(Obsessed with) Vertigo (1958)

As a family we’ve got into the habit of watching a ‘quality’ film on Saturday nights. It can be new, old, critically acclaimed, a cult classic or something we have watched and enjoyed in the past. The broad idea is to give The Boy a sort of education in cinema, and on most occasions titles he might ordinarily have scorned instead become sources of delight. A great success recently was Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, the sort of film in which things are happening all the time, often at a rapid fire pace, and it’s good fun throughout. 12 Angry Men – loved it. Who doesn’t? Of the more recent offerings, we tried Point Break, which is showing its age a bit now but still holds up as an action spectacular.

This weekend it was the turn of Vertigo, my son’s choice having sampled two previous Hitchcock winners in Strangers on a Train and Psycho (the latter, once we got past that scene, which everyone has seen often out of context, ramps up the tension afterwards and found him helplessly caught in the suspenseful mastery). Vertigo is a tougher nut, of course. It divides this house. I adore it. Mrs Mike finds it a bit boring, and it’s quite permissible to have that kind of reaction. On this occasion, the magic didn’t happen. The Boy lasted for about half the film before conceding defeat and walking away, a reaction I thought could happen as it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Vertigo is saddled with the tag of being in many quarters the greatest film of all time. Personally I’m not even sure it’s Hitchcock’s best, though it’s certainly one of a select number of titles that could qualify, but all said whilst a masterpiece it is of the slightly flawed vintage. There are moments, notably the film’s climax, which for me come across as a little on the clunky side, and remain reasons why some critics think it doesn’t quite deserve the exalted status it’s achieved. And yet, when The Boy announced last week that he was selecting Vertigo for our Saturday night movie I admit that I looked forward very much to seeing it again. In the build-up, I listened to Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing score several times. It’s possibly my favourite of them all, of any film soundtrack. Watching it, on my own for the film’s second half, I wallowed in it, the colours brought to vibrant life in its HD transfer. The restoration was so good that it looked as though it could have been released a month ago, rather than sixty years in the past. When I was done I was tempted to go back to the start and catch it all over again, and I can easily picture myself not finishing this piece without another viewing.

It’s a film that I have often wanted to talk about on these pages but at the same time am apprehensive. I would like to find the words that do it justice, capturing what it is about Vertigo that holds an endless fascination for me, and it’s possible I’m not up to the task. It holds the sort of allure that tempts me into booking a ticket to San Francisco so that I can do a pilgrimage of the city, wander in the footsteps of Scotty and Madeleine around its old haunts, like the former do it at five in the morning in the hope of capturing some of its lonely, dreamlike quality, and obviously there would be little point. It’s a different city to the one shown in the film, and many of the locations simply don’t exist now. But I don’t need to do any of that to appreciate and love the picture, one that has every bit as troubled a history as the events it depicts. As bizarre as it seems for such a critically acclaimed work, it’s  worth bearing in mind that contemporary minds did not feel the same way about it, citing Vertigo as indulgent, all over the place, carrying an elusive message that was not realised successfully. Too long. Too slow. Critics had a problem with the film’s twist being explained with a third of it still to run, apparently not ‘getting it’ that its murder mystery elements weren’t really the point. For some years, it wasn’t possible to see Vertigo at all. While not a commercial failure it wasn’t a success, and along with several other titles it was held by the Hitchcock estate until after his death, and even then it was another chunk of time before the film was restored to its present glory.

For my part, I had a similar reaction to The Boy upon my first experience of Vertigo. Screened by Channel 4 in the 1980s as part of a lengthy season of Hitchcock films, back when they still had seasons, it lacked the obvious qualities of other entries that came loaded and taut with sweet suspense. It has since risen to become one of those movies I dust off broadly once per year, and oddly enough I enjoy it more with each watch. Explaining why is a tougher prospect. There are of course the traditional elements, the happy coincidence of director, cast and crew all working at the top of their respective games, and when you’re talking about the Hollywood gold that contributed to Vertigo that’s some game. You can start with thinking that the music makes it, especially because Herrmann’s prelude and the musical accompaniment to the rooftop scene are so strong. The photography is ravishing, another Hitchcock regular Robert Burks on top form and utterly eclipsing the Oscar winning work he put in for To Catch a Thief. He wasn’t nominated for Vertigo, which in hindsight seems like a criminal act because it really doesn’t get any better than this. Whether shooting James Stewart in centre frame sat in his car, then switching to the actor’s perspective as he tracks the languorous progress of Kim Novak’s iconic green Jaguar, or the riot of colour that explodes with the visit to the flower store, it’s a thing of staggering beauty. I would love to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, but I fully expect that seeing it in real life wouldn’t capture the otherworldly romanticism with which Burks shot it in the film.

Hitchcock felt that Stewart’s advancing years made him a less than convincing love interest for the much younger Novak, yet it’s in retrospect that we can appreciate it’s exactly this quality that makes his character’s story so tragic – all those wasted years, the ‘make do’ option of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the chance of happiness with Novak’s Madeleine that’s snatched, brief and elusive, and will haunt him forever, the startling ice blue in his eyes that adds a maniacal aspect to his obsessive, doomed pursuit. As for Novak, I remember writing a piece some time ago about Strangers When We Meet (that I have since lost, because I’m good like that), which turned into something of a worship at her feet. No doubt a hard hitting title by 1960 standards, Novak stood out amidst a distinguished cast as the woman trapped by her own beauty, doomed to be hit upon and defined by her sexuality forever. The actor and director Richard Quine were frequent collaborators, so you would imagine he knew how to use her to best effect by this stage, but Hitchcock had one attempt and coaxed this performance out of her. While you can interpret the Hitchcockian motive behind Stewart’s efforts to reproduce his lost bleached blonde love before he will love her however you want, the truth is she’s every bit as transfixing as Scottie finds her. The camera loves watching Novak, with her (apparently not feigned) physical awkwardness, the inner turmoil, her vulnerability. And she wasn’t even the first choice, Vera Miles having dropped out when she became pregnant. What a break. I’m genuinely not sure if I have ever seen a better job of acting than the one Novak produced here. It seems so natural, perhaps an innate quality that Hitchcock was able to tap into.

