Perhaps more than any other film director Alfred Hitchcock knew what it was like to be a member of the audience in a movie theater. Sitting in the dark, alone with our thoughts and anxieties, watching giant images of glamorous men and women thrust into fantastic and harrowing situations is, whether we want to admit it or not, a pretty voyeuristic experience.
But any sort of heightened subjectivity was slow to develop in narrative film, and beyond some clever trickery (most notoriously in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 western thriller The Great Train Robbery in which a bandit draws and fires his gun at the audience) early silent movies were, as a rule, shot in a linear storytelling style to provide an easy to follow narrative for audiences who couldn’t afford to frequent the theatre.
Things began to change in the early 1920s when the psychological Expressionist cinema, developed at the Berlin-based UFA studio, and the montage-style filmmaking of the Russians spawned from the innovative theories of Sergei Eisenstein, took the world by storm. Inspired by experimental theatre and great European painting, the early films of Murnau, Lang and Pabst were esthetically exciting and successful at the box office forcing Hollywood and the world’s other film industries to re-think the way they approached making movies or take the risk of becoming also-rans to the Germans. The Soviet films might have been purer in conception, but their revolutionary editing style (montage) was rigged to manipulate audiences with heartless political ideology.
A Londoner brought up in the cradle of middle-class comfort, Hitchcock found it difficult to be seduced by the underworld of Weimar Berlin or concerned with Five Year Plans, but he did his best to absorb and liberate filmmaking secrets from these hotbeds of social unrest. Merging “in your face” styles with traditional narrative wouldn’t happen overnight and, indeed, Hitchcock’s early films are often messy, turgid affairs with few flashes of great things to come.
When Hitchcock began transcribing the pulp thriller to the screen his genius for pillaging the psyches of his heroes and villains came to the forefront. Hitchcock did not create the subjective cinema, but he damn well near perfected the process. Yet, even at this late stage, critics are often unwilling to anoint Hitchcock into the pantheon of great directors and tend to nitpick over his choice of middlebrow stories, his alleged misogyny, the toilet humor, etc., and rarely acknowledge how his measured methodologies provided a bridge to CGI and the philosophy of modern filmmaking. Perhaps, Hitchcock’s films provided too many spine-tingling thrills and give too much pleasure for him to ever be universally regarded as a genius. And that is a shame, for he was clearly one of the most radical and influential artists of the 20th century.
Though details of Hitchcock’s childhood remain sketchy, he seems to have been born into a happy Catholic family from East London. The quiet and meek adolescent was a good student, but due to the illness and subsequent early death of his father he left school at the age of fourteen to help support his family. While plodding through a series of menial jobs young Hitch spent his free time reading voraciously and after the war he put his knowledge of storytelling to good use writing title cards at the British Paramount studio (Famous Players Lasky). All through the 1920s the British film industry wallowed in a cinematic stone age. Though American production companies, such as Paramount, were opening offices in London, they continued to produce unimaginative stage adaptations and dreary potboilers.
After a year at Paramount, the ambitious Hitchcock signed on with producer Michael Balcon at the newly formed Gainsborough Studio to become a set designer and Assistant Director. Balcon made the fortuitous decision to assign continuity expert Alma Reville as the young man’s assistant. The couple (who would soon marry) traveled to Berlin with a production crew and Hitch was allowed to visit F.W. Murnau’s set at the UFA Studios in Berlin and watched him shoot scenes from The Last Laugh. Hitchcock was especially impressed with the German master’s use of soundstages, set design and storyboards. With every scene meticulously planned out in advance there was little chance for actors to reinterpret the meaning or subtext of the shot. Hitch was also keenly interested by Eisenstein’s concept of montage. But where the Soviet filmmaker’s editing style was crafted to push a philosophical agenda, Hitchcock sparing use of the jarring technique created subtle, yet equally powerful, psychological effects.
After an acrimonious parting with his director Graham Cutts, Hitchcock was given his first opportunity to direct in the German-British production of The Pleasure Garden. With his life and professional partner Alma on board to re-edit the script and handle the Assistant Director chores, Hitchcock was freed up to apply the exciting new methods he had learned in Berlin to his own film.
Shot in Munich and on the Italian Riviera, The Pleasure Garden chronicles the amorous adventures of Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), a West End dancer and her friend Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli), a chorus girl in the same show. Stardom goes to Jill’s head and she leaves her earnest boyfriend Hugh (John Stuart) to take up with a Russian Prince (Karl Falkenberg). Meanwhile, Patsy has married Levett (Miles Mander) but he soon breaks off their relationship to follow his friend Hugh to the South Seas. Patsy chases her man to an exotic island where she finds the sick man is living with a local beauty (Nita Naldi). Hurt, she turns her attentions to Hugh who is also ill and living on the island. After murdering the island girl, Levett is ready to kill Patsy when the men’s doctor comes to the rescue.
Hitch’s next German Gainsborough production, The Mountain Eagle (now lost), was set in another strange and exotic land, the hills of Kentucky. This bizarre backwoods tale is the unhappy story of Beatrice (Nita Naldi), a teacher who inflames the heart of town’s justice of the peace Edward Pettigrew (John F. Hamilton). Pettigrew’s anger and unjust accusations push her into the arms of John “Fear o’ God” Fulton (Malcolm Keen) who offers to marry the distraught woman. Beatrice and Fear o’ God have settled down and begun to raise a family when Pettigrew accuses Fulton of murdering his handicapped son. Fear o’ God is arrested and convicted of the crime. Fulton quickly escapes and returns home to find his baby is sick and in need of a doctor. Fear o’ God returns to town where he fights with Pettigrew and finally redeems Beatrice and himself. Both of Hitchcock’s German films weren’t released until 1927 because one of his enemies in the front office voiced concerns over their dubious quality.
Back in England, Balcon assigned Hitch to direct a film version of the Marie Belloc-Lowndes thriller, The Lodger. Perhaps owing to the fact it’s the first Hitchcock wrong man film and one of his few stylistically interesting silent projects The Lodger is held in high esteem by critics and Hitch aficionados. The slow-developing story follows the plight of Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello), a mysterious young man who rents a room in a boarding house while “The Avenger”, a Jack the Ripper-type murderer stalks the streets of London.
The haunted man strikes up a friendship with his landlady’s daughter Daisy (June Tripp) but his peculiar actions and behavior trigger the suspicions of her mother (Marie Ault) and Daisy’s erstwhile boyfriend Police Detective Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen). When they find incriminating evidence in his room, Chandler arrests Drew. The Lodger claims The Avenger actually murdered his sister and he made a promise to his dying mother to wreak his own vengeance on the fiend. Drew escapes from the cop only to be cornered by an angry mob on top of a spiked, iron fence. Drew is savagely beaten and only spared his life when news arrives of the Avenger’s capture.
This “Story of the London Fog” is rich in atmosphere (thanks in a large part to Gaetano di Ventimiglia’s mood-drenched cinematography) but matinee idol Novello’s bland performance lacks the charm and twisted ambiguity of Hitch’s later leading men. Perhaps owing to the twenty-seven year old director’s inexperience the pacing drags until the final memorable sequence when the innocent Drew is nearly impaled by the ferocious lynch mob. Nevertheless, this shocking thriller was a huge hit which made Hitchcock’s choice of filming a string of drab melodramas all the more confusing.
Next up was Downhill, a peculiar and occasionally arresting morality tale based on a play by Ivor Novello and Constance Collier. Here Novello plays Roddy Berwick, a young English student and rugby champion who nobly, and somewhat foolishly, admits to fathering an illegitimate child of a local waitress to help out a friend in need. After being expelled from school and stripped of the privileges of his class, Roddy blows through a big inheritance. He takes on a series of demeaning jobs and after losing all his dignity he finds sympathy and salvation on a dock in gritty Marseilles.
Hitchcock’s last film for Gainsborough, Easy Virtue (based on the Noel Coward play) is the sensational story of Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), a divorcee driven to hide her sordid past and a suicidal lover from her new husband and his prejudiced family. After fleeing to the South of France after a high profile divorce, Larita falls in love and marries John Whitaker (Robert Irvine), a rich mama’s boy. But John’s parents have little use for this assumed gold digger, especially his mother (Violet Farebrother) who digs to find the truth about her new daughter in-law. Hitchcock filmed the affair with taste and restraint but this jazz age drama paled next to similar fare being made by Stroheim and DeMille in Hollywood.
Whatever reservations one might have about Hitchcock’s early body of work by 1927 he had become one of the true movers and shakers in the British film industry. Befitting this new eminence Hitch and Alma left Balcon’s Gainsborough outfit to join the upstart British International Pictures. Hitchcock’s first picture for BIP was based on a curious, original screenplay about two prizefighters in love with the same woman. In The Ring Carnival boxer “One Round” Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) woos and wins his girl Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) only to nearly lose her to his greatest rival, the dashing Champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). The film sluggishly chronicles Jack’s rise in the boxing world. He dispatches opponents in impressive fashion in hopes of getting a bout with his sparring partner Corby. Meanwhile, Mabel drops Jack and takes up with the Champion all leading up to the predictable finale.
One of Hitch’s earthier efforts The Ring is interesting for its good nature and quirky cast, which features one of the few prominent black characters (a friend of Jack who, alas, goes uncredited) in the director’s canon. It is also notable for Hitch’s collaboration with cinematographer John J. (later Jack) Cox, who added a touch of classicism to Hitchcock’s pictures, even when the content wasn’t up to snuff.
Unfortunately, his next project, Champagne, was another snoozer. Based on a novel by Walter C. Mycroft, this story about a spoiled heiress (Betty Balfour) who runs away from her possessive, tycoon father (Gordon Harker) to marry her boyfriend (Jean Bradin) starts out as something of a screwball comedy before descending into class-conscious melodrama. But, there is a refreshing bit of deviousness at play when we learn Machiavellian father has been pulling strings all along to help Betty see the light.
Hitch’s final silent The Manxman, based on a Hall Caine novel, was yet another romantic triangle about two friends who fall in love with the same girl. Set on the Isle of Man, Pete Quilliam has long been set on marrying the pretty Kate Cregeen (Anny Ondra) much to the displeasure of her father Caesar (Randle Ayrton) who disapproves of the struggling fisherman. The old man prefers Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), a successful lawyer and Pete’s best friend. Though Kate is beholden to Pete she really prefers Philip, so when it is reported Pete is lost at sea the couple consummates their love for one another. But Pete is very much alive and he returns with a small fortune, enough to marry Kate and settle down for good.
After the wedding, Kate announces to Pete she is pregnant but unbeknownst to him the child she is carrying belongs to Philip. Kate ultimately leaves Pete but when Philip turns her away and her husband doesn’t let her have the baby, she tries to commit suicide. The distraught woman is brought into court where the horrified Philip resides as the magistrate. In shame, he resigns his post and leaves town with Kate and their child.
While The Manxman was Hitchcock’s most visually sumptuous film since The Lodger it is also a deadly dull melodrama, exhibiting little of the dark humor that gives lift to even his most uninspired work. The one revelation is the appearance—if not performance—of the beautiful Anny Ondra, an Austrian actress who could arguably be anointed as the original Hitchcock blonde.
Hitchcock hadn’t yet found his voice by the end of the 1920s, yet it comes with a bit of surprise his finest film from those years was not a thriller but a rural comedy of gentle charm. Based on a play by Eden Phillpotts, The Farmer’s Wife follows the amusing adventures of widower Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) who decides he needs a wife to be his partner into old age. Samuel enlists his lovely housekeeper Araminta (Lillian Hall-Davis) to help him make a list of all the marriageable ladies in town blinded to the fact the best candidate is sitting across from him. Yet, Samuel plods on proposing to local spinsters, plump hags, friends of Sappho, etc., and is humiliated by their rejections.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock makes it clear the winsome “Minta” would be an ideal mate for the widower but, alas, he is blind to her ample charms. Unlike his early melodramas, the droll material in The Farmer’s Wife can handle the expanded takes and leisurely pace (it clocks in at over two hours) and Hitchcock seems very much at home with this cast of eccentrics, coots and mutton heads.
Hitchcock’s first out and out thriller since The Lodger put his career firmly back on course. Blackmail, based on a smash hit play by Charles Bennett, was originally shot as a silent then postponed for release so British International Pictures could transform it into its first talking movie. Hitchcock didn’t have too many problems grappling with the techniques used to get sound on film but his lead actress, Anny Ondra, had a thick Germanic accent not befitting a young woman from Chelsea, so he hired actress Joan Barry to mouth in her dialogue from offstage. Despite these difficulties, Hitchcock worked wonders to craft a sexy and intelligent cliffhanger that still holds up after all these years.
Bored with her stick in the mud boyfriend, Scotland Yard Detective Frank Webber (John Longden), shopkeeper’s daughter Alice White (Ondra) accepts an invitation back to the flat of the charming Mr. Crewe (Cyril Richard). Crewe quickly charms Alice out of her dress but when he decides to make a play for the young lady he comes on far too strong, prompting her to strike back. Alice accidentally kills Crewe with a knife and returns home to hide from the police and the ensuing investigation. Fortunately for Alice, Webber is the detective in charge and when he determines Alice did indeed kill Crewe he does his best to cover her bloody tracks. But their cover is blown when a blackmailer comes forth with damning evidence.
