Marnie (1964)

Marnie (1964) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/08/2017

I rounded out my Hitchcock mini-marathon with his 1964 film, Marnie.

After two of Hitchcock’s top-notch black-and-white film noirs, Marnie is a colorful, intensely sexist failure. Sean Connery is the embodiment of smugness as Mark Rutland, the rich, entitled businessman who falls for the iciest of blondes, Marnie (Tippi Hedren). See, she’s an ice queen but also a klepto-thief, whose frigidity dates back to some childhood horror, relived when she encounters large splotches of RED. The RED is emphasized by Hitchcock with flashes of RED, more William Castle than the “master of suspense.”

It’s Freudian in the worst way, the most oversimplified, obvious way.

Its Mad Men era misogyny is the real deal. It’s not just the male gaze here, but the male cure for the broken female. Of course, Mark is able to solve the riddle of Marnie, but manages to force her into marriage and rape her on the honeymoon (the former part of this sentence is metaphorical but the latter part is amazingly literal). Considering Hitchcock’s rumored cruelties and harassment of Hedren, these narrative tropes of emboldened sexism are even more loathsome.

Where in Vertigo (1958), the cruelties laid out upon the icy blonde reflect the vengeful nature of the male lead, no such protection or redemption is here for Marnie. It’s tone and themes are stark and more than distasteful. And yet it remains a “pretty” picture.

Disturbing.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

 

Strangers on a Train (1951) movie posterdirector Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/08/2017

Another personal favorite Hitchcock was our second film in our mini-marathon. Strangers on a Train features one of my favorite Hitchcock sequences and shots, the tracking to the murder and the murder itself, reflected in the fallen glasses of the victim.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train moves a somewhat gimmicky set-up, two strangers who meet on a train and exchange murder plots, and elevates it to fascinating stuff. Though the movie breaks with the novel in significant ways, it’s hard not to think that its influence did not play out in Highsmith’s other work at times, elevating the sense of duality and doppelgangers, things that play out in other works of hers as well.

Robert Walker really steals the show. His callow, creepy Bruno is a disturbing villain. I also think Kasey Rogers/Laura Elliott who plays Miriam, the murder victim, is terrific in her small role. She’s the bespectacled bad girl, who cheated on her husband and goes through the Tunnel of Love with two, count ’em, two guys, only to get strangled by the stalker with whom she is flirting. At least she is executed in one of the finest Expressionistic images of murder Hitchcock (or anyone) ever created.

Every scene at the fairground is amazing. Bruno popping the boy’s balloon. The carousel gone crazy. That little guy, who crawls under the speeding carousel only to cause it to go flying to bits, is hilarious and cool.

Classic, classic stuff.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/08/2017

My son and I had a mini-Hitchcock festival, hunkering down indoors while a big storm blew and pelted outside. We began chronologically with a film that I have long considered a personal favorite, though one I hadn’t seen in some years.

Shadow of a Doubt stars Joseph Cotten as “Uncle” Charlie, who we know from the opening scenes to be a criminal, how bad we will only find out. He sneaks back to Santa Rosa, California to his sister and his favorite niece, his namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who goes from elation to sheer horror as she comes aware of the real nature of her uncle.

And really this is was this war-time noir is all about, the idyllic small town America and the dark and twisted elements lurking therein. Shadow of a Doubt was co-written in part by Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) and Sally Bensen (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), bringing knowledge of the cheerier sides of Smalltown USA. The darkness isn’t just entirely in Uncle Charlie’s worldview of widows leeching off the world, a true misanthropy, brought on perhaps by a childhood head injury.

We also see a glimpse of the seedy side of things in the ‘Til-Two Bar which Uncle Charlie forces the younger Charlie into. Niece Charlie has never set foot in such a place (though it’s right in the downtown.) The town’s dark ends are right there, if you look for them, and in the ‘Til-Two, there is listless barmaid, a former schoolmate of young Charlie, as young but beaten down by life, a glimpse of an alternate reality.

The film also features prime examples of Hitchcock’s black humor. Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are hilarious as the murder-obsessed friends, planning endlessly the end of one another in a harmless game.

