4 Star Films: Celebrating 10 Years of Blogging!

Audrey Hepburn sunglasses

Well, it’s been 10 years and I still haven’t found it in my heart to choose another name for my blog. What I can say is that I’ve put a lot of passion into it and it’s been an edifying experience.

Not only have I watched a lot of films, grown as a writer, and met a lot of great people through comments and blogathons, but I feel like I’ve created something that I can be proud of. I don’t know what forms this blog will take or when it will take a hiatus (I still have quite a few posts in the tube), but it’s been such a good rhythm for me.

For the last 10 years of my life, I don’t think I’ve gone a week that I can remember without at least 1 blog posting. I’ve gone through transitions between platforms and designs, a few of my very earliest posts were republished, but for the most part, everything is timestamped as they came out.

But rather than dwell on that aspect, I think I’ve really gotten to see my own writing change as I grapple with films and topics that interest me and directors and performers who have garnered my utmost adulation and effusive praise.

The mission statement of the blog still remains fairly unwavering: to look deeper at the best classic movies as a community. I know I often falter and don’t always meet my goal, but I will continue to follow what interests me and hopefully, that will continue to highlight films that are interesting to others.

As a simple way to reflect on the past 10 years, I thought maybe I would try and take a post from each of the last 10 years as a small overview of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Here it is:

ccbff-starwars1

2012: My 25 Essential Movies

For some context, I got into classic movies back in 2010 after discovering TCM on a family vacation and coming upon AFI’s 2007 list of the 100 Top Movies of All Time. At that point, there was no blog, but I wanted to keep some kind of record of my viewing. So for a couple of years, I maintained spiral-bound notebooks of short, page-long reviews. They were filled mostly with plot summaries, typos, and my own curt brand of hubris. I gave Citizen Kane a very tepid review on first viewing. In My 25 Essential Movies, I tried to break out of my original form and layout my viewing criteria. It’s twee now, but this was also the beginning of my blog.

2013: UP (2009)

Looking through my early reviews, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anything close to actual thought-out commentary or analysis. It was more so observational writing with a few personal comments in summation. Still, one of the longer reviews I was able to find was on UP, a film that still deeply moves me to this day. Pete Docter is a fine storyteller. That opening montage guts me every time. Russell, Dug, and Kevin are characters for the ages. There’s something bitter-sweet now that both Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer are gone. And there’s some solace in knowing that a sequel to this movie would never be conceivable. It stands alone as a phenomenal film.

2014: The Spectacular Now

This might seem like a really random film to highlight, but one of my foibles is that I truly enjoy a good coming of age film and regardless of what you think of the genre (or this film), I saw The Spectacular Now right at a time where it resonated deeply. In fact, when I’m not writing reviews, working a job, and taking care of my other personal responsibilities, I’ve dabbled in screenwriting. The Spectacular Now was one of the first movies/screenplays I ever read where I thought this is a world that I know and that I relate to. It will be interesting if it will stay with me as I grow older or if it was merely a milestone of my late teens. I wrote a more succinct review that I probably like better over at Film Inquiry.

crimson kimono 1 shigeta and corbett

2015: Crimson Kimono

I discovered Crimson Kimono in college and I essentially transcribed the essay I wrote for a film noir elective onto my blog. I would say my writing has probably grown, but the impetus behind this piece and the film is still something that stays with me. Because the images and the themes Sam Fuller trades in feel so relevant and totally ahead of their time. As someone who is a lover of Classic Hollywood, but also half-Japanese, some might take it for granted, but those two worlds rarely intertwine. Crimson Kimono is one of the most exhilarating exceptions with James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett walking the beats of Little Tokyo. More recently I wrote a piece highlighting Japanese-American culture in Classic Hollywood. 

2016: Citizen Kane

My feelings about Citizen Kane have gone through several evolutions through the years. I mentioned already that it was so overblown as “The Greatest Move of All Time” in my nascent film brain that I was left mostly under-whelmed. Future viewings have elicited a less lackluster response and each subsequent reappraisal has made it grow in my esteem. Now it’s gone beyond a gargantuan tragicomedy, but also a cinematic expression of many of the themes in Ecclesiastes (everything is meaningless — a striving after the wind). But further still, it is a film that still surprised me with its ingenuity and technical prowess. I try not to think too much about how Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he made it. Being a genius does not always guarantee success. Far from it.

to catch a thief 2.png

2017: Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn

I very rarely write these kinds of posts. Listicles and Actor Bios probably are a lot more delectable as evergreen content on the internet than some of my more gargantuan reviews; I simply enjoy the process of review-writing the most. Still, this post I did for The Wonderful World of Cinema’s Blogathon on Grace Kelly has remained one of my most persistently read pieces. It’s not much but it just goes to show the lasting gravitas and impact of Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. In considering them my two favorite classic Hollywood actresses, I found I am one of many. This appreciation started early on in my journey, and it continues to this day.

rear window 1.png

2018: Rear Window 

It seems fitting to include a review of the movie I consider one of my personal favorites. I’m not sure if it’s one of my better reviews, but regardless, I got to speak about Rear Window in a way that seems to highlight it in a different way than merely bandying about the plot points and my reactions. It was meant to dig into the stylistic choices Hitchock used down to the very meticulous use of music and sound design not only in the execution of a taut thriller but also in distilling the film’s romance down to its very essence. I’m not sure if others see it this way (or even the Catholic Hitchock), but Rear Window is a reminder to me of what happens when the so-called Greatest Commandment to “Love Thy Neighbor” has gone heedlessly awry. I love this movie.

2019: Ad Astra

I’m fascinated by spiritual elements in movies and I was fond of how I was able to explore them in my review of Ad Astra using the motif of the essay, “The Seeing Eye.” I don’t always find unique ways to frame my analysis, but I like to think my writing gets more individual and enjoyable when I’m able to bring something to the movie that works in tandem and somehow builds upon the film in ways that I could not initially imagine. The Greek idea of ekphrastic (artistic description) writing intrigues me, and in some fractured form that’s what I tried to accomplish here to some small effect.

rochefort1

2020: National Classic Movie Day

Blogathons have been such a meaningful way to connect with other classic film enthusiasts while stirring up a wealth of activity on each other’s sites. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Classic Film and TV Cafe’s yearly blogathon that has become an annual enjoyment over the last few years. For 2020, I was able to put together a list of 6 of my favorite films of the 60s running the gamut, and I was quite happy with my choices and what I said about them because they are totally indicative of my own personal tastes. This is the kind of writing I appreciate the most.

paterson 1

2021: Paterson

I was a late arrival to Paterson, but it was one of those films I instantly connected with on some elemental level. I feel like my best reviews are conceived at the moment right after the film has ended and my head is full of all my myriad thoughts and strands of ideas. The images are still fresh in my mind’s eye and the emotions still coursing through my body. At times, it’s under this incubation where I’m able to write things that still resonate with me. Other days I hack out reviews strung out over a few days, and it’s more like an act of mechanized assembly, but there’s something freeing when it feels like you are totally in touch with your creative flow.

