Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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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 Charles Oakley needs to lie low, he heads to California to stay with his sister and her family – but niece Charlie soon begins to suspect why Uncle Charles is on the run…

Alfred Hitchcock said this was his favourite of his movies, and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a dark and addictive story about pervasive evil in a sweet, all-American setting. The cast is excellent. And there are plenty of twists, turns and shocks.

The film grabs you straight away: Charles Oakley (a terrifically complex Joseph Cotten) is staying at an inner-city flophouse. Two men come calling, asking after him, but he gets the landlady to tell them he’s not in. Then, clearly avoiding the heat for *something*, he leaves a film-noir Philadelphia for apple-pie Santa Rosa in California to stay with his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), and her husband, Joseph (It’s a Wonderful Life’s Henry Travers). The couple have three children. The eldest is the movie’s lead character – Charlie, played by a soulful, charismatic Teresa Wright.

Charles brings life and excitement to an otherwise staid and sleepy town. He wows his family with presents then flashes some cash around at the bank, where he meets and flatters a rich widow. But it’s young Charlie with whom he has the biggest connection. She was named after her uncle and idolises him; his arrival shakes her out of a bout of ennui. The two characters are also two sides of the same coin. Each is even introduced in the same way – in their respective first scenes, they’re lying down on a bed fully dressed. At one point, a smitten Charlie says they’re like twins, but there’s also an incestuous feel to their relationship. They stand just a bit too close to each other; he sleeps in her bed while he stays at the house (she moves to her sister’s room); and he even gives her a ring as a present, slipping it onto her finger himself.

However, then comes the darkness. Charles has to think quickly when Charlie spots that her new ring is engraved with the initials TS. He also turns nasty for a moment when Charlie realises he destroyed Joseph’s newspaper to prevent the family seeing a certain story. Then men who show up, claiming to be conducting a government survey. But Charles sees through them straight away and realises they’re after information on him. They blag their way into the house and he tries to avoid them. It now becomes clear what Shadow of a Doubt really is: it’s a more polished, more intriguing and more multi-layered version of the idea that powered Hitch’s earlier film Suspicion. In that movie, the lead character comes to believe that her husband is a murderer. Here, the scales fall from Charlie’s eyes as she begins to doubt her uncle.

One of the snoopers, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), takes a fancy to Charlie and asks her out. Their sweet romance runs through the rest of the film, and is a subplot that grows Charlie up from naïve youngster to strong woman. (Her age in the story is debatable. The actress was 24.) Jack also admits that he’s a detective on the trail of a criminal, and that criminal may be Charles. Charlie doesn’t want to believe it, but the seed of doubt has been sown. She races to the local library to find a copy of the day’s newspaper: the story Charles ripped up was about a serial killer called the Merry Widow Murderer. One if his victims had the initials TS.

The menace level is now creeping up and up. Charlie’s clearly upset, so Charles confronts her, dragging her into a seedy bar to find out what she knows (the fact he picks that kind of location is a another example of their relationship being less than wholesome). It’s classic cat-and-mouse stuff: every scene is working on different levels as characters know more than they’re willing to say. Then Hitch cranks up the intensity significantly as uncle tries to kill niece…

Sometimes called Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, it might be fairer to say that it’s his first ‘modern’ film. Now established in Hollywood and working with American stars – Wright had had three Oscar nods in the previous two years, Cotten was fresh from starring in Citizen Kane – Hitch can go full throttle on suspense and darkness. But he never forgets to balance it with humour and charm. Shadow of a Doubt is an absolute marvel.

Nine men playing bridge out of 10

 

 

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Murder! (1930)

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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 is convicted of killing a colleague, but after the trial a member of the jury begins to doubt her guilt…

There’s a brilliant opening shot to this enjoyable crime thriller. The camera tracks along the windows of a row of houses as, in sequence, people are awoken by some nearby loud banging. And that sets the tone. As the story develops – young touring actress Diana (Norah Baring) is found in a daze next to the dead body of her colleague Edna; she says she has no memory of what happened; she’s arrested and charged with murder – Hitchcock has tremendous fun in the filmmaking playpen.

