Hitchcock-a-thon: Notorious (1946)


In a way it’s hard to say what’s so good about Notorious because it’s kinda everything. The film offers so much in terms of pure drama. Sexual jealousy, espionage, exploitation, romance, mistrust, fear…it’s a powerhouse of a movie.

The daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), is recruited by the American government to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who escaped to Rio after the War. While awaiting her orders she falls in love with fellow agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant). But when she’s ordered to seduce a Nazi suspect, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), her life becomes an emotional turmoil as she pretends to love one man while really loving another.


“Don’t sulk. Yours is bigger.”

Both Grant and Bergman give some of the strongest performances of their careers (no mean feat given their incredible outputs) as we watch their characters try to balance their duty with their true feelings.

But, in acting terms, the film’s secret linchpin is Claude Rains, who delivers a wonderfully understated performance. Despite his political immorality and suspiciously close relationship with his domineering mother (a superb performance by Leopoldine Konstantin) his love for Alicia is genuine. It’s hard not to pity him.


Guys, I’m right here

As for camerawork, Hitchcock gives some of his most elegant cinematography and editing to date, most famously in the kissing scene. The Hays Code – Hollywood’s chief censor – forbade a kiss lasting longer than three seconds, and so Bergman and Grant break away from each others lips every few seconds to speak softly to each other as the gliding camera follows them. It’s one of the most intimate moments in Hitchcock’s canon and, proving how arbitrary censorship regulations can be, it’s profoundly more erotic than if they had held a single kiss for the two and a half minute shot.


Grant and Bergman regret playing with glue

Without spoiling anything, the film’s final scene is absolutely superb. There’s no daring chase, or scuffle atop a landmark but the emotional drama of the scene make it one of Hitchcock’s tensest climaxes.

Notorious was met with critical acclaim, but perhaps the best review came from Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia: “What a perfect film!” She ain’t wrong. It’s the most tightly constructed film in what was a phenomenal decade for Hitchcock. Unmissable.


Hitchcock-a-thon: Spellbound (1945)


In 1944 Hitchcock headed back to England to help with the war effort. In collaboration with The British Ministry of Information he made two short propaganda films in support of the French Resistance, Bon Voyage and Adventure malgachel, before heading back to the States to fulfill his contract with Selznick. By the time production finished on his next project, Spellbound, the war was over.

Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck), the new chief psychiatrist at the mental asylum where she works. But he’s not who he seems. Indeed, he’s not Dr. Edwardes at all. He’s an amnesiac with no knowledge of who he really is other than the initials JB. The real Dr. Edwardes has been murdered and JB quickly becomes the top suspect. Constance sets out to help him recover his memory and prove the innocence of the man she loves.


Then she can work on his vampiric tendencies

The introduction of plot-convenient amnesia adds some new spice to the now overused Hitchcock formula. We’re used to stories of the innocent man on the run, but in this case we’re not so sure he’s innocent. In fact, neither is he.

See, JB has psychotic episodes when he sees black lines upon a white surface. This creepy element to the character cranks up the tension in the mystery and in the romance. “Will he kiss me… or kill me?” ran the poster’s tagline. That actually sums up the drama rather well.

The film contains some great visual moments such as one of my favourite Hitchcock POV shots as the delirious JB downs a glass of milk, slowly overwhelming the screen with whiteness or the famous psychedelic dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí in his unmistakable surrealist style.


Shouldn’t have asked Dalí to reinvent the wheel

Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman do a pretty good job as the leads, although we’ve seen far stronger performances from both of them even before this early stage of their in their careers in Keys of the Kingdom and Casablanca. You’d be forgiven for expecting more from this supremely talented duo. I’m sorry, Ingrid. But even you can’t make the word “liverwurst” sound romantic.

Regardless, Spellbound has a compelling mystery at its core told to us with some striking visuals. If you can overlook the absurdly the improbable plot details (even by Hitch’s pulpy standard) it’s an entertaining romp.


I too feel like this at train stations

Hitchcock-a-thon: Lifeboat (1944)


 Hitchcock’s last wartime feature film was one of his best.

Lifeboat opens with the remains of a bombed ship disappearing under the ocean. The survivors, from all different backgrounds, haul themselves on board a lifeboat amid the debris. They quickly realise that one of their fellow survivors is a Nazi U-Boat captain (played by Austrian actor Walter Slezak). With no food or water, they need to set a course for Bermuda, but only their German prisoner has the seamanship to get them there. How much can they afford to rely on their enemy?


