Hitchcock-a-thon: Lifeboat (1944)

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 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?

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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.

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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.

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See?

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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: Secret Agent (1936)

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No doubt trying to relive the same spy-story success earlier that year, Hitchcock’s next film returns to the world of espionage (once again starring Madeleine Carroll) this time set in the middle of World War I. Although Secret Agent doesn’t hold a candle to The 39 Steps there’s still a lot to enjoy.

A young British army officer (played by legendary stage actor John Gielgud) is declared dead so he can be given a false identity and bundled off to Switzerland on a secret mission. Now reborn as Mr. Ashenden he’s teamed up with an half-eccentric half-psychotic assassin known as “The General” (Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre) and his glamorous pretend wife Elsa (Madeleine Carroll).

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Now here’s some prime babysitting material

After they accidentally kill the wrong man under the belief he’s a German spy, the Ashendens become repulsed by espionage. “I don’t like murder at close quarters as much as I expected,” admits Elsa with a sigh.

Burdened with guilt, they struggle to see their mission out to the bitter end and infiltrate a secret German spy ring.

It’s certainly interesting to see a spy flick where the moral consequences of the characters’ actions are dwelt upon, as well as an exploration of duty vs. conscience. There’s also some thrilling touches thrown in along the way. In one of the film’s highlights they come across a dead body in a Swiss chapel, slumped across the organ keyboard – blaring out a single monotonous drone.

Speaking of monotonous, the film’s let-down, surprisingly, comes in the form of the Great Gielgud. He was vastly unhappy with his role and clearly couldn’t care less about it. It’s beyond phoning it in. It’s sent it by carrier pigeon. He’s cheerless, wooden and obviously bored.

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“Whoops! I almost gave a crap.”

It’s a pity because Lorre and Carroll both pull their weight. Lorre, playing a much lighter character than usual, is over-the-top but in his joyously unpredictable manner that makes him forever watchable. And Carroll shows off her full acting chops and does a cracking job portraying someone suffering under the heavy strain of guilt.

Secret Agent is also the film debut of Michael Redgrave who has a tiny, uncredited part as an army captain. Don’t worry, Michael. Your time will come. Patience, my pet.

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Here’s to you, Michael

Hitchcock-a-thon: The 39 Steps (1935)

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If The Man Who Knew Too Much was Hitchcock’s launching pad out of career stagnation, The 39 Steps was the rocket which blasted him into the stratosphere.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a young lady at a variety show (Lucie Mannheim) who he shelters in his London flat from menacing goons who pursue her. She reveals herself as a spy on the run from a team of assassins lead by a man missing half his little finger. After she is murdered overnight Hannay is falsely suspected by the police. On the run from the law and the assassins, he flees to Scotland in search of the mysterious organisation “The 39 Steps”

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That’s not how you do the Spock salute

The film is joyous entertainment from start to finish. The first half plays as one of his most suspenseful set-ups yet. Hitchcock’s self-confessed suspicion of the police comes into full play as the innocent Hannay runs through the Scottish heather with officers hot on his heels. But it’s not just the coppers who Hannay has to watch out for; time and time again supposed friends and allies turn against him. A farmer’s downtrodden wife (played with luminescent charisma by Peggy Ashcroft) proves to be one of the few he can trust.

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This guy….not so much

While the suspense doesn’t lessen for the second half, more humour is introduced to keep things balanced. There’s a wonderful satire on crowd mentalities as Hannay darts into a political meeting to escape his pursuers where he delivers an improvised and incoherent motivation speech…met with rapturous applause.

But the wittiest scenes come after Hannay ends up handcuffed to a woman he met on the train (Madeleine Carroll). The two exchange gloriously sharp sexual banter.

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“For God’s sake, cover your mouth when you yawn”

“Could I be of any assistance?” Donat asks Carroll as she struggles to take off her stockings. Believe it or not the line was considered so risqué Christian purity organisations tried to have the film banned.

The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s biggest box office hit yet, both at home and in the US. It inspired The Sunday Times to declare “there is no doubt that Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film.” Dead right.

In terms of adventurous fun, could it get any better than this? Yes, as it turns out. The 39 Steps is a gem, but the crown jewel of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood years was still to come…

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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How on earth did this happen? In the same year Hitchcock gave audiences the one of worst films of his career (so far) and one of the greatest: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Why is it so good? Three words: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre. After displaying his phenomenal acting talent as a tormented child killer in Fritz Lang’s M three years earlier, Lorre came to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazi party. Hitchcock cast him almost immediately as the antagonist.

Here his character doesn’t have room for the kind of psychological complexity Lorre delivered in M, but he’s still entertaining as Hell to watch! Everything in his performance oozes creepy. He was, and always will be, a truly magnetic actor.

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But maybe not babysitter material

Lorre plays the leader of a terrorist group who kill a secret agent in a hotel in Switzerland. The agent dies in possibly the most British way imaginable – apologizing for the inconvenience. With his last breath he tells Jill (Edna Best) and Bob (Leslie Banks), a couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, to pass on urgent information to the British Consulate.

