Archive for the 'Hitchcock' Category

The 39 Steps (1935)

Unforgivably, this was my first viewing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. I’ve no excuse for such tardiness. My copy of Hitchcock: The British Years has been in the house for several years and I’ve watched just about everything on it. Failing that, there’s even a public domain version that I could watch on the web, for free, any time I wanted to! Perhaps the overly wordy scenes between Hannay and Miss Smith in the first ten minutes put me off persevering with it in the past, but I can now report that the deed has been done. I’ve watched all 83 minutes. I was royally entertained. The rash decision not to sit through it sooner was my loss because it’s a classic.

Some years ago, I read John Buchan’s novel, a boys’ own page-turner that gripped me and never let go throughout 103 breathless pages. The central story aside, much was lost in translation between book and screenplay, though happily Charles Bennett retained the narrative’s scenes of our hero being pursued across the Scottish countryside, the open air claustrophobia as both authorities and enemy agents close in. At a post-screening party held after the film’s premiere, Buchan declared it was actually better than his novel; he had no qualms about the action being shifted from 1914 to the mid-1930s, and why would he? The political situation wasn’t very different. Sinister forces from across the pond were spinning their webs before both world wars, making for a seamless adaptation that retained the novel’s spirit entirely.

Best of all, Hitchcock cranked up the pace in his film. Once Miss Smith dies, a knife in her back as she collapses on Hannay’s bed, The 39 Steps never lets up. Hannay’s learned enough from his guest to know that danger is afoot, that his life could be in as much peril as hers was, and that he needs to make it to a tiny village in Scotland (the only lead left to him). He boards the Flying Scotsman, but soon enough the train is being searched and he has to make a daring escape that involves hanging from his carriage as it hares across the Forth Bridge. From here, he’ll have a series of scrapes in Scotland, team up (unwillingly at first) with a beautiful young woman and find out exactly what the 39 Steps are in time to save himself from arrest.

The 39 Steps is from the early days of talkies, and in its early scenes seems rather staged. Yet this is a façade; as soon as Hannay goes on the run, the editing gets tighter and tighter. There’s barely time to pause for breath as he narrowly avoids doom again and again. A lot of the technical work we may take for granted now, but trick shots like the quick cut from Hannay in a car to its rear, the camera watching it pull away down a Highland B-Road must have been demanding to conjure up in 1935. It’s to everyone’s credit that they work, along with the studio-bound filming on which they recreated the Scottish moors, complete with imported sheep. Maybe their success is down to the film’s dynamics. Before too long, I was rooting hopelessly for Robert Donat’s charismatic Hannay, sharing his worried glances at newspaper headlines that exposed his (wrongful) guilt and hoping Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, to whom he’s handcuffed and therefore becomes a resisting partner/passenger in his escape bid) will end up believing him and allow the sexual chemistry between them to blossom. She does and it does, and getting that resolved turns out to matter more than uncovering the plot and clearing Hannay’s name.

Sub-plots occur throughout that make the script sparkle. The scene where our hero is mistaken for a speaker at a political meeting is hilarious, but the best moment comes when he asks to stay with a crofter and his wife for the night. As the avaricious man (played by Dad’s Army’s John Laurie) says grace over supper, Hannay shares looks with his young wife (Peggy Ashcroft), who realises he’s the ‘suspect’ on the front of the paper but plays along because she’s lonely and takes a shine to him, cue glances and crackling tension between the trio.

The 39 Steps has been called ‘the first Hitchcock picture’ before now, even though that’s blatantly untrue. Possibly it’s earned the credit because it represents the flowering of his talent, the end product to which his previous body of work was building. It introduces the MacGuffin as a plot device (the ‘secret’ is shared with the audience as a throwaway point at the very end of the film, explained by a dying man as chorus girls dance in the background to divert our attention; meanwhile, who the spies are and who they work for is never disclosed) and ushers in the classic Hitchcock narrative, that of an innocent man who is wrongly accused of some evil deed and goes on the run to elude capture and uncover the truth. It’s a winning formula that found its ultimate expression in North by Northwest, but The 39 Steps was the first to hit upon it, and is close to unbeatable. Its position of fourth in the BFI 100 British films of the Twentieth Century is fully justified.

Posted on 19th July 2011
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Getting Hitched - ‘You’re my Type of Woman’

After reading several glowing reviews, I have finally got around to watching Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 murder story set in contemporary London. I’ve actually owned the film for several years as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Boxset, but have tried to watch the entries in chronological order and never got past Torn Curtain, which seems sadly uninspired and, in a world where there are too many films to watch and so little time… In any event, it’s a big mistake of mine that I left it so long before catching Frenzy, which marked a late return to form, even if it makes for uncomfortable, pessimistic viewing.

