Review: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” ~ Joanne Fontaine in Rebecca 

In normal circumstances, voice-over introductions rarely resonate but for some reason, the ethereal tones of Joan Fontaine opening Rebecca leave a lasting impact and that’s after well nigh 80 years.

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood and it truly is a stunning debut but if you take a step back and see who was working behind the scenes, it soon because fairly plain that this was as much of a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock one, if not more so. Because Selznick had Hitch under contract and he was following up the grandeur of Gone with the Wind (1939) with another costume drama positioned to be a smash hit.

Though Rebecca was slightly less ornate and preoccupied with its more gothic sensibilities, Daphne du Maurier’s novel was nevertheless ripe for a Selznick treatment with a sturdily constructed story and quality production values all across. And of course, you have the acting talent which while not necessarily head and shoulders above all of Hitch’s previous works was nevertheless top of the line.

First, of course, is Laurence Olivier providing a great deal of import to the part of one of our protagonists, George Fortescue Maximilian De Winter, the tortured man of breeding whose life is stricken with past tragedies. But equally crucial is Joan Fontaine’s role as the unnamed woman who subsequently becomes the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. She began as the meek lady in waiting for a boorish socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper only to fall in love with the older man.

Fontaine inhabits the role with a breathless wide-eyed timidity that’s immediately attractive and makes her the object of our sympathies. She always gives off the appearance of a frazzled little deer in the headlights like she doesn’t quite know what to say or what to do in the presence of others whom she deems more important than herself.

It’s that very quality that drew me to Fontaine from the outset the first time I saw Rebecca and no doubt a similar quality that draws Maxim de Winter to her character. There’s an undeniable innocence there full of an angelic beauty that exerts itself each time she interacts with others, eyes wide with mouth agape. That in itself is an immaculate illusion given Fontaine’s own life full of estrangement. Here she is faultless and demure.

And that comes into focus even more clearly because Maxim can often be an unfeeling man, swarmed with past demons though he might be. Put them together and he’s certainly the dominant figure. The same goes for their arrival at his stately home Manderley. The current Mrs. De Winters is totally overwhelmed by this grand estate and the staff that frequent its halls.

The shining example is the apparition of a housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and it’s a career-defining role for a character actress who always could be imperious and a little unscrupulous. But she was never as harrowing as the fiercely loyal woman who starts playing mind games with her new employer.

You also have the incomparable George Sanders playing his English gentleman with biting wit and a touch of blackmail. He becomes pivotal to the story for the very sake that he speaks up on the deceased Rebecca’s behalf as much as Mrs. Danvers does. They adored this woman that Maxim loathed so deeply by the end of their relationship. And it’s in this chafing that the ultimate conflict is uncovered — the type of conflict that threatens to rip Maxim away from his new love and splatter his reputation in the courtroom drama that ensues.

Much like Laura (1944) in her eponymous film, Rebecca lingers over the entire narrative and haunts its frames from start to finish. Yet in the latter work of Otto Preminger, the lady actually makes an appearance on screen incarnated by the entrancing Gene Tierney.

Here Rebecca is a specter who never tries to show herself. There is no physical semblance of her, only signs and references of her being — most memorably the scripted letter “R.” Because, truthfully, she doesn’t need to show her face. She almost wields more power without being seen. It’s that rather unnerving feeling of impending dread that’s hanging over the audience as much as it does Mrs. De Winter.

In the end, Hitchcock didn’t exactly get the murder that he would have liked but in any case, it does not fully take away from the impact of Rebecca. Instead of being a film of overt actions it starts to work on our psyches as a sterling psychological exercise matched by its deliciously dark atmosphere. The mental distress is heightened by the eerie interiors marked by layers of shadow and the shrouded impressionistic seaside that envelops the De Winter compound. Fittingly, Manderley is razed to the ground once and for all.

Ironically enough, though the production is very much on the Hollywood scale, it’s probably the most “British” film that Hitchcock ever made in America based on not only the subject matter but the majority of the acting talent because on top of Olivier and Sanders you have such esteemed character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Melville Cooper, and Leo G. Carroll (a Hitchcock favorite).

Still, he was blessed with the best talent he had at his disposal since the infancy of his career, in part because of his move across the Atlantic. Joan Harrison who would become one of the most prominent and only female producers in Hollywood turned in work on the script along with Robert E. Sherwood with the score being composed by Hollywood icon Franz Waxman. Even if the players at work are not necessarily evocative of the many trademarks we usually attribute to the director, that hardly makes Rebecca any less of a delight.

Furthermore, there is something inherently honest about the lead portrayals throughout the film. Not necessarily because they’re realistic but they are full of fear and hatred and emotion and you see it in the words and on the faces of the characters. This is hardly a playful film. It’s not trying to subvert drama with humor or dry tonal reversals. But it’s candid in its despair as much as in its joy.

For all their intrigues and complexities in technical feats, storytelling, and psychology, sincerity is not always something you look for in a Hitchcock picture. Here it works. Casting this devasting love story up against the backdrop of gothic horror makes it all the more affecting. The marriage of the talents of David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock turns out to be a surprisingly bountiful proposition. Even if it wasn’t made to last.

5/5 Stars

Review: Psycho (1960)

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For all intent and purposes, Psycho could be an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Hitchcock knew that better than anyone else. Foregoing the more lavish Technicolor tones he had used in Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) and lacking the same type of studio backing, he shot this film in the much cheaper black and white format and brought on a great deal of his television crew to make this production a much more inexpensive package.

In that way alone it paled in comparison to some of its much more ostentatious predecessors but that cannot for a moment take away from the impact or cultural clout that Hitchcock still managed — truly topping any of his previous efforts to date. If not his greatest film, then Psycho was certainly his greatest feat of marketing and ingenuity. Because he would never allow his public to forget their experience witnessing Psycho and very few have for generations with it becoming so closely tied to our public consciousness.

