Number Seventeen (1932)

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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.

Various characters congregate in an old, abandoned house…

This is a film seriously lacking of oomph. Underwhelming and boring, it has the distinct feeling of having been made by a director whose mind is elsewhere. There’s a real absence of polish, for example, which is a vanishing rarity with an Alfred Hitchcock movie. We get poor, hammy performances throughout, some of which often feel like unrehearsed first takes. There’s a difficult-to-follow plot with bland, ill-defined characters (most of whom seem to be pretending to be someone else). The editing is jarring and clumsy. The score often bares little relation to the mood of the scene. It’s a *mess*.

The story begins when a man searches an empty house at night. He encounters first a homeless man and then a spirited young woman, each of whom have their own reasons for being there. Later, a group of criminals also shows up – and we eventually learn that the gang is using the house as part of a plan to steal a diamond necklace and escape via a nearby railway. But the storytelling is astonishingly scant and perfunctory. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. In Number Seventeen, it often feels like he’s removed the *interesting* bits.

With the events taking place in a spooky house at night, at least Hitch enjoys playing around with shadows and some tricksy lighting. There are a few arresting images and clever shots. The studio set is also quite elaborate and built on several levels, which allows for a fun stunt when two tied-up characters fall off a balcony and are left dangling in mid-air. But the travesty of a script insists on telling its convoluted and clichéd tale with no finesse or clarity at all. When you *can* understand what’s happening you often wish you hadn’t bothered.

In the last quarter of the film, the characters leave the house and Number Seventeen morphs into an action thriller involving trains, a Green Line bus and a ferry. At least the new energy creates some enjoyment. (Check out the charming Gerry Anderson-style model shots!) But there are still some head-scratching plot twists to come in the final scene. There aren’t many Alfred Hitchcock films you’re glad to see the back of. But this is one of them. The director himself later called Number Seventeen a disaster and ‘very cheap melodrama’, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Three bus passengers out of 10

NOTE: Clips from Number Seventeen were later seen in The ABC Murders (1991), the very best episode of ITV detective series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although the story takes place in 1936, a character called Alexander Bonaparte Cust spends an afternoon at the cinema and takes in Number Seventeen. He’s later accused of being a serial killer. It’s a toss-up which is the more traumatic experience.

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Ten Things I Love About Notorious (1946)

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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 daughter of a Nazi is coerced into working as a spy. She must go undercover with a group of Germans hiding in Brazil, but is also falling in love with her handler…

Sometimes a movie rattles around inside your head long after the viewing ends – its pleasures, its story, its characters lingering in your thoughts. Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is one of those films. On the face of it, it’s just an orthodox thriller about a spy working undercover. But in the hands of a master director, and played out by a first-rank cast from the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s so much more than that. Most strikingly, as well as a suspense film, it’s also a love story – perhaps Hitch’s most mature and engrossing. Perhaps that’s why Notorious stays with you days after you’ve seen it. These are characters in extreme situations, but the emotions are universal. Here are ten reasons why Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s finest films…

1. The set-up
It’s April 1946. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the American daughter of a Nazi traitor. After her father is tried, convicted and imprisoned, she’s hounded by the press who assume she must be a Nazi too. So she tries to ease her heartache by holding a party, but she soon gets drunk and encounters an enigmatic man called TR Devlin (Cary Grant). He’s a US intelligence agent and, despite her belligerence, he forces her to admit that she doesn’t share her father’s politics. He then recruits her to work as a deep-cover spy in Brazil. Their mission: to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have gone into hiding after the war…

2. Ingrid Bergman
This was the actress’s second film for Hitchcock, after playing a psychiatrist in Spellbound the year before. One of the director’s definitive ‘blondes’ – surely she and Grace Kelly vie for the top spot – she holds the entire story together with a performance as detailed, complex and interesting as any in Hitch’s filmography. Alicia is messed-up, a drunk, and at first arrogant and dismissive. But because she’s played by Ingrid Bergman, she’s also *magnetic*. Bergman was a fine movie actor who was able to convey huge emotions with small gestures. Even when being brave or bolshy, her characters have vulnerability, which means you can’t take your eyes off her. Neither can Devlin, and after he and Alicia have travelled to Rio together the pair fall in love…

3. Cary Grant
When Devlin is introduced into the story, he’s shot from behind and in shadow and doesn’t say anything – it’s a theatrical device calling attention to the fact he’s going to be an important character. He’s gate-crashed Alicia’s party, but doesn’t talk until all the other guests have either left or passed out. Then, after he’s sobered Alicia up, Devlin pitches his plan: she can right some of her father’s wrongs by working as an American spy. As in all of his Hitchcock roles, Grant has good looks, a cool sophistication and a sharp intelligence. But there’s a difference from Johnnie in Suspicion, Robie in To Catch a Thief and Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. Devlin is a more sombre character, a more serious man. In other words, he’s more grown-up. This is a guy who’s been there, seen that, and internalised it all… Before filming, Bergman had worried that she wouldn’t like Grant. She feared he’d be a patronising, self-obsessed alpha male. In fact, the two actors got on very well and that chemistry shines through the screen.

4. Film noir
Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, I Confess and Vertigo, but the genre lurks in the corners of many others. Notorious is perhaps the classic example because it contains so many elements that are key to film-noir cinema: black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, a morally ambiguous leading man, a femme fatal, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism, an atmosphere thick with menace… even venetian blinds. At its heart, the movie is a romance – but it’s not one drenched in Hollywood sentimentality. This is a tough film, with difficult choices and quiet unhappiness.

5. Claude Rains
In Rio, Devlin’s bosses tell him the details of the mission he’s to give Alicia – and it involves a man from her past. Alexander Sebastian is a member of a group of Nazis-in-hiding, and several years earlier he fell in love with Alicia when he knew her father. Now she must engineer a meeting, seduce him, and learn about the group’s plans… Sebastian is played by Claude Rains, who four years earlier had co-starred with Ingrid Bergman in the sumptuous Casablanca. (Coincidentally, he’d also co-starred with Cary Grant before, in 1935’s The Last Outpost.) In both Casablanca and Notorious, Rains’s character is a villain – a Nazi here, a corrupt policeman then. But neither is a cartoon bad guy. Sebastian is the film’s antagonist, and is clearly a despicable man in many ways, but the actor makes him watchable and, you have to accept, sympathetic. Towards the end of the film, Devlin and Alicia leave him to face the wrath of his co-conspirators. He may well be killed for allowing American spies into his life, albeit unknowingly. You can’t help but feel for his plight.