Like Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang, the realistic dimensions of sound film seemed to agree with Hitchcock. Beyond the pithy dialogue we are always treated to in a Hitch film, the master of suspense was something of an aural pointillist, dotting everyday noises (bells ringing, train whistles, the flapping of birds’ wings, etc.) into his seamless visual patterns to jar his characters out of their comfort zones and shock his audience.
Murder! gave Hitchcock the opportunity to experiment further in sound, most notably in the famous shaving sequence where former jurist Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) ponders the correctness of his decision to send prisoner, and fellow thespian, Diana Baring (Norah Baring) to the gallows while listening a radio broadcast of Tristan and Isolde. In order to realize this subjective scene of the subconscious, Hitchcock prerecorded Marshall’s monologue then wired the sound under Sir John’s sink while an orchestra played the angst-ridden Wagner composition behind the set.
Unfortunately, the rest of this draggy (pun intended) thriller, which finds Sir John conducting his own investigation into the murder, plays with little of the urgency of either The Lodger or Blackmail. But as we will find time and again in the remaining forty years of Hitchcock’s career, the most compelling character in Murder! turns out to be the real killer (Esme Percy), a closeted transvestite (and homosexual?) and Diana’s fiancée.
During the early sound years Hitchcock’s career continued upon a hit or miss trajectory. Juno and the Paycock is a fairly faithful adaptation of the bitter Sean O’Casey play about the greed of an Irish family during the time of the rebellion. Like many films based on realistic plays of the time (1930), Juno was probably refreshingly earthy to audiences weaned on the visual poetry of silent films and the gaudy entertainment churned out by Hollywood in the early sound years. There is little of Hitchcock’s stamp on the film, he seemed content to set up the camera and let his solid leads (Edward Chapman, Sara Algood and Barry Fitzgerald in a wee but integral role) carry the day.
Hitch’s next adaptation of a play, John Galsworthy’s The Skin Game fairs much better. It is the story of two warring families in a British village. The Hornblowers, led by their ambitious father (Edmund Gwenn), are buying up much of the available local land much to the consternation of the local gentry led by Mr. Hillcrist (C.V. France), an old money sort who doesn’t welcome change. After being snubbed by the Hillcrists for the last time, Mr. Hornblower wins a key property in a hard-fought auction then spitefully announces he plans to build factories on all his new lots which, as fate would have it, encircle the Hillcrist home. Looking to throw a wrench into Hornblower’s scheme, Mrs. Hillcrist (Helen Haye) digs up dirt on his daughter in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam) and threatens to blackmail the industrialist if he doesn’t cease and desist.
While the class war material and the overripe playing dates poorly, several sequences in The Skin Game (especially the nail-biting auction scene) exhibit the sort of spontaneity and sheer inventiveness we expect out of the master of suspense.
Hitchcock’s next film Number Seventeen was a true oddity. Based on a popular play by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, the story follows a group of thieves holed up in a London safe house with a stolen necklace and the detective who is hot on their trail. None too happy about the murky narrative and Farjeon’s clichéd text, Hitchcock and Alma injected large doses of satire into the proceedings, letting the cockney rascal Ben (producer Leo M. Lion) steal the show. The second half of Number Seventeen has as its centerpiece perhaps the maddest chase scene in the Hitchcock oeuvre.
Detective Barton (John Stuart) follows the escaping gang on a runaway train hurtling into the night. Hitchcock threads what looks to be thrilling location shots of gang members and Barton crawling across and on top of the train into establishing shots of the train and then a speeding bus filled with passengers that seems destined to crash into it. The train and bus are clearly miniatures but the sequence is so cleverly and breathtakingly executed that it’s hard to knock the process. Just when the bus steers clear of the hyperventilating train, we are shown a narrow ferry pulling into dock. The ferry is supposed to escort the train across the river, but the mad ride will end here in a fury of splintered wood and broken metal.
Hitchcock’s most interesting and personal film of the era Rich & Strange borrows liberally from his and Alma’s travels to near and far away places. Run down by their tedious London existence, Fred and Emily Hill (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry) are delighted when his uncle bequeaths them a fortune to quit the city and see the world. But once upon an ocean liner, the Hills begin to tire of one another. Fred chases after an exotic Princess (Betty Amann), who is aiming to shake him down, and Emily finds comfort in the company of the dull but regal Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont). When Emily learns Fred’s Princess is a phony she rejects the Commander and wins back her man just before their ship is wrecked and they are rescued in the nick of time by Chinese looters. After an uneasy trip back to civilization (during which they unknowingly feast on plates of cat-fried rice) the Hills reconcile and look forward to a complicated life back in Ol’ Blighty.
If Rich and Strange was truly autobiographical then we might surmise Hitch was the high maintenance partner in the Hitchcock-Reville pairing and Alma was a long-suffering but understanding mate who smoothed over the many bumps and bruises in their fifty-year relationship. Hitchcock’s reticence at casting Joan Barry is Emily is curious for while she is almost completely subservient to the prissy Kendall, her fresh looks and winning attitude helps keep this quirky film from turning quaintly anachronistic.
Hitchcock’s career truly took off when he left BIP to accept producer Michael Balcon’s offer to make films at British Gaumont. At Gaumont, Hitch and his favored screenwriter Charles Bennett were given free rein to adapt and develop the sort of sinister, fast moving stories that would make Hitchcock a household word in England.
Their first Gaumont collaboration, The Man Who Knew Too Much, was the story of an upper-middle class English family that gets caught in a web of international intrigue. Opening at Hitchcock’s beloved Saint Moritz, we first encounter Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) taking in skiing and shooting events at a snowy resort. Betty’s nervous chatter causes her mother Jill (Edna Best) to miss a shot and lose in her sharp-shooting competition. Later at dinner, a recent acquaintance Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) is shot but an unseen sniper. He passes on a vital secret to Jill but to her and Bob it is a cryptic message they cannot make out. The Lawrences evade probing questions by the police but they become truly alarmed when they learn Betty has been kidnapped, presumably but the organization that killed Bernard.
They return to London, all the while trying to decipher the vague note in the hopes they can rescue their daughter. Bob finally finds the organization, led by the anarchist Abbott (Peter Lorre), holed up with Betty in a church. The anarchists threaten to kill the girl if Bob continues to interfere, but when he learns they plan to assassinate a foreign diplomat that night, he calls Jill and tells her to go to the Royal Albert Hall. At the hall, in a truly magnificent sequence, we find Jill’s eyes combing the crowd during a performance of Arthur Benjamin’s rapturous Storm Cloud Cantata. She catches sight of an assassin, lurking behind a curtain in the balcony waiting for the cymbals to crash to muffle the sound of his gun. Just as he is ready to fire, Jill screams causing him to miss his shot and only nick the diplomat.
The frustrated gang relocates to a house in London where they make their last stand against the police. Betty is saved when a freshly arrived Jill picks off one of her captors and the gang finally goes down in a blaze of gunfire. Packed into a tight seventy-five minutes, this breathless and glibly funny thriller was easily Hitchcock’s most accomplished film to date. While the original exhibits little of the stomach-churning sense of danger of the 1956 remake it still stands on its own as top-shelf Hitchcock.
Hitch and Bennett’s next film, The 39 Steps, turned out to be as exciting as its predecessor and the casting of debonair Robert Donat and cool blonde Madeleine Carroll as the bickering leading couple would prove quite fortuitous. Loosely based on the adventure novel by John Buchan, Hitch’s film follows the picaresque exploits of Canadian Richard Hannay (Donat) who is wanted by police after spy Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim), is stabbed to death in his London apartment. After picking up Smith in the fallout of a shooting at a music hall show featuring the headliner Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), Hannay takes her back to his apartment where she is stabbed by an unseen villain. Armed with vague clues about the murderers, Hannay takes a train north to Scotland in search of a man with an amputated pinkie and the 39 Steps.
After being turned into the police by Pamela (Carroll), a woman he has taken into confidence on the train, Hannay bolts to the countryside where after narrowly avoiding arrest at a farmer’s home, he finds refuge in the nearby home of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle). Hannay learns his host is the man with the missing pinkie and barely escapes death when a Bible in his coat takes a bullet meant for him. At the police station Hannay tells his outlandish story to the cops but they promptly arrest him. Hannay breaks free and stumbles into a political rally where he is mistook for the keynote speaker. He captivates his audience with a ludicrous speech but he knows the gig is up when Pamela spots him.
Hannay is captured once again and to Pamela’s dismay she will be forced to drive with them to another town to give evidence. During a traffic hold-up, a cop handcuffs Hannay to Pamela and seeing his chance Richard bolts from the car with his pretty partner in tow. They escape the police and hole up in a small hotel where they button down for the night. Pamela manages to wriggle out of her handcuffs but she learns of Hannay’s innocence from inquiring policemen in the lobby. Hannay sends her back to London to inform the police but there still hasn’t been any real evidence to verify his wild story.
The action reconvenes at the London Paladium where Mr. Memory is taking questions from the audience. With the police and Jordan following his every step, Hannay takes a chance and asks Mr. Memory about the 39 Steps. As befits his training as a performer, Mr. Memory tells the audience the 39 Steps is an organization of spies before being shot down by Jordan. Before he dies, Memory spews out more information about the shady organization’s diabolical intentions. In Hitchcock’s films, such complex details are part of the MacGuffin; a bunch of hooey introduced to lend gravitas to the fast-moving events on the screen.
The most important and entertaining British Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps re-introduces us to the director’s signature theme (the wronged man) and favorite type of leading lady (cool, independent blondes). Never much of an actor’s director and preferring to rely on storyboards to tell his story, Hitchcock benefited greatly from good casting. Donat and Carroll would be Hitchcock’s best matched and sexiest couple until Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman heated up Brazil eleven years later in Notorious. By 1935 we have entered the golden era of Hitch’s British films, but murky plots and uninspired casting make his next two films problematic.
At first glance The Secret Agent seemed to have all the intangibles in place to make a superior Hitchcock film. Charles Bennett wrote the screenplay based on a series of Somerset Maugham stories. John Gielgud and Madeline Carroll would be in the leads with Peter Lorre and Robert Young in support. 39 Steps cinematographer Bernard Knowles was also abroad to help create yet another spy thriller set in Hitch’s beloved Switzerland. Gielgud is Ashenden, an English officer and spy assigned to meet another agent who will pose as his wife, Elsa Carrington (Carroll) and their contact, a flamboyant Mexican General (Lorre). Their mission is to kill a German spy but after the General pushes the wrong man off a cliff, Ashenden and especially Elsa begin to question their motives in getting involved in such a savage game. The actual villain turns out to be Elsa’s other suitor, the charming Robert Marvin (Young), who in the end shows no sympathy for woman who tries in vain to put an end to all the violence.
As long as one doesn’t lend too much credence to the inner angst of Ashenden and Elsa, then Secret Agent can be an entertaining, if rather incomprehensible, romp. As we will later find in Rope and The Wrong Man questions of conscience seemed to elude Hitchcock and those films sit heavy because there is no comic relief. Luckily in Secret Agent, Hitch decided early on during the shooting to divert our attention from his colorless leading man to the lovely Carroll, the devilish Young and the over-the-top Lorre.
The curiously amoral Sabotage based, ironically, on the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent, was Hitchcock’s first real attempt at making a suspenseful film. After the whirlwind paces in his three previous films, Hitch kept the action mostly confined to a few blocks near a London movie theatre owned by Mr. Verloc (Oskar Homolka) and his young American wife Winnie (Sylvia Sidney). Unbeknownst to Winnie, Verloc is an aspiring terrorist who hopes to impress local anarchists. Verloc succeeds in creating a city-wide blackout but he is disappointed to find Londoners actually enjoying the diversion from their daily routines. Looking to make a bigger splash in the organization Verloc meets with his contact, an eccentric bird shop owner (William Dewhurst), to obtain a bomb. Given instructions to have the bomb set off in a public place, Verloc assigns Winnie’s younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) to deliver the explosive tucked into a tin of nitrate film.
The thrilling, unconscionable sequence that follows is one of Hitchcock’s first uses of pure subjectivity. On his way to deliver the tin of film, we find Stevie first being collared by a snake-oil salesman then sidetracked by a seemingly endless parade, making him hopelessly late. He is given a lift on a public bus and after a few agonizing minutes stalled in traffic, Verloc’s bomb goes off decimating the vehicle and killing everybody on board. Winnie is devastated when she discovers Verloc is guilty of killing her brother but when he tries to get her to hush up the crime she stabs him to death. Another bomb and a sympathetic Scotland Yard detective (John Loder) help conceal Winnie’s revenge.
Audiences more familiar with Hitch’s Hollywood work often site Sabotage as their favorite British film, not a big surprise since the tense and purely cinematic scenes leading up to Stevie’s death do anticipate the director’s mature style of the 1950s and 60s. What Sabotage does lack is an interesting villain (the lurking Homolka seems out of place here) and, as we shall find in some of Hitch’s other lesser technical exercises, a soul.