As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it’s a perfect movie. The standard’s so high that the false notes tend to stick out, though they’re few and far between. I do happen to believe it’s almost as good as the moving image ever tends to get, however. Sure there are pacier films, where stuff happens more quickly so that you don’t get bored, but for me there are few things better than watching beautifully constructed sequences of shots, dependably transferred from the storyboard to the screen, Scottie trailing Madeleine as Herrmann’s melancholic score drifts lazily along, an unsettling undertone to suggest the trap he’s falling into, the luxuriant quality heightening the sense of romance, the cossetted world this pair enter where there’s just each other. The music even keeps on playing when Madeleine drops into the San Francisco Bay, suddenly chaotic as if the score, like Scottie, can’t quite believe what it’s seeing.

A very famous Hitchcock quote goes ‘What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?‘ and I don’t think it was ever more apt than in the case of Vertigo.  Just about every frame contains some visual clue about where the story’s going, showing the sheer level of care and attention that went into the film. Unlike many films that are considered up there with the best, it’s all very accessible and easy enough to follow, even if it takes a few viewings to get everything that’s happening. And best of all, and I can’t emphasise this enough, it’s just so rapturously gorgeous, from its actors to the production values, among the very highest of their time. It’s all so good that you end up wanting these tortured souls to find a morsel of happiness, even though the note of impending doom, the spiral towards destruction that featured on much of Vertigo’s artwork, informs you at every stage that it’s heading in the opposite direction. For little over two hours, Vertigo holds you in a kind of grip, I think a trancelike state, where you’re in something close to a dream, and at the very end real life – with all its troubled history – comes crashing in, as if calling time. But getting there is one of cinema’s greatest joys, and I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.

Marnie (1964)

When it’s on: Saturday, 8 October (12.30 am, Sunday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

By no means all Hitchcock films were box office hits, and some at the time found little critical favour also, though retrospective reviews have often discovered the genius their contemporaries failed to identify. Marnie is something of an oddity in that regard – a decent commercial return upon its 1964 release, a largely positive body of comments, a real Marmite movie for today’s viewers. It’s a title I’ve always had trouble getting to grips with. Perhaps that isn’t a surprise – Marnie followed a string of four outright classics, two of which – Vertigo and North by Northwest – remain perhaps the best film I’ve ever seen and the most entertaining respectively, also Psycho and The Birds, both close to masterpiece territory (and if they aren’t, then that’s only because I don’t want to use that word loosely and they certainly fit the bill where many other people are concerned). But on its own merits it isn’t an easy title to take to readily. Marnie runs for 130 minutes and often very little happens in it. The signature moments of suspense are few and far between, though understated and gripping when they occur. And on the surface it seems a simple premise – Tippi Hedren plays the psychologically damaged Marnie, a serial thief ‘rescued’ by Sean Connery’s beneficent and endlessly patient Philadelphia rich kid who seeks to get to the root of her malaise, to essentially save her from herself. It lives or dies depending on how much you engage with Hedren’s performance. Marnie isn’t a very likeable character, but there are reasons for this – how well is all this conveyed? Do you believe in her? Is any of it compelling?

The major criticism of this film is that with a better female lead it might have been more compelling – you imagine it being made in the 1970s starring Faye Dunaway or Meryl Streep and gaining Oscar approval. Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly for the part, attempting to coax her out of retirement and finding her reaction to be a positive one before the combination of problems within Monaco and Prince Rainier’s unhappiness with his royal wife taking on such a negative role forced her to withdraw. In the meantime, the director’s ‘groomed’ star, Tippi Hedren, had impressed in The Birds to such an extent that he could turn to her as an off the shelf alternative, though by the time Marnie was being shot Hitchcock and his star were barely on speaking terms anymore.

How much of this was down to the lurid stories concerning Hitch’s personal relationship with Hedren is for you to decide. Personally, I never wanted to believe too much of it – the gifts, the affection, the long, long meetings between the pair, the rumours of his ultimately rebuffed sexual advances towards her. I confess this is entirely down to not wanting it to be true, because I love his work and by extension the man himself, though admittedly over time I’ve come to realise there must have been something to all the tales. Hedren was hardly the first lovely lady he attached himself to but perhaps she was the one in whom he felt he’d invested enough time and effort to feel a sense of almost ownership, as though she was his to do with as he pleased. I don’t know. These are just feelings, impressions based on events no one beyond the two people at the centre of it all can claim to know everything about, although Hedren’s own testimonies and the weight of history do suggest a degree of darkness to Hitchcock’s efforts to find the perfect blonde (for his movies).

The other way of looking at it is to imply that by cold shouldering Hedren on set, Hitchcock put her in the perfect place to coax such a performance of alienation and resentment. Because on the viewing for this write-up I was pretty much hooked on her work; far from seeing weak acting that was unable to cope with the demands of the role, I found her entirely convincing and magnetic. It’s a difficult part to play. Not only do you have to buy into her internal psychological damage, she has to make you believe that she’s worth being pursued by Mark Rutland (Connery), that despite her efforts to brush him off, not to mention her sexual frigidity, he persists until the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note. Fortunately, it’s beautifully done, Hedren’s character going through the emotional wringer until at the end her make-up has run, she looks as though she hasn’t slept properly for weeks and she’s reduced to speaking in a little girl’s voice to explain the childhood incident that scarred her for life. The result, Marnie’s repression and attempts to steal and then move on, all fits together so successfully that the use of the red filter as a psychological trigger whenever she sees the colour (no prizes for guessing what that symbolises) is a redundant gimmick.

