Vertigo and the Obsession of Cinema

Vertigo

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A retired policeman is hired to tail a troubled woman but fails to prevent her from dying. Then soon afterwards, he spots her doppelganger…

Displaying a masterful command of both form and feeling, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is measurelessly wonderful. It’s one of the most exemplary films ever made – a profound piece of work that thrillingly encapsulates what the medium of cinema can achieve. However, there’s been such a wealth of material written about the film since its release in 1958 that a blog like this has no hope of adding anything new. So instead of a straight review, I propose to use the space for something else. It’ll be a personal – some might say self-indulgent – discussion of falling in love with cinema. But we’ll not be going totally off-topic, because above all else Vertigo is about obsession.

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A whirling, swirling matrix of high emotions and dark, dizzying undercurrents, the movie tells the story of former San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart, giving the best performance in a career dominated by excellence). When he’s hired to spy on a disturbed woman called Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak, sensational), he soon becomes enthralled. She’s clearly troubled, and seems at times to be possessed by the ghostly spirit of her own great-grandmother, but Scottie is fascinated and enamoured in equal measure. He saves her from killing herself and they fall in love, but his acrophobia prevents him from stopping a second – and successful – suicide attempt. Weeks after her tragic death, he then spots a lookalike woman on the street and begins to purposefully manipulate her into being a replacement for his lost love…

Early in the film, Hitchcock presents us with lengthy, dialogue-free sequences: we watch Scottie as he watches Madeleine, and we’re sucked into the same kind of enchantment that he’s experiencing. The mood of the filmmaking – slow but graceful and enormously powerful, like an ocean liner – draws you in, seduces you, entraps you, and doesn’t let go. The effect is close to hypnotism. The actors’ performances, Bernard Herrmann’s never-betted incidental music and Hitchcock’s scintillating control of time and space create a trance state – both on screen and inside each viewer’s mind.

The film is addictive while you’re watching it and that sense doesn’t go away afterwards either. It demands attention and cultivates affection, just like Madeleine. The academic Charles Barr discusses this in his book-length analysis of Vertigo written for the BFI (highly recommended: seek it out if you want to explore the movie’s abundant subtexts). In the opening chapter, aptly called Obsession, he recounts several instances of people being drawn to the movie again and again over several years. It’s such a rich film that it not only stands up to being seen more than once, it grows with meaning exponentially. You appreciate so much more with each viewing: the symbolic use of reds and greens; the telling references to San Francisco’s heritage; the subtly of Scottie’s platonic friend Midge; the intricacies of the mystery plot (ie, what’s *really* happening); the way the cutting creates rhythms and conveys narrative information… The more you look the more you see.

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But that’s true of cinema as a whole. If you become hooked, you become obsessed. There are, no doubt, many people who are quite content to watch a film once, take in the surface details, and then move on, never giving it much thought again. (Poor sods.) But some of us – and if you’ve read this far, that probably includes you – realise something deeper. We know that movies are not disposable or ephemeral. (Well, admittedly some of them are: I’m talking the good, the great and the interesting here.) They’re more like the people in your life: each one has a unique personality; they have characteristics and psychology and moods.

Many are like lifelong friends you relish hanging out with again and again, nostalgically riffing the same old jokes and simply enjoying each other’s company. Some are extrovert and brash and shout their glories for all to hear; others are introverts who only reveal their secrets after several encounters. There can be challenging films that require patience and understanding, but you sense they’ll ultimately be worth the effort, while some are objectionable little shits you catch sight of once and then avoid forever. Vertigo is that one-in-a-million soul that evokes love at first sight and total devotion.

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In the kind of coincidence that makes life worth living, I was considering writing a blog about how Vertigo could stand as a metaphor for my love of cinema when I stumbled across an astonishingly relevant book in an Oxfam charity shop. Written by a retired insurance broker called Norman Olden, Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan was published in 1991. It’s an incredible example of cinematic obsession in action.

In the mid-1920s, Olden was a teenager living in London who spent much of his spare time in cinemas. Partly as an aide-mémoire, he began methodically keeping track of not only which films he’d seen, but in which venues he saw them, and who accompanied him, and who the leading actors had been, and which studio had produced the film. Before he knew it, he had comprehensive records and anal statistical lists charting *years* of cinema-going. Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan is based on those copious notebooks, cataloguing a habit involving thousands of trips to hundreds of cinemas from 1927 until 1989.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan book cover

Reading the book now is a thing of wonder, especially if you adore this kind of trivial minutia – it’s one part history of cinema, one part social snapshot, one part trainspotter’s ledger. The story is told year by year, beginning before the introduction of talkies, passing through in the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking in the blockbuster era of the 1970s and 80s, and ending with the release of films such as When Harry Met Sally and Dead Poet’s Society. Because he was going to the pictures so often, the number of films he saw seriously began to mount up. Olden was occasionally featured in the press (‘Has Seen 1,890 Films’ ran a small item in the Daily Mirror of 2 February 1934) and he eventually developed an ambition to see 10,000.

