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

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
October 31, 2012 12:59 PM
6 Comments
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"Rope" (1948)
Based on Patrick Hamilton’s play, Hitchcock’s first Technicolor offering indeed feels like a stage adaptation, with its limited location and small set of players. But what most people remember about “Rope” is the central gimmick of the film: Hitchcock wanted to create the appearance of the movie being shot in a single take. This would be a feat now, but what made it particularly challenging then was the physical limitation of film itself, which only allowed for 10 minutes of shooting at a time. The transitions to cover this (such as zooming in on the darkness of an actor’s jacket) feel gimmicky, but it’s fun to see the auteur challenge himself technically. As for the actual story, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) decide to commit the perfect murder of their schoolmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan) merely because they can, and then the pair hosts a dinner party with David’s relatives and friends as guests who unknowingly dine inches away from their beloved’s body. Complicating matters is the appearance of Brandon and Phillip’s former teacher, Rupert (James Stewart), whose philosophical teachings inspired his students’ crime. The relationship between Brandon and Phillip is part of the intrigue; to modern audiences, it’s clear that they’re romantically involved, but to satisfy the Production Code standards, the script from Arthur Laurents (based on a treatment from actor and Hitchcock favorite Hume Cronyn) skirts what they called “it," even if it walks pretty close to the line of revealing the pair’s sexuality at times. Even if you aren’t diving too deeply into either the production of the film or its subtext, there’s plenty to enjoy if you simply sit back and relax. Despite the dark subject matter (even for a Hitchcock film), there’s plenty of black humor as well as some levity in the form of the victim’s delightfully batty aunt (Constance Collier). Hitchcock also earns his “Master of Suspense” title here, bringing the audience to the edge of their seats as Brandon and John inch ever closer to being discovered, either through Phillip’s emotional unraveling, Rupert’s sleuthing or their maid’s simple, thorough cleaning. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Another challenge, given the limited setting, but he finds his way in; the view from the apartment sees another ad for ‘Reduco,’ with the director’s now-trademark silhouette.

"Under Capricorn" (1949)
Adored by the top bananas at Cahiers du cinéma but few others around the time of its release, this historical drama had such a strenuous life that it was repossessed by its financiers due to its failure at the box office, resurfacing more than a decade later on American television. Unjustly overlooked and underappreciated, "Under Capricorn" incorporates the long, unbroken takes he had employed in “Rope,” here accentuating the quiet tension brewing from a love triangle between Irish gentleman Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), wealthy ex-con Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten), and his alcoholic wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman). The two men meet and grow closer after initiating a shady business deal, soon discovering that Henrietta had actually been an old chum of Adare’s sister back in the day. He takes it upon himself to ween her off the bottle, eventually falling in love with her. Within the screenplay are occasional twists and typically masterful Hitchockian suspense moments, but most of the time is spent on the quietly budding romance between Adare and Henrietta and the understated rivalry between the two male leads. The past weighs heavily on the Flusky family, and it's only amplified by the patient, observant cinematography that intensifies every moment. It also probably contains the most heartbreaking scenes the filmmaker’s ever done, including a moment in which Flusky shamefully tucks away a surprise necklace for his wife after being the third wheel while greeting her and Adare before a social gathering. Though it deserves more recognition, it’s not without its flaws: sometimes the sets feel too small and artificial (the Expressionism he generally implements feels clunky here), and occasionally the score is heavy-handed. Still, the film has a look and feel quite unlike any other entry in his filmography (it’s shot by Powell & Pressburger regular Jack Cardiff), and cogent emotional resonance. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: The only film confirmed to have two cameos from the directors: four minutes in, he’s wearing a blue coat during the parade, then ten minutes later, he’s one of a group of three men on the steps of the town hall.

"Stage Fright" (1950)
Dietrich. Hitchcock. What a collaboration. This criminally overlooked film is one of Hitchcock’s lesser known efforts but is nonetheless just as visceral, vital and nail-bitingly thrilling as any of his other works. Perhaps because he returned to England to shoot the film with a predominantly English cast (with the notable exceptions of Dietrich and co-star Jane Wyman), it didn’t get its proper credit in the U.S at the time. The story is an illustration of what Hitchcock does so well in his twist-filled storytelling: he plays with subjectivity and perspective in order to keep the audience in the dark until the very last minute. He deftly uses a flashback at the beginning of the film to effectively skew the audience understanding of the events, mimicking the experience of the film’s protagonist, Eve, played by Jane Wyman. Eve is an aspiring actress drawn into a murder mystery cover up involving diva Charlotte Inwood, as played by an absolutely stunning Marlene Dietrich (those cheekbones could cut glass). The twists and turns of the story are relentless, as Eve disguises herself as one of Charlotte’s new maids in order to uncover the truth, and must switch back and forth in her personas in order to maintain the ruse. Wyman and Dietrich are perfect foils (and were rumored to be foils off camera too), and as compelling as Dietrich is in the role of the glamorous actress covering up the truth, they are simply pawns in Hitchcock’s storytelling web. “Stage Fright” is an underrated classic that is worth your attention. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Just before the 40-minute mark, spotting Jane Wyman in her maid disguise.