What makes Frenzy such a difficult watch is its unflinching depiction of rape. Even from a director who showed us the knifings in Psycho and the horrors of The Birds, this is new territory, almost mundane in its portrayal of a casual assault and made worse because it comes from nowhere. The suggestion is clear enough – horrific rape can happen any time, anywhere. The victim doesn’t see it coming, and is sitting in the business she manages when it happens. From a relative position of authority, she’s suddenly reduced to meat. Neither does the camera spare us for a second. There’s nothing gratuitous about the scene. The victim doesn’t lead her killer on. She isn’t ‘asking for it’ and there isn’t a second’s justification for what happens to her. It’s a grubby, squalid act, the rape even dissatisfying for the protagonist before he finally gets off on killing her.

As a moment of direction it’s masterly, squeezing even the merest hint of glamour from the situation. But it’s also extremely shocking. Before watching Frenzy, I knew the film contained a rape scene, but I wasn’t aware of the identities of either the rapist or victim, so when it came the moment left me unprepared and repulsed. From reading accounts of real-life rape victims, it also gives the impression of being grimly authentic. The viewer is spared from seeing further attacks in such detail, but it’s implied that each one is just as opportunistic and random. It could happen to you, the film says. You don’t need to do anything to cause it; neither can you fully know what lazy evil lurks within the bloke chatting to you. When  it comes to the next murder scene, Frenzy doesn’t need to show us anything, stopping outside the door of a first floor flat into which the killer has guided his victim. We all know what’s going to happen next. In solemn silence, the camera retreats down the stairs, along the hall and outside, the sounds of Covent Garden Market flooding in to hint that this is just another day in London.

The charming Richard BlaneyFrenzy tells the story of the Necktie Murderer, so called because his female victims are discovered wearing nothing but the tie with which they have been asphyxiated. The first is found in the film’s opening scene. A Minister is explaining to a small crowd how the Thames is being cleaned up before someone spots the naked corpse of a murdered woman floating towards the shore. It’s made clear this isn’t the first victim; the Necktie Murderer is already a figure of notoriety in London and as yet, the police have no leads.

By an unfortunate series of circumstances, suspicion falls on Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a former RAF Officer who’s fallen on hard times and, in his first appearance, is being unfairly sacked from his barman’s job. Everything conspires against Blaney. The victim in the rape scene is his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), with whom he has been seen by a number of people exchanging angry words. Their divorce was on the grounds of his violence. He’s been spending money that gives every indication of being stolen from her, possibly after the murder. Yet whilst Blaney fits the bill and becomes the object of a manhunt, he isn’t the killer. Indeed, the circumstances leading to the finger pointing at him are all explained in the film, though everything occurs in such a way that he has little option but to run.

This plot is of course nothing new to Hitchcock. The ‘mistaken identity’ narrative has been told many times before, from The 39 Steps through Young and Innocent and Saboteur, to its ultimate expression in North by Northwest. But Frenzy offers an even more delicious instance of misdirection. In North by Northwest, it’s clear from the start that Cary Grant’s ‘wrong man’ is essentially a good guy. He’s a dapper hero, and lots of fun. We root for him from the start. Not so here. Blaney might be innocent, but he isn’t a very nice piece of work. There are obvious anger management issues at work, and on the surface he appears far less likeable than the man who emerges as the murderer.

The even more charming Robert Rusk - you're his kind of womanThe film’s third victim is Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), Blaney’s on-off girlfriend. After sleeping with the bad-tempered Richard, she’s unfortunate enough to run into the killer and suffer his necktie. As chance would have it, Blaney has an alibi for this one. He’s staying with an ex-service friend when the murder happens. Crucially, he shows no remorse when he hears about her death, instead expressing relief that at least one other person knows it couldn’t have been him. Perhaps if he’d been a little more regretful, his friend would have corroborated his story instead of slinking off to France to avoid being accused of harbouring a wanted man.

The murderer is all charm and smiles. There are hints of what lurks beneath, yet these are teased out only when it’s too late. He does get the film’s most blackly comic moment, when he’s trapped in the back of a speeding potato truck, trying to remove an incriminating item from the corpse of one of his victims and struggling to overcome the practical problems linked with rigour mortis. Otherwise, he appears to hold all the aces, letting suspicion fall on Blaney and then betraying him at the optimum moment.

Yet the killer is only the worst in a London filled with dubious characters. Made at the end of the Swinging Era, Frenzy is set in a city with a heart that’s morally bankrupt. Blaney is nobody’s idea of a hero. His former employer, Felix (Bernard Cribbins) is a hypocritical lecher. In his pub, casual jokes about rape are bandied as though it’s all a bit of fun. Someone screams from the first floor of a building, and two women who are passing simply walk on by. It’s as though London finally embodies the rotten core described by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, a film released nearly forty years earlier and in which he famously paints the world as ‘a foul sty… if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine.’ Another film from the early seventies depicts the city’s dark heart. Dracula AD 1972 might have been a desperate attempt by Hammer to squeeze the last drops of inspiration from their Count, but it works because it suggests Dracula could thrive in a London that has thrown open its gates to evil. Clearly, the period marked an end of innocence in the capital, a wake-up call after the optimism of the 1960s. It’s this spirit Frenzy captures so dramatically.


