Hitchcock-a-thon: Frenzy (1972)

frenzy

Frenzy is by far the most graphic film Hitchcock ever made. Thrilling, yes. Brutal, certainly. But the subtlety had faded. Some call it Hitchcock’s last great film. I’d personally label it his last “very good” film. But it is impressive that a man who had in the business for sixty years was still capable of making something different to anything he had done before.

Having said that, there are also some familiar tropes. Our “man on the run from the police” being the most obvious one. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is a down-on-his luck bartender, who gets falsely suspected as the Neck Tie Murderer; a serial killer who rapes his female victims before strangling them with his neckties. The London setting makes the plot feel somewhat like an updated version of The Lodger, which he made right at the beginning of his career, only this time Hitchcock had the opportunity to be far more explicit.

sus1

Whether or not you think the explicitness is a good thing is pivotal to how much you enjoy the movie. There’s a rape scene, for example, that’s the hardest sequence to watch in all of Hitchcock’s film. The scene is effective, in a brutal sort of way, but Psycho is the perfect horror/thriller because it carefully treads the line between what it reveals to you and the blanks gaps it leaves for your mind to fill in. Frenzy shows you everything.

Though there is one brilliant moment midway through the film that recapture this Psycho spirit. As the killer lures an unaware victim into his flat and closes the door, the camera backs away in a long continuous shot down the staircase and then out onto the street where people bustle to and fro on their daily business. None of them know what’s going on in the flat upstairs. But we do, even though Hitchcock doesn’t show us.

sus1

There’s also some strong bits of dark humour, such as the chief inspector’s discussions of grizzly murder while struggling to eat his wife’s disgusting attempts at exotic food (“cailles aux raisins”).

Frenzy was Hitchcock’s most skillful film in nearly a decade, but it’s “bare all” approach works against it. There are times where you remember why Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense and other times where it seems unnecessarily nasty. Although it does have Bernard Cribbins in it. That’s awesome.

sus1

Advertisements

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

wrongman

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.

su1

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.

su1

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.

su1

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.

Hitchcock-a-thon: I Confess (1953)

icon

Hitchcock carries the theme of the transference of guilt from Strangers on a Train on to his next film, I Confess, this time with a religious twist. Transfers it, you might say. Appropriate.

In Quebec City, devout Catholic priest Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) hears a late-night confession from the church caretaker Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), an impoverished German immigrant, who accidentally killed a wealthy lawyer called Villette after an attempt to rob him royally ballsed up.

su1

Logan’s vows mean he cannot reveal Otto’s confession to anyone, including the police, even after he finds himself accused as the murderer thanks to a co-incidental relationship with Ruth (Anne Baxter) long before his days of the cloth that connects his life to Villette.

We’ve seen heroes falsely accused of crimes time and time again in Hitchcock films, but this is the first time our main man hasn’t ended up on the run, trying to track down the true culprit. Instead, the drama comes from wondering how long Logan can bear the cross of another man’s guilt when the entire city blames him and whether he can clear his name without breaking his holy oath.

As you might expect, this makes I Confess more sombre in tone than Hitchcock previous “innocent man on the run” flicks. And not necessarily in a good way. It borders on boring, not helped by chiselled, brooding Montgomery Clift who looks more like Captain Scarlet in a dog collar than an actual priest.

su1

Anne Baxter is also fairly forgettable as Ruth. But she was never meant to be involved in the project.  Anita Bjork, the Swedish star of Miss Julie, was originally on board for the role, but Warner Bros forced Hitchcock to cast Baxter instead after Bjork brought her lover and illegitimate child into Hollywood.

Combine these unremarkable leads with a mediocre script and you’re left with a real damp squib of a film.

At least it’s beautifully shot. Hitchcock always had a keen eye for striking architecture whenever he was let loose on location shoots, and I Confess is no exception. He sure knows how to make Quebec look glorious.

su1

And, hey, it is interesting to see Hitch attempt a film where the hero addresses the accusations against his name rather than running from them. The final product just doesn’t pay off.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers

With the exception of Rope, the last five years hadn’t been kind to Hitchcock either financially or critically. But Hitch had a habit of popping out a big hit just as he reached a rut. Strangers on a Train was a box office smash and, though it received mixed reviews at the time, has since been remembered as one of his All Time Greats. Rightly so.