The plotline itself is a simple affair of love and small-time crime set in Arizona then transplanted to California. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has a man but a life with him seems unlikely especially with both of them being terminally strapped for cash. He’s got alimony to pay and she makes very little on a secretarial salary. But when $40,000 is dropped on her desk in cold hard cash — money she is supposed to deposit in the local bank — in a brief moment of decision she attempts to buy happiness.

She takes the money and keeps on going. From the moment Marion first sees her boss on a crosswalk as she drives off with the money, Bernard Hermann’s score starts pounding. Every time she hits the gas the composer does too and it’s one of the most unnerving pairings in cinematic history.

Even without the scoring, this would still be matchless silent storytelling and yet it’s improved upon by the music working with the image.  A paranoid Leigh becomes the latest iteration of Hitchcock’s icy blonde, curt and still constantly looking over her shoulder because she is not made to be a lawbreaker. She tries to dodge the interrogation of a suspicious policeman and brushes off the friendly salesmanship of California Charlie (John Anderson). But she rides on no thanks to the guilt written all over her face only to be impeded by Hitchcock’s latest implement, a fateful rainstorm that lays her up at the first motel she can find: The Bates Motel.

In Vertigo and Psycho, you can see how Hitchcock distinctly puts us in the eyes of the main character so we have no choice but to view the world as they do and it’s highly effective in bringing us into the story. Thus, it’s even more jarring when he rips our star and stand-in away from us brutally and forces us to frantically search for another anchoring character.

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That brings us to Norman. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is such a fascinating character because in one sense he’s like a shy little boy. The moment he asks Marion to have dinner with him is brimming with candor and a pitiful awkwardness — like a boy asking a girl out to the prom or something. That sweetness and social ineptitude are at the core of his being. He can’t hide it just as Anthony Perkins playing Bates feels like he is hardly acting at all. It’s just his way.

The Bates home could be a character in itself, a looming beast that hangs over Marion as the domain of the unobserved Mrs. Bates. It poses itself as a portent of Norman’s own ominous instability along with his pointed drawing room conversation with Marion where he freely discloses, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” 

That, of course, brings us to the famed shower scene that is a tour de force not only in editing but in the synthesis of all the cinematic components from the image, to sound, to the scoring of Hermann’s impeccable cacophony of screeching strings. It stands alone as arguably the single most iconic scene in all the movies. Thus, it’s surprising that from the very moment Hitchcock was showing Leigh flush some pieces of paper down a toilet he was already making history — because bathrooms were long-held off-limit locations. Hitchcock made them far worse for folks after Psycho.

He also starts moving around the bathroom in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Rear Window’s opening. Finally, cutting from the drain to the eye of Marion Crane suggesting the same spiraling black holes of emptiness as Vertigo. It pretty much sums of the conclusion of her life.

But then we’re back to Norman. There’s an extreme distaste in how goes about cleaning up the bathroom but also a certain industry to it. He gets to it silently and efficiently in another one of Hitchcock’s great sequences that unfold without the aid of any dialogue whatsoever until it leads us the precipice of the swamp where Marion’s car is disposed of.

It’s in these interludes that we understand the full gravity of Hitch’s wicked humor. That money — the load of cash that propelled the film forward — is cast aside as simply as that. No two thoughts about it as if to say you thought that’s what this picture was about but he’s not entirely interested in that. He just wants to hook his audience on that objective before sending them hurtling in completely different directions.

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John Galvin plays Leigh’s lover and he’s the stark contrast to Perkins’ character. Both dark-haired and handsome but Sam is a virile man even a masculine ideal of the 50s and 60s. Nevertheless, he joins forces with Lila Crane (Vera Miles) Marion’s concerned sister, subsequently becoming the driving force in the latter stages.

But also of note is the hired private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam) who coincidentally comes onto the scene at the same time at the behest of the old coot that lost $40,000. Balsam a wonderful character actor throughout his career, not surprisingly appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he’s at his best as he questions Norman Bates in that genial manner of his about his person of interest, one Marion Crane.

At this point, in some small way, it feels like we are a bit of an accomplice in this crime of Norman’s.  Complicit in his secret and as Arbogast digs around for answers we crawl inside our skin. Norman tries to cover up and we know he’ll be caught in his lie.  Hitchcock frames his nervousness most overtly peering over to look at the guest registry knowing that something might give him away.

For its day and age, Psycho goes into admittedly dark and taboo territory. But what’s most unsettling is the subverted ideas of romance it showcases. Marion is looking for some form of companionship. She has desires for the American Dream including money and love. All the things that lifestyle entails and yet her desires are quickly snuffed out never to be realized. She doesn’t even receive the hope of love because on the horizon there is nothing for her — only the nothingness of a drain taking away her lifeblood.

Then, of course, Norman is so closely intertwined with his mother that it destroys his being so much so that he cannot even comprehend how to cope with other people. He’s so injured and wounded by a dominating woman and a lack of love that he has no healthy way to express his love and it’s not so much his undoing as it is his stumbling block. Sure it makes for chilling outcomes and a remarkable turn from Anthony Perkins but what resonates time and time again is the pitiful brokenness within Norman Bates. It’s all there in his famed observation that “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” His is a sorry state of mind.

Even in Sam and Lila, we find our best chance at romantic satisfaction. But that relationship too falls on problems when you cast it in the light of Vertigo. If they do continue their relationship, will it simply be because Sam sees Marion in his sister and wishes to have that or does he see the true worth of this woman in front of him blessed with an insurmountable persistence? If anyone can make it work they can but that is not to say it will not be messy. After all, this is a film of messiness — relationally, psychologically, morally. We all go a little mad sometimes. That’s why we’re not to go through life alone. We’re communal beings.

