Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Hitchcock Films

Tomorrow on TCM, starting early and throughout the day, several films by Alfred Hitchcock (warning: we always include spoilers!)

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6:00am (EST): Young and Innocent (1937)

I’m astonished I’d never seen or heard much about this film prior to first viewing it in 2007. It is right up there in quality with all Hitchcock’s better known products of the time. The plot: an innocent young man (Derrick De Marney) is accused of strangling a woman who has washed up on the beach. He is on the lam with the daughter of the constable (Nova Pilbeam), who doesn’t want to come along at first and keeps getting drawn into it. Of course they fall in love along the way, much as in the later 39 Steps . This film has one of the best, most dramatic opening scenes of any movie I’ve seen. It opens right at the peak of a heated argument between jealous husband (George Cuzon) and his wife (Pamela Carme). We see that their house is on the beach, and that the man is very twitchy. The next day the wife’s dead body washes up on shore, next to a raincoat belt. The hero is suspected and brought in. He steals his lawyer’s glasses as a disguise and escapes. Great scenes along the way: an awesomely staged mine collapse, and the terrific climactic scene: while the pair search for the twitchy man in hotel ballroom, there is a long tracking shot, and we see what the hero’s cannot — the drummer in the orchestra, wearing blackface, is the twitcher. In the end, he cooks his own goose by taking too many relaxants to cope with his nervousness as he spots the people who are seeking him. The drugs take effect and he starts getting spastic on the drums, then collapses. He is caught and the hero is cleared. A great movie.

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7:15am (EST): The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

In certain ways, the first “Hitchcock” Hitchcock. It starts that run of highly stylized, easily identifiable spy films, full of danger, action and humor. You would say that that they were formulaic but for Hitchcock’s constant innovation and cleverness, and for the fact that that after turning out a bunch of them, he moved on to other themes. A couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) are vacationing in Switzerland. While the wife is dancing with a dashing acquaintance, he is shot. Before he dies, he whispers a message that something of vital national security is hidden in his room in the handle of a shaving brush. She sends her husband to get it. He does. But before the husband can get it to the authorities, the bad guys kidnap the daughter. As in the better known remake, rather than cooperate with the authorities, the couple decides to try to rescue the daughter on their own. A string of harrowing adventures ensue, with the husband getting trapped by the crooks (led by the unspeakably good Peter Lorre), too, then the climactic scene at Albert Hall, and then a painstakingly presented shoot out between the crooks and police at the very end.

As in the remake, Hitchcock ever so slightly hints that there is trouble in the marriage. Here the wife flirts with the dashing Louis Bernard and the husband seems almost a dope about it—almost a eunuch ripe for cuckolding, stupidly getting sloshed while the two dance, and only managing a fairly impotent prank (tying the wife’s knitting yarn to Bernard’s coat button) as a response. The effect is subtle—he doesn’t slam us over the head with it, but it is in the back of our minds. This sets the stage for the husband’s redemption through heroism. The silly fop becomes a man of action on behalf of his family. The role reversal extends to the extent that the wife is the sharpshooter who takes out the villain, foreshadowed at the beginning of the film, when the same man beats her in a skeet shooting contest at the resort.

8:45am (EST): Suspicion (1941)

A psychological thriller in the tradition of Rebecca, which had been released the previous year. Joan Fontaine, as a rich girl seemingly in the clutches of a ruthless, possibly murderous, manipulating gigolo (Cary Grant). They romance, and are married. Then she discovers that he has no money and also has an aversion to work. It seems like he is going to murder her. In the end, an inorganic tacked-on happy ending. He seems about to push her out of the car on a windy, beachcliff road (god, there must be a dozen of these in Hitchcock films), but then he doesn’t. They ride off happily in the convertible together. A moment’s reflection makes your realize well, sure, he isn’t a murderer, but isn’t he still a worthless danger to her happiness and well being?

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10:30am (EST): Stage Fright (1950)

Not one of Hitchock’s more memorable efforts but a completely worthwhile film. The film shares the theme of dualism (relationship between the hero and the villain) that we find in Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Frenzy and others. Jane Wyman plays an acting student. Her boyfriend runs to her and tells her he’s mistakenly implicated in a murder. His other lover, a famous actress played by Marlene Dietrich killed her husband and the man went back to hide evidence for her, only to be seen by the maid. Then he fled. Jane Wyman hides the guy out, and then in order to get evidence to free him, disguises herself as a maid and works in Dietrich’s house. So we have this great dichotomy: Dietrich is an actress, lying to police, pretending to be grieving, etc, and Wyman is an actress, living this false life as a maid. Furthermore, her father, who helps her with her scheme, is a smuggler—also living a double life. As happens frequently in Hitchcock movies, the cop becomes a love interest, and is a bit of a bungler. The best element of the film is the twist: it turns out the man really DID kill Dietrich’s husband—we have completely forgotten that we have simply taken his word for it that he didn’t. Dietrich didn’t even do it. So we have a psycho killer scene. One of the film’s flaws is that this could have been much scarier. We should have gotten more involved in this characters, liked him more (as in Shadow of a Doubt), etc, so we would feel that betrayal, and be completely knocked off our feet when he switches. Another flaw is that Wyman is somewhat bland and forgettable herself. This is what mars certain Hitchcock films from being much better: lackluster performances by Hollywood contract players.