2022: In The Heat of The Night

If I remember correctly, Sidney Poitier and Sophia Loren are the last two giants living on AFIs Top 25 Stars List, and they have remained close friends over the years as I’ve worked through their filmographies to varying degrees. The passing of Mr. Poitier was sad, but it also provided ample space to celebrate his prominent legacy and so many facets of his life and career. I revisited some of his most renowned films and dipped into some new ones only to be pleasantly surprised. Including In The Heat of The Night here is less about the review and more so about what it represents. I felt the same way writing about Olivia De Havilland, Kirk Douglas, and Stanley Donen after their passing, just to name a few. The hope is to keep Mr. Poitier’s legacy alive and well. His films can do the rest as a supreme testament to the conduct of his character.

I definitely should not take this blog for granted, and I have been very thankful for the opportunities and experiences it has afforded me these last 10 years. Thank you to anyone and everyone who has ever taken the time to read even a few of my words!

Regards,

Tynan

The Wrong Man (1956): Henry Fonda The Most Sympathetic of Victims

Screenshot 2020-08-03 at 7.40.08 PM

I never grew up watching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but there’s kind of a ubiquitous aura about them. The man himself — the entirety of his portly physique — comes out of the shadows into a family’s living room to narrate some ghastly or unseemly crime with a droll sense of humor. The show ran from 1955 to 1965 becoming a wildly popular cultural touchstone, and it’s easy to see how The Wrong Man (1956) might have fit into this lineage.

Hitchcock was normally a walking cameo, providing a wink-wink to the audience as he pulled the strings from behind the camera. Here he is also a spokesperson assuring his audience every word of the following story is true though it plays stranger than fiction.

What becomes immediately apparent is the New York milieu. It’s unadorned and if it’s themes and star bring to mind Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda, then the world itself has the kind of simple humanity of Paddy Chayefsky. And this is a Hitchcock movie, mind you, but the cinematography by Robert Burks is gorgeous in its stark black & white tones. It helps to maintain this suggested sense of concrete realism.

We open on the bustling Stork Club — it’s a real place — and there “Manny” Balestero (Fonda) plays bass as part of the house band. He’s not rich by any means, but he makes an honest wage going home to his wife (Vera Miles) after the dancing is done. Their life together is humble but full of love and decency. They raise two rambunctious boys, and he promises to give them music lessons.

His life is preoccupied with the kind of familial responsibilities we all understand. His wife has some dental work that needs to be done — it’s expensive so he needs to check on their insurance policy — and he plans to check in on his mother. It’s rather unextraordinary. But this is what makes it unusual.

While Manny only looks to check on his wife’s insurance policy, Hitchcock frames it like a bank robbery. Except the gun coming out of his pocket is the paper policy. The teller walks away, her face racked with concern as she consorts with her superior. A holdup hasn’t been committed, and yet it sure feels like it. In a stunning shot, the superior peers past her shoulder and catches sight of Manny perfectly oblivious. It’s the beginning of trouble.

Soon Manny is I.D.’d. He’s not trying to hide anything. Some policemen (including Harold J. Stone) show up on his doorstep to take him in for questioning. They assuage any concerns he might have: “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about. It’s the fella who’s done something wrong who has something to worry about.” And so he goes along with their line of interrogation because he naively believes in the veracity of justice.

What becomes more apparent is the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and the coincidence found in circumstantial evidence. I am reminded of the work done by the likes of Elizabeth Loftus and of confirmation bias. Of how misleading information often molds responses. Two ladies pick Manny out of a lineup which doesn’t bode well. Then, whether or not it’s uncanny, his handwriting also looks close enough to an incriminating stick-up note.

However, more so than any of the implications on law and the criminal justice system, The Wrong Man is such a powerful exemplification of Hitchock’s directorial talents. It’s devilishly simple on the exterior, and yet he does so much to make us totally cognizant of Fonda’s condition. It goes beyond mere osmosis. Thanks to Hitchock, we live Fonda’s point of view.

When he’s first approached, then, again, when he finds himself actually booked and imprisoned, Hitchcock does something deceptively simple — taking on Fonda’s eyes. He looks around the confines of the space — to the sink in the corner, up at the ceiling, and we are there with him. We forget about a camera — that there is visual trickery going on — and we fall into Manny’s predicament sitting right there by his side.

We recognize the shame of being imprisoned — to be robbed of your dignity even if you manage to be exonerated. He’s taken through all the paces of justice in all its drab mundanity. It takes all the sheen out of law and order; this isn’t Elliot Ness or Perry Mason. This is common, everyday people grinding through their daily lives.

Manny watches as they do their jobs around him with a kind of detached efficiency. He has no idea what he’s caught up in nor does he think about trying to speak up on his behalf. The machine is moving too fast, and he’s already reticent. Could it be it’s hopeless? Instead, as he’s handcuffed, he watches the footfalls of his fellow prisoners being led to the van. What’s he supposed to do? Worst of all, he isn’t able to notify his wife, and he always calls her if he’s out late. He’s that kind of man.

the wrong man

The resulting storyline involves a valiant lawyer (Anthony Quayle), who agrees to take his case. However, every possible alibi proves a dead-end. Manny’s wife, once the image of so much jovial warmth, has become delusional in the lead up to his trial. She can’t take the strain.

Finally, we are in the throes of the court proceedings. Manny holds his rosary under his desk and later the cross hangs suspended up above him. It’s hard to take it any other way but that of a symbol: here is a man being falsely accused crucified for something he did not do. Like I Confess, this is not only a tale of a man put on trial unjustly, it’s the tribulations of a devout man of faith.

True to form, The Wrong Man also reflects the most perceptive and honest of courtrooms. As Manny sits there, his fate in the balance, he glances around to see all the various side conversations going on — for other people the proceedings only hold mild curiosity — but again, Hitchcock has made us totally empathize with Manny.

After his mother implores him to pray to God, he prepares for work as per usual, but then takes a moment to heed her advice. Looking at the picture of Jesus on the wall, he begins to whisper his prayers under his breath. The visuals start to superimpose. There is Manny — that is Henry Fonda’s face — and the mug of the wanted man comes into view and meets him in the middle of the screen. All of sudden, he’s got a bit of luck. It’s the fortuitous key to the whole horrid mess. Christians would believe this is Providence.

