Category: Hitchcock movies


THE 39 STEPS (1935) – Gaumont British – ★★★★★

B&W – 86 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret Crofter), John Laurie (John Crofter), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).

Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles

Edited by Derek N. Twist

Music by Jack Beaver and Louis Levy

The picaresque steps:  As Alfred Hitchcock himself described The 39 Steps it is a “film of episodes.”  He and Charles Bennett constructed a picaresque narrative, with a reluctant hero moving from one scene and one locale to the next, getting into (and out of) scrape after scrape, until the climax.  The influence of this film on Hitchcock’s later works cannot be overstated.  Without this film, there is no Foreign Correspondent, no Saboteur, and certainly no North by Northwest.  So let’s look at this film in the same manner in which it was constructed:  one episode at a time.

Step one, The Music Hall:  Hitchcock opens with a close up pan of a neon sign that says “MUSIC HALL.”   (Neon signs feature in several early Hitchcock movies.)  We are introduced to our hero through a series of shots that show him only from the back.  His light brown coat serves as a marker as he purchases a ticket, enters and finds a seat.   The house band begins to play, and on stage comes Mr. Memory, a man who memorizes 50 facts a day, and never forgets one.  Various patrons begin to ask questions.  The overall tone of this opening is light and humorous.  Finally, our hero asks a question.  Look at the framing of this shot:

Whose pov is this?  We are standing behind Mr. Memory, looking over his shoulder as it were.  But look at the perfect framing of Robert Donat (in the role of Richard Hannay).  He sits up a bit taller than those around him, the light reflects on his face;  Hitchcock made sure our eye would automatically be drawn to him.  Hannay’s question (How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?) establishes that he is from Canada.   Shortly the humorous tone takes a turn as shots are fired, and the packed music hall empties into the street.  Hannay is pressed together with a woman with a vaguely Germanic accent, who asks if she can come home with Hannay.   Certainly we are meant to suspect that she is a prostitute?  Rather bold, for a mid 1930’s film.

Step Two, Hannay’s Apartment:  Once inside Hannay’s flat, we discover that this foreign woman’s motives are very different than those we at first suspected.   She tells Hannay that her name is Annabella Smith, clearly a false name.  Annabella (played by Lucie Mannheim) asks Hannay if he’s ever heard of the 39 Steps, then tells Hannay a fantastic story:  she fired the shots in the theater, she is an agent trying to protect a British military secret from falling into the hands of spies, two of those spies were in the music hall, and are outside Hannay’s apartment right this minute.  The leader of these spies is a man missing the first joint of his little finger.  At first Hannay is incredulous, but upon seeing two men standing under a streetlight, he begins to wonder.  He agrees to let Annabella spend the night, giving her his bed while he takes the couch.   We then get this fantastic shot:

This shot is unlike any other in the film.  It shows the German expressionist influence on Hitchcock.  The play of light and shadow is wonderful, as well as the way the statue appears to be pointing at the open window and billowing curtains,  announcing to the audience that someone else has entered the apartment, there is trouble brewing.  Annabella wakes up Hannay, warning him to get out, then falls over him with a knife plunged in her back.  Clutched in her hand is a map of Scotland with the village of Alt-Na-Shellac circled.  So the spies broke into the house, stabbed her in the back, and yet left Hannay alive?  We don’t have time to question this in the moment, the narrative moves far too swiftly.

Step three, the milkman:  Hannay is unable to leave his building, because the two spies are waiting outside.  When the milkman comes in, he convinces him to switch clothing, and leaves in the milkman’s coat and hat.  Interestingly, Hannay tries to tell the milkman the truth, but he doesn’t buy this story of spies and a murdered woman.  Only when Hannay tells a lie, about seeing a married woman, does the milkman take him at his word.  This will not be the last time that Hannay has to lie to be believed.

Step four, the train:  The next sequence has one of the most clever (and most copied) editorial cuts in Hitchcock’s career.  We see Hannay’s cleaning lady opening his flat, seeing the murdered woman, and turning to scream.  She opens her mouth, and out comes the screech of a train whistle.  Then we cut to the visual of the train.  Hannay is on board the train, heading up to Scotland to the village that Annabella had circled on the map.  He is a wanted man, believed to be guilty of killing the woman found in his flat.  There is a humorous section here involving the men that he shares a carriage with, who are reading a newspaper that details the murder of Annabella, and the hunt for Hannay.  The police eventually find him on the train, and he flees, into the carriage of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).  He tells her his story and begs for help.

When Hitchcock had Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet on a train in North by Northwest 25 years later, under similar circumstances, it was a meet cute.  There is nothing cute about the way Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll meet.  She believes him guilty, and immediately turns him over to the police.  Once again he makes an escape, hiding on the Forth Bridge as seen in this shot.

Step five, the Crofter’s cottage:  The next sequence is so well structured and acted, it is almost like a mini-movie right in the middle of the longer movie.   Richard Hannay comes to a crofter’s cottage, and learns that there is a new Englishman, “a kind of professor” living in Alt-Na-Shellac.  It’s too late in the day to walk the 14 miles, so the crofter agrees to put him up for the night, for a fee.  Hannay meets the crofter’s wife, at first mistaking her for a daughter.   The young wife is taken with Hannay.  He is attractive, charming, and he’s been to London, which might as well be another planet to this girl.   As she prepares the supper, he glances at the paper, and sees yet another article about the manhunt for himself, the supposed killer of Annabella.  Seeing him glance at it, the young woman realizes who this dashing man really is.  This leads to some very urgent glances between the two at supper, which do not go unnoticed by her husband.  He, of course, thinks these glances mean something else entirely.  Later, when the wife sneaks out of bed to help Hannay escape, the husband confronts them, believing it is the beginning of an amorous tryst.  As Hannay declares his innocence, Hitchcock has this interesting shot composition.

The characters are seen through a chair, much like the bars of a prison.  As the police arrive at the front door, the wife helps Hannay escape out the back door, giving him Crofter’s dark coat to wear.  So rich this little tale, so honest the characters, Hitchcock could have made an entire movie out of this episode.

Step six, the “Professor’s” house:  Hannay next goes to the house of the “Professor”, the man he believes Annabelle was going to visit in Scotland.  The Professor lives on a lovely estate, and is hosting a small gathering.  Hannay is welcomed into the group.  A very nice, and subtle touch here, is to watch how many hands featured in the scene.  Keeping in mind that the leader of the evil spies is missing half a finger.  Hands enter and exit the frame rapidly, shaking Hannay’s hand, handing him a cigarette, a drink, offering a light.  A subtle way prepare us for the significance of hands.  Finally the Professor and Hannay are alone, and Hannay discovers that the Professor is not an ally, but the enemy.  Annabella wasn’t coming here to get the Professor’s help, she was coming to thwart him.

The Professor explains that he can’t let Hannay live, and proceeds to shoot him.  He falls down, dead.  Or is he?

Step seven, the lecture hall:  This section is comprised of two short sequences leading into a longer one.  Hannay is in a policeman’s office, showing how the crofter’s book of prayer in the coat pocket stopped the bullet aimed for his heart.  Unfortunately for Hannay, the policeman is another ally of the Professor, leading to another escape, by jumping through a window.  He falls in step with a Salvation Army parade passing by, then slips into an alley and an inviting doorway.  This doorway turns out to be the back of a lecture hall, and Hannay is rushed to the stage.  He quickly realizes that he has been mistaken for the guest speaker!  He begins to speak off the cuff, when who should walk in but Pamela, the woman from the train.  The police also gather in the wings.  His speech becomes more impassioned, and he inspires the crowd to leap to their feet in an excited state, but is pushed into the hands of the waiting police.  Hitchcock would re-use this sequence, the idea of being trapped in a crowded room, in both Saboteur and North by Northwest.