Cotten, Wright, the whole cast are terrific. While it doesn’t feature any one particular signature Hitchcockian moment or shot, it’s a very dark musing upon the reality behind the facade of Americana.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) movie poster

director  Kent Jones
viewed: 08/22/2016

It’s very possible that the first film book I ever read was Hitchcock/Truffaut. I read it so long ago that I only have the vaguest memories of it, but I recall how the book went through each of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, highlighting things about the films in ways that I had never considered.  It probably laid the groundwork of my thinking about Hitchcock in general.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, the documentary, explores the book, but also steps back from the book, contextualizing both Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, interviewing directors who were influenced by one or both film-makers, and then getting to the heart of it, the 1962 interviews that Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock that became the meat of the book.

These interviews were conducted through a translator and caught on audio tape.  The meetings were further documented in photographs, giving the film some real material of note.  As good as the book may seem, it’s interesting to hear Hitch talk about his craft, which was something he had never really done.  Truffaut was a true fan and critic, intensely familiar with Hitchcock’s work through his time at Cahiers du cinéma, and it’s clear that he stimulates Hitchcock to real consideration.

Film, of course, is the medium, so getting moving footage from Hitchcock’s films to lay against the discussion versus still images sequenced on paper, highlights matters well too.

All that said, Hitchcock/Truffaut the film is not necessarily masterful itself.  It is quite worthwhile if you have an interest one, or both, of the subjects.

Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat (1944) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 06/23/2015

One of the original Hollywood filmmakers to be anointed an “auteur” by theorists, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few directors I think can be referred to as an uncontested “master” of cinema.  But even a master of cinema, be it Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, or Howard Hawks, have their masterworks and then they have their lesser films.  And of their lesser films, there are the more impressive ones and the truly lesser ones.

I’m no Hitchcock expert, but I would be willing to guess that his 1944 film Lifeboat falls somewhere in the second or third tier, depending of how many tiers of Hitchcock you construct.  It’s a different type of thriller for Hitchcock.  After their ship has been sunk by a German U-boat in the height of WWII, a group of survivors find themselves in a lifeboat, struggling to hang in there until they are rescued.

The film has elements of Hitchcock’s dramatic thrillers, with a German Nazi U-boat captain dragged aboard as well.  Is he good or evil?  Is someone else on the boat more suspect?  Will they survive?  Will others die?

The film stars the terrific Tallulah Bankhead as the chilly blue blood reporter who starts the film as the lone inhabitant of the lifeboat.  She’s rather well togged out for someone leaving a sinking ship, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by some of the more blue collar rescuees that get dragged aboard, rescuees who include Hume Cronyn, Henry Hull, William Bendix, and Walter Slezak (the latter as the suspect Nazi commander).

It was the first of Hitchcock’s films to use a constrained location for a film, a device that he played with again in Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954).  In this case, the whole film takes place on this lifeboat, floating somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, forced into interesting strategies for framing, shots, and narrative, Hitchcock seems to really enjoy the challenges of such limitations.  Really, while it’s not one of his “great” films, it is indeed consistently interesting and engaging.

While it’s not a masterwork, it is interesting watch the master at work.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry (1955) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/22/2015

The thing about Alfred Hitchcock is that I’ve been actively revisiting (and visiting for the first time), film by film, his whole oeuvre.   I’ve been delving into Hitchcock with my kids, something I only started a few years back after a long lag in seeing his films.  Why the long lag?  I don’t know but for the most part the kids have been pretty into watching Hitchcock films.  The Trouble with Harry seemed like a good one for us.

Somewhat a-typical for “the master of suspense” is this rather dark yet very light comedy about a small Vermont town and a suspicious corpse that suddenly appears on one of its gorgeous hillsides.  Edmund Gwenn is a poacher who thinks he’s accidentally shot and killed the man.  Mildred Natwick is a spinster (at 42!) who thinks she’s killed him with her shoe.  Or maybe it was Shirley MacLaine (insanely pretty in her first screen role) who turns out to be the wife of the itinerant body.  Harry gets buried and unburied several times with the help of roving artist John Forsythe and the crew, who all for various reasons of ranging a-morality don’t have much trouble helping to cover up the murder, no matter who done it.