The ending hardly matters nor does the fact that it is a “true story.” It’s the impression the movie leaves on us casting the greatest shadow. Hank Fonda is the most sympathetic of victims. However, it’s Alfred Hitchcock who intuitively understands how to augment his plight by making it viscerally resonate frame after frame. Without the bells and whistles he grew accustomed to, he shows he’s still capable of making a superior film.

4/5 Stars

I Confess (1953): What Would Hitch Do?

I_confess_poster

Religion doesn’t always play a prominent role in the films of Alfred Hitchock — he could possibly be considered a lapsed Catholic — but I Confess is his most overt exploration of moral and religious convictions. Although one could make the argument that he’s most interested in the mechanisms created by the moral conundrum since his priest becomes another innocent man accused. Nonetheless, the story speaks for itself.

It opens in quintessential Hitchock fashion as signage seems to indicate a route and then moments later a murder is announced with a body sprawled out on the floor. A man walks down the street briskly in the cosset of a priest. If nothing else, it suggests a man of the cloth might soon be implicated.

Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), who will soon become of primary importance, is in the church when he is met by Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who works in the local parish with his wife. The Father has always been good to him, his friend even, and now he has a confession.

The confessional becomes such a powerful dramatic element: It’s been used to stirring effect in everything from Leon Morin, Priest to the more recent Calvary. In I Confess it conveniently sets up Hitchcock’s core dilemma. The flustered European immigrant confesses to the murder of a man named Vilette. Priests, of course, take a vow of confidentiality. Thus, the picture is not entirely a mystery. This is laid in the audience’s lap before we know what exactly to do with it.

Everything must become far more complicated. It involves the Father’s past relationship with the now married Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter). That was many years ago, although Logan remains above reproach.

Still, the police inspector (Karl Malden) needles him and cannot understand why he will not be more compliant. After all, he was supposed to meet Vilette the morning after his death, and he was seen with the young woman on the street corner, the day after. It’s true enough, but he will not divulge more regardless of how it looks.

Flashbacks clog up the story’s midriff even as it becomes imperative to inform the narrative. Because before he ever took his vows, they were in love. He went off to war and she was left despondent, receiving small comfort from her employer and future husband: Pierre.

Not all the performances feel altogether pristine or polished but as with the environment, this is a bit of added authentic charm. The more readily-remembered Hollywood actors feel mostly like dressing compared to Father Logan — Malden’s obdurateness might be the exception. Still, this is not altogether problematic and while the picture’s not exactly taut, it does feel psychologically distressing. Clift is made to suffer in silence.

We often forget, with the lustrous Technicolor glories of the Paramount years and pictures from Rear Window to Marnie, that Hitchock was comfortable with smaller scale and black & white. Quebec is a very unique locale, but it effectively serves his plot and the evocation of provincial character quite well.

Although Hitchcock was never one to see eye to eye with so-called “Method actors,” I think of Clift and Paul Newman in particular, there’s no argument that he allows Monty to shine even sets him up for a nuanced but ultimately towering performance. There’s a quiet magnitude imbued by his stoicism in front of the camera.

He literally becomes a Christ figure and it’s no mere coincidence that Hitchcock shoots looking down past a sculpture of a man carrying the cross as Logan himself walks below on the street. Or for that matter, how often do you see a crucifix so prominently featured in a courtroom? It’s because this courtroom drama has a priest on the stand. The whole movie is playing out through what he will and will not do. His convictions dictate what will happen.

It’s the district attorney (Brian Aherne) who has the undesirable job of getting a conviction by doing his job to the best of his abilities. This means cross-examining a mutual friend (Baxter) as well as the man of the cloth. Is he in a sense, Pontius Pilate? Because even if Father Logan comes out of the trial alive, the media attention and the aspersions on his character can never be undone. He will be faced with public ignominy.

He’s also made to walk the gauntlet so many times; Hitchock blesses Clift with some phenomenal close-ups and allows the camera to take on his protagonist’s point of view multiple times. He’s not the only one, but one can hardly forget the very final scene in the Chateau Frontenac Hotel: The Father goes in to confront the man who was going to let him take the rap for a murder he did not commit.

The man has a gun. He’s holding himself up and by now he’s desperate already, having killed at least one other person. The room couldn’t seem larger and still, with a kind of peerless conviction, Clift’s hero makes the long walk prepared to sacrifice himself yet again.

Ultimately, he is vindicated; there is a sense of justice, but what a terrifying portrait it is. For those without major religious convictions, it might feel absurd. I must admit it seems almost inconceivable a priest cannot alert the police about a murderer. Surely, even the Bible talks about there being a season for everything, and a time for every purpose under Heaven. Still, Hitchcock even made a point in an interview:

“We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”

It should be noted, in a Hitchcock film, it usually seems like a time to kill and a time for hate because what better way to explore our moral makeup and the forums of human justice? In the end, Father Logan holds fast and is exculpated. If not only by earthly powers, then higher powers too. I’m still left to wonder what Hitchcock would have said in the confessional if he was faced with it.

You can tell a lot about a man from his fears as well as his vices. What stands out about the picture is how it never feels undermined by jokes. It feels as sincere as the man at its core. For some, it might be a turnoff. For others, it will make you appreciate the director even more. He willingly enters into the realm of the pious, albeit through the lens of murder.

3.5/5 Stars

Family Plot (1976): Hitch’s Swan Song

Screenshot 2020-07-26 at 3.48.36 PM

You rarely hear mention of Alfred Hitchcock’s last cinematic foray, Family Plot, and you would assume that means a throwaway title — a fall from his illustrious heights. Not so! In fact, it’s rather a shame more folks haven’t turned the movie on because it proves the Master still has it. There’s still a twinkle in his directorial eye as he leads us on one final merry jaunt of murder, crime, and passion.

I was always under the illusion family plot was about some kind of conspiracy. The first inkling is from a cemetery plot even as it evolves into a broader conspiracy unraveling in front of us. It never registered as a pun until the story began to run its course. Allow me to explain.

Our story opens with a quack psychic (Barabara Harris) drumming up business with rich old spinsters ready to fork out money to get their fortunes told. She’s running the ongoing con with her boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern). They’re purely small-time operators.

Soon he is on the beat poking around about a man named Shoebridge. What he’s doing at first isn’t exactly clear — he’s a taxi cabbie by day — however, soon we realize he’s digging up tidbits for future seance fodder.

Their latest coup involves a wealthy widow, if only they can locate her long-lost nephew who was given up for adoption years before. She looks to bequeath him some of her vast fortunes on behalf of her guilt-ridden dear departed sister. They too have a stake in finding him: $10,000 to be exact, which is a fortune to them.

Meanwhile, the headlines are taken with a crime of a different sort: The Constantine Ransom for a priceless gem. It really is the perfect crime. The police are befuddled and there hasn’t been a single false step. Their hands are tied as a mysterious lady in black — a twist on the Hitchcock blonde — shows up to make the trade. She leaves with her gem and orders a helicopter to aid in her getaway, all planned so she can drift back into anonymity.