Step eight, the car and the countryside:  The police arrest Hannay for the murder of Annabella, and ask Pamela to come along too, as she saw him on the train.  Only it turns out these policemen are actually more of the Professor’s men.  Hannay and Pamela, handcuffed together, escape with the help of a flock of sheep blocking a bridge.  He forces her to hide under a waterfall, and later they make their escape.  Pamela still believes Hannay is guilty of murder.  This is yet another person that won’t believe Hannay when he tells the truth, but will accept what he says when he lies.

Step nine, the hotel:  Hannay and Pamela end up in a hotel room, and this is where their relationship takes a turn.  We have a humorous (and risque for the 30’s) scene in which Pamela, still handcuffed, removes her stockings, and then they discuss the sleeping arrangements on the bed.

Hannay falls asleep,  and Pamela is able to work her hand out of the cuffs.  She is going to sneak away, but when she opens the door, she sees the two men who had taken them earlier, and realizes through their overheard conversation that Hannay has been speaking the truth.  She goes back to the room, staying with him, sleeping at the foot of the bed. When he wakes up, we see Pamela look at him in a very important close-up shot, which shows us that not only does she believe in him, she also loves him.  Many years later, Hitch will use a similar close-up of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, when he is admiring Grace Kelly for her pluck.  Pamela overheard the two men mentioning the London Palladium, and so off our new couple goes.

Step ten, the Music Hall again:  And so Hitchcock ends where he began, this time in the London Palladium.   Hannay has been whistling a tune for much of the latter half of the movie.  He can’t remember where he heard it, until the band strikes up the same tune at the Palladium.  Of course!  It is the theme of Mr. Memory!  And now it all comes together.  The secret that the spies are after is not on a piece of paper or microfilm.  It is in the mind of Mr. Memory.  The police (real ones, this time) recognize Hannay and try to arrest him, when he shouts out “What are the 39 Steps?” to Mr. Memory on stage.  Being Mr. Memory, he begins to answer and ends up shot.  Hannay convinces Mr. Memory to recite the secret plans that he had remembered, which vindicates Hannay in the eyes of the authorities.

And poor Mr. Memory, after unburdening his mind of the plans he had memorized, slumps down dead.  A sad ending for him, indeed, and a touching, almost Shakespearean moment for a minor character in a thriller.   Some movies might cut to a coda at this point, with Hannay and Pamela locked in each other’s arms.  Such a scene was shot, but Hitchcock was against it.  Although he would use just such a scene at the end of North by Northwest.  This film has a much more tentative, and somehow more poignant, ending. Hannay and Pamela reach their hands out, and clasp each other, ever so gently, Hannay’s still attached handcuff dangling between them.  This is symbolic of the way Hitchcock usually portrayed relationships.  The future is uncertain, and things may get in the way.  Yet they will maintain that clasp, as long as they can.

Performance:  One could make the argument that this is the most perfectly cast movie of Hitchcock’s entire British period.  The only films that come close in this regard are The Lady Vanishes, and possibly The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Robert Donat is the quintessential Hitchcock male lead.  He is seemingly insouciant, and yet doggedly determined when pressed, and he absolutely oozes charm.  Without Donat’s exquisite performance in this movie, we would not have the later performances that we do from Michael Redgrave, Joel McCrea, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and John Forsythe.  Donat created the template for the perfect Hitchcock hero.  Equally good as the leading lady is Madeleine Carroll, who does a wonderful job playing a strong-willed woman who intensely dislikes Donat’s character, then gradually softens as she comes to believe in him.  Godfrey Tearle makes the most of his brief screen time as the antagonist, an early prototype of the kind of sophisticated and debonair bad guy that Hitchcock preferred.  Watch out for a young Peggy Ashcroft in the role of the farmer’s wife.  Ashcroft would go on to have a long and celebrated career on the stage, and would win an Oscar for David Lean’s A Passage to India almost 50 years after she appeared in The 39 Steps.  

Source material:  The original novel, written by John Buchan and published in 1915, is set just before the outset of World War 1.  The movie advances the setting to the time it was made, the mid 30’s.  In the book there is no music hall opening.  Hannay is accosted by a man who says he is a spy, and claims to be following a ring of German spies who are out to steal Britain’s plans for war.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to change this character to a woman.  The episode of Hannay escaping his building in the milkman’s uniform is present in the book, as is his journey to Scotland, and a night spent in a shepherd’s cottage, minus the young lovelorn wife.  Also absent from the book is any love interest for Hannay.  In the book, the 39 steps are actual steps, down which the German spies will go to rendezvous with a ship off the coast.  The overall picaresque structure, and the concept of the double chase are intact in both book and film.  While the book is engaging, the movie actually has a better structured plot.  The book also suffers from its lack of female characters.  Even author John Buchan told Hitchcock that giving Hannay a love interest in the film was an improvement over the novel.

This novel was very popular in Britain, and ultimately around the world, resulting in four more books being penned by Buchan which featured Richard Hannay as protagonist.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in this one, at around the 6:50 mark.  As Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim are preparing to board the bus that is pulling up, Hitch crosses from left to right, in the foreground, casually littering as he passes!

Recurring players:  Starring actress Madeleine Carroll would appear in Secret Agent a year after this film.  John Laurie had earlier appeared in Juno and the Paycock.  Helen Haye (not to be mistaken with Helen Hayes) and Ivor Barnard had been in The Skin Game.   Wylie Watson, the memorable Mr. Memory, would later have a small part in Jamaica Inn.  Gus McNaughton had an earlier uncredited role in Murder!  Jerry Verno and Peggy Simpson would later appear in Young and Innocent.  James Knight had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Miles Malleson would appear 15 years later in Stage Fright.  Frederick Piper, who played the milkman, also had bit parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  And S.J. Warmington had bit parts in Murder! The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Sabotage.

What Hitch said:  In his conversations with Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock was clearly proud of his work on this film.  He said “Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps…What I find appealing in Buchan’s work is his understatement of highly dramatic ideas…Understatement is important to meI worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue.  I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes…I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself…What I like in The Thirty-nine Steps are the swift transitions…The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement.  It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.  You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 Criterion Collection blu-ray has the nicest print of the film currently available.   Included along with the film are a commentary track by scholar Marian Keane, a British documentary titled Hitchcock:  The Early Years which covers Hitch’s British period, footage from a 1966 Mike Scott television interview of Alfred Hitchcock, a visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theater broadcast version, excerpts from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews, and original production design drawings.

DOWNHILL (1927) – Gainsborough Pictures – ★★

B&W – Silent – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ivor Novello (Roddy Berwick), Robin Irvine (Tim Wakely), Isabel Jeans (Julia Fotheringale), Norman McKinnel (Sir Thomas Berwick), Lillian Braithwaite (Lady Berwick).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard based on the play by Constance Collier and Ivor Novello

Cinematography by Claude L. McDonnell

Edited by Ivor Montagu and Lionel Rich

The follow-up to Hitch’s first hit:  Downhill was Alfred Hitchcock’s follow-up to The Lodger, which was Hitchcock’s third directorial effort, and first box office hit.  This follow-up is very different in subject matter and tone.  The story is divided into three sections.  In the first, “the world of youth”, we are introduced to two college companions, Roddy Berwick (played by matinee idol Ivor Novello) and Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine).  Roddy is on top of the world.  He is a good student, a star player for the school rugby team, and comes from a wealthy family.  His friend Tim is at school on scholarship.  We see the two friends at play, and soon we are introduced to Tim’s girlfriend.  Shortly after this, the two boys are summoned to the headmaster’s office.  There, Tim’s girlfriend alleges that Roddy has taken advantage of her.  It is never spelled out, but the implication is that she is pregnant, and that Roddy is the father.  Tim is the true father, but she accuses Roddy because she knows he comes from wealth.  Rather than speak the truth, Roddy takes the blame for his friend.  He is then kicked out of school, and kicked out his home.

