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Category Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Foreign Correspondent

There’s something very attractive about movies involving or based around journalists, at least I think so anyway. Classic era Hollywood generally played up the positive, virtuous side of the profession, with a few exceptions of course, which isn’t altogether surprising given the number of writers who had a background in journalism. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) follows in that tradition; it paints a heroic portrait of the newsman and his craft, though it’s not above slipping in the odd sly dig at the less ethical practices of reporters. Of course, it’s also an early wartime propaganda piece and a very effective one, never allowing the message to overwhelm or overtake the necessity of telling a good yarn. This success comes down to a happy blend of inventive direction, strong writing and memorable performances. If it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best known films that may well be due to the fact that it doesn’t have the depth or intensity of his other works. Despite the serious themes and events it depicts, the movie has an almost deceptive lightness of touch that keeps it entertaining.

The story tells of the exploits of one Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) – he’s saddled with the appalling pseudonym of Huntley Haverstock by his boss, but I’m going to refer to him throughout as Jones to avoid confusion – a down to earth crime reporter and a veritable babe in the woods when it comes to the labyrinthine complexity of pre-war European political chicanery. Nevertheless, that’s the assignment his boss, exasperated by the vague non-news coming his way, hands him: travel to a Europe teetering on the brink of the abyss and dig up something worth printing. So this “fresh, unused mind” arrives in London and, through sheer good fortune, ends up sharing a cab with Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), the Dutch politician said to hold the key to the volatile situation that’s brewing. The movie is essentially divided into three distinct segments: the opening London sequence playing up the humorous side and setting up what will follow; the lengthy mid-section in Holland, with its gradually darkening tone; and then a return to England for the climactic developments and revelations. The Dutch section contains some of the film’s best images and set pieces, including the famous assassination amid a sea of rain slicked umbrellas. It’s here that the pace really quickens and a half-comic car chase leads to another notable setup. Hitchcock is said to have decided to feature a scene with windmills simply because Holland is famous for having them. Whatever the truth of the origins of said sequence, it results in one of the most atmospheric and visually striking passages in the picture. Every drop of suspense is extracted from having Jones creep about the gloomy, twisting spiral staircase accompanied only by the grinding of the mill’s gears and the indistinct mutterings of the villains he’s spying on. While the intrigue thickens all around him, Jones also finds time to spar with and romance Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of a renowned peace activist (Herbert Marshall). By the time the action returns to London, Jones has been identified as a threat and plans are laid to ensure his removal from the scene. This offers Hitchcock the opportunity to blend comedy and danger yet again as Jones, accompanied by one of the most genial hitmen in cinematic history (Edmund Gwenn), comes perilously close to taking a spectacular swan dive off a cathedral. The film climaxes with a well staged plane crash that is both technically impressive and satisfying as a resolution.

On the WB DVD of Foreign Correspondent there is an accompanying making-of documentary which makes the point that the film contains a number of visual motifs that would pop up again in later Hitchcock productions, notably in North by Northwest. As I mentioned in the introduction, I think this film is somewhat underrated since it appears, superficially at least, to be more of an adventure romp than the darker and more critically acclaimed movies Hitchcock was to make in the 50s. It’s true that it doesn’t delve into any especially complex psychology but it does showcase the director’s visual flair. Aside from the assassination and windmill scenes, there’s a beautifully composed section in the latter stages where the captive Van Meer is being tortured by the villains in a disused theatre in an attempt to extract the details of clause 27, the film’s MacGuffin. Hitchcock, and cameraman Rudolph Maté, creates an expressionistic setup that foreshadows the look of classic film noir to emphasise the evil and menace Jones and his friends are up against; it even conjures up the slightly surreal image of a group of ghoulish theatre patrons watching the drama unfold before them. It’s also worth noting that producer Walter Wanger, for whom the director was working on loan, seems to have given Hitchcock greater freedom than was the case when he worked for Selznick – the film doesn’t display the kind of lush romanticism that David O encouraged. In addition to the look of the picture, its success is helped by a highly polished and sophisticated script. A whole battery of top flight writers were involved – Joan Harrison, Charles Bennett, Robert Benchley, James Hilton and an uncredited Ben Hecht – and all of them contributed to the smooth, cohesive and witty piece of work we see.