It turns out she also has an accomplice: her lover, who works as a local jeweler (William Devane). By sheer coincidence, he is the very same man Dern is hunting for. Instantly we have the glorious joke at the center of the drama.

Because these circumstances have nothing to do with his dubious extracurricular activities and still, this uncanny connection becomes a lovely fulcrum for the movie to balance on with comic underpinnings. In one defining moment, the stolen diamond is kept in a very visible hiding spot established by a telling Hitchcock closeup. He looks to be having a gleeful good time of it.

Ernest Lehman’s script (remember he collaborated with Hitch on North by Northwest) is more liberal with the profanities, but it readily amuses itself with the quandary at its core exploring the relationships of these two couples and how these separate scenarios are tied together. In some strange way, it’s all things police procedural, murder mystery, and a bit like a vintage drawing-room comedy. They’re both after two very different pots!

The ransomers’ latest plans involve the brazen kidnapping of a local bishop taking full advantage of the congregation’s shock. Diagnosing the situation later, as they tear off their disguises and zoom away he notes smugly, “they’re all too religiously polite.”

Lumley’s travails take him to a religious setting of his own, in his case, the funeral of a balding gas station attendant named Maloney (Ed Lautner). There’s no need to get into his death although it involved some winding roads and a car chase of sorts…

In the most captivating shot, Hitchcock captures the overgrown cemetery from a birdseye perspective. Maloney’s reticent wife (Katherine Helmond) scurries away and Dern scampers along until he corners her. It’s the same old story. She wants to be left alone, and he just wants information.

The search for A.A. Adamson leads to all sorts of people and visual gags placed in front of us with a wry wink. But this is hardly the grandest joke as Hitchcock allows us to watch the stories converge as we are caught right in the middle. Again, it’s wonderful bits of coincidence getting in the way or more precisely bringing the story to an impeccable climax.

I’ve been mulling over the assertion that the great directors have a distinct point of view. With Hitch, he used the shot-reverse-shot paradigm certainly, but there was always a cadence to it. If he needed to break out of the rhythm he would.

My mind flashes to a scene with Dern as he’s hiding on the stairwell. The couple has returned from their latest crime totally unaware of their guest. Their feet wander around the kitchen as they talk. We’re paying partial attention to that but like Dern, Hitch makes us crane our necks and feel uncomfortable as the audience. In that individual moment, we don’t have the whole picture, and we are forced to be in his shoes for even an instant. There’s definitely a profound level of audience identification and inherent tension. This is all Hithcock’s doing.

The ending is more than satisfactory, but Barbara Harris’s wink to the camera is like a final curtain call for Hitch. This last gesture sums up his career for me. It was built on suspense and an intuitive understanding of visual cinema and audience manipulation. However, his very own persona and the connection he created with the masses wouldn’t be anything without his sense of humor.

Due to his deteriorating health, he would never complete another film, dying 4 years later in 1980. He was planning on a film called The Short Night, a project that obviously was never realized. With his death, the film world lost one of its most consummate craftsmen and storytellers.

In a Hitchcock movie, you feel well taken care of because the director knows what he’s doing, oftentimes even when we don’t. He scares us when we want to be scared. Thrills us. Gives us romance. And even deigns to allow us to be in on the joke.

Under the circumstances, I can’t think of a more appreciative place to leave the Master. His powers haven’t atrophied. On the contrary, he still knows how to play the game and how to have fun doing it. This might be the most pleasant surprise of Family Plot. Alfred Hitchcock never lost his wonderfully grim sense of humor.

3.5/5 Stars

Frenzy (1972): Cleaning Up The Streets

Screenshot 2020-07-28 at 5.28.11 PM

There we are gliding across the River Thames making our way toward the regal facade of Tower Bridge. Where’s one apt to find a more picturesque view of London? It’s definitely an auspicious return to his native land for the Master of Suspense.

Frenzy is without question a singular Hitchcock movie taking him back to his roots in the ’20s and ’30s — not just the days of Stage Fright (1950) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) — something like The Lodger (1927) or Sabotage (1936) springs to mind.

Of course, it’s a different England. It’s gotten bitten by the bug. Certainly one of them was Swinging London and The Beatles, but even as the old world, the small-town world continues to pass away, there’s a sense this same progression is being documented in Frenzy.

The characters knock around town at all the pubs, street corner grocers, and everywhere else in Convent Gardens — what’s left is a remnant of Hitchcock’s boyhood world. The director’s father was a grocer, and thus, it’s a return to his roots in the most Hitcockian way possible: replete with murder.

A charismatic civil servant stands atop his soapbox with a rapt audience rallying the people they’ll soon clear the rivers and canals of society’s refuse — pollution will be banished — and right on cue, there’s an interruption from the masses. He gets preempted when an onlooker realizes something bobbing in the river: A woman’s body with a tie twisted around her neck.

Irony notwithstanding, it causes a surge through the crowds as gossip about the rash of necktie murders throughout town. In this way, the traditions of Jack the Ripper have been modernized and remain alive and well in contemporary London.

It’s not only these onlookers but acquaintances in pubs and any other random passerby who all have a callous, morbid curiosity about them — their conversations are overwhelmingly about the killer — and they come off darkly cynical.

The men from New Scotland Yard for their part are on the lookout for a sexual psychopath and a social misfit who might be easily categorized. Because what better way than to put criminals in a box to understand them?

Right about now we must introduce our protagonist, who also becomes the obvious target of all this foreshadowing. We are led to believe Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) an acerbic ex-RAF man who is the obvious culprit, although, for the time being, he’s unsuspected.

Still, after his ex-wife, who runs a new-fangled matrimonial agency is brutally murdered, unbeknownst to him, the forces of the plot are already out of his control. It’s as if the film is cruelly conspiring to ensnare him like all the most crippling of Hitchock’s man-on-the-run thrillers.

The police are looking for a fugitive with a tweed jacket with patches on the shoulders and elbows. It’s true all pieces of circumstantial evidence, motive, and eyewitness accounts point to Blaney. At every turn, he looks to be guilty and he does very little to help his case. A hotel bellman tips off the law, and then the testy bar owner (Bernard Cribbins) he used to work under accuses him further.

He does have several allies in the generally morose landscape. One is the local barmaid Babs (Barbara Massey), who stands by him in his innocence. Another is Johnny Porter, a buddy who gives Richard asylum, despite the chastisement of his suspicious wife.

Although Johnny feels like a far too convenient character — he implicates himself in a potential crime quite readily — but let’s not allow this to detract from the story. Dick does have one other friend: a local grocery worker named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him free handouts and tips at the races, among other things.

