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.

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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: 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: Young and Innocent (1937)

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With Young and Innocent Hitchcock tried to make his 39 Steps lightning strike twice. Once again we have a falsely accused man on the run from the police, trying to track down the real culprit who, once again, has an immediately identifiable physical peculiarity.  Once again a spirited young woman gets caught up in his plight. And, once again, he gives us a cracker of a picture.

No espionage this time, though. Instead, struggling author Robert (Derrick De Marney) comes across the corpse of a lady washed up on the beach. He runs to get help, which is misinterpreted by some other onlookers as running away from the scene of the crime. Under questioning by the police it emerges that she was strangled to death by the belt of Robert’s raincoat. Our hero insists his raincoat went missing weeks before the murder. Do the cops believe him? Fat chance in a Hitchcock flick! What else is a guy to do but make his escape and try to solve the mystery himself?

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“Look! Our competence is getting away!”

The film’s success comes from the chemistry between Robert and the daughter of the police chief, Erica (Nova Pilbeam) who ends up helping him on the run. Unlike The 39 Steps, she’s not handcuffed to him for half the film, so early in proceedings she helps him not because she has to but because she wants to. The subtly erotic dialogue between them, aided by superb performances both leads, makes the relationship between the two feel refreshingly natural as well as exciting.

There’s also plenty of thrills along the way, the most famous of which is a long and swooping tracking shot which finally reveals the film’s villain.

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As well as some merry old japes, of course

Nowadays it’s overlooked more than The 39 Steps, probably because it’s more more low-key. There’s no international spy ring, the protagonist isn’t constantly betrayed and in place of dramatic Scottish highlands we have tranquil English countryside. Even the title sounds a bit placid.

But don’t let that put you off. Young and Innocent is a ton of fun. It’s an excellent mixture of humour and suspense grounded in two profoundly likeable protagonists. Little wonder Hitchcock thought it was the best of his British films. But what do I think is the best? Tune in next time.

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Although this one has funnier hats

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