"Strangers on a Train" (1951)
“Wanna hear one of my ideas for a perfect murder?” Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a famous tennis player, is recognized on a train by Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Guy wants to divorce his cheating wife Miriam in order to marry Anne Morton, the daughter of a U.S. senator, and advance his career in politics. Over lamb chops on the train, Bruno also reveals he'd like his interfering father dead, and so suggests the perfect crime -- an exchange of murders by perfect strangers. The conversation ends somewhat up in the air, with Guy placating the seemingly eccentric Bruno, who is satisfied a deal has been struck. Guy and Bruno's relationship dynamic is set from the start, the seductive Bruno and the elusive Guy. Bruno ends up killing Guy's wife, in one of the most elegantly shot strangulations scenes in cinema history, shown in reflection of Miriam's thick glasses. Then Bruno demands that Guy keeps his end of the bargain, and Guy, with motive aplenty, is put in a tricky spot. The final confrontational climax between the men resulted in a magnificently shot action scene in which Guy and Bruno fight on a merry-go-round spun out of control, resulting in a fantastic trick shot of an explosion. “Strangers on a Train” is perfectly taut thriller, in which the two male leads shine as, respectively, the ostensibly good but pretty unlikeable guy at the wrong place at the wrong time and the creepily seductive and occasionally frenzied villain who embodies Guy's darkest desires. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name, Hitchcock endured a grueling adaption process with endless rewrites, but his passion for the story never waned, and is clear in the final product, filling it with double-entendres and masterful film noirish use of black and white and shadow -- and a number of shots still obsessing film students today. Despite its shocking-by-1950s-standards themes, with homosexual overtones galore, “Strangers on a Train” did gangbusters at the box office and critical esteem for the film has only grown with time. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Continuing the ever-growing string-instrument theme from “Spellbound” and “The Paradine Case,” getting on  train with a double bass ten minutes into the film. All he needed was a viola and he would have had a quartet.

"I Confess" (1953)
Squashed between two bona fide Hitchcock classics, this “morality play” starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden has quite a few interesting things going for it but ultimately (and unfortunately) wades in the pool of mediocrity. Deep in Quebec City, dutiful Catholic priest Michael William Logan (Clift) receives a confession from the rectory groundskeeper in which he admits to murdering a man -- but due to the whole “Priest–penitent privilege” thing, Logan is unable to assist the police in their investigation, throwing him into distress. But it gets worse: a few students admit to seeing the priest near the crime scene, causing the authorities to suspect pious Logan to be the true perpetrator. In actuality, the lead was meeting Ruth, a married woman he previously had a fling with ages before joining the priesthood. Initially a fairly intriguing look into a complex situation (complete with a terrific opening), "I Confess" gets bogged down the more characters it throws into the situation, with the romance history between Ruth and Logan being particularly lackluster. What would probably work best as a focused character study seriously loses weight with the barren mug of Clift, who just doesn’t bring the goods as a priest with serious inner turmoil. He’s much too stoic, and although it’s truly impossible for him to reveal the killer’s confession due to his vocation, some semblance of his contemplation should be felt. Its general middling nature might also have something to do with the troubled production: it took eight years and twelve writers to get going, and the director had no toleration for his lead’s method acting. Such drama was eventually mined for the 1994 film “Le Confessional.” At the end of the day you could certainly do a lot worse in this oeuvre (see: “Jamaica Inn,” “Topaz”), but it’s an intriguing premise that should be a lot more powerful. [C]
Hitchcock Cameo: Crossing a staircase at the 00:01:33 mark.

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6 Comments

  • Marlow Jean | November 3, 2012 10:20 AMReply

    Great feature.

  • James | October 31, 2012 6:44 PMReply

    The degree to which SHADOW OF A DOUBT is an inversion of "Our Town" is shown by the fact that Thornton Wilder actually wrote both of them:)

  • James | October 31, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    Hitchcock talks about the terrible ending of SUSPICION in the Truffaut book. It was, indeed, a studio mandated happy ending. The original ending was that SPOILER Grant does poison Fontaine, and she, heartbroken, knows he's doing it but drinks it because she can't bear to be without him. However before drinking it, she pens a letter describing everything he did and innocently gives it to him to mail. After her death, in the final scene, he cheerfully, blithely drops it in a mailbox. If that ending had been shot, as Hitchcock had intended, I'm sure the film would be thought of as in the first ranks of his classics. Such a shame about the silly happy ending.

  • Tom | October 31, 2012 4:45 PMReply

    fantastic retrospective guys, great job.

  • Leonardo | October 31, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    Hitchcock a master of the cinema, nothing else to say.

  • Daniel Delago | October 31, 2012 1:30 PMReply

    Hitchcock's influence in cinema today is undeniable. It is safe to say that any filmmaker that focuses on the psychological thriller genre "borrows" quite heavily from Hitchcock's pioneering signature style.

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