Sing it with me: “We’re all in this together…”

The first thing to remark about Lifeboat is Hitchcock’s supreme technical achievement. All the action takes place within the confines of the small vessel, yet thanks to John Steinbeck’s dynamic script and Hitchcock’s directorial tricks, it remains a gripping story throughout.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Slezak is superb as the Nazi prisoner. Like the other crew members, we’re always uncertain how much we should trust him. As for rest of the character, Tallulah Bankhead as the cynical columnist Connie is a stand-out delight.

The film is also notable for Joe (Canada Lee) who is one of the first black characters to have a key role in a mainstream American talkie. Although I did notice that he’s the only main character not to feature on the film’s poster. Urgh. Blame Hollywood for that one.


Oh for fu-

The film was initially panned by critics upon release. Incredible as it may seem, Hitchcock was actually accused of sympathizing with Nazi ideology because the U-boat captain was depicted as competent. Of course, this was grabbing the wrong end of the stick. Hitchcock wanted to show the necessity of putting aside differences to unite against the common enemy of fascism, which was disciplined, capable, and cunning. On a more basic level, it’s adds to the drama of the situation as the characters wonder to what extent the man is a hindrance or a help.

Lifeboat is one of Hitchcock’s most overlooked gems. His self-imposed restrictions (i.e. never leaving the boat) creates powerful examination of human interaction and also results in one his most inventive directorial cameos to date.



Hitchcock-a-thon: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


In the sleepy town of  Santa Rosa CA, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is over the moon when her favourite uncle, also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family. Everyone loves Uncle Charlie, y’see. He’s charming, fun and generous. And, best of all, he’s not secretly a serial killer.

Oh. Oh, wait.

Yes, it’s another Hitchcock tale of growing mistrust. Our heroine starts to suspect that one of the people closest to her harbours a dark, sinister secret: is her uncle the “Merry Widow murderer”? As the paranoia grows, it’s only a matter of time until it’s Charlie vs. Charlie.


While the plot may sound like a retread of The Lodger or Suspicion, it’s executed better here than in either of them. For two main reasons. Firstly, the  idyllic suburban setting is brought to life magnificently by the Great American playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town) who collaborated on the screenplay. With the setting imagined with such believability, it only adds to the threat when the dark presence of Uncle Charlie begins to creep in.

The second thing that makes Shadow of a Doubt a success is the spectacular performance by Cotten as Uncle Charlie. He’s acts Cary Grant’s performance in Suspicion out of the water. The strong twin-like bond he has Young Charlie at the beginning seems almost genuine, making it all the more ominous when her ideal of him begins to shatter. As Hitchcock villains go, he’s up there with Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.


When the two Charlies come head to head it plays out as an allegory of good and evil. The duality of Man: the Good Charlie and the Bad.

There are some baffling plot aspects, such as an absurdly shoehorned romance subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, or when the detectives drop their investigation of Uncle Charlies after the other suspect meets an untimely death.


Hitchcock ranks the film as one of his very best. While I personally wouldn’t go as far as that, it’s still an extremely strong thriller that shows off many of trademarks that make up the Master of Suspense.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Saboteur (1942)


When watching Saboteur why not play “spot The 39 Steps similarities”? A double chase with police hot on the tail of our falsely-accused hero as he tracks down the true culprits? Check. A reluctant heroine who initially doubts our hero’s claim to innocence but falls in love with him by the end? Check? People in positions of power who can’t be trusted? Check. The hero spending most of the movie in handcuffs? Check. Wit and sparking dialogue? Uh…that one not so much.

After a wartime airplane factory is set alight in a shocking act of sabotage, worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is wrongly accused and forced to flee across the country, following a lead which he thinks will bring him to the true masterminds behind the attack. With his gal by his side (Priscilla Lane) they’re search for justice takes them to abandoned ghost towns, a train of circus performers and to the very top of the Statue of Liberty itself.


As is evident from my brief synopsis, Saboteur was something of a retread for Hitchcock who needed to get back into familiar territory after the lukewarm critical reaction to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Suspicion.

However, what sets the film apart from Hitchcock’s previous “man on the run” thrillers is his first truly “American” take on the formula. There are no stately English manors or Laurence Oliviers to be found here. American actors and American landmarks all the way, baby.


There’s also a couple of over-the-top speeches about how gosh darn swell America is. Perhaps a bit hard to stomach for the modern cynical viewer, but it has to remembered that production on Saboteur began less than two weeks after the strike on Pearl Harbor. This kind of patriotism was common in Hollywood at the time.

