Hitchapalooza, Special French Critics Edition: Is Vertigo The Best Film Ever?


See? Wasn’t that easy? Despite all the recent kerfuffle in film critic land over the recent Sight & Sound poll where Vertigo topped Citizen Kane for the first time as best picture EVAH, my opinion of both films remains unchanged.

I like Vertigo just fine, but I’ve never thought it was one of Hitchcock’s best, let alone one of the best films ever. I think I’m more interested in analyzing why critics have exulted it over the years and gone so ga-ga for it than in analyzing the film itself. I think the ever-growing hard on that the self-anointed snooty critics have for this thing says a lot more about them than the merits of the film.

As a suspense movie, it’s very entertaining. I think Hitchcock was correct in thinking Stewart was too old for the part, but Stewart is such a great actor that he uses his middle aged identity to his advantage in playing a man obsessed with a young suicidal blonde babe. Kim Novak makes a good ice queen, but again, I think Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s original choice until she got preggers,  would have brought more to that role, especially as the mystery unfolds and she has to deal with her own guilt and doppelgangerness.

The music is good, the photography of San Francisco is wonderful, Barbara Bel Geddes plays the hapless attainable nerdgirl well – but somehow the story and the way it all plays out doesn’t reach the same levels of suspense & payoff that films like Strangers On A Train or Rear Window do. I’m with James Lileks on this one although I think The Godfather edges out Casablanca & Citizen Kane for the number one spot, at least for me. And let’s put aside an entirely different valid argument that comparing Vertigo to Citizen Kane (or to Casablanca, or to The Godfather, or to Robot Monster, for that matter) is comparing apples and oranges. Different kinds of movies wind up on different kinds of scales, even the scale of “how entertaining is it?”

These lists are much more about critics’ egos, telling you what you ought to watch, than they are about film.

So what’s with the critics? I think they loooove to respond more to psychoanalyzing directors than they do in merely evaluating the entertainment value of what is produced by those directors, and more importantly, by the group process around them that far too many auteur-worshipping critics willfully ignore since they’re more comfortable with single-person Freudian examination than they are in group therapy. Vertigo pushes all the right buttons in this regard: we have the signature icy blonde, we have obsession, we have sexualized makeover, we have sexual guilt, we have a visual symbol of male impotence in Scotty’s fear of heights and falling, we have a rather silly dream sequence where Jimmy Stewart becomes the Great & Powerful OZ (admittedly with great Bernard Hermann music, tho)… in short, the film gives critics more ways to become amateur shrinks of both the characters & filmmakers than it gives them ways to remain mere film critics. And to further justify that avenue of analysis, the value of all the psychobabble needs to be elevated to monumental importance, especially in relation to other films.

Hence, over time, Vertigo gets taught in film classes and is presented as great-film-canon, students are bombarded with boatloads of articles featuring  incomprehensible French semiotic Freudian claptrap, and each successive generation of film critics builds on it. But wait for it… wait for later critics to rebel and go too far the other way, overcriticizing what is a decent, good Hitchcock film, one certainly worth seeing.

But the best film ever? Spare me.

Hitchapalooza 17, Special TV Edition: Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

So, what do you get when you combine Hitchcock at the height of his popularity with American audiences and arguably at the height of his creativity in the mid 1950s – with the early emerging medium of television? You get an anthology series of Hitchcock-themed plotlines, mostly featuring suspense stories built around murder plots, cleverly executed, and with a twist/surprise O. Henry ending as a signature. Bookend each story with Hitchcock himself offering some narrative gallows humor & insults towards the sponsor, and you have a wonderful formula for a great show.

1950s television was a true golden age for dramatic anthology series, as the new medium went through a shake-out period of sorts figuring out which forms of genre programming truly had legs for the mass audience. Some formats, such as the multi-camera sitcom as pioneered by Desi Arnaz, became amazingly successful formats for hit TV series for decades to come, along with variations on the lawyer/doctor/cop single camera dramas.  While the western genre ruled the airwaves in the late 1950s, its all but disappeared from prime time schedules now. Prime time game shows, hurt by the Van Doren/21 scandal of the ’50s made a big comeback by 1999 due to spiraling production costs of scripted series, but attempts to bring back the dramatic anthology in its assorted forms have usually failed. There’s really nothing on the air these days that evokes the high-brow nature of a Playhouse 90 or Goodyear Television Playhouse that served as  AAA ball for people like Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet or Robert Altman. Audiences used to watching isolated stories & casts each week were primed for a thematic series of such plays – whether scifi/horror like Twilight Zone, Thriller or Outer Limits, or mystery/suspense like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Most often, revival attempts for the anthology genre were sci-fi/horror themed series, playing off the consistent popularity of Rod Serling’s  Twilight Zone, a show that constantly reruns on cable outfits and gets regular July 4th or other holiday marathon airings. But later attempts to recapture the Zone magic, either in short lived series such as The Darkroom or the moderately successful Twilight Zone syndicated series, have never entered the TV pantheon of must-see items where Serling’s original creation occupies a permanent spot. (Though the network version of the Twilight Zone revival, which ran on CBS in the mid-80s, often produced some excellent episodes.) Even star-director and star-actor powered attempts like Amazing Stories and Tales From The Crypt are, at best, uneven.