6. The kiss
Alicia and Devlin’s romance builds through a twisted meet-cute – he looks after her while she’s drunk, even when she’s driving erratically down a road – as well as early scenes of them bickering. Then, once they fall for each other, Hitchcock directs one of the most sensual movie scenes of the 1940s. While discussing their situation in their hotel room, Alicia and Devlin kiss on and off for two and a half minutes. Famously, the reason the two actors repeatedly nuzzle then detach lips was to cheekily bypass Hollywood’s censorship rules, which stated that kisses should last no longer than three seconds. Ironically, by sidestepping the rule, Bergman and Grant created a scene that’s significantly sexier and more romantic than if they’d simply smooched non-stop for the entire movie.

7. Suspense
It’s a definition that’s been often repeated, but that’s because it’s so illustrative. In an interview with Francois Truffaut in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock once explained the difference between surprise and suspense. Imagine a movie scene where two people are sitting at a table, he said. If a bomb explodes from underneath the table, that’s surprise. But if we – the viewer – are *shown* the bomb beforehand and then anxiously wait for it to go off, that’s suspense. It’s a simple principle, but Hitch used it so brilliantly. He knew how to eke out suspense better than any other film director; to keep audiences on the edge of their seats by structuring plots and scenes specifically to delay events that we either wish for or desperately fear. Notorious is built around suspense – will Alicia be found out? Will her connection to Devlin be rumbled? Can the two search Sebastian’s house while a party is going on?

8. The shot
The film has several moments of cinematic panache. Every Hitchcock movie does. Early scenes of Alicia suffering from a hangover, for example, are dramatised by off-kilter point-of-view shots (the camera even turns upside down as she lies back on a bed and looks up at Devlin). But the greatest piece of flamboyance comes during the party scene at Sebastian’s house. Alicia needs to steal Sebastian’s key to the wine cellar so she and Devlin can search it in secret, but she’s terrified of being rumbled. He nearly finds her with it upstairs, but she manages to drop it on the floor unseen. Then we cut to the party. The opening shot pans across the large hall with the camera on a high balcony. There are around 35 people in the frame, mingling and chatting. Dead centre as the camera stops is Alicia. Then – gracefully, miraculously – the camera starts to move. It glides diagonally downwards towards Alicia, who’s turned slightly away from us. It gets closer and closer and closer until her hand fills the frame… and it’s holding the key. As always with Hitchcock, it’s not just camera trickery for camera trickery’s sake: the shot tells the story masterfully.

9. The mother-in-law
Having learnt that Alicia was rooting around in the wine cellar, Sebastian realises she now knows that his group are dealing in uranium – and he needs to silence her. So he admits to his live-in mother (played by former silent-film actress Leopoldine Konstantin, who was actually only three years older than Claude Rains) that he’s married to an American agent. Stunned, she reaches for a cigarette. They both know that he’ll be killed if his Nazi colleagues find out he’s been so careless, so they cook up a plan to slowly poison Alicia… The film now takes another deliciously chilling turn as Alicia’s health deteriorates. The life starts to drain out of her face – but in an illicit meeting with Devlin, he just assumes she’s drinking again. She eventually realises what’s happening to her, but then collapses and becomes bedridden. She’s now at the mercy of her husband and mother-in-law…

10. The finale
Suspicious when he doesn’t hear from her, Devlin visits the Sebastian house and is told that Alicia has been in bed for a week. He sneaks up to her room and the two talk, cheek to cheek. She tells him about the poison – so Devlin gets her out of bed and holds her up as they make their escape. The sequence is all the more gripping because it’s not a mad dash or an action scene. It’s two characters calmly and slowly walking out of a house. Sebastian tries to stop them, but as Devlin points out he can’t cause a fuss. His Nazi colleagues are within earshot: all Devlin has to do is tell them who he and Alicia are…

Ten men at a party out of 10

Secret Agent (1936)

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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 British spy is sent to Switzerland on a deadly mission…

The story begins on 10 May 1916. It’s the First World War and London is being bombed. A British officer, Captain Edgar Brodie, is given a fake funeral, a new identity, and an enigmatic mission by his boss – an avuncular man known as R (Charles Carson). Assuming the name Richard Ashenden, the officer travels to a hotel in Switzerland to find and kill a German agent.

Cast as Ashenden was John Gielgud, who reportedly didn’t enjoy the filming process, and you do quickly sense that the actor would rather be somewhere else. Despite its spy-film trappings, Secret Agent is sometimes written like a screwball comedy or a romantic thriller. Dialogue should be swatted back and forth, yet Ashenden is such a colourless character that it sometimes falls flat. Much more fun are his two cohorts.

As a sidekick, Ashenden has help from ‘the General’, a flamboyant, grotesque assassin played by Peter Lorre. (This meant a swift return to the Alps for Lorre: his only other Hitchcock movie, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also has scenes set there.) The character is a livewire and an outrageous flirt. He wears an earring, has a natty moustache, and recites his long name when introducing himself (‘General Pompellio Montezuma De La Vilia De Conde De La Rue’). It’s a big performance – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it adds plenty of energy and interest.

Then, when he arrives at the Swiss hotel, Ashenden is startled to learn that his ‘wife’ has already checked in. She turns out to be a fellow British agent called Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), who he discovers in his room wearing a towel and flirting with an American she’s met at the hotel called Robert (Robert Young). As the plot develops, Ashenden and Elsa fall in love – it’s easy to see why from his point of view – and consider quitting their espionage lifestyles.

Meanwhile, there’s a vaguely diverting spy plot going on. Ashenden and the General identify a man who seems to be English but they think is a German agent en route to the Middle East to cause problems for the Allies. Luring him up into the mountains, the General kills him while the more delicate Ashenden watches from afar. (Back at the hotel, the man’s dog whines in psychic sympathy.)

However, then comes the movie’s one real shock: they had the wrong man… They’ve murdered an innocent person. Elsa is distraught, but the General just laughs at the absurdity of the situation. It’s hard to discern what Ashenden thinks, though, because of Gielgud’s overly stoic performance.

The restarted investigation finally leads to a local factory and a sequence where the noise of industry masks any dialogue (you get the sense that Hitch is enjoying an old-fashioned ‘silent’ scene). Ashenden then learns the identity of the German agent: it’s Elsa’s American friend, Robert, who at that very moment is leaving town… And Elsa, wracked with guilt over the Englishman’s death, is going with him.