The film opens with Marnie up to what we must consider to be her old tricks, having taken a position of employment, wormed her way into the boss’s confidence, breaking into and robbing his safe, and moving on to a new city, to the next trick. By a sorry coincidence, the target of her burglary is an associate of Rutland’s, and he’s the very man she ends up working for next. Again, she steals from her employer and does one, only Rutland’s wise to her ways and catches up with her. He then marries her as a pretext to helping her confront the demons that have forced her into this sad existence, a losing game apparently as Marnie is far from ready to give up her secrets.

The other motive behind Rutland’s decision to wed Marnie is his apparent lust for her, depicted in the infamous ‘rape’ scene, a soft take on the act by any modern filmed standards but clearly depicted all the same. This moment appeared in Winston Graham’s source novel and Hitchcock considered it to be uncuttable, despite the protestations of the original screen writer, Evan Hunter, who believed it would rob Rutland of any audience sympathy. The consequence was Hunter’s instant dismissal from the project and the decision to hire Jay Presson Allen, whose script for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a draft at this stage. Allen appreciated working with Hitchcock, felt that she was never discriminated against for being a woman and believed he was pleased to have a writer who would give the Marnie character a true female perspective, something he was incapable of providing. As for the scene, it remains relatively hard hitting, especially given Rutland’s careful development as a relatively good man, and it’s possible to feel the rape – or at least, the non-consensual act, if you really insist on softening it – jars with the character’s motivations. I think the aim was to add flesh to Rutland, to show that among the good intentions and willingness to help Marnie he’s still a red-blooded male and can only take the lack of sex during his honeymoon so far. In saying that, I’m not trying to excuse his actions, just looking for reasons why he did it.

Rutland was played by Sean Connery, at the time just beginning his run as James Bond with Dr No finding success and a string of annual 007 outings in the pipeline. Looking for a younger version of his proto-masculine hero, Cary Grant, Hitchcock lucked out in getting Connery, who certainly brings all his charisma and presence to the role, albeit one demanding little of the physical performance that would define his time as Bond. While the complete refusal/inability of the actor to adapt his accent to the character was already in place when he made Marnie, Connery’s is undoubtedly good casting, a strong co-star for Hedren and someone in whom you believe entirely to get to the bottom of his wife’s mysteries once he’s resolved to do so. Of the rest of the cast, Diane Baker excels as Lil, Rutland’s sister-in-law who obviously sees herself as a future Mrs Rutland and makes malevolent efforts to undermine Marnie, sort of a less benevolent take on the Midge character in Vertigo. Marnie’s mother is played by Louise Latham, who deglamourised herself to excellent effect as a rather pathetic woman who both loves her daughter and does all she can to push her away, all because of unfortunate past events.

At the time Marnie was released, it was criticised heavily for ‘old Hollywood’ techniques that just looked out place in the 1960s – rear-screen projection and painted backdrops; check out the exterior set used for Marnie’s mother’s house for a glaring example. But was all this done deliberately? After all, it becomes clear that Marnie lives in a made-up world, so does it not follow to suggest her surroundings have a degree of artifice, that to flood her in harsh reality would only serve to highlight the character’s contrivances and diminish the power of her story? I guess it’s up to the individual viewer to decide, but as the film progressed it made more sense to me to think of it in this way.

Far from seeing this as a relatively weak entry within Hitchcock’s body of work, I’ve now come to really appreciate it, and of course there’s the parting of ways it also represented – the final collaboration between the director and Bernard Herrmann; his last with Robert Burks, the long-time cinematographer of Hitch classics. Truly things would never be the same again, and not in a good way given (largely) what followed. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending Marnie. Like Vertigo, it’s quite unlike anything else he made and if nothing better then it’s certainly an absorbing experiment in the subject matter he chose. I imagine those who psycho-analyse Hitchcock’s films for signs of the man’s profile having a field day with this one, which indeed you can do and often with dark and unpalatable results. That’s there if you’re looking for it, but take his extra-curricular motivations away and what you’re left with is a fine and unique film, one that definitely deserves its retrospective.

Marnie: ****

Getting Hitched!

No, I haven’t died and I’m most definitely still watching movies. The reality is that I took a promotion at work a couple of months ago and as a result I’m putting in much longer hours currently (I’d like to say that my pay rose to reflect the twelve hour days I’m often doing at the moment, but still). Something’s got to give, and at the moment it’s the scouring of TV schedules and putting comments together for these pages that’s losing out. It’s my choice and I don’t regret it, but in all truth I’m generally coming home from the job ready for nothing more than something to eat and some sleep, and FOTB is simply at the back of my mind.

All the same, as a fun side project and ‘to keep my hand in’, as it were, I’m working steadily on another ‘Best to Worst’ article for the site, this time on the directorial adventures of Alfred Hitchcock. I would argue that over the years of film viewing Hitch has become my favourite auteur of them all and so it’s quite a pleasure to plough through his extensive back catalogue. I own copies of just about every film of his that’s available (on DVD; there will come a time when I update the lot to HD format but that sounds like an exhausting assignment), and at the time of writing I’m up to the late 1930s, a very rich period for Alfred and featuring some brilliant movies. Similarly, to help I’m referring often to several books about him, including the terrific The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, and Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock. Both volumes contain extensive critiques of his films, often going into exhaustive detail about pictures where I’m confining myself to around 500 words apiece.

Despite the risk of nullifying my poor family into endless boredom with Hitchaphenalia, I’m enjoying this project immensely. Clearly, producing an actual ranking is going to be very difficult. Even the great man’s duds aren’t poor works by most people’s standards. Generally derided entries, like Number Seventeen and Waltzes from Vienna, have something to recommend them, whether it’s the former’s crazy chase scene (featuring some lovely model work), or the bravura debut performance of Blue Danube by Strauss Jr. Neither film is going to come close to troubling the higher spots, and God knows how I’m going to work that out (personal preference is as good a guide as any ultimately), but we’re talking about some very serious talent here. Luckily it’s a nice dilemma to have to deal with.

