Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Grace Kelly

Here is my latest installment in my beginner’s guide to classic movies where I look to profile a Hollywood star by highlighting 4 of their films and getting sidetracked by a few others too good to pass up.

This week we’ll be talking about none other than Princess Grace of Monaco who willingly gave up her movie career in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier and become royalty. Here’s where to start!

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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There were plenty of early films worth noting including Fourteen Hours, High Noon, and Mogambo. But how could we not acknowledge this first Hitchcock pairing that has Grace Kelly fighting desperately for her life against a jealous husband (Ray Milland)!

Rear Window (1954)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Grace Kelly

The top tier of Hitchcock movies and it solidified Kelly and Hitch for the ages as one of the great movie partnerships. She is the quintessential “Icy Hitchcock Blonde,” cool and collected in one moment, beautiful and elegant, and yet impetuous as the stakes get higher. Despite their differences, Jimmy Stewart cannot help but fall in love with her.

The Country Girl (1954)

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Grace Kelly had so much poise and screen presence in all her films. But if there was ever a question of whether or not she was a “serious” actress, The Country Girl might as well dispel any doubts. She exudes a quiet dignity as she supports her husband (Bing Crosby), a soused up entertainer who unwittingly assassinates her reputation. They also starred together in the light-hearted musical High Society.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

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Grace Kelly and Cary Grant together are literally fireworks. The outfits are as extravagant as they are iconic. The interplay sizzles as the mystery mounts on the stunning French Riviera. A game of cat and mouse is afoot and both our leads are more than obliging in this lithe Hitchcock offering.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Cary Grant

It’s that time again to profile a classic Hollywood star by briefly looking at 4 of their films. Today’s centerpiece is Archibald Leach more commonly remembered as Cary Grant, the suave, debonair, screwball extraordinaire who groomed himself into one of Hollywood’s preeminent leading men.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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He’s rude and obnoxious and yet something about him makes it hard for Katharine Hepburn to say no to her old beau even as he tries to scandalize her latest marriage. The dynamics between Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are what you dream for with such a pairing. While you’re at it, Bringing Up Baby is a must.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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This is a true Cary Grant tour de force as he whizzes through the newsroom sparring with his old matrimonial partner in crime Rosalind Russell. Their verbal jousts are truly frenetic poetry, and the turbulence they churn up is some of the best conflict any screwball comedy was ever blessed with. The Awful Truth and The Favorite Wife with Irene Dunne are swell as well.

Notorious (1946)

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He’s always a bit of a debonair or lovable cad. In this one there’s no pretense. As the callous government agent Devlin, he makes Ingrid Bergman cry. This total revision of his persona is powerful, and it would lay the groundwork for one of the great Hitchcock movies. Not only that, their amorous kiss fest would slyly obliterate Hollywood convention.

North By Northwest (1959)

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What makes him so great in North By Northwest is how ordinary and amicable his Roger Thornhill is only to be thrown pell-mell into a cross-country murder plot. The advertising exec finds himself fleeing from the authorities and the perpetrators in this delightful man-on-the-run pulse-pounder.

Worth Watching:

Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Suspicion, Talk of The Town, The Bishop’s Wife, People Will Talk, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, Charade, and many more!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

This series is meant to help fledgling classic movie fans grab hold of a few titles they should watch. Instead of trying to be comprehensive, I want to try and make the discovery manageable with only 4 films.

Let’s begin with one of the most universally beloved directors of all time, “The Master of Suspense” himself: Alfred Hitchcock.

He began his career in silent film and made a name himself with a bunch of early British thrillers in the 1930s. After transitioning to Hollywood in 1940, his career took off and by the 1950s he was one of the most widely-known directors in the world.

Here are a few films to get you started!

Notorious (1946)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

It kills me to leave off so much early Hitchcock. The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt. You should go watch them all. But Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, is arguably one of his finest romantic thrillers. It’s masterful.

Rear Window (1954)

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I know, I know. It’s quite a big jump but this is also the quintessential Hitchcock movie (at least in my humble opinion). James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Limited space and a harrowing murder plot. This film is a textbook example of how to create tension. There’s so much here worth talking about. I’ll leave it at that.

If you like it, check out Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much remake (with Stewart) and Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief (with Kelly).

North By Northwest (1959)

It didn’t earn its nickname as the most epic man-on-the-run Hitchcock movie for nothing. Between crop dusters and Mt. Rushmore, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, this one is an absolute blast of thrilling exhilaration. For bonus points, see how it reworks themes of Hitch’s earlier masterwork The 39 Steps.

