Hitchcock-a-thon: The Wrong Man (1956)

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The Wrong Man is an odd beast. In some ways it represents a lot of what we’ve come to expect from Hitchcock: an innocent man falsely accused of a terrible crime by the cops etc., but in its execution it is wholly different from everything we’ve seen from the director so far.

In every other “innocent hero falsely accused” Hitchcock story the protagonist had some clue that leads them to the true perpetrator. A description of the criminal; a missing belt; a name on an envelope; a confession etc.

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In contrast, the hero in The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), is accused of bank robbery and taken in by the police for extensive interrogation, but both he and the audience have no real idea why. We’re forced to watch him struggle for justice in a legal system that assumes his guilt, which proves to be an agonising strain on him and his wife, Rose (Vera Miles). There’s no quick-fix clue for our hero to hunt down and resolve the misunderstanding. This is a MacGuffin-less Hitchcock.

Why the more realistic tone? Well, because it was a true story. The 1951 Balestrero trial appealed to Hitchcock’s self-confessed fear of police and he decided he wanted to tell Manny’s story as faithfully as possible.

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And when Hitchcock says he wants to do something faithfully, he bloody means it. The film was shot in the actual locations in New York City where the original incidents occurred four years earlier.  Even the prison scenes were shot in a jail in Queens with real-life inmates as the extras. The tension you see on Henry Fonda’s face as he’s hauled through that claustrophobic hellhole…that ain’t acting.

Speaking of Fonda, he’s outstanding here. With an understated performance he conveys the overbearing weight of his ordeal making him very relatable. Plus he actually looks like a regular middle-aged bloke, rather than a glamorous Hollywood actor.

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Vera Miles is also fantastic as Rose, displaying the crucial fact that false accusations don’t just disrupt the lives of those accused. They affect everyone around them too. Her struggle through the process is as gruelling as his.

The Wrong Man may lack the flashy editing or pulpy stories that made Hitchcock popular, but it smacks of brutal authenticity. Nowadays it’s somewhat overlooked. Absolutely worth checking out.

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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

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: Jamaica Inn (1939)

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With the overseas critical and box office success of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, Hollywood offers were flooding in. After visiting LA Hitchcock finally accepted a seven-year deal with Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick. There was time for one last British film before he left. Unfortunately, the finished product proved to be a step back in style to his sub-par films of the early ‘30s.

On the rocky coasts of Cornwall, in the early 1800s, a ruthless gang of smugglers lure ships to their doom and pilfer what they can find from the wrecks. Their hideout is Jamaica Inn owned by gang member Joss (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Patience (Marie Ney). Patience’s niece, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), comes to live with her aunt in the suspicious inn. Jamaica? No, she went of her own accord. Ho ho! Actually it’s because her mother died. Oh. Awkward.

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I…I’m sorry for your loss

After saving the life of Traherne (Robert Newton), an undercover law-officer, they seek the help of the magistrate Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Charles Laughton). Little do they know that Sir Humphrey is the villainous mastermind behind the gang.

Jamaica Inn is a feeble film. Uninteresting heroes, bland dialogue and a story almost entirely lacking in drama. The only potential enjoyment to be had is with Laughton’s ridiculously camp performance. The man knows how to chew the shit out of the scenery.

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Actually, he chews a lot of things

Many of the problems came from the production history. Though Hitchcock got on well with Laughton on a personal level, his dual role as star and producer meant they often clashed professionally. Hitchcock had wanted to reveal Sir Humphrey as the true villain towards the end of film, but Laughton demanded more screen time so it’s learned very early on – even given away on the film’s posters. A change which Hitchcock called “completely absurd”. But his hands were tied.

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Geddit?

Jamaica Inn ended up a surprise box office hit, but was berated by the critics. Not that Hitch cared. He was Hollywood-bound. Jamaica Inn lasts as a sad blip in his five year winning streak.

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: Sabotage (1936)

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Sabotage (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur) is based on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s last film The Secret Agent). Continuing his trend of spy-thrillers, Hitchcock draws from the mounting political paranoia of the period as Europe skirted around the edges of another World War.

Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) manages a small cinema as a cover for his involvement in a gang of foreign saboteurs. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) and his nephew (Desmond Tester) know nothing of his secret, but a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder) goes undercover at the grocery next door to keep a close eye on the gang.

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Hmm. Maybe too close.

As with many of Hitchcock’s spy films, Sabotage has been accused of xenophobia, but the depiction of the foreign saboteurs (or terrorists as we would call them today) has some sympathetic touches. Verloc himself is clearly in way over his head and has to deal with consequences he never fully anticipated. But Hitchcock takes care to show that, misguided or not, Verloc’s actions are still devastating. It’s more an exploration of personal mistrust and unintended consequences than it is xenophobic.

Indeed, it’s the full weight Hitchcock gives to these consequences that makes the film brutally effective. Without spoiling anything, one of Verloc’s sabotages goes horribly wrong and boosts the emotional stakes of the film.

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“Oh, balls”

Hitchcock later regretted how this scene played out; saying that he felt audiences were unhappy because weren’t given a release from the suspense. But that’s precisely what makes the scene so effective.

The moment where Sylvia Sidney’s character learns the news of this disaster is sublime. She wanders in a daze into the cinema which is screening Disney’s Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin? After a few seconds she finds herself hysterically laughing along with the audience before her sadness kicks in. It’s a brilliantly unsettling portrayal of a mind struggling to cope with tragedy.

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It’s also a great cartoon. YouTube it.

When we come to the violent climax, still rather shocking even today, it unfolds in silence. No music, no dialogue; just cold, mechanical revenge.

It’s a tense, emotionally-driven thriller without any of the humour and wit from The 39 Steps, but with buckets of atmosphere and powerful moments. For anyone who prefers Hitchcock’s more “serious” films over his lighter romps, Sabotage is a must-see.

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