As I write this I’m listening to a Bernard Herrmann playlist on Apple Music. Herrmann isn’t even close to entering Hitchcock’s orbit on my viewing schedule yet, however the number of documentaries about him that I’ve seen recently are all daubed liberally with the great composer’s scores, and let’s face it there’s no chore in hearing his music, is there? Despite his close association to Hitchcock, I confess the main joys right now are coming from his soundtracks for Ray Harryhausen movies. If there’s a better fun work than that he did for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, then I’m yet to hear it.

In the meantime, it’s always worth checking out the poll of Hitchcock’s movies that Sergio compiled over at Tipping my Fedora. I don’t agree with the entire top ten produced by this public vote, yet that just shows the sheer variety and richness on offer. Not a sign, in the upper echelons, of entries like I Confess and Rebecca, both of which I love, nor Dial M for Murder, Frenzy, Sabotage, Young and Innocent or Foreign Correspondent… Similarly, the trilogy of lengthy podcasts done by The Secret History of Hollywood covering Hitchcock’s life and work can’t be recommended highly enough.

Again, please forgive the hiatus taking place on these pages. And with that, I’m off to watch The Lady Vanishes

Suspicion (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 13 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the years I’ve done an about-turn when it comes to my feelings regarding Suspicion. On my first couple of viewings, I derided it as a fairly lightweight piece of suspense melodrama, moving inevitably in one direction until its rather nonsensical ending. Since then, however, I’ve come to enjoy it more, appreciating the performances of the two leads – along with the supporting cast, and especially dear old Nigel Bruce – and delighting in the distraction-free build-up of tension.

Perhaps my opinion of it is based in part on an apparently universal consideration – Suspicion came after Rebecca; both starred Joan Fontaine, and whilst she won her Academy Award for this one it was seen as an apology for the Oscar she should have been given for her turn as Mrs de Winter. In short, Rebecca’s the better film, Suspicion a simpler and lesser effort. I still think Rebecca is brilliant, incidentally; it’s definitely in my top ten Hitchcocks (sadly, I do have a list of top ten Hitchcocks) and played a large part in making me a slavish follower of the great man. But there’s an awful lot going for Suspicion, made with both Hitch and Fontaine ‘on loan’ to RKO and giving Cary Grant his first of four starring roles for the Master of Suspense.

The story is a linear one, told largely without convolution and focusing tightly on the main pair. Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, the bookish daughter of a rich family who seems resigned to a life of spinsterhood. By chance, she meets Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train journey. He’s in her first class carriage, but he’s carrying a third class ticket, which should give an early indication of the sort of man he is. Steadily, he charms his way increasingly into her life, winning her hand in marriage when she overhears her parents discussing her lack of prospects and is duly compelled into his arms on a reckless whim. Once wed, the problems really begin. Johnnie seems to spend with abandon but he has no source of income and little inclination to find one. His gambling debts become an issue for Lina. Later, she learns that he embezzled money from the accountancy firm he worked for briefly, amassing £2,000 in arrears that he has no means of paying back. Into their home comes Johnnie’s friend Beaky (Bruce), a nice but slightly dim patrician who might as well come with a big ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back. Beaky sees Johnnie’s rogueish ways as essentially harmless japery, but Lina suspects differently when her husband comes up with investment projects for them both, involving Beaky’s money. When Beaky dies in Italy, having consumed too much brandy (something that the film establishes will be the end of him), she becomes certain Johnnie’s at least involved. Coming across a document that implies she would need to die in order for his insurance payout to happen, she starts fearing for her own life as every word and gesture Johnnie utters seem loaded with murderous intent.

Over the years, Suspicion has become as famous for what happened behind the camera as anything witnessed on the screen. Seen as a pawn in the endless battle for control waged between Hitchcock and producer David O Selznick, the film’s production was defined by hissy fits by Fontaine (quite a different character off-screen from the timid personality she projected on it), the two stars clashing, and that ending. Suspicion was adapted from Francis Iles’s 1931 novel, Before the Fact, a murder story without the mystery because it was told from the perspective of the victim, who was recounting the events leading up to her imminent poisoning by Johnnie. The film follows the book’s events reasonably closely, until the critical denouement when Lina refuses to drink the milk brought to her by her husband, a concoction that it’s strongly implied is laced with ‘a substance in daily use everywhere. Anyone can lay his hands on it, and within a minute after taking the victim’s beautifully out of the way. Mind you, it’s undetectable after death (quoted from Lina’s friend, the Christie-esque crime novelist Isobel (Auriol Lee)). In the minutes that follow, Johnnie is cleared from suspicion in Lina’s mind, a cop-out ending that slaps the face of almost everything that’s happened beforehand, though there’s a nice possibility that she’s just believing what she wants to believe and Johnnie will deal with her later, perhaps not long after the RKO logo has signaled the end of the movie.

The reason they went for the finale they did was all bound in the presence of Cary Grant, a likeable star over whom audiences would disapprove when they learned he was playing a murderer. Instead, he’s every inch the charming rogue as essayed by Beaky, haplessly falling in too deep when his happy go lucky relationship with money threatens to land him in trouble. Hitchcock complained about Suspicion for the rest of his life, arguing they should have gone for the novel’s climax but were overruled by conservative studio bosses. And what a neat piece of work it would have been, the clean-cut hero turning out to be a callous villain, but alas not to be.

That isn’t to say Suspicion isn’t a very good ninety five minutes of entertainment. The crux is on the screen very early when it’s made clear Lina fancies the pants off Johnnie. There’s a moment when he’s fiddling with her hair, teasing it into silly shapes, and every time he touches her it forces a visible sexual shrill from Fontaine, clearly unused to being touched so intimately and liking it very much. As soon as they’re married the tension kicks in, from little instances of deceit like Johnnie hawking their antique chairs to the death of Beaky, which points all the way to a contrived murder by his best friend. Beneath the handsome, winning exterior, he’s a sociopath, something Lina slowly comes to realise despite her wishes that everything will be all right in the end. The film contains some delicious scenes, like the Scrabble game in which Lina’s making words with the tiles like ‘doubt’ and ‘murder’ whilst imagining Johnnie hurling Beaky from a clifftop. and then there’s the best moment, the serving of the ‘murderous’ glass of milk. Johnnie carries it up the stairs to their bedroom on a silver tray; everything’s in shadow apart from the milk, which glows luminously in the dark to force the viewer’s perspective onto it. Marvelous filming, the stuff of dark intent.

