(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 DVD, December 2017) on the one hand, it seems to me that the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird is structurally lopsided. It spends a lot of time on a trial in which a black man is accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, but that’s not the beginning nor the end of the story, which spends even more time watching over three kids as they grow up in an absurdly racist Southern town with their loving father. In modern terms, this would be a non-starter: the script would be rewritten to emphasize the trial, everything else shuffled to the side. But this is not a modern film and it’s not meant to be a trial movie—it’s adapted from a slice-of-life novel in which the trial is important but hardly the point of it all. To Kill a Mockingbird being shown from the kids’ perspective, it even comes as a clever reframing of a classic story through a slightly alien perspective. But Harper Lee’s adaptation aside, the film’s single biggest asset is Gregory Peck’s impeccable performance as impossibly virtuous attorney Atticus Finch. Not enough good can be written about Peck and his role—it’s the kind of award-winning performance that doesn’t just impress but inspire us all to become better persons. He carries the rest of the meandering movie by virtue of being a terrific dad, a righteous lawyer … and (the movie takes great care to point out) a terrific marksman able to put down a rabid dog with a single shot. Never mind the whimper of a conclusion (featuring no less than an already old-looking Robert Duvall)—the rest of the film is fine, but Peck is extraordinary.
(On TV, September 2017) I caught this film mostly as a prelude to watching the 1991 remake, but I’m actually impressed at how well this Kennedy-era thriller has held up. Even (slightly) pulling its punches regarding violence and sexual assault, Cape Fear does manage to be gripping and nightmarish. Much of this effectiveness has to be credited to Robert Mitchum: Gregory Peck is fine as the stalwart hero of the story, but it’s Mitchum’s incredibly dangerous ex-convict character that makes the movie work so well even fifty-five years later. The houseboat assault sequence alone, a lengthy one-shot that begins with an egg being smashed on the film’s female lead, is still off-putting even today. It certainly helps that Cape Fear has a strong Hitchcock influence (he storyboarded it; J. Lee Thompson stepped in after Hitchcock quit the project but kept most of the style intact), and remains distinctive despite imitators and a lasting influence. I was favourably impressed by the film, and actually prefer it to its slick 1991 remake in many ways.
(On DVD, April 2017) Many horror movies from the seventies have not aged very well, and The Omen hovers in that strange zone between ridiculousness and effectiveness. What generally works is the atmosphere of dread, the middle section, the period detail and the refreshingly older protagonist (Gregory Peck, sixty years old at the time of the film’s release) anchoring the film. Those help The Omen maintain freshness even in light of everything that now look stupid about the film: The predictable nature of the bad-seed plot, slow pacing, familiar rehash of Catholic mythology, badly-staged horror sequences… It’s difficult, even psychopathic to think that you’d laugh at a plate-glass decapitation … until it happens and you think “gee, couldn’t this have been more convincing?” If nothing else, this sequence is a lesson in less-is-more—a tastefully restrained approach of not attempting to show the actual decapitations would have been far more effective. The Omen may have codified its share of horror clichés, but they are now clichés and the film suffers from their overuse. Still, there is some decent mainstream ambition from director Richard Donner in making this horror story a decent film for large audiences (rather than going the genre route) and it’s one of the reasons why, even if it does feel faintly silly, The Omen still reverberates today. [May 2017: Ah-ha! I finally remembered that I had read about The Omen’s decapitation scene in Harlan Ellison’s An Edge in my Voice … and that after seeing the actual result, it’s obvious that Ellison’s completely tone-deaf in describing his appalled reaction at audience laughter during the scene. The scene is over-the-top and almost designed, as is, to provoke laughter. Sorry Harlan—you’re not always right!]