Visually, the movie never stops impressing and there’s a real sophistication to the framing and camera moves. An early example sees two women discuss the murder while walking back and forth between two connected rooms, the camera swinging back and forth (seemingly through a wall) as if it’s anxious not to miss a moment of the conversation. Later, there’s a terrific scene at the local theatre as the police question actors who constantly have to break off because they’re needed on stage – it’s dynamic, well-staged stuff that tells the story and has fun at the same time. Hitch is also experimenting with the then-new technology of sound: in her jail cell, actress Diana imagines her play going on without her; later, a character’s internal monologue is set to music, while another scene is played over the constant noise of a crying baby.

Diana’s court case comes 14 minutes into the story… and we’re into the jury room for deliberations after 17. The movie then becomes a kind of Twelve Angry Men precursor. The foreman leads his colleagues into discussion, and initially there are three not guiltys. The most assertive advocate is Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a famous actor-manager, and the sequence of him being questioned by the others is a marvel: the timing of the dialogue builds like music, with the lugubrious Kenneth Kove playing a nervous juror who repeats the same line as if it were a chorus.

Ultimately, though, Diana is found guilty and will be hanged. The sentence weighs heavy on Sir John’s shoulders, who then begins his own investigation into the murder. After his stint as Juror 8, he now becomes Sherlock Holmes. Eventually, he fathoms what really happened and corners the actual killer in a trap inspired by the Mousetrap scene from Hamlet. It’s entertaining stuff, though Diana is played so clipped, stoically and melodramatically (and is so rarely seen on screen) that at times you do wonder why Sir John is bothering.

Seven men walking past the house out of 10

Note: While shooting Murder!, Hitchcock was simultaneously filming another version of the same script on the same sets. This second production was Mary (1931), a German-language equivalent (no dubbing for foreign territories in those days of course). It featured a mostly new cast, though Miles Mander played the role of Gordon in both films.

Suspicion (1941)

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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 heiress falls for a charming rogue. But after their wedding she begins to doubt his intentions…

While there’s a nice, rising menace in this story, events start conventionally enough. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) comes from a stuffy, drab, middle-England life; she meets charmer Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant); he sweeps her off her feet; they fall in love and quickly marry. But then when they return from their honeymoon, Lina learns that Johnnie’s skint and a cheat and a liar.

You feel for Lina’s plight. She’s trapped in a bad situation she didn’t see coming – and sadly the modern-day solution (telling him to get lost) doesn’t seem to be an option. Johnnie is clearly a wrong’un. He pawns two priceless chairs that were a wedding present from her father, shows little concern when his best friend nearly chokes to death, then pretends to have a job just to stop Lina asking too many questions. But because he’s played by Cary Grant, he also has genuine charisma and you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Then, on the day the increasingly worried Lina learns Johnnie was sacked weeks previously for stealing £2,000 from his employer, her father dies. Johnnie soon has designs on the family inheritance, but is visibly disappointed when they don’t get anything from the will. So he starts planning a dodgy-sounding real-estate deal with his friend Beaky (played by a fun Nigel Bruce). But then Lina suspects that her husband plans to kills his mate – in a nice Hitchcockian moment, the idea hits her while she fiddles with some Scrabble tiles and spells out the word ‘murder’. Beaky dies a few days later…

The tension’s mounting now, especially after Johnnie drives dangerously down a clifftop road with passenger Lina fearing for her life. But then comes the truth: Johnnie has an alibi for Beaky’s death. He’s a crook, yes, but not a killer. And now the film rather undercuts itself. An unsatisfying ending can undo a lot of good work – and as Lina begs her shit of a husband for another chance, you’re suddenly reminded that Suspicion was made in a bygone era. In a final moment with troubling undertones, Johnnie says they have no future but then puts his arm around her as they drive home.

