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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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"The Wrong Man" (1956)
“An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that,” a police officer intones in Alfred Hitchcock’s minor, but no less masterful “The Wrong Man.” But of course, that adage will be turned completely on its head in the film that could seem unbelieveable, but is based almost beat for beat on a true story. Revisiting a common theme of the ordinary man wrongly accused and caught up way in over his head, it’s the procedural nature and the touchingly vulnerable turn by Henry Fonda that carries the story of mild mannered Manny, a family man and jazz musician struggling to make ends meet. A seemingly innocuous trip to the insurance company to try and borrow money against his wife’s policy turn accusations that he’s the serial thief who held up the office not too long ago. And so begins a Kafka-esque nightmare as he tries to solidify alibis, find witness and just somebody, anybody who can verify and understand he’s not the criminal. Shot on location in New York City, it adds an extra dimension to the humanity Fonda pours on screen -- your heart breaks over and over for Manny, whose battle through the legal system takes a toll on the mental health of his wife. Those looking for Hitchcock-ian visual flourishes won’t get them here, but instead it’s a filmmaker who realizes the situation itself is powerful enough all on its on. And combined with a performance by Fonda who brings the innocence -- both legally but more crucially emotionally -- of Manny to the fore, the greatest suspense and perhaps horror in “The Wrong Man” is drawn from the notion that justice be can blind...even to the innocent. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: The only film in which Hitchcock essentially plays himself; he appears in silhouette to deliver the prologue, apparently because he wanted to place an emphasis on the based-in-fact nature of the tale.

"Vertigo" (1958)
Contrarians move on. We’re not going to argue with “Vertigo” ’s recent usurpation of the top spot in the Sight & Sound critics poll, because, inasmuch as any film deserves the title of Greatest Film of All Time (a whole different debate), this one probably does. An endlessly fascinating, heady blend of psychodrama, ghost story, perverse romance and ludicrously intricate murder plot, what’s perhaps most remarkable about it having climbed so high is just how crooked it is, how absurdly far it deviates from standard classic film format, and how subjective and ambiguous it remains after all the analyses. Contrast it, say, with the formal, crisp, perfection of “Citizen Kane” -- the film it deposed -- and ”Vertigo” feels like a glorious, soupy mess, perhaps the least contained of Hitchcock’s films, which should threaten every moment to burst the banks of disbelief and flood over into risibility. But it never does, instead it weaves its strange off-kilter spell that, like a fragrance or a snatch of melody, evokes much more than it states. And what in other films might have been glaring issues, somehow here contribute to that unique mood: Kim Novak is an actress we tend to find awkward onscreen, but here the themes of artifice and performance and deception, not to mention the inherent misogyny of the conceit, are given a unique spin by the discomfort of her portrayal of Judy/Madeleine. And the plot, in another film, would be the highest, archest camp, but even as the story spins off in ever more eccentric directions, Hitch’s tonal mastery is total, and so elements that should be lurid or grotesque (and in subsequent films, like “Marnie” or “Frenzy” he went there quite frequently) instead become resonant and full of delicious, dark irony: a cyclical greek tragedy playing out on the streets of San Francisco. The fact is, “Vertigo” lives and breathes and expands wildly beyond the confines of its 35 millimetres (or 70 if you catch it in its VistaVision original), so perhaps it’s no surprise that its critical ascent took a while. Maybe “Vertigo” wasn’t so much released as planted all those years ago, and needed the space of intervening decades to grow in the collective filmgoing unconscious: for those who first saw it to realise the long-term unshakability of its peculiar charms, and for critics to go back and worry at it. Finally, though, we realised that “Vertigo” is just not going to give up its secrets any time soon, which has only made us love it more. It may well become the most written-about film of all time, but its portrayal of guilt and hauntedness and fear and fixation is just too rich and nuanced to allow a definitive interpretation. Except maybe, if you set any store by this sort of thing, that “it’s the greatest.” [A+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Moving on from the string section, he carries a trumpet case in the street at the 0:11:40 mark.

