Friday, July 30, 2010

Do You Like Hitchcock?

The 90s were not a good time for Dario Argento. After being hailed as one of the greatest horror and giallo directors of the 70s and 80s, he kind of floundered for a good decade, making films that started at sub par and worked their way steadily downward, bottoming out with his disastrous Phantom of the Opera. Whatever the cause of his slump may have been, he seems to have finally started to overcome it, and while this ode to his idol isn’t exactly on the level of his past classics, it’s certainly a step back in the right direction.
The film opens with a scene that is wonderfully Argento, and has nothing to do with the rest of the film. We follow a little boy in the woods, who stumbles across a cottage that is home to two witches. They howl and cackle while slaughtering a chicken, as blood sprays everywhere, before they see him spying on them and give chase, screaming out lines like “I’ll gouge your eyes out!” After he gets away, we cut forward to the present day, where we sadly find that despite following the boy as a college student, those witches are not coming back and have no bearing on the plot at all. It’s a tremendous cock tease.

Anyway, our young hero (Elio Germano) is a film student that seemingly specializes in Hitchcock, as apparently the local video store does as well, as there are posters for the likes of Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and more all over the damn place. It gets to where it becomes a silly game seeing what movies are given prominence in the film, such as a poster for Argento’s own previous film The Card Player, and his daughter’s directorial effort Scarlet Diva. This isn’t honestly as much of a distraction as one would think, both because nothing very important is ever happening at the video store, and because Argento has a tendency to place his films in bizarre alternate worlds, so why not one where all the hip young twentysomethings are obsessed with Hitchcock in 2005?

But onto the plot, as I keep getting distracted myself: from his apartment, he discovers that his neighbor (Elisabetta Rocchetti) is a total hottie that gets naked in front of her window a lot (complete with soft-core porn music playing, for that added touch of class), but when her shrewish mother is viciously murdered shortly after seeing her talking up Strangers on a Train at the video store to another girl, he becomes convinced that the two women planned to trade murders a la Hitch. “Criss cross,” as he puts it to his long-suffering girlfriend. Determined to prove his theory, he begins an elaborate game of straight-up stalking his neighbor, complete with stealing her mail and hunting down the other girl to stalk her too.

It’s a fun, if over-the-top and silly, movie, and while I can’t unreservedly recommend it to any Hitchcock fans (while Argento is arguably Hitchcock’s greatest disciple -- his only real competition being Brian De Palma -- it is a devotion filtered through Italian madness, and not to everyone’s tastes), it should pay just fine to anyone that enjoys Italian cinema and cheap thrillers. It’s also surprisingly bloody and nudity-filled for a TV movie (the murder of the mother involves her being bludgeoned so badly that her head seems to explode, drenching the camera in blood), which is just never a bad thing. This does mark the end of Hitchcock Month, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed it. I’ll still be around next month too, I promise. Now go enjoy the Japanese trailer.

Rating: ***


High Anxiety

I’ll happily state upfront that Mel Brooks, no matter what his Spaceballs cartoon was like, will always be a comedic genius in my eyes. That said, his Hitchcock-spoof High Anxiety (made one year after Family Plot) is definitely one of his mid-range films, certainly not on the level of earlier films like The Producers, Young Frankenstein, or Silent Movie, but superior to Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Robin Hood; Men in Tights, or even the much more famous (and somewhat overrated) Spaceballs.

Brooks stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Really, Really Nervous (say what you want about the man, he will go as low as possible in his efforts for a cheap laugh). Upon his arrival, he discovers that his predecessor died under mysterious circumstances, and the head nurse and her doctor boyfriend (Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman) seem to both know more about it than they’re telling, and resent him for being an outsider that’s jumped above them in position. There’s also an issue about the lack of recoveries by any of the patients at the institute, particularly the wealthy father of Madeline Kahn, who may just be straight up imprisoned now.

Of course, the plot is rarely all that important in a Brooks film; what is important is the constant barrage of jokes flying at your head. We get such things as the camera panning in so much it smashes through a window (a joke Brooks liked so much he reused it in Robin Hood: Men in Tights), a psychiatric session that rapidly devolves into a boxing match, and a patient that suffers from sharp phantom pains and nightmares of werewolves. The jokes aren’t as consistently good as in his best films, but when they work they’re brilliant.

There’s also, as one would imagine, quite a few Hitchcock references thrown in. There’s a lavish set design to everything (not used as a joke at any point, just nice to see such attention to detail) far beyond the norm for one of Brooks’ films, and after his initial plot set up, he eventually starts throwing out as many references to Hitchcock as he can cram into a short time span. Obviously Spellbound, given that it’s at a mental asylum, but we also get references to Psycho, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, a section where Brooks is framed for murder in a Wrong Man scenario that covers a good half of Hitch’s films, and probably a couple others that I missed. Yes, all this in just an hour and a half, it’s a pretty fast-paced effort, and I have to admit that the jokes about Hitch tend to not be quite as good as the ones that don’t actually require him. For instance, one of the best bits in the movie doesn’t require you to be familiar with a single Hitch film. Brooks is on the road being filled in by his cab driver about his predecessor, who he learns was “a victim of…foul play.” Instantly jarring thriller music pops up, and they look around all startled, only to see a bus next to them with the Los Angeles Symphony playing. Yes, he had used this joke already in Blazing Saddles (the shameless self-stealer), but screw it, it’s still funny.

While hardly a masterpiece, this is definitely a film that every Hitchcock fan (or Brooks fan, for that matter) should be checking out. I have no idea if Hitchcock ever saw it, though I have no doubt that he would have cheerfully informed Brooks that Hitch’s own comedies were much better. He could be so mean like that.

Rating: ***


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Family Plot

And here is how Hitchcock’s career would end: not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a nice satisfying thump, like that of a body hitting the ground. I’ve seen some people online complaining that this was a letdown of a final film for such a distinguished director, but really, it’s his best film since Psycho. If anything, this was him on the upswing after a series of misfires.
The film follows two couples: Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern are a psychic and her con artist cab driver boyfriend who are trying to collect a $10,000 reward for hunting down the heir to a fortune, while William Devane and Karen Black are the heir and his girlfriend, who are in no hurry to be found, what with their shady pasts involving kidnapping and murder. That’s essentially the entire plot of the film, as Hitchcock is more interested here in being whimsical and silly instead of making yet another overdone thriller for audiences to complain about. Indeed, the séance that opens the film, where the old woman reveals that she’s looking for the heir, is a combination quick exposition dump that pretty much gives us 90% of the film and a silly overwrought bit of con artistry designed more to make us laugh at what we’re seeing (and by connection what we’re going to be seeing elsewhere in the film) than to make us feel anything resembling suspense.

It’s a wise choice, and shows that Hitchcock learned from his mistakes with Frenzy, where he seemingly couldn’t decide on whether he wanted to make a straight horror movie or an outright comedy. Here we can’t look at scenes like the one where Dern and Harris are in an out-of-control car and do anything but laugh, as Harris seemingly decides that when the brakes fail there’s no reasonable response other than to start crawling all over the driver and start choking him. Because that will help.

The over-the-top nature of the film infuses every scene, taking his old thrillers and effectively poking fun at their faux-seriousness. Some of the best parts are scenes at a graveyard that would not have been out of place in an old Universal horror movie, where we get caretakers looming up out of the background to deliver ominous exposition, and grieving mothers deal with their grief by kicking over tombstones. The only real over-the-top bit that I’m not particularly a fan of is at the very end, when one character breaks the fourth wall and winks at the camera right before the end credits roll. It’s silly, yes, but not in the good way that most of the film manages. Of course, going by IMDB I seem to be in the minority on this one, but screw them. This is my blog, not theirs.

While again, this is not a great film by any means -- the humor works better here than in any of his other attempts at comedy, but still isn’t what I would call anything particularly amazing -- it was the best Hitchcock had made in the past fifteen years, and provides a solid ending to his career. There’s solid acting from all four leads, a nice musical score by a young John Williams, and a tighter script than he’s managed to pull off in years. Hitchcock Month isn’t completely finished with this, but Hitchcock’s own involvement is. We’ll get some further closure at the end of the week, when I discuss two more movies that bear a wee bit of a Hitchcock influence. Feel free to guess now as to what they are.