In the denouement, a psychiatrist tries to explain things away and provide a voice of reason that looks to stabilize everything his audience has just ingested. But even that fails to undue and rationalize Norman Bates completely. Yes, his psychological instabilities, his compartmentalized personalities, and the utter dissonance coursing through him can be understood at least partially by such deductions. Human psychology has its place as does scientific thought. Still, that cannot take away from that final shot as the voice inside Norman’s head keeps talking to us and he raises his eyes with a possessed grin breaking out over his face.

There is no explanation that can be given for that look. It burns into us. Emblazoned on our minds and sending shivers down the spine. That image and all those proceeding are what the cinema is capable of, evoking emotion far beyond what any word can possibly begin to unearth. That is the exorbitantly visceral brilliance of Psycho. Hitchcock was a proponent of so-called pure cinema and this is yet another showing of the “Master of Suspense” at the peak of his creative powers. Few filmmakers have made such a stream of classics of such variety and of such a multitude in such a condensed span of time — each one slowly reworking and ultimately rewriting the rules of suspense. Psycho is yet another testament to that.

5/5 Stars

Review: To Catch a Thief (1955)

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There’s little doubt that To Catch a Thief is Hitchcock at his breeziest and with the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly the picture could coast on looks and charm alone. Not simply based on the attributes of its stars either but the extensive on location shooting boasting Cannes shorelines colored in VistaVision and sumptuous flyovers of the winding Riviera, villas and all. It’s a scintillating getaway and a fine departure following the nerve-wracking confinement of pictures like Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954).

Thankfully while it is supremely light entertainment there’s something else to it as well. A rash of copycat crimes has taken place all across the Riviera leading the local police commissioner to suspect reformed cat burglar and French Resistance hero John Robie (Grant). Though the slinking and perfectly executed jewel heists bear the mark of “The Cat,” he’s the best one to acknowledge his own innocence.

Still, that doesn’t stop the police from questioning him nor his old war comrades working at a French cafe to begrudge him for what they deem as an affront to them. They want nothing to do with him. And so with things as they are, Robie must try to exonerate himself by verifying his innocence. John Williams proves the perfect accomplice as a generally agreeable chap from Lloyd’s of London who has vested interest of his own in catching the real culprit in order to recover his client’s assets.

Their introduction could not be more memorable culminating in a tussle in the flower market in Nice with bouquets flying every which way, the local authorities in hot pursuit. From there Robie floats away from the police soaking in some sunbeams as he devises his plan of action. But already we see the dangers as he must essentially play the thief, casing the joint, getting close to the jewels and their owners but all in the name of personal vindication.

What follows is a fortuitous meeting around that whirling pickpocket — the roulette wheel — where Robie makes a dashing entrance. Actually, make that a purposefully inept showing dropping a chip down a lady’s front. What follows is a fairly haphazard routine as Oregon lumber magnate Conrad Burns trading pleasantries with his newfound acquaintances.

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Jesse Royce Landis knocks her scenes out of the park allowing Grant and the others to laugh along amusedly due to her affinity for bourbon and straightforward speech.  Her daughter Francie (Kelly) tries to maintain her own dignity as an aloof beauty bred on finishing school.

However, she’s more forward than she lets on leading with a wordless smooch in the doorway on her way to bed that begins the chase. What becomes rapidly apparent is the fact that she knows what she wants and doesn’t waste any time pursuing it. First, there’s a jaunt on the beach, then a picnic, and numerous other little romantic getaways perfectly constructed for romancing.

By now the double entendre of the title comes into full relief. On one level Robie is trying to catch someone and Francie is trying to catch him. Charade (1963) would provide a similar dynamic with the woman becoming the huntress out for love. But it’s true that the ravishing gal has a jackpot of admirable qualities which Robie nevertheless tries his best to avoid. Just as he tries relatively unsuccessfully to dodge her flurry of probing questions before finally resigning himself to beer and fried chicken.

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I’m the first to admit I’m the least fashion-conscious person around but there’s little denying the iconic nature of Kelly’s coral top during the picnic scenes with Grant. Again, the outfit realized by renowned costumier Edith Head is only rivaled in my admittedly meager estimation by Audrey Hepburn’s Little Black Dress (conceived by Hubert de Givenchy) in Breakfast Tiffany’s (1961) during her early morning window shopping.

The country road car sequence is a fine summation of the film’s general balancing act of John Michael Haye’s scripting with Hitchcock eye for the visual. It’s broken up by the glib interplay between our stars and yet proves silently comedic with knowing gazes and the dodging of pedestrians and roosters as the police tail close behind Francie’s sporty Sunbeam Alpine.

Though the same scene is underlined with a bit of morbidity as Princess Grace would die in a car crash years later as Princess of Monaco brought on by a sudden stroke which occurred not far from where the film was shot. It’s a tragic moment that left a dark blot the world over.

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But for now, the picture is effervescent only bounded by fireworks with the impetuous blonde intrigued by this man who she easily pinned as “The Cat” despite his constant rebuttals. She wants to be a part of his game too, all the while entrapping him with her divine loveliness.

Now’s as good a time as any to marvel at the character of John Robie who must have been made for Cary Grant precisely. At first, it’s easy to surmise that he’s supposed to be a Frenchman who can barely speak any of his native language. However, that would disregard the randomly assorted tidbits scattered throughout the film. For one, he’s said to be an American on multiple occasions. Except as Francie notes, “you’re like an American character in an English movie.” Robie even notes he once toured Europe with a troupe of acrobats, not unlike a young Archibald Leach.

The picture is also littered with what can only be termed touches of Hitchcock whether tops of umbrellas, policemen playing hacky sack on the job, or cigarettes stubbed out in eggs instead of ashtrays.

