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Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’

Alfred Hitchcock, in addition to his many other innovations, came up with the notion of fridge logic: by which he meant the way that a story can hang together just well enough to entertain the viewer, at least until they get up and go to the refrigerator to get a beer – at which point they say ‘Hey, waiddaminute…!’ and the whole spurious narrative edifice comes tumbling down. Or, to put it another way: if you keep things really, really entertaining and go really, really fast, most viewers won’t notice the plot holes first time round.

How well this principle still stands up in the DVD age, where some directors almost seem to design their films to need multiple viewings to become wholly comprehensible, is debatable. However, it also seems to me that Hitchcock also came up with – or at least made use of – the related idea of ‘fridge titling’, where the name of a story bears no obvious connection to anyone or anything actually mentioned in it. This idea has also had a long and reasonably noble history, and no doubt it will stay with us, assuming the cinema industry recovers from the current unpleasantness. (As a tribute to Hitch I have given this review a fridge title.)

A movie which has a fridge title and relies somewhat upon fridge logic is Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. (The title seems to allude to Hamlet’s declaration he is ‘but mad north-north-west’, but if so quite what the link is remains impenetrably obscure.) This is a film which came towards the end of Hitchcock’s 1950s imperial phase, slotting into the gap between Vertigo and Psycho – and it hardly suffers in comparison to either of them, which just goes to show what a roll Hitchcock was on at this point. However, where Vertigo is a self-referential, dream-like psycho-drama, and Psycho essentially raises the curtain on the modern American horror movie, North by Northwest is something from a wholly different part of Hitchcock’s register – and while it may not be quite as revered as either of those other two films, in a way it may be the most enduringly influential of the three.

The story opens in New York, and proceeds to crack on with great economy. We are swiftly introduced to advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), perhaps a bit of an amiable rogue in a very domestic way. Through sheer bad luck, Thornhill gets himself mistaken for the mysterious and elusive George Kaplan, who appears to be an agent of the security services, involved in pursuing members of a communist spy ring. Two members of the gang bundle Thornhill into the back of a car and whisk him off to meet their leader, Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau). Thornhill, understandably, can’t give them the information that they want, and so they decide to arrange his death – needless to say he manages to avoid dying in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, this lands him in trouble with the police, and in order to prove his story Thornhill tries to track down Kaplan, with no success – and indeed only manages to make his enemies even more convinced he is the man they want. Very soon Thornhill finds himself framed for a murder he did not commit, fleeing across the country and desperately trying to locate Kaplan, who may have the answers to what is happening. It seems like his only ally is cool young blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) – but can Thornhill afford to trust anyone…?

One of the brilliant touches about North by Northwest is that, having set all this up, the film very sensibly takes a step back and explains (for the viewer’s benefit, if not Cary Grant’s) what’s really going on. In one of a small number of scenes not to feature Grant’s character, we find ourselves at some sort of FBI committee meeting where exposition is briefly provided, mostly courtesy of Leo G Carroll, playing a donnish spymaster known as the Professor: Thornhill is chasing a phantom, as Kaplan doesn’t exist – the evidence of his existence has been created to act as a decoy and distract the gang, without placing a real agent in danger (and hopefully distract attention away from the real informer they have in Vandamm’s ring).

This scene doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it clarifies the plot enormously and means that most of the rest of the movie can proceed slickly, with a minimum of pipe-laying. Also, it comes at the end of the first act, when the viewer is ready for a brief break from the action. One of the things about this movie is how immaculately paced is it, and another is the way it switches flawlessly between its various modes: understated romantic comedy between Grant and Saint, moments of tension as Grant finds himself having to pull off another unlikely escape, and what these days we would call action set-pieces, include two of the most iconic sequences in cinema history – the one where Grant is menaced by a crop-duster while out in the middle of nowhere, and the climactic chase across the face (literally) of Mount Rushmore.

While all this is happening, something else slightly more subtle is going on in the story, too. One text on story structure describes the journey of the protagonist as being that of ‘orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr’, and that journey is happening here as well – Thornhill starts the film as a clueless innocent, baffled by everything happening to him, but his efforts to unravel the mystery only make things worse and he finds himself cut off from his old life, searching for Kaplan. Finally he begins to take steps against his enemies, even to the point of willingly risking his own life against the Professor’s orders. By the end of the film, Thornhill has effectively become the daring and effective spy that he was mistaken for at the beginning of the film – and when films with this kind of structure are made today (for example, The Spy Who Dumped Me, or – less recognisably, perhaps – American Ultra), they usually end with a coda showing the protagonist has embraced this new career. (Hitchcock chooses to end with a naughty visual pun instead.)

Watching Grant glide through the movie as a suave, resourceful, womanising secret agent, and considering the film’s mixture of glamorous, iconic locations, well-handled action, witty dialogue, and slightly outlandish characters, I can’t help but think that it would only take a couple of spoonfuls of extra grit for North by Northwest to be instantly recognisable as what it is: the proto-Bond movie, and, as such, the ultimate progenitor of every other film ripping off or positioning itself in opposition to the Bond franchise, from Our Man Flint to Enter the Dragon to Austin Powers to The Bourne Identity. It’s not surprising that Cary Grant was top of Eon’s wish-list when it came to casting Bond for Dr No, though the actor’s refusal to sign on for multiple films (and quite possibly his salary demands) led to them going down a different path. (Mason was also offered the part, while the TV series The Man from UNCLE, one of the Bond franchise’s small-screen imitators, likewise acknowledges the influence of North by Northwest by essentially getting Leo G Carroll to reprise his role as the Professor as Alexander Waverly, head of UNCLE.)