Rating: ***


Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Frenzy marked Hitch’s proud return to England, after a good thirty year stretch in Hollywood (minus the Man Who Knew Too Much remake, which doesn‘t count since its stars were all firmly American). It also marks the fist and only time the director would snag an R rating in his career, in the second film he made after the creation of the current ratings system. While it wound up being a deeply flawed film, it still showed that even at the tail end of his career he was still trying out new approaches and new methods.

Once more we are treated to the Wrong Man storyline, as star Jon Finch is mistaken for the Necktie Killer, a serial rapist/killer that’s been stalking London and dumping the naked bodies of his victims into the river. Incidentally, the nudity in the film is the sole reason for the R rating, as it’s a surprisingly bloodless film for one with a serial killer. In a curious twist, we quickly learn that his close friend Barry Foster is the actual killer, in what has to be the single most clumsily directed rape scene in all of film history. I don’t know if Hitchcock just didn’t have his heart in it at all and his studio was demanding an R rating, or what the deal was, but we have a rape scene here wherein:

a) The rapist never removes his pants (he does rip the top of her dress, so we get to see an obvious body double’s left breast, so there’s that I guess)
b) There’s not even an attempt at thrusting at any point, which leads me to assume that Hitchcock’s wife was being left very unsatisfied
c) in an attempt to avoid showing anything resembling thrusting, our rapist just keeps growling “Lovely” while she mutters a prayer in between each “lovely”
d) after he strangles her, we get a final shot of her corpse, with her eyes bugging out, mouth open, and tongue sticking out to the side as far as it can go

So right at the moment when we’re intended to feel the greatest amount of horror in the entire film, we instead are laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Indeed, I half suspect that Hitchcock intended this entire film to be a subtle parody of the serial killer genre, as we keep getting conversations with random characters constantly joking about the sex murders going on, as if he were aggressively trying to undermine his own efforts. The main plot feels like Hitch was torn halfway between trying to create a real thriller and wanting to simply goof on the entire process, giving us such things as an amazingly unlikable protagonist who seems to aggressively go out of his way at times to appear guilty. Even before he becomes a suspect he runs and hides whenever the police show up near him, he makes a big scene in a fancy restaurant while having dinner with his ex, to the point where he breaks a glass by gripping it too hard, then snarling at a waitress who tries to help clean him up, he berates every friend he has, and does acts like the exact sort of maniac you‘d expect to appear on the news for raping and killing a bunch of women.

It’s a baffling effort of a film, far too light-hearted to be a proper horror story (or even a proper thriller), but not consistently funny enough to achieve outright parody status. If he had been able to focus on one or the other, the film would have been a good deal better, but as it is, it simply ends up being a curious misfire for the director’s penultimate film. Fortunately (to paraphrase Ed Wood), his next film will be better!

Rating: Frenzy - **


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Birds/The Birds 2: Land's End

I think these two films may have possibly the least drop-off in quality of any sequel to a Hitchcock film (the possible exception being the surprisingly excellent Psycho 2), though here that’s mostly because the original is pretty crummy, so the sequel didn‘t really have to try as hard.
To be fair, there are only two problems with the original, but both are critical: the pacing is seriously off, and then-modern special effects were nowhere near good enough to handle such a story. The first issue comes into play because of how, in a movie that audiences are attending solely for random bird violence, we don’t get our first actual attack until we’re about fifty minutes in. Prior to that we get a clumsy love angle with Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor at scenic Bodega Bay that feels like Hitch was just going through the motions to satisfy an audience that has come to expect a romance in all of his films. What it ends up causing is a fairly dull first half, leaving the second half to do all the heavy lifting with the special effects.

And sorry to all of you out there who watched this as children and have cultivated a lifelong fear of birds ever since, but the special effects in no way hold up. We get a great many shots of people screaming as stuffed birds are thrown at them, shots where the actors are clumsily superimposed over shots of birds flying, and a few shots of birds being attached to actors via string (with their mouths tied shut), so they could frantically flap their wings against actors’ backs in their terror to get away. Of these, the third is the only part that looks even a little bit convincing, and even then it just looks like the birds are more trying to get free than menace anyone. I suppose it would be more feasible to try to make a movie of this nowadays with the advent of CG (indeed, Platinum Dunes has been trying to do a remake for years now as part of their ongoing efforts to make sure every horror movie ever made has a lousy remake), but I’m a little hesitant to go along with Hollywood’s idea that CG is a magic cure all. After all, it’s that kind of thinking that leads to Transformers.

It is lightened somewhat by a brilliantly ridiculous scene in a diner before and after one of the bird attacks. Not only do we get the snooty skeptic who throws a nice exposition dump at us about birds and how many there are and their brain pans and how we’d all be dead instantly if they turned on us en masse, but we also get a guy going on in a refreshingly matter of fact way about how it’s the end times, and a woman that launches into an attack on Hedren that starts out as shrill histrionics and goes more out of control from there. I mean, I know it’s common practice to point fingers after something terrible happens, but for her to pretty much arbitrarily go after Hedren with lines like “I think you’re evil. EEEEEEEEEEEEVVVIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLL!!!!!!” is a bit much.

The sequel (which itself is more of a remake, particularly with its cameo by Hedren playing a different character) is also pretty terrible, though the special effects aren’t quite as laughably bad here. While there were more than a couple similarities between the original and Jaws, this sequel feels almost more like a Jaws rip-off than a Birds rip-off. First, we get attacks right from the very beginning, which only our hero seems to have figured out, while the villainous fat mayor keeps insisting it isn’t a real problem and we need to keep our lovely island together and avoid any kind of panic.

It is surprising that the sequel isn’t bloodier. It was made for Showtime, which has never had any issues with gore, and yet it’s barely any bloodier than the original was back before the existence of R ratings. In fact, the single goriest part of the original, the reveal of a body with its eyes pecked out, is replicated here, but done worse, as now instead of actually looking like his eye sockets are empty, he looks like he just has two glass eyes. Just a real shoddy effort all around.

Of all of Hitchcock’s post-Psycho efforts, this is the one that has garnered the biggest following, and I can only assume a good deal of that is people who saw it as children before they were old enough to notice how horrid the effects were. It does have some interesting aspects to it, like the curious decision not to have any music in the film (Herrmann is instead credited as a sound consultant), and the fact that this is Hitchcock’s only film in which the heroes lose, but the main focus is visibly on the bird attacks, which are the weakest parts of the film. Probably at least some of its fanship comes from horror fans excited that it’s his bloodiest film (though it’s really no worse than the Hammer films of the time), but overall it really doesn’t stand on its own feet. If you really need to see Hitchcock doing horror, watch Psycho or Frenzy, they’re both better films.

Rating: The Birds - * ½ / The Birds 2: Land’s End - *


Monday, July 26, 2010


So here we are, at both the final great Hitchcock film, and arguably the worst remake of one of his films. Yes, one could certainly argue that in just about every way Disturbia was more poorly made, but the Psycho remake manages the feat of having a great many talented actors, musicians, and a talented director, all doing some of the worst work of their careers, and all in service to a film that was fatally flawed at its core. But first, let’s get to why the original is so great!
I feel I must start with the musical score, since that’s one of the most memorable aspects of the film. It was Bernard Herrmann’s sixth collaboration with Hitch, and I think there can be little argument that it was their single greatest effort together. It endlessly drives the tension of the film upward towards the shower scene, where it explodes into a staccato nightmare, before wisely ending after the murder, and leaving us with just the aftermath noise of the water from the shower still running over the body. While his scores for all of their movies together were easily the best Hitchcock’s films had ever had (making their eventual falling out over Torn Curtain a little sad), this was where he really brought his A+ game, crafting one of the most memorable film scores in all of cinema.

The acting is also some of the best ever seen in a Hitchcock film. In my own estimation, Anthony Perkins, as Norman Bates, gives the single greatest performance in any of Hitch’s films, giving us a simultaneously loveable sap, a nervous wreck with a laughing tic, and a sinister figure that hints at darker origins. It’s worth the price of admission (or a rental nowadays, I guess) just to see him working, dancing right on the edge of maniacal self-parody without ever once stumbling. Janet Leigh is also wonderful, as a bank clerk on the run after stealing money from her work in the hopes of finding a new life with her married boyfriend, and winding up at the worst hiding place she could possibly have chosen.