Six men posting letters out of 10

Jamaica Inn (1939)

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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 Irish woman travels to Cornwall to meet her aunt, but soon encounters a local gang of smugglers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before he moved to Hollywood is the first of his three adaptations of Daphne du Maurier novels. Readers of her 1936 book, however, will spot many differences. It’s still the wild, windy Cornish coastline of the early 19th century, and the plot is still ignited when a young woman arrives to live with her aunt. But Hitch and his team of writers added a new master villain and tweaked the romance subplot. The result never quite comes together, sadly.

It begins impressively. The opening dramatises a ship drawn off course by a nefarious light in the night and purposely wrecked on the ragged rocks. It’s amazing well staged with models, full-size sets and gallons of water sloshing around. The sequence then takes a even darker turn as the survivors of the wreck are murdered by the gang of smugglers who caused it.

We then cut to the beautiful, feisty heroine of the story: Mary Yellan (Maureen O’Hara). Her mother has died back home in Ireland, so she’s travelling to Jamaica Inn, a Cornish coaching house, to live with her aunt. However, she ends up being stranded on the moor, so knocks on the first front door she can find. It turns out to be the house of the local squire: the bloated, erudite hedonist Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton, theatrical), who’s hosting a dinner party but agrees to take her to Jamaica Inn.

At the eponymous inn, the plot twists come thick and fast: Mary’s uncle, the slovenly Joss (Leslie Banks), is the leader of the wreckers; and although no one but the two men know it, his boss is Sir Humphrey. The gang, by the way, is full of distinctive, memorable character actors having fun with little screentime. When they suspect their newest member of stealing from them, they hang him and leave him hung – but shocked Mary cuts him down and they flee. We then get another plot twist: the man, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), is actually an undercover lawman. However, he chooses to reveal this information to the local justice of the peace, Sir Humphrey…

But for all its snakes-and-ladders plotting, the film lacks something. Hitchcock directs with a good pace, but you never feel for the characters’ plights. It’s all atmosphere and shock reveals. The poor treatment of the female characters is also a problem. Mary is the lead character, yet is absent for long stretches, while both her and her aunt make lame excuses for the brutish behaviour of the male characters.

Five rum-rotten sailors out of 10

Topaz (1969)

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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 French spy based in Washington attempts to rout out a mole in his organisation…

There’s an international feel to this, partly because of the European actors dominating the cast list, partly because of the use of Copenhagen and Paris as locations. But there’s also a Euro vibe to the filmmaking. It’s loucher, more laid-back, more self-consciously sedate, than a typical Hollywood movie.

We begin with cloak-and-dagger clichés as a Soviet intelligence officer defects to the West. He’s lifted by American spies led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe, in his second Hitchcock role) and soon reveals that the Russians are placing nuclear weapons on Cuba. (It’s 1962, by the way: post-Bay of Pigs, pre-missile crisis.) Nordstrom can’t approach the Cubans directly, though, so enlists an old pal to do it for him – James Bond-ish French spy André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who then becomes the movie’s lead character.

As events develop – Devereaux investigates, travels to Cuba, has a liaison with his sexy mistress, splits up from his wife, learns of a double agent codenamed Topaz – the script uses an odd structure. The focus keeps switching as characters pass the narrative baton on to the next person in the chain. Nordstrom sets the story running, then drops out of the film for long stretches; Devereaux is the nominal lead, but during one section has a proxy called Philippe Dubois.

The Dubois sequence is actually the best in the movie. Played by Roscoe Lee Browne with a smirk and a cool confidence, Dubois is a French-Martinican agent hired by Devereaux. A delegation of Cubans are in New York to attend a UN powwow. In order to show solidarity with the black community, they’re staying at a hotel in Harlem – but Devereaux knows their leader has a document that details the Soviet missile plan. So he hires Dubois to bribe his way into the hotel, pretend to be a sympathetic journalist and charm the leader so he can get a look at the document. In a film that seriously lacks tension at times, this part of the story really grips you.

