifiably creepy. But in between is a lot of talk, livened only by the intriguing question of what cross-dressing actor Handel Fane’s secret really is.

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12. Jamaica Inn

One of three Daphne du Maurier adaptations on the list (the others are Rebecca and The Birds), it’s another period piece—set on the Cornish coast of England in around 1820. But at least it’s in black and white. Charles Laughton originally bought the rights to Du Maurier’s novel, and his mincing, scenery-chewing turn as Sir Humphrey Pengallen dominates the film. The actor and his idiosyncrasies and demands apparently gave Hitch agita, but the performance gave me campy entertainment, as did the shiver-me-timbers cut-throatedness of the gang of “wreckers” and Maureen O’Hara’s feisty screen debut. On the minus side, Robert Newton as the love interest is reminiscent of Michael Wilding.

(And speaking of shiver me timbers, I was fascinated to find this on Wikipedia: “Newton is best remembered for his portrayal of the feverish-eyed Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island, the film that became the standard for screen portrayals of historical pirates. He continued to portray pirates in Blackbeard in 1952 and Long John Silver again in the 1954 film of the same name, which spawned a miniseries in the mid-1950s. Born in Dorset in the West Country of England and growing up in Cornwall near Lands End, his exaggeration of his West Country accent is credited with popularising the stereotypical ‘pirate voice.’ Newton has become the ‘patron saint’ of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Who knew?)

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13. I Confess

It’s attractively short at an hour and a half, and constricted, though unlike the similarly adapted-from-plays Rope and Dial M for Murder, it opens up into the world at large, in this case the atmospheric scenes of Quebec City. The black and white cinematography by Robert Burks is rich and inviting, marked by shadows and angular closeups. Strong supporting cast led by Karl Malden; a lot of nice grace notes, like the crew-cut priest’s noisy bicycle.

The central plot device basically worked, for me, though there are some holes in it, and clearly, the original script, ditched because of Hays Office concerns, would have been better. The main problems are the love story, which never coheres, and Montgomery Clift’s performance as Father Logan. Reportedly, he and Hitch clashed over his Method approach. In any case, I agree with John McCarten of The New Yorker, who wrote that Clift plays Logan “as a sort of bemused juvenile, plainly too abstracted to lead one lamb, let alone a flock.”

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10. Stage Fright

Or as I like to call it, Jane Wyman’s bangs versus Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows. The bangs hold their own, and Wyman’s performance as the protagonist, Eve Gill (as noted, I count a female lead a plus), is one of the enjoyable things about the movie. A year after her divorce from Ronnie Reagan, she must have been feeling her oats.

Also feeling his oats is Hitch, specifically about being back in England after an 11-year Hollywood sojourn. The very best thing about the movie are the London atmosphere and the small but memorable English types: Dietrich’s cockney dresser, all the theater “luvvies” (Eve is an aspiring actress), Joyce Grenfell as a shooting gallery operator with “lovely ducks,” Sybil Thorndike as Wyman’s crusty mother.

On the other hand, Alistair Sim, as her father (and I didn’t catch the explanation of why Eve has two English parents and an American accent) gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a well-regarded actor in a major film. He mainly shuffles around uncomfortably and can’t help, as my wife says, smiling under his mustache. Not much better is Michael Wilding, insipid as usual as police inspector “Ordinary” Smith. The love story, of which he is a part, is of course the weak link. As for the suspense plot, I didn’t mind the notorious unconventional move made by Hitch and his screenwriters. But the suspense never really built for me, due in part to several plot holes, including too-easy escapes and Smith’s unexplained withholding of significant information. The biggest hole had to do with the big McGuffin, a certain dress. Let’s just say that the handkerchief in “Othello” worked a whole lot better.

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This still suggests just some of the strangeness of “Rich and Strange”

10. Rich and Strange (U.S. title: East of Shanghai)

Something needs to be said about the middle territory of this list, which we are now in. If you’re looking for an evening’s entertainment, you’d probably do better with the previous two title on the list than the 1927-1937 titles that occupy four of the next five slots. That’s because the early movies are dated in a number of ways, the prints aren’t so good, and so on. I ranked them as high as I did for reasons  both historical (in prefiguring Hitchcockean themes and motifs) and intrinsic (standout sequences in camera work, editing or impact), and for intriguing or surprising themes or stories or twists.

