Saturday, November 17, 2012

The films of Alfred Hitchcock, Oct. 28, 1994


Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin form what is perhaps the cinema's most exclusive club: film directors who enjoy wide name recognition with the moviegoing public.

Spielberg -- the director of "E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial," "Jurassic Park," "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- is certainly the most famous director of the past two decades. Prior to that time, however, it had to be Alfred Hitchcock.

People went to see "'the new Hitchcock movie." It was the filmmaker's name, as much or more than his stars, that sold the movies. He was billed as the Master of Suspense and the Minister of Fear, and the titles were truth in advertising.

Born in 1899 to middle-class parents in London, "Hitch," as he came to be known, turned lifelong obsessions -- with evil's rude intrusions into "normal" lives, the moral decay of the individual and society, the fear of police, and voyeuristic sex, among others -- into amazingly popular art and entertainment.

He began in England by directing silent features in 1925, making the transition to sound with "Blackmail" in 1929. During the '30s, he made a name for himself with a series of witty, sometimes ribald mystery-comedies, including "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes," which brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He came to America at the age of 40 to direct the Oscar-wining "Rebecca" and wound up spending the bulk of his career making films here.

There's been endless argument about whether he was an innovator, or merely the man who introduced into the mainstream the techniques pioneered by others. Whatever the case, critic Richard Schickel's assessment -- "Undeniably, Hitchcock was the greatest handler of film who ever lived" -- seems appropriate. His visual style and editing, including those 78 separate shots in the brief shower scene in "Psycho," remain benchmarks of the medium.

Hitchcock was meticulous to an extreme. He was famous for planning his films to the nth degree, drawing detailed plans of every shot from every angle he would later use in the finished film, so that, by the time he actually got around to shooting the picture, he was often said to be bored by the process. He was widely quoted as calling actors "cattle" and often complained about them interfering with the movie he was already watching in his head.

Yes, he certainly knew his business, and modern filmmakers would do well to heed his advice: "There is no terror in a bang," he once said, "only in the anticipation of it."

His virtuosity made him a grandly popular figure in American culture. He hosted a long-running anthology series -- "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" -- from 1955-65, introducing the segments with his trademark drollery. As popular as he was, though, Hitchcock never won an Oscar for his direction and was instead handed a special lifetime achievement award before his death in 1980.

The following is a sampling of Hitchcock's films.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) ****1/2 -- Leslie Banks and Edna Best play a married couple who learn of a plot to assassinate a political leader, but before they can alert the authorities, their daughter is kidnapped to keep them quiet. Quite funny and suspenseful at the same time. The Albert Hall sequence set the standard for Hitchcock's trademark big finishes. Peter Lorre co-stars. Remade years later by Hitchcock, but this one's superior.

"The 39 Steps" (1935) **** -- Robert Donat is Hitchcock's reluctant hero this time, playing a man who is forced into the spy game. As with so many Hitchcock films, the writing equals the clever plotting. Madeleine Carroll and Peggy Ashcroft co-star.

"Secret Agent" (1936) ** -- Hitchcock made a few duds over the years, and this is one of them. John Gielgud, in his first film, plays a British agent sent to assassinate an enemy spy in Switzerland. Hitchcock couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted suspense or comedy or romance, and the result is a muddle. Robert Young, Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre co-star.

"The Lady Vanishes" (1938) ***** -- Hitchcock hit his stride with this wonderful mystery-comedy about a young woman who swears her elderly traveling companion has disappeared on a train trip across Europe. No one will believe her story except a young man on the make, but she accepts his help and they attempt to discover the truth. Keeps you guessing and laughing. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave star.

