Under Capricorn (1949, Alfred Hitchcock)

1949-Under Capricorn-poster

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 19th-century Sydney, a man reconnects with an old friend who’s keeping a dark secret…

Speaking in 1963, 14 years after its release, Alfred Hitchcock summed up a pesky issue with his period drama Under Capricorn. ‘I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, “We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.” They went in expecting something and didn’t get it.’ Not since his silent-movie days had the director made such a laidback film, and after two decades distinguished by thrillers, spy stories and capers, audiences wanted more of the same. Under Capricorn, however, is decidedly sedate and orthodox.

But while the plot is wispy, the emotion overwrought and the sloshy incidental music constant to the point of tedium, Hitchcock’s shooting style is worth discussing and also ties into a theme of time that runs through the whole movie.

In 1831 in Australia – the film’s title is a reference to being south of the Tropic of Capricorn – a new governor (Cecil Parker) arrives to take over the administration of the town of Sydney. Convicts were once transported there from Britain, and a delicate etiquette has now built up. Reformed characters known as emancipists are given respect and freedom as long as they behave.

One of the governor’s aides is his cousin, a happy-go-lucky yet ambitious Irishman called Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), who soon befriends shifty local businessman Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Then Charles is surprised to realise that he already knows Samson’s wife from when they were children – but Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman, in her third and final role for Hitchcock) is now a deeply troubled and isolated alcoholic. She’s more or less a shut-in, wracked with some unknown guilt and apparently under the spell of her domineering housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton). Over time, Charles and Henrietta grow close and he starts to tempt her out of her malaise…

Though based on a novel by Helen Simpson, all this feels like stage-play material – the kind of thing you can imagine a rep company wheeling out on tour. As well as performances that are being aimed at the audience as much as to other characters, one of the reasons for this is that virtually every scene is shot in a long, uninterrupted take. Writing for The Guardian in 2012, the film critic Joseph D A Walsh argued that the long takes ‘challenge audiences used to rapid cuts and edits’ and he’s not wrong. We’re drawn into a world where, as in the theatre, actors are allowed to dictate the pace and rhythm of each scene. Unlike classic narrative editing, which creates its own sense of time by chopping together moments in precisely chosen orders and at precisely chosen points, this kind of storytelling exposes the script and the cast: there’s little support and no hiding place. Sadly, with Under Capricorn, it sometimes means you feel ‘stuck’ like a theatre-goer with a poor view of the stage. Boredom creeps in a bit too often.

But whereas edits are rare, there are plenty of camera moves which dictate where our attention should focus. The camera tracks, glides, swoops and even climbs storeys of the Fluskys’ house. (During one take, the rig actually ran over Hitchcock’s foot – breaking his toe!) A great example comes early on in a grandstanding scene presented as one fluid camera move that lasts for seven minutes, takes place in several rooms and features 13 (!) actors. (It’s actually two shots stitched together by a disguised edit, to allow an actor and the camera to pass through a doorway.) The camera roves around a large, complex set as Charles approaches the Fluskys’ house; we shadow him as he eavesdrops on events from outside the window; we follow him as he goes inside and talks to Samson and Milly; he meets several other dinner-party guests, and the men all sit down to eat… but are then shocked by the unexpected arrival of a barefooted and distracted Henrietta at the door. As a self-contained example of what cinema can achieve, it’s an absolute wonder.

Other long takes in Under Capricorn are more static and less showy, essentially being played out in a locked-off frame, such as a key scene where Henrietta reveals her terrible secret to Charles… We’ve earlier been told that Samson is an emancipist who was transported to Australia for seven years for killing Henrietta’s brother; she followed him from Europe out of love. But now, in a monologue that dominates an astonishingly controlled take that lasts close to nine minutes, she spills the truth: *she* shot her brother and Samson gallantly took the blame. It’s a bravura piece of acting. ‘The crowning achievement of the story,’ says Walsh, ‘and, in my opinion, one of the finest performances of [Bergman’s] career.’

