(On Cable TV, October 2018) Before Alfred Hitchcock immigrated to the United States, before he cast James Steward and Doris Day in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, there was a black-and-white version of the same story, also directed by Hitchcock in 1934. Now, don’t expect a faithful remake: while both versions share a common premise and significant similarities in their plotting and characters, both films have significant differences as well, which makes it interesting to watch the earlier version even knowing what happened with the later one. Hitchcock famously described the difference between the two versions as “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional” and that describes it rather well—the remake is the one to watch if you only have time for one, but there’s a lot to like in the first one too: Having Peter Lorre as a villain is always fun, and the film doesn’t hold back in featuring a big police shootout as part of its conclusion. There’s some sun-worshipping weirdness in the plot, but much of the film is solid thriller filmmaking, as competent now as it was back then—along with The 39 Steps, it clearly shows Hitchcock working at a high level even at that time in his career.
(On DVD, September 2018) For all of his famed ability at creating and sustaining suspense, Alfred Hitchcock could have a surprisingly romantic streak at times, and few of his movies manage to combine both traits as intriguingly as in Rebecca, perhaps one of the best depiction of the Gothic romance sub-sub-genre ever put on-screen, adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s still well-known novel. The mystery here is intensely personal, as the new wife of a rich man has trouble measuring up to the example set by her predecessor, the mistress of a vast estate who clearly still has her fans in the household help. Against the lonely and oppressive backdrop of a house far too big for its inhabitants, the heroine starts wondering who’s not out to murder her. It escalates into a fiery climax, but the point of the film, after a sunny romantic first act, is the heroine looking over her shoulder, discovering deeper secrets about her new husband and his house, and sparring with a standoffish housekeeper. Rebecca is noteworthy in Hitchcock’s oeuvre in a few respect: it was his first Hollywood project after emigrating from Great Britain; it was produced/dictated by the legendary producer David O. Selznick and it’s the only Hitchcock film to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Both Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are quite good as the leads, but it’s Judith Anderson who has the best role as the ever-faithful Mrs. Danvers. Otherwise, Rebecca is still good fun to watch, not quite noir but definitely Gothic enough to be visually interesting on top of Hitchcock’s usually skillful direction.
(On DVD, September 2018) Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I could just stop here and that’s all you’d need to know about Notorious. If you really want to know more, consider that it’s a romantic suspense thriller in which an American agent asks the daughter of a disgraced man to offer herself as bait to enemy agents, with the complication that he himself is falling for the woman. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been re-used in many, many other movies such as Mission: Impossible II) But, of course, the plot is the least of the film’s strengths, what with Hitchcock gleefully messing with the conventions of the romantic thriller and the limitations of the Hays code to deliver a two-minutes on-screen kiss. It’s good fun, especially when you measure today’s expectations against what’s shown in the film. (Ten minutes in, and there’s a drunk-driving sequence that would be flat-out unacceptable today.) The ending is a bit abrupt but no less satisfying. Grant and Bergman are at their respective best here, even though they’re both playing darker version of their usual persona. Still, Notorious remains a worthy Hitchcock thriller from his black-and-white Hollywood phase.
(On TV, July 2018) Alfred Hitchcock made a number of rather good movies in 1930s Great Britain before moving to Hollywood, and The Lady Vanishes does have the hallmarks of many of his later movies: An intriguing premise, a train, some romance, a substantial psychological dimension, comedy, thrilling elements, an action-packed conclusion and a musical leitmotif. The film opens at a leisurely pace (with an opening sequence that features a zoom-in on a building that appears impossible in a pre-helicopter, pre-CGI age … until we realize it’s a scale model), introducing the passengers on a train trip in European countries. The plot gets kicking once our protagonist realizes that a sweet old lady has gone missing from the train and that everyone she meets swears that the lady was never there. They’re lying, of course, and the cover-up soon leads her to a far more dangerous situation. The ending gets out of the train but not in any kind of safety as bullets fly in the middle of the woods. The abrupt ending nonetheless managers to wrap everything up with a laugh. It still works rather well today because Hitchcock’s style defined modern thrillers and his willingness to use genre elements means that the suspense has travelled well throughout the decades. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave make for a cute couple, especially as they pair up to uncover the mystery. This being said, I suspect that Hitchcock students will get the most out of The Lady Vanishes by pointing out how it contains themes and tropes that the director would re-use over his career.
(On TV, July 2018) Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and the French Riviera—what more could you ask from To Catch a Thief? Hitchcock here lets go of relentless suspense in order to favour a breezy romantic comedy involving jewels thefts and a former master burglar trying to clear his name. Grant is effortlessly charming as the retired cat-burglar and he sets the mood for the rest of the film. Kelly is blander than expected, although it’s amusing to see her strut around the Riviera given her later position as the Princess of Monaco. John Williams (who always looks like John Cleese to me) also gets a good supporting role as an insurance man helping out the protagonist. Set against the sunny seaside scenery, this is a bit of a departure of Hitchcock, who doesn’t really try for suspense (even when the film could have called for it, such as the final sequence) as much as romantic banter and gentle crime. The atmosphere is well executed and the result is good sunny fun. To modern audiences, To Catch a Thief does have a bit of awkward fifties-style staging—most notably in the nighttime villa burglary sequence, not to mention the quasi-omnipresent rear-screen projection. But, as with the unnatural colours and high-class characters, this is part of the package: watch the film, travel back in time.