But back to the action. The final game of cat and mouse is proposed to trap the clandestine specter who has been absconding with all the jewels. It comes down to a decadent Louis 15th extravaganza frequented by the social elite and costumed policemen milling about amid the guests. Robie is waiting to pounce and takes to the rooftops to have it out once and for all!

We think we’re in for one last perfunctory car chase instead Grant and Kelly receive their final rendezvous at a villa which proves far more thrilling. The plot generally took a backseat to the stars anyways even for a Hitchcock movie. We leave them as they embrace with Francie exclaiming, “Mother will love it here!” and Grant’s quizzical look barely visible past his costar’s shoulder. That’s priceless. How could we have more fun than this?

4/5 Stars

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Night_Train_to_Munich_Poster.jpgWe are met with the scourge of Hitler overrunning mainland Europe. It’s about that time. American isn’t involved in the war. Britain’s getting bombed to smithereens and the rest of Europe is tumbling like rows and rows of tin soldiers.

Carol Reed always proved astute at setting the stage for great human dramas and Night Train to Munich is little different. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up to find that the Nazis are on the march for Czechoslovakia and her father, a renowned scientist, is fleeing the country. However, she’s not so lucky and gets intercepted by the Nazis ending up in a concentration camp instead of aboard an airplane to freedom.

It’s in these moments where the script develops a fairly frank depiction of the concentration camps denoting that they were hardly a day of wine and roses. But in that very harrowing climate, she meets a proud rebel named Karl (Paul Henreid) who uses his underground contacts to help them escape and promises Anna that they will find her father in England. Hope still exists.

The man they wind up reaching in the British Isles feels more like a nobody than a top government agent singing tunes at a beachside promenade. But Dickie Randle (Rex Harrison) proves to be far more than he lets on at face value. Still, he is not the only one who holds that distinction and no sooner have they been reunited then father and daughter find themselves kidnapped by Gestapo spies and carried on a U-Boat back to the Fatherland.

We know where the final act must go as Randle heads into the mouth of the lion’s den to try and pull off a daring rescue that looks like an absolutely ludicrous endeavor with not even a half chance of succeeding. He masquerades as a member of the German corps of engineers and pulls the wool over on some of his denser adversaries. Still, one man is not so oafish and they must thwart the insider Gestapo man looking to trap them.

In its day and even now the film was pitched as a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). The connection can be attributed to several aspects including similar locales — namely a train — the same studio producing in Gaumont, the screenwriting skills of Sidney Gilliat, and even the same leading lady in Margaret Lockwood. For these very reasons, it does become an interesting exercise to juxtapose this later work with The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Reed’s film you could say was steeped in politics more than anything dared by Hitchcock. But it might be a stride too far to surmise that Carol Reed was a political filmmaker. He was a master at creating compelling worlds planted in the realities that were already known to us such as war-torn Ireland or Post-war Vienna. They are real moments but as is explained so exquisitely at the beginning of Odd Man Out (1947), these are not the particular aspects that connect us together. It is the universal quality of the human experience that reaches us…

That Man is evil. That love leads us to make choices that others would not. That Man often makes war instead of peace. Admittedly, Night Train to Munich is not such a rich exploration in environment, character, or cinematic themes, but it still has power as a fairly frank thriller. It can be hailed along with films like The Mortal Storm (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), for being astutely aware of the historical moment that they were embroiled in — at least more so than most.

There are innumerable jabs at the Nazis including one minor gag involving the inflection of the phrase “This is a fine country to live in.” One rascally dissident uses this precise scenario to slither his way out of an appointment with a local concentration camp. Still, a moment like this and similar gags in barb-laden comedies like The Great Dictator (1940) or To Be or Not to Be (1942) come with a certain solemnity. Because we know the vast amount of carnage such camps were guilty of.

Surprise, surprise that everyone’s favorite British comic duo Charters and Caldicott crop up again proving to be as fussy as ever. Except in such an edgy climate, they too feel oddly out of place. Because maybe the threat feels all too real and as far as characters go they are caricatures not fit for such a realistic world. They’re just not quite at home with Nazis and concentration camps and how could they be?

Still, putting them back in their element, that is, back aboard a train, it feels like all is right with the world again. But even then, they act differently. This time they stick their necks out spurred on and put in a general huff by the indecency of the Nazis. And if they can all of a sudden get patriotic then the assumption is that most any convivial bloke can.

Whereas the train acts as the hallmark of The Lady Vanishes, in this film it is more of an important stop along the way in the overarching narrative. This story boasts a thrilling cable car finale with a subsequent shootout that’s gripping despite the inexhaustible amount of bullets or maybe precisely for that very reason. Carol Reed’s films would only improve as the 1940s went on but there’s no denying the intrigue and political clout here. He deserves to be remembered among the foremost of British directors if not only for his revered masterpieces like The Third Man (1949) but also the minor classics like Night Train to Munich (1940).

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Though he would make Jamaica Inn the following year, it’s undoubtedly The Lady Vanishes that situated Hitchcock for the move to Hollywood as his last great British film showcasing once more his immense aptitude as a storyteller no matter the resources on hand.

At the beginning of the proceedings, an avalanche makes accommodations at an inn, hidden away in Europe somewhere, rather sparse and it makes for strange bedfellows and noisy neighbors. Among them are the prized comedy duo Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford), a pair of quibbling cricket enthusiasts. Meanwhile, radiant Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is just coming off a glorious vacation with a couple girlfriends as she returns to get married to her fiancee.

