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

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com 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."
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Dial M For Murder
"Dial M for Murder" (1954)
A debonair former tennis player plots the perfect murder of his wife in “Dial M for Murder,” based on the play by Frederick Knott. Tony and Margot Wendice (a smooth Ray Milland and a luminous Grace Kelly in her first Hitchcock outing) at first appear to be a happy couple living in London. It’s quickly established, though, that Margot has been having an affair with an American crime novelist (Robert Cummings), and Tony has been hiding his knowledge of her infidelity. Milland, in a role originally intended for Cary Grant, gives a suave, chilling performance, calmly and meticulously putting his plan into motion by blackmailing an old college acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) into murdering his wife for her inheritance. But Tony has to be quick on his feet and change his plans when the murderer becomes the murdered, in an over-the-top scissor death scene. Margot has enough fortitude to kill her attacker, but frustratingly lacks the smarts to suspect her husband’s involvement, and the detective work is left up to her rather bland but clever boyfriend and the police inspector (John Williams) on the case. While Margot’s passivity is a mild annoyance, it doesn’t overshadow the real joy of watching this film – absorbing Tony’s keen attention to detail and premeditated actions and waiting for him to slip up and get caught. ‘Dial M’ was Hitchcock’s only third full-color film, and he uses it expressively with Kelly’s costumes, ranging from virginal white to scarlet red to somber black. It was also Hitchcock’s only film shot in 3D. The camera was cumbersome to work around and very large – said to be as big as a dressing room -- and then the film was primarily screened “flat” anyway. While not as claustrophobic and tense as the similarly single-set “Rope,” Hitchcock wisely decided against opening up the sets and instead used dramatic angles and tight direction to keep the film from feeling inert. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: Another pictorial cameo rather than a physical one: he’s on the left hand side of the class reunion photo 13 minutes and 13 seconds in.

Rear Window
"Rear Window" (1954)
Hitch knew as well as anyone the value of a thriller in a confined space (see "Lifeboat," "Rope," the preceding "Dial M For Murder"), but never demonstrated it as well as he did in "Rear Window," a film that is among the most entertaining films the director ever made, but also perhaps his greatest love letter to the voyeurism of his medium. If you've never seen the film (somehow), it stars James Stewart as photographer L.B. Jeffries, who's broken his leg, and is now stuck in a cast in his apartment. The titular window of the property looks out onto a courtyard, and L.B, to the slight disappointment of his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, making a good case for being the most beautiful woman in history), starts spending his time spying on the eccentricities of his various neighbors. But things take a darker turn when he comes to suspect that one of them has murdered and dismembered his wife. It's astonishing that a film that, for all intents and purposes never leaves a single room, is so cinematic, with the director right at the top of his game, and using the inherent tension of separation of space to the full. And Stewart is about the perfect lead, Hitchcock subverting his persona subtly as he would later in "Vertigo," but ensuring that he's a firmly rootable hero (not to mention the complex and deeply sexy chemistry with Kelly). They announced last week that the film is heading to Broadway; they'll have an almost impossible task to live up to this one. [A+]  
Hitchcock Cameo: At 26:10, winding a clock in the apartment of the songwriter character.

To Catch A Thief
"To Catch aThief" (1955)
Hitchcock was the master of elevating genre fare to something more significant through his craft, but "To Catch a Thief" is proof that the director was able to take his skills and make something that's about nothing but pleasure. And almost nothing in his filmography is as pleasurable as this. An example of a sort of post-"Roman Holiday," affordable-air-travel era of Hollywood fascination with European glamor, it sees Cary Grant (his third of four collaboration with the director) as John Robie, a former Resistance hero turned retired cat burglar who comes under suspicion after a series of jewel robberies blamed on a thief known as 'the Cat' in the South of France. He sets out to clear his name, which involves him keeping an eye on the collections of wealthy American tourist Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). It's unshamedly feather-light stuff, but the string of subsequent knock-offs over the year make it clear how incredibly difficult it is to get something like this right. And yet Hitchcock makes it look entirely effortless: the easy, crackling chemistry between Grant and Kelly, the gorgeous VistaVision French Riviera landscapes (which won cinematographer Robert Burks an Oscar), the lean, twisty screenplay, the pitch-perfect editing. This isn't Hitchcock the auteur at his work, it's Hitchcock the crowd-pleaser, and while it's not one of the director's most significant films, it might be one of his most fun. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo:  Sitting next to Grant on a bus at the 0:10 mark.

