The Gong Show

Ken Richmond died in August 2006. The name didn’t ring a bell—a moan-inducing pun as you will soon see—but the image accompanying his obituary certainly did. He was the gongmeister who, with great solemnity and sobriety, announced the beginning of J. Arthur Rank movies. Actually, has anyone given the J. Arthur Rank logo a thought in the last few decades? Richmond’s obituary was a reminder. Nor was he the only gong man. Who knew or even imagined that there was more than one? But he was the last one and with his death, something else besides his life came to an end. In case you don’t recall, although if you’ve seen the logo once, there’s no way that you wouldn’t remember it, there’s a huge gong of what looks like hammered brass in the middle of the frame. A well-developed, well-oiled muscle man, wearing nothing more than a Tarzan-like diaper, lifts a mallet that looks like it weighs a ton with both hands and with a gravity and a sense of purpose, strikes the gong twice. The gong reverberates and the title J. Arthur Rank comes on the screen.

You know you’re in safe hands. It will be a quality film. It’s like the MGM logo—once it appears on the screen, you know you can expect quality entertainment, even if, five minutes into it, it turns out to be just another movie. It’s the case of expectation trumping experience, when the logo promises more than the product can deliver. [Image 1; click or see below]

There’s even more hope for the film if the logo is in color. Moody chiaroscuro emphasizing the pock-marked nature of the gong, the man with the mallet half-hidden in shadow, a pleated burgundy-colored curtain, perhaps velvet, behind the gong, the man, with skin tones similar to the coloring of the gong. Magic! Until, of course, proven otherwise. [Image 2, Image 3]

The exoticism of the logo extended beyond the fact that Rank movies were British movies and I was a mere American. It was, I suspect, exotic for English people as well. Intentional or not, the logo suggests empire, the far reaches of colonialism, the brute strength of natives of a certain color—the model was dipped in a bronze-colored make-up—performing a ritual that had repercussions more serious than a call to dinner. It had a scent of skullduggery in ancient and faraway places, initiation into arcane rituals, evil potentates and captive harem girls, villains wearing turbans and brandishing scimitars, incense and Ali Baba’s cave, Scheherazade and opulent languor, the death of Sardanapolis—Arabian Nights, the Raj, Gordon in Khartoum, Anna and the King of Siam, Lawrence of Arabia. Bug-eyed notions of orientalism and exoticism firing on all cylinders. The Rank man and his gong in his twelve seconds on screen suggest all this and much more. The Empire in its shining hour. A multi-purpose, free floating signifier with no specific meaning but with the unmistakable suggestion that the British Empire upon which the sun promised never to set will inevitably carry on. Conquest, adventure, subjugation, romantic surrender, riches beyond imagining, fealty, and wonderment. Of course, India broke free of the British Empire in 1947 and dozens of colonies and protectorates in the commonwealth peeled off shortly thereafter. But even after the Empire declined, the logo, and everything it brought to mind remained, albeit slightly faded. Slow-moving ceiling fans in tropical hotel lobbies sprinkled with bamboo furniture and down-on-their-luck Europeans nursing gin and tonics. Stiff upper lips, pith helmets and all that.

So, in August 2006, Ken Richmond, the last of the gong-strikers died at the age of 80. Another reminder that yet another era had come to an end, although the Rank Organization had stopped producing movies in 1980. One is a little surprised to see that this otherwise obscure peripheral footnote of a dying industry is even remembered enough to rate an obituary. Certainly, the filmgoer in me, who never gave it a thought, that that mythical logo which seemed to be part of the natural order of things was actually produced, as opposed to found in nature, and that the man who struck the gong was a human being like any other and had a life apart from the logo he inhabited. It was also strange to think that the logo had a story of its own, and to discover a new little rivulet leading nowhere in the world of movie-lore.

