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.

Advertisements

Hitchcock-a-thon: Under Capricorn (1949)

under

If Waltzes from Vienna or Jamaica Inn didn’t convince that Hitchcock really can’t do period dramas, Under Capricorn might be the conclusive bit of evidence you need. While it’s not quite as bad his earlier efforts at the genre, it’s still a bland, sluggish final entry to Hitchcock’s ’40s success as well as a disappointing end to his films starring Ingrid Bergman.

Welcome to Australia, 1831, brought to us in vibrant Technicolor. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives from Ireland to visit his uncle who’s been appointed the governor of New South Wales and hopefully make his fortune. He’s introduced to former convict and current businessman Sam Flusky (Joe Cotten) and his troubled, alcoholic wife Henrietta (Bergman). Charles tries to help her rehabilitate and in doing so falls in love with her (whoops) which causes a whole lotta tension, not least because the housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) is secretly in love with Sam and tries to ruin his marriage.

su1

Under Capricorn is visually beautiful. Hitch utilized the same ambitious long shots seen in Rope but the camerawork is freer now he’s abandoned the “all in one take” gimmick. Other than that, however, there is painfully little to recommend.

Cotten and Bergman have both given sensational performances in earlier Hitchcock films, but here they struggle with the woefully wooden script. A real disappointment given their calibre of talent. As for the other characters, they don’t fare much better. Wilding is entire forgettable as the lead and the manipulative housekeeper, Milly, is played as a watered down version of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca.

su1

After an absolutely dire first half, the plot picks up a bit towards the end as a few twists and turns are thrown into proceedings. But at nearly two hours long it’s too little too late. They movie’s had nearly 100 minutes to make me care about these characters and it failed. At this stage, no amount of plot twists can change that.

Despite the big-name cast and sophisticated cinematography, Under Capricorn is a step back in time for Hitchcock in terms of storytelling.  For all the elegant, swooping shots Hitchcock could throw at it, nothing could stop it from being utterly inert.

su1

An absurdly distracting bonnet

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.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Saboteur (1942)

sab1

When watching Saboteur why not play “spot The 39 Steps similarities”? A double chase with police hot on the tail of our falsely-accused hero as he tracks down the true culprits? Check. A reluctant heroine who initially doubts our hero’s claim to innocence but falls in love with him by the end? Check? People in positions of power who can’t be trusted? Check. The hero spending most of the movie in handcuffs? Check. Wit and sparking dialogue? Uh…that one not so much.

After a wartime airplane factory is set alight in a shocking act of sabotage, worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is wrongly accused and forced to flee across the country, following a lead which he thinks will bring him to the true masterminds behind the attack. With his gal by his side (Priscilla Lane) they’re search for justice takes them to abandoned ghost towns, a train of circus performers and to the very top of the Statue of Liberty itself.

sus1

As is evident from my brief synopsis, Saboteur was something of a retread for Hitchcock who needed to get back into familiar territory after the lukewarm critical reaction to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Suspicion.

However, what sets the film apart from Hitchcock’s previous “man on the run” thrillers is his first truly “American” take on the formula. There are no stately English manors or Laurence Oliviers to be found here. American actors and American landmarks all the way, baby.

sus1

There’s also a couple of over-the-top speeches about how gosh darn swell America is. Perhaps a bit hard to stomach for the modern cynical viewer, but it has to remembered that production on Saboteur began less than two weeks after the strike on Pearl Harbor. This kind of patriotism was common in Hollywood at the time.

Despite big blockbuster set-pieces, most notably the climatic fight on top of the Statue of Liberty, Saboteur doesn’t have the same impact as The 39 Steps or even Young and Innocent. It’s still an entertaining romp, but it needed a more compelling lead couple and a tighter script to push it into the top ranks. It would be nearly 20 years before America finally got it’s true rival to 39 Steps. Just wait. Hitchcock was only getting started…

sus1

Hitchcock-a-thon: Suspicion (1941)

sus1

Will poor Joan Fontaine ever get a peaceful screen marriage? Not if Hitchcock has anything to do with it. Following closely in the footsteps of Rebecca, Hitchcock once again cast Fontaine as his leading lady in a return to his ever-popular theme of marital mistrust.

Against her better judgement, Lina (Fontaine) falls in love with handsome playboy Johnnie (Cary Grant) and quickly marries him, much to her parents’ disapproval. Shortly after their honeymoon Lina begins to discover that her husband has some nasty habits such as lying to her and selling old family heirlooms to fund his gambling addiction. Hey, at least he’s not a murderer, right?

Oh wait. He totally might be. After Johnnie’s bumbling old school friend Becky (Nigel Bruce) suddenly dies in mysterious circumstances, Lina starts to suspect her husband might harbour some evil desires. Might she be next for the chop?

sus1

Chicks dig badboys. Especially murderers.

Suspicion was Hitchcock’s first film starring Cary Grant, who would go on to be one of his favourite actors. He does a great job here, showing off a much darker side to his acting than we’ve seen in any on his films. He can make the mere utterance of “Monkeyface” – his pet nickname for Lina – sound charming or menacing depending on the scene. He’s a real schmoozer.

