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 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 Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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How on earth did this happen? In the same year Hitchcock gave audiences the one of worst films of his career (so far) and one of the greatest: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Why is it so good? Three words: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre. After displaying his phenomenal acting talent as a tormented child killer in Fritz Lang’s M three years earlier, Lorre came to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazi party. Hitchcock cast him almost immediately as the antagonist.

Here his character doesn’t have room for the kind of psychological complexity Lorre delivered in M, but he’s still entertaining as Hell to watch! Everything in his performance oozes creepy. He was, and always will be, a truly magnetic actor.

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But maybe not babysitter material

Lorre plays the leader of a terrorist group who kill a secret agent in a hotel in Switzerland. The agent dies in possibly the most British way imaginable – apologizing for the inconvenience. With his last breath he tells Jill (Edna Best) and Bob (Leslie Banks), a couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, to pass on urgent information to the British Consulate.

Bob and Jill quickly learn that Lorre’s gang are planning to assassinate a foreign diplomat in London, but they’re forced into silence when their daughter is kidnapped as a hostage. Unable to speak to the police, they take it upon themselves – with the help of their bumbling friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) – to fight through devious dentists and creepy cults to get her back. The clock is ticking to find her before the diplomat is killed and Europe is thrust into a second World War. Wouldn’t it be terrible if that ever happened? Ahem.

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Fuck dentists

Banks is compelling as the jaw-clenching father desperate to find his daughter, but Best is the wittier and more energetic of the pairing. She’s also responsible for the most euphoric “fuck yeah!” moment of the film. It really should be called The Couple Who Knew Two Much. But that sounds like it might be a Swinger movie.

Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much two decades later starring James Stewart and Doris Day. With a larger budget and big name cast it’s probably the better remembered of the two. But his earlier version is tenser, classier, wittier and has 100% more Peter Lorre.

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“Bitch, please”

Hitchcock-a-thon: Murder! (1930)

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Blackmail was a peculiar mixture of silent montages and long talking scenes. Juno and the Paycock was not much more than a filmed stage play. In his third talkie, Murder!, we see Hitchcock begin to master editing in the talkie age. Flowing dialogue overlaps his short, speedy cuts and there’s a well-implemented early example of a voiceover. It’s a shame Hitchcock’s lively editing struggles against a flat and uninventive script.

Acclaimed stage actor Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) sits on a jury for a murder case. The lead suspect is a fellow thespian, a young actresses called Diana (Norah Baring) who was found in a daze by the bludgeoned corpse of a colleague. Although Sir John initially believes she’s innocent, he’s peer-pressured into a “guilty” verdict by his fellow jurors. Soon afterwards, he starts having second thoughts and sets out on an investigation of his own with the help of the stage manager Ted Markham (Edward Chapman). Who killed Edna Druce? Can Sir John save an innocent woman from the gallows? And what the hell does Hamlet have to do with anything?

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Just haaaanging around

The script, adapted from the whodunnit Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, tries to address some heavy subject matter such as the fallibility of the legal system and questioning the line between acting and reality. Where it stumbles is in its clunky execution. The story moves along at a snail’s pace (despite Hitchcock’s slick camerawork) and there are some absurdly theatrical moments. In the scene where Sir John is bullied into changing his verdict by the rest of jury every objection he raises is drowned out by a repeated chorus chant: “Any answer to that Sir John?” It’s rather silly.

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They also stand behind him when he pees

As mystery it doesn’t really work either. A key plot-point is based around a racial issue that doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s not an offensive portrayal, but it sure is baffling.

That’s not to say the film is without its merits. Herbert Marshall is a sound lead; Hitchcock shows off some decent camerawork; and the intense final climax at a circus ends on such a dark note it freaks the shit out of a clown. But even down to its title, Murder! is almost the dictionary definition of an average Hitchcock.

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Though I do always like it when clowns are scared