Hitchcock-a-thon: Topaz (1969)

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Topaz is a slow, slow movie. Not just because of the drawn out running time (at 143 minutes, it’s the longest film in Hitchcock’s canon) but also because the pacing is so laborious you can almost hear joints creaking. It makes Torn Curtain look rollicking

Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Leon Uris, in turn based off the Cuban Missile Crisis, Topaz begins with a high ranking Russian official Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius) defecting over to America. He reveals to US agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) that NATO secrets are being passed to the Russians by a French spy ring codenamed “Topaz”. In order to expose the spies Nordstrom calls in his French friend André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to clear things up.

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Topaz is a film Hitchcock never wanted to make, but the project was forced upon him by Universal executives.  Everyone involved seems to be on auto-pilot. The actors, the screenwriter and, sadly, even Hitchcock himself. His heart was clearly not in this one. It feels like the work of an old school filmmaker struggling to keep relevant in a changing Hollywood industry.

Some scenes were rewritten just hours before filming and Hitchcock ummed and erred over the ending, resulting in several alternative versions. This kind of sloppiness was usually unthinkable to Hitch who tended to work closely with his screenwriters and would meticulously plot out every shot before filming. But when it came to Topaz he had simply stopped caring.

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Many of the individual shots are beautifully executed – there’s an especially effective moment with a lavender coloured dress spreading across a chequered floor – but that’s the bare minimum we expect from Hitchcock by this stage of his career, now on to his fiftieth film.

The one bit of interesting (but failed) experimentation is the film’s visual design. Characters were assigned different colours. The French are associated with yellow, the Cubans with red and so on. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could reveal elements of the plot through colours. He couldn’t.

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It’s sprawling, unfocused and at times proves a real chore to sit through.   Topaz is a spy “thriller” is the loosest possible sense of the word.

 

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Notorious (1946)

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In a way it’s hard to say what’s so good about Notorious because it’s kinda everything. The film offers so much in terms of pure drama. Sexual jealousy, espionage, exploitation, romance, mistrust, fear…it’s a powerhouse of a movie.

The daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), is recruited by the American government to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who escaped to Rio after the War. While awaiting her orders she falls in love with fellow agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant). But when she’s ordered to seduce a Nazi suspect, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), her life becomes an emotional turmoil as she pretends to love one man while really loving another.

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“Don’t sulk. Yours is bigger.”

Both Grant and Bergman give some of the strongest performances of their careers (no mean feat given their incredible outputs) as we watch their characters try to balance their duty with their true feelings.

But, in acting terms, the film’s secret linchpin is Claude Rains, who delivers a wonderfully understated performance. Despite his political immorality and suspiciously close relationship with his domineering mother (a superb performance by Leopoldine Konstantin) his love for Alicia is genuine. It’s hard not to pity him.

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Guys, I’m right here

As for camerawork, Hitchcock gives some of his most elegant cinematography and editing to date, most famously in the kissing scene. The Hays Code – Hollywood’s chief censor – forbade a kiss lasting longer than three seconds, and so Bergman and Grant break away from each others lips every few seconds to speak softly to each other as the gliding camera follows them. It’s one of the most intimate moments in Hitchcock’s canon and, proving how arbitrary censorship regulations can be, it’s profoundly more erotic than if they had held a single kiss for the two and a half minute shot.

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Grant and Bergman regret playing with glue

Without spoiling anything, the film’s final scene is absolutely superb. There’s no daring chase, or scuffle atop a landmark but the emotional drama of the scene make it one of Hitchcock’s tensest climaxes.

Notorious was met with critical acclaim, but perhaps the best review came from Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia: “What a perfect film!” She ain’t wrong. It’s the most tightly constructed film in what was a phenomenal decade for Hitchcock. Unmissable.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Saboteur (1942)

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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: Sabotage (1936)

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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

Hitchcock-a-thon: The 39 Steps (1935)

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If The Man Who Knew Too Much was Hitchcock’s launching pad out of career stagnation, The 39 Steps was the rocket which blasted him into the stratosphere.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a young lady at a variety show (Lucie Mannheim) who he shelters in his London flat from menacing goons who pursue her. She reveals herself as a spy on the run from a team of assassins lead by a man missing half his little finger. After she is murdered overnight Hannay is falsely suspected by the police. On the run from the law and the assassins, he flees to Scotland in search of the mysterious organisation “The 39 Steps”

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That’s not how you do the Spock salute

The film is joyous entertainment from start to finish. The first half plays as one of his most suspenseful set-ups yet. Hitchcock’s self-confessed suspicion of the police comes into full play as the innocent Hannay runs through the Scottish heather with officers hot on his heels. But it’s not just the coppers who Hannay has to watch out for; time and time again supposed friends and allies turn against him. A farmer’s downtrodden wife (played with luminescent charisma by Peggy Ashcroft) proves to be one of the few he can trust.

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This guy….not so much

While the suspense doesn’t lessen for the second half, more humour is introduced to keep things balanced. There’s a wonderful satire on crowd mentalities as Hannay darts into a political meeting to escape his pursuers where he delivers an improvised and incoherent motivation speech…met with rapturous applause.

But the wittiest scenes come after Hannay ends up handcuffed to a woman he met on the train (Madeleine Carroll). The two exchange gloriously sharp sexual banter.

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“For God’s sake, cover your mouth when you yawn”

“Could I be of any assistance?” Donat asks Carroll as she struggles to take off her stockings. Believe it or not the line was considered so risqué Christian purity organisations tried to have the film banned.

The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s biggest box office hit yet, both at home and in the US. It inspired The Sunday Times to declare “there is no doubt that Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film.” Dead right.

In terms of adventurous fun, could it get any better than this? Yes, as it turns out. The 39 Steps is a gem, but the crown jewel of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood years was still to come…