Alfred Hitchcock

Tense Start, Brilliant Finish

We’ve done Hitchcock here before (and here and here, and probably in other places I can’t remember off the top of my head).  He pops up with a certain regularity on the 1001 movies list, which is unsurprising.  In fact, the version of the book that I’m using has a still of Psycho on the cover.

Some of the films are extremely well known, and some aren’t.  In my opinion, the subject of today’s post should be much more famous than it is.

Strangers on a Train - Alfred Hitchcock.jpg

Strangers on a Train (1951) deserves to be a household name in motion pictures because of the way it both tangles and untangles the plot.  This is truly a tense film (and that’s not the first time we’ve used that word in the title of a post about a Hitchcock movie) which has the audiences dreading what might happen to the protagonist for most of it.

But the end is so spectacularly well done that it makes the suffering worthwhile.  It’s the best of the Hitchcock endings I’ve seen so far, and it brings the whole movie up as a result.

But it’s not the ending that makes this one a classic, but the setup.  The sheer perverse ideation of the crime in the film makes one admire Patricia Highsmith (of Ripley fame, who originally cooked it up) while, at the same time worrying about her mental state.  This one is really diabolical and worth the price of entry by itself.

A mild spoiler and a word about the murder victim: few times have I been so happy to see a non-antagonist character die in a film.  The little piece of slime who was killed is one of cinema’s truly unpleasant characters, extraordinarily well played by Laura Elliott.

Interesting notes here are that Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat (who is alive as of this writing) played a very convincing role as the love interest’s younger daughter, and there was an Argentinian actor in this, too: Barry Norton.  Always interesting to see my countrymen in American films.

In conclusion, watch this one.  The suspense truly is nail-biting, but it all comes together really well in the end.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina whose own thriller is entitled Timeless.  You can check the book out here.

Tense and Almost Brilliant – A Hitchcock Near-Miss

Rope Film Poster - Alfred Hitchcock

Rope is a film I hadn’t heard of.  Among the Hitchcock classics, it is apparently a cult piece as opposed to one for the general fans.  Rear Window, or The Birds are much more well known today.

It’s one of Hitchcock’s more experimental films in a couple of senses.  The first being that the action takes place entirely within three rooms of an apartment.  Secondly, it begins with a murder on camera, which means that the audience knows from the very first moment whodunnit, wheredunnit, whydunnit and with whatdunnit (the last one is the rope of the title).  Finally, the action takes place in, apparently, real time: the running time of the film supposedly coincides with the time that passes while it takes place.  This last one requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but it can be accepted if necessary.

james-stewart--alfred-hitchcock--farley-granger-and-john-dall-in-rope-1948--album

Unlike most experimental films, which fail because they were experimental.  I would say that 95% of this movie is absolutely brilliant, and that the experimental bits are firmly in the background.  The tension ramps up from the very first moment until it becomes nearly unbearable, and the philosophical underpinnings interesting, if extreme.

Then, at the very end, it all unravels.  The character playing “detective” (he’s not a real detective, just an intelligent observer, and one that should have been morally ambiguous, at the very least, flips over like a roadhouse flapjack and realizes that conventional morality is correct after all.

I assume this unfortunate turn of events was caused by the strictures placed upon filmmakers by the Hays Code, but it’s hard to swallow after such a masterly buildup.

This one is interesting, but ultimately deserves its status as a forgotten film.  I would recommend it to lovers of the art more than to those seeking a satisfying thriller.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless has not been constrained by the Hays Code, by the bounds of good taste or even by common sense.  You can check it out here.

Grant and Bergman and Hitchcock, Plus Uranium and Nazis? Where Do We Sign Up?

Hitchcock's Notorious - Film Poster - Cary Grant - Ingrid Bergman

Many of the people who follow this space came here for the reviews of the 1001 movies, which makes it a bit sad that we’ve been neglecting it over the past couple of months.  But we come back today with a cracker: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious!  Though reportedly not his favorite film, this one was perfectly timed: less than a year after the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Japan, here’s the master of suspense with a film about Nazis in Brazil looking to build their own.  Perfection.

Quickly, the story revolves around a spymaster (Cary Grant) who convinces the daughter of a Nazi spy in the US (Ingrid Bergman) to help them disband a Nazi plot in Rio de Janeiro.