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has spoken of how his desire to make ‘the ultimate Hitchcock movie’ was central to the origins of North by Northwest; it also seems that many of the film’s most memorable elements originated with the director – the crop-duster scene apparently sprang from Hitchcock’s desire to find out if he could produce an effective suspense sequence in broad daylight, in a wide open space. Is this the ultimate Hitchcock movie, though? Well, as noted, it is somewhat less revered than the two films made on either side of it, and it certainly possesses fewer of the darker and more complex psychological elements that sometimes bubble to the surface in Hitchcock films. However, as a slick piece of escapist cinema it stands up fantastically well even sixty years on. A superb entertainment and an immensely influential film.

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As this long, hellish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire-esque summer has worn on, so the Kubrick season at the Phoenix has come to a conclusion, which is obviously cause for sadness. But looking on the bright side, in its place we are currently enjoying a season of Hitchcock revivals, which is always something to relish. Most recently on the screen was a movie from the start of the 1950s, the decade which arguably saw Hitchcock at the height of his powers and brought him his most sustained run of popular and critical successes. The film in question is Strangers on a Train, one of the great director’s most playfully ambiguous works. Is it a psychological thriller? A film noir? A pitch-black comedy? Or just a searing indictment of poor health and safety standards at American funfairs? Nearly seventy years on, the jury is still out.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player and aspiring politician, who is making a fairly routine train journey when – apparently by chance – he makes the acquaintance of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a wealthy, charming fellow who seems to be a fan of his. Somewhat reluctantly, Guy gets to know Bruno better, and it transpires that both men have their problems: Guy is stuck in a marriage to an unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott), while Bruno finds himself oppressed by his authoritarian father. Bruno takes the opportunity to unveil his ‘perfect murder’ scheme, whereby he will kill Guy’s wife, while Guy disposes of Bruno’s father – as each man apparently lacks a motive for these particular killings, they should get away with it, with no difficulty.

Guy is clearly just too well brought-up, for his attempts to extricate himself from the company of someone who is clearly slightly unhinged only serve to give Bruno the impression that he is enthusiastically on-board with this ‘criss-cross’ plan. Matters become somewhat more complicated when Guy’s wife proves to be not just unfaithful but rather manipulative, soaking him for money while refusing to give him a divorce, even though she is carrying another man’s child (hey, it was the Fifties). All this causes Guy to make some rather intemperate public utterances, which could well be seen as incriminating when his wife turns up dead in the middle of a funfair one night – Bruno has gone full speed ahead with his murder-swapping plan…

Guy is safe for the time being, but one piece of evidence away from being arrested (his alibi just isn’t quite watertight enough). This would be stressful enough, even without Bruno starting to haunt his footsteps, wondering why Guy is so reluctant to follow through on his side of the deal, and clearly quite capable of making Guy’s life extremely difficult if he reneges entirely…

Strangers on a Train is not quite at the very top of the list of Hitchcock movies everyone can name – it’s a step or two down from Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, for instance – but it is still immediately recognisable as a product of the same creative sensibility. From the very first seconds you are aware of the playful way in which the director is presenting the two leads as doubles, or opposites – their arrival at the station opens the film, with Hitchcock choosing to show us their feet rather than their faces, saving this for the moment when they first see each other. There is also the same kind of moral ambiguity that shoots through so many later Hitchcock films – it’s made clear that Guy really does want to murder his wife, it’s only the social contract which is keeping this urge in check. There’s a sense in which Guy is a bad, er, guy.

In the same way, there’s a sense in which Bruno is, if not a good guy, then at least a charming, appealing presence whenever he appears. This is mostly due to a terrific performance from Robert Walker, whose final completed film this was: Walker pretty much walks away with the acting honours from Strangers on a Train, as the good guys are decent but wooden, and his only real competition (Elliott) is only in the film briefly. Elliott manages to be so objectionable that the set piece in which Walker stalks her through a funfair before eventually strangling her – the murder famously reflected in her fallen glasses – is essentially one in which the audience is complicit with the killer, or at least feeling no guilt at anticipating the murder.

Of course, there’s something else going on in this film, a subtext which is surprisingly clear given the time it was made. Guy is dashing but weak, led into immorality by a charming older man with a mother-fixation. The coding is quite obvious – Bruno is presented as a thinly-veiled predatory homosexual, aiming to seduce Guy – morally, if not physically. Robert Walker’s performance is very good, but it’s also kind of Liberace meets the Boston Strangler. Suffice to say that the love of a good woman (Ruth Roman) is essential to Guy’s clearing his name and resolving the crisis.

As the film goes on, it progressively deviates, if you’ll pardon the expression, from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, which (to minimise spoilers) concludes with Guy being arrested, and this may be why the initially watertight plotting of the film begins to unravel somewhat. There’s something a little melodramatic, or at least rather improbable, about the way the climax is managed – Guy has to win his tennis match in double time, lose his police tail and then get to the scene of the crime before Bruno can plant the evidence that will see him arrested. You could poke half a dozen holes in the scenario, yet it is still thoroughly engaging, enjoyable stuff, and you do get the sense Hitchcock is having fun, not intending the audience to take it too seriously either . There are quite a few moments during the climax of the film which drew general laughter from the audience at my screening, and I’m sure some of this was intended. But all of it? I’m really not sure; Hitchcock remains as slippery a magician as ever.