The film now gets bigger in scale as it races towards a climax. Ashenden and the General catch the same train as Robert and Elsa – a train that heads into Turkey (i.e. enemy territory). We see some charmingly primitive model shots of the train and there’s an impressive action sequence as the Royal Flying Corps attack it causing a huge crash! Ashenden and Elsa survive and retire from the profession; the General is killed.

As previously mentioned on this blog – in my wildly off-topic review of Psycho – there’s something very familiar about Secret Agent. It’s a film about a British military officer turned intelligence agent who’s given an overseas mission by a superior whose codename is a single initial. The agent then encounters outlandish characters, has a relationship with a sexy woman, visits a casino and boards a train across Europe. There’s also a big action climax…

Secret Agent may be based on stories written by W Somerset Maugham, but sixteen years before Ian Fleming sat down at a desk in Jamaica to write his first novel, and 26 years before Sean Connery pulled on a Savile Row suit to play his most famous character, it feels like Alfred Hitchcock presciently made a James Bond movie.

Seven church organists out of 10

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger at the Door

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While London is being rocked by a series of violent murders, a man checks into a boarding house near the scenes of the crimes. Is he the killer?

Context is everything. I’ve started Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger on three occasions, yet only finished it twice. The first time was during my university degree course in the late 90s, projected onto a big screen, and for a long time afterwards I remembered an entertaining, creepy and visually ambitious film from the silent era.

Two decades later, when it came to viewing the movie for this blog, I went online and found a cheap second-hand DVD available to buy. After it arrived in the post, I excitedly put the disc in the machine… and barely lasted 10 minutes. I had to switch off in disgust.

The DVD had been issued by GMVS Limited in 2004 and was such a ghastly piece of work it made me cringe. I was offended on The Lodger’s behalf. As good as many silent movies are – as great, as important, as interesting, as fun – it’s sometimes difficult watching one. Unless you’re a silent-era buff, the passage of such a long period of time inevitably creates barriers. As a modern viewer, you often need to abandon expectations of pacing and storytelling conventions, and learn how to enjoy a movie without audible dialogue, that has fewer cuts and camera moves, and can (sometimes) be dogged by overly theatrical performances.

And the process wasn’t helped by the awful, lazy, sloppy presentation available from GMVS. The print of The Lodger was dirty, scratchy, damaged. There were jarring cuts. Every scene was in dull black-and-white. Unrelated – and presumably available for free – music had been plastered onto the soundtrack, irrespective of relevance or rhythm or mood. (The macabre discovery of a murder victim next to the Thames? Scored by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy….)

Thank the cinematic gods, therefore, for the heroes at distribution company Network who, in 2012, reissued The Lodger as a lovingly assembled DVD and Blu-Ray. The print had been artfully cleaned and repaired by the British Film Institute. The film’s colour had been restored to what audiences in 1927 would have seen – the image tinted blue for exterior scenes at night, for example, or tinted a warm yellow for homely interiors. And a musical score by Nitin Sawhney had been specially commissioned, recorded and expertly dubbed. Now, thanks to Network, The Lodger can shine in all its glory.

(Just to balance all this gushing, I should say that the new score is only partly successful. Although a definite improvement on the GMVS disc’s that’ll-do dubbing, Sawhney opts for too much bombast. There are also – bewilderingly – *songs*, which is just distracting.)

The Lodger is the story of a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer called the Avenger. Near where his victims are being found, the family who run a boarding house start to fear that their new resident – a handsome but troubled young man played by Ivor Novello – could be the killer. The daughter of the house is a fashion model called Daisy (June Tripp) and she soon grows close to the man; her boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), is a policeman investigating the deaths.

Of course, Ivor Novello isn’t the killer. His character is actually a bereaved brother searching for his sister’s murderer. This revelation follows a fantastic scene where the suspicious police search his bag and discover details of the Avenger’s crimes. Novello’s performance alters at this point – his eyes well up and he pleads with the audience for sympathy in the classic silent-movie style. (Hitchcock had considered leaving it ambiguous as to whether the character was guilty, but studio bosses insisted on him being innocent. They reasoned that Ivor Novello’s fanbase wouldn’t like him playing a serial killer.)

Not for nothing, The Lodger’s director later called it ‘the first true Hitchcock movie’ because it introduced so many of his favourite themes and ideas. There’s tension and suspicion, romance and playfulness, dark humour and cynicism, an ambiguous hero and an enigmatic blonde. The film tells its story both through the perspectives of its characters *and* from a detached, omniscient point of view. It also makes great dramatic use of the boarding house’s staircase, starting an obsession with stairs and steps that ran through the rest of Hitch’s filmography.

At times the movie feels like a horror film (especially in the evocations of Jack the Ripper, whose crimes were then just 39 years in the past), while there’s also a real debt to German cinema of the 1920s. Hitchcock had worked in the German film industry prior to making The Lodger, and had generally been wowed by the works of directors Robert Wiene, FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. There’s some of their influence in The Lodger, especially in its use of shadows and camera angles. The way the lodger himself is sometimes shot brings to mind Count Orlok, the Dracula-by-another-name villain of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu.

But the movie also has its charming and upbeat pleasures. There’s the gorgeous, Art Deco title cards… Scenes in the 1920s fashion world… A snappy, inventive sequence showing news spreading across London… The famous ‘glass ceiling’ shot as Hitchcock shows us a man pacing about in his bedroom *from beneath*, a moment of filmmaking bravura that takes your breath away…

What a brilliant movie. Inventive, clever, dark. It’s well worth seeing. Just make sure you see a decent version.

Nine men standing by some railings out of 10

Psycho (1960)

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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 on the run checks into a motel and encounters its nervous owner…

Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows the stories behind the story. The film Hitchcock made in black-and-white with a TV crew for $800,000… The audacious script that kills off its lead character with an hour still to go… The movie that launched the slasher genre with the terrifying, innovative, never-beaten, endlessly analysed shower scene… The disturbing reveal of Norman Bates’s ‘mother’… The Bernard Hermann incidental music made up of violent, piercing strings… The Saul Bass title sequence… Janet Leigh in a bra (several times)… The first flushing toilet ever seen in Hollywood cinema…

With such a history, it’d be easy for a blog like this to trot out the anecdotes and conclude that Psycho is still a brilliant, incisive, shocking, addictive horror movie. So let’s take all that as read, and instead focus on something else.

After Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has done a runner with $40,000, her boyfriend grows worried and starts to search for her. Sam Loomis is not cinema’s most enthralling character. However, as dull as he is, he does provide access to a behind-the-scenes rabbit hole that’s well worth burrowing into… Sam is played by John Gavin, an actor with a few notable credits. He was Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and had a supporting role in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). In later life, he became the US Ambassador to Mexico. But we’re going to discuss a role he *didn’t* get to play.

In 1971, Gavin was cast as James Bond. Signed and sealed. A done deal. Original 007 actor Sean Connery had jumped ship after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, tired of the press attention and feeling underpaid. But his replacement, George Lazenby, had walked away from the role after just one film – 1969’s marvellous On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. So, keen to keep the train on the tracks, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman searched for a new lead actor and decided on the 40-year-old John Gavin. He would have been the first American to play the role on film.

However, studio executives at United Artists then got cold feet. On Her Majesty’s hadn’t made as much money as previous Bond movies, so it was decided not to risk yet another new lead actor. They dug deep into their pockets and coaxed Connery back to the series with an enormous fee and a promise to greenlight two other films of his choice. Poor John Gavin graciously stepped aside and was paid off in full. Connery played Bond in Diamonds Are Forever and the film earned 15 times its production budget at the box office. The series was saved.

But Gavin is not the only actor who links Alfred Hitchcock with James Bond. Most notably, Sean Connery was in Hitch’s 1964 film Marnie. The story goes that Cubby Broccoli personally contacted Hitchcock to recommend the star, who wanted to work with prestige directors. (Connery had also been in the running for a role in the previous year’s The Birds.) Hitchcock later said he’d miscast the Scot as Philadelphia widower Mark Rutland, but Connery had nevertheless impressed the director. He also impressed the movie’s crew, who presented him with a gold watch worth $1000 when filming concluded. (Connery was touched, but then grimaced at having to pay £25 in duty when he took the watch back to the UK to start work on his third Bond movie, Goldfinger.)

Elsewhere, the cast of Hitchcock’s film Frenzy (1972) is a positive nexus point for actors with Bond on their CV. Bernard Cribbins (Felix) was a taxi driver in 1967’s Bond spoof, Casino Royale; Noel Johnson (Doctor in pub) played a Navy bigwig in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only; and Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford) was Q in 1983’s Never Say Never Again. Michael Sheard (Jim) was cast in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die but his scene was cut out. John Finch (Dick Blaney), meanwhile, was reportedly offered the role of James Bond in 1973 and turned it down. If true, it would be another example of Finch being a nearly man of genre cinema: he was also cast as the unfortunate Kane in sci-fi classic Alien (1979) but had to drop out shortly into filming due to illness.

Away from Frenzy, Anthony Dawson was in three Bond movies after his gloriously slimy performance in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954). Also in Dial M, although uncredited, was Guy Doleman, who then played Count Lippe in Thunderball (1964). Francis de Wolff was in Under Capricorn (1949) before a small role in From Russia With Love (1963), while another Under Capricorn alumnus, Martin Benson, played Mr Solo in Goldfinger. German actress Karin Dor brought sultry sexiness to both Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). French star Louis Jourdan had appeared as the valet André Latour in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) before playing the villainous Kamal Khan in Bond film Octopussy (1983).

And it’s not just actors who connect the two worlds. Screenwriter Ben Hecht, for example, worked on several films with Alfred Hitchcock – Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, The Paradine Case, Rope, Strangers on a Train – and was also the first writer of what became the 1967 film Casino Royale. (He died before the latter went into production and his more serious take on the story was heavily rewritten.)

The links also extend to television. Before the famous James Bond movie series began, the character featured in a 1954 American TV adaptation of Casino Royale. It was co-written by Charles Bennett, who had worked on the scripts of several Hitchcock movies in the 1930s and 40s. Cast as Bond was Barry Nelson, who later appeared in some Hitchcock-produced TV shows. And the villain of the piece was played by Peter Lorre, who’d been so memorable in two of the director’s British movies – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). (In fact, as well as starring Lorre and being written by Bennett, Secret Agent is an uncanny precursor of the whole Bond idiom. It came out 16 years before Ian Fleming put finger to typewriter, yet is an espionage thriller about a British intelligence officer given an overseas mission by a spymaster boss who’s known by a single initial. The officer soon teams up with a beautiful and classy woman, with whom he falls in love, and there’s even a scene set in a casino.)

If you search pedantically enough, small connections crop up all over the place. However, some of them are so tenuous – Malcolm Keen, who appeared in three Hitchcock films in the 1920s, was the father of Geoffrey Keen, who was a Bond semi-regular as the Minster of Defence – that perhaps we should focus on the main man himself.

Alfred Hitchcock directing a James Bond film is one of the great missed opportunities of cinema. In the late 1950s, Ian Fleming co-wrote an original James Bond film script and was keen on Alfred Hitchcock directing it. He reached out to the great man via a mutual friend, but the director had just made a spy movie so wanted to do something different. Aptly for our purposes here, he instead turned his attentions to a horror project called Psycho.

Three years later, Bond finally hit cinema screens in Dr No. Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had made a production deal with United Artists, and Hitchcock had again been sounded out as director. One of his regular leading men was also considered for the part of James Bond. Ian Fleming was a fan of Cary Grant, and the actor was also a friend of Broccoli’s. (In 1959, he had been the best man at Cubby’s wedding to his second wife, Dana.) But Broccoli knew that Grant would never sign up to a multi-film deal so the notion was dropped.

One of the reasons Grant and Hitchcock were such plausible choices was because, in a sense, they’d already made a Bond picture: 1959’s North by Northwest. That movie’s stylistic influence on James Bond is obvious. It pointed the way towards a new type of film: a hip, fun, light-on-it-feet thrill ride full of action, comedy, espionage, outlandish villains, theatrical sequences and a certain amount of sex. Grant’s lead character, Roger Thornhill, was even a good-looking, well-dressed, intelligent, debonair charmer with an eye for the ladies and a wry sense of humour. (It only took the Bond producers two films to acknowledge the debt. An action scene in From Russia With Love is remarkably reminiscent of North by Northwest’s famous dust-cropping sequence… and it doesn’t feature in Fleming’s original novel.)