Now, I’d feel bad about discussing and casually spoiling the plot, since the film does to an extent rely upon its two big shocks, except those two shocks have not only become such a major part of our cultural knowledge that everyone should know them by now, but Hitchcock himself cheerfully all but gives away the entire movie in the trailer (see below). Regardless, it’s admirable that a movie that does rely on the element of surprise is still so very effective even when you know the surprises going in, though the plot does manage to be interesting in another, completely film geek-centric way. It follows a then-unique structure, in that the film opens with one main character, following her around for close to half the movie before she is summarily dispatched in the shower, then quickly moving on to the private detective until he’s done away with, and then finally moving onward to our final two heroes, who end up saving the day. Modern audiences should easily recognize that as the structure of a slasher movie, with characters being introduced and then followed around until their murders, and then a new victim is found to follow, but in 1960 that sort of thing had never been done before. It’s justifiably considered possibly Hitchcock’s most influential film, because one could absolutely make the argument that without Norman Bates, we’d have no Michael Myers, no Freddy Krueger, no Jason Voorhees. Some snarky people might say we’d have been better off, but they are assholes and we don’t particularly care for them.

Now, if I can stop my endless suck fest of Hitchcock for a moment, I’d like to discuss what went horribly, horribly wrong with the remake. I should state that I have absolutely nothing against the idea of doing a remake, though the times I have seen a remake done well are pretty few and far between. It certainly appears to me that the best remakes have tended to be the ones that take the same general premise and then either put their own original spin on it or (in the case of The man Who Knew Too Much) take a film that was a bit on the short side and try to really flesh it out more. Neither of those things happened here, as director Gus Van Sant decided that, flush with success after making Good Will Hunting, he would just do a shot by shot remake of the film.

Those of you who haven’t seen it may be wondering what the point of such an effort is, and you wouldn’t be wrong. After all, if the original was so good, then such an imitative remake would be completely unnecessary, and if the original was something that could use a modern update, then any proper remake couldn’t function properly going shot by shot like this. It’s an idea that seems to have been designed from the very start to undermine every last bit of effort that went into the movie. And to be fair, a great deal of effort did indeed go into the film, it was just all spent on making sure the remake looked like the original rather than the much more vital task of managing to evoke the dark feel of the original. For a perfect example of getting it completely wrong like this, one need look no further than the score by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek. They straight up took Herrmann’s original score and redid it the exact same way with the same instruments, to the point where any audience member would be properly curious as to why the film’s money went towards having them do such a thing instead of just reusing the original music outright.

The actors, being the ones most visible in the effort, have the worst time of it. It’s indeed asking too much for Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche to be as great as Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh were, but they’re not even really given a chance when so much of their efforts are spent on trying to mimic (poorly) their predecessors. Vaughn actually gets to enjoy the only notable addition to the film that wasn’t in the original, a shot of him masturbating while spying on Heche undressing. Right at a time when we need to be most creeped out, we get him wildly shaking and (I can only assume, having not seen it in theaters) making the audience burst out laughing. Even without the visual though, the sound effect of it happening is pretty laughable in itself. That addition does fit perfectly with the film, though. Not only does Vaughan play Bates as more seedy than creepy, but the film itself is just Gus Vant Sant himself jerking off to Hitch’s memory, so why not make that completely overt in the film itself?

The decision to switch from black and white to color was a good one, as now cinephiles have a perfect example to throw at people when they complain they don’t want to see anything in black and white. The epilogue, wherein a psychiatrist spends five minutes over-explaining Bates’ craziness and completely letting all the energy drain out of the film, is kept completely intact, despite being the only area where a clear and obvious improvement over the original film could be made. The only real bright spot in the film is William H. Macy as the private eye, who right from the start walks on scene as if he’s thoroughly disgusted with himself for signing on for this movie and is determined to make it show in every last shot. He plays his character like a parody of a detective, and wears his suit and hat like a fourteen year old forced to dress up for a wedding. In a film with so little actually going for it, I’d much rather have an actor recognizing the film’s flaws and not very subtly goofing on them than I would yet another actor awkwardly trying to imitate the performance of the guy from the original.

For whatever reason, the original wound up being the last great film Hitchcock would ever make. The films he would make after this would range from good but unspectacular (Family Plot) to formless and dull (Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz) to wildly ambitious yet terrible (The Birds and Frenzy). I’ll still be reviewing a few more of them, but it does seem that he used up so much of himself making these last several films that he was simply unable to keep up such a high level of quality. Or perhaps (and this is just my own theory, mind you) he was given a glimpse into the future, saw the remake of this film, and was determined to never again make anything that would be considered good enough to justify a cold-blooded remake. After all, you’re never going to be likely to hear about someone doing a shot by shot remake of Torn Curtain, now are you?

Rating: 1960 - **** / 1998 - *


Thursday, July 22, 2010

North By Northwest

So here I was, wrapping up my review of this damn movie, when my computer spazzed out on me, deleted the entire thing, and put my Diabolique/Vertigo review back. So if this seems a bit rushed, it’s because I am so very cranky. Anyway, this film has Hitchcock going back to his favorite theme, that of the Wrong Man, though here it’s done better than in most of his other films. Chronologically sandwiched as it is between Vertigo and Psycho, this one suffers a bit by comparison, but it’s still a superior effort by Hitch, and well worth a look for any thriller fans.
The film stars Cary Grant as a salesman who, about one damn minute into the movie, is mistaken for a spy, kidnapped by a villainous spy ring led by James Mason and Martin Landau, and almost murdered. After escaping, he gets caught up in a vast maelstrom of craziness that involves drunk driving to safety, a massive frame job, a murder at the United Nations, a train ride, a whirlwind romance with Eva Marie Saint, an assault by a villainous crop duster, and even a chase atop Mt. Rushmore. It’s as though Hitchcock, stung by criticisms that there wasn’t a deep enough plot in Vertigo, decided with his next film to go overboard the other way and through far too damn much plot in.

Indeed, the main criticism I have with the film is the sheer overwhelming nature of the plot. While this does allow him to throw in quite a few more set-pieces than normal (the most iconic, of course, being the crop duster attack and the Mt. Rushmore scene), a lot of it seems a bit rushed, as though he were too busy speeding along through the film to properly enjoy several of the scenes. The climax on Rushmore, in particular, only lasts a grand four minutes, presumably because Hitch needed more time to devote to subplots about guns loaded with blanks, and how Grant can attract Saint’s attention with coins and matchbooks without also attracting other attention, and…what I’m saying is that, despite this film being even longer than Vertigo, there’s so much story crammed into it that it’s outright bursting at the seams.

Which is not to say that it’s actually bad, of course. Once you come to accept the fact that it’s going to hurtle along like a Bourne movie (something that may actually be a plus to many people), there’s quite a lot to admire about it. The acting ranges from good to great, there’s a surprise cameo by Edward Platt six years before he appeared in the greatest sitcom ever made (I will fight anyone who says otherwise), there’s some bourbon that seemed suspiciously carbonated and made me giggle, and among the many great scenes, there’s one at an auction where Grant makes the biggest scene I have ever seen anyone that wasn’t in Taxi cause. Additionally, there are so many chases, guns drawn, and vehicles destroyed that one could almost mistake this for an outright action movie. Almost.

In many ways, this could be considered a palate cleanser after Vertigo. It’s a good deal more light-hearted and silly, avoiding outright the dark emotional depths of its predecessor, and rushing the pace along so swiftly that you can cheerfully shut your mind off during it, content that any plot point you may accidentally miss probably didn’t really matter anyway. I prefer his darker, more serious efforts from this time period, but given that this is sitting pretty on IMDB right now as the 34th best movie ever made, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might be in the minority.