"Rebecca" (1940) ***** -- Hitchcock's first American film, based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, has become legendary due to its Oscar victories -- best picture, best cinematography -- despite the many battles between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick. Laurence Olivier attempted to have co-star Joan Fontaine fired, too. It's the marvelous story of a wealthy widower who marries a young commoner, who is reduced to questioning her own worth while living in the elegant home once occupied by his late wife, a social star named Rebecca. Top-notch in every respect, with a stellar supporting cast: Nigel Bruce, George Sanders, Reginald Denny, Leo G. Carroll and Judith Anderson.

"Foreign Correspondent" (1940) ****1/2 -- A New York City reporter (Joel McCrea) is made a foreign correspondent by his editor, who is frustrated with the lame pre-war dispatches of his current man in London (Robert Benchley). Immediately upon arrival, the new reporter lucks into the story of his life and is subsequently thrust into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Nazi spies and Dutch traitors. George Sanders is especially good as a sympathetic British newspaperman. Laraine Day co-stars. Look for the big action scene near the end, which must have been terrifying in its day.

"Suspicion" (1941) **** -- A truly great film right up to the ending, which was changed from a suitably downbeat shocker to a life-affirming, happy one by the film's producers. Joan Fontaine won an Oscar playing a wife who suspects that her increasingly shifty husband (Cary Grant) may be plotting to kill her. Hitchcock loads on the suspense with buckets, but the ending is a cheat. Still worth seeing, though.

"Saboteur" (1942) ***1/2 -- This so-so wartime drama features Robert Cummings as a defense plant worker wrongly accused of sabotage. His character must, against impossible odds, convince the authorities -- and his reluctant hostage-turned-romantic-interest (Priscilla Lane) -- of not only his innocence, but the guilt of well-heeled American turncoats. Hitch's choice of national monuments for this film's denouement is the Statue of Liberty.

"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943) ***** -- One of my personal favorites, this neglected film stars Joseph Cotten as a smooth-talking serial killer who preys on widows. Teresa Wright plays his favorite niece, who previously had imagined her uncle a pillar of society. Now she's wise to his evil nature but can't quite figure out how to break the news to her mother/ his sister, for fear it will tear the family apart. Hume Cronyn co-stars.

"Lifeboat" (1944) ****1/2 -- A fascinating little character study about the survivors of a torpedoed ship and their struggle to survive on the high seas. What at first takes shape as a clash of politics and a mini class struggle soon turns dark, as the people in the lifeboat take aboard a survivor from the German submarine that sank their ship. Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, William Bendix and Hume Cronyn star. Based on a John Steinbeck story.

"Spellbound" (1945) ***1/2 -- This psychodrama stars Ingrid Bergman as a psychiatrist attempting to solve the puzzle of a man (Gregory Peck) who has arrived at her hospital claiming to be the new chief of staff -- when in fact, he is not. Romance and intrigue mix well, but the psychobabble grows dense and boring after a time. One highlight: Artist Salvador Dali designed the bizarre dream sequences used in the film.

"Notorious" (1946) ****1/2 -- As the title suggests, this film must have been slightly scandalous for its time. Ingrid Bergman plays a woman with a questionable reputation: Her character uses sex as a weapon in the spy game, and it's up to Allied agents -- especially one played by Cary Grant -- to put her unique ability in the proper context of the larger battle being waged. A fine film, co-starring Claude Rains and Moroni Olsen.

"Rope" (1948) **1/2 -- One of Hitchcock's favorite actors, Hume Cronyn, is one of the credited screenwriters on this odd, unsuccessful novelty film. Based loosely on the infamous Leopold-Loeb thrill-killing case. Filmed in long takes and assembled to appear as though the film were photographed in one continuous shot. The killers invite friends to the home where they've stashed the body -- for no other reason than to tempt fate. James Stewart stars.

"Strangers on a Train" (1951) ***** -- Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay for this masterful murder mystery that stars Farley Granger and Ogden, Utah, native Robert Walker as men who agree to commit murders as "favors" for each other. A real nail-biter, Walker's performance is unforgettable. (Danny DeVito's "Throw Momma from the Train" is a loose remake.)