Coming on the heels of Hitchcock’s darkest British film, Young and Innocent (based on Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling for Candles) is perhaps his sweetest take on the female of the species. The object of his affection in this marvelous film turned out to a young actress he had worked with before, the girl who knew too much, Nova Pilbeam. The blood and thunder opening thrusts us into a chateau above the Atlantic Ocean where a middle-aged couple is having a knock-down, drag-out fight. Film star Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) is violently confronted by her boyfriend, a man with a nervous twitch, about the seemingly endless parade of younger men who come to visit her. Christine’s denials fall on deaf ears and we are left with a close-up of the jilted lover with the twitching eyes.
The next morning Christine’s body is found washed-up by the surf by two women who claim they saw a young man running away from the scene of the crime. The accused is one of Christine’s young boyfriends Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) whose belt was used to strangle the woman. As he is being led to an arraignment Robert sneaks away and hijacks the constable’s daughter Erica Burgoyne (Pilbeam). Though Erica is attracted to Robert she is not truly convinced of his innocence until they meet Old Will (Edward Rigby) a vagabond who bought his missing coat from a man with a nervous twitch.
They track the mysterious man down to a luxury hotel where, in a spectacular crane shot and brilliant piece of subjective filmmaking, Hitchcock’s pans the across ballroom to a bandstand where it zeroes in on the twitching villain in blackface playing drums in a jazz band. The drummer cracks when he sees Old Will and breaks down on stage, sealing his guilt. Taking a break from the sundry world of espionage Hitchcock turned Young and Innocent into back country romp, replete with pesky children, suspicious women, charming old geezers and the unconventionally pretty Pilbeam as its energizing force.
The charming nature of The Lady Vanishes spilled over into Hitchcock’s next project, a deliciously entertaining thriller that put a tidy bow on his British career, The Lady Vanishes. This time Hitchcock worked with the talented screenwriting and future directing team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder in creating a rich scenario full of twists and turns, political nonsense and, of course, great humor. While waiting in a hotel for her snowbound train to leave a Mittel-Europe principality, pretty playgirl Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) strikes up a friendship with an elderly nanny named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) who is returning home to Britain after six years abroad.
Iris has also struck up a most unwelcome acquaintance with an annoying musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) who will also be on the train. At the station Iris is hit in the head with a flower pot apparently intended for Miss Froy. Once aboard, Miss Froy helps Iris get over her grogginess but when older woman disappears neither the passengers nor employees admit to ever seeing her on the train. Fellow passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) infers the blow on Iris’ head made her imagine the whole incident but when another woman later appears in her compartment in Miss Froy’s dowdy garb, she begins to suspect conspiracy. Iris reluctantly accepts Gilbert’s help in trying to track her friend down and when they finally do find the nearly mummified Miss Froy the would-be nanny admits to being a spy for the Home Office.
Iris and Gilbert hope to smuggle Miss Froy out of the principality but first they must deal with Dr. Hartz who turns out to be an enemy agent. Hartz has the train turned around and pulled to a stop in the woods where he demands the return of the British agent. With the help of a couple of British Sportsmen (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), Iris and Gilbert succeed in shooting it out with Hartz and his henchmen long enough for Miss Froy to escape, then Gilbert takes control of the train and drives it to a safe haven. Ironically, the musicologist Gilbert can’t remember the secret melodic message Miss Froy has given him to relay to her superiors, but when he and Iris report to the Home Office on their return they are surprised to find the secret agent waiting for them.
Though The Lady Vanishes remains one of Hitchcock’s most beloved films it’s difficult to find a place for it in the realm of the director’s canon. There is no real suspense but the old world confines of both the hotel create a claustrophobic world where such seemingly benign characters as Dr. Hartz or the Doppos (Iris’ odd compartment companions) can turn downright sinister. The Lady Vanishes could well be Hitchcock’s wittiest film with Wayne and Radford taking comic kudos as the excruciatingly funny he-men who care more about the results of a cricket test than their country’s welfare. Redgrave is delightfully irritating as the quirky romantic foil to the poor little rich girl Lockwood. As the seemingly benign little old lady the charming Dame May Whitty manages to steal every scene she is in. While Hitchcock’s British films had always been notable for their exceptional speed, the director turns things up a notch here. The madcap spirit of American screwball comedy is felt in the daffy, inevitable romance of Iris and Gilbert.
A few years later in Hollywood Hitch would actually make a traditional screwball comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith with one of the true queens of the genre, Carole Lombard. But the film proved a disappointment as Hitchcock stuck to the rules of romantic/drawing room comedy and lent little of his naughty schoolboy wit to what could have been a racy little production.
After the success of The Lady Vanishes Hitchcock became a hot property in England and the United States. David O. Selznick was busy optioning Daphne Du Maurier’s hit novel Rebecca for Hitchcock but in the meantime he signed with producer Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton to make one last film in the UK. Looking to cash in on the advance publicity for Rebecca, Pommer and Laughton chose another Du Maurier novel Jamaica Inn for their collaboration with Hitchcock.
Set off the coast of Cornwall in the early 19th century, this film (like Number Seventeen) would also revolve around a band of brigands living in a safe house, awaiting direction from their aristocratic boss Sir Humphrey Pengallen (Laughton). The house, owned by Joss and Patience Merlyn (Leslie Banks and Marie Ney) is disrupted by the arrival of Patience’s orphaned niece Mary (Maureen O’Hara) and undercover cop Trehearne (Robert Newton). The pair narrowly escapes Pengallen’s gang but ultimately the lovely Mary falls into Sir Humphrey’s treacherous hands. As authorities close in the deluded Lord bounds and gags his beautiful possession and tries to flee the country.
Despite its trifling reputation Jamaica Inn boasts several worthy and colorful performances from Sir Humphrey’s pirates led by Emlyn Williams. But, as we shall later find in Under Capricorn, costume epics seemed to bore Hitchcock but even when the material was lacking he would find unique ways to apply his craft.
Finally free to work on Rebecca with Selznick in Hollywood, Hitchcock put together what he thought to be a film-able treatment with longtime collaborator Joan Harrison. Getting a taste of what it was like to work with someone as strong-willed as himself, Hitchcock was dumbfounded when Selznick rejected it and hired esteemed playwright Robert E. Sherwood to work on the screenplay. It was inevitable the set in his ways Hitch and busy-body Selznick would bump heads throughout the production but the resulting film still holds up as one of the producer’s most memorable works.
While in Monte Carlo working as an assistant for the crass Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a young woman (Joan Fontaine) falls in love with the moody aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). After a whirlwind romance the dashing older man marries and brings her back to Manderley, his mansion on the Cornwall coast. The second Mrs. De Winter quickly learns her predecessor Rebecca, a beautiful but troubled woman, died a year previous, a likely suicide. The shy and insecure young wife is uncomfortable being the woman of the manor and asks for advice from the head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). But the sullen housekeeper resents the new, mousy wife who, in turn, is beginning to feel smothered by the legend of Rebecca.
When a sunken schooner is found with Rebecca’s body aboard Maxim, who had already identified another body as his wife’s, is suspected of foul play. Adding further fuel to the fire, Rebecca’s cousin and former lover Jack (George Sanders) appears with damning evidence of the aristocrat’s intentions to do away with his wife and threatens to blackmail Maxim. Refusing to cooperate, Maxim alerts the local authorities, headed by Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith), who follow-up on Jack’s story by visiting Rebecca’s doctor (Leo G. Carroll) in London. The doctor admits Rebecca saw him the day before she died, but it turns out he was treating her for cancer corroborating the theory she did indeed commit suicide. Exonerated from guilt, Maxim arrives back at Manderley to find the manor on fire. His wife has escaped harm but Mrs. Danvers, who set the building ablaze, perishes in Rebecca’s room.
For Hitchcock fans Rebecca is fascinating on many fronts. In the novice Joan Fontaine Hitchcock found the sort of human clay to mold his ideal leading lady; a slightly self-loathing, ethereal blonde ready to succumb to the wishes or strange desires of her father-figure of a man. In Hitchcock’s most subjective film to date the tawdry events unfold through the easily rattled eyes of the second Mrs. De Winter. The fetching Fontaine gives one of her most unaffected performances as the vulnerable butterfly who falls hopelessly in love with the gloomy Max.
But the real acting kudos go to Judith Anderson as the twisted housemaid whose obsessive love for her cruel mistress casts a chill over the De Winter manor. In the most telling scene, Mrs. Danvers lets down her frosty guard to give the second Mrs. De Winter a tour of Rebecca’s boudoir. The strange woman fondles her old mistress’ undergarments as if they were rare porcelain and offers the frightened lady of the house an olive branch she can’t possibly accept. Rebuffed by this peasant girl, Mrs. Danvers lets cousin Jack weasel his way into the De Winter house so he can spin a tale of deceit and punish both Maxim and the second Mrs. De Winter.
The extreme dread a newlywed wife feels towards her murderous husband is also the pulsating thread in Suspicion, again starring Fontaine with Cary Grant as her ne’er do well mate. Here, Joan plays Lina McLaidlaw, the bookworm daughter of the frosty General and doting Mrs. McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame May Whitty). When Lina’s parents confess their fears meek Lina will never wed, she impetuously marries the dashing Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). After an elaborate honeymoon, Lina finds Johnnie is actually broke and he borrowed money to fund both their trip and swanky new home. She is relieved when he accepts a job from a relative but after learning he is losing money hand over fist at the race track, she confronts his employer (Leo G. Carroll) who says he fired Johnnie months before for embezzlement.
Still, Lina is deeply in love with her husband, so much so she even encourages a business partnership with their simple-minded friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce), who offers to put up money for a hotel Johnnie plans to build. When Lina learns of Beaky’s mysterious death in Paris, she suspects Johnny has killed his friend and stolen money to cover gambling debts. As Johnnie’s mood darkens, Lina becomes increasingly paranoid as she believes he intends to kill her as well.
In the original source material (Anthony Berkeley’s novel Before the Fact), Johnnie really is a murderer and pregnant Lina commits suicide so her unborn child (poisoned by her husband’s bad blood) will never see the light of day. Of course, this ending would never fly by the Hollywood code so in the unconvincing finale Johnnie “saves” the delirious Lina from falling out of their car over a rocky seaside cliff. This tacked-on ending spoils an otherwise first rate mood piece about another young woman who looks for love in all the wrong places.
For the first time we see Cary Grant playing against type as a selfish man-child who may or may not be capable of a capital crime. Hitchcock usually adopted a hands-off policy for his more experienced actors but he would be one of the few directors who brought out the demons behind Grant’s happy-go-lucky façade. And as it turned out Grant’s four performances for Hitch are probably the most probing and complex portraits in his extraordinary career as a leading man.
Though saddled with the long term contract for Selznick, Hitchcock was allowed to make films for less meddling producers like Walter Wanger who borrowed Hitch from Selznick to direct journalist Vincent Sheean’s memoir Foreign Correspondent. Originally intended to be a thinly-veiled piece of anti-Nazi propaganda, Hitchcock hired his old screenwriting partner Charles Bennett to breathe life into a leaden script. In the days before the Nazis invaded Poland, beat writer Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is sent to London by his American newspaper editor to get the real skinny about what’s going on in Europe. Johnny befriends the Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Basserman) and flirts with Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) the daughter of the esteemed British pacifist Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall).
After a man who appears to be Van Meer is murdered in Amsterdam (a thrilling set piece lifted from Eisenstein’s Potemkin), Johnny and Carol follow the trail of the killers to the countryside. Johnny notices some funny-goings on in a windmill where he discovers a spy ring is holding the real Van Meer. To Johnny and Carol’s horror it turns out Stephen Fisher is the mastermind of the organization. Later, on a diplomatic flight to the States the Fishers meet Johnny on their plane. Just after Stephen gets word he is to be arrested when he sets foot on American soil, the Nazis shoot the aircraft out of the sky and it crashes into the Atlantic. After the Fishers and Johnny find refuge on what’s left of the airplane, Stephen decides to drown himself rather than face the music in the United States.
Clocking in at two hours, this big-budgeted film has a hard time sustaining momentum between its three great scenes (Van Meer’s assassination, the discovery at the windmill and the plane crash). But the inspired casting of McCrea, Day, George Sanders (playing a good guy!) and the legendary German actor Albert Basserman as the world weary diplomat elevates Foreign Correspondent to solid second-tier Hitchcock.
For Saboteur Hitch took a project written and developed by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison and John Houseman to Universal where, with a little help from Dorothy Parker, he crafted an exciting wrong man thriller in The 39 Steps tradition. While trying to put out a fire at a munitions plant, worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) unknowingly hands a fire extinguisher loaded with gasoline to a friend who subsequently dies in the blaze. Suspected of foul play, Kane escapes the police in quest of Frank Frye (Norman Lloyd), the mysterious man who gave him the dirty extinguisher. After being turned in to police by suspected spy Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), Kane breaks free and finds shelter at the secluded house of a blind man (Vaughan Glaser). The serene recluse convinces his niece Patricia (Priscilla Lane) to help Kane get out of town, but the wanted man kidnaps the pretty model (by handcuffing himself to her) when she makes it clear she’ll turn him in the first chance she gets.