It’s not exactly film history. If it’s gossip at all, it’s a below-the-radar level of gossip, and it’s probably of no interest to anyone. It’s not nostalgia, although it might have elements of that in it. And it is certainly not a tea-soaked Madeleine. So what is it? The birth and death of a logo that once had a hold on us? Sure proof that time is passing? Another sign that the artifacts of childhood which had no intrinsic value at the time are vanishing and thereby acquiring inestimable significance? Or just another set of factoids to be stored in your gray matter, vying for space with a million other useless, unilluminating but strangely compelling factoids?

In the mid-30s, J. Arthur Rank, a flour mogul and a devout Methodist, started producing religious films. When he wasn’t pleased with the way they were distributed and exhibited, he formed his own distribution company. For that, he needed a logo. Originally he wanted a wolf, to rival MGM’s lion, but good wolves were hard to find. Obviously lions were, too, since there are several recognizably different lions over the years garlanded by the MGM Ars Gratis Artis ribbon of film. He ultimately decided on a man banging on a gong. In addition to buying out other distribution companies, he acquired chains of movie theaters and also bought studios. He was now in complete control of all the means of film production, distribution and exhibition.

The first gong man was Carl Dane, a 6’5” circus strongman. He had been part of a circus acrobatic act in which he was billed as “Boy Hercules.” One of his famous strong-man stunts was to pull a London double-decker bus with his teeth. Talking about the bronze make-up that they generously lathered over his whole body, basically blackface, Danes said, “The perspiration would make it streak and we’d have to start all over again.” No one seems to be quite sure when his image as the gong-striker was retired but he did indicate that he understood the importance of the image. “That one episode has haunted me my whole life. But I just did it for the money.”

He was replaced by “Bombardier” Billy Wells (1887–1967), a 6’1” heavyweight boxer who had a beer named after him [Image 4]. He also owned a famous pub called Bombardier. He was obviously a big movie fan as well. He had uncredited bit parts in Hitchcock’s The Ring (1927), King Vidor’s The Citadel (1938), George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941), Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). His apotheosis in the movies, aside from being one of the designated gong men, was playing the hangman in Peter Brooks’ The Beggar’s Opera (1953) with Laurence Olivier. He was retired from gong duty in 1948. Obviously, the company felt that its logo needed a new representative every several years, just as the MGM lion had to be replaced every so often, although MGM, as we shall see, was less fickle than J. Arthur Rank. All logos, it seems, or so the heads of the companies they represent seem to think, have to be updated at a certain point even though the public remains fond of the image because the images seem so permanent and unchangeable. The consumer feels secure with a good logo should feel like those steles from outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey—unchanging, inevitable, eternal. The public doesn’t want their familiar images tampered with. There was a time that the logo was so well known that 94% of the British population could identify it. For a certain generation, that figure probably still applies.

The third gong-guy was Phil Niewman, a movie extra about whom very little is known. He served from 1948 to 1954, when he was replaced by Ken Richmond, the fourth and final gongman. [Image 5]

Richmond, 6’2”, was an Olympic wrestling champ who won a bronze medal in freestyle wrestling in Helsinki in 1952. He participated in the Melbourne Olympics and won a gold medal in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and a bronze in Auckland in 1950. Like Billy Wells, he, too was clearly bitten by the movie bug, perhaps because he grew up in a house near Rank’s Pinewood Studios. He worked as an extra in Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945). Richmond posed for the logo in 1954 for a one-time only payment of £100. He said that his favorite roles say in which movie (the most likely candidate would be Caesar and Cleopatra [1946]) and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1951), in which he had a not insubstantial role as Nikolas, a proponent of Greco-Roman wrestling. He was quite convincing and natural in the role. His good looks and ease in front of the camera suggest that he might have had some kind of acting career had he been interested in pursuing it. [Image 6, Image 7, Image 8]