As for Psycho? Well, after Marion Crane steals $40,000 and goes on the run, she ends up at a motel. Its owner, Norman Bates, is a peeping Tom and considers her for his eyes only. But she gets the living daylights scared out of her when the spectre of Norman’s split-personality gives him a licence to kill. Sadly for film fans, Marion lived twice. The character was later resurrected to die another day when, in 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a hollow, mechanical remake of Psycho. He didn’t even use any actors from the James Bond series.

Nine men in the street out of 10

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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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 couple’s young son is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock once said he wasn’t ‘audience conscious’ when, in 1934, he first made a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much. But 22 years and 25 movies later, he directed a loose remake. It was produced at the height of his Hollywood popularity and power, and as well as the many cosmetic or production differences from the original – colour! Widescreen! Americans! – there was also a significantly different script.

Writer John Michael Hayes was told not to view the 1930s movie or read its script, so instead he worked off an outline told to him verbally by Hitchcock. The result is the same vague storyline: an innocent couple on holiday stumble across some dangerous information and their child is kidnapped to stop them from talking. But the plot has been rejigged and the trappings moved around. One reason for this was to give the father character more action – Hitch argued that if you’ve cast James Stewart, you can’t lock him up for as long as Leslie Banks was in the original.

This was Stewart’s third role for Alfred Hitchcock, after a key supporting character in Rope and the lead in Rear Window. A charismatic powerhouse, Stewart was perhaps the best ‘everyman’ Hollywood’s ever had. He possessed an amazing ability to play decent, likeable men who wear their intelligence lightly. Here, he’s Ben McKenna, a successful doctor on holiday in north Africa with his family. Ben’s wife, Jo, is played by Doris Day. Hitch cast her against the wishes of colleagues who wanted a more ‘serious’ actress – someone like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly or Jane Russell – but he knew Day was more than just a singer. And he was right. She’s fantastic in this film.

In the early scenes of Ben, Jo and son Hank (an irritating Christopher Olsen), the movie has a travelogue feel. Unlike the 1934 film, which began in the Swiss Alps, we’re in Morocco. We see markets and traders and street exhibitionists and bustling buses; we learn about why Muslim women wear veils and all about Moroccan restaurant etiquette. The sequence is a combination of location work in Marrakesh, and shots taken of Stewart and Day back in Hollywood acting against massive rear-projection plates. It’s also a more leisurely opening than in 1934 – but that allows us to get to know Ben and Jo much more than Bob and Jill, their equivalents in that first movie. The couple meet a Frenchman called Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), then an English couple called Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles). Ben is jovial towards them all, but Jo is suspicious of Louis.

The situation is preparing the ground for a suspense plot, but as ever with Hitchcock there’s also time for human moments or humour. In their hotel room, Jo and Hank enjoy singing Que Sera, Sera together – being played by Doris Day, Jo has quite a nice voice and the scene is adorably sweet. There’s also some fun business when Ben can’t settle on a low, soft chair and struggles to eat with one hand.

Then comes a crisis… The next day, Bernard is stabbed in the street. Just before he dies he whispers a message to Ben. There’s to be as assassination in London! This is a nice simplification of the 1934 film, which only got to this information after some silliness about a secret message hidden in a shaving brush. Then Ben receives a phone call while at the local police station – Hank has been kidnapped and Ben better keep quiet about what he’s heard. To make matters even more harrowing, Ben twigs that the kidnappers are the friendly English couple from the hotel.

A big problem with the 1930s movie is that the parents’ reaction to their child being taken hasn’t dated very well. In that film, the Lawrences are too reserved, too pent-up, for us to have much sympathy. This version, though, solves that issue with more heartfelt writing and acting. Ben doesn’t tell Jo straightaway, and James Stewart plays his character’s isolated terror very well indeed. You really feel for him as he tries to maintain an appearance of calmness when he’s clearly going through hell inside. Then when he finally breaks the news to Jo, she balls and cries with anguish. It’s very affecting.

Bernard’s message mentioned ‘Ambrose Chappell’ in London, so the couple head there now. Ben tries to find Mr Chappell, but his quest is a red herring that involves a comedic brawl in a taxidermists’ workshop, the various animals staring down impassively. Jo, meanwhile, deduces that Ambrose Chapel is a place – an actual chapel which turns out to be run by the English couple from Morocco. Ben confronts them but is knocked out and locked up – he later escapes by climbing up the church’s bell rope – while Jo heads to the Albert Hall. That’s where the police chief is because he’s attending a concert with a foreign dignitary. It also turns out to be the location of the assassination…

At the Albert Hall, we get a nine-minute scene with no dialogue as Hitch cuts between the orchestra, Jo looking nervous, Ben arriving, Jo explaining she’s spotted the assassin… The intensity rises with the orchestral music (which is the same Arthur Benjamin piece as used in 1934). Then Jo screams at the key moment, the assassination is avoided, and the shooter dies after a fall from the balcony. It’s a wonderful sequence, staged and edited with real skill.

But Hank is still being held hostage, and Ben and Jo deduce he’s at the embassy of the foreign dignitary. Ben and Jo blag their way in, and a nearly tearful Jo sings a heartfelt performance of Que Sera, Sera to distract everyone while Ben searches the building. It’s a happy reunion for the family, unlike the cursory moment in 1934. And that’s the key reason why this version is the better film. Times change, of course, as do moviegoing tastes. But whereas both films contain suspense, action, intrigue and Hitchcock-style flamboyance, the British-made, pre-war movie now comes off as quite shallow. In 1956, thanks to actors as good as James Stewart and Doris Day, there’s emotion alongside the excitement.

Eight men in the market out of 10

 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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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 couple’s young daughter is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock made two movies with the same title, but while they share the same basic storyline, they’re told in extremely different ways. In fact, the more you watch the more the contrasts pile up: British vs American… pre-war vs post-war… black-and-white vs colour… the nearly square Academy aspect ratio vs widescreen VistaVision… mostly forgotten actors vs Hollywood star power… a bombastic orchestra vs Que Sera, Sera. In this blog post and the next, I’ll be watching these two films and seeing how they compare.

The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much – produced when Alfred Hitchcock was the star director of the UK film industry – came about after an aborted attempt at filming a Bulldog Drummond story. Tickled by the subject matter but unable to get the project going, Hitch concocted an original plotline about international intrigue and topped it off with a title taken from an unrelated GK Chesterton book.