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12:30pm (EST): I Confess (1953)

Hitchcock made so many perfect films and so many classics that some of his more minor efforts sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Some, despite being terrific by any objective standard, have become undeservedly obscure. This is one of them.  It’s a perfectly gripping film with a first rate cast and a situation that anticipates the better known The Wrong Man. A priest hears a confession by a murderer (whom he knows) and is helpless to tell the truth when he himself is accused of the same murder. The cast is top of the line Hollywood, Montgomery Clift as the priest, Karl Malden as the detective, Anne Baxter as the friend (and a little more) of the priest. There is gorgeous and interesting photography of the architecture of Montreal, where it is laid. So why isn’t it first rate Hitchcock?

1) I think he gets waylaid by the exoticism of Quebec. I have to admit, I found it interesting—their different legal system, their different political system, different culture, etc. But I think it might take us out of it. I also think it is a miscalculation on Hitchcock’s part — assuming American audiences will be interested in another culture. What folly! He usually succeeds by giving us the Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Rushmore—imagery we are attached to. Here we’re in a foreign country, yet in the U.S. even Paris or Rome would be more recognizable and resonant (ironically) than Montreal.

2) Hitchcock was brought up Catholic, which may have been what interested him here. Yet, ironically, the film doesn’t seem personal enough. He should have done more of what he usually does so well—really establish that Catholicism, the context for that story, and set it in the U.S. to ground it in the familiar. In other words, put it in New York or Boston, maybe, among Irish and Italians, and have at least a couple of scenes that show what the priest is all about: weddings, funerals, last rites, visiting sick people, being a basketball coach with a youth group, supervising a soup kitchen, whatever it is. Either he’s a man who’s liked or or one’s who’s hated: we need to see that. Either one raises the stakes, but we have no sense of it in this picture. The story would also benefit from more mysticism: pictures of Christ, crosses, incense, candles, the church itself. There’s a little of it, but I’d really turn this aspect up Scorsese style as a way of showing the priest’s dilemma. Because, essentially the Priest only has a dilemma because he thinks God is watching. And we don’t see God watching.

3). The film might have been more of a classic if he had given more attention to the actual murderer. The actor in the role now does a fine job, but if his performance had really been extraordinary, it would have made the picture. Imagine if it had been Peter Lorre or somebody similar  giving a really unsettling, taunting, harrowing star turn.

2:15pm (EST): The Wrong Man (1956)

So many stars interact with Hitchcock the director, it’s interesting to see what happens when they cross paths. I would have preferred to have seen Henry Fonda as one of Hitchcock’s bumbling heroes in a double chase picture. (He’d be great, I imagine, as the Midwestern doctor in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much). His Wrong Man role (an Italian musician) would have been better for someone more animated, and, well, (much as I love Fonda’s personality) a better actor. For example, as wrong as Paul Newman was for Torn Curtain, he would have been able to do something with the lead in The Wrong Man. He’d even worked in this super-realistic, black and white, semi-documentary style many times, even playing an Italian (as Fonda’s character is supposed to be) as Rocky Graciano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, which this film sort of looks like. It’s interesting to see Hitchcock do this realistic style, though, the result of his stripped down tv show, and (I think) studying Italian neo-realism.  He would visit the look again in Psycho. But Fonda can’t pull off an Italian OR a jazz musician, however, so he really is THE WRONG MAN. Aside from that, there isn’t much plot, just a straight rundown of an innocent guy mistaken for someone else, and a series of coincidences conspiring to incriminate him. They are just about to lock him up when they catch the real guy. The screenplay adaptation was by Maxwell Anderson.

4:15pm (EST) Strangers on a Train (1951)

Farley Granger from Rope, this time paired with perhaps Hitchcock’s biggest creep ever: Robert Walker. Thoroughly delicious. Here we return to that parallelism that informs Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound. The two meet on the train: Walker mention he hates his father; Granger that he hates his wife. Walker proposes they exchange murders—that way police can’t trace killer, because the person concerned can have a good alibi. Granger thinks it’s only a joke. Then Walker really kills Granger’s wife. Granger is now implicated, just as though he had been the real murderer. Lots of cool stuff in this movie. One of my favorite bits is when there’s a crowd watching professional athlete Granger play tennis. The whole crowd’s heads go back and forth following the ball¼Walker’s face is creepily straight ahead, staring at Granger.

6:00pm (EST): Dial M for Murder (1954)

An amazingly stagebound adaptation of a stage play, originally  directed for 3-D. (Viewing it in that format  might make the experience somewhat more interesting.) A terrific cast: Grace Kelly as the intended murder victim who becomes an accused murderer when she kills the attacker with a handy pair of scissors. Ray Milland  is the cool, calculating husband who plots her demise and then her imprisonment, Bob Cummings as her American lover. There’s really only one other character—the inspector who solves the thing. It all feels much more Agatha Christie than Hitchcock, especially with its plot twist about the key at the end. The most Hitchockian elements are the atmosphere of sophistication and elegance, which reminds you of Rope, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, etc. This idea of a “perfect murder” reminds one of Rope, too, but also a million other plays and films. Milland’s scheme is amazingly thought out and elaborate, but as Cummings (whose character is conveniently a mystery writer) points out, reality always throws a monkey wrench into such plans, as happens here.

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