Rating: *** ½



Okay, this one requires a bit of back-story. Back in 1955, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to make the film Diabolique after allegedly purchasing the rights to the novel scant hours before Hitchcock called up authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac to try to get the rights. By way of apology, they wrote another novel (whose English translation was “From Among the Dead”) specifically for Hitchcock, who then adapted it into the film Vertigo. There was also a remake of Diabolique in the mid-90s, but I’ve seen enough bad remakes already this month, so I didn’t really go out of my way to track it down for this.
Since it came first chronologically, I’ll start with Diabolique. Originally intended by Clouzot to be a scary story for his daughter, it wound up becoming one of the greatest horror movies of the decade, terrifying adult audiences for decades to come. Set in a French boarding school, it follows a sadistic headmaster (Paul Meurisse), his ailing wife (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife), and his mistress (Simone Signoret). After he’s decided to wait for his wife’s weak heart to give out so he can claim ownership of the school, the two women hatch a plan to first try to divorce him, and then, when he violently opposes such a plan, to murder him and dump the body back at the school. But when the body doesn’t turn up when it should, and children start claiming to have seen him, it becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong with their plan. Is he still alive and stalking the school grounds, or is there another explanation?

Clouzot was Hitchcock’s biggest rival the title of Master of Suspense in the 40s and 50s, and this film is a great example of why. The film is set mostly at night, in appropriately dark and spooky fashion, , and Clouzot got fantastic performances out of all the leads, particularly from the terrified wife. There’s a lot of great little moments too, like when the students all get back from Christmas vacation and are delighted to see that the headmaster isn’t there to torment them, or when the wife goes to the morgue to try to identify a body that washed up in the Seine, and the morgue attendant appears to be actively screwing with her during the identification process. Most importantly though, it’s an amazingly tightly wound story, oozing tension from its pores, and is certainly overdue for a rediscovery by modern audiences.

Which brings us to Hitchcock’s film. Vertigo is arguably the most experimental and ambitious film of his entire career, and as such things tend to be, it was a complete critical and commercial failure when it was first released, not being properly appreciated until after his death decades later. Watching the film, one can easily understand how it might have upset audiences when it was first released. Jimmy Stewart stars as a former San Francisco detective who was forced into retirement after an ugly chase at the opening of the film left him with a crippling case of the title. Hired by an old friend to follow his wife (Kim Novak), who he suspects of being possessed by a ghost, Stewart tails her, rescues her from drowning in the Bay, and then they fall in love shortly before tragedy strikes and she dies when his vertigo keeps him from saving her. After spending a year wallowing in misery over his loss, he happens to stumble upon another woman that looks just like her. Is he going mad, or is there another explanation?

First, let’s go into the potential problems with the film. First and foremost, there is the issue of how none of the characters is particularly noble or likable. Even Stewart, who we should theoretically be rooting for, comes off as dangerously obsessed and cruel in the second half of the film when he feels he’s found another woman just like his last (show of hands, ladies: how flattering is it when your new boyfriend wants nothing more than for you to dress like his dead girlfriend?). At just over two hours, it’s also one of the longest films Hitchcock has ever made, and one in which the central mystery is solved with about a third of the film left to go (also, it‘s explained in a quick little exposition-filled note, as if Hitchcock himself felt the specifics of the plot didn‘t matter much, and he was right). It also flirts with a possession angle that, while perhaps not off-putting to modern audiences, would certainly seem out of character for Hitch, who had always to that point kept his films locked into the “real” world (the only real exception being The Birds, which came out five years later).

Still, despite its potential flaws (and I would argue that none of these is necessarily a flaw in itself), it remains one of the most fascinating films he’s ever done, and one that nowadays tends to be Hitchcock’s single biggest critical darling, presumably because it’s so different from the rest of his oeuvre. It created one of the single most overused camera tricks in film history (with the camera zooming out while pushing the camera forward to create the vertigo effect), the streets and countryside of San Francisco look like they belong in some Gothic horror movie with Vincent Price, and the strangely looping plot has an almost hypnotic appeal to it. With the exceptions of Stage Fright and the Trouble With Harry, most of Hitchcock’s films from the 50s and early 60s tend to be surprisingly dark and gloomy, and this film, with its own obsession with obsession, is one of the darkest. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone (indeed, if you’re going to be viewing Hitchcock for the first time, I’d recommend quite a few other films of his before getting into this one), but it’s well worth the experience.

Rating: Diabolique - **** / Vertigo - ****


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Trouble With Harry

When people refer to Hitchcock as the Master of Suspense, there’s generally not a specific assumption being made that he was bad at making anything that wasn’t suspense, but that did tend to be the case. For a fine example, we need look no further than this film, his very last effort at making a non thriller/horror movie.
While he had made a few non-thrillers early on in his career, including The Pleasure Garden, Waltzes From Vienna, and Easy Virtue, this had been his first since becoming a major name, and does its best to reinforce why he didn’t normally do these things. Given all the humor he tended to interject in his thrillers, it may seem natural for him to do a full comedy, but while the humor in a film like The Man Who Knew Too Much tended to come from a tense scene that’s turned so over the top it becomes silly (think of the brawl involving the swordfish), here the humor is so understated that it mostly just lays there dead, just like the title character.

So on to the story. Out in the Vermont woods, an increasing number of people stumbles upon the corpse of Harry, and while nobody really seems even the least bit upset at his death (beyond some worries about being blamed and going to jail for it), they are confounded as to how to properly deal with him, requiring multiple burials (and swift diggings-up) as they muddle through how to solve this problem, and avoid the notice of the deputy sheriff (Royal Dano, doing his best Don Knotts impression). Also, most of the cast falls in love.

It plays like an old pastoral tale, full of quaint charm and lush views of Vermont scenery (apparently mostly faked on a stage, due to heavy rains), and with a sprightly score by Bernard Herrmann (in his first of seven collaborations with Hitchcock) that at times seems to evoke the cheerfulness of Peter & the Wolf. And to be fair, it’s a perfectly mild, pleasant, inoffensive effort. The only problem is that the film is so fluffy that there’s no real reason to watch it at all, aside from wanting to see all of Hitchcock’s films. Also, the ending is just terrible, featuring Shirley MacLaine (in her film debut) summarizing the entire film, and bringing what momentum there wasn’t to a screeching halt, much like the ending to Psycho.

According to IMDB, this was one of Hitch’s personal favorites among his films, which means that either he had screwy taste regarding his films, or I do. Still a better film than Disturbia.

Rating: * ½


Rear Window/Disturbia

So here we are again with one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, and a terrible movie based off of it. Rear Window is quite possibly Hitchcock’s most famous and enduring film (as I write this, it’s his highest ranked film on IMDB’s Top 250 at #22, just ahead of Psycho). It was so popular, in fact, that it got remade in the late 90s as a TV movie that I haven’t seen. Then Steven Spielberg decided that wasn’t enough: what the world really needed was for him to produce a tween version of it to cash in on the Twilight/High School Musical crowd, and so we got Disturbia.
First, let us discuss Hitch’s film. It’s so well-known that it’s almost beside the point to talk about the plot: Jimmy Stewart’s stuck in a wheelchair, starts spying on his neighbors, and suspects one neighbor of having killed his wife. It’s such a famous story that the Simpsons devoted an entire episode to it, and I can only assume Family Guy followed suit. In the sheer familiarity of the story, it can be easy to forget how it thoroughly deserves its legendary status (in much the way that each new generation brings an army of teens with chips on their shoulders ready to try to hate Citizen Kane), but pretty much no matter who you are this has to have some level of resonance with you.

One thing that modern audiences (not all, but the ones who see films like Transformers) may take issue with is in how it’s a definite slow build movie, with the murder not even occurring until around half an hour in (I didn’t time it, so I may be horribly off there), allowing us to focus in on all of the characters first. Not just Stewart and Grace Kelly, our leads, but all the various neighbors he’s spying on, including future Perry Mason Raymond Burr. Compare this to a modern thriller like Edge of Darkness, which hurtles through plot so fast that you never get an actual reason to give a damn about any of the characters in it. To those who dislike spending time building up your characters before building up the plot, try this film, and see if it doesn’t change your mind a bit.

In a similar vein, it’s a bit surprising in how it doesn’t go for the lavish set pieces Hitchcock is normally fond of, like the frenzied carousel in Strangers on a Train or the dream in Spellbound. Instead, we get an entire film with the camera planted in one apartment (though frequently aimed out the window at other apartments) for almost the film’s entire running time. It’s a claustrophobic effort that manages to add to the tension later on without requiring any wild chase scenes (which would have had difficulty working anyway when the main character is in a wheelchair). A bit of a gamble, but he clearly pulled it off.