Hitchcock had used long takes throughout in his most recent film: the dazzling and experimental Rope, which is a 78-minute movie with just 11 shots in it. (He would have made the whole thing as a ‘oner’, but film cameras can only hold so much film at a time.) In that movie, however, the style is totally simpatico with the story’s real-time setting and the way tension is built inexorably and steadily. Trapped in a single apartment with a body stashed in a box, waiting to be found, the long takes enhance the viewing experience no end. However, while extraordinary moments in and of themselves, the long takes in Under Capricorn are – in comparison – hollow pieces of showing-off by a director who doesn’t seem engaged with the material. (Variety magazine agreed at the time, saying in its contemporary review that the long takes and moving camera are not ‘a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper storytelling.’)

When Hitch mentioned critics having to wait ‘105 minutes’ for the first thrill, he of course chose the figure as an arbitrary way of suggesting a point when the film was almost over. (Under Capricorn is 117 minutes long, so 105 minutes is close to 90 per cent of the way through.) But he was hitting on the truth in more ways than one. Yes, he meant that critics didn’t like the film because they were expecting another thrill ride like The 39 Steps or Notorious and felt short-changed. But his comment explains the failings of Under Capricorn in another way.

Throughout this story the past weighs heavily on many characters. It’s also a film about waiting – Samson for power and respectability, Charles for independence and happiness, Henrietta for romance and to be free of her history, the devious Milly for Samson’s attentions – but the people who have to wait the longest are the viewers, and not just because Hitchcock and editor Bert Bates make us wait for a camera cut. Early on in the story, newly arrived in Sydney, Charles is shocked to see a man carrying a shrunken human head on the street. Samson tells him there’s an illicit trade for such things because people use them superstitiously. It then takes 90 minutes for this plot point to come back into focus when we learn that Milly has been using a shrunken head in her attempts to drive Henrietta insane. Under Capricorn is clearly not a movie in a rush to deliver anything, thrills or plot developments.

At the time of its release, audiences even had to wait to see it. The New York premiere was held on 8 September 1949, followed by a US nationwide release on 8 October. But many other countries – Italy, France, West Germany, significantly Australia – had to wait until the clock had ticked over into the 1950s before they could view the film. Sadly, while interesting on an intellectual level, it wasn’t especially worth it.

Six men listening to the governor’s speech out of 10

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Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)

SOATposter

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A tennis pro’s life takes a dark turn when he bumps into someone who suggests they each commit a murder on behalf of the other…

Flicking past at the imperceptible rate of 24 per second, there are something like 140,000 individual frames in Alfred Hitchcock’s classy thriller Strangers on a Train. But let’s focus on just 20 of them to illustrate, in a minor way, just why the director was such a master at visual storytelling.

1-3: The footsteps

We’re introduced to the film’s two strangers in an unusual way. To dramatise amiable tennis professional Guy Haines (Farley Granger) encountering the unsettling playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), Hitchcock at first only shows us the two men’s shoes as they march independently – and in opposite screen directions – through a train station. We sense that these two men are about to collide, and when they do it’s an underplayed moment as their feet accidentally touch under a table aboard the train. This gets Guy and Bruno talking, and after learning that Guy has a troublesome wife called Miriam who won’t divorce him, Bruno suggests a dark plan: *he’ll* kill the wife, if Guy murders Bruno’s rich father… Guy rejects Bruno’s plan, thinking at least in part that he’s not being serious, and exits their train compartment. Unknowingly, he leaves behind a distinctive monogrammed cigarette lighter, which Bruno realises might be useful…

4-6: The hands

Later Hitchcock uses thought-association cutting to suggest that Guy might be considering the macabre idea. After a row with his truculent wife, he’s on the phone to the new woman in his life and – raising his voice to be heard over a nearby train – says that he’d like to kill Miriam. He’s only speaking figuratively, but we then dissolve to Bruno’s hands held in a strangulation pose. The connection between problem and potential solution is clear. There’s then a undercut of a punchline: Bruno’s holding his hands like that because he’s having a manicure from his mother.

7 & 8: The stalking

Not waiting for Guy to agree formally to his plan, the psychopathic Bruno tracks down Miriam at a funfair. He sits behind her on a carousel, and from the way Hitchcock frames the actors and the way actress Laura Elliott looks over her shoulder we can tell that she enjoys the attentions of this stranger…

9: The murder

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Following her to a secluded spot, Bruno attacks Miriam and strangles her – we see the killing reflected in her glasses, which have been knocked off in the struggle. This arch way of filming the death is a typical Hitchcock flourish: he knows we watch these films for the ‘thrill’ of things such as murder, so how better to present it than in the lens of a pair of spectacles?