This was a tough task, especially as he grew older. British cinemas began to eschew double-features of new releases and, instead, showed the same films for longer. Olden’s free time was taken up by getting married and watching more and more cricket. And, perhaps inevitably, he found that fewer films each year were to his tastes. In one of the book’s more oddball moments, he records a bizarre tactic to reach his self-imposed quota: ‘I was forced to the sad conclusion that if I were to reach my goal of 10,000, I had better attend some double features of sex or porno films. To be truthful, they are not as bad as all that.’ He found German porn films ‘funny rather than vulgar’ but found British equivalents ‘quite pathetic’. He’s quick to mention that he stopped this habit once he’d crossed the 10,000 threshold.

Norman Olden

As well as the relentless recitations of – and opinions given on – films seen across more than six decades, Olden (pictured above) also peppers his book with details of his personal life. We learn about his parents, his jobs, his girlfriends, his wife, his experiences during the war, his holidays, and his love of theatre. He comes across as gentlemanly, old-school and politically conservative (he admits to being thrilled by films like Death Wish because they depict criminals getting what they deserve!). The overwhelming impression, however, is one of enthusiasm. He’s just generally wowed and thrilled by cinema of all forms, of all genres, from all countries; he’s willing to give anything a go, and his enjoyment is infectious.

That doesn’t mean that Norman loves everything he sees, however, and he holds some unorthodox opinions along the way. The rare movies he doesn’t like, for example, include Citizen Kane (‘tedious and pretentious’), The Maltese Falcon (‘my number-one disappointment in all my film-going’), Some Like It Hot (‘another Monroe failure…  I have never thought men in drag the least bit funny’) and All the President’s Men (‘it left a nasty taste in my mouth, maybe because I believe Nixon will go down in history as a good American president’). As he passes through middle age he’s also nonplussed by violent or provocative films, disliking fare such as A Clockwork Orange, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Omen.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan page

Given the era his book covers, it’s no surprise that he mentions seeing several Alfred Hitchcock films. His movie-going odyssey, after all, begins in the year that Hitchcock’s debut was released in the UK and ends a decade or so after Hitch’s death. He was generally a fan, and from an early age. Impressed in 1929 by Blackmail (‘England’s first talking picture’), he made a mental note to keep an eye out for its director’s future work. He records seeing Rebecca in 1940; four years later he thought Lifeboat was marvellous: ‘Who can wonder that Hitchcock became a name with which to conjure; he had an unerring flair for filmmaking.’ He says he would have guessed Strangers on a Train was a Hitchcock film and was charmed by the innovative Rear Window. Cary Grant ‘played out an improbable story with immense panache’ in To Catch a Thief, while The Trouble With Harry was delightful and Dial M for Murder ‘an intellectual treat’. Olden was ‘duly shocked out of my seat by the bloody murder in the shower’ in Psycho and found The Birds startlingly realistic.

Sadly for the purposes of this blog post, if he did see Vertigo he failed to mention it in Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan.

One of the reasons Olden’s book struck such a chiming chord with me was that I have my own equivalent record of cinema visits. I assembled it a few years ago, basing it initially on annual lists I’d been keeping in appointment diaries since I was 18 years old. For films seen before I was 18, I’ve had to rely on my memory so those years may not be complete. There won’t be many missing entries, though. I fell in love with films on VHS in the 1980s and trips to the cinema were rare treats indeed. It was only once I went to university in 1997 that I started going more often – hence the habit of keeping records. I now update the list after each trip.

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If I look over the list now, it brings back so many great memories. I can vaguely recall, as a three-year-old, starring up at the huge vastness of a cinema screen when my parents took me to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial during a rainy Lake District holiday in 1982. (I’ve always been very proud that my ‘first’ was such a wonderful movie.) A few years later and 1989 was a sensational time to be a young film fan. Seeing a sequel to Back to the Future was almost unbearably exciting (to this day I have an enormous soft spot for Part II), while I can clearly remember the hearty laughter that the gags in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got from a packed house in Southport.

The film doesn’t need to have been a classic for my memories to flood back. For some unfathomable reason, I can remember seeing comedy Nuns on the Run with my mother in 1990. I enjoyed it more than she did; I imagine the same would be true if we both watched it again. We used to go to the cinema together quite often, me being an only child and she being a single parent. I owe her a great deal – just generally of course, but certainly in terms of my love of film. As a young child I saw violent and sweary movies such as Aliens and Commando and Die Hard at home on video and my mum never objected because she knew I could handle it. She even occasionally sneaked me into cinemas with her to see 15-certificate films when I was underage. We went to Oliver Stone’s JFK twice because we both adored it so much. We watched Schindler’s List together and were blown away. When I’m on my deathbed and asked to cite the greatest things that have ever happened to me, very near the top of the list will be the fact I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day on a big screen when I was 12 years old.