But then there’s the original AH Presents, which airs five nights a week on Antenna TV, the place where Tribune gets to build library equity by running all sorts of old stuff it owns.  Nearly all the episodes are currently available online as well, on imdb and elsewhere. The series is definitely worth watching and has many more good episodes than clunkers – I’d argue it has a better batting average than Twilight Zone in that regard, especially since Serling had the tendency to get preachy a lot of the time. Even though AH tends to repeat a lot of the same plot motifs (I’ve lost count of how many episodes feature arsenic murders with dead wives buried in the basement – has anyone ever excavated under Hitchcock’s house?), there are enough twists to keep things fresh.

Hitchcock directed 17 episodes of AH Presents and 1 episode of its follow-up Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  (And much like Twilight Zone, the show lost some quality when expanding to an hour, although there are great episodes to be found.) While some of the Hitch-directed episodes are some of the best of the series, like “Lamb To The Slaughter,” there’s really little difference in direction between them & other episodes directed by the rest of the series’ stable, which usually meant Robert Stevens, Paul Henreid, Herschel Daugherty, John Brahm and sometimes Robert Altman or Arthur Hiller.  The only episodes where the direction calls some attention to itself, unusual for ’50s TV, would be “One More Mile To Go,” a good’un with David Wayne trying to dump the body of the wife he murdered from his car trunk with an annoying motorcycle cop constantly riding him about a busted taillight. We get no dialogue at all for nearly the first half of the episode, something fairly innovative for the 1950s. In “Breakdown,” Joseph Cotten’s catatonic car accident victim, narrating his own fears as he’s taken to the morgue and readied for autopsy while still alive, also stands apart from the landscape of its contemporary television dramas.

Another fun thing about watching this show is to see who turns up on it – there are assorted stars of the period, many of whom worked with Hitchcock in film, like Claude Rains, John Williams, Vera Miles, Joseph Cotten or Wendell Corey. There’s always the fun of watching the then-young soon-to-be stars in early television work, whenever William Shatner, Robert Redford, James Caan, Walter Matthau or the like turn up. And for old trivia-heads like me, there’s the constant spottings of “oh, THAT guy!” character actors who constantly pop up, like Robert Emhardt or Percy Helton or Royal Dano or John Fiedler or Russell Collins and so on.

Little by little, the series is being released on DVD as well.  In addition to the episodes I’ve already mentioned, without any spoilers, other favorites of mine are:

“Don’t Come Back Alive” – where an insurance scam goes very badly

“Portrait of Jocelyn” – a sly twist on the old movie “Laura” where a portrait of an old flame uncovers some well-kept secrets

“Decoy” – another noirish episode with a patsy trying to work his way out from being set up

“The Better Bargain” – I think I like this one simply because it features Henry Silva as (you guessed it) a mob hit man

“Crackpot” – Robert Emhardt at his redneck-creepy-psycho best

“The Manacled” – a great 2 character drama with William Redfield & Gary Merrill as prisoner & cop on a train, trying to out-mindfuck each other

“The Dangerous People” – another great mostly 2 character piece about two men alone in a train station, each thinking the other is an escaped psychopath

“The Glass Eye” – ah, William Shatner as narrator! And the story, while a bit predictable since it deals with a ventriloquist, is still fun.

“The Motive” – William Redfield, again, as the instigator of a “Rope”-like attempt at a perfect murder

“The Foghorn” – Barbara Bel Geddes in a sad romantic tale with a wonderful twist at the end

“Man With A Problem” – Gary Merrill as a would-be suicide being talked down by a cop. I still remember seeing this one for the first time back in high school and being totally surprised by the ending

“Tea Time” – what starts out as a wonderfully upperclass elegant cat fight between two women over a philandering husband turns many plot twists as it goes along

“Your Witness” – Brian Keith as a shyster lawyer, with another wonderful O Henry ending

“Human Interest Story” – Steve McQueen as a newspaper reporter sent to interview a guy in a bar claiming to be a Martian. Remember… this isn’t Twilight Zone…

“Dry Run” – Robert Vaughn as a hitman & Walter Matthau as his target

“Man From The South”  – You didn’t think I’d forget this one, did you? Peter Lorre betting Steve McQueen a sports car  if he can relight his cigarette lighter ten times in a row, otherwise, a finger gets chopped off. Remade for the 1980s revival of the Hitchcock series, although a better remake is to be found in the old Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected series.