The second section “the world of make believe” finds Roddy a chorus line actor in a music hall.  He becomes smitten by the lead actress, who is currently dating her co-star.  She is amused by his attention, but does nothing about it.  Shortly after this, Roddy inherits some money from an aunt, and upon hearing this the actress leaves the man she is with, to be with Roddy.   They end up getting married, and she shortly spends every last penny of his inheritance, while seeing her old beau on the side the whole time.  He gets kicked out of his own house, because he signed it over to her!

In the final section “the world of lost illusions”, Roddy is in Paris, dancing with unpartnered women.  He is essentially a gigolo, and his lady boss encourages him to do more than just dance with the women.  Ultimately he is sick, upon the verge of death, and ends up back in England.  He returns home, only to be welcomed by his parents.  He even gets to play in the school rugby game.

If the story sounds trite, that’s because it is.  This movie has many problems, chief among them the overlong running time.   One hour and 45 minutes is a bit much for a silent melodrama.  It is also hard to feel any real sympathy for Roddy.  Is it admirable for him to keep his mouth shut when he is accused of doing something he didn’t?  It costs him everything he has.  And later, when he throws all his money away on the actress, we can all see she is only interested in the cash.  Why can’t he? The only thing that makes this movie worthy of at least one viewing is to watch Hitchcock continue to grow in confidence and skill as a filmmaker.

 

The Hitchcock touch continues:  While the story is not great, there are many wonderful visual touches.  In the first section, when Roddy is called to the school headmaster’s office, there is a great POV tracking shot, as Roddy slowly approaches the older man’s desk.  It feels as if he is slowly, inexorably moving to meet his fate.  We don’t even know why he has  been called in, but the camera work fills us with a sense of dread.

The second section of the film begins with a wonderful touch, where Hitchcock subverts our expectations.  We first see Roddy serving a couple at a table, leading us to believe he is a waiter.  When the couple leaves the table, the woman forgets her cigarette case, which Roddy quickly pockets.  Oh no, so he’a a thief too.  The as the camera pulls back farther, we see that all this action has taken place on a stage, and he in an actor.

The last section also has a wonderful visual touch.  Hitchcock describes it this way:  “I showed a woman seducing a younger man.  She is a lady of a certain age, but very elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak.  Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face.  In that moment she looks dreadful.”    Finally, when Roddy is on a boat returning him to England, he is delirious, and has visions of all the women who have taken advantage of him, sitting together, laughing at him.   Hitchcock shoots Roddy’s visions as if they were real, not with blurred or fading images as would normally be done to indicate we are watching a hallucination.

There are also many visual cues that highlight the film’s title.  We see Roddy going down stairs and down escalators.   Hitchcock called this “…another naive touch that I wouldn’t do today.”

One of many visual representations of the film’s title.

 

Source material:  Eliot Stannard’s screenplay is based upon a stage play co-written by Constance Collier and the film’s star Ivor Novello, under the combined pseudonym David L’Estrange.  I have been unable to find a copy of the play in any form, for purposes of comparison.  There aren’t even that many references to the play at all, other than that it provided the source material for the movie.  I was beginning to doubt this play was ever written, let alone performed, but I was finally able to confirm that it debuted at the Queens Theatre in London on June 16, 1926.  Hitchcock does say of it that “…it was done as a series of sketches.  It was a rather poor play.”  Constance Collier would appear in Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope as Mrs. Atwater.

Performance:  It is hard to judge these performances, when the standards of acting were different in the silent era.  Ivor Novello was too earnest, and far too old be playing a college student.  The other performances are all adequate, considering the material.

Recurring players:  Ivor Novello had just starred in The Lodger.  Robin Irvine would next appear in Easy Virtue,  Isabel Jeans would also be in Easy Virtue and Suspicion, Ian Hunter would also be in both The Ring and Easy Virtue, Violet Farebrother would later be in Easy Virtue and Murder! Ben Webster would later have an uncredited part in Suspicion, Hannah Jones would later appear in Champagne, Blackmail, Murder! and Rich and Strange.

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t.  Hitchcock made only a couple of cameos in his silent films, it was not yet a tradition this early in his career.

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the course of his life.  The discussion of Downhill in the Truffaut book is less than one page in length.  He described a couple scenes that he was proud of (see above) and then moved on.

Definitive edition:  The 2017 Criterion blu-ray release of Hitchcock’s The Lodger contains Downhill in its entirety.  This is the 2012 version restored by the BFI.  The restoration is good, considering the film is 90 years old.  It is accompanied by a new piano score from British film composer Neil Brand.  There are no extra features associated with the movie;  it is itself an extra feature on the Lodger blu-ray.

THE LODGER:  A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927) – Gainsborough Pictures – ★★★

B&W – Silent – 91 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ivor Novello (The Lodger), June Tripp (Daisy Bunting), Malcolm Keen (Joe Chandler), Marie Ault (the Landlady), Arthur Chesney (Her Husband).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Cinematography by Gaetano di Ventimiglia

Edited by Ivor Montagu

The birth of the Hitchcock story:  Alfred Hitchcock had directed two movies by the time he took on The Lodger, but they were movies that were assigned to him, and rather pedestrian affairs by his own admission.  This movie would be different; the subject matter piqued his interest, and inspired his creativity.  As he told Francois Truffaut,  “The Lodger was the first true Hitchcock movie.”

The movie opens on a woman’s scream, in close-up, followed by a flash of neon signs advertising “TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS.”  And we soon discover that this golden-haired woman has been murdered, and she is not the first. This particular killer favors fair-haired women.  He also leaves a calling card of sorts, pinning a slip of paper on his victims which says “The Avenger.” A woman who saw the murderer describes him as having his lower face covered with a scarf.  We then meet a young woman named Daisy who is described as a “mannequin” in the credits;  today we would call her a fashion model.   Her home will be the center of the movie’s action.  In that home we meet her aging parents, and a family friend named Joe, who is a policeman, and very fond of Daisy.  Daisy’s parents are advertising a room to let, and soon enough a knock comes on the door, and we meet Ivor Novello in the title role.  His entrance, appearing out of the London fog, lower face covered with a scarf, is unnerving to say the least.   His offer of cash up front for the room is too much to pass up, but his strange behavior begins to manifest itself soon enough.

The arrival of the lodger. The expressionistic visuals show the influence of Hitchcock’s time at Germany’s UFA studio.

One way this film differs from most later Hitchcock films is the manner in which he keeps the motives of the lodger hidden from the viewer for most of the film.  We are left to ask the question:  Is he the Avenger or isn’t he?  To a point, this is more in the style of a “whodunit”, a type of film that Hitchcock wasn’t fond of.  In future films he would clue us into his protagonist’s innocence from the beginning, which makes the viewer both sympathize and root for him.  In this film, we do eventually learn that the lodger is not the Avenger, but rather the brother of one of the Avenger’s victims, seeking him out to exact revenge.  Joe, Daisy’s policeman beau, does not believe it however, and attempts to arrest the lodger as the murderer. The lodger, handcuffed, flees into the night.  Does Joe really believe the lodger is guilty, or is he simply jealous because the lodger is now receiving the attention, and affection of Daisy?