The cinema wasn’t always a wonderful experience, of course. I remember being confused by the Michael Jackson vehicle Moonwalker because it had no real storyline. Ghostbusters 2 was vaguely disappointing. My friends and I all thought Drop Dead Fred was dreadful. White Fang was incredibly boring. But the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Sneakers

A year before I entered into my teens, my mother and I moved from Lancashire to Derbyshire. At my new school I soon became pals with two boys called Stuart Oultram and Andy Fisher – the three of us are still friends today – and we began to hang out together, including occasional cinema visits. We adored the caper film Sneakers (pictured above) so much that we went back to see it again the following week. (It’s still one of my favourite movies – easily in my top five.) Three years later, I caught a Bond flick at the cinema for the first time: the amazing GoldenEye, seen with Stuart. I’ve not missed a 007 film since. In 1996, he and I also tried an obscure, low-budget, black-and-white horror called Nadja, which became one of his favourites. It was on at the Metro Cinema, an independent housed in a building on Green Lane in Derby that dates from 1876 – and a place that would soon come back into my life…

In 1997, I moved away to university in Leicester and had a fairly miserable year. Homesick, lonely and not keen on the new friends I’d made, I took to going to the cinema on my own as a way of escaping the darkness. With a National Union of Students card, I could get into the local UCI multiplex for just £3 so ended up seeing some films more than once. I watched As Good as It Gets and The Devil’s Advocate at least twice, Tomorrow Never Dies and Alien: Resurrection about three times each.

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I also saw what instantly became my single favourite film of all time: LA Confidential (pictured above). I was so enraptured by this sassy, stylish, sinister, film-noir masterpiece that I raved about it to my old school friends – so much so that Andy, Stuart and I then went to see it together. Thankfully, they loved it too. I even tried seeing it a third time, again on my own, but two elderly women sat near me kept talking so I left after half an hour. (Oh, the irony: the only time I’ve ever walked out of a cinema and it was during what I consider to be the best movie ever made.)

After a year of unhappiness in Leicester, something had to change. So in the summer of 1998 I switched universities to the University of Derby, an institution based in a city I knew well from living close by as a teenager. My new degree course was Film & Television Studies and – thrillingly for me – it was based in the same Gothic building on Green Lane that housed the independent Metro Cinema. We actually used its screening room during the day for our lectures; then in the evenings it became a public cinema. There were instances of me, essentially, spending all day in the same room.

Green Lane, Derby

As you get older, however, a lot of experiences feel less vital simply because of familiarity. So while I continued to go to the cinema in my 20s, fewer visits have lodged specifically in my memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1999, my mate Will Haywood and I went to a weekday morning screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Unless rose-tinted specs are at play, I recall us both enjoying it. It only sunk in later that the film was drivel. (You can see my cinema ticket below, Sellotaped into my 1999/2000 appointment diary.) The following year, I saw a revival of one of my all-time favourites, Back to the Future, at the Metro and this opened my eyes to the joy of seeing a classic film on a huge screen. I now love seeing old movies at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End. It allows you to reappraise, as well as wallow in shameless nostalgia.

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In 2002, at the age of 23, I moved to London and rather fell out of the habit of going to the cinema. There were just too many other things demanding my attention – an exciting job, new friends, being young and having energy, that kind of thing. I made sure to see Bond films when they came around, but otherwise only went occasionally. That fallow period came to an end, appropriately, when Back to the Future was rereleased to mark its 25th anniversary in 2010. I went twice and caught the bug again. Since then, I’ve gone to the cinema every couple of months or so. Nothing to compare with Norman Olden’s multiple-times-a-week strike rate, and I’ve always seen far more films at home than in a cinema, but it’s still a very important part of my life.

Even with middle age approaching fast and going to the cinema no longer being a novelty, I can still be utterly captivated. In my 30s I fell into my current habit of going to see the big sci-fi and superhero movies with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. And it was with Fraser that I had the most scintillating cinema experience of my adult life. Just before Christmas 2015, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Everyman Baker Street in London. It was a movie we’d waited a very long time to see and we were both nervous and excited. No spoilers, but the final scene made such an overpowering impression on me – in effect, for a minute or so I forgot I was watching something fictional – that I walked out afterwards in a daze. Fraser did too. We stood on the busy pavement agog. We’re both Star Wars nerds, and had hoped this new one would be enjoyable, but we simply couldn’t believe the movie had been *that* good.

That’s what cinema can do. It can enthral and fascinate, just like Vertigo’s Madeleine. Good and great films rattle around inside your brain long after the end credits have rolled; they can provide enjoyment, entertainment, emotional fulfilment, intellectual stimuli, catharsis, joy or simply a carefree couple of hours.

In the introduction to his book, Norman Olden attempts to explain this. ‘Above it all,’ he says, ‘was the knowledge that for three and a half hours, I was going to escape to an enchanted place where I would be richly entertained, enjoy the comfort and luxury in so many of the cinemas I visited and the good manners of the audiences. I must bless whatever gods may be for my good fortune in having had all these joys at my disposal just at the very time they were necessary to me.’

Isn’t that fantastic? Doesn’t that just cut through to the core of why so many of us love movies? I think it’s his use of the word ‘escape’ that gets me. First and foremost I want films to be essentially trivial. I don’t mean unimportant or not worthy of discussion or lightweight. But the way cinema can distract you from the pressures and problems of real life – give you a respite and some fantasy – has been a regular solace for me during difficult times, and I imagine the same is true for lots of other people. As for Vertigo, let’s ignore this blog’s usual scoring conventions so we can emphasis just what a majestic movie it is.