After convincing a traveling caravan of freaks to not blow their cover, the bickering pair travels to the ghost town of Soda City in search of Frye. There, they learn Frye and Tobin are part of a (fascist?) conspiracy and Kane subsequently rides with a group of the saboteurs to New York City where Frye is busily involved in blowing up a battleship in a Brooklyn Navy Yard. At a posh party hosted by one of the benefactors of the evil organization, Kane tries to alert the disbelieving guests to the eminent danger but he only succeeds in endangering Patricia’s life. When Kane learns of Frye’s latest murderous endeavor he rushes to the naval yard and manages to disrupt the saboteur in time. Frye flees to the Statue of Liberty where, in one of Hitch’s most breathtaking sequences, an unraveling seam dooms the saboteur who slips from Lady Liberty’s torch to a gruesome death.
Often chided by Hitchcock critics as being derivative and disjointed, Saboteur is still great fun. While neither Cummings nor Lane light up the screen, Lloyd turns out to be one of the creepier (and oddly humane) villains in the director’s canon. Hitchcock’s affection for the outsider comes to the forefront in the two telling sequences where Kane finds unexpected sympathy. Like Hitchcock, Patricia’s uncle Phillip is an artistic and gastronomical esthete, more likely to judge a man by his taste instead of his actions. Kane’s enlightened encounter with Phillip gives the wanted man a renewed sense of hope that the good girl, a cynical model from the big city, does her best to destroy. Patricia’s reserve towards her handcuffed partner begins to thaw when the Circus Troupe’s romantic Bearded Lady (Anita Sharp-Bolster) unwittingly mistakes their bondage for an act of love. Freed of suspicion and doubt, Patricia and Kane become a very unlikely team who face an uphill battle in bringing the conspirators to their heels.
Looking to make his first uniquely American film, Hitchcock signed Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder to collaborate on his next Universal production Shadow of a Doubt. Living comfortably in California while his countrymen were at war and unable to visit his dying mother in England, Hitch poured his troubled soul into what would turn out to be a highly personal work of art. Shadow revolves around its two Charlies, young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) a restless young woman who lives with her parents in small town Santa Rosa, California and her Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), an east coast drifter suspected in a series of Merry Widow killings.
Hoping to add some much needed spice to the Newton household, Charlie decides to ask her uncle to come out for a visit unaware he has already send her mother Emma (Patricia Collinge) a telegraph informing her of his imminent arrival. Young Charlie thinks this is fate but when her hero arrives at the train station she is taken aback by his sickly manner (an act used to distract passengers and porters from his true identity). But, once in the safety of the Newton household Uncle Charlie becomes his charming old self again. Both young Charlie and his sister Emma are thrilled to boast and show-off the dapper and worldly man to neighbors and friends, but Uncle Charlie begins to act curiously when two magazine reporters show up to do an average American family story on the Newtons. Young Charlie is confused by her uncle’s refusal to be photographed for the story and his increasingly bizarre behavior. While on a date with one of the reporters (Macdonald Carey) she correctly pigeonholes him as a cop and he tells her the horrible truth about Charlie Oakley.
She confronts Oakley and after he admits to the killings, she asks him to leave town so as not to humiliate Emma. But Uncle Charlie wants to put down roots in Santa Rosa and when another suspect in the case dies after being chased by the police, he thinks he is finally in the clear. Still there is the little matter of his niece who still suspects him and after a pair of attempts to do away with young Charlie fail, he informs everybody of his intention to leave town. Abroad the train to San Francisco Uncle Charlie kidnaps his doppelganger and tries to throw her from the speeding vehicle. But, as fate would have it, he trips and falls in front of an oncoming train.
Having fallen in love with the climate and terrain of Northern California, Hitchcock shot much of Shadow of a Doubt in sleepy Santa Rosa. The cozy, old Victorian home, the warm Newton household and the droll gallows humor between Mr. Newton (Henry Travers) and nerdy neighbor Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) set up a false sense of security waiting to be unraveled by the arrival of the Philadelphia uncle. Playing against type, the gentlemanly Cotten is one of Hitchcock’s great villains. A seething soul behind a benign façade, Uncle Charlie is a sociopath capable of charming any woman but unlikely to fool those he has little use for (cops, bank presidents and young Charlie’s little bookworm sister, Ann). Ironically, it’s his choice to confide in his adoring niece which hastens his downfall.
Teresa Wright is an unusual and inspired Hitchcock heroine. Her Charlie is the prettiest and brightest girl in town, but she is also an innocent, not capable of being objectified in a Hitchcockian manner—even Joan Fontaine’s naive heroines seem driven by passion, the need for security and a little bit of sex on the side. Yet, Charlie is eager to learn about her uncle’s “secrets” and his awful revelations make her grow up in a hurry. Taking into consideration the coda, it is distressing to think Charlie will marry boring Macdonald Carey but, on the other hand, would she ever be able to go home again? Not likely.
Feeling guilty about having missed the funerals of his mother and brother and his lack of participation in the war effort Hitchcock finally was able to make amends during his visit to London in early 1944. While there he would direct two short films about the French Resistance at Welwyn Studios for producer Sidney Bernstein (his future partner in Transatlantic Films). Working with writer Angus McPhail, German Expressionist cinematographer Gunther Krampf (Nosferatu, Hands of Orlac, Pandora’s Box), and the Moliere Players from Paris Hitch crafted two gritty and cautionary tales featuring slippery villains worthy of his darkest Hollywood films. In Bon Voyage a Scottish member of the RAF who recently escaped from occupied France learns his partner was not an escapee from a Nazi labor camp but a Gestapo agent. While John Dougall (John Blythe) was being smuggled out the country, the Gestapo followed his trail arresting and killing all Resistance members in their wake.
Set in Madagascar, Aventure Malgache follows the plight of Paul Clarousse, a lawyer who clashes with the corrupt police chief Michel, a Vichy loyalist. Michel arrests Clarousse and after seeing the lawyer gets a stiff jail sentence the cop squeezes him to give up the local of a transmitter broadcasting Free French programs. Clarousse refuses to talk so when the British liberate the island the wily Michel switches sides to the Allied cause. With each of these films clocking in at around thirty minutes, neither has much room for subtext yet they are refreshingly free of the upbeat propaganda that plagues so many commercial and documentary American films made during war time. Ironically, Bernstein’s French distributor likely felt both films were too bleak and pessimistic, so Hitch’s Resistance films got little play on the Continent.
Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman (another Selznick property) struck up a friendship on the set of Spellbound that lasted until the director’s death in 1980. Finally finding a subject Selznick liked (a love story involving psychotherapy), Hitch and screenwriter Ben Hecht adapted The House of Dr. Edwardes, a bizarre British novel about a madman running an asylum, into a Romantic thriller starring Gregory Peck as an imposter Doctor and Bergman as the therapist who falls in love with him.
When Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) is ready to give up the reigns at the Green Manors psychiatric center, he seems to be taken aback by the youthful man who is to replace him. Dr. Anthony Edwards (Peck) comes to the job as a hot-shot in the field, but Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) soon learns this fascinating man is battling his own set of demons. Murchison soon sees through the young doctor’s ruse and contacts the police who want to arrest him for the murder of the real Dr. Edwards. Going on the lam with the suspect, Constance learns his real name is John Ballantine. As it turns out John was under the care and in the company of Dr. Edwards the day he was murdered. Constance also becomes aware John is suffering pangs of guilt lingering from his childhood over the accidental death of his brother. When it turns out Dr. Edwards was shot and not pushed over the edge of a mountain by John, Constance determines Dr. Murchison did the dirty deed in order to keep his job at Green Manors.
Given the full Selznick treatment including a bizarre dream sequence conceived by Salvador Dali, a Theramin-drenched score by Miklos Rozsa, and Hecht’s clinically-correct screenplay, Spellbound sinks under the weight of its good intentions. Freudian philosophy made a big splash in the postwar years (both Selznick and Hecht were among many Hollywood notables deep into therapy) and Spellbound was among several films of the era bloated with psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo. While the film’s thread slips away from Hitchcock, Dali’s surreal contribution (allegedly shot by William Cameron Menzies) and the flashback scenes where John Ballantine realizes he’s not to blame for the deaths of his brother or Edwards remain great pieces of cinema.
Peck’s second and final collaboration with Hitchcock, the Selznick produced The Paradine Case, was one of the director’s most disappointing films, especially considering when the supporting cast featured such colorful scene-chewers as Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn and Ethel Barrymore. Selznick and Hitch had hoped to cast Greta Garbo instead of Alida Valli as the common but beautiful wife accused of killing her rich, blind husband Colonel Paradine so she could run off with her lover and his valet Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan). Peck plays Anthony Keane, a prominent London attorney who defends and falls in love with the treacherous Mrs. Paradine.
Unfortunately, neither the bland Peck nor the chilly Valli had the charisma or acting chops to make any of the crucial scenes between the lawyer and client come to life. Perhaps sensing he was stuck on a white elephant, even the irrepressible Laughton seems to recede into the background as the acerbic Judge presiding over the trial.
Hitchcock’s second great film of the 1940s, Notorious (screenplay by Hecht), was his first explorations into, for all intent and purposes, a sado-masochistic romance. Ingrid Bergman (in her best American performance) plays Alicia Huberman, Miami playgirl and daughter of an important Nazi recently convicted of war crimes. Alicia is being watched closely by FBI agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), who is part of a U.S. government team aiming to root out a band of Nazis in Brazil. Devlin charms and torments the smitten Alicia until she finally agrees to work for her adopted country and help track down her father’s German friends who, as it turns out, are secretly mining uranium.
Devlin and Alicia fly to Rio de Janeiro where she is expected to romance an old flame Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), the lynchpin of the Nazi gang. After a short courtship, Sebastian proposes to Alicia who, in turn, asks Devlin whether she should accept. To her disappointment, Devlin (who loves and hates Alicia) thinks the marriage is a good idea. Alexander and Alicia marry much to the horror of Sebastian’s controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantine) who sees right through his beautiful young wife.
Sebastian’s jealousy is inflamed when the handsome Devlin keeps showing up to pay court to Alicia, making it difficult for the Americans to comb the house in search of the uranium. After finding the deadly mineral in the wine cellar, Sebastian catches Devlin and Alicia kissing. Devlin takes the blame for the tryst then takes leave of the party and country, but Sebastian remains suspicious of Alicia and soon finds evidence of her treachery in the wine cellar. To save her son’s skin, Mrs. Sebastian devises a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. Devlin returns to find the dying Alicia at the mercy of the Sebastians, so the agent lets Alexander reap the whirlwind by rescuing the helpless man’s wife in front of his Nazi conspirators.
Let loose by Hitchcock to explore his demons Grant, once again, comes up with a fascinating performance as the callous government man infatuated with the self-loathing good-time girl. Bergman, whose luminous beauty often transcended her abilities as an actress, thrived in films that boasted tortured adult relationships as evidenced in her work with future husband Roberto Rossellini. The complicated Grant-Bergman coupling would provide a template for Hitch’s even darker explorations into twisted love in Vertigo and Marnie.
Still, in the end, Rains and Ms. Konstantin nearly steal the movie. Sympathetic yet cunning, the mother and son feel the heat from both sides, so they form a devious team of two to ensure their survival. It is likely Hitch projected himself into Sebastian’s role of the unattractive yet powerful man who buys creature comforts and a beautiful woman’s love, but still has to answer to a domineering mother. It would be a major theme Hitchcock would pursue in the coming years.
The mid to late 1940s were an uneven period for Hitchcock artistically, but they were also adventurous years during which he made some of his most experimental films. Based on an original idea by Hitchcock and a treatment by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is the story of the Allied survivors of a torpedoed ship and the Nazi Captain instrumental in setting them adrift. To avoid the distractions of a location shoot on the high sea, Hitchcock filmed Lifeboat almost exclusively in a tank at 20th Century Fox. The tight quarters on the boat gives the film a nauseous, claustrophobic feel and it doesn’t take long for the motley crew of characters to get on each other’s nerves.
The glamorous Tallulah Bankhead heads the cast as the muckraking reporter Constance Porter, who annoys the he-man of the boat (John Hodiak) and acts as a translator to their German stowaway Willy (Walter Slezak). While the other men bicker about who will be the boss, Constance learns that Willy was the Captain of the U-Boat that sank their ship. She pleads for her inexperienced shipmates to let Willy steer them to America, but the suspicious crew rejects his advice and set the boat on the course to nowhere. Dementia and disease take the lives of two of the shipmates then anger and a lack of water bring out the worst in the survivors.
The vigorous Willy takes the reigns and even when it is apparent he is steering them towards a German supply ship, the survivors are too apathetic to protest. Willy’s Superman façade is blown when it is found he had been stealing water from the other passengers and he is drowned in the resulting mutiny. After the supply ship is blown-up by an Allied ship, another Nazi swims to the lifeboat and after some debate about letting him suffer Willy’s fate they pull him aboard.
Despite the artificiality of the set and the dated material, Lifeboat holds up surprisingly well. For audiences expecting another piece of flag-waving war time propaganda, this strange, drifting Utopia had to be a shock to the system. Hitchcock’s good-natured villain was a more frightening Nazi than what moviegoers were accustomed to seeing largely because Willy had the discipline to stay calm in the eye of the storm. But, this robust German isn’t looking out for the best interests of the crew he is only looking to survive for another day.