Psycho (1960)

Here we are. The one everyone will forever associate with Hitchcock and showers everywhere. And Norman Bates. And his mother. Anyway, it’s another technical masterpiece in manipulation. It rewrote the books on modern horror and still packs a psychotic punch. Pun intended.

Worth Watching:

Let’s make this easy and say all of them. And for the record, I realize I left out Vertigo. Go watch it.

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s

Thank you Classic Film & TV Cafe for hosting this Blogathon!

Though it’s tantamount to utter absurdity to try and whittle all my personal favorites of the decade down to five choices (I might cheat a little), this is part of the fun of such lists, isn’t it? Each one is highly subjective. No two are the same. They change on whims; different today, tomorrow, and the next. But I will do the best to make a go of it.

If anything this is a humble beacon — a twinkling five-sided star — meant to shine a light upon my profound affinity for classic movies on this aptly conceived National Classic Movie Day. For those in need of gateway films, these are just a few I would recommend without deep analysis, solely following my most guttural feelings. Hopefully that is recommendation enough. Let the adulation begin!

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1. Singing In The Rain (1952):

Many classic film enthusiasts weren’t always so. At least, on many occasions, there was a demarcation point where the scales tipped and they became a little more frenzied in their pursuits. For someone like me, I didn’t always watch many movies. However, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds were household names even from my earliest recollections.

Singin’ in the rain with the giddy abandon of Don and bringing down the house with gags like Cosmo were childhood aspirations. Kathy, the young hopeful, aspired for big dreams, not unlike my own. They were idols because they made life and the movies — even song and dance — so very euphoric. It took me many years to know this was a part of a musical cottage industry or who Cyd Charisse was (because we’d always fast-forward through that risque interlude). Regardless of anything else, the film effects me in the most revelatory way. You can barely put words to it. You need simply to experience it firsthand.

After seeing it so many times it becomes comforting to return again and again. What’s even better is how the magic never dies. We lost Stanley Donen this year but this extraordinary piece of entertainment will live on for generations to come.

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2. Roman Holiday (1953)

I distinctly remember the first time I ever saw Roman Holiday. It was on an international flight to England. I was young and ignorant with not the slightest idea who Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were. You can determine whether or not I was living under a rock or not. However, what did happen is a young kid was decisively swept off his feet by a film. Those were before the days I gave even a moderate consideration of directors like William Wyler, much less debated or bandied about terms like auteur.

What does become so evident is the chemistry between our stars, hardly manufactured, even as the setting, placed in living, breathing Rome, imbues a certain authentic vitality of its own. Vespa rides are exhilarating. The sites are still ones I want to see and haven’t. And of course, I’ve only grown in my esteem of both Audrey and Mr. Peck as I’ve gotten older.

It’s crazy to imagine my only point of reference for such a picture was Eddie Albert (having been bred on more than a few episodes of Green Acres). Any way you slice it, this is, in my book, the quintessential romantic comedy because it is part fairy tale and it comes with all the necessary trimmings, while still planting itself in the real world. I always exit the halls of the palace feeling rejuvenated. Each time it’s like experiencing wonderful memories anew.

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3. Rear Window (1954)

It’s a weighty task to even begin considering your favorite film but to make it easier on myself whenever the inevitable question is dropped in my lap, I’m quick to reply: Rear Window. The answer is actually quite an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock is as good a reason as any. Add James Stewart and Grace Kelly and you’ve entered the gold standard of movie talent. They don’t come more iconic.

The Master of Suspense’s chilling thriller was another fairly early viewing experience with me and it immediately left an impression. Again, it’s another example of how appreciation can mature over time. Thelma Ritter is always a favorite. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound throughout the picture accentuates this artificial but nevertheless meticulous sense of authenticity.

How Hitchcock utilizes the fragments of music and the supporting characters in the courtyard to comment on these secondary themes of romantic love playing against the central mystery is superb. It’s a perfect coalescing of so much quality in one compelling cinematic endeavor. Even down to how the opening and final scenes are cut perfectly, introducing the story and encapsulating the progression of character from beginning to end. It is pure visual cinema.