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Notes:

Charles Barr’s wonderful analysis of Vertigo is part of the BFI Film Classics series. It was first published in 2002.

Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan by Norman Olden was published by The Book Guild in 1991, when its recommended retail price was £12.50. I bought a secondhand copy in a branch of Oxfam in Rochester on 6 July 2019. I doubt I’ve ever spent a better £2.99.

You can see my pedantic list of cinema visits by clicking on this link.

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Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an intoxicating neo-noir mystery story, a masterpiece of art direction and cinematography, and one of the best examples of science-fiction in any medium. It also, however, feels like a self-contained piece of work – a glimpse into a world that is all the more fascinating because we only spend two hours there.

So producing a sequel 35 years later was something of a risk. Scott himself has recently directed two follow-ups to his other sci-fi classic, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.

There are a multitude of reasons why it’s quite so wonderful. Here are just 10…

1. Connections
A sequel can do several things. It can go down the James Bond route of presenting another adventure involving the same character/s; essentially a new self-contained story. Or it can be more like the films in the Godfather or Star Wars series, which are discrete units but also work to develop an ongoing narrative. In other cases, ‘sequels’ actually have precious little to do with their originator – see Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which takes place in a different continuity, or The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which presents a whole new cast. But the latest Blade Runner film goes down its own path. It’s set 30 years after the events of the original movie and focuses on new characters. But its storyline is inexorably linked to the first movie; it could not exist without it. It is a sequel, there’s no denying that. But it might be more useful to think of 2049 as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s film; an extension; a development. It’s not just the literal narrative that’s being picked up and run with. It’s also the themes.

2. K
The story’s lead character is a replicant (a human-like synthetic lifeform) played by Ryan Gosling. The actor has recently developed a brand of impressively impassive acting that says nothing and everything all at the same time. He glides through this film, outwardly not emoting much or reacting very demonstrably to anything. But Gosling, whose wonderful deadpannery can also be enjoyed in great films such as Drive (2011) and The Nice Guys (2016), has grown into one of the best *movie actors* of recent years. Knowing his face will be enormous when viewed on a cinema screen, he’s able to convey curiosity, anger, frustration, excitement and especially melancholy with remarkable restraint… The slight rise of an eyebrow, an adjustment of the mouth: these moments always tell you exactly what his character is thinking and feeling. Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the first Blade Runner, KD6-3.7 – K for short – is an LA cop who tracks down and deals with renegade replicants. (We still don’t get told why they’re called Blade Runners.) When he stumbles across some bones buried under a tree, however, he discovers a volatile secret: replicants can procreate. Knowing this information could cause widespread panic and unbalance society, his boss Lt Joshi orders K to find the child and ‘retire’ it – in other words, kill it. K’s gumshoe storyline also leads him to remember details from his own childhood, and he starts to wonder if *he* is the missing child…

3. Pace
In 1930, the average length of an individual shot in an American film was about 12 seconds. By the start of the 21st century, this had decreased to just 2.5 seconds. Coupled with the increased running times of movies in recent years, and that can mean an awful lot of shots. (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, for example, has over 3,000 of them. It’s a decent film, but no one would disagree with the notion that a few trims would help.) Many people point to the influence of television, music videos and services like YouTube as the reason for this increase in cutting speed. The idea is that we’re all losing the ability to pay attention. But there’s actually no evidence for this. Studies have shown a steady decrease in shot length across the decades, irrespective of other media. (It’s probably more down to the development of user-friendly technology in editing rooms.) However, in an era of non-stop cutting and a fear that audiences will get bored if you linger on one image for too long, Blade Runner 2049 is pointedly slooooow. It’s more deliberate than your average blockbuster and it *takes its time*. The rhythm of the storytelling feels old-fashioned – joyfully so – and allows the plot, the characters and the world to just *be*, to exist and develop. The film seduces you, grips you, and doesn’t let go. It’s lyrical, cerebral and beautiful. If most sci-fi films are rock songs, this is a symphony.

4. Joi
K leads an empty life, alone in a small apartment in a seedy building full of thugs. His one source of solace comes from an ersatz girlfriend – an artificial-intelligence hologram called Joi, played by Ana de Armas. It’s fair to say that this film has come in for some criticism around the character, given that she’s essentially a spin on the ‘sex robot’ cliché. She’s a mother/lover totem who switches from domestic goddess to flirty girl in the flick of a hologrammatic beam; she’s artificial and has been programmed to serve and ‘love’ anyone who buys her. But does this miss the point? The central theme of the Blade Runner films is ‘What is life?’ (The novel that the original movie was based on, after all, was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Here, a pointedly provocative character is being dramatised so we can question what it means to be alive. K is ‘artificial’ too, after all: he’s a replicant. But he’s capable of emotion and independence and sentience. We don’t question his right to life or to be treated with respect. We accept him as a character worth investing in. Why is Joi any different? At several points in the film, she seems to make complex and human-like decisions out of genuine love – she even sacrifices herself to save K. We later see a giant, 3D advertisement for her model and it presents a crasser, more sexualised version. ‘Our’ Joi had broken away from this cliché and become a unique personality. Doesn’t that make her ‘alive’? Joi has been programmed, yes, and has pre-set parameters that control her actions and ‘feelings’. But how is that any different from a human being? Our personalities and psychologies are shaped by natural characteristics, our upbringing, our surroundings and a host of other factors outside of our control. It doesn’t stop us being us.