Apparently, Hitchcock originally wanted Gary Cooper for the role of Johnny Jones, but had to settle in the end for Joel McCrea. I can’t see any problem with that piece of casting as McCrea had the easy-going openness that the part demanded, and was able to walk the fine line between comic stooge and man of action. He’s entirely believable as the fish out of water, the no-nonsense crime reporter suddenly thrust into the middle of a huge political storm with nothing but his own wits to see him through. I thought Laraine Day was also fine as the romantic interest and handled both the lighter moments and the more serious stuff quite capably. The film benefits too from a large and talented supporting cast, Herbert Marshall and George Sanders providing a lesson in cinematic suavity. Marshall was handed a plum role as Stephen Fisher, the most complex and easily the most interesting character in the film. I feel he hit the right note at just about every stage and his performance turns out to be quite a moving one in the end. Albert Bassermann was nominated for an Oscar for the part of Van Meer (ultimately losing out to Walter Brennan in The Westerner) and it’s not to hard to see why; he brings a weariness and a kind of innocence to the role, and his key moment during the torture scene is almost hypnotic. As Rowley, the smiling killer, Edmund Gwenn seemed to be having a ball, his brief appearance adding a lovely touch of macabre humour to proceedings. And when it comes to humorous characterization, it’s impossible to ignore Robert Benchley’s turn as Stebbins, the dissipated London correspondent. His wit is as dry as one would expect of a man forced onto the wagon for health reasons, and he steals every scene he appears in.

The R1 DVD of Foreign Correspondent from Warners is a very nice presentation. The image is sharp and fairly clean and never displays any major flaws. In terms of extra features, the disc offers the half hour documentary that I mentioned earlier and the theatrical trailer. For a two hour movie, everything moves along at a terrific lick, never pausing for breath once the hero arrives in Europe. The only time you actually become conscious of the fact that this is really a propaganda piece is during the coda, and even that is done with style and doesn’t feel as contrived as can often be the case. Although this may not be one of Hitchcock’s better known movies it would be unfair to call it a minor work. It’s an incredibly stylish example of filmmaking that’s visually rich and just plain fun throughout. I rate it very highly.

 

Spellbound

Poster

I’ve heard Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) described as a tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum, and that’s actually not a bad summation. Despite sounding like a glib dismissal, it neatly encapsulates the basic premise of this movie. Exploiting the then fashionable trend for psychoanalysis, and enthusiastically supported by firm believer David O Selznick, it’s a romantic mystery served up as a kind of Freudian stew – and a very tasty one at that. Like all of Hitchcock’s films made for Selznick the producer’s fingerprints are visible everywhere, but there are plenty of instances of that familiar visual flair to ensure that you never forget who directed it.

Amnesiacs always make good protagonists in any movie, the blanked out memories that need to be recovered before any sense of order can be restored automatically generate mystery, and so it is with Spellbound. Our hero (Gregory Peck) is referred to variously as Dr Edwardes, JB, and finally as John Ballantyne (I’ll stick with JB for the purposes of this piece as that’s the moniker he carries for most of the running time) while he struggles to find out his real identity, and more crucially whether or not he’s a murderer. His arrival at a New England psychiatric hospital posing as the new director is initially taken at face value. There are a few comments passed regarding his relative youth for such a responsible position, but there are no other eyebrows raised. What it does spark though is an unsuspected passion in the emotionally repressed Dr Constance Petersen, thus providing JB with one priceless ally. Such a deception cannot hope to endure long though and, sure enough, it’s inevitably revealed that the real Dr Edwardes is in fact dead and the impostor taking his place is very likely his killer. So, still in search of who he is and what he did, JB goes on the run with Constance joining him after a short interval. It’s here that the picture comes into its own, as Constance, with the aid of her old tutor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov), employs Freudian psychoanalytic techniques in a race against time to probe the depths of JB’s subconscious and discover the truth. It all culminates in the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, whose interpretation lays bare all the secrets. The whole thing is pure, escapist hokum but it’s executed with such style and conviction that you’re completely drawn in. It’s a good illustration of how, apart from his technical achievements, Hitchcock was masterful at taking stories that were essentially tosh and coaxing the viewer into accepting their credibility for the duration of the movie.

The stuff that dreams are made of - Spellbound.