10 & 11: Film noir

Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions such as black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, morally ambiguous characters, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism and an atmosphere thick with menace. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, I Confess and The Wrong Man, but Strangers on a Train has its fair share of noir imagery. After Miriam’s murder, Guy realises that Bruno is waiting for him outside his home. We see Guy in an off-kilter camera angle that could be straight out of The Third Man, the 1949 British film that stands as one of the genre’s most beautiful examples, while Bruno stands hidden in the shadows.

12 & 13: Symbolism

When Guy then walks over to talk to Bruno – and is shocked by the lengths this man has gone to – Hitchcock uses one of the neatest tricks in cinematography. Bruno doesn’t want anyone to see the two men chatting, so stands back from the pavement, hiding behind a metal gate. Hitchcock frames him *behind bars*, implying where his criminal activities will lead him. Then, later in the same scene, as Guy gets sucked into Bruno’s plan more and more, it becomes his turn for the symbolism…

14-16: The tennis match

Guy wants nothing to do with Bruno, but can’t shake him. The murderer even shows up when Guy is taking part in a professional tennis tournament – and we spot him in the crowd because, while everyone else turns their head to watch the ball going back and forth, Bruno stares at his co-conspirator…

17: The memory

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As Guy resists, Bruno becomes more desperate and anxious – after all, he killed a woman he didn’t know expressly so Guy would then kill his father for him, but Guy hasn’t  followed through with his side of the ‘bargain’. We see something of the Bruno’s turmoil when he encounters Barbara, the sister of Guy’s current girlfriend. She wears glasses coincidentally similar to Miriam’s, and they trigger in Bruno a flashback to the murder – he also remembers Guy’s cigarette lighter, so to dramatise the idea Hitchcock superimposes the item onto the lenses of Barbara’s glasses. (By the way, Barbara is played by Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter.)

18 & 19: The fight

Guy soon realises that Bruno plans to plant the lighter at the crime scene, as revenge for Guy’s failure to go through with murdering Bruno’s father. The climax of the film is set, and we return to the amusement park, where Guy and Bruno fight on the carousel. Hitchcock has great fun with fast cutting and dramatic angles, while the fake horses of the ride appear alive as the two men fall onto the floor and the ‘hooves’ pound up and down near their heads…

20: The finale

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After an accident sends the carousel spinning out of control, Bruno is killed. The final image of the film is then Guy’s all-important cigarette lighter – Strangers on a Train’s MacGuffin – being held limply in Bruno’s dead hand.

Eight men with a double bass out of 10

 

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Torn Curtain (1966, Alfred Hitchcock)

TornCurtain

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an American scientist seemingly defects to East Germany, his fiancée follows – leading to them both being trapped behind the Iron Curtain…

Touted at the time of its release as Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie (which it was if you discount short films, Elstree Calling and the German-language version of Murder!), Torn Curtain begins with an impressionistic title sequence reminiscent of the James Bond series. Swirling, fiery images play opposite snatched glimpses of characters and incidents while lush music with a ‘full’, orchestral sound tempts us into a world of espionage. 

There had been four Bond pictures by 1965, when Hitchcock began production, but rather than the current vogue for spy films, the inspiration for Torn Curtain actually came from real life. Hitch had been fascinated by the defection to the Soviet Union of the British diplomat Donald Maclean in 1951, and specifically by what that meant for Maclean’s wife and family. Melinda Maclean followed her husband to Moscow about a year later, and Hitchcock wondered how her husband’s choice had affected her emotionally…

The film’s equivalent of Donald Maclean is Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist attending a conference in Norway with his British colleague and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrew). They seem to be deeply in love – our first sighting of them is when they’re cuddled up in bed rather than attending a meal – but Michael soon begins to act oddly. He’s sent obscure radiogram messages, then lies to Sarah that he has to fly to Stockholm. When she learns that his flight is actually heading for East Berlin – in other words, inside communist East Germany – she buys a ticket too and sits a few rows behind him…

It’s typical spy-movie stuff: paranoia and hidden agendas and acrostics and codenames. And it was far from the first time Hitchcock had worked in the genre; he’d dabbled with this kind of material on and off for 30 years. In fact, for the roles of Michael and Sarah, he’d initially wanted to reunite the stars of his phenomenally successful spy film North by Northwest: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. However, studio bosses insisted on actors who were more ‘current’. Julie Andrews was certainly that: she’d just had a massive hit with The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Co-star Paul Newman was hot from movies such as Hud and The Hustler.