The action begins in Switzerland. Married English couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks – who later grimed himself down to play a bad guy in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn – and Edna Best) are on holiday with their precocious young daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam). They’re a frightfully clipped and proper family, one where the mother tells her nagging daughter that she’ll be with her presently. They watch the ski-jumping and Jill enjoys taking part in a clay-pigeon shoot. But the lightness ends when, later that night, fellow hotel guest Louis (Pierre Fresnay) is shot by a sniper. Before he expires he has just enough time to tell Jill to collect a shaving brush from his room and take it to the British consulate. In its handle, the brush contains a secret note: ‘Make contact A. Hall 21st March’.

The Lawrences then learn the shock news that Betty has been kidnapped, and are warned by the bad guys to keep quiet about the note. Jill is so overcome she faints, dramatised by Hitch cutting to some jarring, spinning camera shots to convey her dizziness. The notion of innocent characters getting caught up in dangerous, criminal or espionage-related events was a favourite of Hitch’s, appearing in various movies and reaching its zenith in 1959’s North By Northwest. The idea drives The Man Who Knew Too Much, with the gag being that the man didn’t *want* to know too much; he’s just lumbered with it. (The title’s misleading, by the way: both parents know too much.)

The Lawrences return to London – what else can they do? – and pretend that nothing’s amiss. Jill lingers round Betty’s room holding her toys and drinking, while Bob glibly pretends to the police that Betty has gone to stay with friends. Then a man from the Foreign Office shows up. He knows what’s really going on, in the way that silky spymasters from Whitehall always do, and tells them that a man called Ropa is about to be assassinated. Louis had uncovered this so was killed by the bad guys. Bob asks why the death of an obscure foreign dignitary should matter, so the mandarin makes a direct analogy to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand (an event then just 20 years in the past).

To modern eyes, the biggest problem with the story is the parents’ calmness. The emotion’s not strong enough; the situation lacks punch. Bob and Jill should be devastated with worry yet seem to be coping reasonably well. Lawrence and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) start to investigate, but it’s not driven by a father’s desperate need to find his daughter. It feels more like a mild curiosity. Their quest takes them to Wapping in east London and into contact with a peculiar man called Abbott, who we recognise as a guest from the ski resort. They tail him to the Tabernacle of the Sun, a religious order in a ramshackle building, and now the film picks up intensity thanks to a scene-stealing performance.

Abbott is played by Hungarian-born Peter Lorre. Hitchcock knew the actor from Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), in which he had played an oddly sympathetic child murderer. Initially cast here as another character – the assassin Ramon – Lorre was soon promoted to the main villain role after impressing Hitchcock in person. He reportedly didn’t speak English at the time of filming, but this is a well-trodden anecdote that we should take with a pinch of salt. Not only does Abbott have *reams* of dialogue in uninterrupted takes, which would be near impossible to learn rote, but Lorre had actually already performed a movie role in English – the English-language version of M, which had been filmed alongside the original.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lorre’s unforgettable bearing – that smirk, that bulk, those eyes that seem both evil and lovable at the same time – is used to create the first truly great bad guy in Hitchcock’s cinema. Abbott is a clever man with charm, a calm confidence and a gaggle of grotesque underlings. In fact, he’s more or less a precursor of a James Bond villain. Aptly, Lorre later played a Bond villain – the first ever seen on screen – in a 1950s TV adaptation of Casino Royale. After moving to Hollywood he also gave enjoyably baroque performances in films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s a real shame that he only worked for Hitchcock once more, in 1936’s Secret Agent. Actor and director feel made for each other.

The religious order turns out to be a front for Abbott’s criminal operation: he is arranging the assassination of Ropa, for unspecified reasons, during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (That’s what A. Hall meant in the note.) Bob manages to get word to Jill and she attends the concert. As well as hearing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, which was specifically written for the film, she manages to distract the would-be killer by screaming at the apposite moment. It’s one of the film’s best scenes: tense and edgy.

But it’s not the end of the story. Betty and Bob are still being held prisoner by Abbott and his cronies, so armed police surround the Tabernacle of the Sun and an epic, Wild West-style shootout develops. The 15-minute sequence was influenced by the Siege of Sidney Street, a violent confrontation between police and Latvian revolutionaries that took place in east London in January 1911. Alfred Hitchcock had been 11 years old at the time and lived nearby, so would have remembered it well. The harum-scarum scale doesn’t especially match the rest of the film, which mostly takes place in paranoid shadows, but at least Jill’s sharpshooting skills come in handy.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that the film’s not as good as it could be. It’s a story about the assassination of a man we don’t care about; about a couple who don’t seem unduly worried about their missing daughter. Thirty years after the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock said it had been the ‘work of a talented amateur’. The 1956 movie with the same title, he said, ‘was made by a professional.’ In the next blog, let’s see if he was right…

Six men in trenchcoats out of 10


Spellbound (1945)

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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 psychiatrist falls in love with her colleague but then discovers he’s not who he says he is…

The enjoyable but rather far-fetched Spellbound is one of three films Hitchcock made for legendary Hollywood producer David O Selznick. Selznick wanted a movie that explored psychoanalysis, which had recently helped him in his private life, but Hitch was too cynical, too impatient or maybe just too British and instead delivered a film where the psychology shouldn’t be considered too closely. It’s more about the thrills and the suspense.

We start in Green Manors, a psychiatric hospital somewhere in America. Dr Constance Petersen – all sterile and aloof in a white coat and glasses – is dealing with a succession of patients and colleagues needing her attention. In the book on which the movie was based, the character is called Sedgwick. However, that surname was changed once an actress with a light Swedish accent was cast. Ingrid Bergman was then a big star thanks to cultured performances in Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Gaslight (1944). Hitchcock had found his latest leading lady, one with a natural, Nordic freshness. They went on to make two more films together.

The plot kicks into gear when Dr Anthony Edwardes shows up to take over running Green Manors. (Presumably he’s recently had a stint in an ER.) He’s played by Gregory Peck, and straightaway you know something isn’t right. The character is nervous and feels out of place, like a teenager wearing his dad’s suit. But as he meets Constance, the music swells, the camera lens fills with Bergman’s rapturous face, and we’re into a melodramatic romance. This is a relationship with a difference, though. These characters are psychiatrists; they notice each other’s tells and subtexts; they can see through the flirts. Perhaps that’s why they fall in love implausibly quickly.