The title of Rich and Strange is taken from a speech (sometimes sung) by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest that’s also the source of an even more familiar phrase:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

That’s right, it’s where “sea-change” comes from.

The wordless opening seems more like a silent than anything we see in the slightly earlier Murder! and Blackmail, as the main character, London office-worker Fred (Henry Kendall), leaves work and takes the tube for the journey home. Furthering the impressions, Kendall is heavily made up, and there are anachronistic title cards, such as “To get to Paris you have to cross the channel.”

Rich and Strange is un-Hitchockian in having no element of suspense. And maybe its unusualness in the canon was part of why I quite enjoyed it. Other reasons: Fred is a pill and a cad all the way through, no suggestion of improvement; Joan Barry’s nice performance as his wife, Emily; the pre-Code-era naughtiness; and the wacko turn the plot takes toward the end. I waited in vain for a title card saying, “No cats were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”

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Rear projection makes an early appearance, as Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney go motoring.

8. Young and Innocent (U.S. title: The Girl Was Young)

I simul-watched this with my friend Michael Tisserand, as we made Mystery Science Theater-type snarky comments, as well as some admiring ones, by text. Michael identified and fixated on the theme of littering in the movie and was entranced by the scene in Nobby’s Lodging House, the kind of place George Orwell might have bedded down when he was tramping around England “on the kip.”

The companion to Young and Innocent is obviously The 39 Steps (1935), as both are early examples of Hitch’s greatest plot, the wrongly accused person on the run. (He’d introduced it in 1927 in The Lodger, would bring it to America in Saboteur, and would knock it out of the park in 1955 with  North by Northwest.) There’s no doubt that 39 Steps is the better film. The set pieces are amazing instead of good; Robert Donat>Derrick De Marney. The love story (repeat after me) in Y and I is the weak link, and in addition is treated with a comical touch I found jarring.

That said, I enjoyed the movie. So many eccentric minor characters and tasty set pieces: the meeting with the nearsighted lawyer; dinner at Erica Burgoyne’s house, with her hilarious seven-dwarfs brothers, all dressed in suits; the fistfight at Tom’s Cafe, which gets as crowded as the Marx Bros. stateroom scene; the kids’ birthday party and Erica’s busybody aunt; and the scene at the “mine workings,” which has the first (I think) use of a Hitch trademark, seen later in Saboteur and N by NW: someone in danger of falling a great distance and being pulled up (or not) to safety, the money shot a high-angle closeup.

The best set piece is the last, which combines hot jazz, a creepy somatic “tell,” and an amazing crane shot. However, for reasons that will be clear if you watch the movie, the last scene is also the reason why Young and Innocent can’t really be shown in public anymore.

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7. Lifeboat

Since the title is Lifeboat, I don’t count it a spoiler to say that the entire action takes place on one, after a Merchant Marine ship is sunk by a German U-Boat in the Atlantic. Ending up onboard is the usual Hollywood microcosm, including William Bendix as a regular mug from Brooklyn; Tallulah Bankhead as an Dorothy Thompson/Martha Gellhorn-type journalist; John Hodiak as a Marx-reading engine-room crewman who seizes leadership of the motley bunch; Henry Hull as a wealthy industrialist; and Walter Slezak as a German who’s hauled aboard from the sea and occasions heated ethical and strategic debates. All the performances are good (with the exception of Hume Cronyn, who offers the least convincing English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke), there’s ample suspense and emotionally affecting moments, the philosophizing (screenplay by Jo Swerling from a story by John Steinbeck–who later disavowed the movie) is for the most part food for thought rather than windbaggery, and even the rear projection of the ocean isn’t a distraction. Bottom line: Hitchcock pulls off this tour de force.

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Ivor Novello as the Lodger: a bit over the top.