Sadly, it often feels like their characters in Torn Curtain have never met before. It’s difficult to recall an on-screen couple in any Hitchcock film who have less chemistry. Hitch presumably wanted Andrews to be one of his classic blondes – an enigmatic female character with sex appeal and a cool exterior, but who is going through emotional turmoil on the inside. The actress, though, plays Sarah too straight, too blandly, to generate much interest. Newman, meanwhile, was a student of the Actors Studio and gives a down-to-earth, tightly wound performance that fails to connect with the heightened tone of the script. (Behind the scenes, Newman infuriated Hitchcock with questions and concerns. The director was more used to actors like James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman – people who showed up, knew their stuff, and did what they were told. When asked about his motivation in a certain scene, a frustrated Hitch is said to have told Newman: ‘Your salary.’)

Landing in East Berlin, Michael is warmly welcomed by the authorities and treated like a celebrity by journalists at a press conference that feels like it was inspired by the Beatles’ famously impressive first public appearance in America. It then dawns on Sarah what’s happening. Michael, seemingly disillusioned with his work at the US defence department being stymied, is defecting to the communists. He’s brusque with his fiancée, refusing to say whether he wants her to stay behind the iron curtain with him or go home.

Thankfully, we viewers don’t have to wait too long for the inevitable plot twist, which anyone who’s ever seen a spy film before will have seen coming from before the title sequence was over. After 40 minutes Michael gives his handlers the slip and heads out into the countryside to meet with a farmer. We’re let into his secret when he and the farmer – who’s actually an undercover agent – discuss how he’s only pretending to defect in order to get some vital information about a revolutionary new anti-rocket system. 

But of course there’s a problem. When he arrived in Berlin, Michael was given a bodyguard, who in reality is there to keep an eye on him. The gum-chewing, American-slang-loving heavy who Michael finds hard to evade is called Hermann Gromek and is excellently played by a sinister Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek shows up at the farm, Michael initially tries to bluff his way out of the problem – but then must kill Gromek in a blackly comedic scene that’s the highlight of the whole film. With no incidental music to take the edge off the violence, Michael and the farmer’s wife try to subdue their enemy by strangulation, a stabbing, a shovel attack and eventually by forcing his head into a gas oven. (A German gassed in an oven? Hitch was aware of the implication, but later said it wasn’t a political comment.) The scene is a deliberate deconstruction of the spy-film cliché of an easy kill – Gromek is clinging onto life for a long time – and is totally gripping.

Elsewhere, regrettably, some of the filmmaking has not dated well. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to have a high tolerance for artificial devices such as rear-projection screens for scenes in moving cars and matte shots to extend sets and locations. All well and good for a movie made in the mid 1960s. Less excusable, however, is his decision to build an entire – and entirely fake-looking – park on a soundstage for a key scene that comes after 69 minutes. Knowing Gromek’s death will be discovered sooner rather than later, Michael takes Sarah aside and admits that he’s on a secret mission. In a neat trick that Hitchcock used in other films too – Topaz, for example, and North by Northwest – we don’t actually hear the dialogue because it’s information we viewers already know. But the plot swings here: now, Sarah is in the know.

Michael had buried Gromek’s body, but is rumbled when the taxi driver who delivered him to the farm reports seeing Gromek there too. (The taxi driver is played by American actor Eugene Weingard, who went by the stage name Peter Lorre Jr. He actually had no connection to the Hungarian-born star who had appeared in two Hitchcock films in the 1930s – aside from a slight resemblance. The more famous Lorre attempted to stop Weingard using the name, but after the former’s death in March 1964 the latter was free to pretend they were related.)