Despite the sport he excelled in, he was a lifelong pacifist and even spent several months in jail at the end of WWII as a conscientious objector. He became a Jehovah’s Witness and spent two years as a missionary in Malta. Ultimately, he gave up wrestling because his religious work left him insufficient time for the sport. In his late sixties, he took up windsurfing in which he excelled and for which he won medals. If they ever make a film of his life, Gregory Peck should play him. [Image 9]

Rank as a production company went out of business in 1980, but their salad days were far behind them even then. The glories of The 39 Steps, Henry V, Hamlet, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus were already part of history rather than the recent past. And the recent past was none too prestigious, either. In the last 25 years or so of its existence it was known as the company that produced the very popular and indestructible Carry On … series. The Rank Organization carries on today mostly as a real estate holding company which owns casinos and hotels. Its most recognizable asset is the global Hard Rock Café franchise.

The least surprising factoid about the gong was that it was made out of papier-mâché. In a world where the only reality is that created by artifice, why would that be a surprise? The gong sounds were recorded by a famous percussionist, James Blades, who had worked with Benjamin Britten and also created the “V for Victory” Morse code used by the BBC during the war. He recorded the gong on a 2-feet in diameter Chinese instrument called a tam tam. The disparate elements that are yoked together to make the 12 second logo is standard operating procedure for the factory of dreams—a sound is recorded in one place and by someone other than the unnecessarily muscular gong striker and is married to a silent image—to create a new synthesis. Sound from here, an image from there, a prop that is only a simulacrum of another prop, a muscle man who only appears to be striking a gong—illusion, illusion, illusion. Any word as to the whereabouts of the five-foot in diameter papier-mâché gong and the accompanying mallet? Are they heavily guarded prizes in some movie-mad collector’s trophy room? Are they languishing in some dusty, cobwebbed corner in a long-forgotten studio storage room? Or has the papier-mâché long ago succumbed to the disintegration such fragile items are subject to? Or, worst of all, were the gong and the mallet long ago consigned to a trash bin in the days when such objects had no intrinsic much less sentimental value?

In September 2006, a £1,000,00 question asked on the British game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? was “Which boxer was famous for striking the gong in the introduction to J. Arthur Rank films?—a ) Bombardier Billy Wells, b) Freddy Mills, c) Terry Spings, or d) Don Cockrell.” Well, now you and I, dear reader, know the correct answer and we could have, had we been the contestant, gotten the correct answer and the money. It could have been trickier if they had named all four gong men and asked which one was second or which one was third. But they didn’t. So, in the best of all possible worlds, this information does or at least, for one brief moment, did have value.

Just in case you have any ambition to be a contestant on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? sometime in the future, some of the MGM lions’ names are Slats, Jackie, and Tanner—not a Leo among them. Jackie was the black and white lion in all the films from 1928 through 1956, Tanner was the color lion, from 1938 through 1956. (For mind-numbing minutiae on the detailed history of the MGM lions, go to the Wikipedia and check out “Leo the Lion.”) Each of the lions had a longer run than all the gong men put together. Obviously, MGM was a less fickle client and had considerable more loyalty to its lions than J. Arthur Rank did to his gong men.

Maybe we should start backwards and work our way forwards. Start with the history of props, anecdotes, details, artifacts, all the stuff that it’s almost a guilty pleasure to read about or know about or think about—in a word, the dreck of movie making. A different kind of history, history through the back door—the apple’s story, told from the point of view of the worm. Or how the material world really defines the world of movies, which is after all a very mechanical process and very much grounded in the world of actual things. Ideas come later. “No ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams said. Marianne Moore echoes and embroiders on the sentiment—“real toads in imaginary gardens.” They were talking about poetry but they could just as well have been talking about movies.

Many years ago, I saw a German documentary by Harmut Bitomsky called Reichsautobahn (1986) which examines Nazism from what, at first, seems to be the wrong end of the telescope—the history of the autobahn as an expression of Nazism. Literally, a concrete expression of Nazi ideology, rather than the other way around. It is a different perspective into a history that, even though nowhere near exhausted, has, at this point, more new facts than new insights to offer. It suggested, rather, a new way of revisiting old information with a fresh eye. Who knows, maybe this way of working—from small things to larger ones is a way in which a history can be more precisely categorized, defined, organized, re-organized and re-defined.

