Hitchcock-a-thon: Family Plot (1976)

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Well. Here we are. Hitchcock’s final film, made just four years before his death in 1980. After an astonishing career of over 50 years it’s hard not to feel a tad emotional now we’ve reached the end. Maybe that’s just me.

By 1976 Hitchcock was slowing down. In the last decade of his career he only directed two films, quite a step back for the man used to churn out three per year. His dwindling energy is, perhaps, reflected in the comedic thriller Family Plot. While it’s a perfectly entertaining flick, it feels slower and lighter than what we’re accustomed to from the Master of Suspense.

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Hitchcock’s final cameo

Family Plot presents us with two parallel story lines. Story one, a scam spiritual medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) set out to help an elderly widow track down her long lost nephew for a hefty cash reward. Story two, a married pair of crooks, Arthur (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black), kidnap various wealthy chaps and demand diamonds as ransom.

How are these two cases connected? And who is the enigmatic Eddie Shoebridge? It’s gonna take a whole lot of snooping around graveyards to find out.

Despite its central mystery, Family Plot is a fairly laid-back film. There are a handful of thrills along the way, such as a high-speed car chase across the Californian countryside or a jewel heist at the beginning executed by Fran dressed up like Lady Gaga, but these are rare exceptions.

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Wants your applause

Instead of thrills, the film’s enjoyment comes from Ernest Lehman’s witty screenplay, especially when it comes to the relationship between the two leads.

Their frank and open dialogue is fun to witness, whether they’re flat out insulting each or making plans about their evening sex (“Don’t start to fret, George, or our waterbed will be no fun at all tonight; as an actor, you should know that fretting will ruin a performance.”)

Family Plot is an enjoyable final flourish, but even at its best it never comes close to matching the flirty fun of To Catch a Thief or the unabashed cheesiness of North by Northwest, even with Barbara Harris’s fourth-wall-shattering wink right at the end.

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T-t-t-t-t-t-that’s all, folks!

Hitchcock-a-thon: North by Northwest (1959)

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It took nearly 30 years of waiting, but America finally had its answer to The 39 Steps. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”. He sure as hell delivered the goods.

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant in his last Hitchcock film) is unsuspectingly kidnapped by a couple of goons after they mistake him for a man called “George Kaplan.” After escaping an attempt on his life, Roger finds himself also wanted by the police after a UN diplomat dies in his arms. On the run from the cops and from his would-be assassins, Roger heads across the country in search of answers with the help of his seductive acquaintance Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).

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North by Northwest might well be the most splendidly uninhibited of Hitchcock’s films. No plot point is too ludicrous, no set piece too big, no innuendo too corny. From the scuffle on top of Mount Rushmore to the much-parodied crop duster chase scene, it’s big and bold fun throughout.

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The banter between Roger and Eve was some Hitchcock’s more risqué yet and he struggled to squeeze a lot of it past the Hayes Code. Yet somehow the censors missed the absurdly phallic final shot that Hitchcock himself called “one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”

Grant’s at his most bumbling in this light-weight lead role, but he’s still immensely watchable as an everyman protagonist. Saint (who’s still acting today aged 89) makes a deceptively cool femme fatale and James Mason has suave menace as the villainous Vandamm. But for my money, the true stand-out is Vandamm’s right hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) whose face displays the kind of villainy straight out of a comic book.

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How does it compare to Hitchcock’s early adventure hits such as The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes? It depends what you’re in the mood for. In terms of large, blockbuster spectacle North by Northwest is unrivalled in the Hitchcock canon. Personally, I prefer the dry humour of The Lady Vanishes to the innuendo-crammed silliness we find here. But it’s not this is an either/or scenario. Why not watch both of them? And 39 Steps too. They’re all great.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Trouble with Harry (1955)

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I just don’t “get” The Trouble With Harry. Some people love it. Some even call it the funniest film in Hitchcock’s whole canon. But I find it slow, dull and totally reliant on one central joke that barely works to begin with.

So what is the trouble with Harry? Well he’s dead, for starters. Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) comes across Harry’s body while hunting rabbits in the woods close to the small town of Highwater, Vermont. He believes that he must have killed Harry by mistake and sets about trying to dispose of the body.

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I bet the kid did it

But Harry’s ex-lover Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), is under the impression that she killed Harry after bashing him over the head with a milk bottle and Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) believes Harry died after she whacked him over the head with her hiking boot after she thought he was trying to assault her.

And that’s our big joke: Harry dead, no one really cares but everyone thinks they did it. The central premise undoes the rest of the film. As we watch Harry’s body getting dragged around the place, buried, dug up and plonked in a bathtub it’s not especially funny because we know that no one cares that he’s dead. With everyone in the town totally blasé about the whole affair, there are no stakes. And the best comedy comes from a sense of high stakes.

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CALL THE POLICE, YOU SICK BASTARD

It’s all very pretty look at, with some vibrant colourful shots of Vermont countryside in high-autumn and composer Bernard Herrmann provides a lively score in the first of many collaborations with Hitch, but it’s not enough to save the film from monotony.

Despite positive reviews, The Trouble With Harry performed poorly at the box office, much to Hitchcock’s disappointment. He was very fond of the film and felt it was his best example of macabre humour.

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It’s not.

While I suppose it’s commendable that Hitchcock tried something very off-kilter, he sadly misses the mark. If it’s humour in Hitchcock ye be seekin’, The Lady Vanishes is still your go-to movie. Or To Catch a Thief if you like your comedy in Technicolor.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Every time I watch The Lady Vanishes it feels like reminiscing with an old friend. The kind of friend I want to introduce to everyone I know because everyone deserves to know someone this delightful. Yes, I suppose if you wanted to you could point out all the niggling plot inconsistencies. To me, it’s perfect. I don’t love The Lady Vanishes. I am in love with The Lady Vanishes.

Set in an “undiscovered corner” of Europe, a group of British tourists board a homeward bound train after a night in an overcrowded hotel. Moments before the train leaves, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) receives a blow on the head from a falling flower pot and is helped to her carriage by a kindly old governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Witty).

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Dame, gurl!

After chatting over some tea, Iris falls asleep. When she wakes, Miss Froy is gone. And everyone on the train denies ever seeing her. Did the bump on her noggin give her a memory lapse? Or are there more sinister forces at work? Determined to find her new friend, Iris teams up with an effortlessly charming musician, Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), to get to the bottom of the mystery.

While our heroes’ investigation digs up some neat surprises first time around, it’s the strength of the characters that lends the film to many repeat viewings. Lockwood and Redgrave sparkle as the leads. They have some of the best comic/erotic banter out of all the Hitchcock lead couples.

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I would marry both of them if I could

All the secondary characters are also superb, but special mention needs to be made of Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) – two cricket-obsessed Englishmen, whose deadpan delivery easily makes them a wonderfully funny pairing. In fact, the characters were so popular they were written in to three unrelated films in the early ‘40s.

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Did someone say “slash fic”?

The Lady Vanishes doesn’t have the psychological complexity of later Hitchcock masterpieces. And as an adventure it lacks the big budget set pieces in Foreign Correspondent or North By Northwest. But in terms of a mixture of mystery, comedy, romance and thrills it’s hard to imagine a better balance.

Still need convincing? Orson Welles loved the film so much he saw it in the cinema 11 times. So there.

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: 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