Dame May Whitty makes a fine showing as a rather whimsical eccentric, playing the role of a kind-spirited governess enjoying some time in the land she deems a little slice of paradise. In one off-handed comment, she notes with bright eyes, “I don’t think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

It’s a passing line that suggests Hitchcock’s own indifference to politics. He briefly touches on the political climate at the time but never looks to go in depth and make some grandiose statement about the state of affairs in Europe. That is not his sentiment. Instead, he takes the natural climate of the times utilizing them for the sake of his narrative.

Things couldn’t be more delightful for them both in their encounter and yet the overcrowding is far from agreeable as an obnoxious neighbor in the attic (Michael Redgrave) unwittingly serenades the entire floor below him with an atrocious melody. It pales in comparison to the beautiful vibrato Ms. Froy was met with on her balcony nor is it quite as significant.

Of course, it’s Iris that Gilbert Redman really perturbs especially when she gets him ejected by the manager only to have him turn right back around and make himself at home in her suite. Thus, we have a bit of initial friction at home in a rom-com soon to be turned into a delightful mystery escapade with splashes of intrigue and absurdity.

The largest and most enjoyable leg of the adventure takes place onboard the train but it only works because of a seemingly inconsequential development. Iris is positively swimming after an ill-fated brick conks her on the temple and she is helped onto the train by Ms. Froy who tells her to rest up.

Iris obliges. Except when she awakens her lady companion is not in their compartment. She’s nowhere to be found. In fact, everyone that she interrogates corroborates that they never saw this kindly old lady. She must not exist. Just like that the game is afoot as our heroine endeavors to track down her friend and stave off the impending doubts that this woman was only a figment of her imagination.

It’s these perplexing developments that feel rather like a conspiracy. Still, it’s hardly that type of thing at all. It’s the very fact that all these people are humans — they’re selfish –with different self-serving motives for keeping up the charade. The clandestine couple with the man looking to stay conspicuous and a woman not minding a little bit of scandal.

The Cricket aficionados bent on getting to their match in time along with a whole host of others. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist (Paul Lukas) points out that Ms. Froy sounds vaguely like Freud and must simply be the inner workings of Irises subconscious. Of course, that’s only an easy way to explain away what is actually happening.

She likens Gilbert (Redgrave) to the dog that follows her around and it’s true he quite faithfully stays by her side even taking up the mantle of her investigation. Soon they’re traipsing around like a maladjusted Holmes and Watson, Redgrave going so far as to don a deerstalker as Lockwood coughs and passes him a pipe in utter parody.

They end up making quite a ruckus in the magician car full of hats, rabbits, and boxes with false bottoms and for the added fact that they get into a bit of a scuffle. But that’s only the beginning. Because, of course, what is a Hitchcock film without a little bit of international espionage? But once again he brings it into the world of tourists and well-to-do British subjects who have no right to be in such a scenario.

Factions form and the remaining passengers look to make a break for it amid a gunfight with foreign adversaries. Never before has there been such a droll reaction to a gunshot wound. A very Hitchcock moment without question.

The Lady Vanishes fits into the long lineage of Hitchcock with similarly high profile sequences from The 39 Steps (1935) to Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959) but for the amount of time spent aboard, this picture is his most formidable train film.  It uses the very motion and sound of the steam engine to add crucial momentum to the plot.

Hitchcock speeds events to their conclusion and once more we find that in many cases our objective was utterly pointless, even throwaway, but it did give rise to one of the great thrillers of the 1930s. Part of the film’s unequivocal success comes from drawing equally from the wells of comedy and suspense. The laughs are ever present but far from being to the detriment of the drama they only augment the action, adding to the contours of our characters and pointing out the sheer ridiculousness found in this plotline. It’s wonderful.

4.5/5 Stars

Young and Innocent (1937)

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We meet the faces of a man and a woman bickering furiously. Another young man finds a limp body awash on the beach. He runs to get help but two young girls see his response of fleeing across the sand and believe what any normal person would believe. He’s leaving the scene of the crime. Their screams are personified by seagulls a fitting precursor to The Birds years later.

Soon film star Christine Clay covers the tabloids and the fellow finds himself on trial for murder. This is the groundwork for Young and Innocent and we have yet to even meet our heroine.

There’s a bubble-headed lawyer who’s a very nice sort but, nevertheless, a bit of a country bumpkin. Not much for such a high profile case. Thus, no one can blame the accused for fleeing the courtroom in a brief moment of tumult. Hitchcock even finds time to pose as a cameraman outside the courthouse. But more importantly, the wheels begin turning as the fugitive Tisdale calls upon the reluctant help of the local Constable’s daughter Erica Burgoyne.

Erica has become a bit of a matriarch in her family of boys and she’s learned to be a mother, a daughter, and so much more for her father and brothers. Yet soon she’s seemingly become an accessory to an assumed criminal in helping him escape. Because at the core of this story, is a variation on the Hitchcock motif. There are two innocent people on the run trying to get away including Erica who gets whisked away in the moment.

The MacGuffin set out for them to pursue is a purloined raincoat. With it comes the promise of exoneration of the wanted man. But outcomes are never that easy nor the road getting there. It leads to a row of diverting events from a brawl at a roadside rest stop with the local population of bums and even a kiddie birthday party where Erica crawls with anxiety for harboring a wanted criminal in her auntie and uncle’s home.

The story devolves into an entertaining cross-country chase, but in this particular case making its way through the countryside and to a proverbial abandoned mine shaft. These very quaint locales and the small town feel with bumbling policemen and bickering lads around the dinner table make this one feel like one of Hitchcock’s overtly “British” films or maybe one of his most stereotypically British efforts.

Some visual flourishes include a cliffhanger moment captured in typical jarring fashion and equally enjoyable is a fairly expansive crane shot that carries us through a hotel focusing on a certain person in question. Our plucky protagonist has called upon the services of an old hobo to identify the man who contacted him — the man undoubtedly implicated in the murder. Such a scene is pure Hitchcock, directing our gaze in such a way that the image he places in front of us is unavoidable. There’s no doubting his intention and he lays everything out for a fine conclusion.