By all accounts, the Johnnie Aysgarth who appears in Before the Fact is an implacable cad, having an affair behind Lina’s back and being every inch the heartless opportunist who’s prepared to kill his way out of debt. Grant’s Johnnie is a softer character, likeable despite himself and salvageable because of his one saving grace, that he does in fact love Lina. Fontaine’s character isn’t quite the tossed about wallflower she played in Rebecca, but her dogged devotion to – and eternal willingness to forgive – Johnnie turns her into a bit of a chump, albeit one caught in the trap of loving him too much to feel any other way.

The film is a startlingly good exercise in pure suspense, eschewing potential sub-plots in order to emphasise the central couple and build the tension between them. I really like it, and can’t think of many better ways to while away an afternoon than by taking this in, and then Rebecca, which follows at 2.40.

Suspicion: ****

PS. For a Facebook group I’m part of, I counted down a personal top ten of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Difficult to confine it to that many, to be honest, with apologies to other films I really like, such as (but in no particular order) Frenzy, Sabotage, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, The Birds, Rope, I Confess and Dial M for Murder. Let’s face it, the man was a stone cold genius. The running order, over which you are welcome to disagree, is:

10. Notorious
9. The 39 Steps
8. Psycho
7. Rebecca
6. Rear Window
5. Strangers on a Train
4. The Lady Vanishes
3. Shadow of a Doubt
2. North by Northwest
1. Vertigo

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 May (2.35 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel by British author, Jack Trevor Story, was adapted for the stage, and later Alfred Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and the film probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of the director’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, The Trouble with Harry was one of four movies Hitchcock claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.

Certainly, The Trouble with Harry is a good laugh. It’s simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid among the autumnal trees of a Vermont fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitchcock proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a sublime and playful Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.

Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.

The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing – murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (‘What seems to be the trouble, Captain?‘) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee, perhaps even some elderberry wine. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.

Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident – the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.

Yet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and lovable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent – retaining its trace of his London roots – giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about both Harry and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.

Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. He’s easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. But he just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.

Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about The Trouble with Harry that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. The film is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitchcock made it to shed some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Trouble with Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart within it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was fated to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety five minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.

My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.

The Trouble with Harry: ****

Spellbound (1945)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 30 December (12.45 am, Wednesday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.

A confession. I had pencilled Spellbound in for today’s write-up whilst not looking forward to it very much and wondering whether to choose something else, something easier, instead. There’s a temptation to deride it, Alfred Hitchcock’s massive hit from 1945 that was mimicked and parodied to death in the following years, an exploration of psychoanalysis that comes with its fair share of moments that today come across as very nearly laughable, framed within a fine and entertaining drama.

At its heart, Spellbound is a noirish thriller, covering themes of psychological guilt that would become a staple of the genre, only here it’s dressed up with layers of prestige – Hitchcock behind the camera, David O Selznick producing, psychiatric advisers attached to give the impression of authenticity, a large budget and the presence of two consummate A-list actors at their most beautiful. It was inspired by a novel, The House of Dr Edwardes, though very little remains from it save some character names and the concept of power held by psychiatrists, which is presumably what drove Hitchcock to purchase the filming rights.

Made for Selznick International Pictures as part of the director’s outstanding contractual obligations, Hitchcock and Selznick clashed constantly – think two able and controlling men exercising their own agendas and demanding overall hold over the project. The latter’s positive experiences of psychiatry meant that he wanted it to be treated as a serious science, ordering a Shakespearean quote to be added to the credits in order to enhance its credibility, as well as the advisers being on set. It was Selznick who wanted the impressionistic ‘doors opening’ sequence as Ingrid Bergman realises she is in love with Gregory Peck, the doors of perception flying open, though it looks gimmicky now and Hitchcock preferred the actors to convey the emotions without having the extra – and rather obvious – meaning tacked on for viewers. As for Hitch, it would appear he treated the whole deal as props for a thrilling plot, adding his trademark visual flair (the glass of milk sequence, the disembodied hand turning the loaded gun back towards the camera) and championing the film’s famous dream scene that was designed as a surreal nightmare by Salvador Dali.

The plot follows psychiatrist, Dr Constance Peterson (Bergman), academic and aloof, who is preparing to see the back of the asylum’s head, Dr Murchison (Leo G Carroll) and welcome the arrival of his replacement, Dr Edwardes (Peck). Constance is a great admirer of Edwardes, in particular his published research, but is surprised to find that he’s much younger and better looking than she anticipated. Then things begin to unravel. Quickly, it’s established that Edwardes is himself psychologically disturbed; he can’t look at lines on a white background without suffering distress. Before too long it emerges that he isn’t the Doctor at all but an imposter, indeed he starts to believe he might have killed Edwardes and taken his place. What’s worse, if he is a murderer, then what’s to stop him from striking again, perhaps Constance or her mentor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov)? Edwardes, or ‘JB’ as he starts calling himself, flees to New York, followed by Constance who’s desperate to get to the root of his problems before anyone else gets hurt.

Taking any of this seriously is a stretch. Peck’s fits and starts at the sight of anything white that has lines running across it becomes hokey very quickly, particularly as Miklos Rosza’s score employs a theremin during these moments to emphasise the character’s deranged mood swings. Fortunately, the two leads have such instant chemistry and appeal together that the silliness takes second place to the sight of two very attractive and charismatic performers who look as though they want to rip each others’ clothes off whenever they’re together, the psychobabble buried beneath longing looks and touching. The pair had an affair during the production, the kind of fact that makes you want to exclaim ‘well, of course they did!’ as the spark between them is so obvious.