Frenzy is the most visually grisly and unnerving Hitchcock picture with a kind of in-your-face depiction of the murders. In this regard, it seems uncharacteristic of the man who often seemed the king of simulated gore and suggested horror.

The Shower Scene in Psycho is the unadulterated pinnacle of this. Where the intensity comes in the layering and total manipulation of all the formalistic elements. Frenzy is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum showing everything far more explicitly. It almost seems to lack the elegance of a Hitchcock picture — Blaney and Bob are earthier types than we’re used to.

Still, in one of Frenzy’s most telling shots, Hitch literally pulls the camera down the stairs out into the street just as we recognize that the dastardly deed is being done. It’s a second murder, and he makes us painfully aware of it without ever putting us inside the room. The same cannot be said in the other instances.

However, what truly sets the picture apart is how Hitchcock scrapes the dividing line between psychotic killer and despicable human being so close that nobody wins. Because Dick’s yet another man on the run framed by fate. The only difference is he’s a wholesale cad. Whether he’s innocent or not is immaterial here. He might be The Wrong Man, but he’s no Henry Fonda and he’s certainly not Cary Grant.

The movie wraps up briskly and abruptly. There’s hardly time to catch our breath though Hitch does put us out of our misery. Our “hero” is exonerated, and the police apprehend the criminal, all in a matter of seconds. All this might be true, but it doesn’t make the world any more livable. There’s still refuse in the waterways and rubbish in the streets. Not only is the nostalgic world Hithcock knew disappearing — this is sad in itself — it does feel like the world itself is a tawdry, cynical place.

To be fair, this might not be the director’s perspective — he holds a far more perverse sense of humor than mine — but when I look at this world it’s far from comforting. I’m a bit of an anglophile so there’s an appreciation in seeing familiar faces like Clive Swift (Keeping up Appearances) or Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who), but maybe I’ve been watching the wrong things.

Then again, Hitchcock always did suggest the dark desires and inclinations of society conveyed through this lens of macabre amusement. Now his depictions are simply sharper and more direct.

In other words, the legacies of Jack the Ripper or Jekyll & Hyde aren’t dead. Over time, we just got better at trying to dissect them, and we’ve become increasingly more numb to their depravity. Could it be presumed innocence no longer matters? We’re all on the run. We all go a little mad sometimes. We’re all guilty of something.

3.5/5 Stars

Marnie (1964): An Inflection Point in Hitchcock’s Career

marnie red

“You don’t love me. You just think I’m some kind of animal you trapped.”

Forgive me if you disagree, but Marnie has wrapped around it the full confidence of Alfred Hitchcock with all his trick and thematic ideas. Its use of visuals to cue the action. The intensity of both color and the swirling score of Bernard Hermann (indeed, his final with Hitch), creating this almost obsessive fever dream.

Tippie Hedren returns as an icy, calculated blonde more like Vertigo than The Birds, and it feels like with the talents at his disposal and his harnessing of all the studio system has to offer, he’s able to make it sing like a finely wrought orchestra. While not his best film, it stands proud and tall next to his most identifiable works.

If we are to tinker with the auteur theory, we must also acknowledge cinematographer Robert Burks, who had worked on over a dozen Hitchcock pictures. This would be his last. Then, editor George Tomasini, who had a stellar run with “The Master of Suspense” in his own right, would die in 1964. One could see how you could easily situate Marnie as the end of one of the most fertile periods of filmmaking and also the most terrifying.

These words are chosen purposefully. Because Marnie is not another man on the run thriller or even a game of romantic cat-and-mouse like To Catch a Thief. It fits into the lineage of the Vertigos and Psychos where it feels like Hitchcock is dipping into perturbing territory, partially because it feels self-reflexive, and it deals in the potentially grotesque and unseemly sides of humanity.

Marnie opens on a bag. The back of a woman walking to a train station. We don’t see a face before we cut to a man who bemoans a bank robbery. His secretary ran off with some of his funds.

Eventually, we learn this woman is prone to such behavior. She’s taken many such jobs and undoubtedly committed many such infractions under different aliases. However, her true name is Marnie and like a dutiful daughter, she turns up on her invalid mother’s doorstep to check in on her, give her gifts, and try to earn more of her affection.

Because it becomes immediately apparent this woman has attachment and mother issues; she’s an independent woman yes, who is also independent of men, but she hangs onto her mother’s love. Even covets after it and clings to it jealously when maternal affections are directed towards a neighbor’s little girl. And then, she leaves as quickly as she arrives.

marnie connery and hedren

Her cycle begins again when she’s up for a new job at Rutland & Co. The exchange during her interview would be banal if not for a certain undercurrent, the dissonance at the core of the entire picture. They’ve done business with her former employer, but she has no way of knowing that.

The one man who knows her secret is there too. His name is Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). He looks on rather bemusedly as she explains her backstory to her interviewer. Something about a deceased husband and leaving Pittsburgh behind for more demanding, interesting work. As Rutland watches her, it serves a kind of dual-purpose, giving rise to our conflict while also highlighting this kind of queasy sexism in the workplace. Where women are hired as objects and often viewed as such.

He knows and still hires her out of curiosity — is that the case? However, there’s something more — a kind of kleptomania — and Hitchcock funnels the entire movie through Marnie’s private obsessions. So as a secretary drones on about some HR forms, we are busy watching the office manager pull out his key and unlock the safe. We vicariously take on the obsessions of Marnie — caught in the same vortex thanks to Hitchcock’s camera — a camera that enters a fevered frenzy whenever she sees the color red. It’s akin to Jimmy Stewart’s Vertigo in how it totally usurps the picture in an instant.

On a very different note, it’s always a pleasure to see Mariette Hartley, a personal favorite in TV reruns, and assuredly in Ride The High Country. But it is Diane Baker who might be the unsung hero of the movie and Hitchcock, if anything, sets her up as an integral figure to cement the film’s core drama. She is Marnie’s foil and ready to protect Mark even as she’s intent on winning him over.

But the relationship between Rutland and Ms. Edgar continues to vacillate, exemplified by very pointed snatches of dialogue. Take for instance, Rutland’s training in Zoological science or as he puts it “instinctual behavior.” He likens predators out on the Sahara to “the criminal class of the animal world,” and he’s as fascinated by Marnie as he is passionate about her.

They go to the races and then to see his father’s stables maintaining these implicit themes of husbandry and animalistic desires raging through Marnie’s core. She cannot help these impulses.

It’s true the film boasts some phenomenal wide shots: The first I’m thinking of is inside the stable before cutting to a close-up to the passionate embrace of our romantic leads. The second is an exercise in irony. Marnie is in the midst of her first burgle of the company safe. She snuck out of a bathroom stall after hours. Just around the partition, the night cleaning lady goes about her duties. To each her own.

