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

Advertisements

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.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Sabotage (1936)

sab1

Sabotage (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur) is based on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Secret Agent (not to be confused with Hitchcock’s last film The Secret Agent). Continuing his trend of spy-thrillers, Hitchcock draws from the mounting political paranoia of the period as Europe skirted around the edges of another World War.

Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) manages a small cinema as a cover for his involvement in a gang of foreign saboteurs. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) and his nephew (Desmond Tester) know nothing of his secret, but a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder) goes undercover at the grocery next door to keep a close eye on the gang.

sus1

Hmm. Maybe too close.

As with many of Hitchcock’s spy films, Sabotage has been accused of xenophobia, but the depiction of the foreign saboteurs (or terrorists as we would call them today) has some sympathetic touches. Verloc himself is clearly in way over his head and has to deal with consequences he never fully anticipated. But Hitchcock takes care to show that, misguided or not, Verloc’s actions are still devastating. It’s more an exploration of personal mistrust and unintended consequences than it is xenophobic.

Indeed, it’s the full weight Hitchcock gives to these consequences that makes the film brutally effective. Without spoiling anything, one of Verloc’s sabotages goes horribly wrong and boosts the emotional stakes of the film.

sus1

“Oh, balls”

Hitchcock later regretted how this scene played out; saying that he felt audiences were unhappy because weren’t given a release from the suspense. But that’s precisely what makes the scene so effective.

The moment where Sylvia Sidney’s character learns the news of this disaster is sublime. She wanders in a daze into the cinema which is screening Disney’s Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin? After a few seconds she finds herself hysterically laughing along with the audience before her sadness kicks in. It’s a brilliantly unsettling portrayal of a mind struggling to cope with tragedy.

sus1

It’s also a great cartoon. YouTube it.

When we come to the violent climax, still rather shocking even today, it unfolds in silence. No music, no dialogue; just cold, mechanical revenge.

It’s a tense, emotionally-driven thriller without any of the humour and wit from The 39 Steps, but with buckets of atmosphere and powerful moments. For anyone who prefers Hitchcock’s more “serious” films over his lighter romps, Sabotage is a must-see.