The film is probably best known now for its famous dream sequence, a creative collaboration between Hitchcock and Dali that essentially gave away the plot’s secrets, though it’s designed in such an oblique way that it only links with the revelations as these are exposed. Originally twenty minutes’ long, the scene was cut ruthlessly to a fraction of that running time by Selznick, removing much of its complexity and imaginative leaps, though what remains is powerful and visually arresting, the cutting of a painted eyeball with scissors, the appearance of a masked and malevolent club proprietor, the card game with its extra large playing cards and distorted camera angles to make the scene appear more dreamlike.

Almost as good is the evening meeting between JB and Brulov, at a moment in the film when the audience’s suspicions of the former are at their peak. Holding a switchblade razor, JB in a trancelike state, almost sleepwalking, goes to see Brulov in his study. Ignoring the razor, the middle-aged doctor fetches JB a glass of milk whilst the camera remains fixed on the blade, which remains in the forefront of the shot. We then see JB drink the milk, the camera’s perspective from his eyeline so that the glass moves into shot, then the liquid, Brulov emerging as the milk goes down. The viewers are left in doubt as to what happens next, until Constance wakes up the following morning and finds Brulov, prone, on his couch…

There’s no doubt that Spellbound has its moments, some great scenes that are well worth remembering and talking about; the film’s only moment of colour is a jarring flash of red that has real dramatic impact. But it’s flawed, deeply so, the product of a creatively profitable yet fundamentally clashing pair of personalities. Within Hitchcock’s canon it’s far from his best work, but it is interesting.

Spellbound: ***

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

When it’s on: Thursday, 25 December (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

A library of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers has made its way into the Christmas schedules (two of which will be covered here), and BBC4 have chosen The Lady Vanishes for a primetime slot on the big day itself. A good thing too. With the possible exception of The 39 Steps, it’s the peak of Hitchcock’s career as a British-based director and makes for wonderful entertainment.

As with many of the best Hitchcocks, the success of The Lady Vanishes pivots on a very simple plot twist. A young woman, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is travelling on a train that’s crossing Europe. Her companion is a genial middle-aged lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears after Iris has had a nap. Asking after her whereabouts, Iris is told by her fellow travellers that there was no lady and she must have imagined her entire existence. Having received a blow to the head before joining the train, there are grounds to suggest that may have been exactly the case, particularly as the eminent Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas) indicates there might be psychological reasons for her ‘creating’ Miss Froy. But Iris isn’t convinced and sets about trying to prove that the lady was on the train; in this she’s helped by a raffish English musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).

That’s the central storyline, however there’s so much more to The Lady Vanishes. Iris has come across Gilbert before, when he disturbs her sleep in the hotel where they’re both staying. He’s a cad, a charming cad but a cad all the same, and his offer to assist her on the train carries a delicious undertone of dislike and irritation. There are strong hints that Miss Froy’s disappearance might have something to do with areas of Europe through which they’re travelling falling under Fascist control, suggesting the plain looking lady might be an unlikely secret agent for the British secret services, and that certain passengers on the train may be working for countries that were quickly becoming enemies. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers play fellow travellers Mr and Mrs Todhunter, only they’re an eloping couple, fleeing from their marriages to be together. The pair’s arguments about the need to be discrete and their fluctuating levels of devotion to each other have them making decisions about Miss Froy’s disappearance that help the plot move along.

Best of all, finding great popularity with British audiences and remaining a big draw for the film, are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as English tourists Charters and Caldicott. Inserted purely for comedy purposes, the pair are used to poke fun at typically ignorant English attitudes to the dangers of the time; while Europe is collapsing into war and a lady has just gone missing on the train, their only interest is the England Test Match taking place in Manchester and their desire to make it back in time for the final day. Radford and Wayne were such a hit with the public that Charters and Caldicott would go on to appear in a number of further movies; the actors played a very similar pair of characters (obsessed with Golf rather than Cricket) in the later Dead of Night.

Redgrave and Lockwood were both very much up and coming talents at the time, indeed this is the former’s earliest screen credit after some distinguished work in theatre. As thrown together sleuths they have real chemistry together, matching the growing attraction that develops between their characters as the sense of peril rises and they find themselves increasingly depending on each other. The dialogue crackles also. The Lady Vanishes was an unusual Hitchcock film for the relative lack of involvement the director had in the screenplay. Known for working on treatments at their earliest stages as part of pre-production, in this instance he pretty much stuck with the script handed to him by British writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who themselves channelled the source novel by Ethel Lina White, considering the plot to be ready made for a screen adaptation.

The Lady Vanishes starts relatively gently, taking time to introduce its characters and appearing very light in tone. The levels of suspense, however, increases all the while, Lukas’s Doctor emerging as a villain along with various passengers to the extent that Gilbert and Iris have no idea how to tell friend from foe. There’s enough going on to tease at complicated back stories from even minor characters, such as the nun looking after Hartz’s completely bandaged patient who is discovered to be wearing high heels.

A major success upon its release for Gainsborough and Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes landed him with various awards, including the Best Director accolade from the New York Film Critics.  It helped him to negotiate the best possible deal for himself in America, landing him a contract with David O Selznick. His absolutely best work was still in the future, but this picture was an important keynote in establishing him as a major Hollywood player.

The Lady Vanishes: *****

If anyone has stumbled across FOTB on Christmas Day, may I take this opportunity to wish you the very best of Christmases, and thank you for visiting.