This was one of those Hitchcocks that had fallen out of availability until the 1980’s and got a lot of play when they were re-released.  I could have sworn that I’d seen it, but after watching it with Felix and Clara, I think it’s fair to say that I hadn’t actually seen it before for whatever reason.

I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, though I suppose it isn’t one of Hitchcock’s great films.  It has a strange tonality, of lightness and humor, while a strong component of awkward darkness.  Because it is light and nothing really bad happens in it, and it’s funny too, but the undertone is about how happily and readily all these would-be small town sweethearts of people so willingly contrive to cover up a crime (the kids were quite perplexed by their attitudes on this front, though I reckon that is the whole point).  Light and deft and good-natured and fun but quite cynical deep in its roots.

Jerry Mathers appears (have to say I didn’t even recognize him) as a funny pre-Leave It to Beaver oddball kid.  He’s got the best lines and is very funny, too.

Not your typical Hitchcock, but interesting more so perhaps because of that.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/14/2015

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, his first American film, his only film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (though they failed to give him Best Director), was one of those big, famous films that I just plain had never seen.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

With characters like the enigmatic Rebecca, the tortured Maxim de Winter, or the obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is one of the more iconic narratives and Gothic stories of the 20th century.  Starring Laurence Olivier (as de Winter), Joan Fontaine (as the nameless girl and narrator), and Judith Anderson as the eerie Danvers, it’s so strange.  If you’ve never seen it before, as I hadn’t, how imbued the whole thing is with cultural deja vu.  I was left trying to track where exactly all of my foreknowledge had come from.  The Celluloid Closet? The Carol Burnett Show parody?

Like Jane Eyre before it, it’s the story of a young woman out of her element, brought to a lush estate, haunted by the former mistress of the place.  In this case, the unnamed girl is brought by de Winter as his new bride, though he’s given to fits of mania when aroused of the thoughts of the former Mrs. de Winter, the lovely Rebecca.  Mrs. Danvers is equally obsessed, but the mystery herein is in exactly what way are these people all touched by the tragic death of the mysterious lady.

One of the biggest upshots of the film is that it was produced by David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939), and major figure in Hollywood.  His obsessions and auteurist visions and Hitchcock’s didn’t mesh as much as Hitchcock did with Daphne du Maurier, writer of the source novel, as well as the material for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and his later film The Birds (1963).  In fact, the material seems like a fancy dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s later classic Vertigo (1958), with the ghosts of lost wives and themes of obsession and madness.

It’s a pretty great film.  Having just caught a Joan Fontaine double feature a month or so back, it’s kind of interesting.  She’s very good here as the naive and beset young mistress of the house.  She would go on to win her own Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) the next year, though that film (and that performance) aren’t nearly as good as here in Rebecca.

The Oscars have always been confounding.  But Hitchcock is almost always great.

Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion (1941) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/17/2015 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I took the kids down to the Castro Theatre to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which was playing as part of the Noir City Festival.  The kids and I have watched a fair amount of Hitchcock films and have also been watching his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show from the 1950’s-1960’s, but we really hadn’t delved into film noir at all, not that Suspicion is truly a noir film or not.  But we’d also recently watched Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), so the Cary Grant angle was also a pull.

I hadn’t seen Suspicion since probably the 1980’s or early 1990’s, so my memory was vague of it.

In it Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a bon vivant, inveterate gambler, and confidence man who seduces the spinsterish Lina (Joan Fontaine, who won an Oscar for Best Actress for the role) into marriage.  Only people start dying around them and Aysgarth is simply allergic to work but not embezzlement, so he starts to arouse Lina’s Suspicion!

Apparently three different endings were shot for the film, including one where Johnnie runs off to join the RAF and fight the good fight in WWII.  Luckily such propaganda failed to make the final cut.  But the more Hitchcockian ending, the one where Lina dies and leaves a note of Suspicion fingering her widower husband also failed to make the final cut.  Instead, we’ve got an ending where all the Suspicion turns out to be in Lina’s mind and that Johnnie is really a bad apple trying to make good.

There are aspects to this ending that seem like they could have worked better if the whole film had been committed to that narrative from the get-go.  But really the film feels like it was really leading up to the Hitchcockian ending that was not used and so the ending where all the Suspicion is in the mind of the hysterical woman just seems weirdly forced and inapt.