There are other pleasures too, including a striking shot when a key character is killed – as Cuban resistance leader Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor from You Only Live Twice) falls to the floor, we see it from a camera directly above her, her dress billowing out to echo a pool of blood. There are also some fun moments where Hitchcock shows characters discussing the plot but places them so far from the camera that we can’t hear the dialogue: Hitch knew how boring exposition can be.

But all too often the story drags or diverts down a cul-de-sac. A flat, low-energy script and a weak cast – Frederick Stafford and Dany Robin, playing Devereaux’s wife, are especially poor – make it difficult to care about what’s going on. A number of badly dated rear-projection shots for dialogue scenes in moving cars really don’t help either, nor does the lack of star power in the cast.

Five men in a wheelchair out of 10

Note: The film suffered horrendously in some pre-release test screenings, with the climax (a duel between Devereaux and the unmasked Topaz) coming in for most criticism. So around 20 minutes were cut out and two alternative endings were hastily knocked together. The version used for this review was the longer edit but had the ending seen in the UK in 1969 – Topaz gets away with his crimes and flies off to Moscow. (The default release print in 1969 used stolen shots from elsewhere in the movie to imply that Topaz has killed himself.)

Family Plot (1976)

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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 two con artists try to track down a missing heir, they come into contact with a pair of kidnappers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, released when he was 76 years old, is a comedy thriller. Neither taking itself too seriously nor ever becoming too silly, it’s an entertaining couple of hours.  A lot of the enjoyment comes from watching omnisciently as two seemingly separate storylines slowly start to intertwine.

As we start, fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is conning an elderly woman (Cathleen Nesbitt) with a cod séance routine. When the OAP mentions a long-lost nephew who would inherit a fortune, Blanche and boyfriend George offer to find him for a fee of $10,000. Meanwhile, another pair of criminals – Fran (played by the top-billed Karen Black) and her boyfriend, Arthur (William Devane) – are kidnapping VIPs and ransoming them for jewels.

The two sets of characters literally cross paths early on, when George nearly runs Fran over, but are otherwise discrete until the 45-minute mark… George has been following clues like a detective, trying to find the long-missing nephew. He talks to someone who knew him, then we see this old friend show up at Arthur’s office to tell him people are looking for him. That’s right: Arthur is the heir, but because he’s also a criminal he assumes Blanche and George asking questions about him must be bad news. The cat and mouse game is on.

Alfred Hitchcock was born just four years after the Lumière brothers invented the medium of cinema, and had been a film director for half a century when he made Family Plot. But here’s a movie that’s startlingly of the 1970s: the fashions, of course, and the cars and the also the style of filmmaking. Or rather not *film*making. The master’s final movie is surprisingly televisual. It’s very talky. There are studio sets and California locations. To be honest, it often looks and feels uncannily like an episode of Columbo. Also, being his 70s and suffering from poor health, Hitch was unable to travel too far from the San Francisco production base so an action scene as a car with no brakes careers down a mountain road is done with second-unit POV shots, an under-cranked camera and some very unconvincing process shots of Dern and Harris in a studio.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least the four central performances. Bruce Dern is a loose, pipe-smoking charmer (Al Pacino was considered for the role but was too expensive). William Devane is terrifically icy cool and sinister (they actually starting shooting with Roy Thinnes, but then he was ungraciously dumped when first choice Devane became available). Barbara Harris is adorable and funny. And Karen Black has real star quality (she’s also the focus of a self-aware gag from Hitch: when we first see her character, she’s a classic, enigmatic Hitchcock blonde… then she takes her wig off to reveal brunette hair).

There’s also a grandstanding cameo from Nicholas Colasanto (later Coach in sitcom Cheers) as a kidnap victim; Katherine Helmond (later Jessica in sitcom Soap) playing Basil Exposition and telling George the necessary plot information at just the right time; and decent incidental music by John Williams, then hot from Jaws (1975).