Blackface aside as a horrible cultural anachronism, this picture comes off well today with Nova Pilbean coming into her own as a charming protagonist who boasts smarts and a disarming drive even as she gets whisked along.  Previously she played a crucial role in Hitchcock’s earlier thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, but here she’s one of the undisputed stars and she and Derrick De Marney have a solid chemistry working. Of course, it’s not that customary to come to a Hitchcock picture for true romance. Still, Young and Innocent is indubitably worthwhile for aficionados of “The Master of Suspense.”

3.5/5 Stars

 

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage1936.jpgSabotage: Willful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.

It’s not exactly a titillating introduction but since this is precisely where this 1930s Hitchcock thriller commences so will I.

Again, Hitch is collaborating with Charles Bennet and of course Alma Reville (his wife) core members of his team by this point. I do find it funny that it came from a novel called The Secret Agent, the name of one of Hitchcock’s earlier entries, only to be changed to Sabotage. But it only goes to show how throwaway some of these titles were because they are hardly reflective of the genuine satisfaction in partaking in what is trying to be accomplished.

The inciting incident of the entire film involves the power grid going out all across the city. Some people assume it’s a freak event but those embroiled in national security and connected with Scotland Yard know there are far more ominous intentions. There are men looking to undermine the nation through systematic acts of sabotage and ultimately terrorism.

From our perspective, these were obvious harbingers of impending world war. In that climate, they were probably quite close to home. This film occupies itself with a single individual as he’s tailed by a government agent with his adopted family (Sylvia Sidney and Desmond Tester) acting as his convenient alibis because he’s been nothing but good to them.

One telling statement comes from the little boy when he’s talking aloud excitedly about gangsters and the like.  Because gangsters look quite ordinary, just like you and me and it’s an offhand comment but he doesn’t know how right he is. This is another textbook Hitchcock scenario because this is by no means a mystery. We know from the opening shot who the perpetrator is. But Hitchcock uses that modicum amount of knowledge to grab hold of his audience.

Similarly, he uses the tried and true example he mentioned in his dialogue with Truffaut. Having two individuals talking before a bomb blows up isn’t inherently suspenseful but if you show your cards early you’ve instantly ratcheted up the tension. He does that here immaculately aboard a double-decker bus.

Although even then it would be hard to favor Sabotage over some of his other works even those that are part of his thriller Sextet. It’s really a fairly minor addition and though Sylvia Sidney is as candid as ever she’s hardly meant for a Hitchcock film. Oskar Homolka and John Loder aren’t bad per se but they’re hardly as compelling as a Peter Lorre or Robert Donat.

Though the terrorists might look slightly different and their motives are more political than any other, there’s this uneasy sense that there is very little that is new under the sun. It’s telling that Bennet’s screenplay was loosely adapted from a Joseph Conrad story which was itself focused on sabotage in the late 19th century perpetuating this idea that certain stories are truly timeless.

Reading Walt Disney’s name in the opening credits might be a pleasant surprise for some and as might be expected, since this story does take place partially in a cinema, they show a cartoon short, seeming to be a harbinger for Sullivan’s Travels (1941) except in this story the main character gets shot with an arrow — very much a Hitchcockesque spin on animated cartoons if there ever was one. There can be humor but it’s always underlined by a sizable dose of dread.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Rear Window (1954): Visual Cinema and “Lisa”

 

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There are such a vast number of levels to appreciate Rear Window on and one of those is its impeccable use of sound as well as a score courtesy of Franz Waxman. In fact, it is quite easy to consider it as a film with a wholly diegetic soundtrack but it’s really a complicated weaving of sound orchestration playing against the images onscreen. For instance, against the credits, as the blinds come up, we’re met with the playfully cool jazzy beats of “Prelude and Radio” which proves to be in perfect juxtaposition with the deathly hot heatwave hitting Greenwich Village in the film’s opening moments.

We’re also inundated with all types of songs popular and otherwise which can be picked out of the story organically if you’re paying attention. Two of the most obvious additions are “That’s Amore” and then “Mona Lisa” which can be heard being sung by a group of party guests.

Whether or not it’s a slight nod to our heroine Lisa is up for debate but it’s also notable that she, in essence, receives her own theme song which is concurrently composed by the songwriter who lives in the courtyard that we come to know over the course of the film. It slowly involves from its nascent stages into a full-fledged tune that gains its wings once the romance between Lisa and our protagonist L.B. Jefferies has come into its own.

Obviously, beyond the elements of soundtrack Rear Window develops so immersive a world and Hitchcock expertly inserts us directly into the environment to the extent that we have no choice but to become involved in the whole ordeal. We are accomplices, if you will, in this viewing party of Jimmy Stewart’s.

It truly is an exhibition in the moving image because the film works so brilliantly with them. Certainly, it begins with the staging and the complex setup Hitchcock had to work with at Paramount Studios but there’s simultaneously the use of color cinematography, the lighting of the stages which sets the scene given the time of day, and common street noise that lends an almost imperceptible authenticity that we take for granted.

Furthermore, working with his long trusted photographer Robert Burks you see Hitchcock moving so fluidly and with so much purpose through the playground provided him. The camera captures objects with clear intention and a crispness that far from simply giving us the illusion of being in the space, in many ways, makes us feel like we are actually right there with Stewart looking out into the courtyard.

You also get the true essence of what visual filmmaking is because his powers of suggestion and even persuasion of the audience are impressed upon us by what he deems important. Hitchcock lays out nearly all of Stewart’s backstory not with clunky expositional dialogue but by giving us a wordless parade of his apartment while our protagonist sleeps. And the whole picture is a constant rhythmic cadence of being fed images followed by Stewart’s reaction shots. It’s Film at its primacy. Where two images put together are blessed with so much more meaning and suggestion than they could ever have alone.