Possibly if this film were in colour, or had a more distinguished cast, it would perhaps have a slightly higher profile. Nevertheless, it is still a supremely accomplished movie – the plot holds together well enough, there is plenty of snappy dialogue to enjoy (‘I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law’, ‘When an alibi is full of bourbon, it can’t stand up’, and so on), and the story has just enough darkness and ambiguity to it to deliver a pleasant frisson, rather than becoming too bleak or downbeat. A very fine film, and still only one of Hitchcock’s relatively minor works.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a master artist largely rests on the films he made in the 1950s and early 1960s. In these films, he manages to take the stuff of everyday life – taking a shower, catching a train, birdwatching – and imbue it with suspense and excitement. Unfortunately, the thing about Hitchcock’s later films is that they are not about everyday life, but the world of international espionage and intrigue, and here his great talent seems to be functioning in reverse: starting with a milieu which you might expect to be swimming with tension and exciting developments, somehow Hitchcock manages to tell stories which feel inherently dull and pedestrian, often in defiance of common sense and logic.

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I’ve already written about Topaz, which is pretty hard going – and very nearly as bad is Torn Curtain from 1966, which at least has a slightly less laborious and convoluted narrative. The story gets under way aboard a cruise liner in Scandinavia, where a scientific congress is underway. Also aboard is top US boffin Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who has another sort of congress on his mind – as the film opens he is upholding the finest values of academia, as we find him in bed with his assistant Sarah (Julie Andrews). She wants to talk about their wedding, he’s just interested in colliding neutrinos. They are clearly made for each other.

However, Armstrong receives a cryptic telegram, after which he starts acting highly suspiciously, and Sarah eventually finds him on a flight to East Berlin, where he seems to be intent on defecting to the Communist Bloc! Lawks! Paul Newman a commie traitor? Say it ain’t so!

It ain’t so. It transpires that Armstrong is intent on a bit of private spying to help the American effort, and is only pretending to defect so he can pick the brains of a top Soviet boffin before redefecting back to good ol’ Uncle US of Stateside. You’d think he might have told his girlfriend, but no, and so now he is stuck with having to look after her as well. It’s not even as if she does any singing in this film either. Well, as you might expect, Armstrong’s grasp of spy tradecraft is frankly not up to the task, and he is forced to kill his Soviet minder for the good of the mission. But can he get the information he needs before the communist authorities realise what has happened?

I’m kind of used to the idea of Hitchcock as the king of his own little world, getting everything he desired, but apparently this was not the case by 1966. Apparently in this instance Hitchcock did not get the stars he wanted, and in fact had both Newman and Andrews imposed on him by the studio (Andrews was straight off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and was the biggest female movie star in the world at the time, but her limited availability as a result apparently added to the pressures on production). You can perhaps sense Hitchcock’s distaste at being treated this way, for both lead characters are oddly drab and colourless, interesting more because of what happens to them than for who they are. Instead Hitchcock opts to surrounded them with ‘colourful’ character turns, mostly by thickly-accented European performers who are seldom in more than a couple of scenes each, and the results are odd – it’s as if the film can’t quite settle on a focus, or wants to be a weird anthology or travelogue.

The movie does have one outstandingly memorable sequence, however; the one in which Armstrong’s minder Gromek is killed: this was made around the same time that Connery’s Bond was despatching goons in seconds flat, and in contrast it takes Newman and the young woman he is in league with absolutely ages to get rid of Gromek: they stab him, try to strangle him, hit him with a shovel, gas him… it goes on for minutes and is more or less played as black comedy, completely unlike the rest of the film.

Which is not to say that everything else is completely conventional. The film’s other big set piece, for want of a better description, is a fairly lengthy sequence in which Newman and Andrews travel from Leipzig to Berlin on a fake bus under the control of anti-communist rebels. Public transport has rarely taken on such a crucial role in a major spy movie. Will the authorities figure out the fake bus is not what it seems? Will they be able to stick to the posted bus timetable? Are there enough tickets in the ticket machine? Not even Alfred Hitchcock can make intercity bus travel genuinely suspenseful, it would seem.

He’s not helped much by some fairly primitive filming techniques: in the – um – bus chase and elsewhere, there’s a heavy reliance on back projection that probably had nobody convinced back in 1966, let alone today, while another key sequence takes place in a park. Rather than going out and actually filming in a park, this is realised by building an astonishingly fake-looking park on a soundstage and filming it there. The production values in this sequence are so low that they distract completely from what’s a turning point in the story.

The story doesn’t really convince as a realistic piece of espionage, but at the same time the story is so odd and low-key it hardly qualifies as a rip-roaring spy adventure either. Both stars seem a bit at sea, as well, and you almost get the sense that Hitchcock isn’t trying that hard either. Perhaps at this point the director was being swallowed up by his own legend – rather than being a subtle little in-joke, for instance, Hitchcock’s cameo is telegraphed by the soundtrack playing the theme tune from his TV show when he appears. It’s tempting to say that the rest of the film shows an equal lack of subtlety when it comes to achieving its objectives, but the problem is it’s often not quite clear exactly what those objectives are. A story certainly unfolds, but is it meant to be a romantic adventure, or have comic overtones, or be tense and gritty? Nobody involved seems to know or really seems that bothered. The result is a film which for the most part only very occasionally lingers in the memory, and for the wrong reasons.