Eight silhouettes out of 10

 

 

Blackmail (1929)

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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 policeman’s girlfriend kills someone in self-defence, but then the pair are blackmailed by a witness…

There’s something about Anny. The star of this 1929 movie is Czech actress Anny Ondra, who had also been in Hitchcock’s The Manxman a few months earlier. She’s Hitch’s first tortured, haunted yet beautiful blonde, and is extremely watchable. Her character, Alice White, is annoyed with her boyfriend so rebels by going up to the apartment of an artist friend called Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). He, however, is a nasty piece of work and attempts to rape her. Fighting back, Alice grabs a knife, kills him and flees.

Her turmoil as she tries to hide her crime while the rest of the world goes on with its daily life is very affecting. One scene has her numbly walking through busy crowds, another has a family friend innocently repeating the word knife – each instance making Alice feel worse and worse. But as good as Ondra is, there’s something not quite right in the performance and it doesn’t take long to see – or rather hear – what it is.

When filming began, Blackmail was planned as a silent film. But ‘talkies’ were the coming thing and halfway through production Hitchcock jumped at the chance to convert his movie to sound. (It’s Britain’s first film with dialogue.) But Anny Ondra presented a problem. Her natural, mid-European accent wasn’t appropriate for the character of Alice. (To hear Ondra speaking, check out this amazing piece of test footage where Hitchcock embarrasses her for a laugh.) It needed replacing, but the technique of post-dubbing had yet to be developed. The solution? Have another actress, Joan Barry, stand by the camera and perform the dialogue as Ondra mouthed along – sometimes it works, but usually it’s just distracting. (Ironically, while English, Barry’s clipped voice doesn’t especially suit the working-class character of Alice either!)

Visually, the movie is brilliantly innovative: a shot of Alice and Crewe climbing a staircase is staged on a specially built set that allows the camera to climb with them; the rape scene is off-screen, with billowing curtains standing in for the violence; and there are match-cuts, a montage and a large-scale chase set at the British Museum. Oh, and Hitchcock has a substantial cameo as a train commuter being bothered by a naughty child. A real treat.

Eight men on the London Underground out of 10

The Trouble With Harry (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.

A dead body causes problems for various people in a sleepy New England village…

This laid-back comedy sees characters treat a murder victim like a minor inconvenience. Morality is sidelined in favour of humour. The plot kicks off when a local man called Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn, using the same befuddled charm that won him an Oscar for Miracle on 34th Street) is hunting in the woods. After shooting at a rabbit, he finds a corpse with a bullet wound and assumes he’s killed him. But before he can dispose of the body, various neighbours arrive on the scene – and each has their own part to play in the mystery of what really happened. One is local painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe); another is the corpse’s widow, Jennifer (a winsome Shirley MacLaine in her first movie), who seems glad he’s dead.

However, the maybe-murder-mystery never feels that important because Hitchcock is more interested in the black comedy. The characters and situation are heightened and not intended to be taken too seriously. But because of this, it does fall a little flat at times. The script is often structured like a stage farce, complete with characters arriving and leaving at key moments, people hiding behind trees, and a dead body having to be buried and dug up multiple times. However, it’s played and directed too slowly to really take flight. So while amusing, it’s rarely gripping.

At least it looks good. Vermont’s autumnal colours and wide-open spaces are really well served by the Technicolor and VistaVision format. (As well as shooting on location, a woodland clearing was created in a Hollywood studio, with hundreds of New England leaves shipped in.) But you yearn for a bit more oomph behind the dialogue. Sam Marlow drives the story despite being one of the few villagers who has nothing to do with the victim, yet John Forsythe is a bit underwhelming. Jack Lemon or James Stewart, say, would have *commanded* this movie and Sam would have sparkled in every scene. As it is, the film trundles along entertainingly if not that spectacularly.

Seven men walking past a limousine out of 10