I mentioned earlier Selznick’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’d say that’s directly responsible for the film’s biggest weakness. Such was the producer’s zeal that he insisted on the involvement of an adviser on all things psychoanalytical. The result is an overly pious attitude towards the science depicted, from the cloyingly reverential foreword to the kind of mangled dialogue that even Ben Hecht was hard pressed to shape into something presentable. The contrast between the kind of clumsy exposition that Selznick wanted and Hitchcock’s talent for economical storytelling is clear to see in one scene near the end. In the space of a thirty second montage, consisting only of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman’s increasingly desperate features and a few imploring lines, the the trial, conviction and sentencing of JB is dealt with fully. Similarly, the whole, lengthy sequence at Brulov’s house could have proven intolerable in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, through the combination of a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance by Michael Chekhov, Hitchcock’s arresting visual style and the scoring of Miklos Rozsa (alternating between lush romanticism and the unnerving strains of the theremin), it stands as the strongest section of the entire film. Of course, in other places, some of the bravura touches could be said to serve no better purpose than to draw attention to their own inventiveness: the revolver discharged directly into the camera at the end springs to mind, but that’s such a memorable shot that it feels uncharitable and unnecessarily sniffy to complain about it.

It’s said that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for the lead, and Peck’s performance has been criticised for being a touch too aloof. I can understand where that’s coming from, Peck had yet to find his feet fully in cinema, although I also feel he was actually right for the part. Had Grant been cast I have a hunch he would have brought too much of himself, that innate self-confidence, to the role and thus rendered it less believable. As it stands, Peck had just the right measure of insecurity about him to get across the edginess of a man who doesn’t even know his own name let alone whether or not he’s a criminal. Whatever reservations anyone may have about Peck, it’s hard to fault Ingrid Bergman’s Constance Petersen. She brings real charm and innocence to the part of the slightly uptight academic who gradually learns that there’s a vast gulf between theory and practice when it comes to matters of the heart. There’s nothing the least bit goofy about her, she’s clearly a highly intelligent and capable woman but there’s also a touching vulnerability as a result of her sheltered lifestyle. Aside from the principal performers, there are a couple of excellent cameos in the mix too – the middle-aged cop and his partner discussing the issues he’s having with his mother who are in some ways reminiscent of the travelling salesmen in The 39 Steps, and Wallace Ford as the persistent pest in the hotel lobby – these don’t add anything at all to the narrative but they do enrich the whole experience.

Spellbound has had a variety of releases on DVD in different territories; my copy is the old Pearson release from the UK, which I think has been repackaged and subsequently issued by Prism. I guess there may be better versions out there but that old UK disc is pretty good to my eyes. There aren’t any problems with the transfer, which is clean, sharp and free from damage. There are a range of extras, from text bios and trivia to a gallery and a few clips of Hitchcock interviews etc – I’m pretty sure the latter is replicated on the other Hitchcock titles from Pearson. The movie itself is one of Hitch’s better than average 40s offerings, not as good as Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt but still technically accomplished and very entertaining. There are the familiar motifs (the wrong man on the run and the blonde Girl Friday) and the psychoanalysis angle is quite enjoyable. Like most of the director’s films, it has a high rewatch value regardless of how familiar the plot may be – recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck, Mystery/Thriller

 

Shadow of a Doubt

Poster

There are people who will tell you that Hitchcock never made a true film noir, and they cite the presence of countless personal motifs littering his work as evidence that what we’re watching is a “Hitchcock movie” as opposed to noir. That’s a point of view I can understand, even sympathize with to some extent, but I still feel that there are a number of Hitch’s movies that do fit snugly into that category. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a prime candidate for inclusion due to the dark heart that beats beneath the deceptively bright surface, and the ambiguous attitude it displays towards the villain.  