As always with Hitchcock, the film is as much a technical achievement as it is a dramatic one. Not only was it his first film in widescreen, but it was at the time the largest studio set Paramount had yet built, with the entire apartment complex constructed from below the ground up (indeed, they actually had to remove the ground, placing the courtyard in the studio’s basement), and placing a whole lot of lights on the ceiling to simulate sunlight. It’s the kind of mad effort that a person can get away with when he’s one of the most popular filmmakers in the world.

Of course, Disturbia takes pretty much every good decision Hitchcock made with his film and straight up ignores it. Stewart’s character was a mostly good, decent man? Shia LaBeouf is a violent psychopath with an ankle bracelet on after he assaulted his Spanish teacher. Stewart was trapped in his apartment and had a mostly good relationship with the police? LaBeouf runs all over the block, just so that the cops can repeatedly show up and scream at him while pointing their guns everywhere. Rear Window mostly avoided sentimental schmaltz? The opening fishing scene in Disturbia is so saccharine that it belonged in Patch Adams. Grace Kelly was classy and smart? Let’s have Sarah Roemer spend half the movie in a bikini! The original villain tried to cleverly dispose of the body all throughout the city pretty much immediately? Let’s have this villain leave the corpse in his closet, because that won’t smell after a day! The villain keeps the shades drawn in his wife’s bedroom, so Stewart can’t be completely sure there even was a murder? Here LaBeouf has his video camera recording the girl trying to run away from the guy while screaming and him assaulting her (and for some reason, he never once thinks to show this video to the police). About the only good part of this remake is that David Morse does a pretty good job as the villain, as one would frankly expect from a veteran of the industry like him. There is literally nothing else the movie gets right.

I don’t normally dislike LaBeouf when I see him in movies. His utter lack of personality in Transformers was aggressively inoffensive, and I actually liked him in his full greaser mode in Indiana Jones 4. But why it was decided to make him pretty much a complete asshole and then expect us to root for him anyway because he was in Holes. I’d say it’s the worst remake ever of a Hitchcock film, but then I won’t be watching the Psycho remake for the first time until next week.

Rating: Rear Window - **** / Disturbia - *


Monday, July 19, 2010

Strangers on a Train/Throw Momma From the Train

As I clearly have too much time on my hands, I am now going back to the occasional joint reviews for Hitchcock Month, and where better to begin than right here, with my favorite Hitchcock film, and a comedy whose entire plot was based around my favorite Hitchcock film? It seems a natural pairing to me, at least.
The plot is pretty simple and delicious: two strangers (Farley Granger and Robert Walker) meet up on a train, and one rather pushily mentions an idea he had, wherein two strangers that both needed someone removed from their lives would trade murders so as to remove motive. That way, say, Granger’s troublesome wife and Walker’s cruel father would be gone, and the two could live much happier lives. Of course, the system breaks down somewhat when Granger assumed Walker was just kidding, only to find that Walker has quickly moved on to strangling Granger’s wife, and is now becoming very impatient for Granger to return the favor.

It’s a surprisingly dark, nasty piece of noir for Hitchcock, leavened only by some occasional gallows humor (much like in Rope, it tends to revolve around a murderer debating proper methods of murder at a party) to ease the tension. It’s got quite a few great bits to it, such as Granger’s wife’s glasses falling to the ground, so we can watch her murder via a reflection in a lens (and frankly, it’s a murder dark and terrible enough that it deserves to be ranked up there with the shower scene in Psycho), and culminates in a completely out of control ending on an out-of-control carousel in which I can only assume roughly as many innocent bystanders were killed as were on the bus in Sabotage.

There’s also two slightly different version of the film, known as the Hollywood and British versions. There’s not really much difference between the two, there’s just an extra two minutes on the British version playing up Walker’s flamboyance and homosexual attraction to Granger, though it’s never explicitly stated in either version, so it doesn’t particularly matter which version you watch. Either way, this is the best film Hitch has ever made, and you owe it to yourself to see it if you haven’t.

I wish something similar could be said about Danny DeVito’s directorial debut, but Throw Momma From the Train really isn’t nearly as good. Despite the plot being based around DeVito’s character watching Strangers on a Train and deciding this is a great plan for him and Billy Crystal, the humor just isn’t nearly as vicious as in DeVito’s later efforts like War of the Roses or Death to Smooch (yes, to hell with all of you, Death to Smoochy is great). To be sure, there are some good lines, like when DeVito defends the motivation of the murderer in the story he wrote (“Guy in a hat killed the other guy in a hat”), and Anne Ramsey delivered a typically great performance (and one that justifiably earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination), but in the end it seems like it simply went through too many re-writes and too much of its bite left it. I’m not a very big Crystal fan, so that may be coloring my perceptions of the film a bit as well, but even factoring that in a bit it’s just not worth your while.

Rating: Strangers - **** / Throw Momma - **


Friday, July 16, 2010

Stage Fright

This was one of Hitchcock’s more famous misfires, enraging audiences almost as much as Sabotage had back in the 30s. Unfortunately, I can’t say how without revealing a major plot element, so for this teaser let us just say that he provides yet another new twist on the Wrong Man motif.

So anyway, a lot of audiences at the time felt cheated by Hitchcock because of the following: the film opens with one of the main characters telling a second main character about a murder a third character had committed, complete with flashback showing the murder. It’s not until the end of the film that we then find out that the first character was the actual murderer, and he had just been straight up lying, something audiences felt was at best dishonest on Hitchcock’s part when he outright showed that character’s version of the murder in flashback. Since this film came out, quite a few more movies have been made with dishonest flashbacks, so it’s not as much of an issue now, but I suppose audiences back in 1950 weren’t really huge fans of such things.


Of course, if that were the only issue one had with this film, that wouldn’t be just cause for a negative review. Unfortunately, my problems with the film run a bit deeper than that, ranging from the story to the acting to the pacing to the music. Like in a great many Hitchcock films, the acting is not as good as it should be. The leads all remain mostly as bland as possible, with only supporting characters Marlene Dietrich and Alistair Sims being allowed to have anything approaching an actual personality. The music is oddly cheerful throughout, as though Hitch wanted the film to be considered a piece of light-hearted fluff rather than anything serious (and indeed, after making mostly darker fare over the past decade, that may be exactly what he intended), which just leaves this feeling tonally awkward . For anyone that doesn’t think music really plays that important a role in a film, just watch this one and feel the airy music suck all tension out of the film.

The plot and pacing are both the biggest problems, though, as so many twists and turns are thrown at us that the film starts to become a bloated, shapeless mess. Compare this to Rope, which was a half hour shorter and had a great deal more tension to it because it was so tightly wound. Now, like I said, it’s very possible that Hitch was just getting a little tired of making thriller after thriller and wanted to try something different, but the something different here was simply not a good film. For that matter, if he really wanted to try something different, why end it with a big chase at the end?

This film is mostly ignored by Hitchcock fans, and with good reason. The 1950s (and early 60s) were when he made most of the movies that people first think of when they remember him, and this does not fit in with the likes of Rear Window or Vertigo one bit. It’s a surprisingly clumsy effort from him, and regardless of the complaints about whether he didn’t play fair with his audience, this wouldn’t have been worthwhile either way. You can happily avoid this one.

Rating: * ½


Thursday, July 15, 2010


Rope is really a better film than it should be, given that it was primarily an attempt at trying out newer technology in a gimmicky way, like all the 3-D (and, I suppose, widescreen) and other types of gimmicked movies that came out in the years following. I guess what I’m saying is that this film is directly responsible for William Castle’s career, and you can quote me on that.
For those that don’t know, for this film Hitch had decided to use special cameras that could film ten minutes at a time, and so made this film as one long scene, with mostly “invisible” cuts every several minutes (mostly by jamming the camera into someone’s back as an astonishingly awkward way of hiding the transitions) to keep the film moving along. Servicing this is a story adapted from the stage play by the same name (itself based loosely off of the Leopold-Loeb case of 1924), wherein two young men (Farley Granger and John Dall), obsessed with committing the perfect crime, murder their classmate, hide the body in a large chest prominently displayed in the front of the room, and then host a party for all the victim’s family and friends to truly show their superiority. Unfortunately, one of the invitees is their old housemaster (Jimmy Stewart), a lover of mysteries, who begins to suspect all is not well with the two classmates and their absent friend.