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Sometimes you hear talk of ‘the imperial phase’, that period of a career or ongoing project where everything is unassailably perfect, invincible, glorious to look upon, breathtaking to consider – pop groups have them, TV series, football teams, even individuals. They seldom last more than a year or so, and the return to the realms of mundane normality is often abrupt and embarrassingly graceless. One minute you’re conquering the world, the next you’re being whipped 5-0 at home to an unseeded team. One minute you’re making The Trouble with Tribbles, then not long after you’re filming Spock’s Brain. And, if you’re Alfred Hitchcock, you can be rewriting the cinema rulebook with Psycho and The Birds, and then only a couple of films later be troubling the world with a project like Topaz.

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This is one of the most obscure of Hitchcock’s later films, and – I am irresistibly tempted to say – deservedly so. Released in 1969, it is an espionage thriller drawn from a based-on-true-events novel by Leon Uris. Hitchcock doing a spy thriller? No obvious cause for alarm there. Hitchcock adapting a book? Well, Psycho started off as a novel, too. But something has gone wrenchingly adrift here.

After opening with jolly scenes of the May Day parade in Moscow, the setting switches to Copenhagen in 1962, where a top Soviet agent defects to the US. Handling the case is CIA man Nordstrom (John Forsythe), who discovers that the USSR is in the process of supplying its allies in Cuba with nuclear weapons, a severe threat to American security. Ooh, those Russians!

So, naturally – and this is perhaps the first sign that this is a film made when a totally different sensibility ruled – the CIA recruit a Frenchman to assist them. He is Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), and he is essentially the protagonist of the movie. The rest of the first act of the film concerns Devereaux’s sneaky attempts to get hold of photos of documents confirming what’s going on in Cuba, an undertaking where most of the risk falls on the agents he employs, principally one played by Roscoe Lee Browne.

So far we’ve seen Forsythe, Stafford, and Browne all effectively take the lead, and the effect is somewhat distancing. Which one of these guys is really the hero? Is this just going to be one of those reportage-style films without a central character? Some degree of conventionality is restored as Devereaux jets off to Cuba to try and get photos of the actual missiles (getting other people to take photos of things seems to be his spy speciality). His chief adversary in his mission is fanatical Communist Parras (John Vernon, who seems mainly to have been cast because he’s terrifically good at brooding behind a Castro beard), but matters are complicated by the fact that Devereaux shares the same mistress as Parras (he really is the most incredibly French man in movie history).

Things resolve themselves in a manner which is notably melodramatic and lacking in tension, and Devereaux heads back to the USA, where – a long way into a film which is not notably in a hurry to go about its business – he learns of the existence of Topaz, a Soviet spy ring inside French intelligence itself. And so… zzzzzzzzzzz….

I’m sorry, but despite having watched this film with the Wikipedia synopsis open in front of me at the time, I still found it almost impenetrably dull to watch and difficult to follow, especially in the concluding act. My researches (all right, Wikipedia again) have revealed that such were the scripting travails of this movie that it was basically being written as it went along at some points, an almost experimental way of working more commonly associated with the outer fringes of the avant garde (or a Steven Seagal DTV movie) than a major studio movie.

Just coming up with a coherent movie under these circumstances can be a challenge so I suppose Hitch is to be applauded for coming up with something which hangs together as much as it does. On the reflection the main issue with Topaz is not that it is particularly hard to follow, just that it is very, very tedious, so much so that it doesn’t really feel like following the plot is worth the effort.

The reasons for this are numerous. There is a rambling, very nearly disjointed plot, a hero who does very little you could actually call heroic, and an almost total lack of set pieces of action, tension or suspense. Hitchcock’s original cut ended with a duel between the hero and villain, but this was apparently considered overlong and discarded in favour of a much more matter-of-fact conclusion in which the bad guy just jets off into Russian exile… and apparently even this only features in certain versions of the film, in others he commits suicide off-screen (the money had run out).

But above all, to a modern viewer Topaz feels extremely dated in a way that the great Hitchcock movies don’t. I suppose the background to the Cuban missile crisis still has potential for traction with a modern audience, but the film only really touches on this before turning into something about the internal affairs of French intelligence. It’s just that the style of the thing is so staid and conservative, the characters so drab and unengaging. This is a movie made the same year as Easy Rider, but it looks like something ten or fifteen years older. There are evil Communists. Every Frenchman has a mistress or two tucked away somewhere. People travel around in open-topped cars by the miracle of back-projection. As a sealed bubble of yesterday, it takes some beating, and more effort to really break into than I found myself able to make as a casual viewer.

There are, I suppose, more problematic Hitchcock movies in terms of their tone and content, and possibly technically worse ones – not that I can think of any off-hand, though. But in the end the biggest problem with Topaz is simply that it is very low in wit, tension, warmth, or humour – in short, it is by far the least entertaining Hitchcock film I can remember seeing. One for completists only.

