The Birds (1963)

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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 small town is terrorised when the local bird population begins attacking people…

The Birds is one of those films with a big reputation. Too big, perhaps. Like Psycho – the film Hitchcock made immediately prior to this one – it’s a horror movie that’s built on its scares. And admittedly the sequences of avian assaults are relentless and violent and terrifying. But sadly, once the trick’s been played, there’s not a huge amount left to admire. It’s a film whose bark is more deadly than its bite. Or should that be, whose squawk is more deadly than its flight?

A vital component to this kind of story is a slow build-up to the terror so we have a chance to get to know the characters before the carnage begins, and this one starts with a meet-cute in a pet shop. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and is so intrigued by the confident lawyer that she finds out where he’s spending the weekend and drives there to surprise him. She soon meets his family – a haughty mother played by Jessica Tandy, a tweenage daughter played by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright – and his neighbours. But it’s a slight story with precious little interest and it’s soon forgotten about when the strangeness begins.

Why the local birds begin persecuting and attacking people is never explained. They simply target our characters and the other residents of sleepy town Bodega Bay, California. As the incidents pile up, including an impressively staged explosion at a petrol station and scenes where people have their eyes plucked out, the film starts to seem familiar – at least to a modern viewer. Swap the birds for the undead and you’d have a zombie movie.

That genre wasn’t really defined until a few years later, when George A Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). But here’s Alfred Hitchcock in 1963 preempting so many of its ideas and themes. The characters in The Birds are pushed to the limit by an impersonal, illogical threat that they don’t understand and they can’t reason with. It wants to hurt them, pure and simple. Also, with people fleeing, in hiding or killed, Bodega Bay soon starts to feel like a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents board up their houses, preparing for the next onslaught, while the authorities are noticeably absent. (There is a cop character, but he does little more than belittle the threat posed by the birds.)

But the best zombie films work because – like in any kind of successful thriller – you care about the characters. Melanie and Mitch, however, never quite punch through. They’re uninteresting people played by actors giving uninteresting performances.

Six men walking his dogs out of 10

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Stage Fright (1950)

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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 acting student in London attempts to prove that her friend is not a killer…

A curtain rises up the screen to reveal not a theatrical stage, but the bomb-damaged London of 1950. It’s a cheeky way to begin in the film, Hitchcock winking at us and telling us that this is an artificial world – and it’s not to be taken at face value.

This is a movie about lies and deceptions, about acting and pretending. No one can be fully trusted, whether they’re the student who poses as a dresser to spy on a famous actress, or her smuggler father, or the self-obsessed star, or the man who kicks the plot off with a torrid tale of murder.

As the story begins, a frantic Jonathan Cooper asks for help from his friend and fellow acting student Eve. She has a crush on him, so is happy to drive him out of London as he explains what’s happened. In flashback, we learn that he’s been having an affair with the noted stage actress Charlotte Inwood, and that she showed up at his flat with blood on her dress after killing her abusive husband. Jonathan then headed to her house to clear up the mess but was spotted by Charlotte’s maid and now fears that he’ll be accused of the crime.

Sensing an injustice and suspecting that Charlotte has tried to frame Jonathan, Eve resolves to investigate herself. She stashes Jonathan at her father’s seaside hideaway, then accidentally-on-purpose gets to know a private detective who’s looking into the case. She also seeks out Charlotte’s assistant and bribes her into feigning an illness so Eve can masquerade as her replacement. To do this, she uses her acting talents to adopt a new persona: the meek, cockney-voiced Doris Tinsdale. (There’s a great gag when, after carefully putting on clothes, make-up, a wig and glasses, Eva bumps into her mother… who doesn’t bat an eyelid: ‘Oh, there you are, Eve darling…’)

Eve is played by American actress Jane Wyman, whose mid-Atlantic accent is explained by saying the character was educated abroad. She has expressive eyes, which get archly lit in the revelation scene towards the end of the film. But she’s perhaps a bit too tightly bound to be the lead of a thriller. We rarely get a sense of her being pushed to extremes emotionally. Hitch wasn’t a fan for another reason, later arguing that the part had needed a more ‘real’ look. ‘[She] should have been a pimply faced girl,’ he said. ‘[Wyman] just refused to be that and I was stuck with her.’ Despite knowing that the director wanted her to appear frumpy and plain, Wyman was putting on flattering make-up in secret.

