Rear Window (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.

While recuperating after breaking his leg, photographer LB Jefferies spends his days watching his neighbours… But then he starts to suspect that one of them is a murderer…

Rear Window is cinema’s most insightful use of point of view, so much so that it’s pretty much become the textbook example of how the form can tell stories through its characters’ eyes. The story concerns a housebound photographer called LB Jefferies (James Stewart, excellent), who idles away his boring days during a New York heat wave by watching his neighbours from his apartment window. He acts as our proxy as we watch them too: the lonely spinster, the kooky married couple with a dog, the wannabe musician, the flirtatious party girl. The camera never leaves the apartment once during the entire film, so we’re stuck there with Jefferies and his broken leg. He’s a voyeur and so are we.

We experience the story with him, see what he sees, hear what he hears – and crucially we *don’t* see or hear anything he doesn’t. So when Jefferies fears that one of his neighbours – a burly, sour man played by Raymond Burr – has killed his wife and hidden the body, he’s basing his suspicion on evidence that we’ve been privy to. No more, no less. He shares his theory with his housekeeper and his society girlfriend, but neither Stella (Thelma Ritter, sly and fun) nor Lisa (Grace Kelly, *radiant*) is convinced. 

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Nevertheless, the two women agree to investigate. And as Jefferies watches them cross the communal compound to scout out the neighbour’s home, we’re watching them too – from the same vantage point, with the same perspective on events, with the same blend of curiosity and helplessness…

This film is patently magnificent. It has a terrific cast. It’s suspenseful and a huge amount of fun. It’s easily one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterworks. And it takes place on perhaps the greatest set ever built for a Hollywood movie. A large and complex Manhattan courtyard surrounded by multi-storey buildings was constructed at Paramount’s studios in LA. Designed by J MacMillian Johnson, it cost around a quarter of the entire production budget.

The space acts like an inverted theatre where there’s only audience member (Jefferies/us) but a panoramic stage filling a 180-degree view. There’s an amazing amount of depth and texture – just check out the busy street you occasionally glimpse between buildings. There’s real verticality too. The set of Jefferies’s apartment was actually built at ground level: the impression of it being on an upper storey was achieved by digging a hole in the studio floor for the courtyard.

But for all the detail and scale on show, the camera never visits the courtyard or the other buildings. We never leave Jefferies and the inside of the apartment, so we only see the bulk of the set and all of its dramas through Jefferies’s living-room window. He’s a passive viewer, an observer who can’t directly influence what‘s going on through the window. He can only watch and experience events vicariously. Sound familiar? Well, as many people have pointed out, it can’t be a coincidence that Jefferies’s window resembles the ratio of a cinema film.

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Hitchcock is deliberately equating his lead character with a film audience. After all, the whole point of cinema is to watch people who don’t know they’re being watched, and to get pleasure and excitement from this act of voyeurism. Indeed, at certain points of the film, photographer Jefferies gets out his telephoto lens in order to see events in close-up: it’s not just a pragmatic decision; it feels like he *needs* to see more. 

So let’s go off on a minor tangent to talk about the size of the screen in Hitchcock’s work in general.

Every single movie Hitchcock ever made was shot onto 35mm negative film, and for the first thirty years of his career he used what was then an orthodox aspect ratio. Early films were projected at 1.33:1, which is to say the width of the image was a third more than its height, or occasionally 1.20:1 (the width being 20 per cent more than the height). In 1934, Hitchcock switched to the slightly wider 1.37:1. This ratio is called Academy, and was the standard American film format from its inception in 1932. Hitch used it for every movies from Waltzes From Vienna until 1953’s I Confess.

But then, like Hollywood in general, Hitchcock went widescreen in the 1950s. American studios became increasingly keen on visually dynamic movies. The primary reason was as a way of competing with the threat of television, a medium that was eating into movie studios’ profits. Widescreen images and colour were the things TV couldn’t provide, so naturally more and more widescreen and colour films were released. There was actually a short-lived vogue in the 1950s for bombastically wide formats such as Cinerama or 70mm, which tested audiences’ neck muscles and peripheral vision to the limit. Just look at this ridiculous composition from the 1962 Cinerama film How the West Was Won. (The man in the centre of the frame is Rear Window star James Stewart.)

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Hitchcock resisted these extremes, perhaps because he knew that – while great for landscapes and action – they were less good on close-ups, tension and claustrophobia. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t evolve. For 1954’s Dial M for Murder, the director used Warner Brothers’ 3-D cameras. The 3-D aspect of the image was largely a gimmick, however, and precious little is lost when you view the movie today without it.

