1.The concept of the MacGuffin.
2. Nurses in an old dark house stalked by a killer. What was this classic Hitchcock show called? Where can I get it? Tell me some more about it.
3. The McKittrick Hotel scene in Vertigo (1958). What's going on here?
4. Is Hitchcock's portrayal of women positive or negative?
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• 'What's a MacGuffin?'
Here's how I answered that
in 'The Alfred Hitchcock Story' (UK edition, 1999, p. 101):
The term ‘MacGuffin’ was coined by Hitchcock’s Scottish friend, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, for
something that sets the film’s plot revolving around it. It’s really just an excuse and a diversion. In a
whimsical anecdote told by Hitchcock, he compared the MacGuffin to a mythical ‘apparatus for trapping
lions in the Scottish Highlands’. In other words, it could be anything - or nothing - at all. In Notorious, it’s
just a lot of fizz: uranium-ore hidden in [wine] bottles. In North by Northwest, it’s ‘government
secrets’, whatever they may be. (Hitchcock considered that this was his ‘best’ MacGuffin, because virtually
non-existent.) Actually North by Northwest turns out to be one vast MacGuffin, being full of ‘nothings’ like
the ‘O’ in Roger O. Thornhill’s name, or the empty prairie, or the non-existent agent named Kaplan. In
effect, the function of a MacGuffin is like the ‘meaning’ of a poem - which T.S. Eliot compared to the bone
thrown by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind while the poem goes about its own, deeper
business. Hitchcock’s most prescient MacGuffin is in Torn Curtain, whose ‘Gamma Five’ project,
concerning an anti-missile missile, anticipated by more than a decade President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’
Prof. Peter Conrad (who has read
my book) appreciated the reference to T.S. Eliot enough to use it
in his book 'The Hitchcock Murders' (2000, p. 10). There he asks:
How much opposition does the rational guard dog, bribed with food by Eliot's thief, actually offer? In Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger steals into Robert Walker's house after dark. A mastiff sprawls on the stairs, barring his way. Granger freezes; the dog growls, lunges towards him - and then licks his hand in welcome, letting him pass. Films for Hitchcock were assaults that we, the victims, only pretend to resist.
In other words, there's a 'willing suspension of disbelief' by the audience once they begin to feel comfortable with the film - and with each other. (About that, see perceptive comments by screenwriter John Michael Hayes in 'The AH Story', p. 129.) Accordingly, a function of the MacGuffin is to give audiences something they can readily understand, something to feel concerned about - a bit like a child's teddy-bear! (And for more on 'object-relations' psychology, and its roots in infancy, see below.) The author of 'Strangers on a Train', Patricia Highsmith, says in her 'Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction' (1966) that an audience's credulousness, and goodwill, can be stretched quite a bit - like elastic - though not indefinitely.
As we'll see, there's much more to the MacGuffin and what I call 'the MacGuffin principle'. First, though, a point of scholarship. I claimed above, following Donald Spoto's 'The Life of Alfred Hitchcock' (UK edition, 1983, p. 145), that the term 'the MacGuffin' was coined by Angus MacPhail. Spoto appears to be recalling Ivor Montagu's article, "Working With Hitchcock", in 'Sight and Sound', Summer 1980, p. 192. (For comparison, see Leonard Leff, 'Hitchcock and Selznick', UK edition, 1988, p. 192.) But, on examination, that reference isn't really conclusive. What we can assuredly say is that the first tangible appearance of the MacGuffin occurs in Hitchcock's 'chase' films of the 1930s, beginning with Number Seventeen (cf. Charles Barr, 'English Hitchcock', 1999, p. 125), The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps. There, the MacGuffin is a necklace, a planned assassination, and the top-secret plans of a new aircraft engine, respectively.
There were precedents, of
Hitchcock himself cites the 'plans of the fort' in some of Rudyard
espionage tales set on the Northwest Frontier. And in
L. Smith's excellent monograph 'Melodrama' (1973, p. 36), occurs this
Awful Secrets are always [finally] revealed and The Missing Papers found. These necessary documents provide endless excitement. Heroes are always searching for secret despatches, scientific formulae, forgotten marriage-lines, mortgage deeds, holograph confessions or forged receipts, and every villain hides a will of his own.