Consider this. When Lana Turner, not yet a star, made The Adventures of Marco Polo in 1938, they shaved off her eyebrows for the part. The eyebrows never grew back in. It’s very doubtful that she was in any way compensated for this sacrifice she made for her career—or her art. However, her non-existent eyebrows or, rather, her painted-on eyebrows, became very much a part of her image and the commodity that subsequently became known as Lana Turner, the glamour puss. When Oliver Reed made The Devils (1971) and Ken Russell wanted him to have his hair and eyebrows shaved off, the producers took out £250,000 insurance, just in case his eyebrows didn’t grow back in, which they did. Was the potential loss of Reed’s of more critical and of more cultural interest than Turner’s? Or was he more famous, than she was, when he had it done? Would anyone, even Reed himself, have cared if his eyebrows never grew back in? Or was it a publicity stunt? Ultimately, without sounding too much like Parker Tyler or, rather, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge as Parker Tyler’s most devoted acolyte, the significance of Lana Turner’s cosmetically applied eyebrows is a much more meaningful event in film-lore than the removal and potential loss of Oliver Reed’s.

Or consider this—the role of the bellybutton in movies. In the 40s, even “love goddesses” like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, never showed their navels, no matter how revealing or skimpy their costumes were. Think of Ingrid Bergman’s bare midriff in Notorious, Rita Hayworth’s bare midriff in her “Amado Mio” number in Gilda, Lana Turner’s bare midriff in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even Carmen Miranda, wearing low-cut skirts in her musical numbers has a flesh-colored patch of cloth designed into each costume to make sure that we don’t see, or even surmise, a navel. And all those girls-in-a-harem movies? Not a navel in sight. A navel suggested that someone, somewhere, once had sex. No, no, no. And that, as a result of it, a child was born. No! It was too sordid a fact to contemplate. Even men did not have navels. Think of John Garfield’s bathing suit in The Postman Always Rings Twice, a 100% navel-free movie. Think of all the boxing movies in which the boxers have their shorts practically hiked up to their armpits. But times change and even prudish morality bends a little. In 1959, Gina Lollobrigida, as the Queen of Sheba, wears a ruby in her exposed navel in a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, Solomon and Sheba! But she’s European. She even had a navel in 1952, in Rene Clair’s Beauties of the Night, when legions of Hollywood stars and starlets, if they wore two-piece bathing suits, still had to wear navel-denying bathing suits.

There’s a brilliant and hilarious commentary, on the navels-versus-no-navels issue, in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. The murderous monsters Samantha Eggar gives birth to, and this is how we know who they are, are navel-free because they are not created by sexual contact but by her fury. The children are the literal the manifestations of her anger. She is author of them but it’s not by childbirth that she creates them.

Are the eyebrow and belly button factoids any more or less enlightening than the gong statistics? I would say it’s a draw. None adds to or takes away anything from anything but they help to form a link between what happens behind the scenes with what appears up on the screen. Maybe these seemingly insignificant factoids do, after all, contribute something. Maybe they can shine little 10-watt rays of light into hitherto unilluminated and unexplored areas in a kingdom of many myths and may yet set off a little spark somewhere. Or even a conflagration. In a way, it’s a termite’s view of film history or film-lore or the unspoken and/or unknown and unknowable facts behind the fiction. It may not especially mean anything but very few things really do. It’s approaching the dream factory through the back door where all the trash is dumped and allowed to rot. Carefully picking through the trash, with a connoisseur’s eye, might be a way towards re-arranging familiar information in a different context.