But far from simply marveling at what Hitch has accomplished it’s far more miraculous that we become so enveloped in this story. It’s an admirable mystery plot chock full of tension that’s built up over time and successive shifts in perception, time of day, and personnel moving in and out of the complex. Our one commonality is Stewart stuck in that wheelchair with only his broken leg, his camera, and the neighbors to keep him entertained. They do far more than that.

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Rear Window’s A-Plot is a perplexing mystery thriller that we watch unfold with a systematic unraveling that’s unnerving in part because Hitchcock has orchestrated it all in a limited space. Furthermore,  he has handicapped his protagonist and the outsiders coming in are constantly causing us to second guess or reevaluate our assumptions be they the insurance agency nurse Stella, Jefferies’  policeman pal, or his best girl Lisa. Each character is at one point in opposition to Jefferies while also providing a sounding board for his cockamamie theories which start to bear the grain of truth. We get to be a part of it all.

The utter irony is that once more not only is Hitchcock’s villain atypical — in nearly all areas a seemingly unspectacular man — he’s also quite overtly styled after David O. Selznick. If you know anything about the producer he shares some resemblance with Raymond Burr and there’s no denying that Hitchcock was never fond of the other’s meddling. As much as I love the Rebeccas (1940) and his earlier American works if Rear Window was a representation of the hands-off approach to his filmmaking than I would have to side with him.

At least by this point in his career, there’s no denying that he projected a singular vision that could hardly be quelled by any individual. This is “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” after all, as the opening credits proclaim.

However, the beauty of this picture is that it truly does stand up to multiple viewings and every repeated viewing offers up new depths or at least minor revelations that add an even greater relish to the experience.

In particular, are the underlining themes of romance. Because this is a film about love in all its many facets with each character or couple reflecting a certain permutation of what romantic love looks like.

The love stories are playing out in each compartment of the apartment complex. Miss Torso, the queen bee with the pick of the drones. She’s very much eye candy but in the final frames, we realize there’s more to her as her love comes back home from the army. There’s Miss Lonelyhearts who is desperately seeking love and yet has enough respect not to stoop below her dignity. It’s a song that lifts her out of her despair. The Newlyweds are still in the honeymoon phase and we never see them.

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Meanwhile, you have Stella providing her homespun philosophy that people shouldn’t overanalyze their situation. Jefferies is pushing back against any serious romance because in his estimation Lisa is far too perfect for him. Meanwhile, Lisa is left believing she can live in any world that Jeff is in. The list goes on and on.

But for the threads to be resolved that must become fully intertwined with the murder at its core because such an event calls for a response from our characters — at least our main ones. When Lisa sacrifices so much to show her love and devotion to him, he realizes how much he misjudged her character and perhaps more profoundly how dearly he loves her and never wants to lose her. He has made the transition from armchair philosopher and misanthrope to a man smitten with someone else. As long as he ditches the window watching he should be fine.

That leads us to another area of discussion. There’s a bit of a moral commentary present though Hitchcock doesn’t seem all that interested in those conclusions per se as much as he likes manipulating them for the sake of his drama. And yet like Vertigo four years later there is this unnerving sense that he is tapping into some of humanity’s darkest desires to watch and spy on others for pleasure without any consequence or any vulnerability on the part of the peeper.

That draws me to another aspect of the film that I’ve never really considered. Rear Window implicitly asks what it is to be a neighbor or at least what it is to live with neighbors. There’s very little in the realm of actual judgments except for the small condemnation that comes from the woman who lives just above the murderer after her yippy dog has been killed. What does she say?

You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! BUT NONE OF YOU DO.

What she provides is a heartfelt and searing indictment which is nevertheless lost in all the commotion whether it’s the big party going on across the way or the realization by our heroes that their theories about murder have been confirmed. It did make me consider even briefly if the so-called Great Commandment is to “Love Thy Neighbor,” what does that look like?

Far from peering in at other people and staying anonymous, it seems like it involves reaching out to others. In some ways, being vulnerable and candid — transparent even — so others feel comfortable entering into our lives. Like Stella says sometimes people need to go on the outside and look in for a change. If nothing else that breeds empathy.

Of course, if that was the case, there would probably have been no murder and that’s what we want right? Well, anyways, Rear Window still stands as my favorite Hitchcock picture and one of the most clinical and compelling thrillers of all time.  But you probably already knew that. If you did not I implore you to break both your legs if need be and go lock yourself in a room and force yourself to watch it right this minute.

5/5 Stars

Review: Dial M for Murder (1954)

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Dial M for Murder is talky and more dialogue-driven than a great many Hitchcock films but that’s partly because the environment is more conducive to that kind of storytelling as much as the fact that this murder story is adapted from a popular British stage production.

Like Rope (1948) or even Lifeboat (1944) before it, Dial M for Murder is for all intent and purposes a chamber piece that essentially takes place on one set: the drawing room of Tony and Margo Wendice.

But quite similar to its predecessors you also get the sense that Hitch approached this picture with a certain perspective and turned it into a technical puzzle to be solved. In typical Hitchcock fashion, he underlies even scenes that are seemingly stagnant with interesting accents. His frame is constantly filled in the foreground lending a certain depth to the picture that we can easily imagine as utilizing cutting-edge 3D technology.

Aside from his work with his frequent director of photography Robert Burks, he also put some obvious restrictions on himself in terms of location. Several of his decisions are fairly daring. Instead of having a whole courtroom sequence he elects to shoot it in a highly stylized fashion that while far from realism, still gets the essence of the story across in a matter of a few minutes.