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4. 12 Angry Men (1957)

I care deeply about interpersonal relationships and as movies have become more a part of my life it has become increasingly more important for them to hold a microscope to how we interact with one another in the world at hand. For me, there are very few films that channel real human relationships in a meaningful way as effectively as Sidney Lumet’s debut 12 Angry Men. Like Rear Window, it is developed in limiting environs and yet rather than such constraints leading to the stagnation of a story, it only serves to ratchet the tension.

Because the ensemble is an impeccable range of stars spearheaded by Henry Fonda and balanced out by a wide array of talent including a pair of friends from my classic sitcom days John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). However, all of this is only important because the story has actual consequence. Here we have 12 men battling over the verdict on a young man’s life.

But as any conflict has the habit of doing, it brings out all the prejudices, inconsistencies, and blind spots uncovered and aggravated when people from varying points of views are thrust in a room together. it’s an enlightening and ultimately humbling experience for me every time because it challenges me to actively listen to where others are coming from and empathize with their point of view so we can dialogue on a sincere level. It’s also simultaneously a sobering analysis of the gravity of the American justice system.

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5. Some Like it Hot (1959)

I most recently saw Some Like it Hot as part of a retrospective across the globe from where I usually call home. But what a wonderful viewing experience it was. Again, it’s akin to getting back together with old friends. I personally love Jack Lemmon to death and paired with Tony Curtis and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hair-brained, raucous comedy coming out of Hollywood.

Billy Wilder is certainly one reason for this and I’ve always come to admire his ability for screwball and often mordant wit. There is arguably no higher watermark than Some Like it Hot and the script is wall-to-wall with hilarious gags and scenarios. Like all the great ones, you wait for a favorite line with expectancy only to be ambushed by another zinger you never found time to catch before.

But there is also a personal element to the picture. Many might know the Hotel Del Coronado in sunny San Diego filled in for the Florida coast and having spent many a lovely day on those very shores, I cannot help but get nostalgic. Not only was this film indicative of a different time — the jazz age by way of the 1950s — it also suggests a very different juncture in my own life. While I cannot have the time back I can look on those memories fondly just as I do with this film…

So there you have it. I gave it my best shot pulling from personal preference and the idealistic leanings of my heart of hearts. I hope you enjoyed my Top 5 from The ’50s!

But wait…


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Honorary Inclusion: The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Full disclosure. I know this is cheating but I take any occasion I possibly can to promote Sam Fuller‘s gritty Little Tokyo police procedural. For me, it deserves a special acknowledgment. As a Japanese-American and coming from a multicultural background myself, it was a groundbreaking discovery and an unassuming film with a richness proving very resonant over the recent years. It blends elements so very near and dear to me. Namely, film noir and my own heritage — all wrapped up into one wonderful B-film package. Please give it a watch!

THE END

Review: Notorious (1946)

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I never put much stock in a Hitchcock title out of force of habit or lack thereof because he never seemed to. But thinking on Notorious I came to the rather unextraordinary epiphany that it refers to lovely Ingrid Bergman as much as any Nazi, at least from a certain perspective.

In the film, she plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who was put on trial and found guilty. She, however, is not implicated in his deeds. Instead, busying herself with having a good time, drinking, dancing, laughing — all the superficial pursuits that can distract her from a post-atomic world. You might even say her reputation precedes her and that provides the framework for how others see Ms. Huberman. Namely, one government agent named Devlin, put on her case and writing her off early on as a certain kind of woman.

There’s that initial shot at one of her parties where all the guests are dancing and drinking and everything’s jovial and there Cary Grant sits on the edge of the frame just his profile identifiable to us. And the beauty of the scene is that Ingrid Bergman starts talking to him but instead of showing us his face Hitchcock elects to wait until everyone is gone and they’re sitting together in the next scene. But already there’s this implicit sense that there’s something unusual about this man even without putting words to it.

In the subsequent scene, we get our first view of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together and how wonderful they look. But Bergman’s character makes an off-handed remark about love songs, about how they’re a bunch of “hooey.” Of course, that pertains to this film and where it will decide to go in the realms of romance, but in my own mind, I see it also functioning as a reaction to Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” — a film where lovers fell in love partially because of a song.

It’s easy to put the title of a spiritual sequel on Notorious for numerous reasons. Once again we have Bergman and Rains in crucial roles and then trading out Bogey for another legend in his own right, Cary Grant. The paranoia of Casablanca is replaced with the sunnier disposition of Rio de Janeiro which nevertheless is underlined by a certain looming Cold War menace. In this case, instead of the letters of transit, we are provided a Hitchcock MacGuffin, including a bottle of wine, some uranium, and an iconic UNICA key.

