I Confess (1953)

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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.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

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Sabotage (1936)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The police have a terrorist under surveillance as he and his cohorts plan an attack…

A young boy called Stevie (Desmond Tester) has been given an important errand. He’s been asked by his elder sister’s foreign husband, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), to deliver a package to Piccadilly Circus. Stevie thinks the bundle is made up of just film cans – the family run a cinema, after all – but what he doesn’t know is that Karl has included a bomb. Mr Verloc is a terrorist, under orders from a shadowy network of foreign agents.

It’s a shame Homolka gives such a limp, unsure performance as Karl. The character should dominate the film: he’s the threat, he’s the danger. But the actor is so poor he sucks the life and tension out of his scenes. Around the time this film was made, Hitchcock worked twice with another actor from central Europe, Peter Lorre – and it’s difficult not to imagine him in the part, making Karl both scarier and more sympathetic.

As he travels across London, Stevie realises he’s running late. It’s the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show and the city is buzzing with crowds and the streets are choc-a-bloc with traffic. So he jumps on bus, using his cheek to get past the conductor who points out that celluloid is flammable and isn’t allowed on public transport. But the bus moves slowly, struggling through the throngs and past the shops and markets and parade. Stevie nervously taps his leg and repeatedly glances out of the window. We see his point of view as the bus crawls past various clocks hanging above shop fronts, emphasising how time is getting on.

He’s jittery because he’s going to be late – Verlock insisted that the cans are delivered by a specific time. We’re frantic with worry, meanwhile, because we know the bomb is set to go off at 1.45pm.

The editing gets quicker and more urgent and more intense. And then… boom. The bus is ripped apart by an explosion. All the passengers are surely killed, including innocent Stevie. It’s one of the more shocking moments in Hitchcock’s canon. In a morbid joke, the director then cuts to a scene of Stevie’s sister, oblivious as to what’s happened and laughing with her husband…

Hitchcock later said that he regretting killing Stevie – though not from any moralistic motive. It was because, he believed, that he’d fumbled the film’s sense of suspense. ‘That was a big error,’ he said 30 years after making the movie. ‘The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic. You work the audience up to such a degree that they need the relief. One should have done the killing a different way, off the screen or something. I shouldn’t have made a suspense thing of it.’

However, it’s worth emphasising that Sabotage works so well precisely because a sympathetic character dies so horribly and in such a way that defies expectation. There are countless movies that set up a tragic death like this and then cop out at the last minute, allowing the kid to survive. Sabotage goes for the jugular. The explosion also motivates the remainder of the story: the character arc of Stevie’s sister, an American ex-pat played well by Sylvia Sidney, wouldn’t make sense without her devastated grief. As Hitchcock himself said, ‘The boy had to be killed for the sake of the story.’

The bomb sequence is also one of Hitchcock’s most stunning moments on a technical level. The director had recently been introduced to the wonders of Soviet montage – a revolutionary editing technique that had developed in Russia in the 1920s – by Ivor Montague, a communist writer who worked on several Hitchcock films as a kind of associate producer. It puts meaning not only into individual shots but, crucially, into the relationship and connection between them. Cutting to a new camera angle or a new scene or a new location is not just a matter of seeing something new: the edit also gives viewers extra information. In its simplest terms, if a movie cuts from one character looking longingly off-camera to an image of another character, we understand that the former is looking at the latter and is in love. We don’t need to see both at the same time nor we do we need to be told what’s happening. (Montage has become so mainstream it’s one of the bases of Western narrative cinema. But we must remember that the art form didn’t *need* to develop in this way.)

The cutting between innocent Stevie, the film cans, the bus, the crowds, the clocks, the traffic lights and all the rest leaves us in no doubt what’s about to happen – the sequence has real power. The technique appears elsewhere in the film too. After learning of Stevie’s death, his devastated sister sees taunting visions of him alive and well – a palpable and effective dramatisation of grief made possibly by cutting together different shots with real skill.

This awareness of cinema also extended to the film’s setting. The Verlocs live above an urban cinema, which allows Hitchcock to have some self-referential fun. One scene takes place behind the screen while a film is being projected; as discussed, the plot’s most shocking moment involves a boy carrying the film cans of a two-reeler called Bartholomew the Strangler. A clip from Sabotage was even reused 73 years later in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: the moment when a bus conductor tells Stevie that carrying film cans in public is a fire risk features in an explanatory montage. 