“Incident in a Small Jail” – John Fiedler as traveling salesmen thrown into a small town jail alongside a target of a lynch mob. This one was remade very well with Ned Beatty for the 1980s revival.

“A Woman’s Help” – A henpecked husband plots to poison his wife along with a young maid. Another one with a wonderful twist at the end.

“Coming Home” – another great punchline ending

“The Woman Who Wanted To Live” – Escaped con Charles Bronson carjacks a woman, and while you know how it will wind up, it gets there in an interesting way.

“The Matched Pearl” – and another great punchline ending

“Most Likely To Succeed” – a comical entry with Howard Morris & Jack Carter as college buddies whose lives went in different directions

And from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, my faves:

“An Out For Oscar” – I think I like this one because of its cast – Henry Silva as thug/enforcer (again) but with Larry Storch as his patsy/victim bank teller who is forced to take part in an eleborae robbery scheme. John Marley, David White and Alan Napier also turn up!

“The Dark Pool” – a woman is tormented by guilt due to her drowned child with a blackmail scheme

“The Jar” – a wonderfully creepy adaptation of a wonderfully creepy Ray Bradbury story with George “Goober” Lindsay as the creepiest of all!

“Final Escape” – this would have worked better as a half-hour, but it’s still good, with Edd “Kookie” Byrnes plotting a prison break.

“Ten Minutes From Now” – Donnelly “Dutch from Soap” Rhodes as a mad bomber, with a nice twist at the end

“Return of Verge Likens” – Robert Emhardt as redneck again, this time the target of revenge by Peter Fonda in a slow story that redeems itself with a wonderful payoff at the end

“Misadventure” – assorted con games & twists and turns in this one, with seemingly crazy meter reader Barry Nelson conning Lola Albright

“Consider Her Ways” – probably the closest the series got to Twilight Zone-esque material, with Barbara Barrie finding herself in a futuristic all-female post apocalyptic world, and then returning to the present to warn everyone – very well done and very 12 Monkeys-ish. From a John Wyndham story.

“An Unlocked Window” – overly long & remade very well in shorter time for the ’80s revival, but still very effective

There are numerous other episodes certainly worth watching, I only recapped the ones I remember most fondly – but overall, the series is worth your while if you haven’t gone through them already. While Antenna TV runs the half hours, the hourlongs are available online, and despite their relatively poorer batting average versus the half hours, are still worth a look.

Hitchapalooza 16: Under Capricorn (1949)

Oh dear God the dreaded COSTUME DRAMA – what you’d think would be the bane of every director’s existence, though Scorcese did a nice job with The Age Of Innocence and Hitchcock does a decent job with this, though I can only really give it a C+.

Set in 19th century Australia, Under Capricorn tells the story of a romantic triangle complicated by past secrets, guilt, British notions of class and the sacrifices people decide to live with, all without Hitchcock’s trademark suspense. Ingrid Bergman does her familiar sad-woman-with-a-dark-secret bit well here, Michael Wilding plays Mr. Charm passably, and Joseph Cotten is as stiff and proud as always as the husband.

Despite the faded quality of the print I saw, Hitchcock’s second technicolor movie is very pretty to look at. The recurring motif of characters reflected or not reflected near surfaces depending on how well they know themselves looks good, as well as a lot of the night photography. Hitchcock was still coming off his previous feature Rope here, using very long takes and gliding camera moves up and down stairs, in and out of windows, etc. while characters take turns in the movie with long one-take speeches.

But while slickly filmed and photographed, the story is standard melodrama, and as much as I like Cotten in other films, his gruffness here does a disservice to a character who ought to emote more of the effects of the secrets and frustrations he lives with. He began life as a stable boy and then married above his station in Bergman, only to spend years in prison for killing her brother. Though he has prospered in Australia, he’s always looked down upon by the British as an ex-con upstart, and thus carries a big chip on his shoulder. When he brings Wilding around to spark some life into his terminally drunken depressed wife, Bergman is indeed transformed into her perky old self, yet inevitable jealousies abound. It’s a little as if Rebecca was done from the point of view of George Sanders, but Rebecca has a far more interesting mystery behind everything.

So, another one checked off – this was the only Hitchcock film between The Lady Vanishes & Family Plot that I had never seen. I’m glad I did, but it’s not one of his better efforts.

The Long-Awaited Return Of Hitchapalooza! Hitchapalooza 15: Foreign Correspondent (1940) & Jamaica Inn (1938)

Good God, has it been nearly a year since I’ve written some post on a Hitchcock film I’ve watched either for the first time in years (like Foreign Correspondent) or for the first time ever (like Jamaica Inn)?