Things then turn Hitchcockian when it’s revealed that Anthony is not the real Dr Edwardes. He actually has amnesia. He *thinks* he killed Edwardes and took his place. Constance wants to help and doesn’t tell anyone what she’s learnt, but during the night he leaves, not wanting to cause her more worry. He writes her a note, pausing over which name to sign it. And it’s a fantastic scene the following morning when Constance spots the piece of paper on the floor but her colleagues walk in before she can collect it. It gets trodden on by Green Manors’ former boss, Dr Murchison (Leo G Carrol), and others. Constance is terrified of someone spotting the note and realising Edwardes wasn’t Edwardes… then Murchison simply picks it up and hands it to her unread.

The scene works so well because the movie does such a good job of putting us in Constance’s shoes. Point of view is always an important factor in cinema (or at least it should be), and Hitchcock was the best there’s ever been at showing us events from a certain character’s perspective. Here, we feel Constance’s turmoil because it’s *her* story. Even if melodramatic, we understand that she’s in love and is willing to do anything to help the man who’s now calling himself John. So she follows him to New York and tracks him down at a hotel. Both are now on the run – his secret has been rumbled and he’s wanted for murder.

The couple then visit Constance’s old mentor, Alex Brulov (played by Michael Chekhov, Anton’s nephew). He’s a happy-go-lucky, professorial type. ‘Happy dreams,’ he jokes as they go to bed, ‘which we will analyse over breakfast.’ In fact, Constance is now overseeing a rolling therapy session as she and John try to piece together the clues of what’s happened: John has a burnt hand, medical knowledge, a vague memory of Rome, and a pathological fear of dark lines on white backgrounds. What does it all mean? Did he really kill Dr Edwardes?

Later, a tortured John does recount a dream, one full of symbolism and significance. The strikingly odd sequence was masterminded by Salvador Dalí (no, really) and is a glorious burst of surrealism unmatched in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was reportedly 20 minutes long as filmed, though we only get to see a couple of minutes. It’s a trippy, dislocating experience: there are huge eyes painted onto drapes, a gambling den, a man with no face, expressionistic sets that could be from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Fantastic stuff.

Eventually, John remembers: he was at a ski resort when the real Edwardes died in an accident. The pair head to the resort, which unfortunately means we get some very naff shots of Bergman and Peck ‘skiing’ while standing in a studio against some unconvincing backgrounds. (Hitchcock never seemed to be embarrassed by obviously artificial shots like this.) But then the truths start to tumble out – John has a flashback to his childhood, when he accidentally killed his brother. His inherent guilt complex meant that, when he witnessed Dr Edwardes’s death while skiing, he compensated by taking Edwardes’s place and therefore keeping him ‘alive’. We even get a pat explanation scene where Peck details the plot for us.

However, then the cops show up to reveal that Edwardes’s body has been found… and it contains a bullet. John is charged with murder and the movie then positively races through a trail sequence (it takes just five shots and 30 seconds for him to be found guilty on no actual evidence whatsoever). Hitchcock just isn’t interested in the legality. He wants the emotion. And the speedy conviction does set us up for a grandstanding finish.

Constance returns to Green Manors, distraught over what’s happened to her innocent boyfriend, and is supported by her kindly colleague Dr Murchison, who’s now back in change of the institution. But she has Leo G Carroll over a barrel when she catches him in a small lie: despite earlier claiming that they’d never met, he now says he knew the real Edwardes…

It’s a terrific showdown scene as Murchison maintains his silky, calm, avuncular charm, despite the fact Constance (and the viewer) has worked out that he murdered Edwardes to get his job. The two characters discuss and unpack the meaning of John’s elaborate dream, and eventually Murchison admits he shot Edwardes – it’s gripping because Carroll plays it so controlled and icy. Then the scene ends with an image of real invention. We cut to Murchison’s point of view – his actual, first-person POV, seeing the room through his eyes. He’s pulled a gun and it’s large in the frame pointing at Constance. But she gambles that he’s not prepared to kill her and slowly walks away. The gun then slowly turns round to face the camera. Murchison pulls the trigger and there’s a FLASH of red: the only sight of colour in an otherwise black-and-white movie.

Seven men carrying a violin case out of 10

Champagne (1928)

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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 hedonistic heiress has to make her way in the world when her father says he’s financially ruined…

An odd Hitchcock film, this. Almost entirely lacking in tension, and featuring a lead character whose biggest problem in life is that she has to have a job, Champagne may be frothy and occasionally fun. It features some nice humour and the contemporary 1920s fashions are a treat. But it ultimately falls flat. There’s no fizz.

Betty (Betty Balfour) is a young, rich socialite who angers her father by using his Charles Lindbergh-style biplane to fly out to the middle of the Atlantic and board an ocean liner. The plane is sunk in the process, but she fares better: on the rowboat sent out by the liner’s crew, she removes her hat, goggles and coat to reveal an immaculate flapper frock. She’s made the journey to be with her boyfriend (French actor Jean Bradin), but he’s suffering from seasickness. The boat, you see, is rocking violently with the Atlantic swell – a motion that’s conveyed charmingly well by the Star Trek trick of having actors stagger from side to side. There’s also a creepy-looking passenger (Ferdinand von Alten) who eyes Betty up at any opportunity…

Eventually, Betty and the unnamed boyfriend reach Paris and she throws herself into the lifestyle of a bright young thing. When her fella visits her apartment she says to him, ‘Come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns.’ Being a silent film, of course, the dialogue is relayed via a title card. There are remarkably few of them in the movie: we’re told just 70 lines of dialogue in 93 minutes.

However, back in America, Betty’s millionaire father (played by Gordon Harker, who was the son of the man Bram Stoker named the character of Jonathan Harker after in Dracula) is fuming. His mouth twitches comically as he reads about his daughter’s rebelliousness in the newspaper, while a phalanx of employees nervously fuss around him. He makes the journey to France and when he arrives he says he has grave news: his fortune – earned in the champagne business – has been wiped out after a bad day on the stock market. They’re now skint. (A prescient plot point, this: the Wall Street crash was the year after this movie’s release.) This distressing news doesn’t seem to affect either father or daughter too badly, though, and soon the two are making a fist of it. They share a cramped bedsit and she sets about finding a job.