Posted on 2nd January 2011
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Getting Hitched - ‘A Comedy about a Corpse’

After writing about Rear Window the other week, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Alfred Hitchcock boxset and the next title in the series. Though the set contains some undoubted Hitch gems, it also houses a number of lesser known films, or at least titles that don’t have the same level of kudos as the aforementioned Window, Vertigo or Psycho. One such example, and a movie I saw for the very first time before writing this, is today’s topic, a departure for Hitch that took him into the realms of lighthearted black comedy.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel (by British author, Jack Trevor Story), was adapted for the stage, and later Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and TTWH probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of Hitch’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, TTWH was one of four movies the director claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.

The Trouble with Harry posterCertainly, TTWH is a good laugh. Its simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid amongst the autumnal trees of a New England fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitch proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.

Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.

The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing - murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (’What seems to be the trouble, Captain?’) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.

Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident - the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.

Our heroes wait patiently for Harry's re-releaseYet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and loveable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent - retaining its trace of his London roots - giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about Harry, and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.

Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. For one thing, Sam is supposed to be a struggling artist, but he looks every inch the dandy, your wealthy man about town. He’s broke, yet he lacks nothing in self-confidence. It isn’t really his fault. Who wouldn’t recede when sharing the screen with acknowledged top drawer thespians, and a young actress who was destined for greatness? Forsythe is easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. He just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.

Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about TTWH that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. TTWH is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitch made it to shed off some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart going for it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was doomed to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.

My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.

Posted on 3rd December 2007
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Getting Hitched - ‘In deadly danger… because they saw too much!’

Back to the Alfred Hitchcock boxset (hey, I might have seen it all by 2010!), and to one of its absolute gems, an all-time classic that sits currently at #14 on the IMDb’s top 250, and possibly higher still in the minds of many who have seen it.

Rear Window (1954)

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to commenting on this movie. What is there really to say about it, apart from ‘It’s good, very good?’ There’s barely a frame of its length that isn’t beautifully weighted. Its suspense is cranked up gently and neatly, generally by performers who are all masters of their craft and at the top of their game. As James Stewart says at one point, ‘It’s perfect.’ But then, you all know that.

Jimmy Stewart and the Princess in Rear WindowI imagine the meeting where this film was pitched, and wonder how Hitch did it. ‘Well, you see, it’s set entirely in a block of flats. The main character is recovering from a leg break, and spends his time observing his neighbours. One day, he sees what he believes to be a murder, and ropes his girlfriend and nurse into finding out if it’s true.’ ‘And then what happens, Mr Hitchcock?’ ‘Er, that’s it, really…’ What nobody could have predicted is that Rear Window would turn out to be Hitch at his finest, using the claustrophobic setting to explore his world in great detail, fleshing out the most minor of characters, and proving that suspense and danger can take place anywhere, even next door.

Through the eyes - and sometimes lens - of Jimmy Stewart’s hero, LB Jefferies, his small apartment block is transformed into a microcosmos of life itself. There’s Miss Lonelyheart, ever searching for a nice guy. The Newlyweds enter a flat and pull down the blinds. Miss Torso entertains a succession of men, but does she actually like any of them? In its extended first act, the camera settles lazily on the block, drifting from window to window and introducing each character in their enclosed, usually non-speaking little enclaves. It also gives us an opportunity to share Jeff’s boredom. Fed up with his injury and exile from the world of war photography, the main character has little to do but stare out of his window. The movie starts with little tension. Jeff’s main concern is whether he should marry Lisa (Grace Kelly), or break things off with her. It’s clear he doesn’t really want to do the latter, yet he’s preoccupied with the wildly different lives they lead.

Soon enough though, something happens to really get him started. Across the tenement, Lars Thorwald’s bed-ridden wife vanishes after Jeff hears a scream in the night. Has she gone away? Or has Thorwald (Raymond Burr) done murder? Jeff begins to suspect the latter, and draws both Lisa and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) into his amateur sleuthing. It’s at this point the plot begins to kick in nicely, little clues and occurrences being added to the mix to keep everyone guessing. Jeff’s detective friend doesn’t believe him. Neither should we. One evening, as our hero sleeps, a woman leaves Thorwald’s apartment, presumably Mrs Thorwald, and clearly we’re supposed to think that Jeff’s detective work will lead to naught once the truth emerges. But what is the truth? And is Jeff right all along?

