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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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Marnie
"Marnie" (1964)
The final “Hitchcock blonde” to have a central role and one that Truffaut stated was “stifling, like a nightmare,” Tippi Hedren gives a layered performance as the titular con-artist with a hearty distrust for the male gender (also on the list: stormy weather, the color red). Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), owner of a company she knocks off, falls head-over-heels for the woman and agrees he won’t turn her in to the law if she agrees to marry him. After a double-whammy of raping Marnie and saving her from a subsequent suicide attempt, Rutland decides to get to the bottom of her neurosis, and the newlyweds pay a visit to her Mother and receive a startling explanation. Consistently interesting and envelope pushing (the rape was hugely unexpected and expertly handled), “Marnie” is probably the director’s most visually ambitious film next to “Vertigo” -- there’s constant play with color (especially red) and his love for Expressionism runs rampant in nearly every scene, making Marnie’s troubled psyche immensely felt. Hedren’s character is grippingly mysterious, her intentions and fear intriguing up until the final reveal; in addition, Rutland is good intentioned, but eternally suspicious after forcing Marnie to consummate. In terms of being a pure suspense craftsman, there are plenty of enthralling sequences (such as Marnie’s office robbery), but the granddaddy of them all involves the protagonist escaping from a group hunt, horse-bound (not just any mustang, either -- hers, named Florio), and missing a jump over a stone-wall. She catapults forward and hits the ground without a scratch, but her ride isn’t so lucky, and the lead struggles to find a gun to put it out of its misery. The escape begins thrillingly, quick cuts between backdrops and location shooting, and in Marnie’s eyes we can see the ecstasy of freedom -- but it is short-lived, her behavior destroying a loved one and sending her into absolute hysterics. There’s nothing left but a gaping wide crack for convalescence. While possibly a bit long in the end, it’s engaging from start to finish, and pretty unique compared to the rest. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Crossing the hotel corridor five minutes in.

Torn Curtain
"Torn Curtain" (1966)
One could be forgiven for expecting a lot from the sole collaboration that teamed up one of the great directors with one of Hollywood's great stars, in the shape of Paul Newman. Furthermore, "Torn Curtain" marked Hitchcock's 50th film, so expectations were even higher for something special. Sadly, that's far from the truth, with the film marking one of the major lowpoints of the director's late period. Newman plays Professor Michael Armstrong, a rocket scientist who to the surprise of the world, not least his fiancee Sarah (Julie Andrews), appears to defect to East Germany. In fact, he's a double agent, out to discover what the Eastern Bloc know about U.S. anti-missile systems, which puts both of their lives in danger as they try to return to the West. "Torn Curtain" has some cracking set pieces long the way, it should be said; the crowded theater escape at the conclusion, and most memorably, Armstrong's brutal murder of a Stasi agent, which stands with anything on the director's resume. And as with "Marnie," the use of color is pretty impressive. But as a whole, the film's a damp squib and the script (by Brian Moore and "Billy Liar" writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) is deeply lacking, in need of a sure hand like Ernest Lehmann. And most damagingly, the leads never gel, either with each other or with the director (Cary Grant had turned the part down, and Newman and Hitchcock maintained a frosty relationship throughout the shoot). It's a curiously anonymous film, and firmly in the 'minor' section of Hitchcock, despite its occasionally interesting spots. Also worth noting is that the film saw the falling out between composer Bernard Hermann and the filmmaker, after the composer ignored Hitchcock's instructions not to write music for the famous murder scene. [C-]
Hitchcock Cameo: In the lobby of the Hotel d'Angleterre, with a baby on his knee.

Topaz
"Topaz" (1969)
The director's second dour, unloved spy thriller in a row, "Topaz" (an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Leon Uris, based loosely on real events) saw Hitchcock veer away from using stars, having been burnt by his experience with Newman on "Torn Curtain." Instead, he cast international names like Frederick Stafford, Dany Robin, Michel Subor, and Truffaut favorite Claude Jade. Unfortunately, the results were not all that much more successful. Stafford plays a French agent who travels to New York, newly married daughter (Jade) in tow, after a CIA pal asks him to investigate the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, only to discover the existence of a spy ring within French intelligence. It's a more realistic take on the spy genre than, say, "North by Northwest," but Hitchcock shying away from names results in something of a charisma vacuum in the film -- Stafford is pretty wooden, and the rest of the cast don't grab you much further. The plot is convoluted and somewhat contrived, without ever building up much of a head of steam of suspense, and unlike "Torn Curtain," there isn't so much as a single memorable set piece. A more realistic and grown-up kind of thriller from Hitchcock was an intriguing idea, but the execution here is deeply, deeply disappointing. [D+]  
Hitchcock Cameo: One of our favorites; 33 minutes in, he enters pushed in a wheelchair, only to stand and walk away when his nurse is distracted.