5. Visuals
Cinema is imagery. If it were just people talking, it would be a radio play. And Blade Runner 2049 understands the beauty and power of visual images better than any other Hollywood movie of recent years. Just like in the 1982 original, both the physical world and the cinematography are *achingly* wonderful. Production designer Dennis Gassner and director of photography Roger Deakins (who both have Coen brother and Bond movies on their CV) create something that feels 360-degree real, 100-per-cent immersive, 3D vivid. It’s a logical development of the neo-noir LA we saw in Ridley Scott’s original – there are still cluttered streets and smoggy atmospheres and dramatic skyscrapers and neon adverts and dangerous shadows. But 2049 also moves the world on: America is now more Brutalist than Deco; more straight than curved; more scathing than seductive; more stark than sleazy. (Tellingly, director Denis Villeneuve’s keyword when trying to convey the film’s tone to colleagues was ‘brutality’.) There’s also still the Japanese influence we saw in 1982 (the bad guy’s lair is based on Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient temple in Kyoto), while several scenes take place away from urban sprawl: on a desolate farm, in sandblasted ruins. Each location has its own identity – a cold and sterile police station, the ethereal, golden offices of the Wallace Corporation, a cyberpunky brothel alley, an industrial factory, the faded, entropic ruins of Las Vegas – but they all feel part of the same whole and they all contribute to telling the story. There’s also a constant sense of size and scale: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in an enormous, wide-angle fictional world. Deakins rightly won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on this film; Gassner was nominated at both ceremonies. The craft and skill involved in producing something so wonderful beggars belief.

6. Luv
If there’s perhaps one blemish on this film it’s the lead antagonist. For the character of Niander Wallace, an eccentric, blind businessman who runs LA’s most powerful conglomerate, Villeneuve initially hoped to cast David Bowie. ‘He embodied the Blade Runner spirit,’ the director said. But then Bowie died. It would have been an interesting piece of casting, given the associations the actor would have brought from other roles and his career in general. Sadly, Jared Leto – an acquired taste of an actor – is a poor second choice. The character has a plan to steal the bones that K has discovered, because he wants to learn how replicants can conceive and then use this to expand his business empire. But Leto plays Wallace in such an affected and theatrical way, especially in a perverse scene when he kills a naked replicant, that the character teeters on the edge of silliness. He doesn’t fit with the movie’s mood or world. Thankfully, much more watchable is Wallace’s second-in-command, Luv, played with icy control by Sylvia Hoeks. She’s essentially the film’s ‘heavy’, who acts as Wallace’s proxy because he’s too important/lazy/scared to leave the sanctity of his palatial building. Luv carries out his orders and kills mercilessly when needed.

7. Music
The first Blade Runner movie has a famously good score, so 2049 had a lot to live up to. Much like the look of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s incidental music manages to both honour what came before *and* push things forward. The score begins with ominous, reverb-heavy noises that echo Vangelis’s music from the first film, but this is no empty copy. Zimmer has become Hollywood’s premier composer over the last 25 years or so, known for music that feels enormous but which still has telling emotional weight. His work with Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049 is no different.

8. Names
K’s boss at the police station is Lt Joshi, played with intelligence by Robin Wright, and she’s one of several characters in Blade Runner 2049 with an intriguing name. In Japanese, for example, jōshi with a long ‘o’ sound (上司) means boss while joshi with a short ‘o’ (女子) means female. Elsewhere, K’s single-letter moniker is a nod to Philip K Dick, the man who wrote the story on which the original Blade Runner movie was based. Niander Wallace’s name is a pun on Homo Neandertalensis, a now-extinct species of humans (suggesting he is destined to be superseded by replicants). Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri) is an enigmatic woman who designs complex fake memories for replicants, and has a name that refers to anastellin (a natural substance that suppresses tumour growth and metastasis – ie, she keeps things alive). The implication of Luv’s name when said out loud is obvious… but if you don’t understand why Joi’s name has that spelling, ask your older brother.

9. Deckard
In recent years, Harrison Ford has been reprising the roles that won him such a venerated place in genre cinema history. In 2008, he got out his archaeologist’s hat and whip for a fourth time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seven years later, he returned to the Star Wars universe to give Han Solo one last Kessel Run round the block. Then he completed the hat-trick of heroes in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049… Rick Deckard doesn’t appear on screen until after 100 minutes, and for anyone who’s seen the poster or DVD cover and knows he’s on his way, this delay gives his return to the two-film narrative a huge amount of significance and weight. A trail of clues has led K to the post-apocalyptic ruins of Las Vegas, where he encounters his Blade Runner predecessor. ‘You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you?’ asks Deckard. It’s a quotation from Treasure Island, a book about a young man on a dangerous, revelatory quest for an enormous prize. The line is said by Ben Gunn, a pirate who has been stranded alone for a long time – in much the same way as the isolated and bitter Deckard. After a punch-up that plays out against the gleefully absurd background of a stop-start hologrammatic Elvis Presley concert – another masterpiece of lighting from Roger Deakins – the two cops discuss the case. Ford is sombre, soulful, sanguine; there are decades of anguish carved into his granite face. (Commendably, this film maintains the original Blade Runner’s ambiguity over whether Deckard is himself a replicant. Evidence weighs towards yes, but it’s not conclusive.)