Should all of this information be filed under trivia and forgotten as soon as possible? Or are these little byways and tangents spinning out into infinity, part of a larger Borgesian underground labyrinth that exists in a parallel universe beneath that expanding and, at the same time, disappearing landfill called film history?—a labyrinth carved out by termites, mirroring and perhaps even mocking, the world above the surface. I don’t know that these little epiphanies illuminate anything other than themselves. If any conclusions are to be drawn, what they might be, at this point, are anybody’s guess. In any case, the serious digging has not yet even begin in earnest, and the results won’t be in for decades—hopefully before all the minutiae perishes, is lost or forgotten forever.

If the image of the gong being struck remains indelibly printed on our communal imagination, Rank has also contributed, again though through the back door, to the English language as well—as part of Cockney rhyming slang. In Cockney rhyming slang, which hypothetically originated as a thieves’ jargon or, alternately, as a way of preventing outsiders from understanding what is being said, an abbreviated part of a phrase, which rhymes with the word it is replacing assumes the meaning of the missing word—for example, “trouble and strife” means “wife.” So when you ask someone how his “trouble” is doing, you are referring to his “wife.” “Apples and pears” rhymes with “stairs,” so the word “apples” refers to “stairs.” “China plate” means “mate” but you only have to say “china” to mean “mate.” “Bees,” as in “bees and honey,” means “money,” and so on. In any case, in Cockney slang, a J. Arthur means “wank” (rhymes with “Rank”). In English slang, “wank” means “jerk-off.” So what lives on? The memory of a man and a gong and a hilariously good-natured vulgarism. Is that a legacy or what? That, not to mention the movies they produced, is the back door to a certain kind of immortality.

Mark Rappaport is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist. His films include The Scenic Route (1978), Impostors (1979), and the widely-acclaimed Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995). A collection of some of his film writings was published in 2008 in French as Le Spectateur qui en savait trop (The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much). Several of his pieces have appeared in the online film journal Rouge.

The above article was originally published in Trafic, in French; this is its first appearance in the original English.

Black Bra, White Bra

Since we know that Hitchcock planned everything down to the last detail in all of his movies, what are we to make of Janet Leigh’s undergarments in Psycho? In all the voluminous literature concerning Hitchcock’s films and Psycho, has there ever been an analysis of why Marion Crane wears a white bra and a white half-slip for her afternoon tryst with Sam and then, as she is ready to abscond with the $40,000, is wearing a black bra and black half-slip? [Image 1; click or see below] Well, here goes. We know that Hitchcock wasn’t interested in symbolism and certainly in the simplistic kind that would equate white with good and black with bad. Or even white suggesting Marion’s happiness and appetite for life and black suggesting her headlong rush towards her totally arbitrary death. Not only did Hitchcock not deal in symbols, he was anything but a Manichean. If anything, the opposite is true. His villains, like Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train and Alex Sebastian in Notorious, are suave and charming, and sometimes his heroes, like Devlin in Notorious and Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, are far from admirable and occasionally despicable. We also know that no detail however small was too small to pay attention to. That’s what movies are made of, thousands of details, piled on one another to create a singular effect. And this is certainly true of Hitchcock movies, perhaps more than anyone else’s. No, this was not an error by the continuity person. Hitchcock’s world did not permit such errors. So we must look elsewhere to find the meaning, and, if not the answers, the reasons.