The birth of the Hitchcock style:  Alfred Hitchcock employed a few visual flourishes in this movie;  we can see him beginning to flex his creative muscle.  One of the most innovative shots features the lodger upstairs pacing in his room, while the family are downstairs.  Hitchcock shot a POV shot looking up at the ceiling, and has Ivor Novello pacing on a sheet of glass, so we can see his feet going back and forth.  As Hitchcock himself explains, the shot was born of necessity;  in the sound era, he could have used the noise of footfalls to achieve the same effect.

In this shot, we can see through the ceiling as the lodger paces.

Later on Hitchcock employs a very creative shot on a stairwell.  Hitchcock employs stairs in a majority of his films; as a matter of fact, his directorial debut opens with young women going down a spiral staircase.   In The Lodger, as Ivor Novello’s character is slowly sneaking out of the house in the night, we get an overhead shot of his hand slowly sliding along the banister as he descends.  This shot foreshadows overhead POV stair shots that will feature prominently in both Vertigo and Psycho.

Hitchcock’s visual fascination with stairs is on display in this overhead shot of the lodger’s hand sliding down the banister.

Another nice visual touch involves the use of religious imagery.  At one point as the lodger is staring out a window, the windowpanes cast a cross-like shadow right onto the lodger’s face.  At the film’s climax the lodger is being chased by a mob, who all believe him to be the Avenger.  The police learn that the lodger is innocent, and rush to save him from the mob.  The lodger attempts to climb a fence, and his handcuffs get hung up on one of the wrought-iron fenceposts.  As he hangs there by his handcuffs, while being assailed by the mob from above and below, he is reminiscent of Christ on the cross.  When he is finally delivered into the hands of his rescuers, who include the adoring Daisy, the pose resembles that of a Pieta.   Truffaut asks Hitchcock if his evocation of Christ was deliberate, and Hitchcock replies “Naturally, that thought did occur to me.”

You can see in these images how Hitchcock’s staging and framing of Ivor Novello at the end of The Lodger resemble the Pieta.   So this is the first of a handful of films in which the Catholic Hitchcock  will deliberately use religious imagery.

Hitchcock in the silent era:  For those who haven’t watched a lot of silent films, it can feel a bit strange at first.  First of all, one has to read title cards, although you will notice that Hitchcock is so adept at telling the story visually, he utilizes a bare minimum of cards.  Second, there is the idea of a musical score.  When people went to see this movie in the theater in 1927, there was no written musical score.  So either a pianist would improvise live accompaniment, or there would have been no music at all.  There are a number of different scores that have been written to accompany this movie, but they have no connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s original concept of the movie.  An interesting experiment is to watch the movie with two different scores, to see how the music can change your perception of what you are viewing.   Or to watch the movie with no score at all.  Finally, there is the idea of film tinting.  In the silent era, color could be added to movies by adding dye to the negative, producing a colored tint.   You will notice on the restored version of this film, that the exterior night scenes have a bluish tint, and the interior scenes have an amber or yellowish tint.  This is part of Hitchcock’s original visual concept of the film, something he may have first seen in the films of D.W. Griffith, who Hitch claims as a major influence.

The “birth” of Hitchcock?  Since Alfred Hitchcock himself says that this is his first movie to have a clearly defined Hitchcock style, it is worth recounting all of the Hitchcock touches that are seen here for the first time.  The Lodger has: the first Hitchcock cameo, the first German expressionistic imagery, the first innocent man falsely accused of a crime, the first handcuffs, the first sinister staircase, and the first religious imagery.

Source material:  The screenplay for this movie is based upon the novel of the same name, by Marie Belloc Lowndes.  This novel is still a suspenseful read today, although laced with the occasional archaic or obsolete turn of phrase (after all, it is over 100 years old).  The novel differs in some significant ways from the film.  In the novel. the titular lodger has a form of religious mania.  He is frequently sequestered in his room, “studying” the Bible, and reading aloud from it.  But he seems to favor passages that refer to women as sinners, who will have God’s vengeance visited on them.  In the novel, it turns out that the lodger is indeed the murderer of the women, and ultimately he flees the house, and is not caught.  His backstory does come out however, and we learn that he is an escaped mental patient, who murdered several people many years before.  Perhaps more interestingly, the landlady has suspicions about the lodger from very early on, and yet tells no one, making her complicit in his guilt.  The concept of inherited or shared guilt is one that fascinated Hitchcock, and was an idea he would employ frequently.

Hitchcock wanted the lodger to be guilty in the film version, as well.  But the studio would not allow that.  Ivor Novello was arguably the most popular matinee idol in England at the time, and it was inconceivable that he could be a serial killer!  The the screenplay was adapted to make him an innocent man accused of the crimes.

Performance:  It is challenging to discuss performance in silent films.  Acting requirements were very different.  I can see why Ivor Novello was so popular, he does have a commanding screen presence.  But he overdoes it in the early scenes when the audience does not yet know whether he is or is not the Avenger.  He is playing it a little too sinister.  Yet at the climax, when his life is at stake, his vulnerability and fear are very real.  The other performances are all fine, nobody particularly stands out for reasons good or bad.  It is worth pointing out that the Landlady’s husband, played by Arthur Chesney, is the brother of Edmund Gwenn, who Hitchcock would work with a few times.  See if you can spot the similarity.

Recurring players:  Ivor Novello would also star in Hitchcock’s next film, Downhill.   Malcolm Keen had earlier appeared in the lost Hitchcock film The Mountain Eagle, and would later appear in The Manxman.

Where’s Hitch?  This is the movie that gives birth to the Hitchcock cameo.  And Hitchcock claims that it was born of necessity, not any desire to be on screen.  He needed somebody to sit at a desk with back to camera, for one brief scene, and decided to do so himself.   He can be seen just after the 5:30 mark, as a newspaper editor, with his back to the camera.  Some people believe he can be seen in the mob that assails the Lodger at the end of the film, but I don’t think it’s him.

Where’s Mrs. Hitch?  That’s right, Hitchcock’s soon-to-be wife and greatest adviser, Alma Reville, has a cameo in The Lodger.  Her cameo appears in the opening sequence, very close to her husband’s.  She is shown in close-up, with a wireless headset on.

What Hitch said:   Alfred Hitchcock speaks well of this movie, and stresses that it did play a significant role in his development as a director.  He said to Truffaut:

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influenced by my period in Germany.  The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me.  It was the first time I exercised my style.  In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture…I took a pure narrative and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.”    

This movie gives birth to Hitchcock’s favorite theme, the innocent man falsely accused.  On this topic he said:

“…the theme of the innocent man being accused, I feel, provides the audience with a greater sense of danger.  It’s easier for them to identify with him than with a guilty man on the run.  I always take the audience into account.”

Definitive edition:  The 2017 Criterion blu-ray features the 2012 BFI restoration of the film.  It looks as good as it is ever going to look, especially considering that it is now ninety years old!  Criterion commissioned a brand new musical score for this release by composer Neil Brand.  The blu-ray also features the restored 1927 Hitchcock feature Downhill, an interview with film scholar William Rothman, a video essay by art historian Steven Jacobs, excerpts from audio interviews with Hitchcock by filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich, a radio adaption from 1940, and an interview with Neil Brand on composing for silent film.

MGM released a DVD version in 2009, and while the print of the film is not nearly as good as the one on the Criterion version, it does contain two different musical scores, and some interesting extra features.