Co-star Marlene Dietrich, who plays Charlotte, also didn’t warm to Wyman. ‘I heard she’d only wanted to do [the film] if she were billed above me and she got her wish,’ the German star was once quoted as saying. ‘Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery – that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.’

In Stage Fright, Dietrich gives a big, theatrical performance of a big, theatrical character. For the role of Charlotte, Hitch had originally wanted Tallulah Bankhead, who had been in Lifeboat for him six years previously, but the studio lobbied for someone more bankable. It was Dietrich’s only role for Hitchcock, and he must have been pleased to have the legend on board because he – uniquely – allowed her a far-ranging freedom over the way her character appeared on screen. She insisted on artfully lit Hollywood close-ups, even telling cinematographer Wilkie Cooper where to put his lights, and also was also given a song specially written by Cole Porter and costumes designed by Christian Dior.

Stage Fright is well cast generally, in fact, with even interest in the smallest parts. Richard Todd is sturdy and believable as Cooper. Alastair Sim is especially fruity and likeable as Eve’s father, while Sybil Thorndike is her uptight mother. There’s a nicely comedic cameo from Joyce Grenfell as an eccentric stallholder at a funfair. Irene Handl plays Charlotte’s maid, and even the Major from Fawlty Towers, Ballard Berkeley, shows up as a nonplussed copper who shares a scene with Marlene Dietrich. Hitch also cast his daughter, Pat, as one of Eve’s RADA pals. (The character is called Chubby Bannister, which was an in-joke – she’s the girl you can always lean on. Pat Hitchcock went on to appear in several episodes of her father’s TV show and had a small role in Psycho. In recent years, she’s been a well-informed and welcome presence on many documentaries about Hitch’s work.)

And the cast get an intriguing thriller plot to play with. Hitchcock and his writers – including wife Alma Reville, who worked on almost all of his films as a writer/producer – often reveal their characters’ motives and secrets, allowing the audience to know what they’re thinking even if other characters don’t. This not only raises the suspense levels – we usually know what’s at stake in a scene – but it also makes the film great fun because we have to see characters (especially Eve) improvise their way out of trouble.

But one element of the movie caused trouble. Hitchcock even later said it was the second biggest mistake of his career (after a plotting misstep in 1936’s Sabotage). Towards the end of the film, as the truth starts to seep out, we discover that the flashback we saw at the start – Jonathan’s story of Charlotte killing her husband and his attemp to cover it up – never actually happened. In reality, Jonathan killed the husband.

‘A lot of people complained because the opening flashback was a lie,’ said Hitch 13 years later. ‘Now, why can’t a man tell a lie?’ His argument is sound in theory. Storytelling – especially Hollywood narrative cinema – is all about point of view. We experience stories through characters’ eyes, so when Jonathan tells Eve what had happened, he’s simply lying – and characters lie in fiction all the time. However, by *showing* us the fantasy, Stage Fright breaks a vital convention.

The greatest writer ever to tell mystery stories, Agatha Christie, understood that. Characters can lie, yes. But her books don’t; the authorial voice doesn’t. The audience must be given a fair crack of the whip, and by dramatising a sequence that didn’t happen, this film cheats. It doesn’t ruin the movie, which is still a very enjoyable thriller. In fact, it fits the theme of deception and theatrical trickery. But it stops Stage Fright being one of the very best Hitchcocks.

‘You see, if you break tradition,’ said the director about this film, ‘you are in trouble every time.’

Eight men in the street out of 10

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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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 man discovers that his rich wife has been having an affair, so plots to kill her…

After a botched attempt to have his wife murdered, ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) must think quickly. There’s a corpse on the floor of his Maida Vale flat and a detective from Scotland Yard has arrived to ask questions. Tony’s plan had been to establish an alibi while his wife was killed by the now-dead man, CA Swan (Anthony Dawson), who he had been blackmailing. But Margot (Grace Kelly with a cut-glass English accent) managed to fight Swan off and stab him with a pair of scissors. Scared of being rumbled, Tony must now play the concerned husband and convince everyone that Swan was just acting alone.

But there’s a problem. The policeman, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), may appear at first to be laid-back and cursory. You almost suspect he’s going to accept the situation at face value. But we viewers soon learn that he’s insightful, observant, caring and the cleverest person in the room. He also only arrived on the scene halfway through the film; until then, the story had been told from the point of view of someone planning a murder.

