Hitchcock-a-thon: Under Capricorn (1949)

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If Waltzes from Vienna or Jamaica Inn didn’t convince that Hitchcock really can’t do period dramas, Under Capricorn might be the conclusive bit of evidence you need. While it’s not quite as bad his earlier efforts at the genre, it’s still a bland, sluggish final entry to Hitchcock’s ’40s success as well as a disappointing end to his films starring Ingrid Bergman.

Welcome to Australia, 1831, brought to us in vibrant Technicolor. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives from Ireland to visit his uncle who’s been appointed the governor of New South Wales and hopefully make his fortune. He’s introduced to former convict and current businessman Sam Flusky (Joe Cotten) and his troubled, alcoholic wife Henrietta (Bergman). Charles tries to help her rehabilitate and in doing so falls in love with her (whoops) which causes a whole lotta tension, not least because the housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) is secretly in love with Sam and tries to ruin his marriage.

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Under Capricorn is visually beautiful. Hitch utilized the same ambitious long shots seen in Rope but the camerawork is freer now he’s abandoned the “all in one take” gimmick. Other than that, however, there is painfully little to recommend.

Cotten and Bergman have both given sensational performances in earlier Hitchcock films, but here they struggle with the woefully wooden script. A real disappointment given their calibre of talent. As for the other characters, they don’t fare much better. Wilding is entire forgettable as the lead and the manipulative housekeeper, Milly, is played as a watered down version of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca.

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After an absolutely dire first half, the plot picks up a bit towards the end as a few twists and turns are thrown into proceedings. But at nearly two hours long it’s too little too late. They movie’s had nearly 100 minutes to make me care about these characters and it failed. At this stage, no amount of plot twists can change that.

Despite the big-name cast and sophisticated cinematography, Under Capricorn is a step back in time for Hitchcock in terms of storytelling.  For all the elegant, swooping shots Hitchcock could throw at it, nothing could stop it from being utterly inert.

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An absurdly distracting bonnet

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Rope (1948)

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Hitchcock loved creating his own technical boundaries only to overcome them. In Lifeboat he set out to shot a riveting drama within the confines of one small, cramped location. In Rope he now goes one step further: to create a riveting drama within a small, cramped location…in one single shot. An incredibly ambitious undertaking. Too ambitious, in fact.

The short reels of the time wouldn’t allow Hitchcock to shoot the film as one take. As such, the finished film consists of nine shots cut together to give the appearance of a single take. Unfortunately, the illusion doesn’t always work; some of the cuts are jilting obvious and serve as a bit of a distraction.

Regardless, Rope is an extremely engaging story. Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) are two friends who decide to commit a murder as an intellectual exercise. After throttling their mutual friend, David (Dick Hogan), in their New York apartment they hide the body in a trunk and throw a party with a bunch of clueless party guests as David’s still warm corpse lies stored just out of sight. All part of the fun, really.

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It’s all fun and games until someone gets murdered

What they don’t count on is the observant eye of their old school teacher Rupert (James Stewart) who starts to suspect that something truly dreadful has happened.

Rope was Hitchcock’s first colour picture as well as his first collaboration with the great actor James Stewart. Although Stewart gives a strong performance (when does he not?) he’s still not yet at the absolute top of his game as the sleuthing school teacher.

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On the case

The real stand-out is John Dall, who gives plays the more suave – and creepy – half of the murdering duo. He’s a slick screen presence and always fun to watch.

The real achievement of Rope is that, despite the clunky cuts, Hitchcock keeps the camera in nearly constant motion. He’d learnt from Juno and the Paycock that shooting a one room drama like a static stage play simply wouldn’t do. In contrast, all of Rope is always visually interesting, not least of all the beautiful addition of the New York skyline backdrop designed to slowly shift from dusk to nighttime.

Hitchcock later dismissed his “one-shot” approach as a stunt. Maybe so, but it’s a stunt which gives an engaging and suspenseful film, even if it’s slightly frayed at the edges.

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Geddit? It was a rope pun! God, I’m so alone…

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Paradine Case (1947)

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In 1934 Hitchcock went from his worst film of the decade to one of his best. Now in the ’40s he reverses the trend. Straight off the back of the magnificent Notorious, Hitchcock began work on his final collaboration with Selznick – The Paradine Case. While it’s still miles better than the string of crap Hitch produced in the early ’30s, it’s a ponderous film that doesn’t live up to the potential of the premise.

In his second and final film with Hitchcock, Gregory Peck plays Anthony Keane – a London attorney hired to defend Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli) against accusations that she murdered her husband, a blind war-veteran. Keane starts to fall for his mysterious client which threatens both his career and his relationship with his wife, Gay (Ann Todd). Is Mrs. Paradine as innocent as he believes, or is she playing him like a chump?