Next, a brief note on the 'etymology' of 'MacGuffin'. 'Mac' may come from the aforementioned 'Angus MacPhail', clueing us in to the correct spelling of the term (not 'McGuffin' or 'Maguffin', thank you!). And of course Hitchcock told a story about the Scottish Highlands to illustrate his concept, so that also fits. As for 'Guff', Chambers Dictionary defines such a word as slang for 'nonsense, humbug'. And wasn't a 'griffin' (or 'gryphon') a mythological beast with the body of a lion (again recalling Hitchcock's story about the Scottish Highlands)? [Hearty thanks to reader Henry Olszewski for suggesting several of these associations.]
The MacGuffin became a key device in Hitchcock's films. So perhaps we may seek a 'psychoanalytic' explanation. In an article that appeared on this website, "The Universal Hitchcock: The Trouble With Harry", I wrote about how Harry's dead body is that film's MacGuffin, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek I analysed the film in terms of object-relations theory. The much-buried, much-exhumed Harry effectively represents the 'hole' an infant experiences when the mother withdraws her breast. Thereafter, each infant/child creates what early-childhood researcher D.W. Winnicott calls a 'transitional object', its first cultural artifact, to help it through its periods of 'disillusionment'. For that purpose, practically anything will serve: a piece of cloth, a teddy bear, a ritual. That's to say, the object has no intrinsic value, it merely provides the occasion for a growing-up experience - which may continue all through life. (So many of Hitchcock's movies are about 'growing up'.) Harry is the transitional object re-visited, and mocked. Robert Samuels, in 'Hitchcock's Bi-Textuality' (1998), makes a related claim. For him, the MacGuffin 'is not just an empty hole in the middle of Hitchcock's discourse; rather, this missing object ("the maternal phallus") takes on a great significance as the sign of the missing "primal scene"'. (p. 63) No doubt a good example of this mechanism at work may be found in Rear Window, where, symbolically speaking, the primal scene (the parents' lovemaking, observed by the child) is constantly being played out for Jeff's benefit in several of the apartments around the empty courtyard.
The very ambiguity of a Hitchcock film, whose ending typically reflects what Father Neil Hurley ('Soul in Suspense', 1993, p. xiii) calls 'Hitchcock's "open-ended pessimism"', seems bound up with the MacGuffin principle. There is no clear-cut 'meaning' to a Hitchcock film such as The Birds. Rather, each viewer is free to interpret the film as s/he likes. Other artists come to mind at this point, ranging from Lewis Carroll (1832-98) - of 'Jabberwocky' fame - to Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), who, roughly contemporaneously with the German Expressionist movement, was creating his own 'insubstantial' drama with plays intriguingly called, for example, 'Right You Are (If You Think You Are)' and 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' - some of which Hitchcock would certainly have seen on the London stage.
In sum, Hitchcock was nothing if not an eclectic filmmaker, and the MacGuffin was a device which he knew from both intuition and observation to be extremely effective, rhetorically and psychologically. It was typical of him to reduce the notion of the MacGuffin to a nonsense-story about trapping lions in Scotland (a story, J. Lary Kuhns tells me, itself based on an old joke about a non-existent mongoose and a man who sees snakes), but nonsense in Hitchcock nearly always conceals profundity and/or potency ...
Footnote. Though the word 'MacGuffin' isn't used in any of Hitchcock's own movies, it is sometimes mentioned - as a kind of homage - in films by other directors. British filmmaker Colin Bucksey's 1985 movie called The McGuffin (note spelling) was based on a novel of the same name by John Bowen. There is also another novel, this time called 'The MacGuffin' (1990) and written by Stanley Elkin. A newspaper reviewer noted that the term 'MacGuffin' refers to something that exists solely to move along the plot. Elkin himself suggested that it could be 'whatever got slipped in Cary Grant's pocket ... or that Jimmy Stewart picked up by mistake when the girl switched briefcases on him'. (If that last example sounds more like Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? , never mind. It again goes to show that the principle of the MacGuffin extends way beyond Hitchcock.)