Sound familiar? Whether intentionally or coincidentally, Dial M for Murder is nothing short of a dry-run for superior American TV crime drama Columbo – a show that told ‘murder mystery’ stories from the killer’s point of view – and Inspector Hubbard can be considered the most telling antecedent of its title character, the ramshackle, rambling, seemingly sycophantic but piercingly perceptive Lieutenant Columbo.

The character of Columbo (he was never given a first name) debuted in anthology TV series The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960. Writers William Link and Richard Levinson based their script on a short story they’d contributed – appropriately enough – to an issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But that source material had lacked a detective character, so they created Columbo with Bert Freed cast in the role.

Later, Levinson and Link adapted the script into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, first performed in 1962 and starring It’s a Wonderful Life’s Thomas Mitchell, then a TV movie in 1968 with Peter Falk taking over the role. The latter’s success led to a sequel in 1971, which was followed a regular series of feature-length episodes. The show ran, on and off, until 2003 with Falk giving a dynamic and incredibly watchable performance as the LAPD’s most iconoclastic detective.

History has not recorded whether Dial M for Murder’s Hubbard was a deliberate influence, but the similarities between the two characters are striking. Both are detectives who spot the significance of vital clues straightaway; who see through the inconsistencies in the villain’s story but don’t give away that their suspicions have been piqued; and who play dumb in order to lull the killer into implicating himself. They never resort to rough stuff or intimidation – the investigation is more a battle of wits – but they aren’t afraid to plant evidence or outright lie if it secures a confession. Both also smoke, maintain a level of civility, and own a crumpled rain mac. Hubbard even has a version of Columbo’s famous catchphrase: “There’s just one other thing, sir,” he says at one point as he’s about to leave the Wendices’ flat.

John Williams, who plays Hubbard with such effortless intelligence, later appeared in an episode of Columbo: Dagger of the Mind, originally broadcast on 26 November 1972. He played a murder victim, so due to the detective-shows-up-after-the-crime format he didn’t share any screentime with Peter Falk. Earlier in that same season, incidentally, Williams’s Dial M for Murder co-star Ray Milland had played a murderer in The Greenhouse Jungle (15 October 1972)… and the year before that, had a supporting role in the episode Death Lends a Hand (6 October 1971). Were these casting choices a deliberate acknowledgement of the debt owed to Dial M perhaps?

(Parenthetically, while we’re on the topic, a few other Hitchcock stars played killers in Columbo too. Janet Leigh appeared in Forgotten Lady (14 September 1975), while her Psycho co-star Vera Miles was in Lovely But Lethal (23 September 1973). North by Northwest’s Martin Landau appeared in Double Shock (25 March 1973) and Louis Jordan, who had a role in Hitch’s The Paradine Case, was in Murder Under Glass (30 January 1978). Also, Nicholas Colasanto, who cameoed in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, directed two Columbo stories.)

Like Columbo, Dial M for Murder also had a theatrical phase in its development – as well as an early TV try-out. The story debuted in an episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre broadcast on 23 March 1952. Cast as Inspector Hubbard was Raymond Huntley, who had played Dracula on the London stage in the 1920s. (When he turned down the chance to take the Count to Broadway, the role was taken over by an unknown Hungarian called Bela Lugosi.) Writer Frederick Knott then reworked his TV script for a West End production, which began in June 1952. In October, the play transferred to New York, where John Williams and Anthony Dawson first played the roles they were soon to reprise on film for Alfred Hitchcock.

All this means it’s hardly surprising that the movie Dial M for Murder has a theatre-like feel. The story almost entirely takes place on one set: a small, one-bedroom flat. Less than five per cent of the running time is spent elsewhere. There are long scenes of continuous action; one is well over 20 minutes, another close to half an hour. And there are only five significant characters: Tony, Margot, Swan, Hubbard and the man Margot’s been having an affair with, American crime writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).

But the film never feels contained or constrained or repetitive. Obviously, a lot of this is down to Hitchcock’s ability to build and sustain suspense. Because the murder plot is told from the perspective of the man who’s planning it, we’re told ahead of time what’s going to happen. Or rather, what’s *meant* to happen. As Tony lays out his plan to the unwilling Swan – a man in debt and on the run from several aggrieved landladies – we’re told in minute detail how these two men will murder Margot and get away with it. Tony has thought of everything and has the cool, calm confidence of a man in total control. Hitchcock even switches to a God’s-eye view of the apartment, watching from above as Tony explains how Swan will enter the flat and strangle poor Margot.

