Alfred Hitchcock’s Last Ride: FAMILY PLOT (Universal 1976)

Critics in 1976 were divided over Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, which turned out to be his final film. Some gave it faint praise, in an “it’s okay” kinda way; others decried it as too old-fashioned, saying the Master of Suspense had lost his touch – and was out of touch far as contemporary filmmaking goes. Having recently viewed the film for the first time, I’m blessed with the gift of hindsight, and can tell you it’s more than “okay”. FAMILY PLOT is a return to form, and while it may not be Top Shelf Hitchcock, it certainly holds up better than efforts made that same year by Hitch’s contemporaries George Cukor (THE BLUE BIRD), Elia Kazan (THE LAST TYCOON), and Vincente Minnelli (A MATTER OF TIME).

Hitchcock reunited with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) to concoct a devilishly clever black comedy about phony psychic Blanche Tyler who, along with her cab driver boyfriend George,  is charged with finding the missing nephew of very rich Mrs. Rainbird.  The old dame is offering a $10,000 finder’s fee, which makes the perpetually broke couple drool, but there’s a catch: the boy in question has been missing since he was a baby, over forty years ago.

Meanwhile, as the couple leave the Rainbird manse, we cross-cut to a tall, mysterious blonde walking toward another stately manse. The silent woman hands over instructions to a trio of suits; she’s actually Fran Adamson, who along with her mastermind husband Arthur kidnap the rich and powerful for ransoms paid in sparkling jewels. The pernicious pair has been plying their trade for years without being caught, and it’s no spoiler to tell you Arthur Adamson is really the missing Rainbird heir, a sociopath who killed his adoptive parents in a house fire, and doesn’t like Blanche and George snooping around in his business…

Hitchcock and Lehman combine the suspense with loads of dark humor, and the result is a fun film that ends with a wink to the camera, as if Hitch is telling us, “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”. It may be a minor film in his major career, but it was entertaining enough to keep me invested throughout. Lehman’s script  keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek, and he won that year’s Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Screenplay. The language is cruder than you’ll find in Hitchcock films past, but that’s just Alfred keeping up with the times; he had always pushed the boundaries of the censorship boards, and was probably delighted to be able to let loose!

Barbara Harris is marvelous as the fake psychic Blanche, giving a joyously ditzy performance. Harris was shamefully underutilized by Hollywood, and should have been a much bigger star. Bruce Dern does good work as well playing Blanche’s bickering boyfriend, caught up in something way over his head. This was Dern’s second film with the Master; he had previously had a small role in 1964’s MARNIE. William Devane is another criminally neglected actor; he’s chillingly charming as Adamson (and can now be found hawking gold in TV commercials for Rosland Capital!). Karen Black’s Fran is kind of a   thankless role, but her presence is always welcome onscreen, as is another underrated actor, Ed Lauter, playing Devane’s murderous cohort.

Albert Whitlock’s (THE BIRDS) special effects during the car chase scene were no longer cutting-edge, and in fact look as phony as Blanche’s psychic powers, but that’s really a minor quibble. FAMILY PLOT may be lesser Hitchcock, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to keep Hitch fans happy. At least it did for me, and I’d recommend it to all who want to see The Master of Suspense take us on one last ride.

Necktie Party: Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (Universal 1972)


Alfred Hitchcock’s  previous two films, TORN CURTAIN (1966) and TOPAZ (1969) weren’t well received by critics, who claimed The Master of Suspense was too old-fashioned and had lost his touch. One wag even suggested that, after fifty years in films, it was time to put Hitch out to pasture! But Hitchcock wasn’t quite ready for a life of tea and crumpets in the garden, and came back with 1972’s FRENZY, complete with all the blatant sex, nudity, gore, and profanity of other early 70’s auteurs, proving he could not only keep up with the times, but surpass them by giving us the blackest of horror comedies.

Hitchcock had returned to his native England before to make a few films, but always with actors who had box office appeal in America (Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in UNDER CAPRICORN, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in STAGE FRIGHT). This time around, he uses an All-British cast of superb actors to tell his grisly little tale of a psycho sex killer on the loose in London, and an innocent man accused of the crimes. Anthony Shaffer (SLEUTH, THE WICKER MAN) adapted Arthur LeBern’s novel GOODBYE PICCADILLY, FAREWELL LEICESTER SQUARE and added some macabre humor to the gruesome goings-on, which fit right in with Hitchcock’s playful style.

We begin with a woman’s nude body found floating in the Thames (and an early cameo for Hitch!), and learn she’s yet another victim of ‘The Necktie Killer’, a “criminal, sexual psychopath” that rapes and murders his prey. We then meet Dick Blaney, an ex-RAF pilot and unlovable loser who’s just been fired from his job as a barman. Dick’s a bitter, angry young man who seems to blame everybody else for his problems, including his ex-wife Brenda, now a successful “matrimonial agent”. Dick’s prone to drinking heavily and violent outbursts; despite all this, his girlfriend Babs remains loyal.