10. Rachel
As well as Deckard, two other characters from the original movie have presences in Blade Runner 2049. Edward James Olmos returns for a one-scene cameo as Gaff, the prissy detective with a fondness for the multi-lingo Cityspeak. K visits him in a retirement home when he’s trying to track down Deckard. It’s a scene that could have been cut: precious little information is learnt and it’s largely a geek-pleasing moment (Gaff even does some origami – tick!). Much more significant is the reappearance of Deckard’s late lover – the replicant Rachel. She’s died in the decades since the first film, but makes a haunting cameo when Wallace taunts Deckard by presenting him with a facsimile of his lost love. In the finest use of computer-generated imagery yet seen in any film, the character appears exactly as she did in the original Blade Runner. Sean Young, who played Rachel in 1982, advised body double Loren Peta how to move and stand, then the latter’s face was replaced digitally. This kind of thing has been done a few times recently, most notably in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (2016). But Blade Runner 2049 exceeds anything done in that film or elsewhere. It’s a stunning moment, full of awe and wonder. If Blade Runner 2049 is about anything – and actually, it’s about a lot of things – then it’s a movie built on memories. K questions his own recollections, searches for his real history, and tries to create new memories with Joi. Ana specifically designs artificial memories for other people. Deckard, meanwhile, is haunted by the past – and Wallace knows that. The latter takes the former prisoner because he needs to know what happened to his and Rachel’s child. He taunts Deckard by playing him an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachel, then offers an incentive to talk… ‘An angel, made again,’ says Wallace as a millimetre-perfect recreation of Rachel sashays into the room. ‘Did you miss me?’ she says, totally believable. ‘Don’t you love me?’ Deckard is stunned by being confronted by something so beautiful, that he loves so much, but that he thought long gone and that has been made anew. So are we.

Ten wooden horses out 10

Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After committing murder, two men stash the body in a trunk and then invite the victim’s loved ones round for a party…

The most striking aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is not that it’s the director’s first Technicolor film after 35 made in black and white, or the fact that the story is based on a real-life case of two young men who murdered someone as an intellectual exercise, but that the movie is in real time and is mostly presented as if it were one long unedited take – kind of like a sentence without a full stop – as the camera roves ceaselessly around a Manhattan apartment while its occupants host a dinner party with the corpse of a recent murder victim lying in a nearby chest, and also that this technique works so well you soon forget that a conventional movie would be cutting between different shots and between different rooms of the apartment rather than everything having the appearance and flow of a stage play (incidentally, the script was based on a 1929 stage production), but instead of a hindrance, this stylistic gimmick gives the film an extra level of tension – the longer the continuous shot goes on, the more vividly we fret that the crime committed by Brandon (John Dall, superbly smarmy) and Phillip (Farley Grainger, nervy and guilty) will be discovered – as well as a chance for us to appreciate what a monumental effort this movie must have been to rehearse and stage, though when you do pay attention to the craft of the filmmaking it soon becomes clear that Rope *isn’t* one long take with no edits at all because every 10 minutes or so Hitchcock needed to disguise a change of shot (the timing was dictated by how much film could fit into a 35mm camera), so in most of these instances the camera closes in on a character’s back or some other material that will black out the whole frame for a beat and allow editor William H Ziegler to subtly cut to the next section, but there are additionally a few key moments when Hitchcock simply switches conventionally to a new camera angle. These unexpected hard cuts were positioned strategically to help cinema projectionists change reels, but they have enormous dramatic weight because, of course, by the time they come along we’ve fallen into the rhythm of the film, which is fluid and real-time and dictated by actors’ performances and camera movement rather than editing, and to jolt us out of that mind-set really highlights an important line or reaction, such as when Brandon and Phillip’s old tutor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, slightly miscast but reliably watchable) first suspects that something is amiss after Phillip becomes increasingly nervous and drunk and angrily denies that he once strangled a chicken on a farm, and then we cut suddenly to a reaction shot of an intrigued Rupert, though the character’s sense of curiosity soon morphs into dread as he begins to put the clues together and work out what’s happened, and this is where the gentle façade of the film and its fun, parlour-game conceit of ‘Will they get rumbled?’ – and, of course, the entertaining gimmick of the long takes – is superseded by an extra level of suspense and we watch closely as Rupert probes and questions like a classic detective, eking out the sordid truth of what Brandon and Phillip have done, which is to say strangle an innocent man with a piece of rope and then ghoulishly invite his friend, his father, his aunt and his girlfriend round to have drinks served over his hidden corpse – all done as an ‘intellectual’ exercise, to see whether it could be done, which is about as perverted and immoral as any crime in Hitchcock’s canon (at least Norman Bates is ill; at least the killer in Dial M for Murder wants money) so when Brandon attempts to justify his action academically – arguing with Rupert and the victim’s poor, unsuspecting father that murder can be an art form if carried out by ‘superior men’ and if the victim is an ‘inferior’ – we the audience are placed in a tricky position because the usual effect of a movie such as Rope, where we see events from the bad guys’ point of view, is to turn us into accomplices and encourage us to side with the villains and hope they get away with whatever they’re doing, but here Brandon and Phillip – especially Brandon – are openly espousing fascism, so something smart happens at the midway point of the story and that’s that our sympathies and empathies switch across to Rupert (the other party guests, meanwhile, drift away and never learn what’s happened) and he acts like a detective in a mystery story and he questions Brandon and Phillip and he challenges their story and he finds the victim’s hat in the apartment and he leaves the party then returns later in order to talk to Brandon and Phillip alone and the tension in the air is immense and Rupert drops hints that he knows what they’ve done and Brandon can’t resist betraying his perverted, perhaps sexual excitement at being caught and Phillip is a broken man and Rupert walks to the chest and he opens it and he sees the body and the noise of the city outside gets louder and the neon lights across the street pulse through the windows and he finds the rope used to kill and he shoots a gun to attract attention and we hear police sirens approaching – 