Eight men crossing the road out of 10

Easy Virtue (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 woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

Rebecca (1940)

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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 secretary marries a widower, but finds life difficult when they return to his ancestral home…

A ghost story without a ghost in it, Rebecca begins with a spooky, eerie sequence that reveals the mysterious Cornish country house of Manderley. It’s a horror-movie opening, full of fog and forests and foreboding. We know we’re heading into a story where the past will never quite let us go…

In Monte Carlo, a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) is working for a rich harridan as a secretary/travelling companion/general dogsbody. But when she meets a widower called George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter, aka Maxim (Laurence Olivier), they fall in love, she quits her job, and they quickly get married… The unnamed central character was not Fontaine’s only Hitchcock role – she returned the following year to play another woman whose marriage is not what she expected in Suspicion. She gives a fine performance here as a woman whose happiness is short-lived.

After their honeymoon, the pair travel to Manderley, a house deep in the West Country woods. It’s near the sea and seems to have its own weather system (rain begins on cue as they approach). It’s a Gothic pile of unused wings, huge, echoing rooms and too many servants. But despite the vast interior, the new Mrs de Winter quickly feels suffocated – especially when Maxim’s relatives and creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson, giving a performance that has become a movie standard) keep mentioning the former lady of the house.

The character of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, never actually appears on screen. We don’t even see a photograph of her. But she hangs over the whole story, casting a shadow on Fontaine’s character, who can’t escape the implication that she’s not up to the job of replacing this saintly woman. What started out as a romantic melodrama in the south of France becomes a Victorian horror. Our lead is metaphorically trapped in a castle-like prison, friendless and hopeless. Maxim begins to feel more and more like a villain. The paranoia builds, the menace rises, the swirling, romantic score turns mysterious.

But then the myth of Rebecca is shattered when Maxim reveals how she died: despite everything we’ve been told, their marriage was anything but idyllic and he accidentally killed her during an argument. The captivating revelation scene sees Hitchcock’s camera move around the room as Maxim recounts what happened – if it were following a ghostly Rebecca recreating her final moments. It’s also one of several examples of the director’s amazing command of the material. Throughout the film, he artfully shifts the tone from light to dark, comedy to tragedy, suspense to shocks. Because of this authorial control, the story seduces you and never bores you, even though for long stretches nothing much actually happens. It’s absolute magic.

The effect perhaps has a wobble during the final third of the movie, in which plot starts to dominate mood and when Rebecca’s cousin/lover Jack (George Sanders) takes focus and fails to convince. Fontaine also fades away into the background, which is a real shame. But nearly 80 years after it was released, this film is still casting its shadow.

Nine men near the phone box out of 10

Young and Innocent (1937)

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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.

Accused of murder, a man escapes custody intent on clearing his name – and his only help comes from the daughter of the local police chief…

No one – well, no one who expects to be taken seriously – is going to pretend that every Beatles song is a classic or that Agatha Christie never had an off-day. However, with these cultural geniuses, even ‘lesser’ works are interesting, sometimes engaging and often entertaining. The same is true of Alfred Hitchcock. He may have been the film director who made more great films than any other, but that doesn’t mean they’re all venerated in the same way.

Young and Innocent, for example, is an enjoyable, diverting and likeable film. Yet it’s rather fallen through the cracks of popular culture, becoming so relatively obscure and forgotten that the DVD used for this blog review gets its title wrong on the menu screen.

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The story is a Hitchcock standard: a man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit so goes on the run. The director rehashed this core idea several times during his career, and for audiences in 1937 this movie must have felt oddly reminiscent of the classic The 39 Steps from just a couple of years earlier. But Young and Innocent is done with enough fun and pace to distract you from the similarities.

The young and innocent man of the title is Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who discovers a murder victim on a beach but is then suspected by the police when it’s revealed she was killed using his belt. Fearing that circumstantial evidence may convict him, Robert goes on the lam. He hopes to track down the real murderer and soon forms a partnership with the daughter of the local chief constable. At first Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) helps unwillingly, but then – as is the way with these types of stories – a romance starts to develop…

The pair have chemistry, but if the film has a failing it’s the same one that coincidentally blighted Nova Pilbeam’s previous Hitchcock picture, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that film, she’d played the kidnapped child of a married couple who never seem overly concerned that she’s missing. Now 17 years old and playing an adult, the actress must perform opposite a colleague who similarly underplays the danger and threat. Robert has been accused of a capital crime, but Derrick De Marney is too flippant, too light. 