Truffaut, 'Hitchcock' (any edition); (2) http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/05/hitchcock.html; (3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macguffin
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• 'I am looking for an episode of 'Alfred Hitchcock Hour' that aired in the 1960s. It was the scariest thing I've ever watched. It was about nurses caring for an invalid patient in an old dark house at night when a serial killer of nurses is abroad. The ending, during a storm, was a shocker. Any ideas?'
Sure. The episode is "An Unlocked Window", based on a novel and/or a short story version of it by Ethel Lina White, and filmed using the house from Psycho (1960). It is a classic 'AHH' episode, and it first aired on 15 February, 1965. They remade it in the 1980s, at half the original length, for the colour series of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents'. Both episodes can be purchased together on a single DVD from this supplier (mention us): www.
Spoilers ahead. If you haven't already seen "An Unlocked Window", you probably won't want to read the following synopsis and analysis.
First, the plot. In charge of caring for an invalid heart patient (JOHN KERR), nurse Stella Crosson (DANA WYNTER) welcomes the timely arrival of nurse Ames (T.C. JONES) to help out. The only others in the lonely house are an alcoholic housekeeper (LOUISE LATHAM) and her handyman husband, Sam. To make matters worse, there is a maniacal nurse-killer loose in the area, and the lights soon go out out due to a storm. Forced to send Sam to fetch medical supplies, Stella locks all the main windows, but fails to secure one in the basement. Later, she discovers the unlocked window, sees a man's legs outside, and becomes hysterical when she hears him pounding on the door. Nurse Ames tries to summon the local sheriff by phone, but is told he'll be an hour. She answers the door, and a moment later Stella comes rushing down the stairs. Stella thinks she sees the man skulking behind the open door and throws a poker at him. The truth is that he was probably already dead, killed by nurse Ames. (It is Sam, who had returned sooner than expected.) Nurse Ames now strips off her disguise to reveal that she is a man and the murderer as well. Stella realises that her number is up ...
(Pause, for you to catch your breath!)
"An Unlocked Window" was always likely to prove something of a classic. A predecessor was a famous 'Grand Guignol' play, 'Au Téléphone'/'At the Telephone' (1902), by André de Lorde: read it. J.B. Priestley may have been inspired by de Lorde's play to write his 'Gothic' novel, 'Benighted' (1927), which James Whale filmed as The Old Dark House (1932). Then, in 1933, Ethel Lina White produced her novel 'Some Must Watch'. That novel is the basis of both "An Unlocked Window" and the classic Robert Siodmak film The Spiral Staircase (1946). Crucial elements of its plot anticipate Psycho and William Castle's shocker Homicidal (1961). In turn, one can see "An Unlocked Window" as prefiguring such successful films as John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and Fred Walton's When a Stranger Calls (1979) - the latter recently remade.
Several outstanding names are linked to "An Unlocked Window". The first is that of author Ethel Lina White herself (1887-1944). White was born in Abergavenny, Wales, and later worked in the Ministry of Pensions, London. Two of her novels were successfully filmed. Hitchcock, at the top of his form, converted 'The Wheel Spins' (1936) into The Lady Vanishes (1938), starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. 'Some Must Watch' was filmed by Robert Siodmak as The Spiral Staircase, starring Dorothy McGuire, Kent Jones, and George Brent. Hitchcock actress Sara Allgood appears in the role of a nervous, dumpy housekeeper, about whom one of the other characters jokes, 'Sometimes I think she's a man!' (But she isn't the film's villain: there is no cross-dressing here.) Another Hitchcock connection: the film's producer was longtime Hitchcock associate, Joan Harrison.
A short story by White, "Her Heart in Her Throat" (1942), became The Unseen (1945), directed by Lewis Allen and starring Joel McCrea and Gail Russell.
Confusingly, it appears that White's novel 'Some Must Watch' had already been adapted as a short story and called "An Unlocked Window" long before it became an episode of 'AHH': the short-story version was published in the significantly-named anthology 'My Best Mystery Story' (1939) ...