In contrast, Dick’s friend Bob Rusk is the charming, outgoing, and successful owner of a wholesale produce company. Bob’s the type of guy you’d like to left a few pints with down at the pub… so naturally, he turns out to be the Necktie Killer that’s been terrorizing London! When Bob brutally rapes and strangles Dick’s ex Brenda in her office, Dick is spotted in the area by her secretary. Finding her boss’s dead body, she tells Scotland Yard that Dick was in the office just the other day, arguing and carrying on, pointing the finger of suspicion on him, and from there, circumstances go rapidly beyond Dick’s control…

Jon Finch (Dick) was no stranger to horror, having previously been in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. Even though Dick’s a shit, you can’t help but feel sorry for him, and that’s due in large part to Finch’s acting. Barry Foster (Bob) is charming on the outside, but creepy as hell when he’s in a “frenzied” state. Hitchcock had seen Foster in the 1968 horror TWISTED NERVE, and cast him for the part after Michael Caine turned it down (I know, hard to believe Caine turning something down, right!). The solid supporting cast includes Anna Massey as the doomed Babs, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as the doomed Brenda (just doesn’t pay to get involved with Dick!), Alec McCowan as Inspector Oxford and Vivien Merchant as his wife, and Bernard Cribbins, Jean Marsh (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS), and Billie Whitelaw.

Those famous “Hitchcock Touches” are still around, including the magnificent overhead shot of the Thames River in the opening by DP Gilbert Taylor . There’s a long, slow tracking shot down a winding staircase onto the street, a Hitchcock trademark. The scenes between McCowan and Merchant, an amateur gourmet chef serving her hubby the vilest-looking food while they casually discuss the case, are gems, as is the “potato truck” scene where Rusk frantically looks for his tie-pin, grasped in Babs’s dead hand inside a sack of spuds. Alfred Hitchcock showed his critics he was far from being washed up, and while FRENZY may not rank as his greatest (there are just so many to choose!), it’s an effective, gripping thriller that’ll grab you by the necktie and not let go until the end – and what an ending it is,  a deliciously twisted shocker that I’m not going to spoil for you. You’ll have to watch and see for yourselves!

This post is part of The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To read more entries on The Master of Suspense’s movies, just click on this link! Thanks for having me again, Maddy!

 

The Yin & Yang of Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Warner Brothers 1951)

Alfred Hitchcock , like many great artists before and since, was in a bit of a career slump. The Master of Suspense’s previous four films (THE PARADINE CASE, ROPE, UNDER CAPRICORN, STAGE FRIGHT) were not hits with either critics or audiences, and did poorly at the box office. Then came 1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and Hitch was back on top with this devilish mélange of murder, suspense, romance, and humor, featuring a stunning star turn by Robert Walker, cast against type as a charming sociopath.

Our story opens with two pairs of shoes (one two-toned, one staid brown loafers) emerging from two separate cabs, walking separately to catch a train and their date with destiny, as we cut to two separate train tracks merging together. Hitchcock’s playing with one of his classic themes: “the double”, or more importantly, duality. Even Dimitri Tiomkin’s score highlights the differences, as a jaunty air plays with the brown shoes, while the two-tones take on a more ominous tone. This musical “double” will be featured throughout the film, and I think it’s among the composer’s best.

The two strangers meet, sharing a table in a car. Amateur tennis star Guy Haines (brown shoes) is recognized by rich young wastrel Bruno Antony (two-tone), and the talkative Bruno tries to make conversation (but ends up dominating it). Guy, who harbors political ambitions, is on his way back to his hometown to try to obtain a divorce from his cheating wife Miriam so he can be free to marry Anne Morton, daughter of a senator. Bruno rants about being sick and tired of his domineering father, and brings up the subject of getting rid of each others obstacles: “swap murders”, each getting rid of the other’s misery (“Criss cross”). Guy doesn’t take it very seriously, but Bruno does, stalking Miriam at an amusement park and strangling her. Now Guy becomes a suspect, and Bruno expects reciprocation…

Hitchcock pulls out all the stops in this most entertaining movie, with all the familiar Hitchcock tropes present, including the director’s cameo (carrying a bull fiddle onto the train… also known as a “double” bass). But what stands out most is the theme of duality, as Guy Haines plays Yin to Bruno Antony’s Yang. Not just Tiomkin’s score, but the fine cinematography by Robert Burks, making his first of twelve pictures with Hitch, eloquently captures the contrast between the two personalities. There’s also that famous shot of Miriam’s murder, reflected back to the audience in her fallen eyeglasses; the tennis match with spectators’ head moving to and fro to follow the ball, all except Bruno, who only has eyes for Guy; the contrast of Guy’s grueling match at Forest Hills with Bruno desperately trying to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter (the film’s McGuffin) from a sewer grate; and that dazzling finale back at the amusement park, with the most terrifying Merry-Go-Round ride ever (although that little boy sure seems to be enjoying himself!)… all this and more add up to a film the word “classic” was certainly coined for!