But if nothing else these minor remarks can put the debate to rest conclusively. Notorious is a spectacular film in its own right and it enters some similar yet still uncharted territory in accordance with the waters Casablanca chose to ford a few years prior. Meanwhile, Grant has glimpses of his previous self from other films but soon enough he falls into the role of cool and calculated federal agent Devlin in what feels like a true departure.

There’s that supremely unnerving shot as we take on the perspective of a disoriented Ingrid Bergman as Grant walks into the room and hangs over her in a strangely alarming way. Everything is setting up the dynamic at this point.

Still, others will remember the extended make-out session that made history by upholding the Hays Code ” three-second rule” while simultaneously perfectly encapsulating nearly an entire romance in a matter of four or five minutes. There was little else to be said because it was all seen in that one sequence and Hitchcock could proceed with his conceit.

Because, ultimately, Hitchcock’s picture is built around this idea: The American government has a little job to be done and Alicia and Devlin are caught in the middle. Thus, it becomes that time-worn idea of love versus duty. In one sense, Devlin’s caught in a terrible position and yet in the other he treats Alicia so badly — and it’s not simply that this is Alicia but this is beautiful, sweet Ingrid Bergman that he is pushing away. Still, in pushing her away, it’s leading her toward the objective.

He’s simply not willing to dictate anything because that means being vulnerable. Very simply he’s not willing to open up.  Cary Grant has never felt so icy, so aloof, and so unfeeling. Then, on top of this, Sebastian (Rains) looks a far more agreeable fellow cast in such a light. He genuinely loves this woman even if she is a spy. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience.

Though there is a juncture in the film where Devlin is beginning to shift his way of thinking. But as if on cue (undoubtedly) one line of dialogue out of Alicia’s mouth during a racetrack exchange (“You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”) poisons his whole frame of mind again. His prior opinions of Alicia are confirmed and he sours to her — never giving her the benefit of the doubt from that point forward — and ultimately torturing her so that there is no other choice.

Just like that, she goes through with it. Instigating her relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and succeeding so thoroughly that she’s married to him soon enough. For the U.S. government this is a smashing success but for Alicia and Devlin it’s nothing of the sort.

The descending stairwell crane shot is textbook Hitchcock and so often cited but it’s for that very reason. He so directly points us toward the cues of the scene and he does it with his usual technical elegance.

He gives us a party but it’s a party underlined with so much tension because there are stakes that go beyond the nominal appearances. There’s the fact that Devlin’s one of the party guests but also Alicia has that all important key that proves to be their chance to figure out what Sebastian is hiding. But it also makes them far more suspicious.

Beset with paranoia as much as illness she’s suffocated by the presence of her husband and mother-in-law. It looks like Devlin will never come to her. But he does. We’ve seen this before. Cary Grant comes to her bed as she lies there disoriented and looks up into the eyes of this man looking to be her savior instead of opting to use her. At least on one account, the tension has been resolved.

But in the same breath never has there been so much sympathy as for Claud Rains in the closing moment indicative of how Hitch has even given his purported villain a chance to be sympathized with and Rain’s typically compelling performance does precisely that. So even in this final moment, Hitchcock is playing with us giving us that Hollywood ending that we desire and at the same time undermining it in a wonderful way that’s both suspenseful and artistically arresting.

Notorious just might be the Master’s purest expression of his art lacking the micromanagement of Selznick in Rebecca (1940), the technical experiments of Rear Window (1954), the psycho-sexual layers of Vertigo (1958), the man-on-the-run motif of North by Northwest (1959), or even the low budget and marketing frenzy of Psycho (1960), while still garnering the highest production values in its day.  The results speak for themselves, positioning Notorious as one of the definitive romantic thrillers by any standard.

5/5 Stars

Review: Spellbound (1945)

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The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves… — William Shakespeare

It’s so easy to adore Ingrid Bergman and it’s no different in Spellbound. Yes, she starts off as an austere psychiatrist purely interested and invested in scientific thought and practices in psychoanalysis. However, by the film’s conclusion, she evokes the passionate vitality that made her so beloved in pictures such as Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946).

The eminent Gregory Peck was still in the dawn of his career and while not your typical Hitchcockian hero, he is Gregory Peck a handsome actor with tremendous presence and a quiet dignity that made him an acting favorite for years to come, shortly to gain the reputation of an undisputed superstar. Put two such icons together and it’s honestly very difficult not to be won over, especially in a Hitchcock picture.

