By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 31, 2012 at 12:59PM
In the late 1930s, with films like "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes" having proven global hits, the New York Times wrote: "Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world." And unsurprisingly, he came to the attention of Hollywood, with David O. Selznick signing the filmmaker to an exclusive contract, and bringing him over to direct "Rebecca."
And over the next 35 years, Hitchcock produced almost a film per year, including a selection of thrillers that number among the finest ever made (including "Vertigo," named by international critics this year as the greatest film ever). Becoming an icon thanks to his recognizable figure and high public profile, he produced and presented the long-running "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," which along with a long string of box office hits, made him one of the few filmmakers who was also a bona fide household name.
This period, starting with 1940's Best Picture-winning "Rebecca," saw Hitchcock nominated for five Best Director Academy Awards, but the filmmaker never won, bar the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in 1968. But it's the quality of many of the films of his Hollywood years that lingers long past any awards. With a new Blu-ray box-set in stores this week, we've been looking at the directors' career, and after examining his early silent and British films yesterday, we finish off today with the Hollywood era, from "Rebecca" in 1940 to "Family Plot" in 1976. Read on below.
Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier (she wrote the source material for “The Birds” and “Jamaica Inn”), Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” is a textbook and classic psychological drama that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. Starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, “Rebecca” centers on an unnamed and naive heroine (Fontaine), who by chance, meets the aristocratic widower Maximilian de Winter (Olivier) in Monte Carlo and the two quickly fall in love. Maxim whisks her off to Manderlay, his large country estate in Cornwall, and all seems well, but the new Mrs. de Winter gets the cold, cold shoulder from the staff and servants who can’t seem to accept her, especially the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who is particularly unpleasant and borderline sadistic. Having died under mysterious circumstances, the staff appears to have a strong loyalty to the former Mrs. de Winter (the titular Rebecca) and view this new girl as an interloper (her old bedroom is even preserved as a shrine). Exacerbating issues is Maxim, clearly still troubled from his deceased wife’s death and then his disappearance from the household on business, leaving the staff to mistreat the new Mrs. de Winter. And a full-fold conspiracy seems to be afoot. The evil Mrs. Danvers even suggests that the new bride should commit suicide and the slimey Jack (George Sanders), Rebecca’s cousin, goads Danvers in her persecution of the new Mrs. de Winter. Featuring ominous and creepy overtones, while “Rebecca” is a noir-thriller, it is at it’s core, a great drama (minus the police procedural section that bogs it down slightly) and Mrs. de Winter’s descent into near madness because of the maltreatment of the staff is expertly pitched. Hitchcock’s first U.S. production, the heavy hand of notorious meddler David O. Selznick loomed heavy over the film. While it drove control freak Hitchcock mad in his own right, the film’s masterfully sinister and shadowy tone earned the picture a total eleven Oscar nominations. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Two hours and six minutes in, walking past the phone booth.
As a patriotic pro-war spy romp through Western Europe, "Foreign Correspondent" feels a little out of place in Hitch’s ouevre. This World War II flick bridges his earlier, more-light hearted fare with his suspense-driven and serious Hollywood films that are the better known of his work. Made in 1940 just prior to the London Blitz, Hitchcock visited his home after the shoot wrapped, and upon hearing the rumors of the German plan to bomb London, commissioned legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht to pen the stirring radio speech delivered by Joel McCrea as American reporter Johnny Jones that serves as the epilogue to the film, imploring the U.S. to come to England’s rescue. It’s a profound moment that works well to ground this juicy reporter-turned-spy film, filled with every thrill, chill and exciting moment an audience could want. But what it does so well, and where other films of this kind often fail, is in maintaining the perfect tone of fun and seriousness while still racing along on the relentless steam engine of a plot. Hitch is a master of subjective perspective and point of view, deftly manipulating how the audience sees information in order to keep them guessing. McCrea, as the slick New York reporter investigating the kidnap of a Dutch diplomat, is as charming as any leading man of his time, and Laraine Day as his love interest is both steely and sweet in this role. However, as winning as they are, they stand no chance against perpetual scene-stealer George Sanders as Euro sidekick Scott Ffolliot (his last name is one of the better running gags). The film races from one suspenseful set piece to the next, culminating in the oceanic crash of a giant airship in the Atlantic, and Hitchcock executes each with a stylish efficiency. “Foreign Correspondent” hasn’t been as well remembered as some, but those who seek it out will discover a fun and highly entertaining picture awaiting them. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Reading a newspaper at the 12:44 mark.