Marion, after her afternoon tryst with Sam, goes to the office where she is given the $40,000 in an envelope and then leaves early, claiming to have a headache. Dissolve to Marion, wearing a black bra and slip, looking at the $40,000 fairly falling out of the envelope lying on her bed [Image 2]. She is busy packing. What happened in the time between the dissolve? Let’s write an alternate scenario. She comes home and takes a shower after a lunch break of strenuous and sweaty sex. Remember, the window to her hotel room was open, so there was no air-conditioning in the hotel and the man who buys the house from Marion’s realtor boss says the weather is “as hot as fresh milk.” Let us say she takes a shower. She almost surely takes a shower. Is she as delighted to be taking a shower as she seems to be when the hot water comes out in her famous/infamous fatal shower scene, a few hours from now? Perhaps she is. Also, some time during this ellipsis she has come to the decision to take the $40,000 and flee. So maybe she is more worried and concerned than relaxed while taking the shower. Even though, in her long car ride, her inner thoughts are revealed to us by the things she imagines people might say about her actions, we are not afforded the same opportunity to follow her thoughts in resolving to steal the money. Her and Sam’s situation, financial and otherwise, had already been clarified by the exposition in the hotel room. But then she surprises us when she turns down her co-worker’s offer to take some tranquilizers with, “You can’t buy off unhappiness with tranquilizers.” We didn’t realize she was that unhappy, even though she did tell the house-buyer who is flirting with her that she is not “inordinately” unhappy. She suffers, in Freud’s terms, not from neurotic unhappiness, but from normal unhappiness. In our alternate scenario, we perhaps also see Sam taking a plane back home, picking up his car and driving his car from the airport to his home—and store—in Fairville, in an uneventful trip. Clearly this long scene will have to be cut from the final film because nothing much happens. He doesn’t stop to sell his car, as Marion does. He doesn’t fall asleep by the side of the road, he isn’t questioned by the highway patrol as Marion is, he doesn’t encounter a sudden rainstorm or check into a motel. OK. Marion gets out of the shower and chooses something to wear. It’s a much darker, somewhat more formal dress than the one she wore to work, a white summer-y dress. That would explain why she wore a white bra and slip earlier. You wouldn’t wear black undergarments underneath your white dress. She decides on a black bra and a black slip. Is she making that choice because it’s more appropriate for the nighttime? Does she want to surprise and excite Sam in her black undergarments which set off her white skin? She certainly doesn’t wear them to arouse Norman, although Hitchcock knows and we know that black undergarments against white skin have a sharper erotic charge to it than white undergarments, if stag movies of the 40s and 50s are any indication. Does she feel now that she’s a “bad” girl and should dress accordingly? We will have to reject unconditionally that she was dressing for her fatal and fateful date with Norman Bates. Whatever Hitchcock’s cognitive processes were, I don’t believe that he thought that way. Ingmar Bergman maybe, but Hitchcock—never. Now let’s pick up the real movie again. She continues packing—she is almost all done—and she puts her white slip on the very top of all the packed clothing in the suitcase and then closes it. Why is the white slip the last thing she packs into the suitcase, almost as an afterthought? More food for thought.

Now, let us join her, alone in her room at the Bates Motel, after she had her talk with Norman and, presumably, has made her decision to go back to Phoenix. She is tired and hungry and ready to go to bed. She didn’t eat much of the sandwich that Norman prepared for her, and anyway he comments that she eats like a bird. Nor did she eat the untouched sandwich that she brought with her to the hotel the other day. “You never did eat your lunch, did you?” Sam remarks in the hotel room. She must be starving. After a long hard day of driving and great anxiety, she gets ready to step into the shower. She strips down to her black bra and half-slip. Norman, in the parlor, as he calls it, adjoining his office, takes a down kitschy painting of a naked woman being molested by two old men—probably yet another version of Susannah and the Elders, a favored subject of 16th- and 17th-century painters but this one much less modest and much more graphic than most [Image 3]—and looks at her through the peephole it covers. She is perfectly framed as she is about to go into the bathroom [Image 4]. We are to assume that he has seen her completely naked. Norman, as impulsively as Marion stealing the money, pulls away from the scene and goes back to the house. We know no more about his decision, or even what it is, than we knew about Marion’s decision to flee with the money, although his will have more fatal consequences. Nor will we find out until the very end of the film. While he is up at the house, she begins doing her simple addition and subtraction, subtracting the money she has spent from the money she stole. She then puts the envelope full of the remaining money in her suitcase, not back into her handbag, where it was before, but on top of her white slip, before wrapping it in the newspaper she bought, looking for written proof of her guilt. Underwear and money, sex and death, money and guilt, sex and anxiety, money and sex, guilt and underwear—they are all inextricably woven together but nothing gets any clearer. How to explain these strange concatenations and juxtapositions? She steps into the shower…and we all know what happens after that.