Renowned tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) means a flamboyant young man, Bruno (Robert Walker), a on a train. Over a couple of drinks Bruno outlines a *cough* totally hypothetical scheme in which Guy murders Bruno’s hated father and in exchange Bruno murders Guy’s gold-digging wife (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott). “Criss-cross.” The deaths would appear motiveless.

su1

Guy dismisses Bruno as a harmless loon, but it quickly becomes clear that his hypothetical scheme isn’t hypothetical at all…

After Hitchcock’s first attempt at a blackmail story, he’d learned that the suspense works best if the pressure from villain piles over time. The tension becomes so thick you could scoop it into ice-cream cones. It’s hard not to shiver at the sight of Bruno’s stationary head staring out from the middle of nodding tennis crowd or his ominous shadow as he stalks Guy’s wife through a fairground.

su1

 Hitchcock was famed for his eye for his obsessive perfectionism and Strangers on a Train is perhaps one of clearest example of this. He oversaw every detail from Bruno’s tacky lobster tie to the food he orders in the train restaurant. Combined with the pitch-perfect casting of Granger and Walker, Hitchcock believed these details saved “a reel of storytelling time” since they conveyed key character qualities that would otherwise need to be spelled out to the audience.

There’s a dapper, homoerotic subtext to Bruno that gives him a menacing charm. In a way, he represents Guy’s own darkest desires which he will not (or cannot) act upon. “I like a guy who does things,” schmoozes Bruno. So do we. But we also fear them.

su1

Much like Shadow of Doubt, Hitchcock packed Strangers on a Train full of visual references to this sense of good/evil duality. In the film’s opening moments we see two sets of feet, matching each other in movements, but they establish the contrast between the two men: one pair garish and the other sensible. From the off we know to expect contrast.

But, really, there’s far too many great moments to mention in a short blog post. Go and see it for yourselves. Or, if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It only gets better with repeat screenings.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Stage Fright (1950)

stage

By 1950 Hitchcock had been directing films for a quarter of a century. His career had survived the shift from silents to talkies, he’d made it big in Hollywood for over a decade and had even bagged himself a Best Picture Oscar with Rebecca. In many ways it must have seemed like there was nowhere left to go. In actuality, the Golden Age of Hitchcock was still to come.

But not quite yet. First we have to get through Stage Fright. It’s not as melodramatically tedious as Under Capricorn, but it’s a bland affair. For a film about deceitful theatrics (Classic Hitchcock), it deserves to be more interesting than it is.

su1

An aspiring London actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) gets caught up in a very different kind of drama when her friend Jonathan (Richard Todd) seeks her help. The husband of his secret lover, musical diva Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), has been murdered and Jonathan is the chief suspect. With the help of her cool-as-a-cucumber father (Alastair Sim) and a charming police inspector (Michael Wilding), Eve puts her acting skills to the test in order to uncover the truth.

The thing most critics remember about Stage Fright is the ending, which turns the plot around in a pretty nifty and unexpected twist. Also, in contrast to the large scale chases around big set pieces that had become prominent in Hitch’s American films, the climax is restricted and personal. It’s by far the most tense and claustrophobic moment in the two hour running time and ends things on a high note.

su1

But as for the rest of it…it’s OK. Wyman and Dietrich are watchable enough as the leads and there’s a few funny moments such as a ridiculously over-the-top cameo from comic actress Joyce Grenfell credited only as ‘Lovely ducks’ (you’ll know why when you see it). But the film feels hugely stretched at two hours, with long chunks of unmemorable dialogue.

su1

It’s fair to say Hitchcock’s brief return to British cinema was underwhelming. It would be another two decades before he came back again, this time with glory.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Rope (1948)

rope

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.

su1

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.

su1

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.

su1

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

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

paradine

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?

sus1

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.

sus1

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.

sus1

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.