Speaking of terrifying, Robert Walker’s Bruno is one of the most cold and clever villains in history. Flamboyant, glib, yet that impish grin can’t quite mask the madness behind his eyes. Bruno is obviously a gay man, or at least it’s implied, though the film doesn’t come out and say it (being 1951 and all), but it’s pretty clear he’d like to do more than swap murders with Guy, yet his  feelings, like the murder, go unreciprocated. Doted on by his loving mother, who he treats with contempt, Bruno is a psycho’s psycho, showing no remorse whatsoever for his actions. That moment when Bruno pops a child’s balloon with his lit cigarette says more about him than mere words could convey. Like all sociopaths, Bruno is an accomplished liar, and will stop at nothing to get his own way. Whether casually discussing the art of murder with two dowagers at a D.C. cocktail party, or frantically fishing that lighter out of the sewer, Walker paints a devastatingly stunning portrait of a sociopath, and gives undoubtedly his best screen performance (which would sadly be his next to last – he died shortly after the film’s release at age 32).

Farley Granger  is equally good as Guy, trapped in Bruno’s mad web. Granger has previously played a killer in Hitchcock’s ROPE, and this time he’s the victim of Bruno’s deranged scheme. Ruth Roman is Anne, Granger’s love interest, Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) is likeable as younger sister Babs, and Leo G. Carroll (participant in six Hitchcock films) is their dad, Senator Morton. John Doucette and Robert Gist are two cops assigned to watch Guy, and a pair of ladies from TV’s BEWITCHED are on hand: Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara!) plays Bruno’s adoring mother, and Kasey Rogers (billed as Laura Elliot),the second Louise Tate, is the unfortunate Miriam.

The screenplay credits Raymond Chandler as cowriter with Czenzi Ormonde, but this isn’t entirely true. Chandler was initially hired, and after two drafts left the project, or to put it bluntly was fired. The Master of Hard-Boiled Fiction   and The Master of Suspense did not get along, and allegedly Hitchcock ceremoniously held up Chandler’s script and, holding his nose with the other hand, dropped it in the wastebasket! Both men agreed Chandler should not get screen credit, but the studio wanted the prestige of Chandler’s name attached, so there it remained.

I could go on and on writing about STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and have plenty of notes to do so, but you’ll have a much better time watching it than reading my scribblings. If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, do so ASAP. And if you already have… watch it again! It just gets better and better as time goes on.

Games People Play: Alfred Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER (Warner Brothers 1954)

 

Alfred Hitchcock  wasn’t afraid to take chances. When the 3-D craze hit in the 1950’s, the innovative director jumped on the new technology to make DIAL M FOR MURDER, based on Frederick Knott’s hit play. The film is full of suspense, and contains many of The Master’s signature touches, but on the whole I consider it to be lesser Hitchcock… which is certainly better than most working in the genre, but still not up to par for Hitch.

Knott adapted his play for the screen, and keeps the tension mounting throughout. The story is set in London, and revolves around ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice, whose wife Margot is having an affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday. Tony comes up with an elaborate plot to have her murdered by stealing a love letter Mark has written and blackmailing her, then setting up his old school acquaintance C.A. Swann, a man of dubious moral character, to carry out the killing. He plans things to a T, but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. A stopped watch and a botched strangling end with Margot plunging a pair of scissors into Swann’s back, so Tony must quickly come up with a Plan B, pointing the finger of guilt at Margot, who’s tried and sentenced to hang….

Hitchcock creates some interesting overhead shots to add depth to the 3-D process. Unfortunately, by the time DIAL M FOR MURDER was released, the process was going out of fashion, and the film was mostly released in standard 2-D. It also suffers from staginess, with most of the movie confined to the Wendice apartment. It plays more like an extended, color episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS rather than a Hitchcock thriller, and the director himself has stated he considered it a work-for-hire project. Still, this is Alfred Hitchcock we’re talking about, and even lesser Hitchcock is head and shoulders above what most directors could do with the material.

The cast is top shelf, with Ray Milland as the charming, coldly calculating Tony Wendice. Milland could (and did) play any role with style, and his smooth operator Wendice makes a chilling villain. Grace Kelly is ice blonde Margot in  her first of three Hitchcock films, and as always she’s a stunning presence. Robert Cummings, star of Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR , plays Mark, unaware that Wendice knows he’s involved with Margot. John Williams comes on the scene midway through the film as Inspector Hubbard, investigating the murder and coming up with an elaborate plan of his own to catch the killer. Anthony Dawson, who was the body double of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in two James Bond films , plays the sleazy Swann. Williams and Dawson both reprise their roles from the Broadway original, and as for Hitchcock’s traditional cameo… well, you’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled.

DIAL M FOR MURDER may not be Grade A Hitchcock, but the performances are all solid and the suspense held my interest until the end. Can ask for more than that, even if it is one of Hitch’s minor films… it’s better than none at all! I’d like to thank Maddy at MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS for hosting her 2nd Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon … follow the link for more movies by The Master of Suspense!