So the pressure is mounting. Seeking out a famed rocket scientist, Michael tricks him into revealing the secret equations he needs to take back to the States. With the sneaky plot now played out, Michael and Susan then flee down their escape route, which involves a bus service run by the resistance, some help from an eccentric Polish aristocrat (Lila Kedrova’s Countess Kuchinska) and a showpiece finale at the ballet that brings to mind the Albert Hall sequences in Hitchcock’s two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

There’s plenty to admire and enjoy in Torn Curtain, whether it’s the Hitchcockian touch of demonstrating how cold a room is by showing someone breaking up the ice that’s forming in his glass of water, or the cat-and-mouse sequence in a museum that has echoing footsteps creating tension and menace. The blocking – the relative positioning of the actors in a scene – also tells the story just as much as dialogue, such as the distance between Michael and Sarah when she thinks he’s a traitor compared to later when she’s learnt the truth.

However, it’s far from a wholly successful film. It mostly feels too safe, for example. This is the story of a man taking the enormous risk of going undercover in a communist state but it lacks the cynical edge and – Gromek’s death scene aside – the sense of danger seen in other 60s spy films like The Ipcress File (1965) or even the Bond series. Hitchcock also seems to get bored with his lead characters: Sarah in particular goes missing for long stretches, while in the second half of the story both she and Michael feel like passengers rather than drivers of the plot. 

Seven men in the hotel lobby out of 10

Note: In a 1999 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that as a teenager he’d sneaked onto the set of Torn Curtain to watch the filming. He lasted 45 minutes before someone realised he shouldn’t be there.

Downhill (1927, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young man faces a series of hardships when he gallantly agrees to take the blame for a friend’s indiscretion…

Ivor Novello – who also co-wrote the stage play on which this film is based – plays Roddy Berwick, a high-achieving pupil at the kind of English public school later spoofed in the TV comedy Ripping Yarns. He’s the star rugger player and school hottie and an all-round good egg.

We see him larking about. We see him hanging out and listening to music with his pal Tim (Robin Irvine) and local waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). He seems a decent soul. But Roddy encounters problems when Mabel announces to the school’s headmaster that she’s pregnant – and Roddy is the father. He isn’t; it’s actually Tim, but she’s named Roddy because his family are rich. At first Roddy thinks it’s a joke, then the dread dawns on him. He’s faced with expulsion. But he knows that if he points the finger towards Tim, he’d be kicked out instead – and that would prevent the lower-class Tim getting into Oxford. So Roddy takes the blame…

Beautifully restored by the BFI, the print of Downhill now available to view positively gleans with clarity and smooth motion. It’s also been colour-tinted to reflect how audiences in 1927 would have seen it. All this French polishing allows us to appreciate the performances, which while obviously mannered and overly expressive in the style of silent cinema still contain warmth and charm. (There are very few title cards, the visual-minded Hitchcock preferring to let the actors’ expressions and postures tell the story.)

We can also bask in the brilliant mise-en-scene – the sets are very well designed and excellently dressed – as well as Hitchcock’s striking camera angles and lighting. For example, there are long lingering shots of a dejected Roddy standing forlornly on the escalator of a London Underground station or in an elevator. It’s not a coincidence that he’s moving downwards in both images; it’s a reflection of his state of mind. Elsewhere, an actress in a Paris nightclub has different levels of make-up depending on how Roddy sees her. Later, a discombobulated Roddy’s woozy point-of-view shots are achieved by crossfading different takes. His surroundings are often his emotions writ large. It’s German Expressionism transported into a minor British melodrama.

Having been expelled from the school and ostracised by his father, who believes Mabel’s lie, Roddy is left all alone in the world. He gets a job at a theatre, only to fall for a woman (Isabel Jeans in the first of her three Hitchcock roles) who cheats on him and spends all his money. He goes to France and works as a gigolo, but the disappointments keep coming and soon even his health fails him. Eventually – because the moral of this story is that things will come right in the end – an ill and mixed-up Roddy is taken home by some sailors who hope to get a reward. Thankfully, his father has since learnt the truth about Mabel and Tim, and welcomes him back with open arms. The last scene of the film has Roddy back on the rugby pitch of his old school. It’s an unconvincing and perhaps unsatisfyingly happy ending, but the ‘down’ journey there has been be so impressive you don’t begrudge Roddy his moment of ‘up’.

Eight sweetshops out of 10

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Tallulah Bankhead In 'Lifeboat'

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a ship is torpedoed by a U-boat, a group of survivors find shelter in a lifeboat – but they also take aboard a German…

Soon after its launch in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat began to sink. Influential film critics objected to the even-handed depiction of a German character – a U-boat caption no less – and Twentieth Century Fox responded by limiting the number of prints in circulation and soft-pedalling the advertising. The movie actually ended up losing money at the box office.