Mr and Mrs Smith (1941)

Mr and Mrs Smith

When it’s on: Thursday, 27 December (1.35 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

This holiday TV schedule features a revival in Alfred Hitchcock films, which is never a bad thing in itself but links nicely with Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi’s biopic about the making of Psycho. As is traditional with films on the sniff for Academy recognition, Hitchcock’s been doing the rounds in America for over a month whilst we Brits have to wait until February, but not to worry as the BBC are putting out their own dramatisation about the Master, The Girl (Wednesday, 26 December at 9.00 pm). This stars the usually brilliant Toby Jones, and chronicles Hitch’s treatment of his leading lady, Tippi Hedren (Siena Miller) during the making of The Birds. The Girl promises to wade into less salacious territory by telling Hitchcock’s relationship with Hedren as a story of obsession, whereas the theatrical Hitchcock seems content to remain on safer ground with its focus on the importance of his wife, Alma (played in the film by Helen Mirren, opposite Anthony Hopkins’s Hitch).

Behind such dips into the nature of Hitchcock’s attitude to women are the films themselves, which of course are always worth a watch. A virtually peerless triple bill of The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps and Notorious are scheduled for later in the week, whilst the BBC are following The Girl with Rebecca and Mr and Mrs Smith. As a cross-section of his work, the Oscar winning Rebecca feels like the obvious choice, less so the latter, which remains an eccentricity within Hitchcock’s body of work. The lack of suspense, mystery and dark deeds is palpable as the Master tried his hand at directing a screwball comedy. The result is an unevenly entertaining and likeable farce, which lacks any real heft but doesn’t outstay its welcome. The stars are good fun and look as though they’re having a great time working together, and the whole piece feels as light as air. Best of all, it isn’t to be confused with the more recent Mr and Mrs Smith that served as a vehicle for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jones and remains best known for bringing two A-Listers together in real life, hardly a glowing recommendation for the film.

Years later, Hitchcock would dismiss Mr and Mrs Smith as a minor footnote in his uneasy early years as Selznick’s hired director, claiming that all he did was photograph the scenes as they’d been written. This suggestion of a lifeless affair for all concerned clashes with the contemporary desire shared by the director and star, Carole Lombard, to collaborate on a production, after the latter had picked up on the barbed comedy typical in Hitch’s films. Concentrating on laughs at the expense of the usual suspense levels, Mr and Mrs Smith has the look and feel of an anomaly, indeed it rarely achieves the sense of being directed by Alfred Hitchcock at all.

The plot concerns the eponymous married couple, their wedded bliss held together by a series of complicated rules and traditions. David Smith (Robert Montgomery) is a well heeled Manhattan lawyer, who is allowed to leave aside all his duties when he rows with his wife (Lombard), the result of which finds the pair unable to leave their bedroom until the issues are resolved. Whilst it’s clear the couple’s very much in love, David tests the patience and goodwill of Ann when he declares he would stay single if he had the chance to live it all over again, and then both partners learn their marriage is legally null and void, thanks to a bit of state-shifting red tape. The stage is set for a battle of the sexes as Ann determines to prove David wrong, treating her newfound freedom as an opportunity to fling with his legal partner, Jeff (Gene Raymond), whilst Mr Smith is first bemused at her behaviour and later does all he can to win her back.

A commercial success upon its release, Mr and Mrs Smith is never less than fun, good natured fun at that, with it being made clear at the start that the Smiths are mad about each other and thereby ensuring a happy ending. It’s Jeff who emerges as the ultimate butt of the joke; he fancies Ann and does his dastardly best to muscle in on her, but instead he’s caught up in the Smiths’ sexual politics, treated as a dupe whilst she does everything she can to prick the jealous conscience of her man. Still, the material’s handled lightly enough. It’s equally obvious that no real harm will be done to any of the people involved. They’ll remain friends with Jeff, poor Jeff, who’s reduced at one point to explaining plot points to his old fashioned parents whilst on the toilet.

The actors are completely fine. Montgomery was second choice as David, Hitchcock preferring the unavailable Cary Grant, but he brings an agreeable bewilderment to his role as the man who slowly realises he will actually have to work to save his marriage. Raymond’s just as good in a part that might very well have painted him as scheming and duplicitous; the character turns out to be so honest and honourable, even when blind drunk and alone with Ann, that there’s just nothing to dislike. But the films belongs to Lombard, blonde and beautiful, especially in her early, ‘bedhead’ scenes, and tragically appearing in her penultimate film before dying in a plane crash at the age of 33. As the feisty Ann, it seems the camera loves her just as much as both men in Mr and Mrs Smith, even when she’s stuck forty feet in the air in a broken down ferris wheel car, rain battering her ceaselessly.

Mr and Mrs Smith: ***

Psycho (1960)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 June (3.05 am, Saturday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Even watched for the first time, it must be almost impossible to get the same shock value as audiences catching Psycho on its initial run in cinemas more than fifty years ago. The film’s been copied so many times, not just literally with Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, but ripped off in so many ways by so many directors in far too many movies. I guess a more recent contemporary would be The Blair Witch Project, which was also made cheaply and grossed millions from clever marketing and an unsettling narrative, but the comparison ends there. Psycho is just about in a league of its own.

I’ve now seen it on many occasions. My first viewing actually left me a little disappointed, which prompted me to wonder what was wrong with me. What now seems apparent is that I watched it after no doubt seeing other pictures that had plundered its imagery and shocking moments mercilessly and its effect was inevitably diluted.

Later screenings have been far more profitable. These days, I really buy into the contention of Psycho’s maker, Alfred Hitchcock, that it’s ‘a fun picture.’ The whole thing’s a big joke, and the butts are, of course, us – the audience. There’s the gag of spending the first half of the film building up sympathy for the main character, not to mention hiring a star name to play her, only to refute all narrative convention by seeing her meet a violent end. But the even bigger laugh is the switch in empathy from poor, doomed Marion (Janet Leigh) to doomed, deadly Norman (Anthony Perkins). There’s a scene in which Norman’s trying to remove evidence of Marion’s very presence in his motel by submerging her car – which contains her possessions and also her corpse – in the nearby swamp, only for it to pause mid-sink. Admit it, you were willing that car to resume its journey to the bottom, weren’t you?

