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.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Spellbound (1945)

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In 1944 Hitchcock headed back to England to help with the war effort. In collaboration with The British Ministry of Information he made two short propaganda films in support of the French Resistance, Bon Voyage and Adventure malgachel, before heading back to the States to fulfill his contract with Selznick. By the time production finished on his next project, Spellbound, the war was over.

Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck), the new chief psychiatrist at the mental asylum where she works. But he’s not who he seems. Indeed, he’s not Dr. Edwardes at all. He’s an amnesiac with no knowledge of who he really is other than the initials JB. The real Dr. Edwardes has been murdered and JB quickly becomes the top suspect. Constance sets out to help him recover his memory and prove the innocence of the man she loves.

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Then she can work on his vampiric tendencies

The introduction of plot-convenient amnesia adds some new spice to the now overused Hitchcock formula. We’re used to stories of the innocent man on the run, but in this case we’re not so sure he’s innocent. In fact, neither is he.

See, JB has psychotic episodes when he sees black lines upon a white surface. This creepy element to the character cranks up the tension in the mystery and in the romance. “Will he kiss me… or kill me?” ran the poster’s tagline. That actually sums up the drama rather well.

The film contains some great visual moments such as one of my favourite Hitchcock POV shots as the delirious JB downs a glass of milk, slowly overwhelming the screen with whiteness or the famous psychedelic dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí in his unmistakable surrealist style.

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Shouldn’t have asked Dalí to reinvent the wheel

Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman do a pretty good job as the leads, although we’ve seen far stronger performances from both of them even before this early stage of their in their careers in Keys of the Kingdom and Casablanca. You’d be forgiven for expecting more from this supremely talented duo. I’m sorry, Ingrid. But even you can’t make the word “liverwurst” sound romantic.

Regardless, Spellbound has a compelling mystery at its core told to us with some striking visuals. If you can overlook the absurdly the improbable plot details (even by Hitch’s pulpy standard) it’s an entertaining romp.

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I too feel like this at train stations

Hitchcock-a-thon: Lifeboat (1944)

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 Hitchcock’s last wartime feature film was one of his best.

Lifeboat opens with the remains of a bombed ship disappearing under the ocean. The survivors, from all different backgrounds, haul themselves on board a lifeboat amid the debris. They quickly realise that one of their fellow survivors is a Nazi U-Boat captain (played by Austrian actor Walter Slezak). With no food or water, they need to set a course for Bermuda, but only their German prisoner has the seamanship to get them there. How much can they afford to rely on their enemy?

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Sing it with me: “We’re all in this together…”

The first thing to remark about Lifeboat is Hitchcock’s supreme technical achievement. All the action takes place within the confines of the small vessel, yet thanks to John Steinbeck’s dynamic script and Hitchcock’s directorial tricks, it remains a gripping story throughout.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Slezak is superb as the Nazi prisoner. Like the other crew members, we’re always uncertain how much we should trust him. As for rest of the character, Tallulah Bankhead as the cynical columnist Connie is a stand-out delight.

The film is also notable for Joe (Canada Lee) who is one of the first black characters to have a key role in a mainstream American talkie. Although I did notice that he’s the only main character not to feature on the film’s poster. Urgh. Blame Hollywood for that one.

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Oh for fu-

The film was initially panned by critics upon release. Incredible as it may seem, Hitchcock was actually accused of sympathizing with Nazi ideology because the U-boat captain was depicted as competent. Of course, this was grabbing the wrong end of the stick. Hitchcock wanted to show the necessity of putting aside differences to unite against the common enemy of fascism, which was disciplined, capable, and cunning. On a more basic level, it’s adds to the drama of the situation as the characters wonder to what extent the man is a hindrance or a help.

Lifeboat is one of Hitchcock’s most overlooked gems. His self-imposed restrictions (i.e. never leaving the boat) creates powerful examination of human interaction and also results in one his most inventive directorial cameos to date.

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See?

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.