First, let’s deal with the big criticism of the film, and that’s that it feels a lot like what it is: a film adaptation of a play. The whole movie takes place in one location (indeed, in one scene), and ends with a really clunky, preachy speech. Now, while people generally don’t enjoy “play-like” movies because of the static locations and talkiness that many audiences find boring, I think the real problem involved in these types of films is that they don’t really take full advantage of the specific languages of film and the things that one can do in them that can’t be done in other mediums. Comparing this film to something like Rebecca or Notorious (or particularly later films like Rear Window or Vertigo), all of them required sets both far too lavish and too numerous to be possible on a stage, to say nothing of the music and camerawork that defines a film. Despite this, the dialogue and acting remain mostly strong throughout, and so the film is able to overcome its shortcomings here.

Indeed, the dialogue and acting are the lynchpins upon which the whole film rests, so it’s good that both are so strong. The three leads, one supremely arrogant and cocky, one twisting himself into knots over his crime, and one eager to pounce on everyone and toy with his victims, give some of the more memorable performances in Hitch’s career. The dialogue too, outside of some clumsy and overwritten patches, often crackles with energy, in particular when Dall starts all but admitting their crimes because he’s so overconfident that none of his party guests will realize what he is truly talking about, or when Stewart smells weakness in Granger and spends several minutes toying with him, just to see what’ll happen when he cracks.

It’s not really one of Hitch’s masterpieces, and generally isn’t remembered as such, but it’s one that’s well worth a viewing or two. It’s arguably the most actor-oriented film Hitchcock ever made (its main competition being Lifeboat, I suppose, which was also a one set film where everyone was stuck in an airport), and it holds the distinction of being Hitch’s first color film. How can you go wrong with that?

Rating: ***


Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Notorious is considered by many to be Hitchcock’s best film from the 40s, and while I can’t quite agree with that in a world where Shadow of a Doubt exists, it’s certainly in his Top 2 from the decade. It’s a bit out of the ordinary for him in that it’s as much a romance as it is a thriller, something I don’t think he really tried again until Marnie (no, Vertigo does not count, and you are wrong for thinking that it might).
The film stars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant as a young lady whose father was just convicted for being a Nazi spy and the federal agent who brings her in to work undercover and expose further Nazi plots. She falls for him pretty much instantly, but he is unfortunately enough of a company man that when his superiors want her to seduce a Nazi operative in Brazil (Claude Rains, somewhat more visible here than in his most famous role) he all but pushes her into the Nazi’s arms.

It’s an interesting film, both visually and story-wise. Hitchcock shows here that he was ever-improving as a visual artist, almost blending the crazed visuals of Spellbound with the lavish grace of Rebecca (making me kind of want to retroactively knock a star off of my Spellbound review in the process). The acting, something that’s normally a bit touchy with Hitchcock, is in fine form here, with all three leads really going the extra mile to make the film work (indeed, Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role, losing to a double amputee). The plot feels like one of his 30s spy thrillers strained through the mentality of American brilliance. We’ve got everything you need for a classic movie, from uranium to poisonings to Cary Grant being his usual wonderful bastard self.

I think one of the main benefits of Hitchcock’s career is in how he just made so many, cranking out a movie pretty much every year, that people are able to completely forget about his underwhelming ones like Jamaica Inn or Topaz and just focus on all of his really good ones like this. Compare that with a director like, say, Paul Thomas Anderson, who brings out movies so infrequently that if he ever makes a lousy one it’ll be half a decade before he can try to fix any career damage. I’m not honestly sure where I’m going with this analogy, but I will say that, for however I may grumble about Hitchcock being a bit overrated (seriously, the best director EVER? Come on), I think most directors out there would love to have a movie as good as Notorious on their resume. Though I don’t know how many would be happy to have made such a good movie and then find out the entire thing’s on Youtube.

Rating: *** ½


Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Here’s another fairly famous Hitchcock film, though this one, like Sabotage, is mostly famous for one particular sequence rather than the movie as a whole. Hitchcock himself was a bit dismissive of this one, referring to it as "just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis," but while it’s a definite step down from Shadow of a Doubt, it does have plenty to recommend it.
The film follows Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck as a psychotherapist and her amnesiac patient, who may or may not have been a killer before losing his memory. As she tries to help him regain his memory (through lots of traveling, presumably because her other patients can fend for themselves), the police also begin closing in, due to that pesky murder that needs answering.

Now, the plot of this is honestly nothing special, though it’s interesting how Hitchcock appears to be channeling his inner Tony Scott to make up for it. Just like Tony Scott, when faced with a lackluster script, begins to ridiculously over-direct the film to try to deflect attention away from its flaws (such as with Man on Fire or Domino), here Hitch pulls out all the stops with the camerawork to make this a worthwhile film. He aims the camera down a glass of liquor, down the barrel of a gun, he has blood magically appearing on a coat, etc. In the film’s best sequence, he even brings Salvador Dali in to direct a dream sequence that, while tragically brief, is as incredible as it sounds. It’s two minutes of surrealist brilliance recalling Un Chien Andalou that everyone that has ever seen this film has wished would continue on just a little longer.

This wound up bring Hitchcock’s third Best Director nomination (after Rebecca and Lifeboat), and while I respect his decision to make it a little more visually inventive than he had previously here, I would argue that part of his job as director would have been to make the script a bit stronger and more inventive. Still, whatever its flaws, it remains an interesting film, and if it’s not really one of his best, it’s far from his worst (Easy Virtue), and you could do much worse than hunting this one down.

Rating: ***


Monday, July 12, 2010

Shadow of a Doubt

Hitchcock often said that this was his favorite movie out of his entire career, and while I can’t quite agree with him, it’s definitely in his top five. This one has it all -- murder, home invasions, family drama, dark humor, and even -- *sigh* -- an “adorable” child. Well, you can’t have it all.
The film stars Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten as Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie, two relatives that are about to be forced by circumstance back into each other’s lives. The circumstance in this case, of course, is that Cotton is a serial killer and he decides to run off to his relatives to hide out until the heat dies down back home. While Young Charlie and her family welcome him with open arms, she quickly realizes both that he has a secret and that the secret is something pretty scary. The second half of the film is effectively an extended game of cat and mouse between the two, as he tries to make sure she never talks about him and she alternates between trying to get him arrested and just trying not to be his next victim.

Perhaps it’s just my love of horror, but I always get a kick out of all of Hitch’s films where one of the main characters is a ruthless killer. Cotten, fresh off of his role in The Magnificent Ambersons, here manages to help propel his director’s career further rather than helping to ruin it (okay, that wasn’t Cotten’s fault, but he hardly helped matters) by being simultaneously charming and creepy in a lovingly Hitchcockian manner. Wright also does a fine job as the heroine, though I admit that my favorite scene of hers by far is when she randomly decides to run across the street while whipping her arms left and right like a total psychopath. Madness runs deep in this family, it seems.

The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Young Charlie’s dad is awesome, as he spends the whole movie debating the best methods of murder with his friend, and the pair effectively steal every scene they’re in. Somewhat less effective, to put it mildly, is the girl playing Charlie’s kid sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott). Much like the son in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, she’s a stereotypical Hollywood incorrigible child that just makes you want to knock her teeth out every time she talks. She’s not quite as bad as the son in the other film, partially because she doesn’t talk as much, but she does have a tendency to just stand there reciting her lines and making you wonder what purpose she serves here. To be fair, she did go on to such higher profile acting gigs as Young Girl, Youngster, and her final performance as Studious Schoolgirl, so it’s clear that Hollywood saw something impressive in her that I just missed out on. Also, there’s a chance that I may have issues with wanting to assault children.