But while stereoscopy was a passing fad (‘It’s a nine-day wonder,’ quipped Hitch, ‘and I came in on the ninth day…’), Dial M was significant because it was designed to be projected at a whopping aspect ratio of 1.85:1. In other words, the image on the cinema screen was nearly twice as wide as it was high – certainly something audiences weren’t getting at home on TV. Later that year, Rear Window was a still impressively wide 1.66:1, but Hitch then went all-in with 1.85:1 and stuck with these dimensions for the rest of his career. He also began to use VistaVision, a film process that shot images with normal lenses onto 35mm film but gained a high level of detail by orientating the negative horizontally and therefore exposing a larger area. The format lasted for just seven years, but in that time Hitchcock used its rich lustre and glamorous sparkle for To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

So Rear Window came on the cusp of the widescreen revolution, a period of Hollywood history that shifted the default cinema image from nearly square to nearly rectangular. But does it make a difference? Would the film have still worked just as well if shot in the Academy aspect ratio?

Yes, it would still be enthralling, addictive, effective and fascinating. But the widescreen image gives the film an extra level of magnificence. One reason is basic aesthetic taste: it just looks better. But another is more primal. A human being’s typical field of vision is 135 degrees along the vertical axis and 200 degree from side to side. Or to put it in a cinematographically relevant term, we see in 1.48:1.

Rear Window, at 1.66:1, pushes the image wider, meaning we can’t take all the information in at once – our curiosity is never sated, we never feel in total control, and we can’t stop *looking*.

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Ten men adjusting a clock out of 10

Acknowledgment: I recommend this lecture, given by Thea Marshall-Behrendt in 2015, which helped me clarify some opinions and from which I drew some factual information: https://ksamaarchvis.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/the-importance-of-set-design-in-hitchcocks-rear-window/

 

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The 39 Steps (1935)

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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 woman is killed in front of him, Richard Hannay is blamed so must travel across country to find out why she was murdered…

Orson Welles once called The 39 Steps a masterpiece. High praise indeed from the man who co-wrote, produced and directed Citizen Kane, the film most often called the finest ever made. And he’s far from alone in loving Alfred Hitchcock’s flamboyantly brilliant movie. Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne, who won on Oscar for 1974’s Chinatown, once said that ‘all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.’ These men weren’t wrong. It’s a giddy thrill ride full of action, intrigue, comedy, stunts, sex, oddball characters, cross-country travel and set pieces, which still feels fresh and relevant today. And that’s because, more than eight decades later, people are still making this kind of entertainment. The James Bond series, caper films, superhero franchises… They all owe a huge debt to The 39 Steps.

Towne elaborated on his point to The New Yorker in 2012: ‘Most “pure” movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged. The 39 Steps is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time. [Hitchcock] puts you into this paranoid fantasy of being accused of murder *and* being shackled to a beautiful girl – of escaping from all kinds of harm, and at the same time trying to save your country.’ (The full article can be read here.)

The man who’s accused of murder and is later shackled to a beautiful girl is a Canadian living in London called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat). After attending a music-hall show, he takes an enigmatic woman (Lucie Mannheim) home for supper and maybe more. However, soon after she reveals that she’s a professional spy and her life is in danger, she’s stabbed by an unseen assailant and dies in Hannay’s arms. This kicks off a roller-coaster of a plot. Hannay is of course accused of the murder so must evade both the assassins and the authorities as he investigates what the woman was involved in. Following a map she had in her possession, he heads for Scotland.

Along the way, he encounters one of Hitchcock’s enigmatic blondes – the innocent Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) – then takes part in a dangerous escape from a train while it crosses the Forth Bridge. He has a run-in with a grumpy crofter (played by Dad’s Army’s John Laurie), meets the villain of the piece (a sly Godfrey Tearle), is forced to impersonate a politician at a hustings meeting, and is eventually reunited with Pamela – the pair of them handcuffed together by the bad guys. It’s breathless, exciting and a *lot* of fun.

It’s also often daring for 1935. Hannay and Pamela blag their way into a hotel, posing as a married couple, but they’re still handcuffed together. They’re also wet through after their escape across the countryside, so Pamela takes off her damp stockings with Hannay sat ever-so close to her. A movie with a bubbling sexual chemistry between the male and female leads was not a new idea in 1935, of course. But the fact that Pamela doesn’t exist in the source material – John Buchan’s 1915 novel – is very telling. Hitchcock knew that he had to up the ante. And the will-they-won’t-they pairing of a dashing hero with a smart, sophisticated woman would become a vital element of this type of movie.