They’ve been sitting in my DVR for quite a while, and I thought I’d reward myself with a bunch of movie watching after FINALLY finishing the rough rough draft of the Wagstaff novel. (Thank you, thank you) Both of these were a mixed bag – I get the feeling that now with only the earlier Hitchcock films left on my never-seen list, I’m going to have this reaction a lot. But I suppose what makes the early films worth watching is how you get to see the formulas and motifs that he’d use and reuse develop, as well as spot various ways in which he spent the later portion of his directing career ripping himself off.

There’s a bit in Foreign Correspondent where a couple o’thugs show up at Joel McCrae’s hotel room pretending to be cops. Just like we’d see later on in North By Northwest, our hero sneaks out of a bathroom in his undies leaving the water running as a ruse to fool the bad guys. And also much like North By Northwest, we get a scene where our hero returns to the scene of the crime and finds it totally cleaned up & different, so that his friends think he’s lost his mind. We also get a villain who, like Claude Raines in Notorious, has an underlying personality that makes him a decent person in some ways.

But Foreign Correspondent contains some wonderful stuff – beautifully staged camera angles during the aforementioned windmill segment when McCrae discovers the plot thickening; the wonderful visual of the umbrellas in the rain bumping and moving with the escape of an assassin underneath; and a ocean airplane crash staged with great effect for 1940. This one was mostly fun – the comic relief works well, George Sanders (not playing a villain this time) gets elegantly funny British dry wit for dialogue, and McCrae handles the aw-shucks innocent American abroad bits well. When he turns crusader at the end, thanks to a “let’s get in the war” propaganda speech courtesy producer Walter “hardly know ‘er” Wanger, it gets a bit much, but it reminded me of another movie I’d seen recently that challenged American neutrality at the start of World War 2 – Confessions of A Nazi Spy. Both movies strive to edjumacate the audience as to the Nazi threat, and both movies feature George Sanders.

Jamaica Inn takes a while to get going – we’re introduced to the main characters – crazy Charles Laughton, a motley crew of scurvy scum shore raiders, matey! and our requisite innocent, played by Maureen O’Hara. She winds up staying at the scary home of the pirate band, Jamaica Inn, which turns out to be led by her aunt’s growlin’ hubby. As the plot finally kicks in after about a half hour, it’s not that bad – we get duplicity, police in disguise, devoted pirate wives, treachery, loyalty, and a rather bizarre race to the rescue when Laughton totally goes out of his mind. In the end, this one was mostly a curiosity, certainly not one of Hitchcock’s better movies. Only some of the claustrophobic camera work within the inn really qualified, at least to me, as evidence of “the master’s touch,” and the entire story was rather silly in the end. But in my quest to see ’em all… I’m glad I enjoyed what I did.

Next up to bat – something from the cheap-o DVD set of early Hitchcock I’ve had sitting in the queue for far too long.

Hitchapalooza 14: Some Cinema Verite via “The Wrong Man” (1956)

A favorite recurring theme of Htichcock’s is the wrongly accused man on the run – usually they have all sorts of wacky romantic adventures while trying to clear their name and capture the real murderer/spy/whoever that we, the audience, knows is REALLY responsible – we see this formula at work in The 39 Steps, Saboteur, To Catch A Thief, North By Northwest, Frenzy… even somewhat in Strangers On A Train.

In I Confess, Hitchcock played around a tad with making the situation more serious (after all, a priest can’t really be expected to have wacky romantic adventures, at least in 1953 movies – so he doesn’t go on the run, but instead is willing to suffer for someone else’s crimes), but in The Wrong Man, Hitchcock used the true story of a case of mistaken identity to show us the real aftermath of someone wrongly accused: the fear, humiliation, and most of all the powerlessness as Henry Fonda is marched through police procedure, shown to us in every last detail from arrest through arraignment through making bail. This is the most effective sequence of the movie – after we’ve been given enough exposition to see that Fonda is a good husband & father, we share his fear & humiliation & repressed anger as the cops take him in, he’s falsely ID’d, fingerprinted, jailed and seemingly abandoned. This is all shot in a combination of Fonda’s POV and his reactions – to being handcuffed, to the other men around him in the police van, to being marched up in front of assembly line processes like the arraignment where he has NO idea what is going on around him. People have conversations far away – judges, cops, lawyers – are they about him? We are put into Fonda’s shoes as he is pushed/pulled through this process and we feel not only the confusion, but also get the sense of true dread that would go through this character’s mind during it all: what if this is the end? What if he never sees the light of day again all because of this mistake that was totally out of his hands? This is all conveyed through shots of Fonda alone in his cell, the sound of the door clanking shut, the darkness he finds himself in, shots of the cell sink, bars, blank ceiling… mundane things that add up to us, the audience, sharing the character’s inner experience. It’s brilliant film making.