In fact, I’m predisposed to empathize with both of them from the very beginning and to thoroughly enjoy this picture even if it’s hardly the best of Hitchcock or the respective stars. But the story about the female psychiatrist Constance who falls in love with her colleague and subsequent patient one Dr. Edwards does have its share of enjoyments without question, aside from the names above the title.

As with any solid Hitchcock movie, there’s psychological duress and the man is implicated in a murder that he must run away from even if it’s proved he is innocent. So Spellbound is no question a romance and a bit of a mystery wrapped up neatly in a psychological thriller.

Michael Checkov the famed Russian stage performer (and nephew of Anton Chekhov) plays Dr. Brulov, Constance’s old mentor — a charming sort of gentleman who is impertinent but oh so sweet to his friends  — exhibiting the most jovial of personalities.

Even today, there still is a certain logic to psychodynamic therapy as there is to cognitive behavioral therapy that seems believable depending on how it is utilized and who is practicing it. Thus, though there are jumps Spellbound makes that are a little bit preposterous or a little too easy to resolve — like the perfect correlation between dreams and reality — there’s still kernels of truth in this film and it must be lauded for tackling the ideas of Freud in ways that were fairly groundbreaking for their day.

It also boasts the famed dream sequences inspired and partially orchestrated by the acclaimed surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His imprint is undeniable on the images that Peck recounts, reminiscent of the Persistence of Time and other similar works. Even Hitchcock would continue to address these topics with an arguably more Hitchcockian dream sequence in Vertigo and some similar analysis at the end of Psycho to assess Norman Bates.

Of course, Hitchcock films are at their best when the plot is working in spite of dialogue. Though the script is composed by Ben Hecht who has a long list of wonderful accomplishments, there’s also the influence of the overbearing hand of David O. Selznick on the picture meaning it relies perhaps too much on verbal explanation instead of Hitchcock’s own timeless setpieces or visual approach to cinema. Still, he does manage a few perspective shots that are particularly interesting providing us the frame of reference of several of his characters in key moments.

There’s also the benefit of Miklos Rozsa’s particularly elegant score which nevertheless is less a Hitchcock score as Bernard Hermann would famously compose later. In some respects, it suffocates the drama though it does include the cutting edge use of the Theremin, this marking one of its earliest appearances in a film score.

But ultimately, Spellbound does have a delightful false ending, as things slowly spiral down into despair only to find their new conclusion as all the puzzle pieces of Peck’s character begin to fit together. His exoneration is followed by the ousting of the real perpetrator, another quintessential Hitchcock villain.

The summation seems to be that though humanity might be wrought with shortcomings, many of them buried so deep inside, love does have an uncommon power to heal old wounds. The fault might be in ourselves but that need not be the resolution of the story.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rope (1948)

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Rope’s title sequence is composed of your prototypically serene establishing shot. But really, you could not have a more unique and in some sense unnerving picture. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Technicolor and it’s quite the looker as are the beautifully constructed backdrops that spice up the mise-en-scene for this glorified stage play.  He also busied himself with camera set-ups in an effort to shoot the picture as near to a single take as was possible with the technology of the time. He actually “cheated” a bit by splicing segments of film together at intentional breaks to give the effect of continuous motion. Still, it’s an impressive endeavor all the same.

But the experiment is twofold both behind and in front of the camera. It’s all a reworking of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, two affluent students who succumbed to Nietzsche’s superman complex. The project was an early script by playwright Arthur Laurents penned from an adaptation by Hume Cronyn, a Hitchcock regular in several earlier pictures (Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat).

In this case, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) are looking for the perfect victim in the perfect murder. Where murder is a crime for most men but a privilege for a few — like themselves.  It all begins with a shockingly graphic opening for the 40s that rips away any shred of upper-middle-class sensibilities put upon us by that establishing shot. It’s all a ruse.

The assertive, far more charismatic Brandon also happens to be the main architect pulling along the flighty Phillip into his little experiment.

The act of throwing a small get-together against this exhilarating backdrop proves tenuous because of the insidiously dark deed that Hitchcock has made his audience privy to. Otherwise, this would be a run-of-the-mill picture of cocktails and hor ‘d oeuvres. But underline it with a murder and it’s a completely different proposition altogether.

