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: 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: Blackmail (1929)

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“See and hear it – our Mother Tongue as it should be…Spoken!”

So declared the posters for Blackmail, the first ever British talkie. However, it began life as a silent film. Half-way through production the studio asked Hitchcock to re-shoot key scenes to include sound. The finished product is a landmark collision of the silent and talkie eras.

Hitchcock included many scenes with fast edits and atmospheric montages to accommodate for silent screenings, while other scenes are designed to show off the capabilities of recorded sound. Cars honk, glass shatters, pianos are played, characters whistle and there’s even some singing.  It’s like the early RealD 3D movies of mid 2000s that took every opportunity throw something towards the screen. If you were a moviegoer in 1929 this was fucking awesome.

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But not as awesome as this shot

Straight off the back of The Manxman, Czech actress Anny Ondra stars as Alice, the bubbly girlfriend of police detective Frank (John Longden). She ditches him at a restaurant to secretly liaise with a suave artist (Cyril Ritchard). Things take a horrific turn as he tries to force himself on her and, in the heat of the moment, she stabs him to death.

Her boyfriend, refreshingly unjudgemental of Alice’s previously flirtatious relationship with the artist, now protects her from a cigar-puffing ex-convict (Donald Calthrop) who suspects her of murder and wants to exploit it to his advantage.

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The knife gives it away

Although Ondra is the only actress officially credited, the character of Alice was actually voiced by Joan Barry who dubbed in all of the lines live on set, since Hitchcock feared audiences would find Ondra’s accent difficult to understand and sound technology was still too primitive for non-diegetic editing. This leads to a few disjointed moments, but in general both actresses do a superb job.

Their collective talents are most impressive during the attempted rape scene. Alice’s terror is frighteningly well expressed, both through the visuals and audio, as he grasps her repeating “Don’t be silly, don’t be silly.” Once her attacker lies dead she becomes quiet, slow and quivering – devastated by what she did and what was nearly done to her. It’s intense and deeply unsettling.

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I never liked clowns

The film drags for the last half hour as the blackmailer tries to have his wicked way. Hitchcock would later realise with Strangers on a Train that a this kind of story works best if the threat builds over a long time. Blackmail takes place over only 24 hours. Regardless, it’s one of Hitchcock more morally complex films with enough intensity to it to forgive the clumsier moments.