'A writer with a Gothic touch,' writes scholar Mary Groff, 'Ethel Lina White wrote about the defenceless female - whether the young rich girl needing protection from fortune hunters or the poor and underpaid governess or companion left to the torments that only spiteful employers can devise.' It has been suggested that White's fiction has similar elements to that of American author Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958): such things as nurse detectives, night scenes, lonely country houses, mysterious men on the prowl. American movie critic Bill Krohn has lately been reading White's novel 'She Faded Into Air' (1941). He reports that it's 'about another vanishing lady. Lots of fun, with some of the spirited boy-girl interplay one remembers from The Lady Vanishes.'
The director of "An Unlocked Window" for 'AHH' was Joseph Newman, deservedly famous among film buffs for his intelligent sci-fi thriller This Island Earth (1955). The teleplay was by the writer James Bridges, who would later turn to directing - making such standout features as The Paper Chase (1973), The China Syndrome (1979), and Urban Cowboy (1980). Director of Photography was the great Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons , The Night of the Hunter ). Music was by the maestro himself, Bernard Herrman (Citizen Kane , Psycho ). And then there was the cast ...
British leading lady, Dana Wynter, who had recently starred in John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), plays the hapless nurse Stella. Her patient with a heart ailment, a college lecturer, is played by John Kerr (Tea and Sympathy , South Pacific ). The housekeeper Maude iis played by the versatile Louise Latham who had just appeared in Hitchcock's Marnie, her film debut. She appears younger here, despite her character's alcoholism. (Of course, in Marnie, Latham effectively plays two roles: Bernice, a prostitute, seen in flashback, and Bernice in the present, approaching late middle-age.) Perhaps even more versatile, the character actor T.C. Jones (real name:Thomas Craig Jones) specialised in cross-dressing roles.
Maude the housekeeper's alcoholism allows the episode's makers some outrageous moments, as when she - and the audience - hears a disembodied male voice say, 'Such a pretty neck!' Two explanations of this scene seem possible on first viewing: either the nurse-killer whose shadowy form and low intonation we know from the opening scene, showing the death of a previous victim, has entered the house via the unsecured basement window - or else Maude is just hearing things. The first explanation is the one that scares us, the second is the one that helps to allay Stella's fears. In fact, of course, there is another possible explanation, albeit only just plausible (for why would nurse Ames say such things just then?) ...
Maude is the show's comic relief. Louise Latham's whiny tone and mangled vowels, also heard in Marnie, work well to this end. And then there are the show's MacGuffins. Foremost among these is, of course, the unlocked cellar window, flapping in the continuous gale, to which the camera keeps returning. But as the threat is never going to come from there, nor from the tree-branch (or is it a would-be intruder?!) brushing against an upstairs window, such things are really just emotion-arousing and the source of unnerving sound-effects! (Compare the cat's miaows from the cellar before it finally uses the unlocked window to escape and then - improbably - climb the aforementioned tree in the storm!) At the beginning and end of the show, host Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates the making of typical sound-effects used in his profession - though both times these soon take on an inexplicable life of their own. As Hitchcock asks in the trailer for The Birds (1963), 'Now, what on earth would make [them] do that?'
A MacGuffin is a type of red-herring. A related type of red-herring is the false clue or the misdirection of our suspicions. The function of the John Kerr character is a bit like that. Initially, he functions to stir our feelings about Stella. In an early scene, he asks her: 'Why is it that you make me feel good but the new nurse makes me feel terrible?' But later, Nurse Ames throws us off the track altogther by remarking, 'He seems much healthier than he pretends to be!' (Compare the famous misdirection in Psycho, sheriff Al Chambers's question, 'then who's that woman buried out in Green Lawn cemetery?') Incidentally, I think that a first-time viewer of "An Unlocked Window" does feel that the well-built, gently-spoken nurse Ames is a little odd, but puts it down to the limitations of television casting. I know that I felt like that - only to have my naïveté used against me at the show's climax!