Rating: ****


Friday, July 9, 2010


This was an extremely important film in Hitchcock’s career. It was his first American production, his first nomination for Best Director (out of five, all of which he lost), it was the first and only film of his to be nominated for Best Picture (which won), and Stephen King felt the need to include the novel‘s opening line roughly five hundred times in his novel “Bag of Bones“ (No, King, that didn‘t get old fast at all). Needless to say, it was rather a big deal for him. But how well does it hold up today, you wonder? Well…
First, let’s get with the general story. Joan Fontaine stars as Mrs. de Winter (helpfully listed on IMDB as “The Second Mrs. de Winter” to further twist the knife), the new bride of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose previous wife had died a year before. After moving into his lavish estate Manderley, she finds herself isolated and alone, in a home far too big for her, a husband that’s very emotionally distant, and a staff that’s filled with fond memories of his first wife, Rebecca, that she seems to be trying to replace. The head of the staff in particular, one Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), seems to alternately resent that she would ever want to replace her and want to actively transform Fontaine into the old wife.

I actually almost included ‘ghost’ as one of the tags, as despite there not being an actual literal ghost, the entire location still feels haunted by Rebecca. Not only is the film titled after her (and poor Fontaine, never getting a first name at any point), the whole creepy mansion and the staff seem to bathe in her memory throughout the film. Aside from some of the more light-hearted scenes Hitchcock always puts into his films (that seem a bit out of place here), it captures the gloom of an old gothic tragedy (which is the reason Hitch demanded it be filmed in black and white despite his studio pushing for color), leading inexorably to its tragic ending.

I won’t lie, I was not a big fan of this film when I first saw it back in college. I viewed it in a film class where we were given nothing but melodramas to watch, and it started aggravating me whenever I watched any of them. With a few years’ hindsight, however, and with me no longer needing to watch a new melodrama every damn week, it does work a good deal better, though it does still take quite a while to get going. It’s still far too infused with melodrama to be a truly great film, and I’d disagree strongly with it winning Best Picture (hell, just that very year Hitchcock also made Foreign Correspondent, which I thought was a more consistently good film). Of course, Rebecca is currently ranked as the 97th best film ever made on IMDB, so what do I know?

Rating: ***

P.S. Once again, in lieu of the trailer, someone has helpfully put the entire film up on Youtube. I must admit I’m a bit curious as to how recent I have to get with these films before that trend ceases.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Lady Vanishes

So here we are with the penultimate film Hitchcock made before leaving England for the bigger budgets and salaries of Hollywood, and in my opinion easily the best of his British productions. Here he manages to take the general tension of the bomb segment from Sabotage and seemingly stretch it out through the bulk of an entire film, and still finds the time to openly laugh at English sensibilities the whole way through. While it does lack the innovation and overall importance to his oeuvre that The Man Who Knew Too Much or The 39 Steps did, it more than makes up for it by simple virtue of having been a better film than either of them was.
Primarily set in the fictional nation of Bandrika (a Germany stand-in), the film primarily follows Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as a pair that meets at a resort in a Meet Cute that’s no less awkward than the ones we normally get in rom-coms today, and find that when they all take the train back to England, a kindly old lady from the resort has disappeared shortly after boarding. What’s worse, nobody else on the train seems to have any memory of the old lady at all. Has she been kidnapped, or is our heroine going mad?

Well, obviously she’s not going mad, as the audience knows from the start, and yes, the old lady is in dire peril, and Hitchcock wisely doesn’t linger too long on the possibility that she might be cracking up. What is nice is all of the various obstacles in her path to proving her friend is in trouble. We get a judge and his mistress that saw her board, but tell the train police otherwise to avoid their spouses finding out about their affair. We also get a magician that specializes in disappearing ladies (with Hitchcock showing how the trick is done, all Houdini-style), a burn victim covered in bandages, and later even missing train cars. At some point you really need to just take a hint that a woman just doesn’t want to be found, you know?

He also has some fun at the expense of his own country, as when she is finally rescued, we move into a climax where the villains have uncoupled most of the train cars to isolate the heroes, but they are saved by way of it being tea time and so all the British passengers are up front in the dining car to come help. There’s even a character who decides to leave the old lady to her fate and tries to surrender to the villains, waving a white flag and being shot for his trouble. I can’t think of a single thing that could possibly have been referencing when this film was made in 1938, unless…yes, it MUST be in reference to Hitch surrendering to Hollywood and fearing he’d be verbally gunned down for it! No other possibility.

Seriously, this is the single most fun and exciting movie Hitchcock ever made in England (and yes, I am including the ones he made at the end of his life as well). It’s freely available in public domain, which means you can take your pick of poor quality prints at rock-bottom prices, or for free on Youtube, as you can enjoy below! Go check it out.

Rating: *** ½


Wednesday, July 7, 2010


It’s kind of fun re-watching Hitchcock’s early British thrillers and seeing the learning process that went on with them. For instance, there is a very famous segment of this film that led to a lot of his growing audience crying foul when he changed up his formula a bit. While I’ll get to that in a bit, I’d say that an unremarked-upon, but just as interesting change, is that the movie centers on the villains rather than the heroes.One of many British films in the 30s to try to sway public opinion into uniting against Germany, the film (based on the novel “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad) follows the exploits of a group of Nazi saboteurs in London as they, well, sabotage London’s infrastructure. While, yes, there is a police officer that one could nominally call the lead, Hitch was clearly a good deal more interested in what those Nazi bastards were up to, spending a more time alone with them than he did on any other villain until Norman Bates.


Then there’s the sequence that everyone is required to discuss when talking about the film, and that’s the transporting of the bomb. This goes back to a long-standing belief of Hitchcock’s, in that a bomb going off under a table provides nothing more than a quick surprise, while the real suspense would lie in showing the audience the bomb beforehand and leaving them wondering if the people at the table would discover it in time. Well, in this film, one of the saboteurs tries to get his wife’s unsuspecting kid brother to deliver a bomb disguised as film reels (as can be briefly glimpsed in Inglourious Basterds). He’s told he needs to deliver them by a certain time, and we then get to watch his journey as he’s stopped by virtually the entire population of the city along his way, as we keep getting views of the time to let us know how close he is to death. Now, in just about any other Hitchcock thriller (or any regular thriller in general), something would save him at the last moment, but here after laying on the suspense for around ten minutes, the bomb goes off while the kid’s on a bus, killing him and everyone else. And man, could the audiences of 1936 not handle an adorable kid being blown up. It caused a bit of a backlash that led to him remarking that he learned his lesson about how far a filmmaker can actually tease his audiences, even though it’s easily the best part of the entire film.


Outside of that sequence, the film as a whole is pretty middle of the road, not really managing to lift itself up to the level of, say, The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version), or tomorrow’s The Lady Vanishes. I think part of the problem is in how, outside of that one sequence, Hitchcock can’t bring himself to fully commit to the villainy of the saboteurs. Whether this was due to rising censorship in England at the time or just a worry that he’d alienate his audience, they largely don’t get to go over the top like we would need them to for a film focused on them to work. To bring up Psycho once again, he was willing there to fully commit to Norman’s craziness, and that film was much the better for it. This could have definitely used a few more infamous sequences.

Rating: ** ½

P.S. While I once again had some trouble finding a trailer, the whole film is once more on Youtube. Enjoy!


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The 39 Steps

With the holiday fun out of the way, I can now get back to only reviewing one movie at a time, instead of the ridiculous three you got to enjoy yesterday. Anyway, this was another fairly important early effort for Hitch, and while it doesn’t hold up as well as The man Who Knew Too Much did, it’s arguably more relevant to Hitchcock’s career as a whole.
It’s basically the first real incarnation of both of Hitch’s regular tropes of The Wrong Man (where the main character goes on the run after being falsely accused of a crime) and the Macguffin (an essentially meaningless thing that serves no purpose except to propel the plot forward). Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist who winds up meeting a female spy after a night at the theatre, who basically forces her way into his room, tells him about a secret spy ring known as the 39 Steps, and winds up getting a knife to the back while they both sleep. Armed with only the knowledge of a potential source of info in Scotland, he now finds himself having to uncover the plot while avoiding the police, who are blaming him for the girl’s murder.

