Elstree Calling (1930)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

Five xylophones out of 10

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Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five men walking past in the street out of 10

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A widower searches for a new wife…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birds (1963)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six men walking his dogs out of 10

Stage Fright (1950)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight men in the street out of 10

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten men at the college reunion out of 10

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

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Rich and Strange (1931)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six games of deck tennis out of 10

Saboteur (1942)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven men outside the drug store out of 10

The Manxman (1929)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven mills (but no Boons) out of 10.

Number Seventeen (1932)

number-seventeen-poster

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various characters congregate in an old, abandoned house…

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

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

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

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

Three bus passengers out of 10

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