Another influence of the film is, obviously, the fact that the story has been filmed three further times. A 1959 version starred Kenneth More and was clearly a remake of Hitch’s version rather than another adaptation of the novel. Robert Powell and John Mills then appeared in a 1978 movie that stuck more closely to the Buchan original. The latter got its own a TV spin-off series in 1988, then in 2008 the BBC adapted the story with Rupert Penry-Jones in the lead role.

Actually, while we’re on the topic, several Hitchcock films have inspired remakes, sequels and other versions of the original source material. Hitch himself remade one of his own movies, giving 1934’s British film The Man Who Knew Too Much a Hollywood revamp 22 years later. Dial M for Murder (1954) has been loosely remade several times – for example, as A Perfect Murder in 1998 starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. The Lady Vanishes (1938) was remade in 1979, starring Elliot Gould and Cybil Shepherd, then again for television in 2013. Since Hitch’s film version of Jamaica Inn (1939), the original novel has been adapted for television twice – in 1983 and 2014.

Rear Window (1954) has been remade a few times, sometimes rather loosely. A TV movie in 1998 starred Christopher Reeve in the role of the housebound voyeur. (The 2007 movie Disturbia also had a similar storyline, though a court case decided that no copyright infringement had taken place.) The Birds (1963) got a belated, made-for-TV sequel called The Birds II: Land’s End in 1984. It was directed by Rick Rosenthal, who then took his name off the project, and starred Tippi Hedren (though not as her character from the first film). 

But the Hitchcock movie with the biggest family tree of spin-offs is 1960’s Psycho. It firstly had two cinematic sequels in the 1980s, both of which saw Anthony Perkins reprise the role of Norman Bates. In the not-bad Psycho II (1983), Norman is released from prison and attempts to get on with his life; Vera Miles also returned from the original film. The story was continued in the less good and more crass Psycho III (1986). There was then a prequel TV movie called Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), which cast ET’s Henry Thomas as a teenage Norman. (Perkins played the role in some modern-day framing scenes.) Regrettably, the 1960 movie was then remade in 1998 – almost shot-for-shot, for reasons that passeth understanding. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the result was a depressingly empty exercise.

Hitchcock’s movie has also been the seed of inspiration for two unrelated TV shows called Bates Motel. The first, in 1987, was a one-off drama set in a different continuity from the Perkins films. The second, which ran for five seasons between 2013-2017, was a marvellously macabre reboot that began its story with Norman and his still-alive mother taking over the establishment.

But, as we’ve discussed, the influence of The 39 Steps extended far further than the same story being told again. It acted as the blueprint for the modern thriller to such a degree that even Hitchcock and his collaborators were working in its wake. In the 1950s, when tasked with writing the Alfred Hitchcock film to end all Alfred Hitchcock films, Ernest Lehman came up with a script called North by Northwest – a giddy thrill ride full of action, intrigue, comedy, stunts, sex, oddball characters, cross-country travel and set pieces. It was more or less a remake of The 39 Steps.

10 men walking past a number 25 bus out of 10

The Paradine Case (1947)

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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 barrister takes on the case of a woman accused of killing her husband, he begins to fall for her – will it compromise her chances of acquittal?

The rumour is that Hitchcock only made this film to fulfil his contract with famed Hollywood producer David O Selznick, the man who’d first brought him to America. The partnership had produced at least one classic of cinema – 1946’s Notorious – but Hitch was feeling hidebound and wanted free of a producer who was all-too-keen to put his own stamp on each film. (Selznick’s name is egotistically all over The Paradine Case’s credits, even going as far as introducing two of the actors as ‘new Selznick Stars’.) Leading man Gregory Peck later said that Hitch had seemed bored with the material, and that’s not hard to believe. It’s one of his most flatly orthodox movies.