Nevertheless, Robert and Erica chase down leads to prove that someone else is the killer, and along the way there’s a lot of fun: encounters with ruffians, relatives and a kids’ party, really cute model shots of a train yard and an action scene of a car falling into a collapsing mineshaft. Unlike the source novel, which is whodunit, Hitchcock’s film reveals the killer in the first scene – and it does this because he’s not important. The film isn’t about him or why he strangled the woman. It’s about Robert and Erica and the ‘fun’ of the chase. It’s a shaggy-dog story – the enjoyment is in the telling, not the substance. 

In fact, murderer Guy (George Curzon) doesn’t reappear until near the end of the story when we get the movie’s most famous moment – a dazzling piece of storytelling. Erica and a witness called Old Will (Edward Rigby) are in a posh hotel, keeping their eyes peeled for the man Will saw near the scene of the crime. Their only clue is that the man has a noticeable twitch.

Then in a shot that predates a similar moment in Hitch’s film Notorious by nine years, the camera swoops high above the busy hotel ballroom. It’s a God’s-eye view as we take in the huge space and see the dozens of people dancing and enjoying themselves – is the murderer among them? The camera drifts and drifts and we eventually catch sight of the band playing on the stage – how are they involved? We don’t stop moving. Slowly, methodically, Hitchcock picks out the drummer at the back of the stage – is he the killer? We push in and in and in, and the shot ends with the man’s eyes *filling* the frame. He twitches – we’ve found our man.

Eight guys with a camera out of 10

The Wrong Man (1956)

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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.

January 1953. A struggling musician is accused of being a criminal…

The Wrong Man is a rare thing indeed: an Alfred Hitchcock film based on a real-life incident. The tale of a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit must have appealed to the director for at least two reasons. Firstly, it gave him a chance to retell his favourite plot: an innocent man being caught up in events beyond his control. But perhaps this movie is also Hitch exorcising a peculiar episode from his childhood.

In the first decade of the 20th century, when Hitchcock was a small boy, he misbehaved. So, wanting to teach him a lesson, his father sent him to the local police station with a note asking the coppers to lock young Alfred up in a prison cell for a few minutes. The scary experience had a long-lasting affect. Even in his advancing years, Hitch was recounting the story in interviews, saying it had given him a healthy fear of the police and of being deprived of his freedom. It’s this fear that powers The Wrong Man.

In need of some cash to help his wife pay a dentists’ bill, jazz bassist Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) visits an insurance company’s office to enquire about taking out a loan against her policy. Unfortunately, the women who work there are convinced – incorrectly – that he’s actually a man who robbed them a few weeks previously. It’s simply a matter of mistaken identity, but soon the police pick Manny up off the street and take him in for questioning…

Henry Fonda plays an excellent everyman and elicits a huge amount of sympathy out of Manny’s plight. Early on, we see him flirt with his wife and spend time with his two sons. We quickly, economically see that he’s a good, unpretentious guy. (There is never any suggestion, by the way, that the film is setting up a switcharoo twist. You never doubt Manny’s story.) It’s all the more effective, then, when one evening he’s suddenly arrested and dragged away from his family. Manny helps the police and is accommodating and calm, but he becomes increasingly numb as he’s shuffled through all the legal protocols – being interviewed, being charged, being searched, being locked up, attending a bail hearing, being transferred to a prison, being tried. His sense of hopelessness and fear is enormous.

Crucially, there’s a kind of grim realism going on here that you don’t often get in the razzle-dazzle world of Hitchcock. Rather than rant and rave, or act flippantly, or leap over a barrier and go on the run, Manny does what most innocent people would do when accused with a serious crime: he freezes, he goes pale, he becomes consumed with the dread of what might happen next. Also, the lead police detective (Harold J Stone, excellent) is not a movie-thriller dullard or a ‘bad guy’; he’s a smart, fair man doing a decent job. It’s not his fault that several (misleading) pieces of evidence suggest Manny is guilty. Likewise, Manny’s lawyer – the real-life Frank O’Connor played by Anthony Quayle – feels like a person who exists on his own terms rather than a theatrical character.

The plot also has a very affecting impact on Manny’s family. In the second half of the film, as he prepares for the defence at his trial, his wife suffers a breakdown. Rose is played by Vera Miles, who had most recently been spirited and likeable in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956). She is the film’s secret weapon, providing a subplot you don’t see coming and which ratchets up the stakes without any melodrama. Hitchcock was so impressed with her turn in The Wrong Man – especially her haunted performance once Rose can’t cope with the pressure and starts to shut down – that he gave her a five-year contract and cast her as the lead in his next movie, Vertigo (which she didn’t end up doing, but that’s another story).