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Sometimes you can learn everything you need to know about a movie from the first five minutes or so. Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy opens with a grand helicopter shot of postcard London, slowly moving up the Thames as the camera descends. Stately music plays; it’s almost as if this film is going to be a co-production with the London tourist board. Then the plot gets underway, as a press conference on the embankment of the Thames is disrupted by the appearance of the naked body of a garrotted young woman, floating in the river, and suddenly the film’s credentials as tourist-enticement material start to look a little more shaky.

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For, yes, there is a serial killer on the loose (although this film was made before the expression had entered the general lexicon), known as the Necktie Killer for his preferred ligature. The police are, predictably, baffled. Indifferent to it all is struggling ex-airman Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who’s drifting from job to job and essentially living from hand to mouth. This means he is in a pretty much permanent strop, and the fact his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is making a great success of her dating agency doesn’t help much.

Blaney’s friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) does his best to cheer him up, but this doesn’t really have much effect, so Rusk goes back to dividing his time between running his fruit stall in Covent Garden and strangling women (yes, Rusk is the Necktie Killer, and no, this honestly doesn’t constitute a spoiler, I promise). But when Rusk indulges his little hobby on the person of the former Mrs Blaney, it puts Blaney in a bit of a spot: his reputation as an untrustworthy drifter and all-around sod, not to mention the fact that he was spotted near the murder scene immediately after the killing, mean that the police are taking a very great interest in his movements, and the likelihood of his being able to prove his innocence is very slight…

Frenzy was released in 1972, when a succession of underperforming films had taken the shine off Hitchcock’s reputation. This may be why this film feels more like a British film of that period than one of the big US studio productions Hitchcock was best known for. Certainly the film is peppered with what I’d call British TV faces like Bernard Cribbins, Clive Swift and Jean Marsh (not that these performers didn’t also have film careers, of course), and the milieu of a sleazy, grey and slightly decaying London is also indistinguishable from that of other genre films from this time like Theatre of Blood and Dracula AD 1972.

Perhaps this is why Frenzy feels like more of an exploitation film than any of Hitchcock’s best work. By this time the restrictions of censorship had loosened somewhat, and one definitely gets a sense of Hitchcock’s darker side being let off the leash, not necessarily to the benefit of the film. There’s a lot of quite casual nudity in this film, and – in perhaps a key sequence – an uncomfortably lingering depiction of a rape and murder. Not a great deal is left to the imagination, and Hitch provides helpful close-ups, too. You could argue, I suppose, that taking this kind of subject matter seriously requires you to deal with it unflinchingly and without coyness, but the problem with Frenzy is that it clearly doesn’t seem to be taking it especially seriously.

Early on, for example, there’s a conversation between two walk-on characters discussing the murders, and one makes a comment to the effect that the women are raped first, so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. (His friend goes on to observe that a string of sex murders will at least be good for the tourist trade.) Many Hitchcock movies have a nice line in black comedy, but for me this crosses the line into simple nastiness. Even when he’s not wheeling on the rape jokes, Hitchcock seems to be playing many scenes for laughs – there’s a running gag where the chief detective on the case (Alec McCowan) has to contend with his wife’s awful, overambitious cooking – and the clash between subject matter and tone is incredibly jarring. There’s even an extraordinary extended sequence where Rusk has to grapple with the corpse of a victim in the back of a moving lorry in order to retrieve some incriminating evidence, and this is presented as a kind of black slapstick.

So Frenzy is not an easy film to warm to. Things are not much helped by the fact that the putative hero of the piece, Blaney, is a bit of a sod himself. He is bitter, he is angry, he is unpleasant and insensitive to almost everyone around him: I half suspect the reason why Hitchcock reveals Rusk to be the killer so early on is to make it absolutely clear that it isn’t Blaney, because he certainly seems like vicious psychopath material. Two women he is involved with are killed in the course of the film and he displays no compassion or grief worth mentioning, just concern for his own wellbeing. The perspective of this movie is an exclusively male one, and in an ugly sort of way.

For its first couple of acts this is a solid, if somewhat unpalatable thriller, but unfortunately the climax shows signs of coming completely unravelled: there are various unlikely developments, including significant time jumps, key story points being completely forgotten about, and major characters deciding to do things for no reason other than the plot demanding it. The resolution of the story is not completely satisfying, either, but to say more really would constitute a spoiler.

I’ve been mainly negative about Frenzy so far – it’s not just that the subject matter is distasteful, but the way in which Hitchcock chooses to handle it is problematic too, both in terms of the comedy and its sheer old-fashionedness – but this wouldn’t be a Hitchcock movie if there wasn’t at least one moment of sheer directorial sorcery involved. Despite everything that I’ve said, Frenzy is actually pretty engaging as a narrative, and one of the problems is that Hitchcock doesn’t just try to play parts of it for laughs, he genuinely succeeds. But there’s also an extraordinary moment when the camera follows Rusk and a blithely-unaware young woman up the stairs to the door of his flat, where he’s offered to let her stay. We know what is on the cards and are perhaps bracing ourselves for another grisly sequence – but as the door closes behind them the camera very slowly and very gently goes into reverse, retreating back down the stairs and out into the busy street. Hitchcock suggests absolute horrors by showing nothing of the sort, with the further implication that anything could be going on behind closed doors in a busy city. It is the genuine master’s touch and one can only regret he didn’t use it more on this film.