Naturally with Hitchcock, the murder device is only part of the reason for watching Rear Window. Featuring a small, neat cast and one location - virtually the entire story takes place from Jeff’s flat - the movie turns into a tight little affair. It’s entirely character driven, and the claustrophobic setting gives us an opportunity to study everyone in Jeff’s world. As we move from apartment to apartment, we get to peer into the lives of a variety of people, most of whom have nothing to do with the main plot and have no interaction with Jeff, but become characters for whom we care. Is it just me, or does everyone’s heart sink when Miss Lonelyheart invites a man into her flat, and what looks like being a promising date becomes a moment of horror and sadness? Miss Lonelyheart is a tangential character, but we see enough of her to be concerned in her seemingly endless search for love.

None of it would work without the leads being note perfect, and fortunately for Rear Window it has James Stewart and Grace Kelly on the books. This is my favourite film starring the Princess, and by some distance also. I think in this one Hitch really captures her almost unearthly beauty better than at any other time. It helps that she makes the ideal entrance, appearing before Jeff ethereally and in silence as she moves in for a kiss. As for Stewart, Vertigo remains my ultimate choice as his best performance for Hitchcock (and where virtually anything else is concerned also), but he’s still fantastic in Rear Window. Always a reliable lead actor, here he’s grumpy, irascible, cheeky, and showing worrying signs of developing a ‘Peeping Tom’ syndrome. He’s also very good fun. The camera is either focused on him, or watches what he watches all the time. He needs to engage us, and he does without, it seems, a flicker of effort.

One of RW's minor characters, with a director making his customary cameo appearanceAnd as ever with Hitch, the ‘little things’ in Rear Window are what make it truly great. This is the fourth time I’ve watched it, and even now I’m picking up on new elements that perhaps didn’t strike me on a previous viewing, the mark of a genuine classic. One scene in particular stood out. It’s dusk, and Jeff is studying Thorwald’s apartment. He’s using binoculars, and at one point he stops and stares at them, a look of disgust on his face. Aha! we’re supposed to think, he’s suddenly realised how stupid he’s being, the idiocy of surveying another man’s flat. He should just do something else instead. And then of course Jeff picks up his telescopic camera lens intstead because it provides sharper focus…

I was prepared to offer a revisionist view of Rear Window, to perhaps suggest it isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be. But it is. The film is magnificent, delightful, and much better fun than its slim story surely deserves. The vast majority of you will know all this already, but if you haven’t seen it, you must stop what you’re doing and find a copy immediately. Rear Window is film making at its finest.

Christmas present alert! I handed my forty quid over in HMV the other day for a copy of the Ultimate Hammer Collection, and was then made to wait until Christmas to receive it - boo! Anyway, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that set of classics, decent efforts, utter tosh and Valerie Leon, and record the results on this here blog. But that’s for 2008, when I might - and should - sort those bloody categories into something that makes sense.

Posted on 25th November 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | 7 Comments »

Getting Hitched - ‘The Guest Who’s Dead on Time’

It’s been a while since I last dipped into the Alfred Hitchcock boxset, which means I’ve had to wait to sample a film that’s a rare first time viewing. Unforgiveable really, because like Shadow of a Doubt, this entry is straight from the top drawer, an intense character study that clocks in at a mere 80 minutes.

Rope (1948)

The movie opens with a scream, and the sight of David (Dick Hogan) being strangled with a rope. David’s killers bundle his corpse into a chest, and then discuss what they’ve just done. One of them, Brandon (John Dall), is quite pleased with himself, whilst his flatmate, Phillip (Farley Granger), expresses the fear of being caught. Brandon is very much the dominant character. Not only does he think they’ll get away with the crime, he’s also going to rub the dead man’s face in it by inviting a number of guests to a supper party that evening, all of whom have some association with him. Amongst the diners is their former schoolmaster, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who made a big impression on them by passing on the ‘Superman’ theories of Nietzsche. Believing himself to be superior to ordinary people by virtue of his intellect, Brandon reckons Rupert will appreciate their motives. Phillip has gone along with this up until the murder itself, but from then on he’s a mess, drinking heavily and dropping desperate hints to the suspicious Rupert. It’s clear they’ll get caught out eventually, but when? By whom?

RopeRope started life as a stage play, based on the 1942 real life murder case involving rich postgraduates, Lieb and Leopold. The theatrical root of the movie is copied quite faithfully. Though screenwriter Patrick Hamilton had some trouble adapting the text from its British source, little of this is apparent when the action moves to New York. It is, however, quite obviously written for the stage. Everything takes place in Brandon and Phillip’s flat and was filmed in long single takes, a staggering technical achievement that was only broken up due to the length of physical film available at the time. Because of this, cuts took place when the camera zoomed into a character’s back, only to pan out and resume quite fluidly once a fresh reel of film was installed.

