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Retrospective: The Films Of Alfred Hitchcock Pt. 2 (1940-1976, The Hollywood Years)

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton 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."
6

Shadow Of A Doubt
"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943)
Inspired by Thornton Wilder's famous Rockwellian vision of small town America in "Our Town," Hitchcock turns the fantasy inside out with "Shadow of a Doubt." The story follows young teenager Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), who longs for excitement, which arrives in the form of her namesake, her cultured Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten). When two undercover cops show up working on a "survey" of the average American family, they reveal to her that her beloved uncle may in fact be the serial killer known as the "Merry Widow Murderer," and Charlie is forced to question her own blind loyalty to her favourite Uncle (a relationshiop that is already dripping with incestuous overtones). Cotten puts in a great show as the charming and debonair Uncle Charlie, making it as hard for audiences as it is for his niece, at first, to believe he may be a serial killer underneath it all. Hitchcock, ever a master of setting and place, creates the perfect average American family in an average American small town, complete with a chatty neighbourhood policeman to Emma Newton’s insistence that a cake cannot be made just for pictures. Park Chan-wook's upcoming "Stoker" seems to be a homage to this one, but the Korean director will have a tough task living up to its inspiration. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Playing cards with his back to the camera on the train, seventeen minutes in.

Lifeboat
"Lifeboat" (1944)
Hitchcock was always fond of putting limitations on his work in order to see what creative solutions he could come up with in order to get around his self-imposed constraints, and “Lifeboat” is one of the triumphs of these experiments. Hitch came up with the idea for the film before approaching several writers to help write it. John Steinbeck is credited with the story, though Ben Hecht, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reveille, and several other writers contributed as well. Set in a single lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, the director manages to create a dynamic character piece, all within one claustrophobic space, and no score to manipulate things either, just the slap of waves against the hull. Star Tallulah Bankhead, as an imperious newspaper columnist, finds herself aboard with a group of diverse survivors after the ship they are on and a German U-boat sink each other. The morality play of the story begins when they pull a German survivor aboard, and they must decide as a group what to do. It’s a neat little microcosm representative of larger world issues, an exploration of systems of belief coming at the end of WWII. And of course Hitch works around his limitations with his signature elan, layering characters within the frame in order to create a visually appealing frame and constantly moving plot, within the structure of a rather tiresome locale. Because of its nuanced portrayal of the German character, the film courted controversy upon its release but was still praised by critics and rewarded with Oscar noms (including Hitch's second directorial nod). It’s an interesting film that deals with questions of conflict and humanity on an intimate scale, and yet another example of Hitchcock using limitations as a creative force for his work. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: One of the most cunning (given the limitations of the setting): he can be glimpsed 25 minutes in as the "before" and "after" picture for “Reduco Obesity Slayer” in a newspaper (see photo).

Spellbound
"Spellbound" (1945)
Though the plot becomes distractingly convoluted by the end, there’s actually a lot to like about this tale of an accused, innocent man struck by amnesia and the female psychoanalyst determined to clear him of the murderous charges. Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, an aloof shrink at a Vermont mental hospital who quickly mounts a close relationship with the new director, Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). But the young administrator isn’t who he seems to be, and his intense fear of parallel-lines-on-white arouses some justifiable suspicion by Peterson, who uncovers his false identity by comparing the actual Edwardes’s signature (autographed in his book) and the impostor’s. Peck goes on the run, adopting the pseudonym John Brown, while his main squeeze uses her abilities of psychoanalysis to find out who he actually is and why his mental state is so damaged. This leads to an impressionable dream sequence constructed by Salvador Dali, a section that the film is probably best known for at this point, and amusingly one that had very little to do with Hitchcock himself. It’s an even greater shame because the director pulled in some really strong work, from various off-putting camera angles (one a POV of someone drinking, seen through the tipped glass) to an OCD freak-out by Peck in a bathroom filled with, yes, many parallel lines on white. A superb, sturdy turn by Bergman (always reliable) would be the icing on the cake if not for the dippy conclusion, which is up there with “North by Northwest” in having a happy ending so tacked on and silly that you can’t possibly hate it. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: 43 minutes in, coming out of an elevator with a violin case.

Notorious
"Notorious" (1946)
You’re going to have to give us a moment, dear reader. We’re going to need time for a cold shower (behind our “Psycho” shower curtain, naturally) after watching Hitchcock’s sexiest scene. Rather than let the Production Code keep the chemistry between leads Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” at an acceptable level, Hitchcock twisted the code’s rules to create an intimate scene that leaves both his leads and the audience breathless. In 1946, on-screen kisses couldn’t last more than three seconds, so Hitchcock broke up the brief, fevered kisses between the incredibly attractive pair with them nuzzling each other. It sounds very PG, but trust us: this moment is far sexier than the Code had intended to allow. What else gives us a movie boner in “Notorious”? The gasp-worthy cinematography from Ted Tetzlaff is gorgeous, with more than a handful of images that have us in awe, including a tracking shot in a Rio mansion. There’s a plot in here somewhere, but it’s less about getting from point A to point B and more about the love story between Grant’s agent T.R. Devlin and Bergman’s Alicia Huberman. Devlin enlists Alicia to seduce and eventually marry Nazi Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), despite his own love for her as he places her in danger and in a relationship with a charming enemy. The Macguffin in “Notorious” is a uranium-filled wine bottle, but what’s far more engaging is the push and pull between Devlin and Alicia. Romances have been present in many of Hitchcock’s films, but this is one of the few movies where it surpasses his trademark thrills and suspense in its bid for our attention. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Drinking champagne at Claude Rains’ party at the 1:04:44 mark.

The Paradine Case
"The Paradine Case" (1947)
One of the most contentious productions Hitch ever faced, it's understandable why "The Paradine Case" is found outside the canon. Hitchcock's final film under contract with David O. Selznick, it was rewritten (Selznick has a script credit, along with the great Ben Hecht) and recut ad nauseum, and only surviving in truncated form (the original negative was destroyed in a flood in 1980), it's an undeniably half-formed picture. Furthermore, it feels half-hearted too, as Hitchcock wanted Greta Garbo and Laurence Olivier for the two leads (the foreign beauty accused of poisoning her blind husband, and her barrister, who falls in love with her). Instead, he ended up with Italian actress Alida Valli ("The Third Man") and Gregory Peck. No slouches, either of them, but this is another of those films where the director can often feel like he's going through the motions; formally, certainly, there's not a lot to really raise the pulse, the director reverting to the somewhat stagey form of some of his early 1930s work (in fact, Hitchcock was experimenting with shooting with up to four cameras simultaneously, but one never really feels the effect). That said, there are some real gems to be found in the supporting cast -- the great Charles Laughton as the Judge, Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and the ludicrously handsome real-life resistance hero Louis Jourdan (the future star of "Gigi") as the servant who may or may not have been involved in the killing. And even if he wasn't Hitchcock's first choice, Peck impresses by the time the gut-punch conclusion rolls around. It's a mess, certainly (one can only wonder if the much, much longer director's cut would salvage thing, but you suspect not), but not necessarily the absolute disaster that history's sometimes made it out to be. [C-]
Hitchcock Cameo: 38 minutes in, taking a cello off the train (continuing the theme from “Spellbound”).

This article is related to: Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock, The Essentials, Features


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