(On Cable TV, December 2017) While Alfred Hitchcock remains an essential director even decades after his death, his individual films haven’t all aged as gracefully, and Marnie seems to have been more damaged than most by the passing of time. Part of it has to do with the absurdity of its premise; parts of it have to do with evolving social standards; parts of it have to do with now-outdated filmmaking. In narrative terms, Marnie not only piles on bits of silliness as premises, but also pushes the “psychologically damaged protagonist” angle pretty hard, with childhood trauma explaining aberrant behaviours in ways that haven’t been convincing in decades. But that pales in comparison to the ways the characters treat each other, with a marital rape sequence that pretty much kills any sympathy for anyone in the movie. Then there’s the atrocious has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed horse sequence in which a flurry of disconnected shots can’t quite convince us of a horse-riding accident. Take all of that (and a score of smaller annoyances), blend together and the result is barely palatable. While there is some coolness to seeing Sean Connery in a Hitchcock film (playing a much harder version of even his Bond persona), and Hitchcock is trying something more blatantly stylistic here, the result seems disjointed and unlikable even as a dark thriller. Tippi Hedren stars as the ice blonde, although Diane Baker is more striking as the brunette foil. Opinions differ as to what is Hitchcock’s best period (I’ll put my chips on 1954–1959), but as far as I’m concerned, Marnie is out of it.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I remember seeing at least a good chunk of The Birds as a kid, but I’m surprised to find out, upon revisiting it, that I like it far less than I’d thought. Oh, the basics of the movie are there: the suspense sequences involving the birds themselves are strong, and the dread of the film’s second half is still striking. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense remains unquestionable, and it’s a testament to his skill that the film remains effective even when the scenes don’t make much sense from a logical perspective. You can recognize in this film the prototype for two or three subsequent generations of horror movies, even when these strike out “birds” for “zombies” in their scripts. Where The Birds doesn’t work as well is when it’s considered as a complete movie. The lack of an ending is as troubling as it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t offer much closure. It’s even worse when considering that the first half of the film focuses heavily on a romance (dramatic or comic remains open to consideration) only to trash that subplot once the birds attack and never really come back to it. This is all intentional—but even intentional frustration remains frustration. While The Birds may remain distinctive even today, it doesn’t feel finished from a narrative perspective. Even arguing that it’s not the point of the film isn’t much comfort. It’s true that much of what made The Birds special back then is now commonplace today: The electronic soundtrack and special effects are either substandard or invisible by today’s standards. Fans of the film will note that HBO’s The Girl recreates the making of The Birds in service of an effective suspense thriller in which Hitchcock is an unrepentant sexual harasser toward Tippi Hedren. Speaking of which, Hedren is as good as it gets as the icy blonde protagonist, while Rod Taylor is effective as the square-jawed protagonist. (If icy blondes aren’t your thing, then Suzanne Pleshette is the brunette for you). But even with flaws, The Birds remains an interesting film—the Hitchcock touch is obvious, and its lack of narrative satisfaction becomes daring at a time when everything is neatly wrapped up for mass consumption.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I distinctly remember the cymbal climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much from boyhood memories, so technically this would be a second viewing … but given that I only remembered that, let’s not pretend that I’m revisiting it. After all, watching it today I’m more interested in seeing another Alfred Hitchcock movie starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The result is in line with expectations, although I’ll note that overall, and compared to other Hitchcock movies of the same era, The Man Who Knew Too Much feels more average than it should. It’s overlong, with some sequences milking the same emotions to diminishing return. It takes much longer than it should to get started, and the “Que Sera, Sera” climax, while effective, is extended far too long after the cymbal moment to be as satisfying as it could be. Even Stewart, as good as he is, seems to be coasting on an average performance in an average film. Some of the plot curlicues are suspiciously convenient (such as having Day’s character being a retired yet still famous singer) but that’s to be expected. Still, for all of what’s not so good about The Man Who Knew Too Much, it’s still a Hitchcock film from the director’s competent period, with likable smart leads in Stewart and not-so-icy blonde Day. The suspense is well handled and if the film feels lacking today, it’s largely because it has set the standard through which modern thrillers are examined. As an entry through Hitchcock’s filmography, it’s a painless enough viewing.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) More than half a century after release and its accession to the pantheon of pop-culture, is there something left to say about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? When movies such as Hitchcock are a fictionalized making-of, when the infamous shower scene has been parodied nearly everywhere, when the basic twist of the film has inspired an entire sub-genre of psycho-killer thrillers, it would seem as if all has been said and done. And yet… the sudden shift in structure signaled by the infamous shower scene remains as unsettling as it was (even though you can argue that it robs the film of a good chunk of its narrative energy), while the film remains effective in its small details. Hitchcock was a master craftsman, and while his technique has been widely imitated, Psycho doesn’t feel as dated as other films of its time. In fact, the most dated thing about it isn’t the black-and-white cinematography, obvious set design, stilted acting style or period details: It’s the awful ending monologue in which a psychologist explains in excruciating detail what subsequent generations of filmgoers now take for granted. Still, Psycho keeps much of its power nowadays, and even viewers who may think they know everything about the film may find something new. (For some reason, I feel pleased-as-punch that the film features a prominent CANADA in the middle of the screen for a relatively long shot.) Plus, the ending monologue is still remarkably chilling.
