Hitchcock-a-thon: Family Plot (1976)

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Well. Here we are. Hitchcock’s final film, made just four years before his death in 1980. After an astonishing career of over 50 years it’s hard not to feel a tad emotional now we’ve reached the end. Maybe that’s just me.

By 1976 Hitchcock was slowing down. In the last decade of his career he only directed two films, quite a step back for the man used to churn out three per year. His dwindling energy is, perhaps, reflected in the comedic thriller Family Plot. While it’s a perfectly entertaining flick, it feels slower and lighter than what we’re accustomed to from the Master of Suspense.

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Hitchcock’s final cameo

Family Plot presents us with two parallel story lines. Story one, a scam spiritual medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) set out to help an elderly widow track down her long lost nephew for a hefty cash reward. Story two, a married pair of crooks, Arthur (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black), kidnap various wealthy chaps and demand diamonds as ransom.

How are these two cases connected? And who is the enigmatic Eddie Shoebridge? It’s gonna take a whole lot of snooping around graveyards to find out.

Despite its central mystery, Family Plot is a fairly laid-back film. There are a handful of thrills along the way, such as a high-speed car chase across the Californian countryside or a jewel heist at the beginning executed by Fran dressed up like Lady Gaga, but these are rare exceptions.

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Wants your applause

Instead of thrills, the film’s enjoyment comes from Ernest Lehman’s witty screenplay, especially when it comes to the relationship between the two leads.

Their frank and open dialogue is fun to witness, whether they’re flat out insulting each or making plans about their evening sex (“Don’t start to fret, George, or our waterbed will be no fun at all tonight; as an actor, you should know that fretting will ruin a performance.”)

Family Plot is an enjoyable final flourish, but even at its best it never comes close to matching the flirty fun of To Catch a Thief or the unabashed cheesiness of North by Northwest, even with Barbara Harris’s fourth-wall-shattering wink right at the end.

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T-t-t-t-t-t-that’s all, folks!

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.

 

Hitchcock-a-thon: Psycho (1960)

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In many ways Psycho is a victim of its own success. As Hitchcock’s most well-known film, many of the iconic scenes, lines or plot twists are often familiar to modern moviegoers through parody and reference long before they see the film. The shock felt by original audiences has been softened by general pop culture awareness.

But those who know some of Psycho’s more famous moments, but have never got around to watching it, are missing out. It’s Hitchcock’s most famous film for a simple reason. It’s his best. And it remains the greatest horror/thriller ever made. But if there is anyone reading this who’s still totally in the dark about the plot details, don’t worry. I won’t spoil anything.

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After stealing $40,000 from a client, secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) skips town and heads across country to join her lover, Sam (John Gavin). She begins to panic about her decision and stops off at a lonely motel for the night, owned by the awkward and shy proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Back home, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) becomes concerned and teams up with Sam and a private detective (Martin Balsam) to get to the bottom of Marion’s disappearance. But the truth behind the Bates Motel proves to be worse than they could have ever imagined.

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Psycho is perhaps the most skilful example of directorial control over the audience. Hitchcock perfectly balances how much he shows with how much he leaves to your imagination, both in terms of visual depiction of the horror and in terms of plot revelations. The astounding delicacy of the film’s delivery means that even though Hitch misdirects the audience, you never feel cheated for being misled.

The rising tension in film’s first act is aided by career-topping performances from star Janet Leigh and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose slicing violins make the heart race each time you hear them.

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And then there’s Anthony Perkins. It is perhaps sad that his career never escaped the shadow of Norman, but when his performance towers this high it’s not hard to understand why that is. From the way he clenches his jaw to his nervous stutter and crooked smile, he’s a wonderfully subtle blend of creepy and charming.

Psycho is the kind of masterpiece that reminds you why it’s brilliant each time you watch it.

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…

Hitchcock-a-thon: Downhill (1927)

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Reunited with leading man Ivor Novello (who also penned the original stage play), Hitchcock gives us a tale of false accusation and the loss of innocence with Downhill.

There’s also a bit where Novello takes his top off to appeal to the teenage girl fanbase. No, I’m serious. He was a huge sex symbol. The Ryan Gosling of his day.

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Women got their ankles all kinds of naked for him

This sexy lump of man-meat plays Roddy, a schoolboy who’s best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) knocks up their mutual friend Mabel (Annette Benson). Shockingly, she falsely names Roddy as the father-to-be because she thinks his rich family can provide for the unborn child better than Tim’s. Not wanting his pal’s Oxford scholarship chances to go down the drain, Roddy takes the bullet. He’s immediately expelled and cast out by his parents. Now he has to make his own way in the world and I’ll let you guess how well that goes…

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“I’m tripping balls, bro”

It may be lacking in murders, but Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s bleakest films. Polite society is depicted as untrusting, uncaring and unrewarding, particularly when it comes to the women, all of whom betray Roddy’s trust in some vile and deceptive way. There’s also an especially mean-spirited “old-spinster” stereotype towards the end. For anyone already put off by examples of misogyny in Hitchcock’s works, Downhill isn’t for you.