All these cliché-avoiding choices give the film a depth and a breadth that the genre doesn’t usually demand. We also get a lot of real locations, rather than the artificial world created on Hollywood sound stages. Doubly real, in fact: not only are they not movie sets, but several places – the Stork Club, a prison, a sanatorium – are where the actual events really took place.

The movie’s refusal to glam up the story even extends to the resolution, which comes suddenly and fortuitously. A shot of Manny crossfades slowly to a shot of character haven’t seen before. As the man walks towards the camera, his face lines up with the fading image of Manny’s – and we realise that this lookalike is the real crook. When he attempts another robbery, he’s apprehended and arrested and Manny is off the hook. Maybe it’s fate; maybe it’s his Catholic prayers being answered. But he finally has his freedom back.

Nine Alfred Hitchcocks actually appearing on screen at the start of the film to tell you that The Wrong Man is based on a true story out of 10

Marnie (1964)

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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 con artist is rumbled by a businessman who then tries to help her with her psychological issues…

Much like its lead character, the movie Marnie is complex, fascinating and often admirable – but there’s also something very wrong. It’s the story of a damaged woman who’s a thief and a liar and has many deep-rooted problems stemming from a childhood trauma. But sadly it’s also the story of the man who attempts to ‘fix her’ via simplistic therapy and misogyny.

This project had a long gestation. Initially, Alfred Hitchcock planned it as his next production after Psycho (1960), but the script took a while to come into focus and eventually went through three writers. For the all-important title character, the director hoped for a huge casting coup: his former muse Grace Kelly, who’d retired from acting in 1955, was keen on a Hollywood comeback. It would have been an interesting role for her, one very different from her three previous Hitchcock characters. However, she then pulled out of the project, worried about how such a provocative movie would be taken in her new home of Monaco. Various other names were considered for the part – Marilyn Monroe, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Vera Miles and others – until, while filming The Birds in 1962, Hitchcock decided to cast its leading lady for a second time.

Tippi Hedren has always maintained that Marnie is her favourite of all her films – despite the fact she and Hitchcock fell out during filming – and it’s easy to see why. She gives a sensational performance, which is both dynamic and dangerous. She plays the eponymous Marnie Edgar, who drifts from town to town, gets jobs at high-flying firms, rips them off and does a runner. But when she shows up at a new company in Philadelphia, boss Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognises her from a previous encounter and twigs that she’s hiding something…

Connery was then two films into his original stint as James Bond, and he looks the part of a dashing movie star. But for some reason he doesn’t quite gel in this role. Maybe it’s the incongruous accent (to try to explain it away, the character is given a British father played by Alfred from the 1960s Batman TV show), maybe it’s his age (Connery was only 33), but he’s rather miscast as a Pennsylvanian widower from the American aristocracy. It also doesn’t help that the character is lumbered with a storyline that is at best naïve and at worst exceedingly sinister.

Marnie the movie is an attempt at some rigorous psychology. Its lead character has turned to crime in order to compensate for something lacking her life. She has a troubled, seemingly hollow relationship with her mother; she has a pathological hatred of men touching her; and she suffers from panic attacks when confronted with the colour red. The script holds back the reason for these issues until the final act when we learn that, as a child, she killed a pervert (Bruce Dern) who was attacking her prostitute mother.

But when Mark Rutland takes a shine to new employee Marnie, even though he’s worked out that she’s stolen from his company safe, he decides to help her. It’s presented mostly as curiosity and affection, but there’s more than a hint that he’s sexually attracted by the danger. And in 21st-century terms his help amounts to nothing less than abuse. He essentially blackmails her into starting a relationship with him and even marrying him. Then, on their honeymoon, while she cowers and shakes with fear, he rips off her nightdress and rapes her.

The first person to work Marnie up into a screenplay – Evan Hunter, who also wrote The Birds – was fired from the project when he left the rape scene out of his draft. It appears in the source material, a novel by the British writer Winston Graham, but Hunter argued that there’d be no way back for Mark as a character if he did something so despicable. Hitchcock disagreed. So did Hunter’s replacement, Jay Presson Allen, who gladly included it in her rewrite. (Disturbingly, given some of the accusations made about Hitchcock down the years, Hunter later said the rape scene had been the primary reason why the director had wanted to make the film. ‘When he sticks it in her,’ Hitch had told him, ‘I want that camera right on her face.’)