For several minutes it is a silent movie. No music. I don’t think Hedren makes a sound. Because of course, Hitchcock is milking the moment only to magnify it seconds later. It reminds us how marvelous he was at punctuating the drama, lest his filmmaking ever be mistaken for realism.

Marnie continues in its duplicity as Rutland first accuses his employee of her theft and then comes right back around with the proposal of marriage. It drudges up the unseemly realities of sexual harassment and powerlessness as Marnie cries out about how she can’t bear to be handled by men. She doesn’t want to get married. It’s degrading. Even animal.

“You say no thanks to one of them and then bingo, you’re a candidate for the funny farm.” It breaks my heart even as I feel implicated in the issues. No, I wasn’t born then, but the indiscretions against women have not totally been expunged at least while men still have lust in their hearts. Hitch is part of the problem. I am part of the problem by any sin of omission or even passivity.

Before there was a mystery plot to hang its hat on in Vertigo or the money propelling Psycho. With Marnie, it hardly feels as if there’s a pretense to the often demented predilections of humanity. Husband and wife are “playing doctor” and free association with Marnie feeling as if she’s continually being needled by her spouse’s callous analysis. Is this love or torture?

diane baker and sean connery marnie

We mentioned Diane Baker before and it’s worth acknowledging her again. She is slightly impetuous and a bit impish — ready to go to war for her man. Hitchcock even gives her a line to mirror Norman Bates from Psycho as she offers observation on Marnie (A girl’s best friend is her mother). But she also eavesdrops because it’s this that allows her to know the film’s main secret and look to bring it to the surface.

The next sequence opens with that unmistakable Hitchcock high angle, at the party. It’s Notorious rehashed and yet instead of a key in the hand, it is the front door because through it will come a very important person: Someone who can implicate Marnie and unravel the stasis Mark has willingly corroborated for her. They must find a way to get out of this, to come to a mutual agreement, or else Marnie is sunk.

I must admit, this and the sense of suspense anticipated by the climax, are of the most intriguing since the psychology the final flashback relies upon feels too convenient. Maybe Hitchcock does not really care about any of this. It is a bit like Spellbound, but now it feels even more antiquated, whereas the moments leading up to the reveal of the trauma are contorted and alive, horrifying and convicting all at once.

Others could do it better, but I would be remiss not to mention the storyline of Hedren and Hitchcock, who harassed her all through the shoot. It’s an unsettling reminder of how he would control women and beyond that, how toxic masculinity has fueled our society and industries like Hollywood. It reveals the underlining brokenness in many of us that come out compulsively. It’s almost like we do what we do not want to do or we give ourselves over to them entirely. And what a nightmare that is.

Psychology cannot completely dispel our fears nor does it warrant a society and social spheres where men take advantage of women and where women feel fearful and scandalized. Forget his films. Hitchcock himself is emblematic of problematic fissures in society. That’s a great deal of what makes his film’s so disconcerting.

However, just as he tanked Tippi Hedren’s career, Hitchcock would never quite be the same. Not because of this mind you, unless there was some force of karma working against him I’m unaware of. Instead, the industry was changing and also the structures around him that he had to work with.

Torn Curtain and Topaz are passable films with glimpses of his cinematic eye, but they never amount to the same kind of intoxicating, bewitching drama we would see during his high point during the 1950s and early 60s. Of course, Frenzy was what some called a return to form, but it was, again, back in his native England so it’s obviously laced with a different flavor. His final film was in 1976 — Family Plot — and if it wasn’t evident already the industry had changed.

By then, he was a revered master but more of a relic than an up-and-coming auteur. No, Marnie feels like an inflection point as if it’s catching his very particular genius in a moment in time. It’s also a startling caveat to the career of one of the most lauded directors Hollywood has ever known. We cannot fully speak about one without reflecting on the other.

3.5/5 Stars

The Trouble With Harry (1955): Hitchcock, Humor, and The Macabre

jerry mathers trouble with harry

Idyllic is the word for The Trouble with Harry, and it positively crackles with the autumnal delights one can only know in locales where the seasons give way one to another.

Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography boasts many opulent and gorgeously shot sequences, but Trouble With Harry might have some of the most supernal. Part of this comes from the fact it comes in such stark contrast to his environs in Northern California.

Because the East Coast — Vermont in particular — affords him a very particular canvass and he uses them to full effect. The story goes that he went so far as to have leaves pinned back onto trees to try and replicate the shots on a sound stage. Whatever the techniques it boasts something distinctly tangible.

If the locale is not entirely functional, it still manages to be another integral character in the story just as the satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot or the thought of a lemonade out on the porch conjures up visions of a very specific sort. But of course, all of this connotation would be for naught if it was not juxtaposed with the typical Hitchcockian proclivity for the darkly macabre.

The Trouble with Harry might offer his lightest touch — it’s spritzed more evidently with humor than a great many of his movies — but the blackness at its core cannot go unnoticed. Take, for instance, that opening sequence. It’s emblematic of the whole picture. There’s tiny Jerry Mathers freakishly young (even before the days of Leave It To Beaver).

He’s running off on some boyish adventure his toy gun in hand, only to stumble upon the corpse of a man named Harry. The man’s nicely dressed. Laid out in the middle of an open pasture. More importantly, he’s dead.

Hitchcock employs a trick from the painterly masters using foreshortening to make the man’s body envelop the screen as the little boy stares down at him rather inquisitively, ready to run off and tell his mother. From the outset, Bernard Herrmann’s scoring is both rigorous and rather jaunty, perfectly in tune with the sense of place and tone.

But this is no conventional tale of malice or ill-blood. It is, however, the Macguffin to kick our story off. Edmund Gwenn is another fellow who comes upon the body quite by chance — he was out shooting rabbits unsuccessfully — could it be a stray bullet that took Harry out? He thinks it’s better not to risk it and decides to drag the body to more secluded terrain.

However, he’s met by one of his neighbors. John Michael Hayes’ script does splendidly in moments like these. It’s able to place small-town pleasantries up against a grisly murder as if it’s a small trifle — a mere afterthought to be dealt with in the manner of a pothole or a roach problem. In the end, Captain Wiles (Gwenn) and Ms. Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a kindly spinster, set up a date for afternoon tea with the promise of blueberry muffins and genial company.

forsythe macLaine trouble with harry

What of Harry? It’s true the whole world seems to turn up to find him. Soon little Arnie returns with his mother (Shirley MacLaine), and she hardly bats an eye. A local professorial fellow — his nose always in a book — trips over the body without much of an acknowledgment. Even local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), has time enough to sketch a crude portrait of the dead man.

He’s your conventional starving artist. Kindly Ms. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts his particularly exuberant paintings out for sale near her Emporium, though he doesn’t stir up much business from the cows lingering across the pasture.