The opening is typical Hitchcock, starting with a cityscape and then zeroing in shot by shot to the window of a grotty tenement. Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is reclining on his bed, but is interrupted when his landlady comes to inform him that two strangers have been asking for him. It’s made clear that Charlie is being sought in connection with criminal activities. The exact nature of these crimes are only alluded to at first, but the viewers suspicions are allowed to build gradually until it’s finally revealed that Charlie is the killer of a series of wealthy widows – The Merry Widow Murderer. Of course, this isn’t just a standard did-he-or-didn’t-he, hunt-for-a-killer picture; the doubt of the title refers not so much to the viewers as to the villain’s family, and to his niece in particular. In order to find some respite from the relentless manhunt underway, Charlie goes to stay with his sister’s family in Santa Rosa, California. This unexpected arrival is a source of celebration for the sister and especially the niece, also called Charlie (Teresa Wright) in his honour. Young Charlie is on the cusp of adulthood, and bemoaning the fact that her family’s life has descended into a monotonous series of drab non-events. The appearance of the Uncle whom she idolises promises to inject some energy and excitement into her sleepy, small town existence. This certainly seems to be the case at first, as she parades her uncle around town like a trophy or a returning hero. Gradually though, this innocent adulation begins to be eroded by the seemingly insignificant occurrences that begin to pile up. When two detectives masquerading as reporters (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) turn up Young Charlie has her suspicions confirmed. In a marvellously filmed sequence in a deserted public library, the full extent of Uncle Charlie’s crimes is revealed as his niece reads the truth in a newspaper, the camera standing in for her eyes as she has the ground yanked out from under her – the camera pulling back and away to leave her small, isolated and burdened with knowledge in this shrine to learning. The dilemma facing Young Charlie is that she cannot act upon this information without destroying her family, and especially her emotionally fragile mother (Patricia Collinge). The situation is complicated even further when she realizes that her outwardly affectionate uncle can’t afford to let her walk around knowing what she does. 

Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) literally looking down on the world.

Shadow of a Doubt is commonly referred to as Hitchcock’s favourite film, and it’s easy to see why that would be the case. It’s a dark ode to Americana that’s reminiscent of Capra, an outsider’s view of an idealized world. Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa is not, as I’ve heard it suggested, the home to dark secrets but a wholesome community into which darkness steals (from it’s true origin, the urban center) before being duly expelled. Most of Hitchcock’s trademark visual style is on view, from high tracking shots to zooms and unnerving close-ups. The whole movie is chock full of memorable scenes and shots so it’s hard to pick out favourites. However, two sequences stand out for me: the first is Uncle Charlie’s arrival in Santa Rosa, the train rolling into the spotless station and pumping out a huge cloud of noxious black smoke to represent the evil it carries within; the other (less frequently mentioned) scene takes place when Uncle Charlie has just heard that the authorities have effectively cleared him. As the relieved man struts into the house and bounds up the stairs with a renewed vigour, he pauses halfway up, turns slowly, and sees the slight figure of his niece framed in the doorway below. It’s at this point that we know he’s going to kill her, he has no other alternative – it’s a subtle yet chilling moment that never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, even after countless viewings.

Joseph Cotten had that kind of easy charm that meant he wasn’t chosen to play the heavy in too many films. He uses his natural affability to good effect here and is entirely believable as a man who seems to make friends everywhere he goes. It also makes our knowledge of his true nature all the more shocking and adds some real punch to those moments when he lets his mask slide a little. All in all, you can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for him – sure he’s evil, but his evil has such an urbane and attractive sheen that it almost wins you over. Playing against that and holding onto viewer sympathy is a big ask, but Teresa Wright pulls it off. She matures perfectly as the story progresses and the threats to her safety escalate. By the end the viewers are faced with their own dilemma, not really wanting to see harm come to either uncle or niece. The main support comes from Patricia Collinge as the vulnerable and trusting mother. It’s her trust in and deep adoration for her rotten brother that gives real substance to the film, and it’s to her credit that the part retains the requisite emotional pull without becoming cloying. Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are cast mainly as a kind of macabre comic relief, needling each other of an evening about the best way to bump the other off. If I have any real criticism to make it relates to Macdonald Carey’s detective. It just feels like padding in a film that doesn’t require any; if his budding romance with Teresa Wright was included to strengthen the notion of her growing up then it’s unnecessary, that aspect being more than adequately covered by the meatier sections of the picture.  

Universal’s UK release of Shadow of a Doubt on DVD is a very satisfactory one, showing little damage and staying sharp and clear for the most part. There’s a nice selection of extras including the trailer and galleries. Best of all is a half hour documentary on the making of the film that has contributions from Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn and others. I won’t try and argue that this is Hitchcock’s best film, but it is a very accomplished work. It serves as a study on the loss of innocence and the darkness that lurks behind a polished facade – and it’s a highly entertaining movie.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock, Film Noir, Joseph Cotten

 
 
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