 

Spy in the House of Love: Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (RKO 1946)

You won’t find a more glamorous pair of spies than Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS… except maybe in other films that feature Cary Grant as a spy! The Master of Suspense once again goes full speed ahead in bringing this exciting espionage caper to the screen loaded with the usual “Hitchcock Touches”, and introducing a few new ones along the way.

Alicia Huberman’s father has just been convicted of treason, and party girl Alicia soon finds herself seduced by suave T.R. Devlin. Awakening the next morning with a massive hangover, Alicia discovers Devlin’s a government agent (ours, of course!) charged with recruiting her to infiltrate a nest of ex-Nazis in Brazil. The target: Alexander Sebastian, a former flame of hers. The wealthy industrialist Sebastian is snack-dab in the middle of a fiendish Nazi plot, and Alicia’s job is to find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, the two fall madly in love.

Alicia gets invited to a dinner party loaded with Sebastian’s co-conspirators, including his suspicious mother. There’s something sinister about those wine bottles, but there’s a fly in the ointment: Sebastian asks her to marry him to prove she’s not in love with Devlin! Devlin, ever the company man, gives her the brush-off, and Alicia continues her mission as Mrs. Alexander Sebastian. Alicia steals the key to the wine cellar and, at a lavish party, she and Devlin investigate, finding bottles full of “some kind of metal ore”. Sebastian discovers the truth about Alicia’s allegiance, and he and his mother decide the only way out is to slowly poison her…

Ingrid’s Alicia Huberman is no Ilsa Lund, that’s for sure! In fact, the implication is she’s a high-priced call girl, but the censors preferred the more demur term “party girl”. Cary Grant is as sophisticated as ever, and he and Bergman make a crackling screen team (the pair would later team again in 1958’s INDISCREET). Speaking of those censors, it seems they had a rule forbidding onscreen kissing longer than three seconds (Good Lord!). Hitchcock, ever the innovator, got around this by having Grant and Bergman embrace in a passionate lip-lock for two-and-a-half seconds, then murmur a few sweet nothings, then kiss again. This went on for two-and-a-half minutes, and though it may sound strange, the scene is actually pretty damn hot! Leave it to Hitch to beat the devil at his own game!

The outstanding supporting cast is headed by Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian. As usual, Rains commands the screen whenever he’s on it, really tough to do when you’re opposite Grant and Bergman! Veteran Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantine makes her first (and only) American film appearance as Madame Sebastian, as knee-deep in the conspiracy as her son. Familiar Faces include Bea Benaderet, Wally Brown , Louis Calhern , Gavin Gordon, Donald Kerr , Moroni Olsen, and Ivan Treisault. Bess Flowers can be spotted in the huge party scene, along with Hitchcock in his regular cameo.

That party scene begins with an overhead shot atop the staircase (a favorite Hitchcock motif) that tracks all the way down to Alicia’s hand, which holds the key to the wine cellar and the plot. This and all the other fantastic camerawork come courtesy of DP Ted Tetzlaff, whose cinematography credits include classics MY MAN GODFREY, EASY LIVING, and THE MORE THE MERRIER. Tetzlaff was also a director in his own right, helming the 1949 film noir THE WINDOW . RKO’s music man Roy Webb delivers one of his best scores, and the screenplay by Ben Hecht is downright perfect. With all that talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s no small wonder NOTORIOUS was one of 1946’s biggest hits, ranking #7 at the box office and scoring Oscar nominations for Rains and Hecht. The movie is as glamorous and entertaining today as it was then, with Hitchcock, Grant, Bergman, and Rains all at their best, and makes a good place to start for those few out there (are there any?) who have yet to discover the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

Halloween Havoc!: Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (Universal 1963)

Many years ago, back in the 80’s I believe, I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard. It was early in the morning on a gorgeous summer day, and as my friend was still crashed from the previous evening’s debauchery, I decided to walk down to the beach and catch some rays. I strolled past a particularly marshy stretch when, out of nowhere, a seagull buzzed by my head. Then another. And another. And soon there were about ten of the nasty flying rats swooping down at me, screeching and dive-bombing toward my long-haired dome (this was back when I actually had hair!). I ducked and dodged, yelling and snapping my beach towel at the airborne devils, and ran as fast as I could away from the area, scared to death one of these buzzards was going to peck my eyeballs out! It was like something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s  1963  masterpiece of terror THE BIRDS!

THE BIRDS was Hitchcock’s follow-up to 1960’s PSYCHO, his first true entry into the horror genre. While that film deals with an easily explained (though very complicated) deranged man, THE BIRDS gives no clarification as to why the critters rebel against mankind. They have no motive, they just do, making their actions all the more terrifying. Birds have always been an omen of portending doom in Hitchcock films, from 1929’s BLACKMAIL all the way to the taxidermy of Norman Bates, but here The Master of Suspense takes it to the next level – birds as agents of chaos.

