The Ring (1927)

MV5BMDFiZjU0NmYtMjE4Mi00YjAwLThiNDQtYmJkYzI2NTAyYTNkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM3NzQ5NzQ@._V1_

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.01Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.18Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.36Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.48Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.57

Seven bracelets out of 10

Advertisements

Frenzy (1972)

785927ec234f0d201e6db06e75e30167

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine men listening to a political speech out of 10

Ten Things I Love About North by Northwest (1959)

NBNW

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten men trying to catch a bus out of 10

Elstree Calling (1930)

81PW7Do-+JL._SL1500_

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

Five xylophones out of 10

Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)

MV5BNWQ2MWRkYzgtYzkwOS00NzBiLWE0MmMtM2MzOTE4ZDE2ZTNjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1276,1000_AL_

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)

6941a88ab2413a05c8b4f3a334548220

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)

4714

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)

stage-fright-5

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)

dialm

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 

Untitled-5

 

Rich and Strange (1931)

rich-and-strange-umbrella

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