Ms. Rogers meanwhile is a twice-widowed young woman, and she admits her last husband was too good to live. She’s pursued by Mr. Marlowe even as the old-timers look to start courting in their own way.

The source of the frivolity and the casual delightfulness comes in painting the town as Hitchcock does — this combination of coloring the idiosyncrasies of the quainter side of life as well as the open-air mise en scene, whether pure illusion or not.

What’s lovely about Hitch is the way every movie becomes a sort of game or puzzle in its own right. Because The Trouble with Harry will never be held in the same regard as many of his most obvious successes — movies from this same period of time — but it’s ceaselessly interesting.

Audiences of the 50s would have had a time pinning it down in a conventional sense because it employs fairly frank dialogue whether riddled with innuendo or not, but it also lacks the kind of obvious star power big studios often banked on to sell tickets. Surely Hitchcock could have garnered the best talent and yet he chose not to.

This is a character piece, and it wasn’t meant for the Cary Grants or Jimmy Stewarts of the world — at least not in 1955. It called for something more mundane. And what of the humor? First of all, there are certain expectations from “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s hard to say they are met; it’s almost like he swapped the formula. He leads with the comedy with accents of suspense and the macabre.

A body buried and excavated, put back in the ground, and exhumed time and time again over the course of the day. It’s the film’s prolonged gag. One of the things that makes it feel continually comedic is the lack of a true villain of any consequence.

The closest candidate is Royal Dano, a slightly curmudgeonly sheriff who has a penchant for old cars. He’s sniffing around, always on the side of law and order. No, this is most definitely a comedy, and the two couples join forces to keep their local secret. Because they know quite literally where the dead bodies are buried. Though it’s quite possible none of them is the actual culprit. It’s typical of Hitchcock that his inclinations of Vermont are informed by murder instead of moonlight.

He is, after all, the man who keenly observed that the medium of T.V. “brought murder back into the home where it belongs.” The Trouble With Harry plays with the same form of morbid levity.

3.5/5 Stars

Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock and Dietrich

wyman and dietrich

It’s true that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, dress it up with murder and life becomes a series of stages and varying performances you’re putting on for different audiences — trying your best to play your audience — while not giving yourself away.

Stage Fright feels very much like Hitchcock getting back to his roots; there’s something simpler and yet still charming about the milieu he’s able to drum up evoking the British Isles. In reality, it was a convenient excuse to spend more time with his daughter Patricia currently away at school in the U.K. She even earned a small role. It’s also propitious he seems to be having good fun with the conceit: the combination of play-acting and murder with actors trying their hands at amateur sleuthing.

We are thrown into an almost instantaneous thriller. It dispenses with the lead-up altogether by showing a couple on the run in a car. A fledgling actress, Eve (Jane Wyman), is the complicit accomplice and Richard Todd is a man fleeing the authorities. Through an extensive flashback, he relates how he was pulled into the web of murder spun by his lover — the famed and gorgeous prima donna Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

He tries to touch up the crime scene she’s left behind only to get spooked by her maid turning up on the scene. The murder investigation commences in earnest including a respectable detective named Smith (Michael Wilding).

Eve sets the fugitive up with her father, out of harm’s way, before turning right around and hatching a plan to get to the bottom of the whole thing. One minute she’s trying to get close to the aforementioned policeman to somehow pump him for information with her damsel in distress act. The next moment, she’s putting her thespian training to good use posing as a cockney maid (and temporary replacement) for dame Charlotte herself.

It has some of the dynamics of an All About Eve between actresses though it’s admittedly hinging on cloak-and-dagger antics opposed to true backstage drama. Because it’s on this plane of performance that Hitch seems most intrigued — where acting becomes a conduit for understanding the mystery at the core of this movie.

sim and wyman stage fright

If there were any undisputed secret weapon, my bet is up for Alistair Sim. He was always a mirthful co-conspirator if I’m to recall a movie like Green for Danger. He’s eminently likable, though the spark in his eye suggests he’s ever prone to mischief. This accords him all the prerequisites to play a fine father figure opposite Wyman if only for the primary reason they both seem to relish the game and being a part of it together.

They have the most instantly vibrant relationship within the picture, and they give it the comic underpinnings one comes to expect from the director. Sim himself meets the macabre of Hitchcock thanks to a bloodstained dress on a carnival doll used to shock Dietrich out of her performance of “La Vie en Rose.” It mirrors the ugly token of her secret transgression.

In another sequence, the wanted man shows up during her performance — a particularly saucy rendition of Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Before this interruption, the scene is pulled out of the Hitchcockian world momentarily. It’s an individual moment where an auteur like Hitch gets totally overpowered by Dietrich or, in many ways, he acquiesces allowing her to be her scintillating self in the golden limelight before the mechanisms of the plot are meant to take over once more.

Stage Fright feels perfectly comfortable being so theatrical. However, the ideas never feel fully wrought; it’s a bit scattered and inconceivable — nor is Jane Wyman the most compelling Hitchcock lead. Mind you, I’m not expecting her to be a Hitchcock blonde or Ingrid Bergman, but she’s not quite on par with even someone like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.

Likewise, the theater finale is terribly abrupt though it functions on the tenets of many of Hitchcock’s grandest setpieces by taking a novel environment and turning it into a thrilling locale for drama (Donen would rehash a similar sequence in Charade). The scenes in the build-up are of all shapes and sizes as Wyman rather coincidentally juggles a double life. It’s all highly circumstantial.

As it turns out, the lynchpin scene is right at the very beginning. Of course, we don’t realize that until the end, but right there is Hitchcock’s point. To see it any other way is a mistake. Because obfuscation and chicanery are the building blocks of not only acting but murder as well. Perceptions can change so quickly, and he was one of the greats at visual audience manipulation. In Stage Fright he takes it a step further. He lies to us outright on the screen.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kim Novak

In our ongoing series of guides for up-and-coming classic movie fans, we turn our attention to one of the most alluring and iconic actresses from the Classic Hollywood period.

Kim Novak, who is still alive and well today, started out in her early 20s as an answer to Marilyn Monroe, while soon developing her own image as a husky-voiced, sultry siren. She played opposite some of the biggest stars of her day. Unfortunately, her own talents are often dismissed in light of her looks, and she eventually left Hollywood to live a far more secluded life.

Picnic (1955)

Image result for picnic kim novak

Kim Novak garnered attention for her self-assured work in the film noir Pushover and a playful bit in Pfft. However, one of her most iconic roles thereafter came with Picnic opposite William Holden. The Kansas heat whips up a passionate romance between a teenage prom queen and an out-of-town drifter. Their dance together to “Moonglow” is one of the movie’s magical moments.