The film starts normally enough, as lawyer Mitch Brenner and newspaper heiress Melanie Daniels “meet cute” in a San Francisco pet store (where Hitch has his cameo as a man walking his dogs). Melanie, intrigued by the handsome Mitch, decides to follow him to Bodega Bay, an idyllic coastal town where he lives with his widowed mother and younger sister. The blonde practical joker purchases a pair of love birds, and sneaks into Mitch’s house, leaving them behind as a present for his sister Cathy. While observing his reaction from her motor boat, Melanie gets bashed in the head by an errant gull. It’s no mere accident, just the first sign of things to come.

The birds begin their attacks in earnest at Cathy’s outdoor birthday party, flocks and flocks of them reigning down on the innocent children. Hitchcock ratchets things up from there, as the audience never knows when the creatures will strike next. They fly down the chimney at the Brenner’s home, terrorizing them. Later, Mrs. Brenner discovers her neighbor’s dead body, his eyes horribly pecked out. The scene at the schoolhouse is one of the most iconic in both the Hitchcock and horror canons: as Melanie sits outside the school, the birds begin to gather, first one, then another, perching on the monkey bars and swing set, as the children sing an innocent song in class. Melanie and teacher Annie Heyworth, Mitch’s ex-lover, line up the kids, telling them we’re having a fire drill, marching them out slowly. The birds then attack, and the children make a mad dash for safety, the birds pecking and clawing at them with frenzied abandon, the children screaming as their flesh is rended from their arms and faces.

Melanie and Cathy make it to the safety of the local restaurant, where we get some relief from the tension as some minor characters (an ornithology expert, a fisherman, and a souse) expound on what the hell is going on. Bodega Bay is now under siege, and Mitch boards up the family homestead to keep Melanie and his family safe. Outside, we hear the shrieks and caws of the birds, hundreds of them, as they try to break through the wood. After everyone else falls asleep, Melanie hears something upstairs (Hitchcock’s famous staircase motif is revisited). Opening the door to a bedroom, she recoils in horror as the birds have broken through the ceiling. Trapped now, Melanie is viciously attacked by the demonic birds, as they mercilessly bite and rip at her. Mitch awakens to pull her out of this assault, but it’s too late – the woman is now in total shock from her frightening ordeal.

There is no musical soundtrack in THE BIRDS. Instead, an electronic early synthesizer is used to create the sounds of the avian monsters, to chilling effect (though composer Bernard Herrman is credited as ‘sound consultant’). Sound plays an important role in conveying the sense of dread and fear, with technicians Remi Glassman, William Russell, Oskar Sala, and Waldon Watson all contributing. The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film made over fifty years ago, thanks in large part to the contributions of Disney animator Ub Iwerks and matte artist Albert Whitlock . DP Robert Surtees , working on his 11th of 12 movies with Hitchcock, delivers his usual fine job. The eerie blending of both sound and visual effects combine to raise the terror quotient to heights never matched before, and rarely since, despite all the technological advances.

The cast is well-chosen, with stalwart Rod Taylor as Mitch and former model Tippi Hedren making her film debut as Melanie (Miss Hedren named her child after her character in THE BIRDS, actress Melanie Griffith). Jessica Tandy is outstanding as Mitch’s domineering yet sympathetic mother, Veronica Cartwright (later of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and ALIEN) is little sister Cathy, and Suzanne Pleshette, always a welcome presence, plays Annie. Familiar Faces in support include Malcom Atterbury, Richard Deacon, Ethel Griffies (as the bird expert – she even looks like one!), Charles MacGraw (the fisherman), Ruth McDevitt, Dal McKennon, William Quinn, Karl Swenson (the drunken doomsayer), and Doodles Weaver. Look for little Suzanne Cupito, later known as Morgan Brittany, as one of the frightened children.

Hicthcock directed from a script by Evan Hunter, better known by his pen name Ed McBain (of the ’87th Precinct’ novels), adapting his screenplay from a story by Daphne DuMaurier, whose novel REBECCA inspired Hitch’s first American film. THE BIRDS is a true classic of the horror genre, dealing as it does with the unexpected, the unknown, the unexplainable. After you finish watching it, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it couldn’t possibly happen. Or could it? Don’t forget what happened to me on Martha’s Vineyard all those years ago. As Scotty said in Howard Hawks’ THE THING  , “Watch the skies! Everywhere! Keep looking!”. And have a frightfully Happy Halloween!

Sweet Land of Liberty: Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR (Universal 1942)

The Master of Suspense puts the pedal to the metal once again in SABOTEUR, another “double chase” spy thriller that doesn’t get the attention some of Alfred Hitchcock’s other films do, but should. I’ve always enjoyed the performance of Robert Cummings as the “ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation”; his naturally laid-back, easygoing charm makes him perfect playing Barry Kane, accused of sabotaging a wartime aircraft plant and killing his best friend in the process, who winds up on a cross-country chase alongside reluctant heroine Priscilla Lane . SABOTEUR is certainly an  important film in Hitchcock’s body of work for one very important reason: it’s the director’s first film for Universal Pictures, a studio he’d have a long and profitable association with, and where he’d later create some of his finest movies.