Let’s go back two years to Vertigo. In Vertigo, Midge is an ad illustrator who is currently doing a promotion for a new brassiere [Image 5]. Scottie, with his cane, points to the brassiere, which serves as the model, as if to say he wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. He doesn’t and can’t actually bring himself to touch the brassiere, as if that would be too vulgar and crass for a man such as he, although he is not above making a smirky, adolescent joke about it [Image 6]. So, we do know that Hitchcock, as far back as the inception of Vertigo, was interested in bras and we also know that Hitchcock’s interests get repeated from film to film until he puts them to rest, only to pursue other interests, which also will reappear in film after film until the image, for him, is exhausted. The bra they talk about in Vertigo is an “anti-gravitational” cantilevered bra that works on engineering principles. Midge explains that it was designed by an aircraft engineer in his spare time. Clearly what is being referred to here is the cantilevered brassiere that Howard Hughes designed for Jane Russell to wear in his movie The Outlaw (originally opened in San Francisco in 1943 but withdrawn from circulation and then widely released in 1946), the primary purpose of which was to show off her breasts to their best advantage. However, it’s not in the film in which Ms. Russell’s breasts are so blatantly emphasized—the film itself is very tame because the production codes were very strict—but rather in the suggestive publicity stills that Howard Hughes had taken to advertise the film, with a smoldering Jane Russell who promises much more than the timid movie ultimately delivered [Image 7].

It is important to remember that the 50s in America was a very bra-conscious society. It was the era of the Bullet Bra, also known as the Torpedo Bra, also known as the Missile Bra, also known as the Cone Bra. The military aspect of its various nicknames was an unmistakable nod to the free-floating anxiety about and pre-occupation with the Cold War, as well as to sex. It was designed to project a woman’s breasts and extend them further than nature actually did, in order to fill a sweater more amply. Hitchcock’s allusions to brassieres in Vertigo is a pointed commentary on an era that fetishized and apotheosized the abundant endowments of Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg and Jane Russell. The bra obsession and phenomenon is also wryly commented on in the Adolph Green-Betty Comden-Jules Styne 1956 hit Broadway musical, Bells Are Ringing, starring Judy Holiday—“I wanna go back/ Where I can be me/ At the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company…” made into a Vincente Minnelli movie in 1960.

There were also, at the time, ubiquitous print ads in national magazines advertising Maidenform bra, with a tag line that was instantly recognizable. “I dreamed I played chess in my Maidenform bra…” “I dreamed I was twins in my Maidenform bra…” “I dreamed I had tea for two in my Maidenform bra…” “I dreamed I went to a masquerade in my Maidenform bra…”, and so on [Image 8]. The line accompanied a fashion photograph illustrating the catch phrase, as well a little story about the “dream.” Considering the subject matter, the ads were done with wit, taste, and elegance. And were, of course, always eye-catching. The “I dreamed…” theme was an endlessly resourceful ongoing ad campaign that was so successful for the company that the series of ads ran throughout the 50s into the late 60s, with many imaginative variations. Maybe Hitchcock, in his sly way, is suggesting his own ad—“I dreamed I was murdered at the Bates Motel in my Maidenform bra…”

