Hitchcock-a-thon: Topaz (1969)

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Topaz is a slow, slow movie. Not just because of the drawn out running time (at 143 minutes, it’s the longest film in Hitchcock’s canon) but also because the pacing is so laborious you can almost hear joints creaking. It makes Torn Curtain look rollicking

Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Leon Uris, in turn based off the Cuban Missile Crisis, Topaz begins with a high ranking Russian official Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) defecting over to America. He reveals to US agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) that NATO secrets are being passed to the Russians by a French spy ring codenamed “Topaz”. In order to expose the spies Nordstrom calls in his French friend André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to clear things up.

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Topaz is a film Hitchcock never wanted to make, but the project was forced upon him by Universal executives.  Everyone involved seems to be on auto-pilot. The actors, the screenwriter and, sadly, even Hitchcock himself. His heart was clearly not in this one. It feels like the work of an old school filmmaker struggling to keep relevant in a changing Hollywood industry.

Some scenes were rewritten just hours before filming and Hitchcock ummed and erred over the ending, resulting in several alternative versions. This kind of sloppiness was usually unthinkable to Hitch who tended to work closely with his screenwriters and would meticulously plot out every shot before filming. But when it came to Topaz he had simply stopped caring.

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Many of the individual shots are beautifully executed – there’s an especially effective moment with a lavender coloured dress spreading across a chequered floor – but that’s the bare minimum we expect from Hitchcock by this stage of his career, now on to his fiftieth film.

The one bit of interesting (but failed) experimentation is the film’s visual design. Characters were assigned different colours. The French are associated with yellow, the Cubans with red and so on. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could reveal elements of the plot through colours. He couldn’t.

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It’s sprawling, unfocused and at times proves a real chore to sit through.   Topaz is a spy “thriller” is the loosest possible sense of the word.

 

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Torn Curtain (1966)

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The Golden Age of Hitchcock couldn’t last forever. With New Hollywood on the rise, the ground was shifting.  Now in his sixties, there was a danger that Hitchcock would be shafted by the studios like other old-time directors such as Frank Capra and John Ford. This meant that for Torn Curtain Hitchcock was forced to do something he hated almost more than anything. Compromise.

American physicist and rocket scientist  Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), travels to Soviet-occupied East Berlin for reasons he conceals to his to his fiancée, Sarah (Julie Andrews).  Sarah secretly follows him to Berlin to get some straight answers, worried that he’s defected to the other side. But Armstrong is, of course, secretly working for Uncle Sam; gaining the confidence of his communist hosts in order to uncover a crucial anti-missile equation. Armstrong struggles to escape the watchful eye of Soviet goon Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), to get the crucial information back home.

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There’s one particularly good scene, both tense and darkly comic, where Hitchcock shows just how long and arduous it would be kill someone by strangulation. Other than that, there’s little to pull Torn Curtain out of mediocrity

Brian Moore’s plodding screenplay is the film’s biggest fault, but the cast don’t help matters. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Julie Andrews in a non-singing role. Her short, prim delivery makes every line sounds same-y to me. As for Newman, well, I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as much as the next person, but here he just looks lost. There’s a blankness to his performance that leaves him completely unconvincing as a man caught between duty and his personal feelings. Someone bring back Cary Grant!

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Actually, Grant was exactly who Hitchcock wanted, as well as Eva Marie Saint for his leading lady, but Universal refused, claiming the pair were too old. Accustomed to the wide production control the studio had granted him with The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock now found himself grappling with Universal over key creative decisions which also led to to an irreparable falling out with his long-term collaborator Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the score for every Hitchcock film since 1955. Hitch despised the process and later wrote it off as the least enjoyable production he’d ever worked on.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Marnie (1964)

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Marnie is a very difficult watch for viewers who knows anything about its production history. Hitchcock had already started to develop a stalker-like obsession towards Tippi Hedren during The Birds, but things became even worse during the filming of Marnie. Hedren claims that he followed around outside the set, tried to control what she wore, ate and drank and eventually made “an overt sexual proposition that she could neither ignore nor answer casually, as she could his previous gestures.” She rejected his advances and refused to work with him again, despite Hitchcock’s threats that he would ruin her career.

I firmly believe that art can be brilliant and beautiful on its own merits regardless of the artist’s personal life – no matter how despicable – but after the behind-the-scenes allegations of entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment raised against Hitchcock, what is Marnie about? Entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment.

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But, unsettling as it, Marnie is extremely good. Hedren plays the eponymous heroine, a cunning thief who suffers from psychotic episodes brought on by the colour red (sound familiar?). She applies for a job at a publishing company owned by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) with the intent of robbing him. But Rutland guesses her secret and blackmails her into marrying him.