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The Paradine Case cost over $4,000,000, a monumental sum for the time. It ended up nearly as expensive as Gone With the Wind,  which was on a huge blockbuster scale. But this is a low-key courtroom drama; where the hell did all the money go?

Not on the script, I hope. The screenplay (which Selznick constantly rewrote much to Hitch’s annoyance) hints at some interesting relationships and themes, but feels over-stretched and flabby.

At least some of the acting is strong. Especially from Ann Todd as Keane’s love-suffering wife and Charles Laughton turns in a surprisingly underplayed performance as Judge Horfield.

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I’m very sad to say that it’s Peck who sticks out as the weak link. Based on other Peck films- not least of all his phenomenal performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – we know the man can do much better, but here he feels awkward and stilted. Initially Laurence Olivier was signed on to play Peck’s part before dropping due to other commitments. It would have been great to see him work with Hitchcock once again and he light have been able to add some va-va-voom to the role. Unlike Peck, he would have certainly been able to give a convincing English accent.

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Overall, The Paradine Case is bland and forgettable, but isn’t as awful as many critics make it out to be. The fact it stands as Hitch’s weakest film of the decade only goes to show how great the ’40s were for Hitchcock hits.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Notorious (1946)

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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After the success of Rebecca, Hitchcock struck up a movie deal with producer Walter Wanger who allowed him more free reign than Selznick had done, essentially dishing out a large budget and letting him go nuts. The result was Foreign Correspondent, a big-budget spy thriller that serves as an early blueprint for North by Northwest.

The film kicks off with American reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) getting packed off to Europe write a story about the growing risk of war. But after a leading Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann) is assassinated in a crowded street by a gun concealed by a camera, Jones finds himself caught up in the middle of international disaster that’s spiralling out of control.

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Much of the film’s enjoyment comes from the scale. We encounter plenty of nail-biting sequences framed against large set-pieces any of which could have served as a superb climax, but Hitchcock seemed determined to top himself each time.

There’s also bucket loads of witty banter, often from the suave, deadpan delivery of fellow reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) who provides a gloriously silly explanation for his name: “One of my ancestors had his head chopped off by Henry VIII and his wife dropped the capital letter to commemorate it.”

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That’s not to say the film is pure escapism, though. Filmed during the early stages of World War II, Hitchcock was extremely concerned about his friends and relatives back home in Britain under the shadow of growing Nazi threat.

The final scene ends with London under siege by bombers and happened to be released in the US in the midst of the Battle of Britain and only a week before Germany began actually bombing London on August 24. Propaganda it may be, but given the circumstances of the production it smacks of historical urgency.

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Good as it is, there are a few flabby bits holding the film back from being one of Hitch’s absolute best. The story takes rather a long time to get going and the romance subplot between Jones and Carol (Laraine Day) is clumsily shoehorned in for plot convenience.

However, Foreign Correspondent still excels because of Hitchcock deeply personal concern for the European crisis. Plus it shows off the great director’s talents when he’s allowed creative freedom with a large budget.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

So goes the most famous opening line to any Hitchcock film, perhaps the most famous opening line in all cinema. Well, apart from “Rosebud.” After the anti-climatic conclusion to Hitchcock’s British period, his Hollywood debut, Rebecca, was a critical and box office smash and is still held to be one of the All Time Greats. Indeed, it’s the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Does it deserve such high praise?

Yes.

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We follow a nameless heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) in her whirlwind romance with wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) who she meets in Monte Carlo. When they return to Manderley, Maxim’s country house in Cornwall, the new Mrs. de Winter feels out of place in the overbearing world of the English aristocracy. Try as she might, she cannot shake the feeling that she inferior  to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. As Max becomes more distant and the ice-cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), continues to remind her that she doesn’t belong, it seems that the shadow of Rebecca forever darkens Manderley.

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This was a passion project for Hitchcock. He’d wanted to do the film since Daphne du Maurier’s original novel was published in 1938, but until now he was unable to afford the rights. Mistrust and secrecy within marriage is a popular Hitchcock theme we’ve already seen in The Pleasure Garden, Easy Virtue and Sabotage, but here it’s implemented most successfully.

The unseen presence of the late Mrs. de Winter is so strong it’s almost palpable. Hitchcock’s slow-tracking shots through empty corridors and staircases creates a the foreboding presence that looms over film, adding to its mystery and mounting suspense. Credit must also go Judith Anderson’s superb performance as Mrs. Danvers who’s fanatical devotion to the memory of Rebecca – with subtle homoerotic undertones – makes her one of the more psychologically interesting villains in the Hitchcock canon.

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Fontaine is exceptional as the lead, taking us through the emotional decline of a naive young romantic thrown into an oppressive and unfamiliar world. Olivier as Maxim is brooding and involved, especially compared to the lacklustre performance by his lifelong rival John Gielgud in The Secret Agent.

Overall, Rebecca is a expertly executed drama and a thrilling start to Hitchcock’s Hollywood career.