The setup becomes complicated when they fall in love because the assignment means that Bergman’s character has to seduce one of the Nazis, and she’s gone and fallen in love with Cary Grant (I suspect that falling in love with Cary Grant was a common affliction in the forties), who has also fallen for her.

Cay Grant Ingrid Bergman Kiss From Notorious

The only bad part of the film is that the whole stoic acceptance of duty and not talking about how they each feel about the other stretches the suspension of disbelief a little far and makes you want to hit them with their own hats.  But other than that, it’s a fun little romp and love story where good triumphs because good people risk their lives to ensure it.

It seems the exiled Nazi theme was popular immediately post war.  Hollywood, as always, was perfectly happy to make a buck by exploiting the fears of the common man.  Interestingly, the uranium that plays such a critical role in Notorious was in the script from the beginning, long before it was widely known that it could be used for atomic weapons.

This one is highly recommended.  My wife, who regularly falls asleep during viewings of the 1001 films list, was on the edge of her seat the whole time, anxious as hell to know what happens next.  Not all that usual for a film from seventy years ago.

Finally, our tradition of finding something unique or interesting about the film continues because of the presence of Fay Baker.  You see, apart from being an accomplished actress, Baker, it seems, wrote novels under the pseudonym Beth Holmes.  As a writer myself, I’m always happy to see that other people (Hollywood actors in this case) manage to understand that writing, even with all its heartbreak, is still better than the day job.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel is Incursion.

The Synchronicity of Birds

It seems like this was destined to be a Hitchcock-themed week, even though we didn’t plan it this way.  Our Tuesday post and this one were planned completely separately, but there is no denying that Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are inextricably linked, so it’s a happy coincidence for those who are fans of both! –Ed.

Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Most writers would probably kill to write a string of popular best-selling books spanning four decades and be created a Commander of the British Empire for their efforts, but it’s arguable that, in Daphne du Maurier’s case, she might have been better off having written just two books.

du Maurier will always be linked to one of the great novels of the 20th century, the brilliant Rebecca.  Despite modern covers that attempt to fool readers into thinking that the book is aimed at the 50 Shades audience, or possibly the crowd that prefers tamer romances, this one is not a piece of entertaining fluff.  It’s a mature, unflinching look at adults who are less than perfect, but who do what they must and deal with the consequences as best they can.

Rebecca also contains one of the most memorable (some people say the best) opening lines in literature:  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”… a haunting preview of what is to come and perfect for the novel.

It’s a bit sad that, while attempting to recapture the magic of her first hit, du Maurier focused on the romantic elements of the novel and produced a string of books that has since been completely dismissed by the establishment – with some justification – as mere time-passers not worthy of a second look.

birds-image

The Birds Film Still

The true tragedy is that the dismissal of her work often extends to Rebecca itself (which is both ignorant and unforgivable) and to her other noteworthy book: The Birds and Other Stories.

That du Maurier was a master of suspense is clearly evident from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock decided to film no less than three of her tales:  The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – and it’s arguable that The Birds is Hitchcock’s most famous film (although, admittedly, he has so many that it could be quite an argument!).  Nevertheless, that’s not the way she’s remembered, and most people wouldn’t be able to connect The Birds with her at all.

It’s their loss.

Originally published as The Apple Tree, the title was changed and the book was reissued as a companion to the film in 1963… and it’s well worth reading.

It’s a book that clearly shows that du Maurier was wasting her time with romance.  While love interests were fine to sustain the plot, what she really, truly did well was a kind of weird suspense, a mix of slightly surreal elements that never let the reader understand whether events are caused by natural or supernatural forces, or even if, perhaps, the characters are imagining it all.

It’s a slim book, and has six stories in it, but, with a deft touch, explores everything from adultery to cults with much the same effect as Rebecca, but in bite-sized chunks.  Anyone wanting to learn how to write a modern suspense tale – or wishing to consume one, need look no further.  Even though they are well over a half-century old, they feel perfectly modern (if one overlooks technology, of course).  The prose is that good.

And the title story feels very different from the film… so even if you think you know the tale, you don’t (also interesting to read the original material as Hitchcock did, to see what inspired him about it).

Of course, this review is being written for Classically Educated, so we’d be truly remiss if we failed to mention that a beautiful edition of this one was Published by Easton Press, although we don’t know if it’s currently available (ebay should help if not…).