If that wasn’t bad enough – which it is – the film also has a ham-fisted approach to trauma therapy. Marnie is forced into a cathartic remembrance of what happened when she was a child… and then all is fine and she and Mark walk off into the sunset. Psychoanalysts scoff at this moment. So should we. Most Hitchcock films might get away with this kind of simplicity, but that’s because we understand the popcorn context. Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is a cartoon character, a precursor of James Bond, so we don’t especially fret when his life is threatened or when he’s framed for murder. Margot Wendice is put through a horrifying time in Dial M for Murder – attacked in her home, forced to kill a man in self-defence, jailed despite her innocence – but she’s essentially a character in a Cluedo-style parlour game. She only exists for the 100 minutes she’s on screen.

Marnie Edgar, however, is a woman with a life, with baggage, and we feel for her desperately. She’s been severely damaged by the actions of one sexual pest and is now being groomed by another. Tippi Hedron deserved huge credit for making her so watchable and both strong and vulnerable at the same time.

But while its treatment of its lead character is antiquated and objectionable, much more impressive is the movie’s style. Early in his career, Alfred Hitchcock worked in the German film industry, where he directed his first full-length film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), and the buzz and innovation of Weimar Republic cinema had a lasting impression. ‘I worked there for many months,’ Hitch said in a 1960s interview. ‘And I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.’

In Marnie, as in many Hitchcock films, you can see the influence of German Expressionism, a style that dramatises stories, characters and settings in non-realistic ways. It uses lighting, set design, editing, costumes and all the other tools of filmmaking to turn subjective emotion into something that can be *seen* and which has a physical affect on the world of the fiction. (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, takes place on off-kilter, out-of-proportion sets in order to reflect the twisted story and the unbalanced characters.)

The most obvious piece of Expressionism in the present movie is the use of the colour red. Whenever she sees it, Marnie has a physical reaction. She pulls away, scared, at the sight of ink spilt on her blouse, for example, or the polka dots of a jockey’s silk. But it’s not just the acting that tells us she’s suffering: the screen becomes infused with a crimson wash. It’s not ‘literal’; it’s not actually happening in the diegetic world of the story. It’s Hitchcock using a cinematic device to *show* us her emotional state. (Not that every visual in Marnie is for art’s sake. The indoor sets for exterior scenes and the painfully dated backscreen projection for car journeys are most likely just down to Hitchcock’s dislike of location filming.)

There are other more trad, yet still tremendous, sequences in the film too. Marnie stealing from the Rutland & Co safe is a tension-sustainer of the highest order – complete with the absurd detail of her nearly being rumbled by a deaf cleaner – while the death of a beloved horse is genuinely moving and sees Hedren’s acting reach a fever pitch of emotion. The climactic flashback, which shows us Marnie’s violent experience as a child, is also very impressive – not least the fact that the scene begins with a disorientating zoom-in-and-track-out shot that seems to place the events inside a nightmare.

It’s an odd mixture of genres, this film – part psycho-drama, part perverted romance, part heist movie. The central storyline has many troubling issues, especially when viewed today in the era of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, but Tippi Hedren’s superb performance and the general flair of the filmmaking means it’s still worth seeing.

Eight men in a corridor out of 10

The Skin Game (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.

A rivalry between two families leads to a dangerous secret being revealed…

When this movie was made, audible dialogue was still something of a novelty. The opening title cards, in fact, advertise that it’s ‘a talking film’. But to modern ears, you sometimes wish it were silent: the first scene is an awful clipped and stilted chat between two young people from rival families. You half expect Miles Cholmondley-Warner to wander in.

The plot concerns some farming land, which has been sold on the proviso that the existing tenants are allowed to stay. When the new owners renege on the deal, however, it causes tensions. And this leads to the murky past of the new owner’s daughter, Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), being revealed: she once earnt money by pretending to be the ‘other woman’ in divorce cases.

The obvious theme hanging over the film is a fear of progress, of industry, of change. A bucolic landscape could soon be eaten up by new smoky, mucky, dirty factories; ‘scandal’ could soon destroy a family’s all-important reputation. But it’s fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. Some interest comes from the casting of Edmund Gwenn – later Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – as the nouveau riche Mr Hornblower. He’s reprising the role from a silent 1921 version of the same story.

Four trees in Longmeadow out of 10

Rope (1948)

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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/