This insider information makes us accomplices. It makes us unconsciously hope that they pull off their horrid crime. But this is not a unique trick. Movies are littered with criminals who we rout for because they’re the point-of-view characters. We want what they want, even if what they want is questionable. Any number of gangster films, from Scarface to Reservoir Dogs; war movies such as The Eagle Has Landed; heist stories like Ocean’s 11… They’re all about ‘bad guys’, but we’re seduced us into colluding with them. So when things go wrong – Tony’s phone call (to distract Margot) comes too late because his watch stopped; Margot fights back and Swan is killed – we don’t cheer at the thought of Margot surviving. We worry that Tony is going to be found out.

But another reason for the audience’s attention never wavering is that the film isn’t shot like it’s a stage play. Dial M for Murder is fluid and cinematic and visually interesting. Hitchcock had form for this sort of thing, taking the real-time, one-set Rope (1948) and filming it in loooong takes with a roaming camera. Here, for example, he opts for a forensic focus on the physical details of the plot – the latch keys that end up in various people’s pockets and purses, the scissors and the sewing box, the stockings, the cash, the geography of the apartment. The devil’s in the details and these elements are just as important as Tony’s calculating jealousy or Margot’s infidelity. Dial M for Murder is a puzzle, a parlour game, and it’s addictive even on multiple viewings.

Hitchcock also, famously, shot the movie in 3D. For a brief moment, it was the coming thing in Hollywood cinema, thanks to the success of a now largely forgotten film called Bwana Devil. But Hitch knew that the technology would mean some changes to his shooting style. ‘The close-up, for instance, will have to be completely scrapped,’ he mooted to a journalist before filming. In the end, Dial M’s character close-ups are amongst many striking shots that take advantage of the technology – there are also low angles, high angles and extreme close-ups. The cinematography always has plenty of depth and often uses foreground objects to make us feel like we’re in the flat with the characters. And each and every one of these techniques adds to the tension of the situation.

The director also toyed with an idea he’d had for a 3D trick shot: ‘All of a sudden a large hand with extra-long fingers reaches out and takes the audience by the throat,’ he said while prepping Dial M. ‘Think that would frighten you?’ Sure enough, in Dial M for Murder, the most daring 3D moment comes as Margot is being attacked by Swan and her arm reaches out in desperation towards the camera. She’s begging for our help – but as we were in on the planning of her murder, are we willing to give it?

Ten men at the college reunion out of 10

Acknowledgement: For an in-depth look at the history of 3D cinema and Dial M for Murder’s place in it, I very much recommend this article, which I drew on for information and the Hitchcock quotations: http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/dial-m-blu-ray-review 

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Rich and Strange (1931)

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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.

Note: In the US, this film was released as East of Shanghai.

An English couple inherit some money so go on a round-the-world trip, but hit problems when they reach Singapore…

The ‘rich’ comes when – after a frustrating commute home to the suburbs from his City job – a middle-class man and his wife learn that his uncle is giving them a huge amount of money. The ‘strange’ is not so much that Fred (Henry Kendall) and Emily Hill (Joan Barry) decide to set off on a cruise to the Orient. It’s more that the film plays it all for laughs. This is Hitchcock directing a throwaway comedy.

When the humour works, the film does too. There aren’t many belly laughs but a few smiles are raised. Kendall and Barry indulge in some funny drunk acting, while Elsie Randolph plays a fellow tourist who gets several bits of comedy business. (The character is a middle-aged spinster. The actress was 27. Her second Hitchcock role came 41 years later in Frenzy.) Also, the prologue showing Fred’s tiresome journey home from work is a joy: dialogue-free and full of sight gags, it’s like something Charlie Chaplin would have shot.

In fact, at this point Hitchcock was only two years into working with sound and you wouldn’t say it was Rich and Strange’s strength. The score is too prominent and you soon tire of heavy-handed sound effects such as footsteps. Perhaps the director was already nostalgic for the silent era, hence the many sequences without dialogue. There are even expositionary title cards to push the plot along. But he was certainly keen on making the film look as modern as possible. As well as sending a camera crew off round the world to capture shots of some real locations – such as an elaborate and daring stage show at Paris’s Folies Bergère – he also built large sets of the ship back at Elstree Studios.