Hitchcock’s contract with Selznick finally came to an end in 1948. Freed to make films for his independent company, Transatlantic Films, he chose to do an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s controversial West End hit Rope’s End. To make the experience less stage bound Hitch decided to shoot the retitled Rope in eight separate ten minute takes. In order to make this daring technical experiment work the set was laid-out with a maze of trolley tracks and pull-away walls and doors, so the camera could follow the actors. The content was daring as well.
Loosely based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case of the 1920s, the story follows the titillating plight of Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) two rich and idle young men who have just murdered former classmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan) just for the hell of it. Instead of immediately disposing of the body they stuff it in a chest in their apartment where they will be holding a dinner party that evening. The guests, including David’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) wonder what’s keeping the younger Kentley since he is never late. Over drinks Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the boys’ former professor, spouts out a Nietzchean Superman philosophy, disturbing the guests and the sensitive Phillip. Rupert senses something is awry and once the guests leave he drills the boys until he finally discovers the murder.
Stripped of the play’s homosexual subtext and Hitchcock’s suspenseful use of montage, Rope is a fairly bloodless affair. In a role originally intended for the sexually ambivalent Cary Grant, guy’s guy James Stewart is miscast as the mentor who may (as suggested in the play) have had an affair with either Dall or Granger (who were both gay in real life). The incessant camera tracking only succeeds in accentuating every key movement and character motivation, making scenes drag where they should soar. Notorious for falling asleep on the set of his movies, one wonders if Hitch did such radical experiments in order to stay interested in the shooting process. The results fly in the face of his expertise in subjective filmmaking which thankfully he would return to with a vengeance in the 1950s.
After the disappointing public and critical reception for Rope, Hitchcock plunged into something completely different, the lavish costume drama set in 1831 Australia (but shot mostly in London), Under Capricorn. Based on a novel by Helen Simpson Hitchcock Hitchcock cast Ingrid Bergman in the role Lady Henrietta Flusky, an Irish aristocrat who caused a great scandal when she married the stable boy Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who killed her brother. Henrietta follows Sam to a prison colony in Australia, but after he gets out of jail they find the fire between them has gone out.
Over time, Sam becomes a land baron while Henrietta drowns her sorrows in their chilly mansion. Sam becomes friends with another Irish expatriate Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) who has come Down Under in search of fortune. Adare takes a fancy to Henrietta and with Sam’s blessing he tries to bring the faded beauty out of her shell much to the consternation of his cousin the Governor (Cecil Parker). Inevitably, prejudice and petty jealousy make Henrietta’s return to social graces impossible, so when Sam shoots Adare after an argument his wife tries to save him from a trip to the gallows by confessing she, not Sam, had killed her brother back in Ireland.
Hitchcock had probably envisioned (and hoped) for another masochistic performance from his leading lady, but her sufferings seem strained. Cotten is curiously morbid, the sociopathic behavior that made Charlie Oakley such a devilish delight is nowhere in sight. For those still hoping to uncover a diamond in the rough of the Hitchcock oeuvre Under Capricorn will prove disappointing. But, cineastes still can be dazzled by Hitch’s further experimentation with elaborate tracking shots which feel much more organic and natural in Sam’s airy mansion than they did in the confines of a Manhattan apartment (Rope).
Hitchcock’s next film Stage Fright would also be shot in London, but this time he chose to make a contemporary film in the city of his youth. Based on a novel by Selwyn Jepson and a crime that captured British newspaper headlines in the 1920s, Hitch and Alma’s story follows the desperate plight of Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), a young actor wanted for murder. The dead man is the husband of glamorous stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) with whom Jonathan was having an affair. Jonathan asks his Anglo-American acting partner Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) to believe in his story (told through a dodgy false flashback) clearing him of the crime.
The smitten Eve sequesters Jonathan in the lonely oceanfront house of her eccentric father Commodore Gill (Alistair Sim) while she begins her own investigation. She wheedles her way into Charlotte’s life as a housemaid and with the help of Police Inspector Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) Eve presses the actress to admit to the murder. When presented with damning evidence Charlotte claims it was actually Jonathan who did the dirty deed and soon the young man confirms his guilt by trying to dispose of Eve.
Though second-tier Hitchcock, Stage Fright still manages to be a fun ride, largely through the colorful performances of Dietrich (her rendition of Laziest Gal in Town is worth the price of admission), Wilding, Sim and horse-faced Joyce Grenfell as the weird “Lovely Ducks” lady at a carnival shooting gallery. Hitch’s impeccable taste in choosing the right face or personality for even the smallest role added sub-textual color to an already bountiful palette.
By 1951, Hitchcock was in the midst of a five year slump. He had just completed making three of his weakest American films (The Paradine Case, Rope and Under Capricorn) and another vehicle (Stage Fright) which was little more than a throwback to his days in Britain. Aiming to get back on track, Hitchcock hired noir master Raymond Chandler to adapt Patricia Highsmith‘s psychological thrillerStrangers on a Train for Warner Brothers. The hard-drinking Chandler’s efforts proved lackluster so Hitch signed on Ben Hecht’s protege Czenzi Ormonde to complete the complicated task. In the role of disturbed playboy Bruno Anthony Hitchcock daringly cast an actor known for playing earnest, boy next door types; Robert Walker.
Strangers on a Train opens on, not so coincidentally, a train where the nosy Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy Haines (Farley Granger), an amateur tennis champion. Once Guy is able to relax with this peculiar stranger, he admits he is getting off along the way to ask his slutty wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) for a divorce so he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a U.S. senator. Bruno makes a wild proposition to Guy intimating he would be willing to kill Miriam, if Guy would return the favor and bump off Mr. Anthony (Jonathan Hale), his tyrannical father. Guy humors the charming lunatic, unaware his friendliness has been misinterpreted by Bruno as a sign the “criss-cross” plot is on.
Later that night, Bruno tracks Miriam down to a carnival and after gaining her confidence he strangles her on a darkened island. When police find Miriam’s body they immediately suspect Guy who had been seen quarreling with her after she turned down his request for a divorce. Bruno travels to Washington D.C. to pressure his partner in crime into holding up his end of the bargain and provides Guy a set of keys and a layout of the Anthony home.
Paralyzed by the prospect of scandal and being convicted of a crime he had unintentionally triggered, Guy goes to the Anthony house to confront the old man but he finds Bruno in his bed. After the men quarrel, Bruno decides to pin Miriam’s murder on Guy by placing the athlete’s cigarette lighter on the island where her body was found. Bruno’s plans are foiled when he is recognized by an employee of the carnival. After a life and death battle with the madman on a merry-go-round Guy is finally absolved of all guilt. Or, is he?
Driven by a wicked performance by Walker and Hitchcock’s amazing ability to create an overwhelming sense of doom, Strangers on a Train turned out to be a darkly entertaining masterpiece. As Hitch’s most charming and deliciously warped villain, Walker plays Bruno as a wronged lover who tries to send Guy to the chair with his dying words. Encouraged by the undying love of his doting mother (the dotty Marion Lome), Bruno’s heart of darkness intrigues and captivates acquaintances but repels all those who know better.
A project several years in the making, I Confess presented Hitchcock with the opportunity of turning the wheels of justice on the Roman Catholic Church. After a shady Quebec City lawyer (Roger Dann) is murdered in his office, Police Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) learns a priest was seen leaving the scene of the crime. His investigation reveals the lawyer may have been blackmailing Father Michael William Logan (Montgomery Clift) and local socialite Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) over a possible affair. Meanwhile, church sexton Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) admits to killing the lawyer while in confession with Logan, so the priest is unable to come clean about the murder without forsaking his vows. Father Logan goes to trial where he is acquitted, but once outside the courthouse the locals abuse the priest until Keller’s wife (Dolly Haas) informs the angry crowd who the real killer is.
Shot mostly on location in the ancient, cobblestoned Canadian city, I Confess turned out to be one of Hitchcock’s most somber films. Hitch clearly felt a man’s belief in God was a serious business and as in his other Catholic film, The Wrong Man, the protagonist will have his faith seriously rattled by his grueling ordeal.
For his final film at Warners Hitchcock chose a more commercial project, Dial M for Murder, based on a hit West End play by Frederick Knott. The film was shot in the 3-D process, a source of frustration for Hitch as it wreaked havoc with his carefully scripted shot selections. Fortunately, almost all the action takes place in the cramped confines of a London apartment, so elaborate set-ups weren’t all that necessary. The flat belongs to Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a former tennis star married to the beautiful and rich Margot (Grace Kelly). We soon find Margot has been carrying on a year-long affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) and fearing his wife will divorce him Tony decides to kill her for her money.
He pressures former Cambridge classmate and small-time hood Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) into doing the job, but Tony’s perfectly planned murder goes awry and Margot kills her attacker in self-defense. But, when news of Mrs. Wendice’s affair with Halliday comes to light, the police think Swann was blackmailing Margot and she murdered him. She is arrested, tried and convicted but Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) isn’t convinced of her guilt. On the day before she is to hang, Hubbard finds new evidence that trips up Tony forcing him to confess to the crime.
As with Lifeboat, and parts of Rope, Hitchcock does remarkable work in making compelling cinema on a claustrophobic set. After years of playing benign leading men to Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers and Paulette Goddard at Paramount, Ray Milland came into his own as one of the most cold and ruthless Hitchcock villains. Wendice devises a plan for his wife’s murder with as much meticulousness as Hitch put together his own storyboards. The blueprint seems perfect but the unaccountability of human error does in Tony Wendice.
Hitchcock’s golden era took hold with his move to Paramount in 1954. There, Hitch put together a crack team of technicians and artisans, including cinematographer Robert Burks, film editor George Tomasini, wardrobe designer Edith Head and screenwriter John Michael Hayes, to assist in shooting and assembling several of his most ambitious films to date. His work from this period is boldly experimental, pushing the boundaries of what could and could not be done in commercial narrative film. Even though widescreen processes such as Vista-Vision succeeded in making the movie-going a less intimate experience for audiences, Hitch and Tomasini edited with care and precision, employing Expressionistic montage to create an even more subjective experience. Like J.B. Jeffries in Rear Window, one begins to feel like a voyeur watching these Hitchcock films—but heaven forbid you turn away for you will miss something juicy.
In this first project for Paramount, it has been argued, the wheelchair-ridden Jeffries (James Stewart) is sitting in for Hitchcock as the director of the piece. Unable to participate in all the life going on around him in his Greenwich Village apartment complex, he makes up his own narratives about every one of his neighbors. A photographer for a travel magazine, Jeffries is figuratively castrated by a broken leg and his perfect Park Avenue girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), who wants him to leave his adventurous life and settle down with her. Lisa woos him with breathless kisses and catered dinners from 21, but this perverse man seems more interested in the fighting couple in the apartment across the courtyard.
Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is seen bickering with his nagging wife (Irene Winston) until one day when she just disappears. Jeffries suspects foul play when he spots Thorwald carting off a chest (about the size of his wife’s body) one morning. He also notices a small dog digging (for a human bone?) in Thorwald’s garden. Initially, Lisa, the housekeeper Stella (Thelma Ritter) and Jeffries’ friend in the police department Detective Thomas J. Doyle (Wendall Corey) all think Jeff is getting a little creepy and jumping to conclusions about Thorwald. But, after the neighbor’s dog is killed the women also begin to suspect the hulking salesman has done away with his wife.
After Jeff baits Thorwald out of his apartment, Lisa sneaks inside and finds the missing Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding band just before the salesmen returns. Lisa is arrested and taken away by the police. The wildly suspicious Thorwald looks across the courtyard and spots Jeff looking at him. Moments later, the angry salesman confronts Jeff in the helpless man’s doorway. Thorwald essentially admits to the murder but still wonders why Jeffries, a stranger, has been persecuting him all this time. Jeff tries to ward the killer off with camera flashes, but after an agonizing tussle Thorwald pushes Jeff out the window. His fall is broken by a pair of policemen who have just arrived to arrest Thorwald.
The twist epilogue finds Jeff back in his apartment with two broken legs while Lisa curls up with an adventure novel. When she is sure Jeff has drifted off into sleep, Lisa reverts to form and dives into a fashion magazine. Now a veteran of two Hitchcock films, Grace Kelly had become good friends with the director and Alma. Cool and elegant with a fire simmering inside, Kelly became the ultimate Hitchcock-blonde and her estimable talents for sexual suggestiveness would blossom in their next collaboration.
To Catch A Thief gave Hitchcock the chance to make a picture on location in one of his favorite vacation spots, the French Riviera. Hitch coaxed Cary Grant out of a temporary retirement to play John Robie, a former jewel thief redeemed by his heroic work in the French Resistance. A series of break-ins perpetrated by a burglar who uses Robie’s methods, prompt the police to try and arrest the man known as “The Cat”. Robie eludes their dragnet and goes underground to make his own investigation into the crimes.
Passing himself off as a lumber tycoon from Oregon, Robie checks into a posh Cannes hotel where he befriends a rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her prim and proper daughter Frances (Grace Kelly). When Jessie’s jewels are inevitably stolen, Frances suspects the handsome man from Oregon. Reverting into something of a tigress, she tries to seduce Robie into making a confession but he ultimately convinces her he’s innocent of these new series of crimes. The real culprit turns out to be Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber) another young lady who has the hots for Robie and the daughter of one of his friends in the Resistance.
