Hitchcock-a-thon: Vertigo (1958)

vertigo

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?

su1

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.

su1

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.

su1

Advertisements

Hitchcock-a-thon: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers

With the exception of Rope, the last five years hadn’t been kind to Hitchcock either financially or critically. But Hitch had a habit of popping out a big hit just as he reached a rut. Strangers on a Train was a box office smash and, though it received mixed reviews at the time, has since been remembered as one of his All Time Greats. Rightly so.

Renowned tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) means a flamboyant young man, Bruno (Robert Walker), a on a train. Over a couple of drinks Bruno outlines a *cough* totally hypothetical scheme in which Guy murders Bruno’s hated father and in exchange Bruno murders Guy’s gold-digging wife (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott). “Criss-cross.” The deaths would appear motiveless.

su1

Guy dismisses Bruno as a harmless loon, but it quickly becomes clear that his hypothetical scheme isn’t hypothetical at all…

After Hitchcock’s first attempt at a blackmail story, he’d learned that the suspense works best if the pressure from villain piles over time. The tension becomes so thick you could scoop it into ice-cream cones. It’s hard not to shiver at the sight of Bruno’s stationary head staring out from the middle of nodding tennis crowd or his ominous shadow as he stalks Guy’s wife through a fairground.

su1

 Hitchcock was famed for his eye for his obsessive perfectionism and Strangers on a Train is perhaps one of clearest example of this. He oversaw every detail from Bruno’s tacky lobster tie to the food he orders in the train restaurant. Combined with the pitch-perfect casting of Granger and Walker, Hitchcock believed these details saved “a reel of storytelling time” since they conveyed key character qualities that would otherwise need to be spelled out to the audience.

There’s a dapper, homoerotic subtext to Bruno that gives him a menacing charm. In a way, he represents Guy’s own darkest desires which he will not (or cannot) act upon. “I like a guy who does things,” schmoozes Bruno. So do we. But we also fear them.

su1

Much like Shadow of Doubt, Hitchcock packed Strangers on a Train full of visual references to this sense of good/evil duality. In the film’s opening moments we see two sets of feet, matching each other in movements, but they establish the contrast between the two men: one pair garish and the other sensible. From the off we know to expect contrast.

But, really, there’s far too many great moments to mention in a short blog post. Go and see it for yourselves. Or, if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It only gets better with repeat screenings.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

shadow1

In the sleepy town of  Santa Rosa CA, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is over the moon when her favourite uncle, also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family. Everyone loves Uncle Charlie, y’see. He’s charming, fun and generous. And, best of all, he’s not secretly a serial killer.

Oh. Oh, wait.

Yes, it’s another Hitchcock tale of growing mistrust. Our heroine starts to suspect that one of the people closest to her harbours a dark, sinister secret: is her uncle the “Merry Widow murderer”? As the paranoia grows, it’s only a matter of time until it’s Charlie vs. Charlie.

shadow1

While the plot may sound like a retread of The Lodger or Suspicion, it’s executed better here than in either of them. For two main reasons. Firstly, the  idyllic suburban setting is brought to life magnificently by the Great American playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town) who collaborated on the screenplay. With the setting imagined with such believability, it only adds to the threat when the dark presence of Uncle Charlie begins to creep in.

The second thing that makes Shadow of a Doubt a success is the spectacular performance by Cotten as Uncle Charlie. He’s acts Cary Grant’s performance in Suspicion out of the water. The strong twin-like bond he has Young Charlie at the beginning seems almost genuine, making it all the more ominous when her ideal of him begins to shatter. As Hitchcock villains go, he’s up there with Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.

shadow1

When the two Charlies come head to head it plays out as an allegory of good and evil. The duality of Man: the Good Charlie and the Bad.

There are some baffling plot aspects, such as an absurdly shoehorned romance subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, or when the detectives drop their investigation of Uncle Charlies after the other suspect meets an untimely death.

shadow1

Hitchcock ranks the film as one of his very best. While I personally wouldn’t go as far as that, it’s still an extremely strong thriller that shows off many of trademarks that make up the Master of Suspense.

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.