SABOTEUR is in many respects a loose remake of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS , transplanted to America and updated to reflect the (then) current global conflict. Like the previous film, the protagonist is hunted by both the police and a dirty gang of Fifth Columnist spies. The heroine is suspicious of him, thinking the worst, but eventually coming around to believe his story. The spies, led by suave Otto Kruger , are all wealthy, urbane types. There’s an isolated cabin in the woods echoing the Scottish farm Robert Donat hides out in, but the gender roles of it’s occupants are reversed. Here, blind Uncle Phillip (Vaughn Glaser) is sympathetic to Kane’s plight, while niece Patricia (Lane) wants to turn him over to the authorities. Kane makes his escape from the law by jumping off a high bridge into the river below, and the scene in a movie theater, with the real saboteur (Norman Lloyd, who also serves as the movie’s McGuffin) causing a panic, is equivalent to the scene in the music hall featuring the unforgettable Mr. Memory (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!).

Despite these similarities, SABOTEUR stands on its own as a damn good thriller. My favorite scene has Cummings, with Lane forced to accompany him on the lam, hopping on the last truck in a circus caravan. The truck is occupied by a group of sideshow freaks: The Human Skeleton (Pedro de Cordoba), The Fat Lady (Marie LeDeaux), The Bearded Lady (Anita Bolster), a belligerent midget (Billy Curtis ), and a pair of Siamese twins (Jean Romer, Laura Mason). Seeing the shackles still on Cummings’ wrists, with Lane patiently by his side, they debate whether or not to turn him in when the cops pull the caravan over. The midget says yes, the twins are split, and the fat lady sits on both sides of the issue. The Bearded Lady and the Skeleton Man have the deciding votes, and elect to help Cummings hide from the law. The scene is both funny and poignant, as these outcasts of society show compassion toward their fellow humans, and one of my favorites in the Hitchcock canon.

The freaks stand in sharp contrast to the Fifth Columnists, men and women of wealth and stature who wish to do harm to their country for the cause of totalitarianism. Kruger is all Cheshire Cat smiles as Charles Tobin, leader of this rat’s nest. Norman Lloyd’s Frank Fry was the first of a long association between the actor and Hitchcock; he appeared in SPELLBOUND, then served as a producer (184 episodes), director (22), and actor (6) on the Master of Suspense’s long-running TV anthology series. I’m happy to report Norman Lloyd is alive and well as of this writing at the ripe old age of 102! (My favorite Lloyd role was his Dr. Auschlander on the series ST. ELSEWHERE from 1982-88). Alan Baxter , Alma Kruger, Clem Bevans, and Ian Wolfe are among the co-conspirators on the wrong side of history.

The most famous (and probably most discussed) scene in SABOTEUR is undoubtably the Statue of Liberty scene  where Fry, after his escape from the movie theater, hops the ferry to Liberty Island. He’s unknowingly followed by Patricia, who tries to stall him until Kane and the authorities arrive. Fry heads to the viewing platform, pursued by Kane, and they engage in a struggle that finds Fry hanging on for dear life. Kane has him by the sleeve as the cops make their way to the top, but the sleeve rips, hurtling Fry to his doom. Jack Otterson’s art department created a striking replica of Lady Liberty, and actual footage filmed in New York was rear projected and made to look eerily real by Universal’s resident special effects wiz John P. Fulton . The scene is tense, taut, and typically Hitchcockian!

The screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker is humorous and exciting, with plenty of patriotic fervor reflecting the wartime atmosphere. Cummings and Lane, though not Hitchcock’s first choices, make a fine romantic duo, and Kruger has never been slimier as the main villain. And yes, Hitchcock has his traditional cameo in the film; I’m just not going to tell you where or when. For that, you’ll have to watch SABOTEUR for yourselves, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea) is sent to Europe to cover the impending war with a fresh set of eyes. Given the rather pretentious pen name ‘Huntley Haverstock’, Johnny goes to London and meets up with fellow reporter Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has a weakness for booze and women. He’s assigned to cover the Universal Peace Party’s big conference, where Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman), who holds the key to peace or war in Europe, is scheduled to appear. Van Meer doesn’t show, but Johnny does meet the UPP’s leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his beautiful daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and of course Red-Blooded American wolf Johnny tries to put the make on her!

Next stop: Holland, where Van Meer is to make an important speech, only to be shot dead on the steps of the conference hall. The chase is on, with Johnny tracking the assassin, with help from Carol and reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, on the good guy’s side for a change), to an old windmill. It’s there Johnny discovers Van Meer alive but not well, drugged by a nest of rotten spies! Johnny returns with the police, only to find the windmill deserted except for a tramp. What happened to Van Meer? Who’s behind the spy ring? You’ll have to watch to find out!