However, he also has a sequence where two men are talking and the frame is broken up by a lamp and it takes the typical shot-reverse-shot paradigm and makes it more interesting. The same goes for the disconcerting high angles that he uses in multiple instances to depict the action unfolding as first the two accomplices plan out the ensuing events and then the police come onto the scene to investigate.

His preoccupation with the “Perfect Murder” crops up once more as a retired tennis player living off the fortunes of his beautiful young wife decides to murder her to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Her infidelities with an American mystery novelist and minor acquaintance are the pretenses for his actions — a perfect way to get all her money for himself.

But this isn’t a picture working on a moral level. As is often the case, Hitchcock seems far more invested in the mechanics of the actual murder and whether or not it can actually be pulled off and what it would all look like.

Tony (Ray Milland) soon has an old college chum embroiled in his plot with a healthy bit of blackmail and he has everything set up perfectly to get Margot (Grace Kelly) to stay at home while this phantom man will sneak into their flat and murder her. But it will come off as a freak accident and that will be the end of it. However, being a fighter, Grace Kelly doesn’t give up without a struggle and her husband now must cover all his tracks and events unfold much differently than he was expecting.

Milland plays the typically witty and rather sophisticated Hitchcock villain who is in one sense charming and extremely prone to moral turpitude. Grace Kelly is stunning as always and a sympathetic figure as the wife who finds herself the victim of a grisly attack and subsequently accused of a murder no thanks to her husband helping to dig her grave. Though it’s not her best performance next to such startling revelations as Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), there’s no question that it helps to solidify her incomparable partnership with Alfred Hitchcock.

Robert Cummings role as a crime author is a necessity because it makes his spot-on guesswork certainly not plausible but more interesting. Because he’s simultaneously dreaming up a scenario and ironically convicting Milland with his cockamamie stories which are surprisingly close to the truth.

John Williams reprises his stage role and turns Dial M for Murder into a bit of a Columbo episode of ‘how is he going to catch him’ because this works best to Hitchcock’s advantage since he’s not necessarily interested in the shock but introducing the audience into the entire plot so they become invested and stringing them along with all the proceedings. In such a way, the suspense and the subsequent payoff can be as memorable as possible.

When Milland walks through the door at the end of the picture, it’s an unextraordinary, even everyday action, but Hitchcock has imbued that single event with so much meaning. As an audience, we are sitting with baited breath waiting to see if the key will turn in the lock. This is a film that ultimately is indebted to the rotary phone if only for its title. But it’s hard to beat Hitchcock and the future Princess Grace of Monaco.

4/5 Stars

Secret Agent (1936)

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It’s so easy to quickly brush off early works of Hitchcock with admittedly bland titles like Blackmail (1929), Murder (1930), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), etc. But if you actually dare to dust one of these films off for a viewing, you do see Hitchcock spinning his wizardry even if the edges are a bit worn, the stories barely developed, and the production values humble.

Among the ranks of Hitch’s thriller sextet, Secret Agent written by frequent collaborator Charles Bennett is a surprisingly lucid effort with a cast that is stacked quite nicely. John Gielgud is a bit bristly as our leading man and the chief secret agent in our loosely set WWI storyline while Madeleine Carroll (featured earlier in The 39 Steps) is decidedly more fun as the adventure-seeking gal by his side, augmented by a certain amount of ravishing vitality.  They have quite the connubial relationship posing as a married couple. Still, there’s enough chemistry within the film’s running time for some breezy comedic moments that predate later romantic thrillers like To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

In fact, part of the reason Gielgud’s Shakespearian sensibilities come off rather stuffy at times is not so much his fault but a testament to Carroll and Gielgud’s other male counterparts. The future all-knowing television father Robert Young makes his mark as a quipping American wiseguy constantly making passes at his latest acquaintance Mrs. Ashenden.

We meet him for the first time lounging in the lady’s hotel room in an amorous mood and he never ceases flirting, for the majority of the film anyway. Equally memorable is the spastic performance of Peter Lorre though he can’t quite pull off the stereotypical portrayal of General, the Hispanic sidekick supposedly spouting off Spanish in rapid fire and still speaking in a cannibalized English dialect with a German influence. There’s no denying he is colorful given Lorre’s usual aptitude for playing wonderful supporting spots.

Like many of Hitchcock’s films sandwiched together during the 1930s, this one exhibits the same precision plotting that sets out the parameters of the narrative early on including our hero, his background, and his goals, in this case to rendezvous with a double agent so they might weed out an enemy counterspy.

The objectives seem simple enough as our man Broden alias Ashenden must masquerade with his “Wife” and the eccentric “General” in the deceptively glamorous world of spies, secrets, and international intrigue. Hitchcock does make it a riveting world at that. A foreboding church with pounding organs and clanging bells is the scene of a murder. There’s a lively setup at a casino beckoning the future delights of films like Casablanca (1942) and Gilda (1946).

But there’s always bedlam waiting somewhere and in this case, it’s staged in a German chocolate factory as our English spies try to evade capture ratted out by a faceless snitch. The final act rumbles along on a hurtling train still behind enemy lines with the British air force raining down a hail of bullets. It’s the prototypical spectacle for a Hitchcockian showdown with unconventional results.

One of the most impressive aspects of Secret Agent is how many people Hitchcock is able to crowd in the frame balancing medium shots with close-ups and maneuvering his camera this way and that around his character’s many interactions. It evokes that not so famous adage that film is both what is in the frame and what is left out. Here we have a film that makes us very aware of what we are looking at and that is a hallmark of this man. He very rarely allows his camera to be a passive observer unless he chooses for it to be.

4/5 Stars

Note: It’s only a small aside but I only realized moments after the movie ended that even a young Lilli Palmer made an appearance as General’s beau.