"I Confess" (1953) ** -- Hitchcock delves into his Catholic upbringing with this story of a priest (Montgomery Clift) accused of murder and sexual indiscretion with an old flame (Anne Baxter). What nobody knows, since the priest is properly maintaining silence, is that the real murderer has confessed the crime to him!

"Dial 'M' for Murder" (1954) ***1/2 -- This one was filmed in 3-D, but most of the effects are unremarkable. The film stars Ray Milland as a husband plotting the murder of his wife (Grace Kelly), who complicates his plan by killing the man her husband had hired to kill her. As you might imagine, the police take a keen interest in the case.

"Rear Window" (1954) ***** -- One of Hitchcock's most suspenseful, and slick, motion pictures. James Stewart plays a wheelchair-bound photographer who, while convalescing at home, takes to window-peeping on apartment complex neighbors with binoculars and telephoto lenses. As he snoops, he thinks he may have discovered that a man (Raymond Burr) has not only killed his wife but cut her into pieces and disposed of the remains. Grace Kelly co-stars.

"To catch a Thief" (1955) ***1/2 -- Grace Kelly's third picture in a row with Hitchcock has her playing the daughter of a wealthy American woman vacationing in the south of France. She's also suspicious of a reformed cat burglar (Cary Grant), especially in light of recent thefts in her hotel. A thoroughly pleasant and frequently exciting movie. Grant really heaps on the charm.

"The Trouble with Harry" (1955) *** -- An all-out plunge into dark comedy, this mediocre film stars Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe as a couple trying to dispose of a body -- the "Harry" of the title -- but, despite their best efforts, the corpse continues to pop up at the most inopportune moments.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) ***1/2 -- A polished but comparatively lackluster remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 film. James Stewart and Doris Day play the leads.

"The Wrong Man" (1956) **** -- While watching this docudrama, you have the sense of watching a documentary in which the filmmakers enjoyed an unusually intimate access to the principal players. Henry Fonda plays a mild-mannered family man accused of a string of holdups who, along with his increasingly jittery wife (Vera Miles), attempts to provide an alibi. It is said that several of the people who figured in the real-life case play roles in the movie. Interesting.

"Vertigo" (1958) ***** -- Jame.s Stewart plays a former cop who is desperately afraid of heights and is hired to keep tabs on a friend's wife (Kim Novak). Needless to say, high places come into play, but for reasons that don't seem altogether obvious. Exciting stuff, this. One of Hitchcock's best.

"North by Northwest" (1959) ***** -- My favorite Hitchcock film, not because I think it's his best, but because it's the most entertaining. Cary Grant plays a businessman wrongly accused of murder -- a favorite Hitchcock theme -- who must endeavor to clear himself of the charges and bring the real criminals to justice. If you need any convincing that Hitchcock was a master of suspense, notice how he uses a serene Midwestern farming plain as the setting for one of the film's most frightening scenes. James Mason and Eva Marie Saint are supporting players. This is the one with the famous Mount Rushmore finale. Terrific.

"Psycho" (1960) ***** -- Anthony Perkins in his defining role as serial killer Norman Bates, who has a nasty habit of renting hotel rooms to single women, then hacking them to death in the shower. Shot in black and white, after Hitchcock had been shooting in color for years, this film packs the kind of wallop other films only dream of delivering. Even today, it makes you consider whether a shower is the safe way to bathe. Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam and John Gavin round out the cast.

"The Birds" (1963) **** -- A solid creep-out about birds gone mad in a Northern California harbor town. They attack humans and commit acts of organized violence for no apparent reason. Look for the late Jessica Tandy in a supporting role. Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren star.

"Marnie" (1964) **** -- This unusual film stars Sean Connery as a man who tries to help an employee (Tippi Hedren) suffering from kleptomania. A different sort of Hitchcock film, but interesting [and that's where this ends, because I lost the scan of the full page].

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