Unusually for any film, its most dramatic moment - the murder - takes place at the very start. The plot thus develops into a suspenseful yarn about the killers waiting to be caught, and wait they do. Though anyone in their right mind would get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible, the young men lounge in their flat, and then have people over, eating off the very chest that has become a coffin for the slain David. Casually, the group talk about the missing fellow, Brandon at one point having the gall to expand on the theories as taught by Rupert. Only a few physical mannerisms betray the killers’ fraught states of mind. On the outside, Brandon seems all the more composed, but hints develop that he isn’t all that cool a customer, such as in his shaky hand movements as he lights a candle. Phillip is all but out of his mind, a coiled ball of tension as every comment passed his way is transformed into an implication of his crime.

As always in Hitchcock flicks, there are some moments of real suspense, such as the scene where the maid is clearing away the supper from the chest, and then prepares to put some books away in it. As she methodically prepares to open it, we hear the other characters talk off screen, until at the very last minute Brandon intervenes, stopping anyone from seeing what’s inside. Generally though, this is a drama driven by its characters, particularly in the unravelling Phillip, and Rupert’s assiduous studying of the pair. The latter realises something isn’t right almost from the start, and steadily has his mild concerns mushroom into genuine suspicion as Phillip gets edgier, and Brandon talks himself into a corner. The other characters all play their parts. Joan Chandler takes the part of Janet Walker, who has previously abandoned one of the other guests for David, and believes Brandon is playing a cruel trick on her by bringing her together with an ‘ex,’ whilst her current boyfriend is nowhere to be found. On especially good form is Constance Collier as the Bracknellish Mrs Atwater, who at one point extols the virtue of a Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie she’s seen recently, ‘The Something of Something, or just Something,’ a delicious reference to Hitch’s own Notorious.

Rope is acted beautifully. Whilst Granger gets to lose his mind visibly, it’s Dall who puts in an underrated performance as Brandon, showing few signs that anything is wrong, but expressing the occasional quirk that reveals internally he’s just as damaged as his flatmate. Even better is Stewart, who plays the moral high ground, but expresses clear guilt at the fact it’s his teachings that have led to this moment. As Rupert digs closer to the truth, Stewart depicts him as an increasing bag of nerves, eyes rolling at the knowledge of what he’s going to discover in the chest.

A little picture, and by all accounts practically disowned by Hitchcock himself, Rope is nevertheless good value, a minor exercise in escalating suspense, and far more satisfying than many better known works. In depicting Brandon and Phillip as an openly gay couple living together (this is never expressed, but it’s obvious), it was certainly ahead of its time. On the DVD, Rope’s trailer opens with David talking to Janet in a park. The couple chat excitedly about their plans, and how they look forward to seeing each other at Brandon’s party that evening. It’s an eerily ghoulish scene, topped off with Stewart claiming ‘That’s the last time Janet would ever see David alive, and it’s the last time you’ll ever see him alive.’ Simply superb.

Posted on 29th April 2007
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Getting Hitched - ‘He hated the whole world’

Still working through the Alfred Hitchcock boxset (see yesterday’s blog), today’s offering is a little gem, not one of his best known efforts but a minor classic all the same. Prepare for a family crisis of murderous proportions, as we look at…

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Charles Oakley is in trouble. Holed up in New York and evading the authorities, he sees shady figures loitering across the street. Where can he run to? Is the game finally up? Maybe not, as he remembers his family living in the sleepy California town of Santa Rosa, and makes a last ditch effort to get there. Perhaps this is the fresh start he needs; after all, who would chase him to the other side of the country? And why would his sister’s house, all of whom dote on him, think he’s done anything bad? Plus, it’s the home of his favourite niece, a young girl named after him, and with a similar mind to his own. It’s the perfect place to hide. What could possibly go wrong?

The set-up to Shadow of a Doubt is simplicity itself. At first, ‘Uncle Charlie’ is welcomed with open arms by his nearest and dearest. He charms the socks off them all, showers them with gifts and attention. The town appears to be too ideal, with citizens who know everyone else and a policeman smilingly directing the traffic. It shouldn’t be better than this. Yet slowly, Oakley’s deeds begin to catch up with him, and his unwillingness to be totally honest about himself, his past and business, which at first are taken to be personality quirks, grate with ‘Young Charlie.’ What does her uncle have to hide? Why does he tear a page out of the local paper and hide it? What’s the deal with him not wanting to be photographed?