There are times when Marnie is good enough to stand alongside Hitchcocks’s last five films. Hedren absolutely excels in the lead now she gets the chance to dig her teeth into a meatier role and her screen relationship with Connery is the right level of creepy. You get the impression that Rutland truly loves and cares for Marnie, but he still acts detestably towards her. Every time he uses phrases like “wholesome animal lust” it makes the skin crawl.

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But boy oh boy, the film drops the ball with the ending. It’s hard to discuss it without major spoilers, but in essence the film moves from what was an intricate and disconcerting portrayal of an abusive relationship to a cop-out slice of victim-blaming. It stinks. And it retrospectively tarnishes what was up until that point a superb and effective film.

Film biographer Donald Spoto describes it as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. Close but no cigar. I’d say it’s about 80% masterpiece. Well worth watching, but switch it off before the last twenty minutes.

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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: Vertigo (1958)

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As Vertigo opens with a hypnotic credits sequence – the camera panning from a pair of woman’s lip to her open eye before zooming into her pupil with psychedelic spiralling effects – you know that Hitchcock has returned to his pulpy origins after his detour into neorealism.

Like all Hitchcock’s best pulp, the plot is pure hokum. But beneath its surface lies a gripping examination of escalating obsession.

Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) retires from policing force after nearly falling to his death in a rooftop chase, striking him with acrophobia. An old college friend (Tom Helmore) hires him to investigate his suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who appears to be possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. As his own feelings for her grow, is Scottie able to get to the bottom of this supernatural mystery, Scooby-Doo style?

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Hitchcock was always superb at bringing out the darker side of actors usually famed for their whiter-than-white roles (think Cary Grant in Suspicion) and in his final Hitchcock collaboration James Stewart gives an intense performance. Vera Miles was initially lined up to play Madeleine, but became pregnant just before filming. While she would have no doubt been superb, Novak makes a beguiling lead.

Visually the film is outstanding, most notably for the use of “dolly zoom” shots (invented by the uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts) used to convey the sense of vertigo with great effective. The technology was so revolutionary that just one dolly zoom lasting no more than a few seconds reportedly cost $19,000.

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The film’s momentum briefly dips after the Big Twist is revealed with still a third of the movie to go (a decision Hitchcock agonised over). It picks up again when it shows the tragic futility of holding on to guilty memories, but if you’re watching the film for the first time there’s a whiplash effect as you have suddenly drop your investment in the central mystery.

Upon its release the reviews were lukewarm. None of the critics berated it, but it was only from the late ‘60s onwards that people began to rank it as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, or even one of the Greatest Films of All Time. As for me, I think it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s an extremely engaging film that’s worthy of attention, yet I wouldn’t call it one of Hitchcock’s absolute best. But I admit that’s a minority opinion.

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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.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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Don’t you just hate remakes? Yeah, everyone does.

Except me, actually. Many films held up to be untouchable classics are in fact already remakes or unfaithful adaptions of pre-existent source material. Nothing is sacred. And no one understood this better than Hitchcock. The majority of his films were adapted from novels or plays and he had no qualms about altering any details he felt stood in the way of a good story.

Now in his mid-fifties he decided to remake his own film. The one that pulled out of his career rut 22 years earlier: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

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There are basic story similarities between the two. A man and wife (this time, James Stewart and Doris Day) hear the dying words of a spy while on holiday (this time, Morocco), but their child (this time, a small boy) is kidnapped by a gang of assassins to prevent them from revealing what they know to the police. With only the name “Ambrose Chapel” as a lead, they head to London to rescue their boy and stop the assassins’ nefarious scheme.

How does the remake compare to the original? Well, for my money I pick the 1934 version over the remake any day. That’s not to say that they don’t share common flaws (both plots hinge upon the bewildering belief that a clash of symbols would drown out the sound of a gunshot) or that the remake is in any way a bad film; actually it’s extremely good. But which you prefer over the other boils down to a matter of personal taste. Maybe it’s a British vs. American thing. Who knows?

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But if I tally up either film and hold them side by side this is what I find: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre > Bernard Miles; evil dentist > suspicious taxidermist; a Sun-worshipping cult > pretty much any other evil gang; a tightly structured 75 minutes > a flabby 120 minutes; and, I’m gonna get stick for this one, Edna Best > Doris Day. Admittedly, James Stewart > Leslie Banks because James Stewart > Just About Everything. But still. My ultimate conclusion is The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) > The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). I’m so, so sorry Jimmy…

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