In his lightest role for Hitchcock, Grant (growing more handsome as the years go by) morphs from a prince of darkness to an object of desire. Hitch no doubt enjoyed turning the tables on audiences here as well as in North by Northwest where virtuous Eva Marie Saint turns into a woman of smoldering passions by offering Grant a bed (and other unseen favors) on her overnight train to Chicago.
Based on a story by English author Jack Trevor, The Trouble with Harry would be a flight of fancy for Hitchcock who re-set the film’s locale in New England. The slight story concerned the accidental death of one Harry Rogers (Phillip Truex), a local man whose passing doesn’t seem to upset the locals. Thinking he is responsible for shooting Harry, the retired Captain Albert Wiles decides to bury the body with the help of his spinster girlfriend Ivy (Mildred Natwick), the free-spirited artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), and Harry’s wife Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine). But, an investigation by the pesky Deputy Sheriff (Royal Dano) prompts the little band of criminals to dig up Harry and relocate him in a bathtub until the startling truth is revealed.
Hitchcock’s most warm-hearted film since The Farmer’s Wife, Harry is nonetheless a bit of a disappointment. MacLaine, in her screen debut, was a still couple years away from hitting her stride as a comic actress and Forsythe didn’t have a funny bone in his body. But, Hitchcock wasn’t blameless, either. His best films have plenty of dark comedy springing from carefully constructed sequences where his protagonists were pushed to the precipice. The Trouble with Harry had no such arc to follow and lacking a charismatic villain, the macabre little story fell flat. The film did give Hitchcock the opportunity to work with the person who, besides Alma, would prove to be his greatest collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann. And, indeed, Herrmann’s score is more wickedly amusing than any of the hijinks we see up on the screen. It would be the start of a beautiful and tumultuous relationship.
The year 1955 also saw Hitchcock making his debut on the small screen with the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a weekly half-hour CBS show featuring tales of suspense and Hitch-inspired mischief. The episodes were filmed by a crack crew of technicians for Shamley Productions and featured Hitchcock as its wry, devious host. The series lasted seven years and Hitch found the time to direct 17 of the 268 episodes. Since brief running times demanded getting to the meat of the story with little exposition and virtually no subtext, Hitchcock and his writers realized these mini-films needed to be shot in a straight-faced manner and capped off by an ironic twist of fate.
This disciplined format often brought out the best in Hitchcock the jester and several of the episodes (Wet Saturday, The Perfect Crime, Lamb to the Slaughter, The Horse Player, etc.) sting with the biting sort of wit lacking in his busy big screen comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith. On the other hand, the terse dramatic shows he directed (Breakdown, One More Mile to Go, etc.) went far in anticipating the nihilist worlds of Psycho or Frenzy.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Shamley Productions provided a valuable workshop for fledgling actors and the production team alike. Hitchcock ultimately used the TV crew to film Psycho, his revolutionary answer to the stripped-down, esthetic posturing of the French New Wave and the inexpensive, popular horror flicks being churned out by Hammer Productions and Roger Corman. Such far-sightedness should have kept Hitchcock ahead of the curve in the 1960s but, as we shall see, he suffered the same fate as many of his contemporaries in the business.
Hitchcock had wanted to do a re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much almost from the day he set foot on American soil. By 1956 he was a very different filmmaker from the “amateur” of 1934. Both film versions of this tale of kidnapping and intrigue have their attributes. The earlier film is glib and Continental. It is also one of Hitchcock’s drollest films and features a delightfully oily villain (Peter Lorre). The American version is more paranoid and International. It is Hitchcock’s most operatic film and boasts two iconic movie personalities (James Stewart and Doris Day) who drive the story.
The remake opens quietly enough on a bus to Marrakesh with Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart), his celebrity wife Jo Conway McKenna (Day) and their precocious son Hank (Christopher Olsen). Hank causes a disturbance when he accidentally pulls off the veil of a native Islamic woman, but the potential incident is quelled by fellow passenger Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) who subsequently becomes the McKenna’s first friend in Morocco. When Bernard turns down the McKenna’s invitation to dinner that night, Jo becomes suspicious of the mysterious Frenchman. The next day Bernard (disguised as a local) is stabbed in a market but before he dies he informs McKenna about an ensuing assassination at the Royal Albert Hall and mentions the name Ambrose Chappell.
When the McKennas get back to their hotel they learn Hank has been kidnapped by the Draytons, a British couple they had befriended. They follow the Draytons back to London where without the help of the police Ben tracks down Ambrose Chappell who turns out to be nothing more than an easily frightened taxidermist. Meanwhile, Jo determines Ambrose Chapel is actually a place of worship, so she deserts her friends to locate this building and find Hank. She is soon joined by McKenna and after they determine Hank is in the Chapel attic, the kidnappers subdue Ben and make their escape. Jo’s woman’s intuition leads her to Royal Albert Hall where she bumps into Rien (Reggie Nalder), a sinister looking man she first saw in Marrakesh. He pointedly suggests she keep quiet or she will never see her son again. In the film’s signature set piece, Jo watches helplessly as Rien the assassin takes aim at a foreign prime minister while Bernard Herrmann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra playing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Cantata.
With the strange music building almost unbearable tension, Hitch’s elaborately structured montage plays out as an ecstatic homage to murder until Jo cries out and foils the plot. When the McKennas learn the Draytons may be hiding in a foreign embassy, Ben and the chief of police arrange for Jo to sing at the reception for the grateful dignitary whose life she just saved. In the embassy, a nervous Jo belts out Que Sera Sera, a song Hank immediately recognizes and begins to whistle in response. Ben follows the whistling to a room where Jo is being held by Mr. Drayton (Bernard Miles) at gunpoint. Using Hank and McKenna as his shield, Drayton tries to back out of the embassy until Ben trips him up and secures his son once and for all.
After making several splashy color films in a row, Hitchcock chose to do something much more low-key with The Wrong Man. Based on a true story, the grim film follows the plight of nightclub musician Manny Balestrero who is unjustly accused of a series of hold-ups in his home borough of Queens in New York City. No doubt drawing from his life-long fear of the police, Hitch’s cops here are hard and merciless. Gentle Manny seems to be condemned before he even goes to trial. In a particularly unnerving sequence Manny is stripped of all dignity when he is arrested, fingerprinted and locked-up in jail while his family struggles to raise the necessary bail to free him. Manny’s wife Rose (Vera Miles), who had been a beacon of strength, lapses into severe melancholia when it appears her husband might actually be guilty.
Borrowing liberally from film noir and Italy’s neo-realistic cinema, The Wrong Man is Hitchcock’s most sober and curiously religious work. But, while Manny’s faith sees him through his awful ordeal it will take a convalescence of two years in Florida for Rose to recover. WASPy Fonda is quietly convincing as the persecuted Italian-American musician, but Hitchcock threw most of his attention to new protégé Vera Miles, who he was grooming to play a key role in his most ambitious project yet.
When Hitchcock moved to California in the late 1930s, he found the northern part of the state most to his liking, especially the San Francisco area. Hitch loved the lovely city by the bay, comparing it favorably to Paris. So it was inevitable he would make a film with the city as a backdrop and with Vertigo he found the proper material to match the exotic locale.
Based on a French crime novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and a vastly re-written screenplay by Samuel Taylor and Alex Coppel, the plot centers around Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), a detective forced to retire from the San Francisco police department because of his fear of heights (vertigo). Humbled by his affliction and bored by idleness, Scottie spends most his days at the apartment of his former fiancée, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) a successful designer who still holds a torch for him. One day, Scottie is contacted by a former school mate, shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who wants to hire him for detective work. It appears Elster’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is going slowly mad and he is concerned she may turn suicidal. Scottie accepts the job and begins to follow the beautiful blonde.
In a local museum Madeleine spends hours gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, a local socialite who committed suicide one hundred years ago. Scottie notices Madeleine wears her hair like the dead woman and follows her on a visit out to Carlotta’s grave. Scottie also learns Mrs. Elster is registered in a local hotel under the dead woman’s name. But, he doesn’t seem to notice he is falling in love with the mysterious, haunted woman. One day, Madeleine drives to the Golden Gate Bridge and throws herself into San Francisco Bay. Scottie leaps in to rescue the woman and brings her back to his apartment. He enters into an affair with the unhappy woman all the while reporting back to Elster. When Madeleine tells Scottie of a strange dream she had of a local mission he takes her there in order to confront her demons. At the site the disturbed woman breaks free of Scottie and climbs up a bell tower. Unable to follow her up to the top because of his vertigo, Scottie watches helplessly as she falls to her death on the roof below.
Scottie is cleared of wrongdoing at the inquest, but he is a shattered man. After spending several months recovering at a rest home, Scottie returns to San Francisco where he wanders the streets aimlessly. One day, he meets a young woman in the street who resembles Madeleine. Scottie follows the frumpy Judy Barton up to her apartment where he finally succeeds in getting a date with the wary shop girl. Once Scottie leaves, we learn through a flashback told from Judy’s point of view she had indeed masqueraded as Madeleine so Elster, her then lover, could kill his wife. Judy tries to write an explanation to Scottie, but rather than skipping town she tears the note up and pursues a relationship with the man she wronged.
But rather than love Judy for who she is, Scottie wants to make Judy over into Madeleine. Resisting his demands every step of the way, Judy finally succumbs. Relieved at finally having pleased Scottie, Judy relaxes her guard and makes the fatal error of putting on Madeleine’s necklace, a final gift from Elster. Scottie recognizes the piece of jewelry and drives Judy back to the mission where he drags her up the bell tower trying to get her to admit to the crime. Judy begs to him for forgiveness but it falls on deaf ears. Just after Scottie realizes he has conquered his fear of heights a nun suddenly appears out of the darkness, frightening Judy who falls to her death.
Upon its release, Vertigo baffled and disappointed most audiences who were not anticipating such a rich soufflé of filmmaking. Even today, it is not uncommon for first-time viewers of the film to be slightly put-off. The looping plot, density of detail and air of melancholia can only be fully grasped by multiple screenings. Despite its murder mystery plot and noir-like ramifications, Vertigo doesn’t fit any sort of genre. It is Hitchcock’s art-film, the work present and future critics will disseminate to get at the mystery of its creator. Despite all the storyboarding, the laborious pre-production and the amount of trust he placed in his actors, Hitchcock was essentially an intuitive artist.
It’s not a stretch to suggest Hitch, like Scottie Ferguson, has fallen in love with Madeleine Elster, the apparition, and the visualizing of the detective’s odyssey in pursuing the woman needed to have an unreal quality. Robert Burks’ gauzy cinematography transforms Madeleine to look out another time and place…and forever out of Scottie’s grasp. Capping a remarkable period of film acting in the postwar years, Stewart had settled in as Hitchcock’s everyman. Not as comfortable in his skin as his cockney counterpart (Cary Grant) in the Hitchcock leading man pantheon, Stewart had few peers in playing the tortured soul.
In Kim Novak, Hitchcock was fortunate to find an actress not only more luminous than the original choice to play Madeline (Vera Miles), but more talented as well. Having been beaten up by an era of critics who compared her unfavorably to Marilyn Monroe, it’s refreshing to find recent generations of audiences coming around to Novak’s fragile yet elusive screen persona. Her vulnerability works wonders here, in a role where she is only loved when masquerading as a more glamorous woman. In a scene paramount to rape, Judy allows Scottie make her over, chipping away at her dignity and stripping her soul bare; all in the name of love. But, it isn’t enough to overcome the bitter truth of the past and Scottie, like Hitchcock, ends up destroying the thing he loves.
Last, but certainly not least, one can’t experience Vertigo without being cognizant of Bernard Herrmann’s score providing the haunting undercurrent to the strange ghost story. Although Hitchcock had several excellent musical arrangers over the years, Herrmann’s scores provide a disturbing Romantic counterpoint to his collaborator’s dark humor and technical brilliance, leaving one to wonder how much better Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot could have been had he kept Bernard on board.
At the peak of his powers, Hitchcock followed his most ambitious work with another cinematic tour de force, North by Northwest. Hitch hired Ernest Lehman (original author of the deliciously nasty noir masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success) to fill in the sketchy ideas he had about a wronged man forced to flee the police in New York City then track the real criminals in a cross-country pursuit to clear his name. For the lead, no one other than Cary Grant would do as Roger Thornhill, a slightly vapid advertising executive and mama’s boy mistaken for an American agent.
While having a business lunch at the Plaza Hotel, Thornhill is seen answering a page for a Mr. Kaplan by two shady characters scouting the locale. The thugs kidnap the protesting Thornhill and deliver him to Long Island mansion to meet with Lester Townsend. Believing he is talking to Kaplan, Townsend compliments Thornhill on his clever use of disguise but quickly grows tired of his captor when he keeps up his ruse. Townsend and his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) leave Thornhill to the two thugs who pour a fifth of bourbon down his throat and set him adrift at the wheel of a car to navigate a coastal highway. The inebriated Thornhill somehow escapes but after being arrested by police for drunken driving no one, including mother Clara (Jessie Royce Landis), believes his tall kidnapping tale.
Freed on bail Thornhill returns to Townsend’s mansion to find the diplomat isn’t home but he is scheduled to speak at the United Nations that very day. Thornhill goes to the U.N. to meet with Townsend but he is introduced to a very different man (Philip Ober) who is left mystified by his the questions of his guest. As fate would have it, one of the thugs has followed Thornhill and the knife intended for him lands in Townsend’s back. Now wanted for murder, Thorndike moves to get out of town fast.