Ten silhouettes out of 10

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 movie 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 degrees 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/

 

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

Blake’s 7: Blake (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon needs a new figurehead for his anti-Federation rebellion and thinks he’s found the ideal candidate…

Series D, episode 13. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 21 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the story begins, the gang escape Xenon base – which was bombed in the previous episode – and fly off in Scorpio. Following a plan of Avon’s, Tarrant (26) then sets course for the lawless planet Gauda Prime – but as they approach, Scorpio comes under attack! The others abandon ship via the teleport machine while Tarrant stays aboard to crash-land the craft. He’s hurt in the landing, but survives…
* Slave (12) powers down after the crash.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (51) lays out his plan to find a new leader for the rebellion movement. He needs a particular man, one who can inspire followers and is willing to fight the Federation relentlessly. Orac says he’s located the man and he’s on Gauda Prime: it’s the long-lost Blake… After the Scorpio crash, Avon is stranded on the planet with Orac, but eventually finds most of his colleagues and saves them from some bandits. They then find a small aircraft and use it to follow another flyer to a nearby base. Avon assumes the other flyer contains Blake…
* When Avon talks about his potential new figurehead, Vila (52 – therefore completing a 100-per-cent appearance record) smiles ruefully. ‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You think you’ve found Blake.’ After the crash, Vila, Dayna and Soolin take refuge in an abandoned hut, but their fire attracts some unwanted company.
* Soolin (13) has heard of Gauda Prime. In fact, she grew up there. She only left after her farming family were brutally killed. She says it’s a ‘bad place to be; no self-respecting idealist would be found dead there.’
* Dayna (26) points out that Servalan once told them Blake was dead. Avon replies, not unreasonably, that Servalan lies.
* Orac (35) actually located Blake a while ago, but he and Avon kept the information to themselves while Avon investigated other options.
* When we see him – for the first time since season two – Blake (27) seems to be living rough on Gauda Prime. He has a scarred face and workaday clothes. He encounters and saves a woman called Arlen, who was being tracked by several bounty hunters… but then reveals that *he’s* a bounty hunter too. He takes her back to a base to claim his reward, and while there hears about a space ship that’s crashed nearby. So he flies out to the wreck of the Scorpio, where he meets an injured Tarrant – the first ever meeting between the two characters. Taking him back to the base as well, Blake then reveals that he knows who Tarrant is. He also knows that Avon must be close by, so Blake lays in wait… Tarrant soon escapes and does a runner, which means he doesn’t hear the information that the bounty-hunter routine is just a façade: Blake is still fighting the good fight and is recruiting for his own anti-Federation group. He was simply testing Tarrant, as he’d done with Arlen. Then Avon, Vila, Soolin and Dayna come bursting in. Avon and Blake see each other for the first time since the Liberator crew stormed Star One…

Best bit: The final few minutes of the episode constitute Blake’s 7’s finest scene. Writer Chris Boucher – the prime creative force behind the scenes once creator Terry Nation became distracted by other projects – does an astonishing job of setting up the climax. Expert plotting and characterisation maneuverer Blake and Avon into the perfect position for a confrontation fuelled by misunderstanding. Avon, the perennial cynic and sceptic, has actually come to believe in Blake – so is sucker-punched when he assumes Blake is now nothing more than a selfish mercenary who’s going to sell them out. And this leads to a fatal showdown, which has huge weight and impact. The most famous moment is Avon’s bitter, dejected cry of ‘Have you betrayed me?’ – actor Paul Darrow someone managing to emphasise every single possible meaning all at the same time. But the killer line comes from Blake: ‘Avon, I was waiting for *you*…’ But the appeal doesn’t work and Avon instinctively and angrily shoots Blake dead. That’s some Shakespearean-tragedy shit right there.