The Trouble With Harry
"The Trouble with Harry" (1955)
Based on a novel by Jack Trevor Story (who, despite Hitchcock’s daughter assertion on the DVD special features, did not act in Hitchcock’s earlier film “Champagne”), “The Trouble with Harry” concerns the pesky body of one Harry Worp (Phillip Truex), who appears on a grassy knoll in a small town in Vermont. All of the townspeople think that they might have accidentally been responsible for killing Harry and all of them have different views about what to do with his body now that he’s shown up, with the film taking on a kind of buoyant, screwball tone wrapped around a pitch-black comedy. Shirley MacLaine, her hair cut into a “Rosemary’s Baby”-ish bob, is particularly magnetic as Jennifer Rogers, Harry’s bubbly wife and (of course) one of the supposed murderers. As “The Trouble with Harry” goes along, the situations get even more outsized and surreal and you can tell that it was a touchstone for later dark comedies, including Robert Zemeckis’ demented “Death Becomes Her” and (more explicitly) the “Weekend at Bernie’s” films. The film was notable in the Hitchcock canon for being one of his rare commercial flops (and for being largely unavailable afterwards) and also for being his first collaboration with famed composer Bernard Herrmann (a relationship that would continue for almost a decade but end bitterly over the disputed score to “Torn Curtain”). Less than a decade before his death, Hitchcock claimed that “The Trouble with Harry” was his favorite film and it’s easy to see why – the movie is idiosyncratic and totally Hitchcock, full of playful dark humor and gorgeous camerawork. But it also seems more pure and oddly personal. “The Trouble with Harry,” you can tell, comes from a singular point of view that wasn’t as interested in goosing the audience but instead was concerned with presenting something atonal and strange. It wasn’t your average Hitchcock movie. It was better. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: At 0:22:14, he walks between the window and the limousine.

The Man Who Knew Too Much
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)
Almost as soon as he moved to Hollywood, Hitchcock considered remaking "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the 1934 film that marked his first big talkie hit; the idea was floated as far back as 1941. In the end, it was the desire to fulfill a contractual obligation to Paramount Pictures that saw the project move forward, with the director telling writer John Michael Hayes ("Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief") not to watch or read the original, to help differentiate the pair. The set up is basically the same, nevertheless; a vacationing couple (James Stewart and Doris Day, American rather than British, and in Marrakech rather than the Alps) watch their new French pal murdered, and become embroiled in an international assassination plot, only for the villains (a British couple played by Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie, subbing in for the original's Peter Lorre) to kidnap their child (their son, rather than a daughter this time). Hitchcock told Truffaut in 1967 that "the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional," and technically, certainly, he's right; the remake sees Hitch at the peak of his skills, the set pieces more gripping, and the filmmaking more inventive. But narratively, we're not so sure. At nearly 45 minutes longer than the original, the '56 edition feels baggy where it should be lean, and while Stewart is as good as ever, he and Day feel a little bland compared to Leslie Banks and Edna Best (it doesn't help that Day's singing skills are shoehorned inorganically into the plot). It's all still very entertaining, and it's fascinating to see the director's two takes on the same premise, but as far as we're concerned, there's a slight case of diminishing returns. [B-]
Hitchcock Cameo: 25 minutes in, his back to camera, watching acrobats in the marketplace.

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


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