Their exhibition comes as little surprise from two men who are snobbish, entitled jerks. Their lives are so dull that they stoop to murder to see if they can be brilliant enough and brazen enough to pull it off, going so far as inviting their most astute mentor played by none other than James Stewart.

Though I enjoy him as much as the next fellow, Stewart does feel oddly out of place in this film and within this role of Rupert. He seems to know it too. Nevertheless, Hitchcock would find far superior uses for him in due time.

There are also a couple knowing winks to the sinisterly attractive James Mason (a future Hitchcock collaborator) who is conjured up to do battle against the dreamboats Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant by a few admiring partygoers. Of course, no one seems to take into account that they have Jimmy Stewart right in their stead.

We begin to feel for Janet and Kenneth two schoolmates who have been used in the game. She is soon to be engaged to the formerly eligible David. Kenneth was the beau she was with before he broke it off. Now their lives are manipulated just like the late boy’s father who is also invited to the gathering.

Rupert proves that he knows something’s afoot not that it’s all that difficult to see Granger’s character slowly coming apart at the seams. Alcohol hardly helps his unstable demeanor. It becomes a showdown with his two pupils but he could have never expected this. It’s on this level that Rope is thoroughly troubling. It’s in this way that we begin to understand why Nietzsche might have been troubled by his own conclusions. There is little hope in this conception of the world.

Simply put, the film is dour to its core. It has no heart and in that sense, Jimmy Stewart does not feel at home within its heartless frames. The charade falls short for these very reasons. Though it’s technically ambitious, it doesn’t quite manage that perfect Hitchcock balancing act of crime mixed with wit. There’s no way it can with such a worldview.

Still, Rope shows, if anything, that Hitchcock is never complacent, always looking for the next great challenge. That is one of the many reasons that we still hold him in high regard as one of the foremost directors of any age. Because even a callous film such as Rope is worth seeing.

3.5/5 Stars

Saboteur (1942)

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“It’s my duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he is proven guilty.” 

I stand corrected. Maybe Foreign Correspondent (1940) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s most patriotic movie. Maybe it’s Saboteur, made two years later. Or maybe they are both made by the fact that they are more than mere propaganda and that’s what makes them still worthwhile today. This is, above all, another thriller by the same man who continually tinkered with the genre in the subsequent years.

The narrative starts with wartime industry which has hit its boon since there are Nazis and Japanese to fight. Defense Plants have become a crucial part of the war and also part of everyday life for the average American. Robert Cummings is the epitome of one, a fresh-faced lad who all of the sudden finds himself wanted for the murder of his best friend which happened after a ruthless act of sabotage. In this respect, Saboteur is a more elegant version of Hitchcock’s predecessor Sabotage (1936).

There’s a wonderful sequence where our protagonist has hitched a ride with a gabby truck driver who consequently looks a bit like James Cagney. Every subsequent thread of conversation and even the passing billboard, all points back to everything that’s gone down so far. The man’s trying to run away but he can’t. Fugitives never have been able to as far back as Jonah. They always have to face the music.

Barry Kane follows the one wild lead he has involving a man played by Norman Lloyd (a future Hitchcock partner in Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and it lands him at a stately ranch that feels like quintessential Americana — it’s a luscious slice of West Coast leisure. But it’s another delicious instance where Hitchcock allows villains to live lives not unlike our own with families, babies toddling around, and swimming pools. Except these people also happen to be involved with conspiracies threatening national security in the wake of WWII.

After, a harrowing escape from the police with a swan dive off a bridge, Kane continues his journey. Saboteur quickly becomes another entry in Hitchcock’s innocent man-on-the-run canon and while not the tip of the spear, it’s thoroughly entertaining for the very fact that it remains on the move as it jumps from place to place. In fact, there are obvious shades of 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959) in place as it goes literally from coast (California) to coast (New York).

And in each location, we meet a row of interesting side characters whether a trucker or the sagely blind man and a band of eclectic circus vagabonds. But the most important is the stalwart Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane), initially looking to turn in this traitorous criminal with his hands cuffed together until she realizes that’s not who he is.

The director and his writers use the whole film to tell tiny parables about America where the circus can function like our democracy or a decision to not turn in a man can merely be an exercise in basic human rights. In these moments the film evokes the kind of patriotic messages that feel unconvincing when viewed now. Even Cummings brief stint on the soapbox facing off against his sophisticated foe is an obvious call-to-action.