This isn’t the place to go too deep into the plot, or to dribble and indeed spout drivel over the infamous shower scene. You can read numerous and brilliant dissections of one of cinema’s most famous moments elsewhere, discover a body double was used despite Leigh describing in interviews the horrific process of filming it, take in the debate over whether Hitchcock or Saul Bass directed it and then make up your own mind, review it frame by frame (along with the storyboards), and so on. All that really matters is that it’s a deeply shocking scene, though I’m more disturbed with the shot of the blood seeping into the plughole then dissolving into Marion’s unseeing, dead eye, the camera slowly zooming out to take in more of her vacant head. It’s clever stuff. All that build-up, the exploration of her rather sad love story, her decision to steal the $40,000, the inner monologues that fuel her sense of paranoia, the encounter with the roadside cop, buying the used car, running away, seeing the sign for the Bates Motel just as it seems she may succumb to the relentless rain on her windshield, innocently flirting with Norman, the sandwich, the resolution to take the money back and try to set things straight… Snuffed out in 45 seconds of extreme violence and a carcass is all that remains.

Yet for all Hitchcock described it as effectively a comedy, Psycho is a deeply pessimistic piece of work. None of its characters are happy, or achieve anything close to happiness. If they do, such as the look of peace on Marion’s face after she has decided to return the money and clean her conscience (and her body, in the fateful shower), it’s soon destroyed. Norman’s story is a sad one. In the end, all the lives we are invited to peer into seem wasted and pointless, a tale that sets itself at odds with the dreams offered by the land of opportunity. Little wonder the film made its money back many times over. Not only were audiences enjoying the work of a genius, there was also the genuine sense of identification with characters whose hopes were all for naught.

Psycho: *****

Saboteur (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 June (1.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

This house experienced a brief burst of excitement when Channel 4 teased at screening an unofficial Hitchcock season in its early afternoon slot. Sadly, it turned out to be nothing more than a coincidence of scheduling that two of his films appear on consecutive days. Tomorrow, we get the masterly Shadow of a Doubt. Today, it’s Saboteur, a relatively minor entry that explores similar narrative territory  to The 39 Steps, and would later be polished to perfection for North by Northwest. The story of the ‘wrong man’ having to go on the run both to prove his innocence and catch the real culprit was retold various times by Hitchcock. Saboteur isn’t as good as the two films mentioned above, rather it rubs shoulders with Young and Innocent and Frenzy, which essentially covered the same ground.

Over time, I think I’ve come to prefer Young and Innocent to Saboteur and, in lieu of a critically sound, academic reason I’d suggest it’s because I like the characters more in his light-hearted, British escape thriller. Similarly, the shock value and jet black humour of Frenzy make it, for me, superior. If that makes it sound like I think Saboteur is a poor film, then I don’t. It’s fine. Viewers demanding welters of suspense won’t be disappointed. There are some lovely technical bits of business, fine plot twists and excellent cameo performances. The whole thing moves at breakneck pace, anticipating North by Northwest, and the scale of the trial faced by its hero at times at times feels impossible.

Yet perhaps it’s the identity of the actor playing ‘the wrong man’ who’s the problem. Hitchcock didn’t want Robert Cummings for the role. Gene Kelly, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda were amongst his preferred choices, whereas Cummings was dismissed as having ‘an amusing face, so that even when he’s in desperate straits, his features don’t convey any anguish.’ It’s a fair point. The actor puts in a reasonable performance, but his natural place was in the realm of light entertainment and, whilst the camera stays with him throughout Saboteur, he gets lost in the thick of the detail and his fellow actors. Priscilla Lane as the girl who first loathes then joins him in his flight fares altogether better. Again, she wasn’t the perfect bit of casting in Hitchcock’s eyes; he wanted Barbara Stanwyck, who may never have come across as credible once the character teams up with Cummings and softens. Otto Kruger plays the main villain, whereas the role of the actual saboteur went to unknown Norman Lloyd, who gets across really well the lazy evil of his ill-intentioned character.

Saboteur could be dismissed as a propaganda piece, and it’s doubtless the film was part fuelled by Hitchcock’s own feelings about the war. Whilst no one refers to the people who are really behind the sabotage as Nazis, it’s clear they’re fascist sympathisers, not to mention a patrician lot with little but disdain for the common man. The traditional American value of freedom is instead writ large in the various diverse characters who help Cummings along his way. There’s the kindly blind uncle of Ms Lane, who offers Cummings some respite and claims, despite his lack of sight that he can see further than she, alluding to Cummings’s innocence. They’re also helped by a troupe of circus performers, adding weight to the sense of America’s less privileged elements believing in freedom and being prepared to uphold it.

It’s nicely done, but the identities of the villains (upper class) and heroes (working class) suggest an obvious liberal sentiment, and Hitchcock’s better than that. The limited budget doesn’t help either. With its wide canvas, Saboteur should have an epic feel, but it was treated from the start as a second rate project by David O Selznick, who doled both the film and its director to Universal in order to get it made. The studio trimmed costs by not allowing Hitchcock to hire the first rate actors he wanted and, whilst letting the production go over its modest $700k budget, wound up with a picture that looks like it has the bottom line in mind.

Still, the eye on cost produces some cool effects, such as the early sabotage scene, for which Hitchcock simply filmed the front of a factory and let black smoke steadily fill the frame from the bottom right, not only effective on a stylistic level but suggesting strongly the looming menace that faced the ‘Free World.’ There are also dialogue-heavy scenes to replace costly moments of action, such as Cummings’s encounters with the blind uncle and the circus performers, which feature the parts of the screenplay penned by Dorothy Parker.

The result is a decent potboiler, and nothing more than that. Saboteur includes some signature moments – the Statue of Liberty climax, for one – but a weightless whole that places it firmly beyond the front row of Hitchcock’s films.

Saboteur: ***