(Video on Demand, March 2013) More than thirty years after Alfred Hitchcock’s death, the influence of the director over the thriller genre still reigns supreme, so it makes sense that a biography would seek to present the man to a contemporary audience. Taking the making of Psycho as its narrative hook, Hitchcock stars a heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins as the celebrated director, stuffing a romantic comedy and a study of Hitchcock’s entire career and quirks into a handily convenient narrative. If you’re wondering about the fidelity of the film to real events or even its literary inspiration (Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho), you may as well avoid digging too deep: Hitchcock is a heavily-fictionalized take loosely inspired by real events, but the film’s romantic theme is nowhere to be found in the book (where Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, barely gets a role and Danny Huston’s Whitfield Cook is not even mentioned), and nearly every scene contains material that only makes sense if you’re aware of Hitchchock’s legacy. It does feel a bit artificial and pat, exactly as if the screenwriters were cramming everything worth saying about the director into a comic film covering a small part of his life, and including a modern take on spousal collaborations just to provide a romantic arc to the film. But such are the conveniences of dramatized biographies, after all: the point isn’t in faithfully presenting reality as much as it is to provide an entertaining capsule summary of a complex person. In this regard, Hitchcock fares better: The script feels as if every detail is in its place, the humor is used effectively (“That’s why they call me ‘The Master of Suspense’”) and its structure is clearly meant to leave viewers elated at the success of Psycho, Hitchcock and his renewed sense of matrimonial partnership. There are a few clever sequences here and there, whether it’s Hitchcock listening to his audience’s reaction, or the way the mechanics of filmmaking are brought to life. Not everything works –the interludes in which Hitchcock converses with his fantasy of a murderer are distracting and suggest a fantastical quality to the film that it did not need. Still, as filmmaking homages go, this is straight-up Hollywood: The actors are all doing good work (Other than Hopkins-as-Hitchcock, Hellen Mirren is remarkable as Alma Reville), the cinematography is clean and everything wraps up neatly. Who cares, then, if Hitchcock takes frequent liberties with historical events?
(On Cable TV, January 2013) The example set by Alfred Hitchcock still looms large over the entire suspense genre, but as the years go by the filmmaker seems to be remembered more as a cultural icon than a man. That makes him ripe for a re-interpretation: The Girl uses the director’s troubled relationship with actress Tippi Hedren as a way to explore his weaknesses and the result is damning. Here, Hitchcock is portrayed as an unapologetic harasser, blending unwelcome advances into the power dynamic between director and actress, abusing Hedren under the guise of filmmaking as a way to take revenge against her unwillingness to play along. The Girl is obviously told from Hedren’s point of view –Sienna Miller spent some time with Hedren in preparation for her role, and Toby Jones seems fully committed to presenting an increasingly unlikable portrayal of the director. For a TV (BBC/HBO) film, the film has acceptable production values and decent direction. Both Miller and Jones turn in good performances, and film enthusiasts will appreciate both the recreation of The Birds’ shooting process alongside an unusual look at the dynamic between actor and director. While Hitchcock’s portrayal here is one-sided (numerous other associates of the director have spoken against the film; the competing Hitchcock biopic is said to be more sympathetic), it’s certainly not uninteresting. As such, the film warrants a look even as a dramatized exaggeration of real-life events: we may not know the true story, but the way it’s presented here is enough to make anyone wonder about what went on in 1960s Hollywood.