But for 1942 it makes complete sense and that hardly takes away from the thriller that Hitchcock still manages to spin because though war might be afoot and Film serves different purposes on the Homefront, it can still function as entertainment. Hitchcock was one of the greats in that capacity. A murderer is set loose in a movie theater during a crime picture and the action leads us most iconically atop the standard bearer of American freedom and equality, Lady Liberty herself. Once again, it’s the perfect Hitchcock ending even if that’s more in going with the style of the entire picture thus far rather than pure execution.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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If Alfred Hitchcock had any contribution to the war effort then Foreign Correspondent would no doubt be it. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was purported to have admired its qualities as a work of propaganda and that’s high praise coming from someone who was quite familiar with influencing people. If nothing else it proves that moving pictures can be deeply impactful on mass audiences and that still holds true much the same today.

It’s also subsequently reductive to call our leading man Joel McCrea the poor man’s Gary Cooper which may have come into being because the other star turned down the role. Something that he subsequently regretted. However, there’s something inside of me that thinks that McCrea almost works better because he has a sardonic edge. Cooper was quiet and strong, a true blue American but McCrea is ready to hit the pavements with a voice that’s incisive.

In this picture that’s his trade. He’s used to crime beats and as such he’s given the task as a scoop getter, a foreign correspondent, in the European theater for the folks at home. What he comes upon is more than he could ever imagine with international treaties, assassinations, kidnapping, drugging, and far-ranging conspiracy. All because of a peace conference looking to alleviate the belligerent rumblings in Europe. In this case, Johnny Jones (McCrea) aka Huntley Haverstock acquaints himself with an international peacekeeper named Van Meer only to have the man disappear, reappear, and wind up in places that one would never expect. It’s all very peculiar.

One of his other acquaintances is the lovely and bright young woman played by Laraine Day (known to baseball fans as the future Mrs. Leo Durocher), who has joined her father (Herbert Marshall) at a summit of the International Peace Party.

Within this basic storyline laced with some snappy lines provided by a whole slew of script contributors (including regulars Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison), Hitchcock strings together some lovely visuals including crowds of top hats, crowds of umbrellas, and a lively chase as Haverstock sprints through traffic to try and apprehend a gunman. Unsuccessfully I might add.

The world is highlighted by some equally inventive locales that are simultaneously indigenous to their environment in typical Hitchcock fashion like the windmills in Holland. With its churning mechanisms and creaky stairwells fit with cavernous hallways, you can tell Hitchcock finds great delight in using the stage to build the stakes of his story.

Because it’s all a massive cover-up and that conveniently sets the stage for our romantic comedy which is being overlaid by this international thriller of stellar intrigue. As our intrepid correspondent acknowledges, he’s “thrown a monkey wrench into some international dirty business whatever it is.” That’s about all we need to know and it does suffice.

My only misgiving is how easily Laraine Day’s character gives way and loses her disapproving edge to fall madly in love with Joel McCrea. Still, the film doesn’t end there. There’s a lot more that must happen. A lot more crises to be averted.

Though it’s hard to know the precise timeline now, there’s an innate sense that Foreign Correspondent is really on the cutting edge of the current events and it benefits from that very quality that still lends a certain amount of credence to this nevertheless wildly absurd plot.

Because though it’s undeniably a work of fiction as noted by the opening disclaimer, there’s still the touches of truth that were all too obvious to the general public. Namely, Hitler and a World War threatening to explode — bombs already raining down on Great Britain as undeniable proof.

The most remembered setpiece comes last and it’s a beautiful touch of ingenuity, Hitchcock simulating the crash landing of an airplane like few others of his era would ever dare to attempt and it comes off with torrents of energy that leave a stirring impression.

But that is almost matched by the passionate rallying cry that Joel McCrea sends up over the radio waves to his fellow Americans, urging them to keep their lights burning because they’re the only source of hope in a world getting increasingly darker. This final monologue was essentially an afterthought penned by Ben Hecht but it’s heft no doubt impressed Goebbels. This one’s an international thriller with a patriotic tinge. Fitting, as Hitchcock in many ways would be as much an American as he was an Englishman.

Foreign Correspondent is sutured together along those same lines. Because just as Joel McCrea and George Sanders’ characters work together to get to the bottom of things, the imminent war necessitated a partnership between the American and British nations. It was a long time coming but the lights kept burning and remained indefatigable to the very end.

4/5 Stars

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