It was released before the Normandy landings, so perhaps this reaction is understandable in the heightened context of the Second World War (even if, at the time, star Tallulah Bankhead called the critics moronic). But today it’s an unfair critique of a mostly excellent film. The first of Hitch’s single-location experiments (cf Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window), Lifeboat presents an intriguing situation then populates it with memorable characters, plenty of drama and reversals of fortune. It’s a buoyant film, with themes that bubble to the surface. But there are also choppy waters along the way, as well as some dangerous undercurrents…

After an attack by a German U-boat, a passenger ship goes down in the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of survivors – a famous journalist, a couple of seaman, a nurse, a wealthy industrialist, a mother with her baby, a British radioman and a ship steward – find refuge in a lifeboat. They’re adrift, isolated and helpless. Their supplies are low and they have no means of contacting anyone.

The overall tone of the film is gallows humour mixed with a Blitz spirit. Despite the subtext of fear, there’s a real can-do attitude amongst this group. Whether it’s proactively fixing the boat’s damage or cataloguing supplies or playing cards – or working as a team to amputate a gangrenous leg! – these characters come together despite their differences. Every person in the story makes a contribution, even the character with the shortest screentime (Heather Angel’s Mrs Higley, whose baby dies but she’s too catatonic with shock to notice).

The nominal lead is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), who appears at first to be a thoroughly awful woman, one so selfish that she boasts of the photographs she’s taken of the disaster rather than helping the victims. She starts off as an immaculately turned-out lady of society, but as she sheds clothes and accessories due to the heat and dehydration we get to know more and like her more. She even develops a cross-class flirtation with the rugged John Kovac (John Hodiak), a man who takes his shirt off at the earliest opportunity and flaunts his tattoos.

Elsewhere, there’s the affable but badly injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), the sweet and stoic Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), eccentric, cigar-chewing millionaire Charles J Rittenhouse Jr (Henry Hull), the friendly and resourceful Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn, sadly putting on a pretty dire English accent) and the calming presence of ship steward Joe (Canada Lee). But thrown into this mix is an additional survivor, one who threatens to scuttle the sprightly group.

Floating through the wreckage of the passenger ship, they pull a stranger aboard. ‘Danke schoen,’ he says as he regains his breath, and the implication is immediately obvious. He’s from the U-boat, which itself has now sunk. But should our characters help stricken Willi (Walter Slezak)? Or should they just throw him overboard? He’s not an outwardly evil man, even offering help with poor Gus’s busted leg and suggesting the correct way to Bermuda. But he’s still the enemy. The dilemma of what to do with him drives much of the story, creates divisions within the lifeboat survivors, and has a shocking climax…

Based on an original idea by Hitchcock, the script was initially written by playwright John Steinbeck. (Ernest Hemingway had also been sounded out.) However, it was later tinkered with by a number of hands and Steinbeck disowned the project. In many ways, it’s a marvel. The dialogue is punchy yet meaningful and has a pleasing rhythm. The story never flags, despite the single setting. And you always want to know what’s going to happen next. But there is a problem. It’s one of the reasons Steinbeck turned his back on the movie. Lifeboat, regrettably, is lazily racist in its depiction of the story’s only black character.

Given the eras in which he produced movies it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s diversity record is, by today’s standards, rather appalling. Other than Lifeboat’s Joe, his only other significant non-white character is charismatic spy Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) in Topaz. When black men (never women) are otherwise spotted in Hitchcock movies, they tend to be servile or docile. The plot resolution of Young and Innocent, meanwhile, has a white character hiding under blackface.

At least Joe is played by a conscientious actor who tweaked his dialogue to remove the worst of the clichés he’d been given to say (the yessirs and all the rest). But, sadly, the character still comes across like a second-class citizen who’s there to entertain the others with his flute and sort out their food supplies. He rarely has a voice of his own, he has to ask not to be called by the generic black servant name of Charlie, and other characters initially use the nickname Charcoal.