London, 1946. A wealthy widow called Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, who’s lit like a movie star but has little of the sparkle) is arrested for the murder of her husband, an older, blind man. She’s a frosty, calm, reserved woman, but when hotshot barrister Tony Keane (Peck) is hired to represent her, he can’t help falling under her spell. This causes tensions in his marriage, with wife Gay (Ann Todd) feeling increasingly sidelined and ignored…

A big problem is that neither the script nor the performances ever convince you why Tony is so infatuated with Mrs Paradine. Peck is fine enough as the blinkered barrister, but Italian actress Alida Valli – credited as simply Valli as a marketing gimmick – is too cold, too aloof, too drab to generate much interest as the defendant. (Hitch had wanted to cast Greta Garbo, but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr and Notorious’s Ingrid Bergman were also considered.) It’s also – it must be said – a rather boring, two-suspect case. Mrs P is accused of poisoning her husband, perhaps as an act of mercy because he was unhappy with being blind. The only other person who could’ve done it is the man’s valet, a French Canadian called André Latour. Given that Tony is desperate to prove his client’s innocence, he travels to the Paradines’ Cumberland holt to meet Latour (future Bond villain and future Dracula Louis Jourdan, all brooding and intense). The valet acts suspiciously and evasively, then snaps and tells Tony that Mrs Paradine is evil.

Then, after an hour, we enter the courtroom section of the movie. We’re in the Old Bailey – still bomb-damaged after the war – so it’s a world of wigs and gowns and people sitting in place, rather than suited American lawyers Perry Mason-ing all over the place. A haughty Charles Laughton is the judge; Hitchcock regular Leo G Carroll is the prosecution lawyer. Gay Keane sits in the gallery with a friend helpfully spelling out what each story beat means. But despite Mrs P being the accused, Tony has by now gone overboard in love with her, so the scenes play more like *Latour* is on trial. Tony harangues him in the witness box, to such a degree that during a recess in the trial Latour kills himself with shame.

Courtroom stories always have built-in drama; they’re difficult things to make boring. And The Paradine Case has its fair share of legalese, barristers’ objections, semantic bickering, shock reveals and the judge intervening. But the earlier sections of the film haven’t set up the second half well enough. So when the news of Latour’s death hits Mrs Paradine hard, and she admits that she’s guilty, and that Latour was her lover, and that she hates Tony for what he’s done, it has nowhere near the punch it should have.

Five men carrying a cello out of 10

The Ring (1927)

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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.

An exhibition boxer is hired as a pro’s sparring partner. But then the pro makes a move on his girlfriend…

Some of the earliest ever movies were boxing films. In the 1890s, cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson – the man who came up with the industry-standard 35mm film format – recorded fights involving boxers such as world heavyweight champion James J Corbett. Short and basic, they were the world’s first sporting films – and they were staged specifically for the camera. So Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring was following an established tradition. By 1927, of course, drama elements had been added to the mix – and the title of The Ring is actually a pun. As well as the boxing arena, it refers to a wedding ring. Because, for all the ways it prefigures movies such as Rocky and Ali, this is mostly a love-triangle melodrama.

At a funfair, Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, who had once been a prizefighter himself) is an undefeated boxer who puts on shows for the punters. But one day a man challenges him to a fight – and Jack is beaten. No wonder: it turns out the challenger is heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack’s done well enough, though, to be offered the job of Bob’s sparring partner. Bob then takes a shine to Jack’s girlfriend, Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis). She initially returns his affections, then pulls away. She later marries Jack, but is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Jack sets his sights on challenging Bob for the championship…

The film climaxes with the men’s bout, which seems to be taking place at the Albert Hall – a venue where Hitch used to watch boxing, fascinated by the rituals of the sport, and where he later set the finales of his two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. We get all the now-familiar clichés of a boxing movie: the well-to-do crowd, the frantic cornermen, POV shots as the fighters square up, the camera shooting through the ropes.

You can sense a lineage from all this to, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. But nonetheless The Ring has dated. How could it not? It was released 91 years ago and everyone involved in the production is long gone. There are six actors credited in the opening titles, for example, and five of them died in – respectively – 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967 and 1975. (London-born Harry Terry’s date of death is unknown, but given that he was in born in 1887, we can safely assume he’s no longer with us either. The most tragic death was the first: depressed after a downturn in her career, Lillian Hall-Davis took her own life, aged just 35.)

Perhaps the most old-fashioned elements is the lack of dialogue. There are very few title cards containing speech, so as a modern viewer you’re left to infer an awful lot of the detail. It doesn’t help with engaging with the drama, and after a while you wish you could get inside the heads of the characters just a little bit more. This paucity of words may be explained by the fact the script is credited to just Hitchcock himself. (Other people did work on it, however, including his wife, Alma Reville.) He was much more comfortable with and interested in visual storytelling, so while the story, characters and situations are conventional and predictable, there is the usual array of dynamic shots and effects. Crowd scenes at the funfair always have a waltzer rotating in the background; some shots have superimposed images so we can know what a character is thinking as well as what they can see; and at one point Mabel and Bob are filmed reflected in the gently ebbing waters of a river.