Novello, well into his 30s, isn’t going to convince anyone he’s a schoolboy but he sinks his teeth into the emotional range of his role with aplomb. He makes a believable journey from bushy-tailed rapscallion to a broken, haunted man the likes of which we saw him play in The Lodger. Speaking of familiar, Ian Hunter makes a return as another love rival. Sleazier this time. And he sneezes on a toy dog. Sleazier and sneezier.

Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s clunkier films. Symbols of “descent” are pushed to a breaking point, the villainesses are crude caricatures and the final resolution is absurdly quick and easy. There are a couple of truly stand-out moments such as the accusation in the headmaster’s study which is a master class in How To Inject Tension Into Your Scene. On its own, it may be one of the most suspenseful moments on Hitch’s resume so far. It’s a shame the rest of the movie goes downhill (ho ho) from there.

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Well that escalated quickly

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Ring (1927)


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Hitchcock brings the “love triangle” motif found in The Pleasure Garden and The Lodger to the foreground of his next film The Ring, unique for being the only original screenplay he ever wrote.

We follow the rivalry between two boxers – ‘One-Round’ Jack (Carl Brisson) and Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Things become personal when Jack’s love interest Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) begins to fall for his more successful rival. Jack pops the question with a wedding ring, but Bob presents her with an arm bracelet. “Mine is bigger than yours”, if you will.

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Mustn’t…look at…crotch

The boxing setting plays perfectly into the themes of emasculation and competitive sexual jealousy, although the character of Mabel suffers as a consequence. Her attraction to one man over the other wavers haphazardly, without clear motivation, to give the men a “prize” to compete over. A bit of a step back from the more psychologically realised women of Hitchcock’s previous two films.

As for the rest of the cast, Brisson is a charming actor but he’s too slender for us to really buy into the idea that he’s a boxer. Once again, we get some enjoyable wacky side characters for comic relief such as a bumbling trainer who inadvertently flips off the priest at the wedding while picking his nose and an eccentric old fortune-teller puffing away on her pipe.

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No pain no gain

Where the film truly succeeds is in its technical achievements. Hitchcock displays some of his best editing yet: well-paced montages, effective use of double exposure and a thrilling rapid tempo during the fights.

It’s also got some nice juicy slabs of symbolism. The title refers most directly to the boxing ring where the bulk of action takes places, but also acts as a metaphor for the spiralling love triangle between the lead characters – further represented by the arm bracelet versus wedding ring. Rings within rings.

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Facing fears

Upon its release The Bioscope heralded The Ring as “the most magnificent British film ever made.” While it remains a tribute to Hitchcock’s technical mastery, it is perhaps less accessible than The Lodger for modern moviegoers.

There’s also an unpleasant use of the N-Word. Yikes. Maybe it’s a good thing this was Hitch’s only screenplay.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Lodger (1927)


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Hitchcock’s next film The Mountain Eagle (1926) is lost. Sad for Hitchcock fans, but not for the great man himself who declared it to be “awful”. We’ll just have to take his word for it and move along to the second of his surviving films: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.

Hitch considered it to be his first “true” film and it’s easy to see why. While The Pleasure Garden took its time to build up to the grisly murder, The Lodger jumps straight in with a vivid opening shot of a screaming victim.

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Filmed in “blue tint-o-vision”

What we’re witnessing is the handiwork of a “Jack the Ripper” style murderer, known as the Avenger, who attacks vulnerable blonde women under the cover of night-time fog.

Amid the panic, a pale and haunted tenant called Jonathan (Ivor Novello) moves into the spare room of a Mr. and Mrs. Bunting. He becomes increasingly close to their daughter Daisy (June Tripp), the girlfriend of Joe – police detective on the Avenger case (Malcolm Keen).

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A face you can trust

The Lodger is the first of Hitchcock’s films to explore the fetishistic sexuality which would go on to dominate much of his later work. Jonathan turns the pictures of women in his room to face the wall as he can’t bear to look upon them and can never resist staring at Daisy’s golden curls.

But it’s not just our creepy lodger friend who hints towards a relationship between sex and death: “When I’ve put a rope around the Avenger’s neck,” declares Joe, mimicking a noose motion, “I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.”

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Nothings gets the girls like religious imagery

As the intimacy between Daisy and Jonathan builds so does the tension; added to by distorted angles, long shadows and claustrophobic lighting.

When the tension finally breaks in the film’s climax Hitchcock employs a final twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming first time I saw it. Not half bad for 1927. Even silent film skeptics might find themselves seduced.