6. The Lodger: A True Story of the London Fog

This late silent, starring Ivor Novello as a mysterious lodger who bears a striking resemblance to  a Jack-the-Ripper-style murderer of young blonde girls, is another one I simul-watched with Michael Tisserand. Here are some excerpts from our text exchanges about Novello’s performance:

Yagoda: I know it’s 93 years later and styles change but I can’t help thinking the lodger is a bad actor

Y: The other acting by contrast is good

Tisserand: Thinking the same esp Marie Ault as the mum

T: The lodger guy was directed to be zombie-like

Y: Hitch’s note: seethe

T: “Look at each chess piece as you would a lost lover”

Except for Novello’s overheated performance and heavy makeup (and what I found to be excessive music in Amazon Prime’s print), the film plays well all these years later; at age 28, Hitchock’s ambition and chops are pretty amazing. But the main reason I ranked it as high as I did is the uncanny way it introduced so many themes and motifs that the director would return to again and again: gruesome crimes, the innocent (?) man on the run (albeit confined to a scant fifteen minutes here), pursued man hiding in plain sight, ineffective police, scary mobs, blondes.

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5. Blackmail

This is a curiosity, in that Hitchcock filmed both a sound and silent version, and that lead actress Anny Ondra’s lines were dubbed by Joan Barry because Ondra had an accent. But it’s also a great film. The cinematography, mise en scene and editing represent the high-water mark of silent cinema. And it’s positively bursting with Hitchcockian themes and elements: a blonde, suspense, edge-of-the-seat moments (including a climactic chase involving a landmark), not one but two MacGuffins (a painting and a glove), all sorts of ambiguity, and ambient kinkiness. There’s a line from Cyril Ritchard’s (that’s right, Captain Hook) twisted bad guy, Mr. Crewe, all the way up through Bob Rusk in Frenzy (1972). When Crewe goes to the piano and sings the kitschy “Miss Up-to-Date,” with all sorts of bad tidings in the air, you are riveted. Or I was, anyway.

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4. Rebecca

Now we get to some really hard choices. Ranked purely as a piece of cinema, Rebecca would be in the top spot, or at lowest number two. After all, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture—Hitchcock’s only win in the category. But I found the other three simply affected me and stayed with me more.

That said, Rebecca is a pip. After all, it has George Sanders, beautiful black and white (George Barnes won an Oscar for his cinematography), a nearly omnipresent staircase, and problematic relationships up the wazoo. The leads, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, were both nominated for Oscars and both are great, though I thought the direction of Fontaine was a bit too heavy on the meekly awkward in the first half or more of the film; I picture her with her head constantly tilted at a 45-degree angle, as if the second Mrs. de Winter felt that holding it straight would be too assertive. But I guess Hitch judged that was necessary to set the groundwork for the developments at the end. I thought there was one significant plot hole involving the creepy Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, also justly nominated). And, as has been noted by others, the change to du Maurier’s novel necessitated by the Production Code was unfortunate.

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3. Marnie

To start with not the most important point, I liked that this movie was in color, for the sort of documentary reason that it brought me back to how things looked in 1964, when I was first starting to notice them. I also liked the exterior shots of Philadelphia, outside of which I live, and I even admired the matte background of a supposedly Baltimore waterfront location.

But not to bury the lede, I believe Marnie is most famous, or notorious, for two things. The first is a scene in which Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who has married the very troubled Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) for reasons that are rather puzzling to begin with and don’t quickly become clearer, rapes her. The incident takes place in the source material for the film, a novel by Winston Graham, but in the film it is shocking and troubling to a 2020 viewer in a way Hitchcock surely didn’t intend. The terrible act has an immediate consequence, but afterwards is more or less brushed aside, and that is certainly a legitimate reason to shun Marnie. As is the second notoriety, Hitchcock’s abusive behavior towards Hedren, as described by her in interviews and a memoir.

But I stuck with the movie and am glad I did. It is just such an strange and unusual film. Granted, one can’t forget the rape scene, and granted, Mark is a flawed character: except for that scene, and in contrast to the Graham novel, the darker elements in his character are either merely implicit or are air-brushed out. But my main takeaway is that Hitchcock and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen really and messily and honorably grappled with (in the title of a book we see Mark reading) Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female. I thought Hedren’s performance was brave and strong, with the occasional distraction of her Kelly-esque Transatlantic accent, the Mad-magazine-worthy moments bits when she has sensory triggers, and her architectural beehive hairdo, complete with multiple nooks and crannies. Louise Latham as her mother is affecting as well. There’s a great set-piece early on in a silent office, and two shocking ones later, the first featuring a horse, the second a scary and very young Bruce Dern.