There is apparently a body of opinion that Frenzy is the last great Hitchcock movie. For me it has a few moments of greatness, but overall it’s too problematic and nasty to really qualify as that. It is obviously intended as nothing more or less than a jolly piece of entertainment: and how much it succeeds depends on how entertaining you find violent sex crimes and their aftermath. Proficient, but misjudged.

 

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I am so used to finding myself completely out of step with the rest of the world that it comes as a bit of a shock on those occasions when it turns out my reactions and opinions are squarely in line with those of the majority. Then again, I suppose one of the definitions of a truly great film (or an utterly worthless one) is that it can produce the same response in everyone who watches it.

I was in my late teens and just in the process of becoming a film and TV bore when I made the acquaintance of a guy who was several steps further along than me. The rooms of his house were lined with tapes (this was over twenty years ago); tapes of The New Avengers and Doctor Who (he also had virtually a complete set of matches from Italia ’90 recorded, which just shows you never can tell), but also – and more pertinently for our current line of thought – most of the Hitchcock centenary tribute season one of the major UK TV channels had broadcast a while earlier. I was getting to the point where I thought I knew my Hitchcock, and ever-mindful of gaps in my education I borrowed the 1958 movie Vertigo off him.

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By this point I had already seen Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. The film has, somewhat atypically for Hitchcock, an in media res opening, with detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) in hot pursuit of a bad guy over the rooftops of San Francisco. But Ferguson slips and is left hanging by his fingertips over a multi-storey drop, and a fellow cop is killed trying to rescue him.

This event understandably leads to Ferguson developing a crippling fear of heights and quitting the police force. Finding himself at a loose end, he is retained by old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who has an odd and slightly delicate problem. His wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting very strangely, visiting the former home of one of her ancestors and spending hours staring at her portrait. Elster is concerned about all this, half-fearing some kind of malevolent possession is in progress, and wants Ferguson to follow her and find out exactly what’s going on.

Initially dubious, Ferguson takes the job and almost at once finds himself struck by the beauty of his old friend’s wife, not to mention how strangely enigmatic she is. Can she really be genuinely haunted by a ghost which is driving her to take her own life? Averting an attempted suicide forces him to make her acquaintance, and now he finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved with this troubled woman. But is there any hope for her? Or, come to that, him…?

Well, I sat down to watch Vertigo all those years ago, really expecting another smart, sharp, clever entertainment of the kind Hitchcock is renowned for, and ended up feeling… well, really rather baffled. This is not your typical Alfred Hitchcock movie. To be honest, it’s a difficult film to describe, especially if you don’t want to totally deconstruct (and thus spoil) the plot.

For one thing, the principal cast – certainly in terms of the characters who appear in more than two or three scenes – is tiny: just Stewart, Novak, Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s pal. Even then, most of the film is composed of scenes between Stewart and Novak. This isn’t to say that the plot is simple – well, maybe it is simple; it’s certainly not complex or fast-paced, but if so it is fiendishly simple, containing multiple layers of subtlety and sophistication, some of which aren’t readily apparent on first viewing. There is arguably a sense in which the story makes some pretty big asks of the audience, and there are certainly a few more loose ends than you’d expect from a Hitchcock film, but then it seems to me that this is not a plot-driven film but a character piece.

If so, then it’s a character piece masquerading as a psychological thriller pretending to be a Gothic melodrama. Hitchcock’s intention to make the audience identify with Stewart’s character works on numerous levels – there’s the simple technical sense, in which Stewart’s in nearly every scene and we frequently see events from his point of view, but also on a wider narrative level: just as Ferguson is ultimately the victim of a put-up job, so to some extent is the audience, because the film we think we’re watching isn’t the film we think it is.

Hitchcock famously messed with audience expectations in Psycho, but it’s hard not to see that same intention in the structure of Vertigo, too. There’s a major plot reversal in the middle of the film that appears to go against every tenet of conventional storytelling, and it’s completely wrong-footing: you have no idea how the story is going to proceed from this point on. Any pretence at being a conventional thriller is certainly abandoned and the film becomes a rather bleak drama about all-consuming obsession and the horrible things that love can drive people to do to their lovers.

Here is where the real sophistication of the plotting comes in: quite naturally, as the film shows it, what entails is a situation where – on a thematic level – the ‘fake’ plot of the first part of the film, with a living person consumed by a shade from the past, is replayed for real. The brilliance of the script comes from the fact that the living person and the shade are both in fact the same individual. Vertigo poses some serious questions about identity, certainly when it comes to relationships – is it even possible for someone to impersonate him or herself? To what extent do we actually fall in love with with real people, rather than just our idealised images of them? Can love survive complete truth and honesty?

Pretty heavy stuff, and not leavened by any laughs, either. One of the many remarkable feats of the third act of Vertigo is that a scene which should feel clunky and melodramatic, and rather intrusive, is actually the turning point of the entire movie. Stewart departs the movie for a few minutes, leaving the stage clear for another character to actually deliver a monologue explaining the plot and how Ferguson (and the audience) have been misled by the villain, such as he is. It really shouldn’t work, but not only does it generate the suspense and pathos leading up to the climax, it effectively shifts the audience’s sympathies: Stewart actually becomes rather creepy and unsettling in his pursuit of his lost love (or at least her image), while a character who should have no call on the audience’s affection becomes engagingly vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s consummate storytelling sleight of hand, and I’ve no idea quite how Hitchcock managed it.