Shadow of a Doubt posterA simple, straightforward premise indeed, but put it into the hands of a Master and it blooms into something far darker and lasting. Like many of Hitchcock’s finest works, it takes place in a limited space, in this case Santa Rosa, and the Newton family household. The small backdrop allows the movie to turn into a detailed character study. Oakley and Charlie are the most fully fleshed of the players, but everyone is given an element of depth, from Mr Newton’s (Henry Travers, best known as the innocent angel, Clarence, in It’s a Wonderful Life) love of crime fiction, and the desire of his wife (Patricia Collinge) to return to the idyllic past of her youth, right through to younger daughter Ann (Edna May Wolacott) and her naive mistrust of Oakley. Assiduously intelligent and bookish, Ann recognises something wrong in her Uncle from the start, but doesn’t know what it is and wisely keeps her distance. It’s made explicit that this is a nice home, the sort of place that’s open and trusting to the world. Mr Newton’s friend, Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his first film role) can walk into the house whenever he likes, usually to discuss murder methods based on his latest, crackpot theory.

Into this world walks Uncle Charlie, and from the moment he does it’s his lengthy shadow that takes over. Joseph Cotten is Oakley, taking perhaps the best, most complete role in his distinguished career, and playing him as a subtle study in evil. There’s much that’s likeable about his character, and for a time the family have little reason to question the explanation he gives for what he’s been doing, not to mention the large amounts of cash he has on him. But he comes with an edge. From the moment he steps off the train at Santa Rosa, darkness creeps into the bright town. A small boy is enveloped in the locomotive’s shadow. Oakley appears, limping and helped off the train, but once it pulls away, he uses his walking stick as a cane, and strides brightly along, his impediment forgotten. No one seems to notice the anomaly, no one that is apart from Charlie (Teresa Wright), who greets him with an open smile but a slightly quizzical look. She’s spotted something awry, but in her joy at meeting her Uncle, it passes. For now, at least.

It’s the sparring of wits between the two Charlies that provides Shadow of a Doubt with its backbone. The other family members, all with their own agenda and traits, aren’t in any kind of position to discover his secret, and it’s left to young Charlie to figure things out. On his first evening in the house, she puts it to him that they’re like twins, and Hitchcock goes to some length to emphasise this, down to early comparative shots of the pair lying in similar positions on separate beds. By chance, the bored Charlie is busy composing a telegram to her Uncle, imploring him to visit her, just as she discovers that he in turn has contacted the telephony office to announce his imminent arrival. As Oakley’s behaviour leads Charlie to question him further, it becomes clear that she is the only one who has enough time and interest on her hands to unravel his secrets. And unravel she does, starting with the discovery of a page he has ripped from the evening newspaper. Once Oakley sees that she is about to stick her nose into his affairs, he grips her, hurting her arm, and Charlie’s suspicions are raised. The visit of two government officials who wish to photograph the house and its occupants provokes yet more concern. Though the pair appear to be snoopier and pushier than Charlie might expect, Oakley goes out of his way to avoid them, demanding the film from their camera when they ‘acccidentally’ get a shot of him.

Ultimately, Charlie goes to the local library, a beautiful, moss-covered structure, and demands to be allowed in even though it’s nearly closing time. Poring through an unblemished copy of the day’s newspaper that Oakley ruined, she comes across a story on the missing page that describes the ongoing search for an east coast killer, known as the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’ due to the fact he has slain and robbed three widows. Charlie knows. The clues add up, and she knows. As she slowly leaves the library table, the camera pans back, as though taking a stunned intake of breath, but it also makes her look small, like she is far too insignificant to face the possible protagonist of these killings. Shadows lengthen around her, a little like evil closing in.

It’s here that the movie takes a darker turn. Up to this point, the focus has been on jovial, familial banter, but now it develops into a battle of wits between Oakley and his niece. The scenes between the pair make for fascinating viewing. Uncle Charlie is ever obscured, his face shaded by the brim of his hat apart from the pinpricks of his penetrating eyes, whilst the girl is in the light. Interestingly, it is only in her scenes with Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), who’s on Oakley’s trail, that she is in the shadow, as though she has been tainted by her Uncle’s darkness. At times, the action is intercut with shots of people performing the waltz, appropriately enough to ‘The Merry Widows.’ It has been suggested elsewhere that this is to do with Mrs Newton longing for a more innocent past, memories that are dredged up by her brother’s appearance. I think it’s more representative of Oakley and Charlie, locked in a mental dance with each other to the end.

Joseph Cotten and his long shadowAt first, you would put your money on Oakley emerging more or less unscathed. He holds all the cards, and is in a position of considerable power over his doting niece. Charlie doesn’t even get suspicious of his gift of an emerald ring to her, one that has been monogrammed with initials of other people (who later are revealed to be part of the murder case). However, it emerges that he has underestimated her badly. In fact, Oakley turns out to be far from brilliant as a criminal mastermind. He gives away clues at every turn, like the ring, the ‘cured limp,’ the way he refuses to be photgraphed. At the dinner table, he delivers a damning verdict on rich widows - ‘You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women’ - that leaves Charlie arguing, in some shock, that they’re still living, breathing people. In a moment of true, dawning horror, Oakley turns slowly to her, and to us, glaring sideways into the camera’s eye and asking ‘Are they?’