So much depends in a show like this on the panache with which its makers carry it off. Here, the artful framings and flowing movements (of both characters and camera, often in conjunction) are rivetting. Cortez's photography, at times reminiscent of his work on The Night of the Hunter, in particular, gives unfathomable depth - often literally - to both close-ups and long-shots. Meanwhile, the very dialogue licenses such effects. Maude sets the scene by speaking of how the house has 'places to hide in every corner ... on every landing'. Best of all, Herrmann's music masterfully emphasises each danger and each key plot-point.
The atmospheric use of the Psycho house and the storm (à la the climax of Marnie) represent further ways of (mis-)leading, and then wrong-footing, the viewer. Their 'old-fashioned' Gothicism leaves us quite unprepared for the thoroughly 'modern' (first time on TV?) revelation about the villain. And how gently it is done! The show's last line, 'You're such a pretty nurse!', returns us with perfect symmetry, and 'formality', to the opening scene. Bravo the Hitchcockian use of 'English' under-statement, which here works as effectively as it does in Hitchcock's own movies!
References: (1) John McCarty and Brian Kelleher, 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Illustrated Guide to the Ten-Year Television Career of the Master of Suspense' (1985); (2) Mary Groff, entry on "Ethel Lina White", in John M. Reilly (ed.), 'Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers' (1980).
Footnote. Bill Krohn contributes the following note on the 1980s remake of "An Unlocked Window" for 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents':
'Fred Walton directed the remake of "An Open Window," which does fall short of the original in part because of the obviousness of the killer's disguise. But Fred Walton is someone worth looking into. I was tipped off to his work by Claude Chabrol, and have found a consistently high assay of ore to dross: When a Stranger Calls (1979), When a Stranger Callls Back (TV, 1993), The Courtyard (TV, 1995), Dead Air (TV, 1994), Homewrecker (TV, 1992), The Rosary Murders (1987) ...
'Walton is fascinated with the device of the disembodied voice, which is used in the above films as well as lesser ones like Trapped (TV, 1989) and April Fool's Day (1986). I'm still trying to find his 1988 TV remake of William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965) involving a telephone prank that goes awry. "An Unlocked Window" was not Walton's meat, although there are a few eerie moments with the disembodied voice, as at the beginning of his recent (minor) The Stepford Husbands (TV, 1996). Wes Craven doesn't like to be reminded of how much the opening of Scream (1996) owes to Walton's first film, the extraordinary When a Stranger Calls. Check him out.'
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• 'In Vertigo, after Scottie trails "Madeleine" to the McKittrick Hotel, she mysteriously disappears. How come? What is this scene doing in the film?'
My entry on this episode in
AH Story' (UK edition, 1999, p. 149) reads:
Mention of the 'ever-green' sequoias reminds me of how the interior of the McKittrick Hotel is replete with Californian redwood objects, consistent with its 'preserved' (or mausoleum) quality. Redwood interiors are seen elsewhere in the film when Scottie (so to speak) re-enters the past, as in the Mission Dolores sequence.
In the McKittrick Hotel sequence, Hitchcock has fun making Scottie appear 'lost' and like a little boy. One example: when his thoughts have 'wandered' to the floor above, only to have them rudely broken into by the sudden bobbing-up of the landlady at the hotel desk with her question, 'Yes?' (She has been 'putting olive oil on [her] rubber-plant leaves'.) The use of an extreme wide-angle lens a moment later when she summons him upstairs ('Oh, Mr Detective' - as if this were all a game) works similarly, dwarfing both figures amidst the ornate surroundings.
Another 'touch': Scottie's shadow on the frosted glass door when he first arrives, suggesting how he is about to re-enter the past which has been associated with the shrouding San Francisco fogs. (One reason for initially dressing the mysterious 'Madeleine' in a grey suit, Hitchcock said, was to suggest that she had just stepped out of the fog, i.e., out of the past.) Of course, by the end of the sequence, Scottie will himself be feeling somewhat bewildered and be-fogged.
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• 'I am an A level Media student currently researching the representation of Hitchcock’s leading ladies. Are the leading ladies represented in terms of their beauty or psyche? How superficial is the representation and does this actually aid the exploration of a deeper character truth? What I’d really like to know is whether Hitchcock is positive in his portrayal of women or negative.'