"North by Northwest" (1959)
Hitchcock gave screenwriter Ernest Lehmann just three ideas as a jumping-off point for “North by Northwest": mistaken identity, the UN building in New York City, and an epic chase across Mt. Rushmore’s famous faces. What emerged from the unlikely source of the “Sabrina” scribe was the quintessential film from the director, populated by four-time Hitchcock lead actor Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint as the cool blonde, a Macguffin in the form of an ancient status filled with microfilm, a number of exotic locations and an electric score from Bernard Hermann. Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a Madison Avenue ad man drawn into intrigue when he is mistaken for George Kaplan and kidnapped by heavies employed by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Things get even more complicated when he meets blond beauty Eve Kendall (Saint), and she – of course – isn’t who she first appears. The plot ably skips from New York City to Long Island to Chicago to South Dakota, but the film’s most memorable scene is likely the crop-duster chase set in Indiana that has the impeccably dressed Grant dirtying his grey suit as he dives into the dust to avoid the low-flying plane. A half a century later, it’s still a thrilling scene, punctuated by Hermann’s iconic score and the normally unflappable Grant looking a combination of exasperated and terrified. Everything is tied up neatly at the end, and Hitchcock’s famously raunchy sense of humor takes over. As Thornhill pulls his new wife into bed in a train compartment, the train itself thrusts (ahem) into a mountain tunnel. Subtle, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a near-perfect end to a delightfully airy film sandwiched between two of the director’s darker, heavier offerings, “Vertigo” and “Psycho.” [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Missing a bus two minutes and nine seconds in. The only film in which he’s essentially heralded by his on-screen credit.

"Psycho" (1960)
Aw, jeez. What's left to say about "Psycho?" Endlessly analyzed, deconstructed, remade and discussed over the past 52 years, probably more so than anything else in Hitchcock's filmography, and the film itself will, in a few short weeks, form the basis of the Anthony Hopkins-starring biopic "Hitchcock" (which was originally titled "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"). But when you cut through the academics and the analysis and the fact that it's almost impossible for new generations to come to it unspoiled, the film remains a cracking thriller, and probably the most unnerving film the director ever made. If you've recently slipped out of a 60-year coma, let us fill you in. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, who rips off her employer in order to help out her boyfriend (John Gavin). Checking into the eerie Bates Motel, staffed only by loner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his unseen mother, she has a change of heart, only to be brutally and suddenly murdered, seemingly by Mrs. Bates. It's one of the great shocks in cinema (and one of the great examples of sneaking in experimental, avant-garde technique into mainstream film), but there's a twist just as surprising, if not more so, still to come. One could arguably quibble about some of the supporting performances, but Leigh and Perkins are iconic, and Hitchcock is at the very peak of his game (indeed, one could easily argue it was all downhill from here). That even the mostly substandard sequels couldn't sully the name of the original is a pretty major demonstration of the film's staying power.  [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: 06:35, glimpsed wearing a cowboy hat through the window of Marion's office.

"The Birds" (1963)
Hitchcock movies often don’t always make a lot of sense plot wise from a modern perspective and can often feel a little ridiculous if you break them down. With terror being the aim, at least in “The Birds,” the motivation is usually to just get these characters into this horrific situation as quickly as possible so they can be terrorized. So, if there was a “honest trailer” version of “The Birds” it might say that a seaside town of San Francisco is so ecologically disrupted by the presence of a crazy rich bitch (Tippi Hedren) who drives two hours to deliver a pair of lovebirds to a cocky asshole she met randomly in a pet shop because she’s got a crush on his asshole-ish ness, well, that honest trailer wouldn’t be that far off. Why Hedren’s character would do any of that doesn’t make a lick of sense unless you’re a total stalker-y sociopath (which doesn’t appear to be the case), but Hitchcock does have some fun with the implications that a woman who doesn’t belong disturbs the order of things, which manifest with birds in the area going batshit crazy and trying to kill everyone. That said, when you look past some of the silly concepts and the fact that there’s little explanation as to why the aves go nuts (other than some of the suggestions we’ve given), “The Birds” is a chilling and well-crafted horror that truly peaks when the picture does away with the suspense and intrigue and just breaks down into the rein of terror that these feathered creatures unleash. Perhaps one of the the most unnerving elements of the movie is Hitchock's decision to do away with a traditional score, instead using sound effects, an atonal electronic sound design and long stretches of silence (Hitchcock's previous musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann is credited as "sound consultant"). At the same time, while memorable, and perhaps one of his best-known pictures, “The Birds” feels far less like mandatory watching than a good dozen other Hitchcock films. A remake with George Clooney and Naomi Watts in the Rod Taylor and Tippi Hendren roles was rumored in 2007, but luckily, it never came to pass. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: Two minutes in, leaving the pet shop with his real-life dogs, Geoffrey and Stanley.

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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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