He gets on the 20th Century train for Chicago where he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a cool blonde who takes a fancy to the handsome stranger. Eve invites Roger to spend the evening in her compartment, shielding him from the police and the gang who wants to do him in. They part briefly in Chicago but later at Eve’s hotel she says she has been in contact with Kaplan who wants to meet Thornhill. Roger goes to a lonely Indiana bus stop where instead of hooking up with Kaplan he is nearly run down by a crop dusting plane which ultimately crashes into a gasoline truck.
Thornhill returns to Kaplan’s hotel in Chicago. He learns Kaplan checked earlier in the day and moved onto Rapid City, South Dakota. Thornhill spots Eve in the hotel, but she makes it clear she doesn’t want to see him again. He follows her to an auction house where he spots Eve acting chummy with Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), the man who masqueraded as Townsend in Long Island. Fearing he will be captured by Vandamm’s thugs Thornhill makes a scene and is subsequently arrested.
At the police station he meets The Professor (Leo G. Carroll), an FBI operative, who has been following Vandamm’s gang. He tries to enlist Thornhill to help recover a piece of microfilm Vandamm is smuggling out of the country. The businessman is wary of putting out until he learns Eve is actually working undercover with the Professor and is at risk of being exposed because of Thornhill. Roger follows Eve to South Dakota where at a Mount Rushmore café they stage a shooting of Thornhill that convinces Vandamm of her good intentions.
Roger tracks Vandamm, Leonard and Eve to a house where they await a plane to take them and the microfilm abroad. The suspicious (and jealous) Leonard convinces Vandamm to do away with Eve, but Thornhill snatches her and the microfilm away before the plane can take off. Trapped on top of the giant monument, the lovers scramble across the faces of the presidents until Eve slips and Leonard catches up with them. Just as the villain is ready to kill the pesky pair a shot rings out in the night, killing Leonard and freeing Eve and Thornhill to get on with some naughty business.
Buoyed by another angular and evocative Bernard Herrmann score, North by Northwest is a rip-roaring adventure that opens on a high note and never lets go. After the mood-drenched Vertigo, Hitchcock seemed in the mood for cutting loose with a film that could titillate an adult audience while entertaining the masses. Eva Marie Saint, who probably could have carved out a more interesting career had she took up Hitch’s suggestion of “sexing it up”, is truly revelatory in a role of a predatory female who seduces sex object Cary Grant. Hitchcock boldly introduced a gay angle through Leonard’s not so subtle infatuation with Vandamm, a study of sexual frustration that puts Eve’s life in even greater peril.
Upon release North by Northwest was hugely popular at the box office, but it never wowed the critics who were busy singing the praises of new European films (The 400 Blows, Breathless, La dolce vita, L’avventura, etc.) making their debuts in American theaters. But time has been kind to Hitchcock’s film and, indeed, these days this Hollywood product often looks more daring and artistically ambitious than the groundbreaking efforts by Godard, Truffaut, Fellini and Antonioni. The overhead shot tracking Thornhill’s narrow escape from the U.N., the crop duster scenes on roadside Indiana and the final delirious chase across Mount Rushmore were big, bold by-products of film’s most fertile mind…an apt pupil (!) who had grown beyond Murnau and Eisenstein.
For the final film in his Paramount contract Hitchcock, and much to the displeasure of studio executives, chose to make a low-budgeted, black and white horror film. Having been underwhelmed by the recent slew of films in the genre, Hitchcock figured he could do much better with the property he had just bought, a novel by Robert Bloch called Psycho. Hitch hired screenwriter Joseph Stefano and instructed him to update the story and make Norman Bates a more appealing character. In Bloch’s book Norman is middle-aged and overweight and neither trait would apply for the bird-like young actor Hitch had in mind for the role, Anthony Perkins.
Hitchcock’s macabre masterwork opens with a handsome couple finishing their lovers’ tryst in a Phoenix hotel. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) gets dressed to return to her secretarial job while Sam Loomis (John Gavin) prepares for the long drive back to his home in Northern California. Despite the liaison, their relationship has hit the wall since Sam doesn’t have enough money for them to marry. Back at work, Marion is asked to deposit $40,000 of a client’s money in the bank before she goes home for the weekend. She agrees to the task, but instead of driving to the bank she takes the money home and packs to leave town. On the long drive to Sam’s, pangs of guilt creep over Marion who thinks she is being watched at every turn.
After sleeping in her car the first night, she stops at a lonely hotel off the highway to get some rest before confronting Sam. She is checked-in by friendly Norman Bates (Perkins) who lives with his mother in an old house adjacent to the hotel. After having dinner and a conversation with the lonely young man, Marion decides to do the right thing and return to Phoenix with the money the next day. But before she goes to bed, she is stabbed to death in the shower by what looks like an old woman. Back at the house, we hear Norman screaming at his bloodied mother. He rushes back to Marion’s room where she has died from her wounds. Covering up mother’s crime, Norman dumps Marion’s body and the money in the trunk of her car and sinks it in a swamp nearby.
A couple days later Private Investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) shows up at the hotel and begins to ask Norman questions about the missing Marion. His curiosity is piqued when he finds Norman had lied about her checking into the hotel. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) arrives in town and along with Sam she begins an investigation of their own. Arbogast tells Lila and Sam he’s not satisfied with what Norman told him and he’s going back to the hotel to sniff around. After not finding Norman at the office the P.I. enters the old house and just as he has finished climbing the stairs the old woman rushes out of her room and stabs Arbogast to death. Once again, Norman is compelled to bury Arbogast and his car in the swamp.
When Sam and Lila hear nothing from Arbogast, they check into the hotel masqueraded as a couple. Sam confronts Norman in the office while Lila sneaks into the house. She slowly descends the stairs to a basement room where Mrs. Bates appears to be sitting in a chair with her face to an opposite wall. She turns to chair and is horrified to find the old woman’s dead and decaying skull grinning back at her. In the doorway, Sam tackles the knife-wielding Norman decked out in his mother’s clothes. The killer lets out a final silent scream before sinking to the floor. In the tidy epilogue we learn Norman killed his mother and her lover ten years before but preserved her body as if nothing had happened. A police psychologist (Simon Oakland) explains Norman had advanced schizophrenia and his mother’s personality had taken over.
Hitch wrapped Psycho under budget and the shocker went on to be one his most profitable and highly influential films ever. Hitchcock pushed the envelope in bold and revolutionary ways. The seamless point of view shift from Marion Crane to Norman Bates and the Expressionistic shower sequence which brings the audience into the shower for every gruesome stab are two examples of subjective filmmaking at its finest. Unfortunately, these scenes have been copped and emulated over the decades by dozens of horror filmmakers who continue to forsake Hitch’s wit and sensibility for mere shocks and titillation. And last but not least, after years of portraying mothers as benign monsters Hitchcock finally created a poor soul who is essentially castrated by a domineering mama who, of course, wins in the end.
Emboldened by the popularity of Psycho, Hitchcock next chose to make an even more experimental film about an animal species which, for some inexplicable reason, would turn its fury on mankind. Based on a Daphne Du Maurier story and an Evan Hunter screenplay, The Birds would be Hitch’s most pre-planned film. The director relied heavily on his usual crack production staff as well as designer Robert F. Boyle, storyboard artist Harold Michelson and countless other artisans who contributed gorgeous matte paintings, blue-screen process cinematography and special effects, the eerie, electronically devised soundtrack (conceived and composed by Oskar Sala, Remi Gassmann & Herrmann) and, of course, those ornithologists who trained the wide variety of birds used in the film. Hunter and Hitch moved the main locale of the narrative from Cornwall to Bodega Bay, a pretty hamlet up the coast from San Francisco.
The Birds opens with a comedic sequence in which socialite Melanie Daniels masquerades as a bird shop employee in order to flirt with handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Rebuffed but not put off by Mitch’s rudeness, Melanie follows him to Bodega Bay where she plans to give his little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) a pair of lovebirds for her birthday. In Bodega Bay, Melanie asks schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) for directions to the Brenner’s house, unaware the pretty brunette holds a torch for Mitch, her former lover.
Melanie takes a boat across the bay to Mitch’s house and after leaving the birds she is attacked by a seagull on her trip back to town. Mitch sees to Melanie’s wounds at a local diner and the couple is ready to write off the incident as a fluke of nature, until a fisherman says his boat had been recently under attack by a flock of birds. Over the next few days the attacks become more frequent and grow in force as the birds lay siege to the town and its inhabitants. Finally, Melanie and the Brenners take refuge in Mitch’s house, where the birds gather for their final attack.
As with Psycho Hitchcock turns the tables on his audience, setting them up for what seems like a romantic comedy before shifting gears and delivering a spooky story worthy of The Twilight Zone or his hit television show. As Melanie gets more personally involved with Mitch, the Brenners and Annie she becomes something of a gilded bird in a cage, trapped in Bodega Bay and ready to be victimized. Here, the subjective eye shifts from Melanie to the birds who, in a chilling scene, gather overheard to watch a gas station burn to the ground after their latest attack.
Hitchcock chose to keep the birds’ motives a mystery, so his film wouldn’t resemble just another one of the many hokey science-fiction flicks littering the screens at the time. While this choice may have frustrated audiences (the film wasn’t a big hit), it helped provide for one of Hitchcock’s more haunting finales where the tiny, but deadly, predators watch calmly as Mitch, Melanie and the Brenners flee the devastated house and drive out of town.
Several years in the making, Marnie (based on a novel by British suspense author Winston Graham) was intended as a comeback film for Grace Kelly. Hitchcock was disappointed when he learned Prince Rainier had disapproved of his wife playing a thief, thus ending any possibility of her involvement in the project. Weary of the new generation of actors and actresses weaned on the Method, Hitch now sought to mold his leading ladies into screen personalities like Kelly; cool, elegant creatures with simmering sexual desires.
Like Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren had little experience in acting before signing a contract with Hitchcock. Having spent ten years working as a commercial model, Hedren was given a crash course in film acting, Hitchcock-style, before getting a major role in The Birds. Hitch hoped Hedren, a stunning blonde with aristocratic features, would project the same sort of mystery and inscrutability on the big screen as Kelly, Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint.
Marnie Edgar (Hedren) is a hardened, small-time criminal who masquerades as a secretary for a coterie of admiring professional men. Having built up a nest egg by embezzling from her employers Marnie’s unsavory business is finally exposed by Mark (Sean Connery), a handsome heir to the Rutland fortune. After catching Marnie red-handed, Mark decides to marry the cool-headed thief in the hopes of reforming her. Marnie gives into Mark but while on their honeymoon she refuses to let him consummate their marriage. She has a deep hatred of men, the result of a blocked-out incident from her past. She mocks Mark when he plays the amateur psychologist to try to get to the root of her troubles.
Finally, Mark drags Marnie back to her humble childhood home in Baltimore to confront her bitter mother (Louise Latham). Faced with the likelihood of her daughter having a complete meltdown, Mrs. Edgar comes clean. Forced to support herself and daughter in the war years, she turned tricks in her home. But on one stormy night one of her liaisons went terribly wrong. She gets into an argument with one of her johns, a sailor (Bruce Dern), who beats her. Young Marnie hears the ruckus and waking from her slumber she stabs the man to death. In order to shelter Marnie from the ensuing scandal, Mrs. Edgar takes the blame for the “self-defense” killing and begins a life of deep denial for both mother and daughter.
After the extraordinarily high artistic and technical achievements of Hitchcock’s recent films, Marnie took a critical bashing for the director’s sloppiness and Hedren’s aloof screen personality. But, there’s more than meets the eye here. Unlike most of Hitch’s work, Marnie is not a Romantic film. Its most compelling scenes (Mark’s mental and physical rape of the frigid Marnie) are logical and disturbing extensions of James Stewart’s makeover of Kim Novak in Vertigo. Taking time off from playing the cocksure James Bond, Connery is creepy and controlling as the sexually frustrated husband.
Hedren’s restrained performance as the seething, bottled-up blonde gives Marnie an edge that has kept some Hitch scholars and general audiences from wholeheartedly embracing it. Hitchcock’s behavior towards his leading lady ended their professional relationship and led to scurrilous rumors spread by writers who were forever analyzing the warped motives of unattractive, overweight man sitting behind the camera. Still, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion that Hitchcock projected himself into the parts of Scottie Ferguson and Mark Rutland for both men, like Hitch, are creators who work painstakingly hard in bringing their fantasies to fruition. Stung by the public’s rejection of these two personal films, Hitchcock would never attempt to dig so deep, and fly so high, again.
With the popularity of his long-running television shows on the wane and feeling snubbed by the lackluster box office receipts from The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock returned to a genre he had first found success with in the 1930s: the espionage thriller. Buoyed by the massive popularity of the recent James Bond series and Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Hitchcock served up his own take on Free World-Communist relations in his next two films. Based on a screenplay by Irish novelist Brian Moore Torn Curtain is the story of Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), a nuclear physicist based at Princeton who defects to East Germany while on a trip to Scandinavia.