One of Hitchcock’s motivations for coming to America was the chance to work with top Hollywood stars, and in Joel McCrea he got an actor at the height of his success. Already a star with films like DEAD END and UNION PACIFIC under his belt, McCrea’s everyman persona would serve him well in the decade to come. Here, he’s Hitchcock’s “stranger in a strange land”, in over his head with all this foreign spy business, but comes through in typical All-American hero style. Laraine Day’s career was just getting off the ground, having costarred in the MGM DR. KILDARE series, and she and Joel make a fine romantic duo, once things get going.

Humorist Benchley had a hand in the screenplay along nine other writers, both credited (Benchley, Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton) and uncredited (Harold Clurman, Ben Hecht, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahan, Richard Maibaum), and adds his dry wit to the proceedings. Sanders shines as the secondary lead, and German actor Basserman deserved his nomination. Herbert Marshall had appeared in Hitchcock’s MURDER! ten years earlier; his role as Fisher is among his best. Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn plays an assassin hired to off McCrea. Their scene together atop Westminister Cathedral is just one of the film’s many highlights. There are lots of other Familiar Faces in this game of cat-and-mouse: Eduardo Cianelli , Harry Davenport, Charles Halton, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie, Barbara Pepper , Charles Wagenheim, and Ian Wolfe . And of course Hitch in his traditional cameo!

There are so many ‘Hitchcock Touches’ in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, it could be a primer on how to make a Hitchcockian thriller! Van Meer’s secret “Treaty Clause #27” is the film’s McGuffin, vital to the characters yet meaningless in terms of plot. Danger in high places is covered with McCrea climbing out his hotel window to escape two ersatz cops (then the scene turns into a crowded chaos direct from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!), and later on the eventful plane ride. Danger in public places comes in both the murder on the conference hall steps and inside those ominous windmills. There are comedic bits with Benchley (and with McCrea having trouble holding on to his hat), mirror images, winding staircases, and Hitchcock’s sure sign of portending doom, birds! All this, plus a stirring call to arms by McCrea at the conclusion, adds up to one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. Just think, this was only his second in his new adopted homeland! Many more classics were to come, but FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT remains one of my personal Hitchcock favorites.

Gothic Art: Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (United Artists 1940)

REBECCA is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece. I remember watching it for the first time in a high school film class, enthralled as much by its technical aspects as the story itself. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s  first American film, though with a decidedly British flavor, and his only to win the Best Picture Oscar. There’s a lot of film noir shadings to this adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s  Gothic novel, as well as that distinctive Hitchcock Touch.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, begins Joan Fontaine’s narration, as the camera pans down a dark road overgrown with brush and weeds, fog rolling in all around, as we come up on the once majestic castle called Manderley, now lying in ruins. This first shot was all done with miniatures, another wonderful example of Hitchcock’s innovative use of the camera, looking and feeling totally believable (take that, CGI!). Flashbacks bring us to when Fontaine’s character, who’s never given a proper name in the film except “The Second Mrs. de Winter”, comes across her future husband Maxim de Winter standing at the precipice of a cliff, contemplating suicide.

Maxim of course is played by the great Laurence Olivier , as tragic a romantic Gothic hero as you’ll ever find (and I include his role as Heathcliff in the previous years WUTHERING HEIGHTS in that statement). His wife, Rebecca, has recently died in a horrible boating accident, and the brooding de Winter is in Monte Carlo trying to forget. Maxim takes a shine to the young girl, a “paid companion” to snooty Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and, after a whirlwind courtship, asks the girl to marry him. She accepts, and the couple return to England and de Winter’s lavish estate Manderley.

The servants are all welcoming to Maxim’s new bride… all but one, that is. That would be Mrs. Danvers, head housekeeper, played to icy perfection by Judith Anderson . The ghoulish Mrs. Danvers gives the second Mrs. de Winter (and us) the creeps, as she slavishly devotes herself to Rebecca’s memory, lovingly caressing the dead woman’s clothing, keeping all her monogrammed possessions on display, and sabotaging the new bride’s costume ball. Anderson is disturbingly sinister as Mrs. Danvers, a role so iconic it’s been parodied time and again in movies and television skits, notably in 1946’s THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, when Lou Costello says to similarly creepy housekeeper Gale Sondergaard, “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”.

Things take a wrong turn for Maxim when Rebecca’s body is found in a capsized boat, though he’d earlier identified his late wife’s body elsewhere. This is when the truth about Rebecca finally comes out in a scene inside a seashore cabin, Maxim among Rebecca’s old things, as he tells his new wife the real story behind Rebecca’s death (there’ll be no spoilers, just watch the movie!). Olivier is brilliant in this scene, as are Hitchcock and his cinematographer George Barnes, who won an Oscar for his work.