Frenzy
"Frenzy" (1972)
Whereas "Psycho" was about the slow, subtle reveal and teasing moments of prolonged suspense, the thematically similar "Frenzy" is pure insanity. Released towards the end of his career (after Hitchcock had surpassed, in the words of Eli Roth, "the point of fuck-it"), the film focused on a rapist/serial killer in contemporary London who strangles people with his necktie. It's an odd (but totally winning) mash-up of two of Hitchcock's favorite obsessions – the operations of a serial killer and the wrong man accused of the crime. What makes "Frenzy" so different than his previous films, however, is how balls out it is. Instead of gingerly cutting around the murders, Hitchcock shows everything – and the result is a kicky Technicolor free-for-all of lurid sex and violence, lacquered with Hitchcock’s droll visual style and fondness for dark humor (never have the words “sex murderer” been wrung for so many laughs). Based on the novel "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square" by Arthur La Bern and adapted by Anthony Shaffer (a noted playwright who wrote the “Citizen Kane” of British horror movies, “The Wicker Man”), it remains, to this day, genuinely shocking and deeply funny, a late-era masterpiece that proved that he was still keen for low-budget experimentation up until the bitter end. It also makes for a wickedly sharp and observant movie about London -- the way that violence is ingrained in the city, always underneath the surface but ready to show its teeth (there are multiple references to Jack the Ripper, including the killer’s eating of grapes -- supposedly a way that the Ripper lured some of his victims to their doom), and the kind of explicit sex that goes on with a knowing wink from the prim-and-proper residents (“Do you want the two singles or the matrimonial-sized bed?”). Hitchcock was not only going out of his way visually and tonally, but he was also delving deeper thematically. It might be just as shocking as any of the murders. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Three minutes in, wearing a bowler hat, and refusing to applaud a speaker.

Family Plot
"Family Plot" (1976)
Lights out, applause, curtain call. While not exactly meant to be his last hurrah, the deteriorating health of the “Master of Suspense” (just before he had received a pacemaker) forced this light mystery-thriller to have the unwanted burden of being the final credit on a cinematic legend’s resume. In fact, its modest, jocular nature has drawn a vast amount of ire from the director’s staunch fanbase (the most amusing case of mud slinging compared it to an episode of “Hart to Hart”). While its detractors aren’t entirely wrong (it’s no gem, just a bit unimpressive and prosaic), it’s enjoyable enough, and the acting is comparatively looser than most of what comes before it thanks to the allowed improvisations on set, a first for the director. Could this have marked a new workstyle for the man who once compared thespians to cattle? We may never know. "Family Plot" finds Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern as they search for the missing nephew/heir of Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), an elderly women with a large fortune to squander. Their eyes set on the $10k reward/finder’s fee, the couple eventually sniff him out, though they get more than what they bargained for when he’s discovered to have changed his identity after he committed a murder. But just add it to the list of red flags: he’s a successful kidnapper, wealthy jeweler, and last but not least, played by the eternally intimidating William Devane. If you hear anything positive about this movie, people usually reference the hilarious “car chase” -- which is misleading, and not only because it only involves a single car charging down the road with its brakes cut. The filmmaker manages to play with conflicting tones here: he cuts like a maniac between the interiors of the car (where Dern and Harris banter) and the driver’s POV as they swerve and barrel down a mountain road. It was a somewhat new approach for the director (he had done comedy before, but never so intertwined with the suspense), and proved that even in ill-health he could deliver a highly thrilling sequence. Things wrap up with the inevitable bow at the end, and Harris gives a wink to the camera -- perhaps too cute to close a movie, but a rather touching, playful final shot of a career. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Whether because of ill health or something else, Hitch’s last on-screen appearance is in his iconic silhouette, through the doors of the Registrar forty minutes into the film.

--- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Drew Taylor, Kimber Myers, Deborah Bosket, Sam Chater

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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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