No, in case you're wondering, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," Hitchcock's second pure comedy (and a screwball one at that), is not the inspiration for the Doug Liman film of the same name. They really couldn't be more further apart, though Liman and Universal possibly borrowed the title to nod their caps to the same sense of warring, marital strife (albeit, not within the world of spies). In Hitchock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," his second film released in 1941, the couple at odds are Mr. David Smith (Robert Montgomery) and Mrs. Anne Smith (Carole Lombard), a relatively happy married couple who begin to fray when they learn, that based upon a technicality, their marriage is invalid. Prior to this reveal, David’s been asked a pivotal question that has troubled his wife: if he had to do it all over again, would he have married her? Expecting a romantic answer, she receives a coldly pragmatic one instead: No, he'd remain single so he could do all the things he never had a chance to do over the years because of his marital obligations. Annoyed, Anne is even more upset when she discovers she isn't legally married and her mother only exacerbates the problem by suggesting she shouldn't sleep in the same house if a proposal isn't made immediately. Amused with the idea that they aren't married and “illicitly” living together, Mr. Smith has a more leisurely approach, and soon the vexed Mrs. has booted him out of the house trying to force his hand. The set-up and the first act are rather winning and delightful in the manner many screwball comedies can be, but when Anne tries to jump ship and marry David’s best friend, business partner and Southern gentleman Jeff (Gene Raymond) instead, the comedy becomes more than a little strained. Mildly amusing, if only to see Hitchcock in a rare attempt to make a movie without suspense, terror or tension, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is an interesting little curiosity, but in the end, very inessential. The director once said he made the picture as a favor to Lombard, but according to RKO’s archives, the filmmaker pursued the project himself. [C]
Hitchcock Cameo: Walking past Robert Montgomery at 0:42:57.
1941 appeared to be the year Hitchcock was in a more jovial mood, and the light tone of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" to have carried over to “Suspicion,” which for the first half of the picture feels more like a romantic comedy. Playing against type, Cary Grant (who starred in four Hitchcock films in total, this being the first), plays a handsome and charming ne'er-do-well who is ultimately a big good-for-nothing louse. He steals from friends, gets fired from jobs and doesn’t have a penny to his name, but that doesn’t stop him from convincing the naive and wealthy Joan Fontaine from marrying him. To make a buck so he’ll never have to really work an honest day in his life, Grant’s irresponsible character tries one shady business scheme after another. This leads Fontaine to eventually suspect that Grant is plotting to kill her so he can attain her lucrative life insurance policy. Her suspicion is only piqued when Grant’s best friend (played by Nigel Bruce) -- the man he convinced to fund his latest get-rich-quick scheme -- dies under mysterious circumstances during a trip to Paris. The ending turns things on its head when Grant’s character is revealed -- during a fight of pure exposition -- to not have been in Paris at the time of his friend's death, and never once having plotted to kill her. Instead, desperate, he had been considering suicide because of his various debts but is now willing to face the music for the embezzlement crimes he’s been involved in earlier. The picture is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about dangers of groundless suspicion based only on assumed, incomplete, and circumstantial evidence. Be that as it may, Grant’s Johnny character is still a total shit bag. His “redemption” comes out of nowhere and pretty much tonally betrays the entire set-up of the picture, with all signs pointing to Grant being a premeditated killer on top of a scumbag schemer. Well, it turns out in Francis Francis Iles’ original novel, Grant’s Johnny does try to kill her, but RKO wouldn’t let Hitchcock script that ending, let alone shoot it. Complaining aside, like most of Hitchcock’s films, regardless if the character motivations don’t make sense in the end or if those characters are total shits, it’s a terrifically crafted and entertaining picture. Fontaine won the Academy Award for Best Actress and it was even nominated for Best Picture. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Hitch posts a letter 45 minutes in, but some have suggested that the figure pulling a horse past the camera at the 0:04 mark is also the director, which would make one of only two films to have two cameos from the director.
An innocent man on the run would be a theme Hitchcock would revisit time and time again, and “Saboteur” was arguably a dry run for “North By Northwest.” The difference here is that, constructed in the middle of WWII as it was, the theme of patriotism runs deep throughout the film just as it did in “Foreign Correspondent” (so much so you’d assume the director was American if you didn’t know better). “Saboteur” centers on aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) who flees across the United States when he is wrongly accused of starting a fire that killed his best friend. But Kane is actually the patsy for Nazi spies who have a much bigger scheme in place. Aware that a man posing as a soldier named Fry (Norman Lloyd) is the true criminal, Kane tries to clear his name by following the clues that bring him closer to the true source, and on his journey he discovers an elaborate conspiracy to blow up the launch of a U.S. Navy vessel at a Brooklyn shipyard. Along the way, he meets Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane), the typically unwilling and suspicious blonde heroine who finally concedes to the fact that Kane isn’t a crackpot and is telling the truth. The picture culminates in a breathtakingly suspenseful set-piece at the top of the Statue of Liberty that is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable endings. Seminal American writer/poet Dorothy Parker was brought on by Universal to punch up a few dialogue scenes, most of them of the patriotic sort. While not his best, “Saboteur” is as entertaining as they come and timely: production began less than two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: One hour and four minutes in, standing in front of a drug store.