But if this blemish needs us to turn a blind eye, in its physical staging Lifeboat *excels*. The studio recreation of the rough desolation of the mid Atlantic Ocean is a wonder of filmmaking and gives the story so much texture. It was achieved via a number of methods. Four different boats were built for the production; two were complete, while two were cut in half so the camera could get closer to the actors. A water tank was used for certain shots where a boat could be held in place by wires; another vessel was on rollers to better control its pitch and yaw. Dump tanks and chutes allowed thousands of gallons of water to be sloshed around. Dry ice created hazes of ocean mist and fog. Footage of endless, barren seas off California and Florida was played behind the actors on enormous rear-projection screens. In the final cut, everything is then accompanied by smartly chosen and edited sound effects. It all creates a tremendous sense of place.

Filming might have come at a price. The cast were repeatedly soaked with water and had to contend with motion sickness; Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia twice; Mary Anderson fell ill; Hume Cronyn suffered broken ribs and nearly drowned. But their sacrifices were worth it. Lifeboat is worth clinging to.

Nine before and after pictures in a newspaper ad for Reduco weight-loss drug out of 10

NOTE: I cut the following paragraph from the above review because it didn’t really fit into the flow, but the gags are so good I thought I’d add it here as a kind of ‘deleted scene’ extra:

There were moments of levity along the way too. When actress Mary Anderson asked Hitchcock what he thought was her ‘best side’, he said, ‘You’re sitting on it, my dear.’ After being told that Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear, and this may cause an issue if caught on camera, Hitch is said to have joked, ‘I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up or hairdressing.’ And when the director argued that he didn’t want the film to have a score because the audience would be asking where the music is coming from, a caustic composer commented, ‘Ask Mr Hitchcock to explain where the camera came from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.’

I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The police have a terrorist under surveillance as he and his cohorts plan an attack…

A young boy called Stevie (Desmond Tester) has been given an important errand. He’s been asked by his elder sister’s foreign husband, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), to deliver a package to Piccadilly Circus. Stevie thinks the bundle is made up of just film cans – the family run a cinema, after all – but what he doesn’t know is that Karl has included a bomb. Mr Verloc is a terrorist, under orders from a shadowy network of foreign agents.

It’s a shame Homolka gives such a limp, unsure performance as Karl. The character should dominate the film: he’s the threat, he’s the danger. But the actor is so poor he sucks the life and tension out of his scenes. Around the time this film was made, Hitchcock worked twice with another actor from central Europe, Peter Lorre – and it’s difficult not to imagine him in the part, making Karl both scarier and more sympathetic.

As he travels across London, Stevie realises he’s running late. It’s the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show and the city is buzzing with crowds and the streets are choc-a-bloc with traffic. So he jumps on bus, using his cheek to get past the conductor who points out that celluloid is flammable and isn’t allowed on public transport. But the bus moves slowly, struggling through the throngs and past the shops and markets and parade. Stevie nervously taps his leg and repeatedly glances out of the window. We see his point of view as the bus crawls past various clocks hanging above shop fronts, emphasising how time is getting on.

He’s jittery because he’s going to be late – Verlock insisted that the cans are delivered by a specific time. We’re frantic with worry, meanwhile, because we know the bomb is set to go off at 1.45pm.

The editing gets quicker and more urgent and more intense. And then… boom. The bus is ripped apart by an explosion. All the passengers are surely killed, including innocent Stevie. It’s one of the more shocking moments in Hitchcock’s canon. In a morbid joke, the director then cuts to a scene of Stevie’s sister, oblivious as to what’s happened and laughing with her husband…

Hitchcock later said that he regretting killing Stevie – though not from any moralistic motive. It was because, he believed, that he’d fumbled the film’s sense of suspense. ‘That was a big error,’ he said 30 years after making the movie. ‘The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic. You work the audience up to such a degree that they need the relief. One should have done the killing a different way, off the screen or something. I shouldn’t have made a suspense thing of it.’

However, it’s worth emphasising that Sabotage works so well precisely because a sympathetic character dies so horribly and in such a way that defies expectation. There are countless movies that set up a tragic death like this and then cop out at the last minute, allowing the kid to survive. Sabotage goes for the jugular. The explosion also motivates the remainder of the story: the character arc of Stevie’s sister, an American ex-pat played well by Sylvia Sidney, wouldn’t make sense without her devastated grief. As Hitchcock himself said, ‘The boy had to be killed for the sake of the story.’