As entertainment, the film passes the time without ever really impressing you. A big problem is that it’s not especially *about* anything: it’s an extended comedy sketch with the loose appearance of a story. Hitchcock historian Noël Simsolo disagrees, once saying it’s an ‘almost tragic’ film because it deals with a childless couple idly filling their lives with frivolity. ‘They are empty,’ he purred. ‘They are sterile.’ In the same lecture, though, Simsolo also claimed that Dale Collins – the demonstrably real man whose story was adapted into the film – never existed. So what does he know?

Six games of deck tennis out of 10

Saboteur (1942)

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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 man goes on the run after being framed for a devastating fire at an aircraft factory…

Alfred Hitchcock films are not political tracts. Most of them are gloriously shameless entertainment set in a fantasy world of heightened situations and colourful characters. They are not intended to be taken as literal representation of the real world. But that doesn’t mean they don’t reflect the times in which they were made: all films do, whether knowingly or not.

Saboteur was released in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Habor – news of which actually broke while Hitchcock was attending a pre-production meeting. So as well as being a fast-paced thriller about a cross-country hunt for a criminal, it’s also drenched with the concerns of a society that has just entered the Second World War.

This is a film where characters take time to extol the virtues of duty and the villains are insidious intellectuals rather than greedy thugs. The sabotage that kicks off the plot is especially egregious because it’s a fire at a factory producing vital aircraft for the war effort. The story ends, symbolically, at the Statue of Liberty – one character even reciting its famous engraving about huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then mentioning the current woes of France, the country that donated the landmark. Made 10 years earlier or 10 years later and Saboteur would be a very different beast.

This wartime context is perfectly understandable, of course. In April 1942, the world had far more pressing concerns than a Hollywood thriller, so it’s hardly surprising that Hitchcock and his colleagues bent their espionage plot into a minor morality lesson. They were far from the only people doing it. During the Second World War was rather obviously a fertile time to make a Second World War film – and many of these movies had political aims as well as populist ones.

Just a sample of the genre in the year of Saboteur’s release, 1942, throws up numerous examples of the war having a direct impact on Hollywood. Director John Huston was partway through filming a Second World War movie called Across the Pacific when he himself was called up for military service. Black Dragon, a film about the Japanese colluding with the Nazis, was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor. Captain of the Clouds, a movie about Canadian pilots and starring James Cagney, was made with the direct help of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the Royal Canadian Air Force. (It had been planned as a way of swaying American public opinion into supporting the war. By the time it was released, the US had already joined the conflict.) The series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce illogically but rather admirably moved its characters from the Victorian era to the 1940s, all the better for fighting and defeating Nazis. Nineteen forty-two also saw the release of the virtuoso Casablanca, a tale of heroic resistance and imperishable romance in the face of Nazi oppression.

Two months after Saboteur’s release came Mrs Miniver, the stoic story of a British housewife, which is imbued – as its director, William Wyler, freely admitted – with the argument that America should fight with the Allies. (A key scene of the lead character confronting a German pilot was reshot after the attack on Pearl Harbor to give it a stronger, more aggressive edge.) In the same month, in the UK, the director/producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger released One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a film set in Nazi-occupied Europe and made under the auspices of the UK Ministry of Information. At around the same time as Saboteur was filming, David Lean and Noel Coward were directing the blatantly rousing, pro-Allies In Which We Serve. (While all this was going on, by the way, Hitchcock was being criticised in the UK for not returning to help the war effort. He argued that he was under contract to an American studio.)

Aptly (and coincidentally), Saboteur’s all-American tone is complemented by Hitchcock’s first all-American cast. But whereas the director later focused his cameras on such Hollywood heavyweights as James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Janet Leigh and Ingrid Bergman, here there’s a real lack of star power. For three of the biggest roles, Hitch initially wanted Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Harry Carey. When they proved unavailable, he felt short-changed by Robert Cummings (too light to be a convincing hero), Priscilla Lane (given top billing but fairly unmemorable) and Otto Kruger (not menacing enough as the bad guy). One acting success, though, is Norman Lloyd, who plays the elusive Fry with a great combination of sleaze and menace. (Lloyd was also in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, later became a producer on Hitch’s TV shows, and – at the time of writing – is still a working actor at 103 years old.)