For now, I'll just briefly give you some views of mine.
First, the very best (most sensible) book to answer your basic question about Hitchcock's attitude to his female characters is assuredly Tania Modleski's 'The Women Who Knew Too Much' (1988) which Prof. Modleski tells me has recently been updated in a new edition. She takes the view that Hitchcock could (appear to) be misogynist at times and the opposite at others. In other words, the usual Hitchcock ambiguity/ambivalence applies. He was a very wise and intelligent man, and I mean that without irony.
Sure, the heroine-in-danger motif was as old as 19th-century stage melodrama. And the blonde heroine was a movie convention going back to Mary Pickford. If Hitchcock drew on these conventions in (some of) his films, he did so knowingly. For one thing, he wanted audiences to quickly feel comfortable - the better to unsettle them later in the film. For another, he himself understandably found emotional truth in many of the old plays, despite or because of their conventions. He loved the 'ghost' play 'Mary Rose' by J.M. Barrie, which he had seen when it was first performed in London in 1920. His memory of that play influenced several of his own films, including Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo. (In Shadow of a Doubt, the influence is seen in the depiction of 'ordinary' bourgeois people like Mr Newton and his neighbour Herb; in Vertigo, it's seen in the 'mysterioso' surrounding Madeleine, and her apparent ability to transcend time.)
Now, generalisations are fraught with danger. But on the whole, Hitchcock's heroines are intelligent. From Erica in Young and Innocent to Marnie in Marnie, their intelligence and 'character' are patent. As for being beautiful - or glamourous - several of Hitchcock's heroines are that too. In Spellbound, Constance (Ingrid Bergman) starts out intelligent-but-dowdy, then blossoms into being beautiful as well. Something similar happens to Lina (Joan Fontaine) in Suspicion, where she starts out dowdy but by the end of the film is both using all of her wits (to protect herself from her husband's possible murderous intentions) and is looking attractive in her quiet, 'English' way (the better for audiences to feel involved in her plight, no doubt). Her husband's pet name for her is 'Monkeyface', and clearly we're never meant to feel that she's a raving beauty. A great deal of how Hitchcock treated his heroines depended on the particular story. So again we must beware of generalisations.
Some women in Hitchcock's films are certainly not treated kindly. A good example is the 'trampish' Miriam (a wonderful performance by Laura Elliot) in Strangers on a Train. (Hitchcock deliberately gave her glasses that made her look pebble-eyed and small-minded!) But that's what the story required.
Another point is this. A lot of men in Hitchcock's films also go through danger, including physical danger. (Examples: when Johnny Jones in Foreign Correspondent almost gets caught by the spies in the old mill - his perilous situation not helped when his coat gets caught up in the mill mechanism and he nearly has his arm crushed. Later in the same film, we see - and hear - an old man being cruelly tortured by the spies.) So, sure, and to please the journalists, Hitchcock would occasionally cite what the 19-century playwright Sadou had said: 'Torture the heroine!' But on examination the films are fairly even-handed in their 'sadism' - both heroines and heroes are put through danger.
Last point. It doesn't ultimately matter if the individual characters in a Hitchcock film are not explored in great depth - that wasn't the nature of Hitchcock's filmmaking. (Nonetheless, he was personally happy about Shadow of a Doubt because it gave him more time than usual to develop the character of the teenage heroine played by Teresa Wright.) What does matter is whether the overall situation is an interesting one, and intelligently treated. Hitchcock, I have argued, was often a Symbolist filmmaker, and influenced by the Symbolist painters and playwrights (the best example being Vertigo). He acknowledged the influence of the Symbolists on his work - for a while, he told biographer Charlotte Chandler, he even had Symbolist dreams. Likewise, as I have said in my book on Hitchcock, the depiction of the teenage girl in Shadow of a Doubt, and her confrontation with evil, makes a lot of sense if you are familiar with the work of the 19th-century Danish 'existentialist' philosopher Kierkegaard and his concept of Dread. (Kierkegaard was a psychologist before his time; Hitchcock, too, was an instinctive psychologist, and spoke of how he preferred to film stories 'with lots of psychology'.)
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