With some variations, this is the basic blueprint for at least half a dozen of Hitch’s later films, from Saboteur to North By Northwest. With that in mind, what’s really important is seeing how it’s utilized in this instance, and there are a few issues I have. First we have to deal with the Macguffin, which feels like Hitch plain forgot about it for most of the film, returning to it at the very end in just about the laziest way imaginable. I won’t ruin it, but when you see the film you’ll completely understand. Then there’s the Wrong Man motif, which in this case is pretty much dealt with by him encountering someone, thinking he’s safe with them, and then discovering he needs to run once more when they either turn out to be one of the villains or they are ratting him out to the police. While this does almost provide the film with an Argento-ish dream logic where the entire world is literally out to get Donat, it doesn’t quite manage to get over the top enough to be really exciting, and instead only winds up getting a bit repetitive.

Despite this, The 39 Steps is still a fairly good thriller, and in one notable improvement over the previous year’s The Man Who Knew Too Much the Scotland scenes were actually shot on location rather than in a studio. It’s got some clever dialogue, as Hitchcock’s film tend to have (my favorite was when he survived a gunshot thanks to a Bible in his vest pocket, to which one character quips “Well I’m not surprised, some of those hymns are terribly hard to get through”), and there’s a couple nice chase scenes, such as an escape from a train. Overall, though, this is definitely a pretty raw, amateurish effort from Hitchcock, and more one for hardcore fans than for casual ones.

Rating: ** ½


Monday, July 5, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 & 1956)/The Man Who Knew Too Little

For our next installment of Hitchcock Month, I felt it would be fun to check out both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the only film he ever made and then decided to remake later in his career. As an additional bonus, I’ve also included the 1997 Bill Murray film The Man Who Knew Too Little. I briefly considered also including the classic Mario Bava film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, but that would have just been excessive.
The plot is pretty similar in both of Hitchcock’s films. A couple vacationing abroad (a British couple in Switzerland in the original, and an American couple in Casablanca in the remake) befriends a French traveler who winds up getting killed, but not before imparting info about a pending assassination to the couple. To keep the couple quiet, the assassins kidnap their child, inadvertently ensuring the couple gets much more involved in stopping the conspirators.

The original, in my opinion, is Hitchcock’s first film that I could unreservedly recommend to even the most casual fans of his. It’s the first one where we get the proper blend of humor and suspense that he was even then becoming famous for (in fairness, I’ve heard very good things about two of his silent films, The Ring and The Lodger, neither of which I’ve seen), along with his usual clever camerawork and twisted plotting. It’s also famous as being Peter Lorre’s first English language film, making this one of the earliest films to benefit from the mass exodus of the German film industry due to the rise of the Nazi party.

As Hitchcock himself felt, despite the quality of the original, the remake is clearly the superior film, though not without its flaws. For one, the assassination plot is much better fleshed out in the remake (this is probably in part due to the differences in length -- the original is a lean 75 minutes, while the remake is two hours), giving us more involved reasons for why they’re doing what they’re doing. Additionally, the locale change is a definite improvement. As nice as Switzerland may normally look for tourists, it’s somewhat less impressive when it’s constructed on a studio set, while Morocco looked frankly gorgeous. The big climax at Albert Hall was also improved, as he had more time to devote to making it as lavish and over the top as possible.

Which is not to say that the remake is an improvement in every way. First off, there’s the casting. While I have nothing bad to say about Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day, there’s a bit of a problem in how not a one of the remake’s villains had the overall charisma of Lorre, and the film absolutely suffers from it. There’s also a major problem that plagued quite a lot of Hollywood films from the 40s through the 60s, where little children weren’t allowed to act even vaguely like children from our planet, but must be some bizarre aliens that specialize in awful Precociousness, the end result of which means that every time their horrid little son was on screen (or on phone) I just wanted to grab him by the ankles and swing him into a wall a bunch of times. Seriously, there are stretches of the remake that I felt like giving the movie a full four stars for, but that brat kept popping back in and ruining all he touched.

While years of watching older movies has given me a pretty thick skin to racial insensitivity, I feel I should also note that Hitchcock spares no expense in mocking Arab culture during the first act. He has them flip out when the goddamn child accidentally rips off a lady’s veil, he has an extended dinner scene that seems to be 10% introducing them to the villains and 90% laughing at the way people in other countries eat dinner, and he even has a white character disguise himself as an Arab by putting on a turban and some face paint. This does stop about a third of the way in when they fly over to England and there aren’t any more non-whites to laugh at, but he does lay it on a bit strong at the beginning.

Then there’s the trouble with The Man Who Knew Too Little, which I hadn’t yet seen before, but which is a bit of a misfire, to put it nicely. It stars Bill Murray, ramping up his cluelessness as he goes to England to visit his brother and becomes embroiled in a vaguely Hitchcockian plot that he thinks is all staged for him to jump start his acting career. While I would have thought this would be an easy effort for Murray, it winds up being almost painfully unfunny at times, rushing through plot point after plot point, seemingly forgetting that its main intention is to make us laugh and not to wonder about the spy intrigue. Murray does get off some nice one-liners here and there, and there were plenty of moments where I had a pleasant smile on my face, but the laughs are very few and far between, and I’m now really wondering why I thought this would be good to include here, as its title seems to be almost all of its connection to Hitchcock. Director Jon Amiel, to his credit, makes sure to include a scene where a character watches his previous film Copycat on TV. Sadly this movie wasn’t a bit more recent, or we might have been treated to a character watching his film The Core instead.

Rating: 1934 -- ***/ 1956 -- *** ½/ The Man Who Knew Too Little -- * ½


Friday, July 2, 2010


While this is certainly one of Hitchcock’s least-known films, it actually holds an important place in film history. Not only was it Hitch’s first sound film (he had already filmed the bulk of the movie when sound technology reached England, prompting several scene reshoots), but it’s England’s first sound film to boot. Perhaps it’s not quite as prestigious as The Jazz Singer (the first feature length talkie ever made anywhere), but it was still an important milestone to our Redcoated Nemeses.
The plot would almost count as a twist on Hitchcock’s normal Wrong Man motif, if that had become a regular occurrence in his films by now. To wit: a young woman (Anny Ondra) accepts an invitation by an artist to visit his studio, where after showing off his artistic “skills” (sorry, maybe I have no real eye for artistic talent, but the naked woman he drew while she watched looked little better than a high schooler’s effort), he drags her onto his bed (located tastefully behind a curtain) and attempts to rape her. She successfully stops him by stabbing him with the knife he always keeps handy by his bed, and flees the scene. Her boyfriend (John Longden), who works for Scotland Yard, is assigned to the case, though while he is discovering that his girlfriend may have committed the crime, another criminal saw the murder occur, and takes one of her gloves from the scene so that he can…well, I don’t want to spoil everything, but let’s just say that what happens in the title may indeed also happen in the movie.

While the technology is obviously new to Hitch, he already shows an amazing ability to play with his new toy. First we have the very first instance of “dubbing”, done before the technology to do so actually existed, by way of having an actress with a pleasing voice reciting Ondra’s lines from off-camera while Ondra just moved her lips, so as to disguise her thick German accent. He also quickly twigged to the idea that, as long as you keep the audio low enough that the audience can’t make out what’s being said, he could just pepper the soundtrack with snippets of mumbling to mimic the noise of a crowd. He also has one great moment when Ondra, fretting over her secret crime, is sitting at a table while another character is ranting about nothing in particular. Her whole rant is kept fairly quiet, except whenever she says the word ‘knife’, when the soundtrack suddenly jumps up to a near-scream to better emphasize the point, so to speak. It’s a fairly elementary touch, but a nice one.

Overall, the film is nothing special, but is a clearly superior early effort for him than The Pleasure Garden was. We’re actually seeing him start to play around with the tools of his trade here, and while he wouldn’t start making anything really impressive until the 30s, I’ve certainly reviewed much worse movies for this blog. Like most of his early films (in fact, I think all of his early British efforts), this is public domain, so if you seek it out your print quality may vary, but the copy I bought (linked below) looked just fine, with minimal issues. And it’s cheap too, so how can you go wrong?

Rating; **

P.S. I had some trouble finding the trailer anywhere online, but I did find what appears to be the entire damn movie on Youtube. So there you go, yay for the public domain!