Finding one at a high-class restaurant, Betty goes off the rails – or at least by 1920s standards. She drinks! She smokes! She dances! She enjoys herself – the slut! Both her boyfriend and her father disapprove, while the creepy guy from the ocean liner is still sniffing around. She then gets an almighty shock when her father confesses that he’s not penniless after all. It was all a lie – a ruse to see how she’d cope without capital. Justifiably angry, Betty turns to the creepy guy and asks for help in getting out of the country. He agrees to take her home to America, but then aboard the boat he locks her in their cabin…

But don’t worry! He’s not a dangerous, sinister type – turns out, he’s a detective hired by Betty’s father to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t come to any harm. So that’s all right, then. I guess. The dad and the boyfriend show up, relationships are mended, lies are forgiven and everyone gets a happy and disgustingly rich ending.

With such a drab, lifeless story, you have to look elsewhere for Champagne’s pleasures. As ever with Hitchcock, it’s a visual treasure trove. The director is regularly experimenting or innovating with point-of-view shots (including a few through champagne glasses), crowd scenes, dissolves to suggest time passages and character’s thoughts, and other tricks such as moving footage becoming a still photo. There are also a few decent gags, like when Betty embraces her boyfriend while cooking and leaves flour handprints on his back. But overall this is a rare thing indeed: a *boring* Hitchcock movie.

Four cocktails out of 10

NOTE: An interesting quirk of film restoration means that the footage in Champagne is now probably *entirely different* from that seen in cinemas in 1928. When archivists at the BFI studied the surviving negative it soon became apparent that it was actually a version of the movie assembled from ‘second-best’ takes. It’s assumed this was compiled as a kind of safety copy. Sadly, no print of the theatrical cut has been found, so this ‘echo’ version of Champagne is now the default.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

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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.

When a former jewel thief is accused of a new spate of robberies in the south of France, he sets out to discover who’s really responsible…

There’s huge star power in this film. In fact, the wattage created by its leading actors outshines everything else to such a degree that when it’s finally revealed who’s been stealing some jewels from well-to-do socialites it’s very difficult to care. Much more interesting is the flirtation, romance, sex appeal and chemistry of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

In an early Hitchcockian image, a domestic cat trotting over some rooftops is used a funny metaphor for a cat burglar. Someone is purloining valuables in the beautiful, sunny, stress-free French Riviera and suspicion soon falls on American ex-pat John Robie (Grant). He has form for this kind of thing, but swears blind he put his criminal habit behind him 15 years previously – around the time he became a hero in the French Resistance. (He blithely says that he killed 72 people during the war.) However, with the police breathing down his neck, Robie reckons the best way to prove his innocence is to catch the actual thief…

This was Cary Grant’s third Hitchcock role (of four) and actually came at a point when, at 50, he was considering retiring from acting. Here, as in so many movies, he shows off world-class charisma, effortless panache and wonderful comic timing. He also *moves* so well, with a gentleman’s grace but great, masculine power too. It’s no surprise that, just seven years after this, he was sounded out about playing James Bond in the first 007 film. (Grant had been the best man at Bond producer Cubby Broccoli’s wedding, but the actor’s reluctance to sign up to multiple movies ultimately put him out of the running.)

Robie gets help in his plan from Lloyd’s of London insurance investigator HH Hughson (John Williams, who’d sparkled in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder a couple of years earlier). Together, they identify a likely target for the cat burglar – a rich American widow called Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis, terrific), who’s holidaying in the area with her grown-up daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly). In order to keep an eye on them, Robie engineers an introduction in a hotel casino (another instance of Cary Grant seeming James Bond-ish). To attract the Stevenses’ attentions, he accidentally-on-purpose drops a casino chip down a French woman’s cleavage then embarrasses her into paying him what it was worth. It’s a bizarre moment that must have had Hitchcock giggling like a schoolboy, and it gets Robie talking to the Americans. He charms them and, as a cover story, claims to be a lumber man from Oregon.

Here, at the half-hour mark, as Grace Kelly enters the story, is when the film really comes alive. At first, Frances seems sullen and uninterested in Robie. He doesn’t pay her too much attention either, preferring to cosy up to her jewel-flaunting mother. When Jessie brazenly asks him if he likes her daughter, all he can muster is that she’s ‘quietly attractive’, which might very well be the greatest understatement in 20th-century cinema. But Robie and Frances’s romantic subplot is kicked into the stratosphere when she then surprises him with an exceedingly sensual goodnight kiss. The flirtation is on.

Frances was Kelly’s third and final role for Alfred Hitchcock. Given its impact and success, it was a remarkably short collaboration: all three movies were filmed between July 1953 and September 1954. In each, she’s pure class: stunningly beautiful, of course, and effortlessly sexy; but more importantly every character has a wonderful spirit and charm. Frances Stevens is no exception – she’s smart, funny, adorable and you can’t take your eyes off her. She was also one of Grace Kelly’s final roles for any director. In April 1955, at the Cannes film festival, she met Prince Rainier III of Monaco; they married a year later and she quit Hollywood to become the principality’s princess.

As they grow closer, Robie and Frances look at a villa that he claims he needs to rent (and he can’t resist scoping out its windows and entry points: old habits die hard!). Frances then drives them very fast down mountain roads – a tremendous sequence achieved via rear projection, wind machines and the loud throb of the car engine. All the while, the two actors are having a ball with their flirtatious dialogue. So are we – the whodunit plot has been all but forgotten. There are a couple of suspects, one of whom is a flighty teenage girl played by Brigitte Auber, but Grant and Kelly steal the show.

Frances is convinced that she’s rumbled Robie’s cover and says he just doesn’t seem like a lumber man from Oregon. Over a picnic high above the coast, she tells him he’s out of place: more like “an American in an English movie”, which is surely a multi-level in-joke from Hitchcock and his writers about Cary Grant (who was an English star in Hollywood) and Grace Kelly (who’d played an English woman in Dial M for Murder). The two actors are endlessly watchable in their two-handed scenes, which Hitch allows to play out in natural, uninterrupted long takes.

Their sexually charged banter also contains some shameless innuendo. At their picnic, Frances offers him Robie some chicken and asks, “You want a leg or a breast?” He knowingly replies, “You make the choice.” Later, she says, “I have a feeling that tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights.” When Robie doesn’t reply, she adds, “I was talking about the fireworks,” and he quips, “I never doubted it.”

But there’s genuine romance to match the badinages. Eventually the pair sleep together – dramatized by a cheeky Hitch cutting away to a nearby fireworks display. When the film later reveals who the jewel thief actually is – after an elaborate sting planned by Robie, Frances, Jessie and Hughson – it’s rather underwhelming. We’ve already had the climax.

Eight men on a bus out of 10