Worst bit: Every now and again you come across someone who’s misunderstood this episode’s ending. After Blake’s death, our heroes don’t last much longer. Arlen reveals herself as a Federation spy, but Avon barely notices – he just stares blankly at Blake’s corpse. Arlen kills Dayna, then Federation soldiers burst in and shoot Vila and Soolin and Tarrant. Avon is surrounded, alone, helpless. He straddles Blake’s body protectively and waits for the inevitable. He raises his gun and smirks…. Freeze-frame, cut to credits, and we hear a hail of bullets. It’s one of the greatest moments in all of television sci-fi. But because we cut to the end titles before we literally *see* Avon being shot, some people hold the theory that he might have survived. Give me strength. That’s missing the dramatic point of the scene on a *galactic* scale.

Review: The final episode of Blake’s 7 has an unrelenting pull. Avon and Blake’s reunion is coming from the moment the latter’s name appears in the opening titles, yet the script delays and delays to build the tension. The whole thing is also really well directed – there’s an intensity and focus to every scene, a real sharpness to the storytelling. And the overall tone returns us to the cynical edge that was more evident in the show’s early episodes. A sensational series finale.

10 of these holes in the ground 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

Blake’s 7: Rumours of Death (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon is on the hunt for the man who tortured and killed his beloved Anna…

Series C, episode 8. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Fiona Cumming. Originally broadcast: 25 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (33) is in a prison cell, looking tired and dishevelled, as the episode begins. He’s clearly been through several days of shit. A new interrogator called Shrinker shows up, and Avon says he’s been holding out until he arrives. Tarrant and Dayna then teleport into the cell and it becomes clear that Avon allowed himself to be captured so he could get close to Shrinker. Now they’ve identified the prick, Avon, Tarrant and Dayna take him back to the Liberator as their prisoner. After Avon has freshened up, he then teleports with the nervous Shrinker to a cave, where he intimdates him. You see, years before, the love of Avon’s life – Anna Grant – was captured by Federation forces, then tortured and killed by interrogator Shrinker. (We viewers, however, by now know different: Avon’s scenes are intercut with sequences showing Anna alive and well and leading a rebellion back on Earth.) After Shrinker admits that he didn’t kill Anna and says it was actually an agent called Bartholomew, who was planted near Avon to spy on him, Avon leaves Shrinker to die in the enclosed cave. His only clue now is that Bartholomew is somehow connected to one of Servalan’s advisors, so the Liberator sets course for Earth… At Servalan’s presidential palace, our heroes find a revolt underway and Servalan chained to a wall in the cellar. She says she’ll tell Avon everything if he releases her, but then Anna walks in. And the penny drops… Anna *is* Bartholomew. She was spying on Avon. She faked her death. When she reaches for a gun, Avon instinctively shoots and kills her. (By the way, isn’t Anna a wonderfully palindromic name for a two-faced character? I hope that was deliberate.)
* As mentioned, Tarrant (8) and Dayna (8) come to Avon’s aid in the prison cell: the signal that he’s ready to be rescued is his homing device being switched off. When the trio return to the Liberator, Vila (34) thoughtfully gives Avon a drink – a nice, understated gesture. Cally (31), however, objects to how roughly the others are treating Shrinker. Later, his four colleagues insist on helping Avon sneak into Servalan’s mansion.
* Servalan (18) is hosting a bigwig conference at her presidential palace, which has been expensively recreated to appear like a pre-atomic country house. But then a small group of rebels outfox her lacklustre security forces and storm the grounds…
* Orac (18) does the research on where Servalan is when Avon needs to find her.

Best bit: The masterful performance from Paul Darrow as Avon. Since he first appeared in the show’s second episode, Avon has consistently been the most interesting, most entertaining, most watchable character – and a large reason for that is Darrow’s commitment to the role. He rattles off his film-noir dialogue with a Clint Eastwood intensity and scowl, yet you always feel there’s a complex, emotional man underneath the bravado. The revelation scene in this episode sees him almost broken; you can see the faith fade away from his eyes. Even Servalan looks on sympathetically.

Worst bit: Sadly, one element really doesn’t work. There are multiple scenes featuring two security guards at Servalan’s mansion. The characters are played by decent actors, David Haig and Donald Douglas, but the whole subplot is not only filler but often quite cheesy.

Review: This intense, nasty episode has some wonderful dialogue and an achingly effectively plot for Avon. It starts ‘in medias res’ (in the middle of the action) and never lets up, while there’s craft and class throughout the script and the staging. Whether it’s Paul Darrow’s leading-man performance; or one of Jacqueline Pearce’s best turns as Servalan; or the significant recurrence of cells, caves and cellars; or the fun production design that combines the architecture of an ancient house (doors, fireplaces, even skirting boards) with sci-fi trappings (monitors, computers, Servalan’s strange desk); or the POV flashbacks; or the interesting blocking; or the expressive studio lighting; or the sucker-punch ending… So much impresses, so much goes towards telling an amazing story. The best episode so far.

Ten tasteless megalomaniacs out of 10

Next episode: Sarcophagus

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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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