Later, Oakley takes Charlie to a bar, and outlines his dark view of the world in no uncertain terms - ‘You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell’ - that leads to her running out in terror. The trust has vanished. Clearly, Charlie hasn’t been persuaded by her Uncle’s argument, by his attempt to talk his way into her acceptance. And he’s left with the one option he feels is open to him, the one way he still holds some power over her. The introduction to this final act is dramatised in one perfect scene. Walking up the stairs in his sister’s home, Oakley turns and looks down at Charlie, now framed in the doorway and staring back. There’s a look almost of pity on his face, possibly some regret, as he realises the only possible path left open to him, to end this problem, is to get rid of it, to kill Charlie…

I’ve made little secret of the fact I love this film. It works cleverly on a number of levels; first as a well-told mystery yarn, with plenty of nicely rounded characters and enough things happening to keep any viewer spellbound. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Personally, I don’t believe the view of certain critics that Oakley’s opinions on women somehow reflect Hitchcock’s own. The hero of the film is female, after all. It does, however, offer a misogynist perspective, as well as depicting Uncle Charlie as a portrait of casual evil. By the end, there isn’t much about him that’s appealing. Everything he’s done - from chatting blithely about the past with Charlie’s mother, to complementing the ladies who come across him in Mr Newton’s bank - is with a malign purpose in mind, a cold, calculated attempt to inveigle himself within the town’s society. The fact that nearly all the people he meets universally deal with him affectionately says a great deal about how we treat badness - it can be seductive and charming, and it’s very difficult not to fall for it on those terms. Oakley is a complicated character. Compare him with real villians of the time, and you can see how much sheer depth he has next to the way America portrayed Adolf Hitler, depicted within the propaganda industry as a cartoonish thug, practically a figure of fun. It would have been easy for Hitchcock and Cotten to come up with another moustache-twirling villian; instead they devised a multi-layered human being, who demonstrates both the reasons we are sometimes suduced by malevolence, as well as the eventual display of evil itself.

Like the Saboteur disc, Shadow of a Doubt comes equipped with a number of bonus features. ‘Beyond Doubt,’ a 35-minute documentary about the making of the film, goes mainly into Hitchcock’s motives for creating it and what he hoped to achieve at the end. Most revealing is a comment from his daughter that this was the favourite of all his directorial outings; it isn’t hard to see why. By all accounts, everyone involved in Shadow of a Doubt had a really good time making it. Teresa Wright recalls her easy relationship with Cotten, which probably helped when trying to portray an intimate relationship on the screen. Alongside the obligatory trailer, there are some studio photographs from the production to enjoy, along with a set of lavishly detailed storyboards that show the extent to which Hitchcock relied on conceptual drawings when coming to film his little masterpiece.

Hitch Rating

Posted on 12th March 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | 4 Comments »

Getting Hitched - ‘3000 Miles of Terror!’

Hitchcock boxsetHaving bought the Alfred Hitchcock boxset at Christmas, it seems only right that I work through it, film by film, and offer my thoughts on each. The set, known as the ‘Masterpiece Collection’ upon its Region One release (and reviewed on an individual basis via this page at DVD Times), contains all fourteen films made by Hitch for Universal Studios, and represents a mixed bag of classics, good stuff and average fare (I don’t think he made a single bad film, so ‘average’ is as poor as it gets). It comes in a nice sturdy box, with each movie packaged in its own slimline DVD case. Representing a wide period of the Master’s career (1942 - 1976), some non-Universal gems are notable by their absence (Notorious and North by Northwest are conspicuously not here), but what remains is a fine cross-section of essential purchases and lesser known flicks.

Saboteur (1942)

Hitchcock’s first film for Universal was this wartime potboiler, a thriller that contains numerous trademark elements and a fair slice of propaganda. As far as the ‘Master of Suspense’ is concerned, it’s nothing special, but does that make it entirely worthless?

Saboteur plays on a familiar Hitch theme - an innocent man is accused of doing something wrong; by chance, he knows exactly who’s responsible and whilst being chased by the authorities, goes in pursuit of the culprit. It’s North by Northwest in sketchier form, though there’s no Cary Grant here to fill the screen, and it shows. Robert Cummings is Barry Kane, desperate both to clear his name and expose the real saboteur, a mysterious figure named Fry who blew up the war aircraft factory where Kane was unlucky enough to be working. Quickly targeted for the crime himself, our hero has little option but to go on the run, taking as his directions the slight information he knows about Fry. On his way, he meets both goodies and baddies. Kane learns that Fry is part of a conspiracy, a group of fascist sympathisers (nobody uses the word ‘Nazi’ in Saboteur, but it’s reasonably clear what is meant), some of whom hold positions of great authority and wealth. On the plus side, he stumbles across Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), who becomes an ally and confidante after initially not trusting his innocence. The action takes us from Los Angeles to New York’s Statue of Liberty, where Kane finally confronts Fry.