That said, most of the time in Vertigo one gets a sense of stuff going on that one isn’t entirely aware of. Hitchcock and the cinematographer are clearly doing something with Novak and the colours red and green: she’s frequently dressed in one or other of them or surrounded by it in the set dressing, but if there’s some kind of code going on here I haven’t been able to decipher it. All those scenes in the first half of the film of, basically, Stewart following Novak around San Francisco, too: they seem rather repetitive and slow but presumably the director is slowly and incrementally building our association with Stewart, and the idea of his obsession with Novak.

Vertigo is quite a long film, and not really a conventionally entertaining one: no-one in it ever seems particularly happy, not for more than a few seconds, at least. But it really does have that mesmerising, dreamlike quality so often ascribed to it: or perhaps, in the circumstances, not dreamlike but nightmarish. The opening titles of the film do a good job of conveying what’s to follow – Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score plays over Saul Bass’s spinning, multicoloured vortices, which we initially access through Kim Novak’s eye. The message is that this is going to be an internal, psychological film, about loss of perspective and loss of control. And it is.

Vertigo baffled the critics in 1958 just as much as it did me thirty-something years later, but its critical reputation has recovered now to the point where it has displaced Citizen Kane as Best Movie Ever (Ever) on at least one list. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m still not sure I would chose it over one of Hitchcock’s more conventional entertainments, but this is an extraordinary film in many ways: it confounds expectations at every turn while still being completely magnetic to watch, if never entirely comfortable.

 

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I am, all things considered, reasonably happy with this here blog which you happen to be reading – it’s not brilliant, but it gives me an outlet and it’s not like I’m charging anyone for the privilege of reading it. One thing it does occur to me that it is short of is Hitchcock, whose name is checked far more often than his films actually appear. Luckily, a welcome revival of Rear Window at the Phoenix has given me the opportunity to start fixing that.

Rear Window was released in 1954 and was Alfred Hitchcock’s seventeenth Hollywood movie: by this point he was already famous enough to get his name above the title of his own films. This is one of his most celebrated works, and watching it again it isn’t difficult to see why.

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James Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies, an ace photo-journalist coming to the end of a seven-week stretch laid up with a broken leg received in the line of duty. New York is sweltering in a heatwave and the heat and inactivity are driving him up the wall – he is also having committment issues with respect to his lovely girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, long before she turned into Nicole Kidman). Jefferies’ only diversion from this is to look out of the titular window of his apartment and observe the minutiae of the lives of his various neighbours.

At first this seems harmless enough, but then one of them, a bedridden woman, mysteriously disappears, and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins to act a little oddly – trips out of the apartment in the dead of night with a heavy case, strange behaviour with knives and saws, and so on. A suspicion begins to grow in Jefferies’ mind, but how can he find evidence either way, confined to his apartment as he is?

I first saw Rear Window nearly thirty years ago – it must have been my first Hitchcock – and I was initially rather unenthusiastic about the prospect. I wanted to watch the other side, truth be told, and it was only my father’s insistence that we watch it just for a bit, together with the tiny size of the static caravan we were holidaying in at the time, that resulted in me giving the film any of my time.

Probably this is because, even back then, Rear Window looks and sounds extremely dated – the colour stock is unlike anything used today, it’s primarily just people talking in one room, and it’s obviously studio-bound. These days I am wise enough to understand that increasing age doesn’t necessarily equate with declining quality, and that many of the things that appear to count against Rear Window are actually at the heart of what makes it such a great movie.

To dismiss it as studio-bound is to completely overlook the merits of the vast, elaborate set on which the story takes place – it may not be completely naturalistic, but then this is a fairly tall story in the first place. And it’s the limitations of the story which make it special: for most of the film the only real speaking parts are Stewart, Kelly, Thelma Ritter as Stewart’s nurse, and Wendell Corey as his detective buddy: everyone else only appears as characters observed from a distance by Stewart.

You can see the appeal of this story for Hitchcock, even if only as a simple formal challenge – there’s the limited roll of characters, the fact it’s all grounded in a single room, and so on. But above it was surely the potential for directorial sorcery that lured him to this tale – the audience is practically compelled to identify with Jefferies, viewing his neighbours as he does, and reliant on the nuances of Stewart’s performance for clues as to how to respond to them. It is a masterclass in the principles of direction and editing and you can’t help but be drawn in. This is even with a surprisingly slow start: most of the first act is preoccupied with setting up the story and characters in an extremely leisurely way, most of the scenes concerned with Jefferies’ situation and his inability to make up his mind about Lisa.

But the tension slowly ratchets up, until the climax, when – well, look, I still clearly recall being absolutely speared into my seat, frantic with alarm, during the climax of this film, all those years ago: Jefferies is trapped in his apartment, seemingly helpless, with a killer on his way to try and silence him. It’s the biggest of several electrifying moments throughout the film, and Hitch springs them on you seemingly out of nowhere.