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

Image result for the man with the golden arm

There’s no doubt this is Frank Sinatra’s picture and a darn good one too as he plays a relapsing druggie struggling to get the monkey off his back. As all the street graft enable him and his disabled wife nags him, it’s the local waitress in Novak who gives him the tough love he genuinely deserves. They would costar again in Pal Joey with more tepid results.

Vertigo (1958)

Image result for kim novak vertigo

This is the big one. The one that will cement Kim Novak’s legacy for the ages thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s obsessive vision and Bernard Hermann’s mesmerizing score, turning her into a spectral beauty haunting the streets of San Francisco. Everything from her wardrobe to her posturing makes her dual role as Madeleine and Judy pitch-perfect. If you want something lighter, try Bell, Book, and Candle from the same year, also starring James Stewart

Middle of The Night (1959)

Image result for middle of the night 1959

Kim Novak’s performances are generally overshadowed if not completely neglected. She is, after all, remembered as a glamour girl. However, in a film like Middle of The Night with a heart-wrenching premise and a craftsman like Paddy Chayefsky, she stretches herself opposite Frederic March playing an unorthodox couple trying to weather societal peer pressure. It’s probably her most vulnerable, most devastating performance.

Worth Watching

Strangers When We Meet, Boys Night Out, Kiss Me Stupid, etc.

 

The Gazebo (1959): The Other Hitchcock Movie Hitchcock Didn’t Make

If there’s any revelation from The Gazebo, it has to be the comic talents of Glenn Ford. Between his constant hypertension and exacerbated nerves, there’s a high-strung comic eccentricity present all but flying in the face of the persona Ford built his career on. The mind will quickly flash to a plethora of embittered noir and hardened westerns. Here he’s the epitome of a spineless worry-wort. He’s Average Joe incarnated, and it’s incessantly funny.

But to show how subjective performance (and comedy) is to this day, let me go ahead and cite the NY Times’ eminent Bosley Crowther who said of Ford, “Perhaps if Mr. Ford were a better or, at least, less wooden comedian than he is, some of this blundering and blathering would seem a little brighter than it does.” Do with it what you will.

Although she isn’t allotted too much to do, Debbie Reynolds scintilates in all her absolutely plucky, lovely delightfulness, with a devotion for her high-strung husband that remains irrepressible. It plays as a bit of a sad irony as she had recently been left by her husband Eddie Fisher for Liz Taylor. Ford had also divorced his longtime wife Eleanor Powell. The relational context cannot be totally lost on the audience.

The story itself throws us right into the action, stealing a trick from syndicated television with an opening murder! In fact, it is a television episode because our protagonist, Elliot Nash, is an overworked writer-director who’s at his wits end nearly every night as he tries to steady the ship behind the monitor. It seems like a curious occupation — a terribly high anxiety job — for someone of his temperament. From a narrative perspective, it all fits together impeccably.

Because he gets himself involved in murder; he even commits murder. But that’s a long story. In order for any of that to take, there must be the comic flourishes to disrupt the normal beats. One starting place is their home life. Elliot wants mightily to leave the home behind, going so far as to renovate his house to make it less appealing to his wife. It provides this Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or Green Acres kind of sensibility that’s just innately silly.

We must also mention Elliot’s pet pigeon, Herman, highlighting even more of his master’s kooky eccentricities. The other asset in the picture is the supporting cast including the wisecracking best friend Harlow (Carl Reiner), who always seems to find himself over after another day at the law firm so he can try and steal a kiss from Nell. He also proves useful as Elliot tries to formulate how one exactly goes about getting away with murder. It’s important to have a talking partner to bounce ideas off of.

Their housekeeper Matilda (Doro Merande) holds up her part of the bargain by yelling every line of dialogue with the sensitivity of a foghorn, partially because she takes care of her deaf mother by night. Then, there’s the always stately, if slightly oddball, John McGiver, who has the most delightful diction. How he says “Gaze-bo” just kills me. More on that subject momentarily.

Many folks consider Charade the greatest Hitchock picture that Hitchock didn’t make and rightfully so. You have the supernal acting talents and the main conceit about innocents on the run. There’s a suave comic elegance to go with genuine spy thrills. This plot is one side of the Hitchcockian coin if you will.

The other side is obsessed with the perfect murder and how to go about it. You need look no further than Rope or Strangers on a Train or even the more comic proclivities of The Trouble with Harry to see these prevailing themes at work.  Another element he becomes increasingly obsessed with is murder in the home. The famed director once quipped that this was its rightful place (Hence the success of his TV program). To this lineage, we might easily include Shadow of a Doubt or Dial M for Murder.

Here is where The Gazebo actually does do quite well to highlight an aspect of the genre that infatuated the director though we could probably stop short of calling this picture Hitchcockian in wit. It is anything but, and there is individual charm in that. It never quite sheds its out-and-out goofiness.

At this time, it seems important to note the film was based on a play. Apart from using this as an excuse to dismiss some of the more stagy moments, which feel relatively few, the play was actually written by Alec Coppel. He, coincidentally, penned a little doozy called Vertigo. You probably have heard about it. And subsequently, his hero winds up getting on the phone with Hitch on more than one occasion. Here is the hint of the autobiographical.

Otherwise, the movie leaves all of the Master’s sensibilities behind, and while I would never quite compare Ford to Cary Grant, he gives that kind of virtuoso performance, which feels simultaneously all over the place and perfectly suited for what the movie requires. Everything falls back on Ford’s continuously scattered protagonist as he flounders around every which way. It’s a black comedy but not in the usual way.

It works because of its hero’s complete bumbling collapse. He’s the perfect magic bullet for the film because in a send-up of a genre that requires premeditation, cunning, and nerves of steel, he lacks all of these things. He’s a generally sympathetic guy. But working in television, he obviously has an active imagination and he gets ideas.

Also, he’s being heftily blackmailed. Not from any dark secret from his past. On the contrary, his wife, an up-and-coming broadway talent, once modeled nude and now the cheesecake shots have gotten into some opportunistic hands. Martin Landau makes a late cameo as a heavy who looks to kidnap Mrs. Nash for leverage. No, he’s not the blackmailer, but he’s tied in with a different man, a man Elliot may have accidentally killed…

Soon the police are involved, a missing bullet, Herman the pigeon, and of course, the Gazebo. Particulars like these mean everything and at the same time nothing at all as we sit back and enjoy the ride. If the movie loses a bit of steam leading up to its pat ending, then it’s more than forgiven.

Otherwise, it’s thoroughly delightful — crazy and cockeyed in the most agreeable of ways. Nothing more, nothing less. Contrary to Mr. Crowther, Glenn Ford does the audience a service by lightening up. One wonders how Hitchcock might have used him.

3.5/5 Stars