 

TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) – Paramount – ★★★★

Color – 106 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H. H. Hughson), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the novel by David Dodge

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Lyn Murray

Costumes by Edith Head

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   Alfred Hitchcock entered 1955 riding a hot streak, with the back-to-back smash hits Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, and that streak would continue with To Catch A Thief.    The movie opens with one of Hitchcock’s typical vignettes.  A black cat creeps on a rooftop.  Cut to a woman screaming; her jewels have been stolen.  Cut to the same black cat, slinking by a windowsill.  Then another woman screaming.  Finally we cut to a black cat sleeping comfortably on Cary Grant’s sofa, as he reads a newspaper article about a jewel thief named “the cat”.   A simple but effective story set up.

 To Catch A Thief is often cited as Hitchcock lite:  a good-looking movie that offers little of the subtext or dark undercurrents to be found in many of his best movies.  Actually, all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on display here, and while the tone is light, the movie is always entertaining, and pleasing to the palate.

First of all, we have the innocent man falsely accused, in the form of Cary Grant’s John Robie.  A man who was once a jewel thief, but who now just wishes to live quietly in his villa near the French Riviera (don’t we all?)  But now, someone has begun stealing jewels, using his methods, and the police want to arrest him.  The difference between this movie and the many others with this theme is that the action is more static here;  this is a chase movie of sorts, but without constantly changing scenery and set pieces.  This all plays out in the same locale.   So there is not the same sense of menace that we feel in movies like North by Northwest or The 39 Steps.  One never truly feels like Grant is in any real danger.   (And yet, having said that, the rooftop finale is thrilling.)

Next we have the icy maiden as leading lady.  Grace Kelly’s character has a cool demeanor, but inside she is about to bubble over.   She is Frances Stevens, travelling in Europe with her rich mother, whose jewels are a target for the thief.  Observe the transformation of Kelly’s character as the movie progresses, and she becomes more overtly sexual.  Interestingly she is also turned on by the thought of Cary Grant’t character being a thief.  She wants him to be a thief; as a matter of fact, she is willing to help him steal.    Kelly had quickly become Hitchcock’s favorite leading lady, this being their third consecutive film together.  And her performance here is outstanding.

How about the domineering mother?  Grace Kelly’s mother is perfectly played by Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest.  Her level head and straight talk make her a polar opposite of her daughter, and provide many of the best moments in the film.

And subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor?   This film contains more double entendres than any film Hitchcock ever made.  Special acknowledgment goes to John Michael Hayes, who crafted a screenplay that is full of more quotable lines than five average movies.  His dialogue is witty, flirty, breezy, and never boring.

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And a great climax, occuring in a high place?  John Robie unmasks the real cat thief, and clears his name, on the rooftop of a French villa, which has just hosted a lavish costume party.  The entire party sequence is a lovely set piece, with gorgeous costumes designed by Edith Head (of course) who once said this was her favorite movie to work on.

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Above you can see the gorgeous set from the film’s finale,  on a sound stage at Paramount.

Some people have delved deeper into this movie, examining themes of guilt and trust, but since Hitchcock himself said the movie was not meant to be taken seriously, we will take him at his word.   But just because it is not serious does not mean it is not worth watching.  It is expertly made, gorgeously shot, well acted, with a memorable and funny screenplay.

Performances:  As is usually the case in Hitchcock movies, some of the most interesting performances are in the supporting cast.  Of course the two leads are great, as I’ve already mentioned.  But equally great is John Williams as insurance man H.H. Hughson.  And Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she is in.   Her part is very well written, but she elevates the character beyond the written word.  And Brigitte Auber, as the second love interest for Cary Grant, is quite good as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on a novel by David Dodge.   Considering it is over 60 years old, the novel reads very well today.  It’s tone is light, and it breezes along, much like the movie.  The main plot points were all transferred from the book directly to the movie.  There are some minor changes.  In the novel, Robie actually dons a physical disguise after fleeing from the police at his villa, so they will not recognize him.  Robie also has a friend named Paul, a character that is eliminated from the movie altogether.  This friend falls in love with Danielle, the jewel thief, which complicates things at the ending.  Although screenwriter John Michael Hayes kept much of the plot, he did bring a lot of original dialogue to the movie.  Dialogue was Hayes’ specialty, and this screenplay features many gems.   As mentioned before, he packs the screenplay with double entendres;  it’s amazing that they all passed muster with the censors.

Academy awards:  Robert Burks won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.  The movie was also nominated in the Best Costume and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration categories.

Robert Burks, cameraman:  Rather than a full scene deconstruction, we are going to take a look at one sequence in the movie, with particular attention paid to Robert Burks Oscar-winning cinematography.  Burks was the director of photography on 12 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.  In addition to this movie, he shot Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and 8 other titles.  One could argue that he was the most important technical collaborator of Hitchcock’s career.

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This is the scene where Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) attempts to seduce John Robie (Cary Grant).  She is attempting to lure him with both her body and the necklace she is wearing.   In the shot above, Kelly’s face is in the shadows, forcing Robie’s (and the viewer’s) attention to the objects of desire. The green light on the curtains is a great touch as well.

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The two are drawn closer together, with Grace Kelly’s character being the aggressor, while Cary Grant’s Robie is on the defensive.  Look at the above shot.  First, the two characters frame the window.   Grant stands rigid, while Grace Kelly is relaxed, seductive.  The fireworks are on display behind them.  Next observe the color composition.  Out the window is a deep blue.  The streak of green runs through the center of the frame, with the actors standing just inside it.  You can see that Grace Kelly’s hair appears green.  The light has almost a pinkish tint on the right, and there are deep shadows in the top left of frame, and bottom right.

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The characters are slowly drawn together, then they part.  Grace Kelly sits down on the couch, and now we are seeing her from Grant’s point of view; she is bathed in a brighter, natural light, finally showcasing her absolutely breathtaking face.

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Back to a two-shot as Grant joins her on the couch.  Now they are surrounded again by that ethereal green light as they draw into a kiss and recline ontocatchathief6

Next, a cut to the fireworks out the window.  This may be the on-screen birth of the now-trite fireworks as sex metaphor.

 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about the 9:38 mark of this movie.  It is one of the most self-aware cameos of his career.  Cary Grant boards a bus outside his villa, and takes a seat in the very back.  On the seat to his right sits a birdcage with some birds in it.  He then looks to his left, and the camera pans over to show Hitchcock sitting right next to him, stoically looking ahead.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had appeared in Suspicion and Notorious, and would later appear in North by Northwest.  Grace Kelly had earlier starred in Dial M For Murder and Rear Window.  Jessie Royce Landis would appear with Cary Grant again (as his mother!) in North by Northwest.  The inimitable John Williams had already been in The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Lewis Charles (man with milk saucer in Bertanis) would later appear in Topaz.  Steven Geray had earlier appeared in Spellbound.  Gladys Holland (woman at roulette table), Edward Manouk (kitchen helper), Louis Mercier (croupier) and Donald Lawton (police detective) would show up briefly in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake.  Barry Norton had earlier had a bit part in Strangers on a Train, and Loulette Sablon had a bit part in Foreign Correspondent.  And lets not forget Bess Flowers, the most prolific extra in Hollywood history, who was an extra in this and seven other Hitchcock movies.

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this movie, over the years.  He did call it “a lightweight story” and say “it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”

 Definitive edition:  Paramount released this movie on blu ray in 2012.  This print of the movie is breathtaking.  Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography are on fine display.  The blu ray contains a dry-but-informative commentary track by Drew Casper, and numerous featurettes:  A Night With the Hitchcocks, Film Censorship in Hollywood, Writing and Casting, The Making of, Behind the Gates, Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch A Thief, Edith Head:  The Paramount years, and Interactive Travelogue.  Also included are photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer.  It’s a shame Paramount did not port over the commentary track from the earlier DVD release, featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau.  Their lighter tone was more suited to this movie than Drew Casper’s scholarly dissertation.