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2. The Wrong Man

I loved this movie. It made me wonder what would have resulted if Hitchcock had used Henry Fonda a little bit more and James Stewart a little bit less. Not taking anything away from Stewart, but his good friend Fonda, through his hollow eyes, his slightly stooped posture, and minimalistic approach, brings another level of emotional depth and, at moments, pain, to the proceedings. Even his thinning hair helps with the naturalism and authenticity; no toup for Hank.

The movie starts with an appearance by Hitchcock, shot in silhouette, who tells us, “This is a true story, every word of it.” Hyperbole, to be sure, but the movie has a documentary feel (black and white of course) and reflects the real-life experiences of Manny Ballesteros, a bass player at the Stork Club in New York who was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. (Not a spoiler since that’s established by the title and early scenes.) I loved the musical elements of the movie, in two ways. First, what must be Bernard Herrmann’s most restrained score cleverly and effectively is characterized by jazz-inflected bass lines. Second, as opposed to the typical romanticized portrayal of jazz musicians, The Wrong Man opens with Fonda and his bandmates playing corny mock-Latin arrangements to mainly uninterested patrons, at the end of which he has to take the subway home to Jackson Heights. It’s a job like any other, with elements of craft and tedium.

The first half of the film is brilliant and claustrophobic, showing the Kafka-esque ways the walls keep relentlessly closing in on Manny. And at the end there is an indelibly haunting moment, which I won’t spoil. The rest of the second half is colored by a plot element that was taken from life but that never really worked for me, whether because of the screenplay or the direction and/or performance of Vera Miles as Manny’s wife. Two minor carps: Anthony Quayle is wasted as Manny’s lawyer; his accent was last spotted in the middle of the Atlantic. And the movie grinds to a halt whenever Manny’s two little kids are on screen.

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1. The Birds

Reader, I watched it—though admittedly, when things got too intense I had to parcel it out in twenty-minute segments. An amazing film, and Hitchcock’s last masterpiece; Evan Hunter’s screenplay makes a major contribution and is probably underrated. To me, it’s much better than Jaws in depicting malevolent nature in a horror-movie format.

It was actually Hedren’s first role after being discovered by Hitchcock in a TV commercial, and her performance as Melanie Daniels holds us all the way through. She’s got a similar beehive hairdo as in Marnie, though both she and it eventually get undone by the terrible events that ensue. Books can be and have been written about The Birds, and I can’t do it justice in a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just share some of my notes.

  • Everybody lies in this movie. Is that what nature is punishing?
  • Melanie: “And on Tuesdays, I take a course in General Semantics at Berkeley, finding new four-letter words”!!
  • I think there’s no music, except the amazing scene when Melanie is outside the schoolroom listening to the children singing. The use of silence and muted sounds is brilliant.
  • Mitch (Rod Taylor) always calls his mother “dear” or “darling” and is constantly kissing her on the cheek. Hmmmm.
  • “Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it?” You got that right, sister.
  • All the shots from above.
  • Suzanne Pleshette is great as the brunette foil, better than Diane Baker in
  • Broken eyeglasses on the ground—Strangers on a Train
  • The busybody ornithologist in a tweed suit!
  • The Shirley Jackson “Lottery”/witchhunts from the all-female chorus in the diner are maybe a bit much.

The Birds takes us on a truly horrifying ride. I only felt the spell breaking a couple of times, when the characters seemed to be under-reacting to that they and we just witnessed. Maybe oddly, the thing I found moving about it was Hitchcock and screenwriter Hunter’s rigorous insistence not to try to cogently explain, for lack of a better word, evil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talkin’ Bouton

Last week, through the offices of the Radnor (Pennsylvania) Memorial Library, I had the pleasure of Zoom-interviewing Mitchell Nathanson, author of a great new biography of the pitcher (New York Yankees and a few other stops), author (Ball Four) and, briefly, actor (The Long Goodbye) Jim Bouton. It was lot of fun, and, rest assured, we got deep into the Phil Linz harmonica incident. Here’s the interview.