In short, it’s a close & serious examination of the exact same theme that Hitchcock had used (and would use again) as a springboard for light-hearted popcorn movie fare.

Fonda’s wife, played by Vera Miles, suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress of the experience, as well as her own doubts about herself and her husband. It’s a great performance that adds a lot of emotion and humanity to the matter-of-fact documentary qualities found in other parts of the film, although her story becomes more of an afterthought as Fonda’s case begins to develop and move towards resolution. In the real life case, the wife’s suffering was even more profound, something lightened by the studio over Hitchcock’s objections, but it’s clear that Hitchcock is far more interested in the story of an innocent man attempting to clear himself than the story of a wife breaking down. Still, Miles’ performance is wonderful and only adds to the speculation over what sort of a Judy she might have made in Vertigo before she got preggers and the role went to Kim Novak.

Another similarity to I Confess are the Catholic themes that run through the film – we learn of Fonda’s faith when rosary beads are among the things in his pockets emptied at the police station. His wife’s guilt and self-blame for the entire situation reeks of Catholic guilt. Ultimately when Fonda has nearly lost faith, his mother tells him to pray and when he does, the close-up on his face in prayer is superimposed over the developing exterior shot of the true criminal about to commit the crime that will prove Fonda’s innocence… are prayers being answered? Is it a miracle? When Fonda’s innocence does nothing to help his wife in the mental institution, the nurse informs him that “Miracles take time” even though we’ve basically seen one happen.

It turns out that the film follows the real story of Stork Club musician Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero pretty faithfully, although some evidence of his innocence is left out to build more suspense. And I think any decent defense attorney could point out that if someone robbed an insurance company of $71, why would they return to the exact same office only a few weeks later to borrow money on a life insurance policy with their name and address on it? Someone show them The World’s Dumbest Criminals. But putting that & some dated forensic issues aside, if the point of this movie is to give us, the audience, the true sense of being at the wrong end of a Kafka-esque nightmare, it succeeds admirably.

Hitchapalooza 13: Wartime Morality & “Lifeboat” (1944)

Similar to the way Rope or Rear Window are largely confined to limited space, Lifeboat tells its entire story mostly within the lifeboat set adrift from a Nazi torpedoed merchant merchant marine ship. We have a collection of survivors a la Gilligan’s Island – a wealthy industrialist, the ship’s radio officer, a steward, two other crew members, a nurse, a traumatized young mother, a celebrity reporter… and a Nazi survivor from the later-shelled U-boat that sank the other survivor’s ship.

Lifeboat becomes, obviously, a tale of survival, with various interchanges amongst its characters designed to develop their personalities and backstories enough so that we will care about them as well as attempt to predict how they will react to any quandaries that turn up as the plot moves along. It also served as a metaphor for the necessity of allies to pull together during the war – the survivors are a mix of British and Americans – each with different attitudes towards their German “prisoner.” Some want to kill him immediately since it’s war, others feel that such an act would merely be cold blooded murder. We get confusing signals as to Willy the German (Walter Slezak) – he yawns when watching the breakdown of the young mother, but then acts to save an injured survivor by amputating a gangrenous leg.

But can he be trusted? Oh, you know better than that….

Surely if the movie were made after the war, especially now in the age of moral equivalencies, we’d be given some sort of lesson on the humanity of the enemy – the interesting thing here is that Hitchcock does some of that during the war, something that got him some flak from critics, something upon viewing the movie seems totally unjustified – the humanity added to Willy only makes him more formidable as a villain, a message that audiences needed to be reminded of in 1944 when the war was not over and its ending was not a foregone conclusion to be taken for granted.

It’s only when the survivors come together and forget how different they are – when they truly see themselves literally in the same boat – when they can see things for how they truly are. And ironically the one who tells them this is none other than Willy the Nazi. But when they must band together to foil Willy, it’s not exactly a moment to cheer – it’s simply something ugly that they must do, something necessary – what better metaphor for the war?

Lifeboat works amazingly well at building atmosphere – from its opening shots of the smokestack going under and the floating debris to the sense of claustrophobia, abandonment and lingering uncertainty we feel from all of the characters trapped in the boat. This film was also very carefully storyboarded, more so than Hitchcock’s other films, which is saying something – because (at least as far as my supposedly expert eye could tell) no shots are repeated.