The best piece of narrative-by-pictures comes when Jack’s success in the boxing world is dramatised by a montage that shows his name being given more and more prominent placings on successive posters. A fantastic Hitchcock grace note has the seasons changing too.

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Seven bracelets out of 10

Frenzy (1972)

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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.

An innocent man must go on the run when he’s accused of being a serial killer…

Hitchcock comes home. The opening image of his penultimate film is a long, slow helicopter shot down the Thames and past Tower Bridge. The story then plays out in recognisably London locations such as Covent Garden (filmed just three years before the famous fruit-and-veg market moved out), Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Park Lane.

But this is not Hitchcock giving his hometown a Hollywood sheen. This is the down-and-dirty London of the early 1970s. Perhaps it’s the film stock, or the British weather, or the 1970s fashions, or deliberate choices by Hitchcock and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (A Hard Day’s Night, Dr Strangelove, The Omen, Star Wars) – but whatever the reason, Frenzy is a tough, uncompromising, seedy and vivid film alive with working-class life. You can smell the sweat and feel the grime. This is a world of sex murders and perversion, back-street boozers and alcoholics, fry-ups and fags, roadside cafes and enormous bank notes. It looks like an episode of The Sweeney. It’s absolutely compelling.

The storyline is a Hitchcock standard – innocent man gets caught up in events out of his control – but the movie twists the idea from the playfulness of North by Northwest into a dangerous, threatening and explicit plot about a sadistic serial killer. Former RAF pilot Richard Blaney (an angry but not unsympathetic Jon Finch) is down on his luck. We first see him getting fired from a crummy job by landlord Bernard Cribbins, then when his friend Bob Rusk (an excellent Barry Foster) gives him a dead-cert racing tip, Richard doesn’t have the cash to make the bet. So he goes to visit his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). She takes pity on him and gives him some money… but that only makes Richard look guilty when Barbara is later raped and strangled by a serial killer known as the Necktie Murderer.

With the police assuming he killed his ex, Richard goes into a panic. Bob offers help, as does former colleague Babs (Anna Massey) and an old pal from his RAF days (Clive Swift, with a terrifically tart Billie Whitelaw as his wife). But the circumstantial evidence against Richard begins to mount up – and then Babs is also found raped and strangled.

By this point, the real killer has been revealed to we viewers… Earlier, Bob Rusk visits Barbara in her office. At first all charm and friendliness, he begins to get more and more lecherous and aggressive. Telling her he’s locked the front door, he rapes her and strangles her to death. The two actors, working with understandably challenging material, make the scene easily the most harrowing moment in Hitchcock’s filmography because of its awful verisimilitude. It’s very difficult to watch. Rusk’s second attack in the film is shot more obliquely, but is no less terrifying. Playing the harmless friend again, he lures Babs up to his flat. But the camera doesn’t follow them inside. Instead, after he closes the door, it slowly retraces its steps down the stairs, out of the hallway and into the busy Covent Garden streets. Life is going on as normal, unaware of the monster under their noses.

Frenzy is a dark film, there’s no getting away from it. But there are also flashes of gallows humour and whimsy, as you’d expect from Hitchcock. A sustained scene of absurd grimness comes when a frantic Bob must wrestle with Babs’s corpse in the back of a potato van because he’s left some vital evidence on her. The copper on the case, meanwhile, is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowen) who précises the plot while attempting to eat one of his eccentric wife’s pretentious dinners.

These moments are vital. They give the film extra life and a dynamism that would otherwise be missing. They also show a playwright’s hand at work. Based on a 1966 novel, the script was written by Anthony Shaffer (who also wrote The Wicker Man). His attitude to dialogue – an attention to the rhythm of everyday speaking – gives a real sparkle to everything, which means you’re gripped from the first moment. Hitchcock makes sure you never lose interest.