Or perhaps an answer can be found in Marnie, four years after Psycho. Hitchcock once more reveals his interest in women on the run and their suitcases—what gets put in suitcases, what gets left behind. At the very beginning of Marnie, even before we’re introduced to the main character, we’re introduced to the things she’s acquired—her Naples-yellow handbag which contains all the loot she most recently stole, her suitcase, the clothes that she just bought for herself as well as, we will soon learn, gifts she bought for her mother as she packs them very neatly into her new suitcase [Image 9]. It goes without saying that Marnie is a compulsively neater packer than Marion Crane. Meanwhile, right next to the new suitcase is her old suitcase, in which she haphazardly throws items that, we find out several shots later, she will discard. She throws, into the old suitcase, a white bra and a pinkish slip. Maybe that’s what happens to old white bras when you’re starting a new life. So, that’s a possible answer, although there is something frighteningly paranoid about Marnie throwing out her old underwear, as if she could be identified by those items, just as Marion’s behavior is similarly irrational when she buys the Saturday morning paper to find out if the robbery she committed on Friday is reported in it. Marnie subsequently dumps all of her money into the new suitcase. She goes to the train station with both suitcases, deposits the old suitcase in a locker, locks it up, and throws the key away.

Women, in American movies, certainly, before Psycho were rarely, if ever, seen in a brassiere and a slip. There is a world of difference between what we see in Psycho and Elizabeth Taylor slinkily lounging around in a full slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and BUtterfield 8 (1960). It was the difference between being nude and being naked. In addition to which, Janet Leigh was what my mother might have called a “big” girl. In a sense, it was as shocking for a star of Janet Leigh’s caliber to casually wear a bra and a half-slip as it was for Manet’s Olympia to unblinkingly stare down the spectator when she is clearly naked, and definitely not nude. But everything about the images presented in Psycho was shocking. It was the first time one had seen a normal bathroom on the screen—elaborate movie star or designer bathrooms don’t count—, with a toilet and the sound of a toilet actually being flushed, a shower that took water and blood down the drain. It was also the first visit to a sleazy motel (if we except Touch of Evil [1958]), it was the first peek at America’s obsession with it’s highways, and certainly the first well-mannered, prep-school psycho-killer. Hitchcock, in movies, did for motels and highways what Nabokov did in novels with Lolita, which was printed for the first time in America in 1958, two years before Psycho.

OK, here we are, over 2,000 words later and I’m not much closer to an answer than I was at the beginning. And yet, and yet, why has this been sticking in my craw all this time? Let’s go back to the previously mentioned dissolve between Marion at her office and Marion packing her suitcase. If she were wearing her white bra and half-slip while packing, it might suggest that no time at all elapsed between her leaving the office and making the decision to take the money and run. But she would need some time to think over her plans. The fact that she is wearing the black bra indicates several things—that she had indeed spent some time to thinking her plans through, that she most probably—let us say definitely—took a shower, foreshadowing, unseen though the shower may have been, her fatal shower at the Bates Motel, and most important of all, that she was naked during the course of the film, actually, during the course of the dissolve—in order for her change her brassiere. It is that unseen nakedness, during the dissolve, that is the very nakedness that triggers Norman Bates’ sexual and, hence, murderous impulses. And to indicate that something important happened in that dissolve interval, Hitchcock has Marion change her bra and slip. It’s a visual shorthand for suggesting that time has elapsed and that she took a shower, the predecessor to the famous shower scene. And, most importantly of all, that she was naked. The shower, both the unseen one and the one we see all too graphically bracket her impulsive decisions—first to flee Phoenix with the money and then to return to Phoenix. One wonders, had she been able to continue her journey the next morning, back to Phoenix, would she have put on her white bra and white half-slip again? Or not? For the moment, this is the best I can come up with, although I’m open to other theories. Additional suggestions will be welcomed and given serious consideration. All responses will be answered.

Mark Rappaport is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist. His films include The Scenic Route (1978), Impostors (1979), and the widely-acclaimed Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995). A collection of some of his film writings was published in 2008 in French as Le Spectateur qui en savait trop (The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much). Several of his pieces have appeared in the online film journal Rouge.

The above article was originally published in Trafic, in French; this is its first appearance in the original English.