But what makes the film so interesting is how it reveals a lot of Hitchcock’s morality. I divide directors into those who like people and those who don’t – you can tell which category they fit into by the sorts of characters they depict and are drawn to. Directors of either category can make good films or bad films too, regardless of your own views on humanity! As much as I prefer the “likes people” directors, I’m still a fan of the films of Alexander Payne I’ve seen, a director who specializes in depicting the inevitable moral failings of flawed people as a way of labelling us all. And I’ve only liked a few films by the prolific Arthur Hiller, who always showers affection onto his protagonists and loves happy endings. So, let’s look at Hitchcock with this dynamic in mind: here’s a guy who made countless movies about crime, murder, psychos, and so forth – yet, he falls into the “likes people” category since his protagonists struggle to do the right thing and, in the end, act nobly and honestly. They are often brave – and when they are not, they at least try to overcome their weaknesses (like in Rear Window or Vertigo). Hitchcock also adds humanity to his villains, making them far more interesting but also giving them likable qualities that make the optimists in us think they might have hope – this element is utilized here in Lifeboat in Slezak’s chararacter, a gutsy move considering there was a war on at the time. Even in the way that our allied survivors see their own moral shortcomings from their reactions to the Nazi, they are still people to be liked in the end, if not admired for the strength and guts they have shown throughout in terms of sheer survival.

I had never seen this one before, either – it was another one of those Hitchcock films that had been skipped over somehow in all the years of movies on tv, college film societies, repertory theaters, and so forth. And it’s a real good one, not to be missed.

Hitchapalooza 12: Role Playing Fun With “Stage Fright” (1950)

IMPORTANT WORDS OF WARNING: There’s no way to discuss this movie without spoilers a-plenty, so if you’ve never seen it, I’d suggest ordering it off Netflix right now & then reading this blog entry after you see it. Yes, I recommend this one – it’s fun, witty, well-paced & clever, although the ending is a tad lame & it pulls a movie “cheat” in a way that makes it more fun to think about after rather than when you’re watching it and well, feel cheated!

Did you watch it? Good! Wasn’t Hitchcock’s cameo rather obvious this time? I thought you’d agree.

Hitchcock was drawn to this material since it involved the idea of people assuming different roles in everyday life for various reasons of deception, and how those deceptions would eventually overlap and implode each other – perhaps it’s why the middle chunk of Stage Fright works the best on you when you view it for the first time, since at that point the disguises & role playing by Jane Wyman in her determination to turn Nancy Drew and prove her unrequited love innocent of murder are laid out pretty explicitly to the audience. It’s only after the revelations towards the end that we are told that we too, along with Wyman, have been played by Jonathan (Richard Todd) as well as Hitchcock, who gives us a flashback sequence that turns out to be a total con job, breaking the usual rule of film where it’s one thing for a character to tell us a lie, it’s another thing for the director to show us that lie and have the plot spin off of it. In this way, Jonathan is also playing a role in real life – that of the wrongly accused innocent on the run, a character all too familiar to Hitchcock fans. Since amateur actress Eve (Wyman) buys his story, she uses her acting chops to play reporter, damsel in distress, and ultimately substitute maid to murder suspect Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). These multiple personas cross her up when she falls for police detective Smith (Michael Wilding) and eventually must confess to harboring the fugitive Jonathan as well as messing around with her own investigations.

If this sounds more like a comedy, well, it actually plays better as one. In a way, it has the tone I think Hitchcock was trying for in his final film Family Plot, that of the comedy murder mystery, only it works better here since the story is simpler and the rear projection doesn’t look at hokey. The technical touches in this one are very nice indeed – from a very impressive cutless crane shot of Todd entering Dietrich’s apartment from the street and following him upstairs, to the way in which we know Eve is about to abandon her pursuit of the indifferent Jonathan aside for Detective Smith when we see her POV of the piano Smith had been playing earlier and we hear the music in her head, to the way that Hitchcock lights & focuses on Eve & Jonathan’s eyes in a final tense confrontation where Even can only save herself with one final bit of role playing, one that can overcome the stage fright we can feel in real life when we are threatened (something we see happen to Dietrich earlier in the film when confronted with a bloodied doll)… this one is put together very well. In the long view too, Stage Fright is masterfully paced – starting up at a breakneck speed (literally) as a speeding car down the road to the flashback of the murder – but then gradually slowing down and quieting, all the way to the final confrontation between Eve & Jonathan, which is all calm, deliberate, quiet – this time, in a still carriage, reflecting the opposite pole of where we started out, not only in terms of movement, but in terms of their relationship.

Though she’d never be in such a dangerous position if someone didn’t suddenly lose all their intelligence and yell out something totally unnecessary that only exists to set up the danger and nothing else (hence my “lame” alarm going off).

But forgiving that – Great performances all around! Wyman is very appealing and plucky (although never allowing herself to look as frumpy as a real nerdy maid, something that annoyed Hitchcock about working with her), Wilding does well as Mr. British Charm, Dietrich is vampy and (as per her own instructions, to no surprise) lit as well as Von Sternberg ever lit her. Alastair Sim is also good fun as Eve’s eccentric dad. Hitchcock felt annoyed at having been given Sim for the role since Sim was a leading British name at the time, but I thought he did a great job here.