Frustrated in his attempts to get the U.S. government to ok his ambitious nuclear project, Armstrong arranges his own flight to East Berlin much to the horror of his fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who, unbeknownst to Michael, comes along for the ride. Once behind the Iron Curtain Michael tries to arrange a meeting with German physicist Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) who has a secret formula the American needs to learn to complete his project. In the meantime, Sarah learns Michael is working undercover to steal the formula but the killing of his bodyguard Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) has aroused the suspicions of the East Germans. The odds against the desperate American couple escaping from behind the Curtain grow higher by the minute.
Since Torn Curtain got bad notices and was not remembered with much fondness by Hitchcock, Moore, Newman or Andrews the film has always had a lackluster reputation. It is unfortunate because Torn Curtain has complex examples of humanity; the citizens behind the Curtain are not all suspicious Communists who toe the party line. Saddled with two chilly leading players Hitchcock gave his fine character actors (including Lila Kedrova as the Polish Countess and Tamara Tournanova as a bitter ballerina) much opportunity to shine and these excellent ensemble performances help keep the improbable plot afloat.
Hitch’s next film Topaz, based on a Leon Uris novel, is the director’s most sprawling film—in a geographical sense. Set in the days before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the main thread of the story mostly follows Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), a French Intelligence agent based in Washington D.C. As a favor to his friend and American agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe), Devereaux uses his Harlem connections to infiltrate visiting members of Castro’s cabinet and get vital information on a ring of French diplomats supplying secrets to Moscow. After being deported from Havana, then Washington, Devereaux returns to Paris where he finds his old friends Henri Jarre (Philippe Noiret) and Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli) to be the heads of the spy ring. Devereaux’s perseverance helps break up the French connection but Granville eludes the law and defects to Moscow.
Freed from the studio-bound regimen Hitchcock & Co. did a surprising amount of location shooting for Topaz. This helped breathe fresh air into the master’s method but it also made his new 143 minute film feel choppy and episodic. The lack of star power in Topaz also served as a source of complaint by audiences spoiled by Hitchcock’s impeccable choice of leading men and ladies. Stafford is serviceable in a stiff Bond-ish sort of way, but acting kudos should be saved for two of France’s finest leading men (Piccoli and Noiret) in small parts, adding dignity and slippery menace to a project in search of true grit.
The poor critical and public reception to Topaz convinced Hitchcock to go small for his next project or else slide gracefully into retirement. Hitch bought the rights to Arthur La Bern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square and after considering filming this lurid tale of an impotent serial killer in California, he decided to shoot the film on location in London. The popular playwright Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) was brought on to write the screenplay for Frenzy and Hitchcock returned to his hometown which received him with open arms.
Set near his father’s old stomping grounds at Covent Garden produce market, the dark and twisted story follows the desperate plight of Dick Blaney (Jon Finch) a bitter bartender who is wrongly accused of being the city’s notorious necktie murderer. After being fired from his job at a local pub for pinching free drinks, Blaney visits his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) at her clinic for lonely hearts. After a particularly unpleasant dinner, she slips a twenty pound note into his coat pocket to tide him over. The next day Blaney discovers the money so he treats his current girlfriend and former co-worker at the pub, Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), to an afternoon tryst at a fancy hotel. Meanwhile, Brenda has had a fateful encounter with the sinister Mr. Robinson, a former client who wants to solicit women from her agency. Brenda tries to dissuade Mr. Robinson but he overpowers her, raping then strangling her in particularly gruesome fashion.
We know this man to be Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a local produce buyer and an acquaintance of Blaney’s. When Blaney and Babs learn of his implication in Barbara’s murder, they escape from their hotel and are given shelter from an old friend from Dick’s military days Johnny Porter (Clive Swift). Babs returns to Covent Garden where she tries to retrieves Dick’s possessions from the pub. After being harassed and persecuted by the owner she runs into Bob Rusk in the street who offers her shelter from the storm. Rusk leads Babs up to his flat where he rapes and murders her, which further implicates Blaney in these series of crimes.
Unwilling to keep Blaney under wraps for another day, Porter evicts his old friend and in desperation Dick returns to Covent Garden where his old friend Rusk lets him hideout in his flat. Rusk turns Blaney in to the police and the innocent man is subsequently tried and convicted for the necktie murder. Feeling uneasy about the case, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowan) quietly reopens the investigation and begins to accumulate evidence against the man he thinks is the murderer: Rusk. Blaney escapes from a prison hospital and returns to the city to kill Rusk, but instead he takes a lead pipe to another corpse. Inspector Oxford catches Blaney in Rusk’s flat just as the produce buyer returns with a large trunk to dispose of his latest victim.
While Frenzy is clearly a return to form for Hitchcock it is also a downbeat and repugnant film. The pugnacious Jon Finch is the most selfish and unsympathetic Hitchcock wrong man and dowdy Anna Massey is one of his most unlikely leading ladies. Barry Foster, looking eerily like Michael Caine, nearly steals the film as we discover the depth of his depravity and the hideousness of his crimes. Despite Hitchcock’s antipathy towards the police, we shift our sympathies to Inspector Oxford who is tormented by the belief he has sent the wrong man to prison and his wife’s ghastly gourmet cooking.
Much comic relief is offered in the infamous scene in the back of a potato truck where Rusk breaks the fingers of a corpse to retrieve the tie-pin which would condemn him and Oxford’s awkward confrontations with the missus (Vivien Merchant) whose nightly concoctions are nowhere near as nutritious as her as sage legal advice. Capturing the dark spirit of the times, Frenzy was a big hit and made the seventy-two year old Hitchcock a major player in Hollywood, once again.
Hitch returned to the United States excited by the prospect of making films again, but weight problems and various illnesses brought on by his advanced age were beginning to take a toll. Hitchcock reunited with North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman to adapt The Rainbird Pattern, Victor Canning’s dark novel about British con artists and jewel thieves into what would turn out to be his lighthearted swan song Family Plot. Relocating the action to California, Hitchcock and Lehman restructured the murky mystery into a tale of two couples destined to crisscross and collide on a dangerous path.
When local matriarch Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbit) offers psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) $10,000 to find the true heir to her fortune Blanche enlists boyfriend George Lumely (Bruce Dern) to help locate the missing man. A bit of sleuthing leads the pair to a headstone in a graveyard where the heir is said to be buried with his adoptive parents, perishing in a fire twenty years earlier. Meanwhile, local jeweler Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) lead double lives as successful kidnappers who are accumulating a nice collection of rare and expensive stones. When George learns the heir’s grave is empty his investigation leads him to Maloney (Ed Lauter) the man who bought the headstone.
It turns out Maloney is working for Adamson but his fear of being exposed as the arsonist who killed the heir’s parents turns him against George and Blanche. Maloney rigs Blanche’s car leading to a thrilling and hilarious ride down a mountain road. The couple manages to survive both this ordeal and another attempt on their lives by Maloney whose car then plunges over a cliff. Convinced Adamson is their man Blanche goes to the jeweler’s house to give him the good news, but she interrupts the kidnappers as they are about to exchange a Bishop for their most expensive stone to date.
The expert criminals are tripped up by the bumbling gumshoes ending Hitchcock’s most unassuming film since The Trouble with Harry. In one of her all too rare screen performances Barbara Harris is charming as the wacky psychic who uses sidekick Bruce Dern for companionship and sex. A late addition to the cast, snarky William Devane is the last in a line of great Hitchcock villains.
Family Plot disappointed recent converts seduced by the darkness of Frenzy and though Hitchcock didn’t want to end his career on a sour note he became too sickly to make another movie. As befit the changing filmmaking tastes of the early 1970s, both Frenzy and Family Plot play more Impressionist than Expressionist. But, the very freshness of these quirky films recalled those quicksilver capers of the 1930s, on which the young man from London cut his teeth, and succeed nicely in rounding out the arc of an extraordinary career.
Books on Hitchcock:
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light – Patrick McGilligan ***** This massive and masterful biography on the self-effacing filmmaker and great artist hasn’t been given its just due and that is a shame. McGilligan’s authoritative tome provides a “fair and balanced” look at what went on behind the scenes and repairs much of the damage done to the master’s personal reputation by Donald Spoto’s bestselling biography. Quite unlike his otherwise brilliant biography on Fritz Lang, McGilligan never sours on his subject, helping to make it whopping good read. If you love the cinema, you must read this.
Hitchcock’s Films Revisited – Robin Wood ***** The best critical book written about Hitch, so far. Wood’s meticulous breakdown of the films, his unfailing critical taste and infectious enthusiasm makes it essential reading for any film scholar.
Hitchcock/Truffaut ***** The brilliant critic/director Truffaut’s enthusiasm for the master’s oeuvre seems to stimulate the notoriously reserved Hitchcock, making their give and take dialogue into a funny, provocative and grandly illuminating affair. Often imitated but never duplicated, this is a great book about the filmmaking process.
The Dark Side Of Genius: The Life Of Alfred Hitchcock – Donald Spoto **** Spoto’s controversial biography often paints Hitchcock as a man uncomfortable in his skin who took out his sexual frustrations on his leading ladies. Having been released shortly after Hitchcock’s death, almost in conjunction with the re-releases of Rear Window and Vertigo, this well-written chronicle of the director’s professional and personal career helped spur new interest in one of the artistic geniuses of the century.
It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock: A Personal Biography – Charlotte Chandler **** This affectionate “as told to” biography is filled with insightful interviews with Hitch, Alma, daughter Pat, as well as many other friends and professional family. Chandler has first rate critical chops and delivers a nutritious and snappy read.
Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews – Sidney Gottleib (editor) **** This is an excellent compilation of interviews and essays written by the master spanning from the beginning of his career to the autumn of his years. While not as essential as Hitchcock/Truffaut many of these pieces find Hitch in a more relaxed and revealing mode.
Hitchcock, the First Forty-Four Films – Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol ***1/2 Two greats of the French New Wave team up to chronicle and interpret the master’s oeuvre through The Wrong Man. A book by master filmmakers about a genius filmmaker can’t help but be fascinating (it is), but we have to strike this a half star for lack of completeness. Out of print.
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures – Donald Spoto ***1/2 Rather than discuss Hitch’s films in-depth in his racy bio of the master, Spoto put together this informed book of analysis for film buffs.
Focus on Hitchcock – Albert J. LaValley (editor) *** A fine collection of essays from Hitch, Bogdanovich, Sarris, Bazin, Kael, Agee, all available elsewhere. Out of print.
Hitch: The Life And Times And Alfred Hitchcock – John Russell Taylor *** A serviceable bio from a veteran of the Hollywood scene. Recommended to those rendered squeamish by the Spoto book. Out of print.
Feature Films by Hitchcock:
1926 The Lodger ***1/2
1927 Downhill ***1/2
1927 The Ring ***1/2
1927 Easy Virtue ***
1928 The Farmer’s Wife ****
1928 Champagne ***
1929 The Manxman ***
1929 Blackmail ***1/2
1930 Juno and the Paycock ***
1930 Murder ***1/2
1931 The Skin Game ***1/2
1932 Rich and Strange ***1/2
1932 Number 17 ***1/2
1933 Waltzes From Vienna ***
1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much ****
1935 The 39 Steps ****1/2
1936 Secret Agent ***1/2
1937 Sabotage ****
1938 Young and Innocent ****
1938 The Lady Vanishes ****
1939 Jamaica Inn ***1/2
1940 Rebecca ****
1940 Foreign Correspondent ****
1941 Mr. & Mrs. Smith ***1/2
1941 Suspicion ****
1942 Saboteur ****
1943 Shadow of a Doubt *****
1944 Lifeboat ****
1945 Spellbound ****
1946 Notorious ****1/2
1947 The Paradine Case ***1/2
1948 Rope ***1/2
1949 Under Capricorn ***1/2
1950 Stage Fright ****
1951 Strangers on a Train *****
1953 I Confess ****
1954 Dial M For Murder ****
1954 Rear Window ****1/2
1955 To Catch a Thief ****1/2
1956 The Trouble With Harry ***1/2
1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much ****1/2
1956 The Wrong Man ****
1958 Vertigo *****
1959 North By Northwest ****1/2
1960 Psycho ****1/2
1963 The Birds ****1/2
1965 Marnie ****1/2
1966 Torn Curtain ****
1969 Topaz ****
1972 Frenzy ****
1976 Family Plot ****
Documentary & Television Films by Hitchcock:
1944 Bon Voyage ***1/2
1944 Adventure malgache ***1/2
1955 Revenge ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1955 Breakdown ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1955 The Case of Mr. Pelham ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1956 Back for Christmas ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1956 Wet Saturday ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1956 Mr. Blanchard’s Secret ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1957 One More Mile to Go **** (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1957 The Perfect Crime ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1957 Four O’clock ***1/2 (Suspicion-TV Series)
1958 Lamb to the Slaughter **** (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1958 Dip in the Pool **** (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1958 Poison ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1959 Banquo’s Chair ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1959 Arthur **** (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1959 The Crystal Trench ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1960 Incident at a Corner ***1/2 (Suspicion-TV Series)
1960 Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1961 The Horse Player ***1/2 (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1961 Bang! You’re Dead **** (Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1962 I Saw the Whole Thing ***1/2 ( The Alfred Hitchcock Hour)
2014 Memory of the Camps ***1/2 (w/Sidney Bernstein)