Bob and Jill quickly learn that Lorre’s gang are planning to assassinate a foreign diplomat in London, but they’re forced into silence when their daughter is kidnapped as a hostage. Unable to speak to the police, they take it upon themselves – with the help of their bumbling friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) – to fight through devious dentists and creepy cults to get her back. The clock is ticking to find her before the diplomat is killed and Europe is thrust into a second World War. Wouldn’t it be terrible if that ever happened? Ahem.

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Fuck dentists

Banks is compelling as the jaw-clenching father desperate to find his daughter, but Best is the wittier and more energetic of the pairing. She’s also responsible for the most euphoric “fuck yeah!” moment of the film. It really should be called The Couple Who Knew Two Much. But that sounds like it might be a Swinger movie.

Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much two decades later starring James Stewart and Doris Day. With a larger budget and big name cast it’s probably the better remembered of the two. But his earlier version is tenser, classier, wittier and has 100% more Peter Lorre.

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“Bitch, please”

Hitchcock-a-thon: Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

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It had to happen eventually. A Hitchcock film that’s bad. Not hard to get in to, not an acquired taste – bad. Actively bad. It comes at the end of Hitchcock’s career decline in the early ’30s and it’s worst of the lot.

Waltzes from Vienna was Hitchcock’s only attempt at a musical, which were very popular in the early ‘30s – presumably from the novelty of being able to hear screen actors sing. If you wanted to be generous you could say that at least he was branching out and trying something new. After all, the idea of a campy operetta directed by Alfred Hitchcock is so bizarre it could have been weirdly brilliant.

But it’s not. It’s feeble. It’s a paper thin non-entity of a film. If Hitchcock’s name wasn’t on the credits there would be no way of knowing he’s behind it and if, for some unfathomable reason, this film happened to be your introduction to Hitchcock you would baffled as to how he came to be known as the Master of Suspense. There’s no passion in this project, no flare, no vision. It’s an extremely monotonous affair.

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Are you sure it wasn’t Alan Smithee?

Johann Strauss Jr (Esmond Knight) is forced by his controlling father (Edmund Gwenn) to work in a bakery instead of pursuing a career in music. He falls in love with Rasi (Jessie Matthews), the daughter of the bakery’s proprietor. The film takes us through his struggles and insecurities as he composes The Blue Danube, tries to keep his relationship together and seeks reconciliation with his father.

The characters are bland, the performances lazy, the songs forgettable, the comedy humourless, and the tone unremitting saccharine.

There’s an especially embarrassing sequence where Strauss gets finds inspiration for the beat to his waltz from the rhythms of the bakery workplace. It’s about as corny as the “Toot Sweet” scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but nowhere near as fun.

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I wish I was baked watching this

Since Hitchcock took on the project during the “lowest ebb” of his career, there are apologists who say it is of interest because you can interpret Strauss’s fear of failure as reflective of Hitchcock’s professional woes.  It’s an interesting theory. But it doesn’t make the story any better.

The film’s cast was as dismissive of the film as Hitch was; Matthews wrote it off as “perfectly dreadful”. That’s being generous.

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Fiddle drivel

Hitchcock-a-thon: Number 17 (1932)

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After Rich and Strange was a box office bomb, British International Pictures took Hitchcock off the film he wanted to direct – an adaption of John Van Druten’s play “London Wall” – and assigned him to Number 17 instead. Although he clearly tries to inject some energy into the project, Number 17 unfortunately continues with the early ‘30s trend of mediocre Hitch flicks.

The bulk of the story takes place in a creepy abandoned house, where a detective (John Stuart) is snooping around. Amid the shadows and cobwebs he comes across a jittery homeless squatter (Leon M. Lion) and a bludgeoned corpse. As a gang of thieves show up with a stolen necklace it looks like our hero’s night is just beginning…

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Leon M Lion tried to high five his shadow

At 63 minutes Number 17 is Hitchcock’s shortest feature film, but it packs a lot of plot in its running time. And not in a good way. Even upon repeated viewings I found it hard to follow what was happening. Character motivations, plot-points and dialogue exchanges are all utterly contrived and muddled. At least all the villains had the decency to have creepy moustaches. That made things easier.

And then there’s the “comedy”. At the time music-hall comic actor Leon M. Lion was film’s biggest draw, securing him top billing on the posters. Maybe he was funny back then, but I found him as entertaining as a colonoscopy. Expect exaggerated mugging, overblown cockney accents and a running “joke” about a sausage. There’s even a scene with a crook that resembles a game of “Grandmother’s Footsteps”. It’s dire.

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Ha.

Still, what the film lacks in plot or characters it (partially) makes up for in atmosphere. The flickering candle light, long shadows and groaning wind make for effective mood setters.

And thank God for the final 20 minutes where Hitchcock gets to show off his high speed editing in an exhilarating final chase between a bus and runaway train. There’s also an amusing sight gag as the bus rockets past a roadside sign which reads “Stop here for dainty teas”

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Dain-tea

Despite one or two saving graces, Number 17 is jumbled mess. Upon release it was probably the weakest Hitchcock picture to date. But the worst was yet to come…