In short – highly recommended! This was one of the Hitchcock films I’d never seen, it’s never shown too often, and that’s too bad. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a neglected masterpiece, but it’s certainly a neglected winner from the guy, certainly up there with To Catch A Thief or Dial M For Murder. Perhaps it gets overshadowed by the truly great films he made shortly after, like Strangers On A Train and Rear Window, but it’s definitely worth your while.

On deck: early Hitchcock from the big DVD collection I got some time back. Stay tuned!

Hitchapalooza 11: Goin’ Goth With Rebecca (1940)

The only Oscar Hitchcock ever “won” was the one that Selznick got for producing Rebecca, the best picture of 1940. They never gave him an award for directing film (nor did the DGA, by the way), and here’s another bit of trivia for you – Hitchcock had TWO of his films nominated for Best Picture that year, since Foreign Correspondent was also up amongst the ten nominees, but the directing award went to John Ford for Grapes Of Wrath. Typical motion picture academy – Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood production, so he was probably viewed as a newcomer rookie, someone who needed to wait his turn behind more deserving veterans. And even though I like Rebecca, to be honest if Hitchcock were to win for something that year, it should have been Foreign Correspondent.

The plot follows the familiar gothic novel formula – sweet innocent girl marries elegant upperclassman with DEEP DARK SECRET and moves into BIG SCARY OLD HOUSE which has to be well stocked with CREEPY SERVANTS OUT TO GET HER before every secret is revealed and everything else catches on FIRE. Add Fabio and you have the cover of the paperback version. Add some vampires and werewolves and you get Dark Shadows.

Formula isn’t necessarily bad, however – after all, every Shakespeare comedy is basically the same formula (mismatched lovers somewhere in Italy disguise themselves and mix up identities! And then everyone gets married! Yay!) – if the characters are interesting, if the mystery is compellingly laid out, and the performances are strong, then what’s not to enjoy? And that’s what we have here, with Laurence Olivier playing the mysterious British gent with the deep dark secret – one that, by the way, would be solved fairly quickly if he were an American Jew like me and constantly whined out loud about every problem – no secrets there! But then we’d no story. No wonder these gothic novels are never set in a deli with the pastrami going up in flames at the end. None of these things work unless the woman is passive enough so as to never confront hubby and ask the simple questions about his past, and never say to the staff that all of the old wife’s stuff should be packed up and put into storage and by the way, this is MY house now and any of you that screw with me are as good as fired, got that? Everything has to be unsaid, repressed, secret and hidden – therefore, everyone involved in the story has to be British, puritannical-American, or both.

Joan Fontaine plays the innocent second Mrs. De Winter (she’s never given a name), an early role for her and an excellent one – Fontaine always played the ingenue well, whether here or again for Hitchcock in Suspicion a year later, or later on in Ophuls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman. She made a nice career of playing the girl who falls for guys with darkness to them while trying to lighten them up with innocent pain-hiding smiles. Granted, through much of this movie we keep waiting for her to grow a backbone and stop taking crap from everyone around her, but when two of the standout performances in the film come from the two villains – Judith Anderson’s evil housekeeper Miss Danvers and George Sanders’ creepy Jack Favell – it’s more cinematic fun to see the baddies have the advantage over her.

Anderson always made a good stern-speaking creepazoid, whether here or as Memnet in The Ten Commandments, and Sanders had a nice career of playing elegant sleazeballs.

Olivier wanted to play opposite his wife Vivian Leigh, and when Fontaine was cast, evidently Olivier treated her badly – so Hitchcock quietly told EVERYONE to treat Fontaine badly, since it would help her get into character more. Part of me thinks Hitchcock a manipulative bastard for doing this, but considering Fontaine worked with him again, she must have been okay with it.

What makes this movie work well is how it creates the omnipresence of the missing title character so well – if the memory of Rebecca looms with shadows over any possible happiness for Fontaine & Olivier, Hitchcock shows us those shadows throughout the house, as we share Fontaine’s perspective of finding the monogrammed linens and stationary, as well as the perfectly preserved shrine-room dutifully kept by Mrs. Danvers. A nice directing touch comes later when Oliver recounts their last night together and as he describes Rebecca’s movements on that night, the camera follows the blank space through the room as if following her in flashback – a wonderful way to relate a presence-through-memory-only of the character, which is the thing the entire plotline hinges upon.

A chick movie, to be sure, but a good chick movie.

Next up to bat: more familiar Hitchockian territory – murder with innocents wrongly accused – with 1950s Stage Fright!