The bomb sequence is also one of Hitchcock’s most stunning moments on a technical level. The director had recently been introduced to the wonders of Soviet montage – a revolutionary editing technique that had developed in Russia in the 1920s – by Ivor Montague, a communist writer who worked on several Hitchcock films as a kind of associate producer. It puts meaning not only into individual shots but, crucially, into the relationship and connection between them. Cutting to a new camera angle or a new scene or a new location is not just a matter of seeing something new: the edit also gives viewers extra information. In its simplest terms, if a movie cuts from one character looking longingly off-camera to an image of another character, we understand that the former is looking at the latter and is in love. We don’t need to see both at the same time nor we do we need to be told what’s happening. (Montage has become so mainstream it’s one of the bases of Western narrative cinema. But we must remember that the art form didn’t *need* to develop in this way.)

The cutting between innocent Stevie, the film cans, the bus, the crowds, the clocks, the traffic lights and all the rest leaves us in no doubt what’s about to happen – the sequence has real power. The technique appears elsewhere in the film too. After learning of Stevie’s death, his devastated sister sees taunting visions of him alive and well – a palpable and effective dramatisation of grief made possibly by cutting together different shots with real skill.

This awareness of cinema also extended to the film’s setting. The Verlocs live above an urban cinema, which allows Hitchcock to have some self-referential fun. One scene takes place behind the screen while a film is being projected; as discussed, the plot’s most shocking moment involves a boy carrying the film cans of a two-reeler called Bartholomew the Strangler. A clip from Sabotage was even reused 73 years later in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: the moment when a bus conductor tells Stevie that carrying film cans in public is a fire risk features in an explanatory montage. 

Eight men crossing the road out of 10

Easy Virtue (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A secretary marries a widower, but finds life difficult when they return to his ancestral home…

A ghost story without a ghost in it, Rebecca begins with a spooky, eerie sequence that reveals the mysterious Cornish country house of Manderley. It’s a horror-movie opening, full of fog and forests and foreboding. We know we’re heading into a story where the past will never quite let us go…

In Monte Carlo, a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) is working for a rich harridan as a secretary/travelling companion/general dogsbody. But when she meets a widower called George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter, aka Maxim (Laurence Olivier), they fall in love, she quits her job, and they quickly get married… The unnamed central character was not Fontaine’s only Hitchcock role – she returned the following year to play another woman whose marriage is not what she expected in Suspicion. She gives a fine performance here as a woman whose happiness is short-lived.

After their honeymoon, the pair travel to Manderley, a house deep in the West Country woods. It’s near the sea and seems to have its own weather system (rain begins on cue as they approach). It’s a Gothic pile of unused wings, huge, echoing rooms and too many servants. But despite the vast interior, the new Mrs de Winter quickly feels suffocated – especially when Maxim’s relatives and creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson, giving a performance that has become a movie standard) keep mentioning the former lady of the house.

The character of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, never actually appears on screen. We don’t even see a photograph of her. But she hangs over the whole story, casting a shadow on Fontaine’s character, who can’t escape the implication that she’s not up to the job of replacing this saintly woman. What started out as a romantic melodrama in the south of France becomes a Victorian horror. Our lead is metaphorically trapped in a castle-like prison, friendless and hopeless. Maxim begins to feel more and more like a villain. The paranoia builds, the menace rises, the swirling, romantic score turns mysterious.

But then the myth of Rebecca is shattered when Maxim reveals how she died: despite everything we’ve been told, their marriage was anything but idyllic and he accidentally killed her during an argument. The captivating revelation scene sees Hitchcock’s camera move around the room as Maxim recounts what happened – if it were following a ghostly Rebecca recreating her final moments. It’s also one of several examples of the director’s amazing command of the material. Throughout the film, he artfully shifts the tone from light to dark, comedy to tragedy, suspense to shocks. Because of this authorial control, the story seduces you and never bores you, even though for long stretches nothing much actually happens. It’s absolute magic.

The effect perhaps has a wobble during the final third of the movie, in which plot starts to dominate mood and when Rebecca’s cousin/lover Jack (George Sanders) takes focus and fails to convince. Fontaine also fades away into the background, which is a real shame. But nearly 80 years after it was released, this film is still casting its shadow.

Nine men near the phone box out of 10