I CONFESS (1952) – Warner Brothers – ★★★

Black and White – 91 minutes – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Montgomery Clift (Father Michael William Logan), Anne Baxter (Ruth Grandfort), Karl Malden (Inspector Larrue), Brian Aherne (Willy Robertson), O.E. Hasse (Otto Keller), Dolly Haas (Alma Keller).

Screenplay by George Tabori, William Archibald

based on the play Our Two Consciences by Paul Anthelme

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by Rudi Fehr

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

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In 1947, while still finishing production on The Paradine Case, Alfred Hitchcock acquired the rights to an obscure 1902 play called “Our Two Consciences.”  Hitchcock had seen the play at some point in the 1930’s, and the subject matter (and inexpensive price for purchasing the rights) appealed to him.  This play would eventually become the movie I Confess.  It would take several years, and multiple screenwriters, before the film would come to fruition.   Hitchcock kept the idea simmering on the back burner, while he made four other films.  Warner Brothers did not mind, because the subject matter made the studio uneasy.   Finally he convinced the studio that he could make the movie and appease the censors.

The studio had reason to be concerned.   The screenplay that Hitchcock submitted involved a priest who hears a late-night confession to a murder.  Over time, the priest becomes the prime suspect in the killing.  But he cannot tell the police that he knows who the killer is without breaking the seal of the confessional.  Ultimately the priest is convicted of murder, and hanged for the crime!  This was too much for Jack Warner, who insisted that the ending be changed, and the priest’s innocence revealed.    So once again we have Hitchcock’s favorite theme:  the innocent man, falsely accused.  Let’s look at how he went about making this film.

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The Hitchcock touch:  One thing that Hitchcock always did well is opening sequences.  He loved to set the story visually, and creatively, often without dialogue.  This movie begins with wide shots of the city of Quebec.  The shots begin to zoom in, highlighting some of the gorgeous architecture of the city.  Tighter and tighter the shots get, until we see a street sign:  “Direction” written on an arrow, pointing to the right.  Now we cut to another direction sign, seen in a tighter close-up.  Finally, one                                                                                  last direction arrow, filling the screen, and a pan to an open window.  As

Iconfess8the camera moves through the window, we see a body lying on the floor.  We realize now that this montage of street signs has been pointing the way to a murder.   This is one of Hitchcock’s most clever opening sequences.  Following is a sequence of the presumed murderer leaving the scene of the crime, and being observed by two young girls.  This section of the film is very expressionistic in tone;  lots of long shadows on cobblestone streets.

Finally, we meet Father Logan, played by Montgomery Clift.  He sees and hears someone in his parish church, and goes to investigate.  It is Otto Keller, who is a caretaker at the church.  Distraught, Otto asks Father Logan to hear his confession.   He claims that he was planning to steal money from an attorney named Villette, but was caught in the act, and killed the man.

As the next day passes, Otto (played by the German O.E. Hasse) is worried that Father Logan will tell the police what he knows;  but he comes to realize that Logan will not tell, so he becomes more enboldened, actually going out of his way to frame Father Logan for the murder.  And Logan is the prime suspect, because Otto was wearing a priest’s cassock when he committed the crime.  And also because the dead man, Villette, was the keeper of a secret involving Father Logan and a woman named Ruth, played by Anne Baxter.   We meet Inspector Larrue, who is investigating the murder.  Larrue (played wonderfully by Karl Malden) soon questions both Father Logan, and then Ruth.

Flashback failure:  The next section of the movie is the weakest by far.    It involves Ruth narrating the backstory that she shares with Father Logan.  It is told in flashback, with voiceover narrative.  Flashback is not a technique that Hitchcock employed frequently, and when does use it (e.g. Vertigo, Spellbound) it often weakens the narrative, rather than strengthens it.   Why is this?  Personally I believe it is because Hitchcock was always interested in advancing the narrative, moving the story, and he didn’t believe in going backwards to go forwards.   At any rate, this flashback sequence opens with some very dreamlike, expressionistic shots that tell us that Logan and Ruth were in love.   The rest of the sequence is one of the most conventional in Hitchcock’s entire career.  We learn that Logan, prior to becoming a priest, was in love with Ruth.  He went off to war, she married another man.  When he returned,  they spent a night together.  They insist that they did not sleep together, but they were observed together by Villette, who was going to use this information to bribe Ruth.  So Villette’s death was very convenient for both Ruth and Father Logan.  How could Hitchcock have introduced all of this (necessary) expository dialogue without employing flashback?  Perhaps he couldn’t, but there is no denying that the story lags during this sequence.

The final third of the movie, which involves the trial of Father Logan, and the aftermath, is always powerful, and often brilliant.  Logan is found innocent of murder by a court of law, but the people outside the courthouse reject him, because of his association with a woman (even though he was not a priest when it happened!)  Well, Jack Warner got the ending he wanted;  Otto, the true murderer, is killed in the end, even dying in the arms of Father Logan.

Performaiconfess11nce:   Hitchcock was not generally fond of method actors;  he was much more interested in an actor standing where he wanted him to stand, and looking where he wanted him to look, than he was in the character’s “motivation”.  And although they did have some minor differences, Montgomery Clift gives an outstanding performance, one of the best that Hitchcock would ever get from a leading man.  Clift does not have a lot of dialogue in this movie;  most of his performance is in his magnificent, expressive eyes.  And he so clearly shows his emotions, as he battles with the knowledge he has, and his obligation to the church, even though his silence could mean his life.  Anne Baxter (not Hitchcock’s first choice) comes off rather cold, and although her performance is adequate, one gets the feeling that Hitchcock was not enamored of her.  As a matter of fact, Dolly Haas, who plays the wife of the killer, comes off as a much more sympathetic female character. She almost steals every scene she is in.   And Hithcock cuts to her frequently in the trial sequence.  Karl Malden, fresh off of his Oscar-winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, is superbly cast as the police inspector.  Brian Aherne makes the most of a small part;  one gets the sense that Hitchcock liked him, because Aherne is the center of attention in his few scenes.

Hitchcock and Catholicism:   This movie, along with the 1956 film The Wrong Man, are what I refer to as Hitchcock’s Catholic double-feature.  Hitchcock’s faith imbued every scene of this, his most Catholic film.   The movie is redolent with rich religious imagery, and it is not only visually stirring, but is central to the story as well.

As Clift’s character is walking around the city, debating whether to disclose the information he learned in confession, we get this spectacular shot:

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A statue of one of the stations of the cross is in the foreground.  In the background, between the arm of the cross and the tip of the Roman soldier’s spear, can be seen Montgomery Clift.  He is walking slowly, head forward, shoulders slumped, bearing his own emotional and spiritual cross.

Later, when he is being questioned in court, he has an opportunity to tell what he knows, and save himself.  But there on the wall, behind him, is a reminder of the higher law to which he must hold firm.

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Later, the judge gives his instructions to the jury.  There is a 13th member of the jury box, however, unmistakable on the wall above the box.

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And finally, when the jury finds Father Logan not guilty of the crime of murder, we get this shot of the jury foreman issuing the verdict.   The jury, and more importantly Christ on the cross, are giving Father Logan their benediction.

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Earlier, when the murderer Otto is becoming more bold in his plan to frame Father Logan, his face is obscured by the cross.

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As you can see, this movie is replete with religious symbolism, and none of it appears by accident;  rather, it is all part of a deliberate visual scheme on the part of Alfred Hitchcock.