As introduced by Film Noir Foundation’s Treasurer Alan Rode, it’s suggested that fans and critics have grown to like the ending that we’ve had to live with all these years.  Me, I don’t know about that.  But I’ll take it in consideration.

The kids enjoyed it pretty well.

Rear Window (1954)

 

Rear Window (1954) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 11/22/2014

Is Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock’s best film?  I mean that both provocatively and honestly.

I first saw it in the 1980’s when several of Hitchcock’s films became available for the first time on home media: Rear WindowVertigo (1958), Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  I’d seen both Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), The Birds probably most early and most often, but the minor glut of films on release opened the door for me on one of the most famous and remarkable of film directors.

I won’t belabor analysis here.  It’s been done often and better than I could offer.  But I will say that the construction and control of the camera, of the viewer, of the whole cinematic operation (something I think is so masterfully Hitchcockian) is definitely as refined and sophisticated in this film as any film Hitchcock ever made.  The complex panopticon of a set, the vicarious obsession of the voyeur, the meticulous thrill, black comedy and even the outfits (Edith Head, of course!)

I shared the film with Felix and Clara.  We’ve watched a few Hitchcocks together.  We’ve even taken to watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well.  Oddly enough, or not, this was very likely their favorite to date.  And I have to agree at the moment.  Of all the films we’ve seen together, I too enjoyed this one as much as any other Hitchcock.

It’s funny that Jimmy Stewart plays such a jerk.  He’s downright nearly evil in Vertigo, but here he’s a guy who can’t even appreciate the glorious beauty and boundless good nature of Grace Kelly, who is gorgeous and charming in Rear Window.  That said, Thelma Ritter pretty much steals all the scenes in which she appears.  Do they make great character actors like her anymore?  Do they write roles for great character actors like her Stella here?

I said I won’t belabor the point so I’ll stop.  Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 09/05/2014

I’ve taken a new angle on film watching with my kids, now ages (almost) 13 and 10.  After corresponding with a nephew of mine who teaches film at a university in Boston, I’ve decided to take a more “educational” approach to the movies we watch.  I think that this will play out subtly, though it may influence some of the film choices we(I) make.

Case in point of the day: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.  Now we have watched a number of Hitchcock films, a lot of the big ones.  We’ve even begun watching episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which they are enjoying as well).  Part of a film education is just watching the movies, developing a knowledge from first-hand viewings, like becoming well-read in literature.  So, getting your Hitchcocks in is just one of the easier to handle requirements.

The Lady Vanishes was the second to last of Hitchcock’s original British films before moving to Hollywood, and it remains one of the better known of those films.  I can’t entirely say if I’d seen it before or not.  If so, it had been a long while back.  It’s as blithe and charming an intrigue as you could want.

Set somewhere in Europe, travelers heading their various ways back to London meet first in a small hotel and then on a train.  Only the little old lady (Dame May Whitty) who is just so typically British, helps a young beauty (Margaret Lockwood) who has taken a bump on the head to a cup of tea.  Only, the lady vanishes.

And no one believes her or wants to pay attention.  Except dashing and curt Michael Redgrave, a musicologist who learns that the young beauty is not delusional as so many others think.

It’s been considered an apt and timely metaphor for the growing threat of war in Europe.  The villains are from a vague part of the continent, but along its Eastern side, with some Italians thrown in.  The British on the train stick to their own self-interest, either to avoid trouble or scandal or simply to make it back for the cricket test match.  It turns out the little old lady is a cunning spy and those who wave the white flag get shot.  Touché, Hitch, touché.

The film ran an interesting parallel to another train-bound thriller I’d seen a few years back, Night Train to Munich (1940), whose parallels run deeper than I realized.  It also starred Margaret Lockwood and featured the characters Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), the cricket-loving comic relief, who both turn out to be made of the same starch as other true Brits.  It’s also a true WWII thriller.

The other key reason that we chose to watch The Lady Vanishes was because one of Clara’s friends had happened to see it and had talked about it.  Reason enough to queue a Hitchcock film in my book.