(On TV, June 2018) Even though Hitchcock worked steadily throughout the film-noir period, most of his movies aren’t as closely associated with the subgenre as you’d think: Hitchcock was his own subgenre, and his preoccupations were usually not those of classic film noir. But some Hitchcock movies often approach noir, and Shadow of a Doubt (along with Strangers on a Train) is often mentioned in that vein. I’d argue that the film was closer to the paranoid domestic thrillers of the 1940s (alongside Rebecca and Gaslight), but no matter the subclassification, Shadow of a Doubt remains a decent entry in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. It’s about a teenage girl who comes to suspect that her uncle, newly arrived as a house guest, is a serial killer. She’s unsurprisingly right, of course, and much of the film’s last act is spent surviving her uncle’s murderous plans. It’s a decent enough film, although perhaps one of Hitchcock’s least surprising ones. Still, his mastery of suspense is better than any inclination toward surprise, and the results speak for itself. Much of the plot was later reused and pushed to an extreme conclusion in Park Chan-wook’s far more disquieting Stoker (2013).
(On TV, June 2018) On some level, The 39 Steps is a basic, almost unremarkable thriller, the likes of which we often see. But take a step back to look at the date of the film, and realize that Alfred Hitchcock has mastered the form years before WW2. It’s hard to fault The 39 Steps for executing a good recipe well: here we have themes familiar to Hitchcock (an innocent man being stuck in an impossible situation and going on the run to clear his name), using methods and techniques to crank up the suspense in ways that would be reused by countless other directors. There’s a close affinity with the first 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much here, competently handling material that would be overexposed later on. The result is that you can still watch The 39 Steps today and be engrossed in the story despite some weirdness such as the hypnotism material—it feels decently modern, and still enjoyable despite its flaws and limitations. It’s movies like this one that would bring Hitchcock to popular success, critical appreciation and Hollywood’s attention: he’d move to the United States a few years later.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Great casting can make or break a movie, but I’m still not too sure what it does to Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Casting Cary Grant as a suave, sophisticated, easily charming man who ends up hiding an inglorious past to his wife seems like a slam-dunk: By that point in his career, Grant had developed a screen persona ideally suited to this kind of role. But the sword cuts both ways, given how audiences weren’t (and still aren’t) so willing to accept Grant as a purely evil character. Hence the ending that explains a few things and allows viewers to walk away satisfied and reassured in Grant’s persona. It’s a relief of an ending, but is it the most appropriate one? I still don’t know. The novel on which the film is based took a far more ambiguous approach to the same material, keeping up the eponymous suspicion through which the heroine (Joan Fontaine; rather good) comes to regard her new husband. Still, Suspicion remains a joy to watch. Hitchcock had achieved an unusual mastery of balance between comedy and suspense at that stage of his career, and the film’s domestic-paranoia theme would dovetail with a number of similar thrillers throughout the 1940s. The lack of a dark ending may stop the film from reaching its ultimate potential, but I’m not sure I’d change it. After all, I do like my Cary Grant suave, debonair and (ultimately) on the side of the angels even if he’s been a little devil along the way.
(On DVD, January 2018) Even the most average Hitchcock films are better than most other thrillers, so when I refer to Dial M for Murder as slightly-above-average, the lofty standards of the director mean that the film is really good. There’s a pleasant eeriness at the very beginning of the film, as elements are thrown together on-screen (such as a blackmail letter) in a way that seems more hurried than logical—it’s only later that we learn the ghastly truth having led to the situation. The rest is about an attempted murder, a criminal scheme, a woman in distress and an intricate plot for a detective to untangle. The mid-point plot twist makes Dial M for Murder jump tracks into far more interesting territory than simply a woman being stalked by a murderer. The plotting is impeccable, the character work is fine, much of the story is thrillingly set in one location, and the climax is unusually effective even by contemporary standards. There’s a comfortable classic feel to the story as set in post-war London. Grace Kelly is quite good in the lead role, with able supporting turns by Ray Milland, Robert Cummings and John Williams (who’s not John Cleese). Hitchcock’s direction is so slick that despite the film having been shot in 3D, little of it seems forced or out-of-place. I now have a little bit more respect for the 1998 remake A Perfect Murder, which takes the same premise but runs with it in different yet satisfying fashion. Still, have a look at the original Dial M for Murder—it’s a thrill and a pleasure to watch even today.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) I’m still working my way through the Hitchcock filmography, and while I think that most of his classics are from the late fifties, there are still quite a few good movies from outside that timeframe. The case in point here is 1951’s Stranger on a Train, a tense and non-nonsense (yet deceptively layered) thriller in which two strangers meet and don’t quite agree to swap murders. The problems come when one of the two men does his part of the deal he thought he had … and then comes to collect. Shot in striking film-noir black-and-white, it’s a much-better-than-competent work from an acknowledged master of the form. Farley Granger and Robert Walker are good in the lead roles, but the star here is Hitchcock and the script, which steadily tightens the screws on the lead character with ever-increasing complications. The climax, set on a park carrousel, works well as a final set-piece, but the fun of the film is in seeing the walls close in on the lead character. Old but still a model for suspense films, Strangers on a Train is still worth a look—it doesn’t quite measure up to Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but it’s a solid film in its own right.
(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?