Source material:  This film is based on the original play “Our Two Consciences”, by French author Paul Bourde (written under the pseudonym Paul Anthelme).  The play, now over 100 years old, just does not hold up very well.  In the original play, it is the wife of the caretaker who confesser to the priest, not the caretaker himself.  Also, the priest is found guilty, and hung for the crime that he did not commit.   This is certainly a much bleaker ending, and the ending that Hitchcock originally wanted.

Where is Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the proceedings, at about the one minute 33 second mark.  His unmistakable form can be seen, in long shot, walking right to left, at the top of a flight of stairs.

What Hitch said:  When discussing this movie with Truffaut, Hitchcock said “the final result was rather heavy-handed.  The whole treatment was lacking in humor and subtlety.  I don’t mean that the film itself should have been humorous, but my own approach should have been more ironic…The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject.”  Hitchcock actually asks Truffaut “Do you feel that there’s a connection between my Jesuit upbringing and the heavy-handedness of I Confess?”  Unfortunately, Hitchcock himself dances around this subject.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers finally released this movie on blu ray in 2016, and the film looks and sounds quite good.  Included with the movie are a twenty-minute making-of documentary, the original theatrical trailer, and a one-minute newsreel clip from the film’s premiere in Quebec City.

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THE WRONG MAN (1956) – Warner Brothers – Rating:  ★★★1/2

Black and White – 105 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Henry Fonda (Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero), Vera Miles (Rose Balestrero),  Anthony Quayle (Frank O’Connor), Harold J. Stone (Jack Lee), Charles Cooper (Detective Matthews), Nehemiah Persoff (Gene Conforti).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann
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In the mid 1950’s Alfred Hitchcock was a creative juggernaut, with more ideas for movies than there was time to make them.  Upon completion of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, he had another four potential projects lined up.  Two of them, Vertigo and North by Northwest, were nothing more than ideas at this point, and not ready to begin production.  Another, Flamingo Feather,  never got past the pre-production phase.  And the last was The Wrong Man.  

Warner Brothers already owned the rights to this story, based on a case of mistaken identity involving a New York musician named Manny Balestrero.   Hitchcock had his sights on this movie for a couple of reasons;  in the first place, the subject matter was right up his alley, with themes that he had used multiple times, and would use again.  He also still owed Warner Brothers a movie from his previous tenure at that studio, which ended in early 1954.  How badly did Hitchcock want to make this movie?  When Warners vacillated on whether to give him the property to direct, he offered to wave his fee!  This was unheard of in Hollywood in general, and certainly by a director of his stature.

Source material:   Manny Balestrero’s story was originally publicized in a 1953 Life magazine article titled “A Case of Identity”, by Herbert Brean.   This article details how musician Manny Balestrero went to the offices of a life insurance company to see about borrowing on his wife’s policy.  While there, he was mistakenly identified as a man who had robbed the same office twice previously.  He was arrested, booked, and appeared in court.  His first trial ended in a mistrial, and while he was waiting to be retried the actual robber was caught, and confessed.  So Manny’s name was cleared, but at the expense of his wife Rose’s mental health.  She suffered a breakdown, and spent time in a mental health facility.   Maxwell Anderson adapted the Life magazine story into a film treatment, and Anderson wrote the screenplay with Angus MacPhail.  The screenplay stays very true to the facts of the original case.

Hitchcock and Italian neorealism?   Alfred Hitchcock frequently screened movies at his home, and one of the movies he watched in the early 50’s was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.   Although Hitchcock was somewhat disparaging of the Italian neorealism movement in general, he was quite fond of The Bicycle Thief.  He once described it in an interview as the perfect double chase – physical and psychological.   No wonder he liked it; that sounds like a description of several of Hitchcock’s own movies.   The difference is that Hitchcock’s other “wrong man” movies, (e.g. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest) featured dashing leading men, caught in international intrigue, chasing and being chased from one exciting locale to the next.   In The Wrong Man, Hitchcock is definitely taking a cue from The Bicycle Thief.  His protagonist is a member of the working class, struggling to support his family;  the setting ranges from the average (New York apartment flats) to the sordid (liquor stores and prison cells).  Hitchcock went so far as to shoot as many scenes as possible on location, in the actual places where the events occurred.   He even used some of the original participants as supporting characters.

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Hitchcock and Catholicism:    This movie, along with Hitchcock’s 1952 film I Confess, contains overt religious symbolism.  It is no accident that these two movies are also very similar in tone.  They both lack the trademark moments of dark humor that appear even in Hitchcock’s most sinister films.  I refer to them as Hitchcock’s Catholic double feature.  Alfred Hitchcock was raised in a Catholic household, and attended St. Ignatius College in London.  But his Catholicism didn’t end in childhood.  He was married in Brompton Oratory, also known as the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  Even when he was at the peak of his popularity, in the 1950’s and 60’s, he would often drive from his Bel Air home to Sunday mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd.   Is it possible that Alfred Hitchcock did not want a vein of humor in these movies because he felt it would be sacrilegious?  Certainly the religious overtones in The Wrong Man are not accidental.

We first see Henry Fonda’s rosary when he is being booked in the police station, and all the items in his pockets are confiscated.  It is seen in a long shot, and would be of no consequence, except the booking officer tells him that he may keep it.   We next see the rosary when Fonda’s character is seated in the courtroom.  He is holding it in his hands, under the table, and the cross visibly hangs down.  This shot is a little closer.  The final time we see the rosary, it is a cut to a close up ( the picture seen above.)  The implication here is that the rosary, or more specifically what the rosary symbolizes, is taking a more prominent role.

When Henry Fonda is released from jail, and his mother is attempting to provide solace, her advice is to pray.  And he does so, visibly, right there at the kitchen table with his mother.  This is a very moving scene, unlike anything Hitchcock has ever shown before.

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Shortly after, Fonda’s character will move into his room, where he will pray even more.    This time he is praying directly to an iconograhic painting of Jesus, (which very much resembles the one that hung on my grandmother’s wall when I was a child.)

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It is at this moment that the “miracle” occurs.  While Henry Fonda is praying, his lips silently moving, Hitchcock employs one his most masterful shots.   Two images are superimposed, one over the other.  The first is Henry Fonda, praying in close up.  The other is a man walking on a city street.  That man walks until his head is perfectly superimposed over the head of Henry Fonda, and we realize this other man is the real robber.

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Hitchcock then cuts to the robber, who is captured in an attempted robbery.  That capture is portrayed exactly how it happened in reality.   But there is certainly no record that Manny was praying at that time, or at any time.  It could just be a cinematic touch, but Hitchcock did very little by accident.  This is not intended as a mere coincidence or cinematic flourish; this is a deus ex machina, and Fonda’s faith is instrumental in his receiving justice.

Hitchcock may have been reticent to discuss his faith in interviews;  I think this movie says quite a bit.

Hitchcock and the subjective:   Just as he did so effectively in Rear Window, Hitchcock employs a lot of subjective camera work in this movie.  But unlike the thrilling things that James Stewart was watching, in this movie Fonda is looking at detectives, jury members, and the bars of a cell.  The viewer feels the oppressive nature of every aspect of Manny’s ordeal, from first being picked up for questioning, to being put in a cell.  The scenes in the prison cell are shot masterfully, with some unique camera movements showing the confining space, and how Fonda is reacting to it.   The idea of the innocent man falsely accused may have been Hitchcock’s favorite theme, and it is portrayed in the most realistic way in this movie.