All in all, we strongly recommend you pop into the local bookstore, buy these two du Maurier books and make a comment to the clerk about how sad it was that she never wrote anything else.  It would be a small white lie, and who knows – you might possibly be starting the restoration of her reputation.

Did this guy ever screw up a film?

Bergman and Peck

Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound

Today, we look back on a rare beast – a suspense film from the mid-forties that had no noir pretensions whatsoever.  Spellbound (1945) is a Hitchcock vehicle which is the second Psychological thriller to have appeared on the list – the first was 1942’s Cat People.

The two films feel completely different, since the older movie is more about the shadowy workings of the mind, while Spellbound actually looks into both the methods and profession of psychology.  Whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of the state of the field in the 1940s is not something we’re qualified to discuss, but for the purposes of the movie, it worked well.

As usual with Hitchcock, the movie is well thought out and reasonably convoluted – and the ending is impossible to guess, despite the best efforts.  Hitchcock was a master of foreshadowing enough that the partial reveal wasn’t a surprise to the more intelligent viewers, but that the whole picture would only really appear when the director himself felt the time was right.

That technique actually works much better in Spellbound than it did in the film that old Alfred himself said was his favorite.  In fact, of the movies he directed that have been on the list so far, this is the best of his Hollywood movies (although there are still plenty more to come, so that might change over the coming months.

Spellbound Dream Sequence

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Dream sequence by Salvador Dali.

We won’t get into the plot of the film itself, as it’s well worth watching, but it’s interesting to see the kind of talent they put together for it.  As leading couple, no less than Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.  Then there was famous acting coach Michael Chekhov. The film even had the collaboration of Salvador Dali, who filmed the dream sequence, which was reputed to be completely insane, but, sadly, was cut by the production team and is now mostly lost (although Dali’s unmistakable flavor can still be seen in what remains).

Perhaps this film would give To Have and Have Not a run for the title of the old film with most still-recognizable names involved.  All that talent created a good flick – go find a copy and enjoy it!  It does somehow seem that most Hitchcocks fall into this category…

 

As always, a mention of two of the actors who were involved in this one who are still with us: Rhonda Fleming and Norman Lloyd.  Here’s a shout out and thank you, if you’re reading this!

 

 

Hitchcock’s Favorite Film

Shadow of a doubt poster

Normally, when we do a review of one of the films on the 1001 Movies list, we attempt to link them to broader social issues; a great case in point is the last one we did, about the Henry Fonda vehicle The Ox-Bow Incident.  Looking further back, it’s a thread that this series of reviews has embraced since even before it moved to Classically Educated.

But sometimes, a movie is so completely timeless that it forces you to take it on its own terms, without really looking into the broader social issues that engendered it.  This could be because the director deliberately strove to keep them out, because the plot was compelling enough to make the viewer ignore them, or because the theme is so timeless that the setting could change in time without affecting it.

Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1944 film Shadow of a Doubt is such a film, mainly for the second and third reasons established above.  This has often been cited as Hitchcock’s favorite film, and the reasons are clear to see – the tension is built brilliantly.

In most films, one of two situations arise: either the viewer is aware of things the characters aren’t, or both the viewers and the characters are equally in the dark, leading to a final reveal.  For this film, Hitchcock chose to twist things around a little, and combine the two.  The viewer has an inkling as to what’s going on, but isn’t quite sure – while the characters remain completely clueless… except for one, except at the very end.

Essentially, the plot revolves around a normal, happy family who gets a visit from a beloved uncle… who has a dark secret, or does he?  One really can’t be sure.

Shadow of a Doubt film still

Another notable thing about this film is that it really could only work effectively as a movie.  If one removes the brilliant withholding of information that the film does by showing some scenes and not others, it would simply be a lineal thriller – and it would be impossible to do this effectively with any kind of novel with a consistent point of view.  And that is what pulls it out of the ranks of the good films and puts it onto this particular list of greats.

It does help that the cast is a good one, with actors in the cast winning (for other projects, not this one) Oscars, Tonys and Emmies.  And Hitchcock’s eye for talent wasn’t bad either – he gave future Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Hume Cronyn his Hollywood debut.

We’re not convinced it’s the man’s best film, as we prefer the earlier British films – but it definitely deserves to be one of the 1001 films.

Edna May Wonacott

Another little tradition we have when watching films that are seventy years old is to give a shout out to the cast members who are still alive.  In this case, our regards go to Edna May Wonacott, who was 12 when she acted in this one!

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