Saboteur - original posterAll good stuff, and indeed Saboteur is a perfectly serviceable thriller. It moves along quickly, doesn’t pause for breath too often, and cranks up the tension in all the right areas. This, of course, is the least you would expect from Hitchcock. When the factory explodes very early in the movie, the screen slowly fills with menacing black smoke in anticipation, and you feel you’re on safe ground with Saboteur. Yet the visual thrills are actually few and far between, and this comes across largely as a competently directed film, rather than the work of a genius. The script, along with Hitchock himself, was sold to Frank Lloyd Productions for a paltry $20,000 by David Selznick, and though the latter would go on to do far better things, it’s obvious that the film’s budget, not to mention its screenplay (one of its collaborators was none other than Dorothy Parker), was somewhat limited.

One of its biggest weaknesses was an avowed intention to show typical Americans in a good light. Kane doesn’t stop pursuing the fascists, even after his name is virtually cleared, because it’s the right thing to do. The people who assist him along the way make it clear they’re doing so due to their ability to make a choice in a free society. As Pat’s kindly, blind dad explains, ‘Don’t you know I can see a great deal farther than you can? I can see intangible things. For example, innocence.’ The fact he is aiding and abetting a known fugitive seems to make little difference. Thanks to a hunch, he offers Kane a break, and it’s tough for the cynical viewer not to wonder what the hell’s going on in his head. Presumably, wartime cinemagoers could be swayed into accepting the simple nobility of deeds such as these. Later, a group of circus freaks will offer Kane similar levels of charity, for much the same reason. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and entire plot twists turn on these moments.

Cummings is fairly engaging as the troubled Kane, yet he has little of the presence of memorable Hitchcock stars, such as Grant or James Stewart. Considering he figures in almost every shot of Saboteur, this is something of a weakness, and it’s telling that the actor probably never did anything as prominent again in his career. For all that, the array of villains aligned against him are a good bunch. Otto Kruger is in particularly fine form as Charles Tobin, who seems like a good bloke on first sight, but quickly turns out to be the worst of the bunch, a thoroughly nasty piece of work who spills out Nazi bile with a smile on his face. Norman Lloyd plays the elusive Frank Fry, a thin-lipped baddie who looks perfectly capable of blowing people up without feeling a scrap of remorse. Hitchcock made a conscious attempt to add an extra dimension to his villains. Check out Mr Freeman’s (Alan Baxter) conversation with Kane, as he describes the golden curls of his youth, and thus adds extra menace to his character.

By anyone else’s standards, Saboteur is a cracking little film. It has the ability to pull you in, hauling you along behind Kane as he makes his forlorn way across America. Compared with Hitchcock’s other work, however, it’s formulaic and hackneyed. All this was done to better effect in North by Northwest, and The 39 Steps. Indeed, the Grant starrer remains one of my personal favourites, thanks largely to the main character’s light touch and masses of well-tailored charisma. Saboteur, on the other hand, is good fun and a perfectly fine way to spend 108 minutes, but that’s about it. There’s nothing about it that’s especially brilliant, and the plot is weighed down by its propaganda overtones.

The movie is presented about as well as it probably can be for its age; the picture is reasonably sharp despite the usual signs of something that’s 65 years old, and in places it looks overly dark. In terms of sound, a typical array of crackles and pops punctuate the film, though personally I believe these things enhance - rather than detract from - old movies, much like playing a much-loved LP. The decent spread of extras starts with a trailer, which cleverly has Cummings narrating to the audience in the guise of Kane - ‘I’m Barry Kane, American!’ We also get a 35-minute documentary, ‘Saboteur: a Closer Look.’ This attempts to explain why Hitchcock might have been pricked by his social conscience enough to film the more propagandist scenes, by discussing his guilt over the criticism he received in the UK for working in America whilst his own country was at war. Despite the perfectly reasonable excuse of being under contract, Hitchcock felt bad about not being involved in Britain’s struggles, which might have won over his natural tendency not to include socio-political subtexts to his movies. There’s a nice, revealing chat about Hitchcock’s trademark cameo appearance. Apparently, the director wanted to be filmed saying something crude to his secretary in sign language, but the scene was scrapped as being derogatory. Instead, we see him standing at a news stand. Sketches, a gallery and storyboards complete the bonus material. Hitchcock took the latter seriously, and we get to see some of his visual ideas on paper for what turned out to be striking images in the finished product.

Hitch Rating

Posted on 11th March 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | 6 Comments »

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