Despite big blockbuster set-pieces, most notably the climatic fight on top of the Statue of Liberty, Saboteur doesn’t have the same impact as The 39 Steps or even Young and Innocent. It’s still an entertaining romp, but it needed a more compelling lead couple and a tighter script to push it into the top ranks. It would be nearly 20 years before America finally got it’s true rival to 39 Steps. Just wait. Hitchcock was only getting started…


Hitchcock-a-thon: Suspicion (1941)


Will poor Joan Fontaine ever get a peaceful screen marriage? Not if Hitchcock has anything to do with it. Following closely in the footsteps of Rebecca, Hitchcock once again cast Fontaine as his leading lady in a return to his ever-popular theme of marital mistrust.

Against her better judgement, Lina (Fontaine) falls in love with handsome playboy Johnnie (Cary Grant) and quickly marries him, much to her parents’ disapproval. Shortly after their honeymoon Lina begins to discover that her husband has some nasty habits such as lying to her and selling old family heirlooms to fund his gambling addiction. Hey, at least he’s not a murderer, right?

Oh wait. He totally might be. After Johnnie’s bumbling old school friend Becky (Nigel Bruce) suddenly dies in mysterious circumstances, Lina starts to suspect her husband might harbour some evil desires. Might she be next for the chop?


Chicks dig badboys. Especially murderers.

Suspicion was Hitchcock’s first film starring Cary Grant, who would go on to be one of his favourite actors. He does a great job here, showing off a much darker side to his acting than we’ve seen in any on his films. He can make the mere utterance of “Monkeyface” – his pet nickname for Lina – sound charming or menacing depending on the scene. He’s a real schmoozer.

Fontaine also does well, giving the performance that won the Oscar for Best Actress; although the popular consensus is that she won it as atonement by the Academy for not acknowledging her talents in Rebecca the year before.


Nothing says “Oscar bait” like a furrowed brow

Hitchcock’s editing and cinematography is some of his strongest yet, a brief a close up of a purse snapping shut as Lina rejects Johnnie’s romantic advances is one of my personal favourite bits of cheeky symbolism.

Where the film disappoints is with the ending. The plot performs an absurdly clunky U-turn that undermines a lot of what came before it. Allegedly, Hitchcock fought for a much darker ending than we get in the finished film, but the one we’re left with comes across as a total cop-out. There are also few other scenes that haven’t survived the test of time, such as a ridiculously melodramatic game of Anagrams.


Yeah…it’s not exactly subtle.

As a story about emotional entrapment within marriage and as showcase for Joan Fontaine’s acting abilities, Suspicion certainly isn’t bad but it’s dwarfed by unavoidable comparisons with the far superior Rebecca. If you’re faced with a choice between the two, it’s a no brainer.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)


Could Hitchcock do comedy? He could certainly be funny, time and again he demonstrated his ability to bring comic elements to dramatic films. But when it came to pure comedy his only attempt so far in his career…wasn’t funny. But that was over a decade ago. It was time for him to try his hand at directing a screwball American comedy in the footsteps of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940).

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (almost entirely unrelated to the plot of the 2007 Brangelina spy comedy of the same name) stars Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as David and Ann Smith, a New York couple who have been happily married for three years. But after a fight with David and the discovery of a technicality that means their wedding was never legally binding, Ann decides that maybe the single life is better after all. She kicks her not-husband out of their apartment, gets a job and begins courting a Southern lover called Jeff (Gene Raymond). In true Rom Com fashion, it’s up to David to try and win back her heart.


Lombard, who was also a good friend of Hitchcock’s, holds the film together. Her energetic and fiery delivery coaxed a couple of chuckles out of me and I got one good proper laugh at her wonderfully world-weary expression at the top of a broken Ferris wheel.


She was known as the Queen of Comedy in the ’30s and she more than proves her worthiness to the title with her ability to milk some gags out of this flimsy script. Tragically, this was her penultimate film. She died a year later in a plane crash.

Lombard aside, there’s really not much to recommend. Her comic counterpart, Montgomery, does an adequate job but – once again – he’s not working with much. His role is essentially an underdeveloped modern version of Petruchio from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as he tries to stomp out his wife’s wild temper.  There’s even one moment right at the end that’s a bit (how do I put this?) domestic-abuse-y.


The last five minutes aside, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is inoffensive; it’s just not very funny. Despite Lombard and Montgomery’s best efforts the characters aren’t especially likeable, there’s weak pacing throughout and you’ll find more sparkling wit in five minutes of The Lady Vanishes than in the entire running time. But you can’t blame Hitch for trying something different.