Cummings plays factory worker Barry Kane, who is suspected of starting a fire that killed his friend. He thinks the man responsible for both the fire and his framing is an employee called Fry (Lloyd), but when the police find no evidence of Fry’s existence, Kane sets out to track him down – all while on the run from the authorities. Along the way, he encounters a helpful trucker, a kind and hospitable blind man, and a Freaks-style circus troupe – all of whom help him without question. And he teams up with the blind man’s niece, Pat Martin (Lane), who gets dragged along in his quest. Meanwhile, the villains, headlined by Kruger’s silky fascist, are planning another act of national damage by blowing up a new Navy battleship in New York harbour…

The film has some fun, admittedly. It moves along well and is never boring. Hitchcock playfully puts messages commenting on the plot into the production design of roadside billboards and the title of books on a shelf. There’s a great scene at a swanky party with a clever shot of the two leads dancing that keeps them steady in the frame as they move around the floor. And needing a shot of a sunken ship, Hitch sent a crew to film the liner SS Normandie, which was then half-submerged in New York harbour after a fire.

But because it’s a movie built around a succession of episodes – some of which are more enjoyable than others and some of which are more plausible than others – after a while it starts to lose its way. Saboteur is the middle film of an unofficial trilogy of Hitchcock thrillers. It’s another version of the same idea that was used in The 39 Steps (1935) and would be aired again in North by Northwest (1959). Sadly it’s not as successful as either of those genuine classics. We get the same gimmick – an innocent man gets inadvertently caught up in an espionage plot and must travel across country to find out what’s going on – but not the same level of enjoyment.

Seven men outside the drug store out of 10

The Manxman (1929)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When two male friends both fall for the same woman, it leads to unhappiness and potential tragedy…

Before he established his reputation as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock worked in several genres. In his silent period, for example, comedies and romances sat alongside the early thrillers. And 1929’s The Manxman – based on a 1894 novel by Hall Caine, the man to whom Bram Stoker dedicated his book Dracula – is pure melodrama. But at least it’s pure melodrama done with some sweetness, at least to begin with.

The plot is a by-the-numbers love triangle: The Manxman is more a case of man v man. Two life-long mates on the Isle of Man, fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), are both smitten with local barmaid Kate (Anny Ondra, who sparkles with charisma in early scenes then brings real vulnerability to the role). Initially, Pete seems to be in with a chance, but Kate’s father objects because Pete has no money. So he sets off abroad to earn his fortune. While he’s away, Philip agrees to look after Kate. But their platonic friendship develops into romance.

Rumours then reaches the island that Pete has been killed in Africa, which makes Kate grimly relieved because she now wants to be with Philip. But when Pete arrives home alive and well, she feels enormous guilt and has no choice but to restart her relationship with him…

For all its orthodoxy, The Manxman is a compositionally beautiful film. Hitchcock opts for lots of straight-on, symmetrical shots and characters often look and deliver dialogue directly down the lens. This brings the viewer right into the heart of the story, making the characters vivid and memorable. There are also several nice, economic ways of advancing the plot. While Pete is overseas, for example, we see close-ups of Kate’s diary. As the weeks go past, ‘Mr Christian’ becomes ‘Phillip’ as they start their romance. Later, when Kate and Pete get married, the sequence is dramatised by a series of slow dissolves.

The lightness is giving way now, and the last third of the film contains some overwrought plotting. After Kate falls pregnant, it’s unclear who the father is. She goes to Philip, wanting him to take her away from her unhappy marriage. But his career has taken off – he’s now a Deemster, a Manx judge – and doesn’t want the scandal to damage his reputation. Kate is so alone and desperate she leaves Pete, but he keeps their newborn baby. Distraught, Kate attempts suicide by throwing herself into the harbour. She survives but suicide was an illegal act in 1929, so Kate is taken to court. And guess who the judge is?

The Manxman was Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film and brings to an end the first phase of his career. He soon moved away from romances and embraced edge-of-your-seat thrillers. He experimented with sound and music. His movies became bigger is size and scale and ambition. And he developed a recurring character played by various actresses – a troubled, enigmatic blonde woman – and cast The Manxman’s Anny Ondra as the original iteration. Nearly four decades after shooting it, Hitchcock called this film an old-fashioned story. He was right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth seeing.

Seven mills (but no Boons) out of 10.

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.

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