Fontaine also does well, giving the performance that won the Oscar for Best Actress; although the popular consensus is that she won it as atonement by the Academy for not acknowledging her talents in Rebecca the year before.

sus1

Nothing says “Oscar bait” like a furrowed brow

Hitchcock’s editing and cinematography is some of his strongest yet, a brief a close up of a purse snapping shut as Lina rejects Johnnie’s romantic advances is one of my personal favourite bits of cheeky symbolism.

Where the film disappoints is with the ending. The plot performs an absurdly clunky U-turn that undermines a lot of what came before it. Allegedly, Hitchcock fought for a much darker ending than we get in the finished film, but the one we’re left with comes across as a total cop-out. There are also few other scenes that haven’t survived the test of time, such as a ridiculously melodramatic game of Anagrams.

sus1

Yeah…it’s not exactly subtle.

As a story about emotional entrapment within marriage and as showcase for Joan Fontaine’s acting abilities, Suspicion certainly isn’t bad but it’s dwarfed by unavoidable comparisons with the far superior Rebecca. If you’re faced with a choice between the two, it’s a no brainer.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

corr

After the success of Rebecca, Hitchcock struck up a movie deal with producer Walter Wanger who allowed him more free reign than Selznick had done, essentially dishing out a large budget and letting him go nuts. The result was Foreign Correspondent, a big-budget spy thriller that serves as an early blueprint for North by Northwest.

The film kicks off with American reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) getting packed off to Europe write a story about the growing risk of war. But after a leading Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann) is assassinated in a crowded street by a gun concealed by a camera, Jones finds himself caught up in the middle of international disaster that’s spiralling out of control.

sus1

Much of the film’s enjoyment comes from the scale. We encounter plenty of nail-biting sequences framed against large set-pieces any of which could have served as a superb climax, but Hitchcock seemed determined to top himself each time.

There’s also bucket loads of witty banter, often from the suave, deadpan delivery of fellow reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) who provides a gloriously silly explanation for his name: “One of my ancestors had his head chopped off by Henry VIII and his wife dropped the capital letter to commemorate it.”

sus1

That’s not to say the film is pure escapism, though. Filmed during the early stages of World War II, Hitchcock was extremely concerned about his friends and relatives back home in Britain under the shadow of growing Nazi threat.

The final scene ends with London under siege by bombers and happened to be released in the US in the midst of the Battle of Britain and only a week before Germany began actually bombing London on August 24. Propaganda it may be, but given the circumstances of the production it smacks of historical urgency.

sus1

Good as it is, there are a few flabby bits holding the film back from being one of Hitch’s absolute best. The story takes rather a long time to get going and the romance subplot between Jones and Carol (Laraine Day) is clumsily shoehorned in for plot convenience.

However, Foreign Correspondent still excels because of Hitchcock deeply personal concern for the European crisis. Plus it shows off the great director’s talents when he’s allowed creative freedom with a large budget.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Rebecca (1940)

reb2

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

So goes the most famous opening line to any Hitchcock film, perhaps the most famous opening line in all cinema. Well, apart from “Rosebud.” After the anti-climatic conclusion to Hitchcock’s British period, his Hollywood debut, Rebecca, was a critical and box office smash and is still held to be one of the All Time Greats. Indeed, it’s the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Does it deserve such high praise?

Yes.

su1

We follow a nameless heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) in her whirlwind romance with wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) who she meets in Monte Carlo. When they return to Manderley, Maxim’s country house in Cornwall, the new Mrs. de Winter feels out of place in the overbearing world of the English aristocracy. Try as she might, she cannot shake the feeling that she inferior  to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. As Max becomes more distant and the ice-cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), continues to remind her that she doesn’t belong, it seems that the shadow of Rebecca forever darkens Manderley.

su1

This was a passion project for Hitchcock. He’d wanted to do the film since Daphne du Maurier’s original novel was published in 1938, but until now he was unable to afford the rights. Mistrust and secrecy within marriage is a popular Hitchcock theme we’ve already seen in The Pleasure Garden, Easy Virtue and Sabotage, but here it’s implemented most successfully.

The unseen presence of the late Mrs. de Winter is so strong it’s almost palpable. Hitchcock’s slow-tracking shots through empty corridors and staircases creates a the foreboding presence that looms over film, adding to its mystery and mounting suspense. Credit must also go Judith Anderson’s superb performance as Mrs. Danvers who’s fanatical devotion to the memory of Rebecca – with subtle homoerotic undertones – makes her one of the more psychologically interesting villains in the Hitchcock canon.

su1

Fontaine is exceptional as the lead, taking us through the emotional decline of a naive young romantic thrown into an oppressive and unfamiliar world. Olivier as Maxim is brooding and involved, especially compared to the lacklustre performance by his lifelong rival John Gielgud in The Secret Agent.

Overall, Rebecca is a expertly executed drama and a thrilling start to Hitchcock’s Hollywood career.