(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) In the Alfred Hitchcock filmography, Topaz stands out as one of the least liked later-era Hitchcock films. The reason quickly becomes obvious as the film unspools: Despite a few typical Hitchcockian touches—the long shots, the unconventional presentation, a few striking images—, the entire film feels like a perfunctory slog. Adapted from a Leon Uris novel that presented a complex but ultimately boring spying triangle between France, Cuba and the United States, Topaz fails to take off, fly or land. The emphasis on this being a pseudo-realistic take on events that may have happened seems to be an excuse to try nothing interesting and to mute down anything that could have been exciting from a more fictional story. Hitchcock, clearly, was far more at ease in twisted thrillers than the minutia of romantic espionage thrillers. Even the mere two-hour running time feels punishing considering the slow pacing and striking lack of humour in the results. This is mediocre Hitchcock—polished, but long and scattered to the point where it would be more difficult to guess that this is coming from Hitchcock. I did like some of the early-1960s atmosphere, but otherwise I’m joining the popular opinion: Topaz goes straight to the director’s bottom tier.
(On DVD, November 2018) The early 1970s were a grim and depressing time for American cinema as filmmakers over-embraced the new freedoms of the post-Hays Code era and tried to reach younger audiences with what would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier. The Old Hollywood was gone and the New Hollywood featured grime, gore and nudity. Even old veteran Alfred Hitchcock got in the game in Frenzy, which remains the bloodiest and grimmest of his films. The story takes place in London, where a serial killer is stalking victims through a matchmaking service and framing our protagonist for the murders. As a premise, it’s standard Hitchcock fare. In execution, however, Frenzy plays harder and darker: There are two murders in the movie and while the first one is graphic and grisly and upsetting, the second one is far more muted and far more disturbing as the camera moves away from the crime and into a busy street with passersby unaware that something terrible is taking place right next to them. There is also nudity (rare in the Hitchcock oeuvre) and an overall grittiness that clearly marks this film as being from the 1970s. Frenzy is often described as Hitchcock’s last great movie and while I’ll be able to confirm this only once I see his last film (1976’s Family Plot), it does strike me as an above-average entry for him, and an intriguing glimpse at what kinds of movies he would have kept making had he had lived longer. But make no mistake: Frenzy is grim, and even its humour is more macabre than a relief.
(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) Lost among the moniker “master of suspense” is the stone-cold fact that Alfred Hitchcock could be downright weird when it suited his purpose. In his quest for unpredictable thrills, Hitchcock’s career is crammed with ludicrous plot devices, unbelievable psychological quirks, formal experimentation and frequent return to basics. Some of his best and worst films are far away from reality, meaning that there’s little relationship between their eccentricity and their success. Sandwiched between the far more prosaic Lifeboat (1944) and Notorious (1946), Spellbound shows Hitchcock diving deep into psychoanalytical plot devices (something that would come up again later in his career) and coming up with surreal results. Literal surrealism, in fact, since there’s a dream sequence midway through the film that was designed by none other than Salvador Dali. The man-on-the-run plot feels familiar to Hitchcock fans (echoed in, say, North by Northwest), but it allows stars Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman to develop some pressurized chemistry. The details of the plot are less important than the meticulous details of its execution, and the way the film becomes just a bit more straightforward in time for its conclusion. There’s a memorable moment near the end that still jolts viewers through a combination of an obvious practical effect and a flash of colour. This isn’t one of Hitchcock’s finest films, but it’s nowhere near the bottom either—although it’s perhaps more fascinating as a prototype of later Hitchcock movies and a reunion of some very different artists than a wholly pleasing thriller in its own right.
(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.