George Sanders is on hand as Rebecca’s “cousin” Jack Favell, a cad and a bounder who plays an integral part in the plot. Sanders always excelled in this type of role, and his Favell is one of his most memorable scoundrels. The supporting cast features such British Familiar Faces as Nigel Bruce Leo G. Carroll , Gladys Cooper, Melville Cooper, Lumsden Hare, Reginald Denny , Forrester Harvey, and C. Aubrey Smith. Franz Waxman’s haunting score is among his very best, and that’s saying a lot. Waxman was the man behind the baton for classic scores like BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SUSPICION, HUMORESQUE, and SUNSET BOULEVARD, to name just a few.

Producer David O. Selznick and director Hitchcock had totally different approaches to filmmaking, and frequently clashed during REBECCA’s production. Hitchcock had a rocky relationship with Selznick, and in all the time he spent under contract to the producer, Selznick only used him for this, SPELLBOUND, and THE PARADINE CASE. All of the director’s other 40’s output was made on loan out until his contract expired in 1947. While the other two collaborations have their flaws, REBECCA is perfection in all respects, a film classic that has stood the test of time and essential viewing for movie lovers. You don’t come across films of this caliber very often, so if you have never seen REBECCA, I urge you to do so soon as possible. You will not be disappointed.

 

 

Fast & Furious Hitchcock: THE 39 STEPS (Gaumont-British 1935)

The chase is on – and on – as Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are pursued by cops and spies while pursuing a deadly secret in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS. The “double chase”, first used by Hitch in his silent THE LODGER (1927), playfully keeps the film’s motor running in high gear, and introduces us to two of his soon-to-be famous tropes, the “McGuffin” and the ice blonde. It’s certainly an important film for Hitchcock, as it caught the eye of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who would bring Hitch to America’s shores five years later.

Donat, later an Oscar winner for 1939’s GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, plays Richard Hannay, trapped in circumstances beyond his control. The film begins in one of Hitchcock’s favorite places, a crowded public landmark, in this case a music hall (the marquee reminiscent of the shot of Anna Ondry walking past “A New Comedy” in BLACKMAIL ), as Hannay watches a performance by Mr. Memory (and his fabulous moustache!). The boisterous crowd heckles the entertainer, and soon a brawl breaks out among the drunken patrons. Shots are fired during the chaos, and as the horde disperses, we learn it was a ruse, a diversion created by Annabella Smith (German actress Lucie Mannheim), who tells Richard she’s a freelance spy working for the Brits to protect a secret important to the crown. At Richard’s apartment, she’s killed by a knife in the back, handing him a map of Scotland before dying.

Richard’s forced to take it on the lam, pursued by two spies as well as wanted by the constabulary for murder. His cleaning lady has discovered the body, and her scream segues into a train whistle. Richard’s on board, trying to elude the cops, and ducks into Pamela Shaneakwa’s (Carroll) compartment, only to be fingered by her to the cops. He escapes by climbing atop a very high bridge, another favorite Hitchcock spot.  Seeking shelter at the farm of an old Scot (John Laurie, later of the Brit sitcom DAD’S ARMY) and his much younger bride (the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft), he stays the night, and the old coot suspects Richard’s hitting on his wife. The man tries to turn in him for reward money, only to have the lass help him escape (she receives a kiss from the dashing Donat for her efforts!).

Richard makes his way to the home of Professor Jordan, thinking he’s an ally of Annabella, only to find out the man’s leader of the spy gang! He’s almost killed (I won’t tell you how he dodges that bullet, you’ll have to watch the movie!), and lives to tell his tale to the local sheriff, who doesn’t believe him – no one does! Crashing through a window, he loses them in a crowded parade and winds up in the midst of a political rally, spouting a gibberish speech when he’s recognized by none other than Pamela. Two cops escort him out, with Pamela in tow as a witness, and handcuff them together. You guessed it, the cops are really part of the spy plot, and Richard manages to escape once again, this time chained to Pamela, who hates the accused murderer!

THE 39 STEPS has everything you could ask for in a Hitchcock film: action, romance, comedy, spies, and many of his famous signatures. There’s the innocent man involved in extraordinary circumstances, danger in public places, voyeurism (Carroll taking off her stockings, later putting them back on), trains, high places, and an exciting (and unexpected) conclusion that takes us back to Mr. Memory. And yes, the director does one of his patented cameos; again, it’s up to you to find him! The secret of THE 39 STEPS is not as important as how Hitchcock gets to it, and the journey is fun indeed.

Donat and Carroll make a marvelous pair, and the comedy between them is has a decidedly screwball flavor. Madeleine Carroll played “the ice blonde” in Hitchcock’s THE SECRET AGENT the following year, then moved to Hollywood to star in vintage fare like THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, ON THE AVENUE, DeMille’s NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE, and the Bob Hope spy spoof MY FAVORITE BLONDE. At one point she was the highest paid actress in the world, but gave it all up to aid in the war effort after her sister was killed during the Blitz. She died in 1987 at the age of 81.

Hitchcock would make five more films in England before beginning the next phase of his career in America with REBECCA. His British films of the 30’s were but a proving ground for greater things to come. THE 39 STEPS gives the viewer a chance to observe the Master of Suspense honing his unique style and vision, which would serve him well in the decades to come.