Nine men listening to a political speech out of 10

Ten Things I Love About North by Northwest (1959)

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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 advertising executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a spy, it leads to a cross-country game of cat-and-mouse…

In a specially shot trailer to promote his new movie. Alfred Hitchcock stands behind a travel agent’s desk. He tells us that his latest film will cover many miles across America and take viewers on a thrilling adventure. ‘A vacation from all your problems,’ the master promises. He’s not wrong. North by Northwest is escapism of the highest order – breezy, confident, witty and a huge amount of fun. Here are 10 reasons why it’s one of Hitch’s best and most entertaining films…

1. The title sequence… North by Northwest’s credits play over a slick, modernist masterpiece of graphic design by Saul Bass. Kinetic typography moves fluidly, inventively and stylishly across shots of New York skyscrapers, and the music is also out of this world – brassy, bold, memorable. The score is by Bernard Herrmann, an all-time great film composer whose career began with Citizen Kane (1941), ended with Taxi Driver (1976), and took in eight collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. The movie’s title, by the way, is a deliberate piece of nonsense. Borrowing the phrase from Shakespeare (‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’), Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman knew that it had little to do with the story. Events might move in vaguely that direction across America; we might see an airline called Northwest – but the title is more an acknowledgement that the movie isn’t intended to *mean* anything beyond uncomplicated enjoyment.

2. The opening scenes… The body of the film begins so quickly, with so much energy. Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill is heading out of his office, to meet some clients at a fancy restaurant, and as he walks he rattles off instructions to his loyal secretary. There’s fast dialogue, dynamic camera moves, and even location filming on a busy New York City street. The sequence sets up the tone and pace of the movie brilliantly: this story will not hang about and, as we watch Roger con a man into giving up his taxi, we also know that it’s not going to be taking itself too seriously either.

3. Cary Grant… In many ways, Roger Thornhill is a Hitchcock standard: he’s the innocent, likeable man accidentally caught up in a dangerous plot that he knows nothing about. (This idea also crops up in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, Frenzy…) Due to a misunderstanding in the restaurant, two heavies wrongly believe that Roger is really a spy called George Kaplan. They kidnap him, bundle him into a car, and take him to see their boss… Cary Grant is perfect casting for the film’s lead character; it’s his final role for Alfred Hitchcock and his most memorable. There was an early idea to cast James Stewart, and he would of course have done an excellent job. But Stewart’s Thornhill would have been more everyman, more full of all-American outrage. Grant, however, knows he’s playing a fantasy: he’s debonair and smooth and can handle light comedy, tough dialogue, action and romance. He knows that, while it must be played straight, North by Northwest is pure adventure. (It was surely this role above all others that put him top of United Artists’ wish list when casting for James Bond in 1962.)

4. The mystery… In truth, the entire plot is one big MacGuffin. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as something ultimately uninteresting to the audience but which motivates the characters and drives the action. In North by Northwest, there is a story going on about American spymasters inventing a secret agent as a decoy in order to ensnare a villain. But does anyone care? It’s not important and Hitchcock knows it: the ‘plot’ is simply an excuse for the suspense, the entertaining characters, and the heightened incidents along the way as Roger fumbles around to find out what’s going on.

5. The bad guys… Having been kidnapped, Thornhill is taken to a large house outside the city and introduced to the silky criminal Phillip Vandamm, whose first scene sees him methodically switching lamps on as he circles and studies a confused Thornhill. Vandamm refuses to believe Roger when he protests that he’s not a spy called George Kaplan, but unlike many movie bad guys he never rants or raves or throws tantrums. He simply presses on as if Roger were a CIA agent intent on ruining his nefarious plans. Vandamm is played by James Mason, who purrs through every scene with undimmable assurance, while second-in-command Leonard is played by Martin Landau.

6. Style… In part, North by Northwest feels so fresh because it has had a big influence. Subsequent movies have followed suit to such a degree that it’s never really gone out of fashion. The mix of suspense, comedy, action, sex, theatrical sets and dramatic incidental music was more or less copied wholesale for James Bond when that film series began three years later, while you can also detect the elan and sophisticated humour of North by Northwest – taking things *just* seriously enough – in Steven Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park.

7. Eva Marie Saint… After escaping and then being framed for the murder of a diplomat, Roger is on the run from both Vandamm and the police. So he sets out to track down the elusive George Kaplan and get some answers. This involves a train journey from New York to Chicago, during which he meets fellow passenger Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. The studio had wanted Singin’ in the Rain’s Cyd Charisse for the part, but Hitchcock stood firm. Another example of his obsession with complex blondes, she’s sexually bold and flirtatious… and of course isn’t what she first appears. Saint is terrific, playing the role with just enough guard that you’re initially not sure of her motives. The cross-country train ride also provides us with another James Bond parallel. The second 007 movie, 1963’s From Russia with Love, also features characters with secrets sharing a buffet-car table – just one of several apparent nods towards North by Northwest…