Hitchapalooza Returns with Episode 10, “Mr. & Mrs Smith” (1941), or “Comedy is hard”

In my quest to see all the Hitchcock films that I’ve never seen or haven’t seen in years, I’m at the point now where I’m thinking more and more clunkers I’ve avoided are going to start showing up. That’s certainly the case with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a bad misfire of a screwball romantic comedy that Hitchcock directed mostly as a favor to star Carol Lombard.

In the excellent interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock barely mentions this film, and when asked about it, only offers up a couple of anecdotes about Lombard, the house rented from her & the time she brought cattle to the set as a gag played on the famous “actors should be treated like cattle” remark. He has absolutely nothing to say about the film itself, which is quite telling.

Hitchcock merely followed the script by Norman Krasna – there aren’t any tell-tale Htichcockian touches, except perhaps for one pull-back tracking shot outside an apartment house (culminating in his director’s cameo), and a rather hokey crossed-skis-as-romance shot at the end. You’d never know this was a Hitchcock film if you missed his credit at the beginning, you’d only think you were watching a weak screwball comedy Lombard made towards the unfortunate end of her career.

There are many problems with the story and screenplay to this one – the premise is promising enough, that of a bickering married couple discovering their marriage is not legal after all, and this gives them the actual chance to live out the hypothetical “would you marry me all over again?” that turns up early in the dialogue – but unfortunately since neither Robert Montgomery or Carol Lombard’s characters are developed beyond barely two-dimensional bickerers who follow a script, they don’t do anything very interesting after this. Even the romantic rival, Montgomery’s law partner played by Gene Raymond, remains a dull dweeb who provides no threat, no conflict at all – it’s a mystery why Lombard would fall for him simply to spite Montgomery, though a bigger mystery is why Montgomery and Lombard love each other in the first place. When Lombard decides to throw Montgomery out when he won’t take the we-were-never-married seriously enough to re-wed, we are never given any sort of reason why Montgomery should want her back other than that fact that she’s Carol Lombard. Her character is a fickle annoying bitch. His character is a rather dull mediocrity who has NO elaborate clever schemes, NO potential to make her jealous in a comic fashion, and no real attractive quality that we are told could be her achilles’ heel if they were to separate. Lombard’s character lacks the same possibilities. So, we get endless unfunny gags of him pursuing her & her ignoring him – he never makes any attempt to turn this situation around because his character is too one-dimensional to have anything up his sleeve, and comedy does not build since the two of them are just plain boring.

There’s just nothing here but people going through the motions. What we wind up with are painfully forced set-pieces based on not so funny gags, trite dialogue, and scenes merely ending just at the moment when the possibility of comedy starts to build – the best example being in the scene where Lombard is meeting Raymond’s parents, who view her as a virginal fianceé and have no clue that she’s actually married – Montgomery enters the room and begins to discuss some safe-for-1941-movies intimacies that only a husband would know, driving Raymond’s parents to think she’s trash. The parents go into an office bathroom to discuss the matter with Raymond and then….. NOTHING. No cutting back to a bickering married couple upping the ante. Noisy pipes are supposed to be funny as they decide to give her another chance. We do NOT get what we can assume would be the resulting argument between actual husband and wife, possibly revealing more, potentially embarrassingly comic intimate secrets, in front of rival and shocked innocent parents – the scene just ends and we move on. Good God, what poor, lazy writing, and I don’t care if Krasna won an Oscar. It was for something else, obviously!

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the man and the woman sniped at each other as intelligent people who knew each other intimately and used that information against each other, only to discover that the same knowledge is why they are in love in the first place? OR IS THAT TOO GOD DAMN OBVIOUS??? Jeesh, it made me want to watch His Girl Friday again, a movie I’ve never found uproariously funny, but at least in the banter between Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell it gets that nature of a relationship between smart man and smart woman right.

And why not develop Raymond’s character more? Why not make the rival a true threat by making him more appealing in specific ways than the husband? This would allow the wife’s character to be more developed as well. Instead, well… we just get pointless behavior by boring people.

So what are we left with? Well, the first rule of comedy is to be funny, and that rule is broken here. In romantic comedy, the first rule ought to follow enough realistic psychology so that audience members can relate both to the male & female behavior – a rule that is also broken here.

Not funny.

And it’s too bad, since Hitchcock understood comedy, especially dark comedy, using it in many of his suspense films or in the far more successful The Trouble With Harry. Perhaps if he had cared enough to totally overhaul this story keeping the same premise, developing the characters further and adding some dark touches to the humor, there might have been something here, but alas… it was not so.

I’d suggest watching My Man Godfrey or To Be Or Not To Be if you want to see how comically talented Lombard was. Perhaps Hitchcock was testing the waters of directing her and would have put her into other roles had she lived. We’ll never know.

So put this in the same category with Marnie: Hitchcock films that I don’t like. It’s a category with few items, I’ll admit, and I’m hoping it doesn’t grow as Hitchapalooza continues.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