Rear Window works so well as a smart, witty thriller – like many Hitchcock films, it’s much funnier than you might expect – that it almost seems superfluous to try and mine it for any deeper concerns – we’re dealing with a master entertainer above all else here. However, there are perhaps the faintest glimmers of subtext about the nature of urban living. When you live on top of dozens of other people – quite literally so in some cases – your natural instinct is to mind your own business and close yourself off, overlooking what could be quite obvious signs of things going amiss. It’s only Stewart, the spy, the voyeur, who picks up on the clues, and even he seems unsure of the morality of his actions – is it justifiable to intrude on someone’s privacy, even in the name of justice? The film seems to suggest that it is, and also that people look out for one another more – but this remains a complex issue that has become perhaps even more important in the sixty years since this film was made.

It is first and foremost a supremely entertaining thriller, though, winningly played by Stewart, Kelly, and the others, and flawlessly directed. They don’t make them like this any more – but then again, you could probably argue that they only ever made one like this at all.

 

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A couple of years ago I signed up for an online course on narrative structure and plotting, with the idea of redrafting the results of my most recent dabbling with NaNoWriMo. Well, needless to say it was not a great success; the successful and published author running the thing tore it to pieces, thought all the things which I liked and made it distinctive were horribly ill-conceived, and basically assured me it was No Good. I haven’t written any substantial fiction since, to be honest, because what I came away with was a deep sense that I do not have any affinity for narrative structure.

We discussed this (narrative structure, not my own hopelessness) now-and-then on the course and one of the stories which came up fairly often was the movie version of Psycho, directed (but of course) by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960. One of the things this film is notorious for is the way in which it cheerfully takes a knife to many of the established tenets of narrative form – it’ll be quite hard to talk about this in detail without spoiling the plot, but surely everyone knows more-or-less what Psycho is about by now, don’t they?

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Janet Leigh (the only performer to appear in three films on the AFI’s Hundred Best Movies list, and also Night of the Lepus) plays Marion Crane, a Phoenix office worker who is unhappy with her lot in life. All her pleasure comes from her illicit liaison with a small-time businessman from California, and they can’t marry due to his sizeable debts. However, when unusual events at work leave her momentarily holding $40,000 of someone else’s money, she thinks she spies an opportunity to make a change in her life, and hits the road with her ill-gotten gains…

It is perhaps indicative of what makes Psycho so unusual that one can summarise the opening twenty or thirty minutes of plot in considerable detail without really giving away what the film is actually about. Certainly, this was one of the things that my structure tutor took grave exception to – a competently-shaped narrative indicates from the very beginning exactly what kind of story it is going to be, thus setting up audience expectations. (A good example of this would be the opening of Predator, which opens with a shot of a spacecraft approaching Earth before launching into what looks like a straightforward jungle action movie.) It occurs to me this is very similar to the concept of musical key – the first note played establishing the parameters of everything that is to follow.

If we’re going to stick with this musical metaphor, then Psycho is an unbalanced, atonal work, because what initially looks like it’s going to be some sort of torrid melodrama suddenly transforms into a vicious horror movie with virtually no warning being given (although the fact that Leigh, the apparent protagonist, has the ‘and’ slot in the credits  could be construed as giving the game away). The transition has the potential to be joltingly odd and alienating for the audience, especially as it accompanies a shift in the focus of the film from one character being central to another, and it’s a mark of Hitchcock’s skill that this is as deftly handled as it is.

And this is not a transition which is derived from Robert Bloch’s original novel, either, which is fascinatingly different from the film in many ways. Most notably, it adheres much more closely to the ‘establishing key’ theory that my tutor was so fond of – Norman Bates and his mother appear in the opening chapters of the book, much earlier than they do in the movie (although this is partly due to the nature of film as a medium: showing us a scene from Norman’s point of view gives Bloch many more options for misdirection than is the case in a more objective movie scene). The novel is also much more upfront about being a horror story, with the viewer being invited to assume at one point that Mother is actually some sort of undead creature conjured up by Norman (more misdirection by the author, though I suppose on some level it’s symbolically true).

Psycho‘s weirdness goes beyond this, of course, partly tying into the darker aspects of the storyline – the two most fully-developed, arguably most sympathetic characters are both morally highly suspect, while the putative ‘good guys’, Sam and Lila, are almost minor characters, scarcely more than two-dimensional figures. The degree to which the film invites you to identify with the dark side is significant: Norman is a voyeur, and so implicitly is Hitchcock’s camera, from the opening where it lazily swoops over downtown Phoenix until finally selecting a window through which to peer.

Hitchcock’s skill is, of course, consummate, but also essential to the success of the undertaking is Bernard Herrmann’s score – not just the manic strings underscoring the title sequence and recurring throughout the early section of the film, but the slower, more ominous cues later on. Is it perfect? Well, certainly not to a modern audience – at the screening I recently attended there was some sniggering at a key revelation during the climax, and a lot of amusement at the rather talky closing scene where Simon Oakland comes on and theatrically explains to the audience just what’s been happening.

However, the success of this film is, of course, considerable – both financially and in terms of its influence. None of the various sequels and remakes are particularly distinguished, to be true, but the film itself is genuinely iconic in terms of both its visuals – the brooding Bates house, for example – and specific sequences – most obviously the plumbing-based interlude. It’s possible that its artistic success may in fact be due to the fact it plays fast and loose with traditional structure, thus alienating and unsettling the audience, and if so then this can only work because Psycho is, at heart, essentially a horror movie, where this is the intended effect. The fact that it’s the great horror movie that no-one really thinks of as a horror movie says more about sniffy attitudes to the genre than Psycho itself.

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