8. The dust-cropping scene… Perhaps the film’s most famous sequence comes when Roger gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere, hoping to rendezvous with Kaplan. Initially all alone at an isolated country bus stop, he then encounters a man who points out that a nearby plane is dusting crops but doing so over fields where they are no crops. After the guy has been picked up and Roger is alone again, he realises the plane is getting closer and closer. And then it attacks, swooping just feet above Roger’s head and forcing him to throw himself to the ground. It circles back and strikes again and again… Roger only escapes its menace when the plane crashes into a passing petrol tanker. From slow build-up to explosive climax, this is nine minutes and 20 seconds of pure cinema. (It’s also another scene later homaged in From Russia With Love, this time with a helicopter.)

9. Mount Rushmore… The trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads Roger to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he encounters the CIA chief (Leo G Carroll) who concocted the idea of George Kaplan as a decoy. And what was Kaplan intended to distract Vandamm from? The real agent… Eve Kendall. But Vandamm is close by too, and has Kendall prisoner. Eventually, Eve and Roger flee and escape up to the top of the famous Mount Rushmore façade, a scene which is as gloriously silly as any in a Hitchcock film. It combines an action-movie chase with the bonkers sight of huge Presidential faces and the very real threat of a fatal fall…

10. The final image… After two hours of excitement and enjoyment, Vandamm is dead, Eve safe, and Roger on his way back to his comfortable life in New York. But Hitchcock has one final cheeky gag. Roger and Eve are in their carriage aboard a sleeper train. As they start to get amorous, Hitchcock cuts to… the train entering a tunnel.

Ten men trying to catch a bus out of 10

Elstree Calling (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.

This rough-and-ready revue film was made at Elstree Studios (‘The most marvello studio in Europe-o,’ says compere Tommy Handley) as a British reply to the lavish, all-star examples then in vogue in Hollywood. It was directed by André Charlot, Jack Hulbert, Paul Murray and – thankfully for our purposes here – Alfred Hitchcock.

The bulk of the film is presented as if you’re watching a live television broadcast made up of sketches and performances, all linked together by Handley (who still had a few years to go before his hit BBC radio series It’s That Man Again). Hitch was responsible for some bonus scenes: a rather silly running gag about people whose TV set isn’t working, which was at least topical given that television was an excitingly new medium at the time.

The format sees a parade of musicians, comedians, dancers (including a blackface trio) and magicians, then the climax is an elaborate and chaotic spoof scene from Taming of the Shrew, with superstar actress Anna May Wong throwing custard pies around for not immediately obvious reasons. One of the more interesting aspects of this black-and-white movie is that some of the dance numbers have been given primitive, yellow-heavy colour in post-production via the Pathécolor process.

Along the way, we get lots of precious footage of bygone stars – music-hall star Will Fyffe, actress Cicely Courtneidge, percussionist Teddy Brown – but most of the segments drag tediously and many have dated badly. At least the film never takes itself too seriously.

Five xylophones out of 10

Mr & Mrs Smith (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.

After a couple realise they’re marriage isn’t legal, they go their separate ways, but find it hard to let go…

Hitchcock later claimed he only took on this project as a favour to its leading actress, Carole Lombard. She was one of the biggest – and most highly paid – stars of the age. Hitch was a fan and had wanted to make a serious film with her, but after a short sabbatical she was keen on a return to the genre that had made her name: screwball comedy. (Tragically, it was one of her last films: Lombard was killed in a plane crash just a year after Mr & Mrs Smith was released.)

The pair had a relationship of mutual respect and affection. He allowed her to direct his ubiquitous cameo and she delighted in making him do multiple retakes; she also poked fun at his comment that ‘actors are cattle’ but arranging to have three heifers brought into the studio with actors’ names on their hides. However, this behind-the-scenes fun doesn’t translate onto the screen. The movie Hitchcock and Lombard made together feels very much like something produced by an assembly line. It lacks zip and punch and too many sequences fall flat.

Married couple Ann (Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) make up after a three-day row, though in the name of full disclosure he admits that, if given his time again, he wouldn’t have got married. He loves her and wants to be with her, but can’t resist admitting that he regrets getting tied down. Then a man shows up at David’s office (played by Charles Halton, the bank inspector from It’s a Wonderful Life) and reveals some shock news. Due to boundary changes in Idaho, David and Ann’s marriage is not legal. The man coincidentally knows Ann from her childhood so then, without David’s knowledge, seeks her out and tells her the same news.

So later that night, as the couple go to an old haunt for dinner – which is owned by William Edmunds, another It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus – there’s tension in the air. Ann has assumed David will tell her the news then suggest they make their common-law marriage legal by ‘remarrying’. But she gets increasingly frustrated as he plays dumb and doesn’t mention the development.

Finally she snaps and explodes into a rage (the momentary increase in energy is a rare instance of the movie coming alive). She throws him out, their relationship over. In a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, though, David then gets jealous of Anne moving on with her life. He eventually tails her as she goes on a wintery holiday with new boyfriend Jeff (Gene Raymond) and – wouldn’t you just know it? – the movie ends with the pair reconciling.

At the time this film was made, there was a real vogue in Hollywood for screwball comedies: light-hearted romcoms with rat-a-tat dialogue, sharply written romances and a battle of the sexes where the female character is at least the equal of the male. In 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night had become the first film to win all five major Oscars; in the three years before Mr & Mrs Smith, Howard Hawks had directed two of the very best examples – Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), both starring future Hitchcock regular Cary Grant. Sadly, judged in that company, Mr & Mrs Smith seems staggeringly slow and ploddingly predictable. Lombard and Montgomery are far from awful, but you can’t help but imagine snappier dialogue and pacier scenes and other, better actors in the roles. Hitchcock had wanted Cary Grant for the part of David – no wonder.

Five men walking past in the street out of 10

The Farmer’s Wife (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 widower searches for a new wife…

In a 1963, Alfred Hitchcock gave an interview to Peter Bogdanovich, then a film critic and later a movie director himself. Hitch talked about his career so far, giving fascinating comments and opinions on every film he’d made. When asked about The Farmer’s Wife, though, he was noticeably sparse, saying just that it was ‘merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.’

He wasn’t wrong. The film has sweetness and a few interesting techniques on show, but it’s mostly a soppy, conventional and not very memorable melodrama about a widower looking for love when it’s under his nose all along. So let’s use the space to discuss something else. Where did Alfred Hitchcock get his ideas?

The stage play that this film is based on, also called The Farmer’s Wife, was written by Eden Phillpotts. Born in India in 1862, Phillpotts had worked as an insurance officer before turning to a writing career that produced numerous novels, plays, short stories and poems. He became a friend and supporter of Agatha Christie and lived to be 98. (After his death, his daughter Adelaide – herself a successful writer – revealed that he had sexually abused her for about 30 years.)

In 1913, Phillpotts published a novel called Widecombe Fair and then three years later adapted it for the stage. Renamed The Farmer’s Wife, it was first performed in Birmingham. Between 1924 and 1927, the play was a smash hit in London with over 1,300 performances at the Royal Court Theatre. So it was prime material for a film company to snap up the rights and produce a movie version. This was a standard practise in the British film industry, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that basing films on pre-existing material would continue to be Alfred Hitchcock’s modus operandi for the rest of his career.

As the years went by, there were movies inspired by real-life events – Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Wrong Man (1956) – and a few that were original ideas thought up by or for Alfred Hitchcock. But almost all of his 54 full-length movies have plots taken from other sources.

Early on, he often looked to the theatre. Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931) and Number Seventeen (1932) are all based on plays, while Waltzes from Vienna (1934) is an adaptation of a stage musical. Hitch then rather fell out of this habit, with only two more examples of him turning theatre shows into films: Rope (1948) and I Confess (1953). (You might also include Dial M for Murder (1954). Although it began as television play, it was the later stage adaptation that caught Hitch’s attention.)

More popular with the director were novels or short stories. Over half of Hitchcock’s output used prose as a starting-off point – take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1931), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). You could also argue for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) being on this list. Its plot was taken, rather loosely and with no formal acknowledgement, from a Bulldog Drummond story. (The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, of course, is essentially a remake of the earlier movie.)

Of course, Hitchcock’s genius was to take all these sources – melodramas, romances and thrillers; high literature and potboilers – and give them his own spin. In some cases, the adaptation is very liberal. The longer Hitchcock’s career went on, the more you get a sense that being entertaining is more important than being faithful to the original text. Perhaps that’s the problem with The Farmer’s Wife: it comes too early in the filmography, at a time when Hitch wasn’t bold enough to do something daring. Phillpotts’s play is too orthodox, too predictable, too safe, too cosy. And so is the movie.

Five steam rollers for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman out of 10

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