Performances:  Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as the titular wrong man.   Fonda had the “everyman” quality that this role required, leaving the audience to believe in and empathize with the character’s travails.  Anthony Quayle is solid, as always, in the role of Manny’s lawyer.  The real standout performance in this movie, however, belongs to Vera Miles.  Vera aptly captures the fragile emotional state of Manny’s wife, Rose.  Her collapse, and committal to a mental hospital, are very touching scenes, some of the most touching in the entire Hitchcock catalog.  One of Hitchcock’s favorite themes is the idea of guilt, and guilt transference.  Rose feels guilty in many ways for Manny’s ordeal,  and it is her inability to deal with this guilt which causes her mental instability.  Vera Miles could not have done a better job portraying this on screen.

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Recurring players:  Vera Miles would later appear in Psycho.  Doreen Lang would have a couple of nice cameos in North by Northwest and The Birds.  Henry Beckman also appears in Marnie.  Paul Bryar also had uncredited cameos in Notorious and Vertigo.  Alexander Lockwood was also in Saboteur, North by Northwest, and Family Plot.  Clarence Straight also had an uncredited cameo in Spellbound.

Where’s Hitch?   Alfred Hitchcock initially shot one of his typical cameos for this movie.  In the scene where Henry Fonda’s Manny is sipping coffee in a cafe, Hitch was visible in the background.  However, Hitchcock felt that his visibility in the movie would destroy the documentary feel of the subject matter.  So he cut that shot out, and replaced it with an introduction to the movie.  As the film begins, Hitchcock appears on a movie soundstage, in silhouette, and sets up the story for the audience.

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What Hitch said:  When speaking with Truffaut, Hitchcock said that The Wrong Man “suffers from a lack of humor.”  When Truffaut asked Hitch if he was satisfied with the film, he replied “that faithfulness to the original story resulted in some deficiencies in the film’s construction.  The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.  By the time we got to the trial, it had become anticlimactic.  Then, the trial ended abruptly, as it did in real life.  It’s possible I was too concerned with veracity to take sufficient dramatic license.”  Finally, Hitch said “Well, let’s file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks.”

Definitive edition:  Warner Bros. finally released this on blu-ray in 2016, as part of their Archive Collection.    The film looks better than ever.   Included with the movie are a 20-minute documentary, and the original theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

 

THE SKIN GAME (1931) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★1/2

Black and White – 83 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Hornblower), C.V. France (Squire John Hillcrest), Helen Haye (Mrs. Amy Hillcrest), Jill Esmond (Jill Hillcrest), Phyllis Konstam (Chloe Hornblower), John Longden (Charles Hornblower), Frank Lawton (Rolf Hornblower), Edward Chapman (Dawker).

Directed and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock

Scenario by Alma Reville, based on the play by John Galsworthy

Photographed by Jack Cox

Edited by Rene Marrison and A.R. Gobbett

In late 1930, Alfred Hitchcock was celebrating the release of Murder!  While only a modest financial success, it did receive good notices in the press.  More importantly to Hitchcock, he had enjoyed considerable creative freedom making the movie, which meant he was able to imbue it with his personal style; his fingerprint is on virtually every frame.  His next announced film was ThSkin Game.  

This film may have been Hitchcock’s choice, but more likely it was thrust upon him by British International Pictures, who considered adaptations of stage plays a safe bet.   Whether Hitchcock chose it or not, he was an admirer of the author, John Galsworthy, and had even seen the original London stage production in 1920.   When Galsworthy sold the rights to his play to British International Pictures he had absolute control over the final screenplay;  not one word of his dialogue could be changed without his permission.  This meant that Alfred Hitchcock would have to use visual means to express his creativity, to leave his imprint on the film.

The film begins with a nice montage of images and sounds;  bleating sheep, a barking dog, a shouting man, a honking horn.skin8  This is only the fourth movie Hitchcock made with sound, so he was just beginning to experiment with the many ways he could mix sound with visuals. skin9

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Shortly after this opening montage we learn that this movie concerns two families.  The first is the Hillcrist family, who are landed gentry, having resided on the same land for many generations.  They represent gentility and tradition.  The other family are the Hornblowers, newly arrived in the area.  They are nouveaux riches, and represent progress.  The Hillcrists have sold a parcel of land to Mr. Hornblower, with the verbal understanding that the tenants who live on the property would be allowed to stay.  Now, however, an older couple who live in a cottage on the property inform the Hillcrists that they have been told to vacate.  This sets up a confrontation between the Hillcrists and Mr. Hornblower.

Mr. Hownblower is played to perfection by Edmund Gwenn, who had originated the role on the London stage a decade earlier.  He arrives at the Hillcrest estate.  Squire Hillcrest (played by C.V. France) and his wife Amy (Helen Haye) ask Hornblower to reconsider evicting the tenants.  He refuses to change his position;  in addition he mentions that he is going to try to buy another parcel of land adjacent to the Hillcrist estate, and build a factory there, which will blight the view the Hillcrists have enjoyed for a long time.  The majority of this sequence is filmed in one take.  For about four-and-a-half minutes the camera follows Edmund Gwenn as he addresses Squire Hillcrist, then Mrs. Hillcrist.  Hitchcock also makes good use of off-camera dialogue here, another technique new to the sound era.

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The centerpiece of the movie is an auction sequence, at which the parcel of land is to be sold.  Hillcrist and Hornblower attempt to outbid and outwit one another over several tense minutes.   Hitchcock makes the most of his talent in this sequence.  He begins with an establishing shot on a poster, then pulls back and tracks through a narrow street scene, including pedestrians and all manner of transportation.   It is done deftly, in one take.  When the auction begins, much of it is shot from the point of view of the auctioneer, as he gazes out at the potential bidders.  Rather than cut back and forth from Mr. Hornblower to Mr. Hillcrist’s agent, Dawker, as they try to outbid each other, Hitchcock employs a whip pan.  The camera pans back and forth in a blur, from one man to the other.  This camerawork is expertly done by Jack Cox, who was the cameraman on eleven Hitchcock movies.

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In the above series of images you can get a sense of how Hitchcock and Cox employed the whip pan, to great effect.

In the end Mr. Hornblower uses both his clever business tactics and his seemingly endless reserves of money to win the land.   Mrs. Hillcrist however hints to Mr. Hornblower that if he does not relent he will regret it.  It turns out that Mrs. Hillcrist has acquired some rather salacious information about Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Hornblower’s elder son.   She threatens to expose this information unless Mr. Hornblower sells his newly-acquired land and leaves at once.   While the story is all John Galsworthy’s, the theme is one that Hitchcock would often employ; that of a woman having the strength and determination to solve a problem, where the man has failed.  There is a resolution of sorts, although the ending  can be seen as tragic.

The film has a reputation as being a minor work in Hitchcock’s British period, and that may be true, but fans and scholars of Hitchcock will enjoy watching a film in which the young director employs several visual techniques to tell the story without compromising the author’s text.

Performance:  Edmund Gwenn gives a marvelous performance.  Of course, having originated the role on the stage, he was very familiar with it.  Hitchcock became rather fond of Gwenn; he would use him in three later films.  Helen Haye is good as Mrs. Hillcrist.  The other performances are adequate, but nobody else really stands out.  Jill Esmond, who plays the Hillcrist’s daughter, has a friendship with the Hornblower’s youngest son Rolf, played by Frank Lawton.  There is a hint of a possible romance in the text, but their performances don’t bring much to the roles.  Phyllis Konstam, as Chloe Hornblower, has perhaps the most difficult part to play, and she definitely generates sympathy.

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Source material:  As I previously mentioned, the playwright John Galsworthy had final say over the screenplay, so the movie does not differ in any significant way from the play.  A couple of scenes were moved around, but the dialogue is all retained intact from the play.   The only significant difference is that in the play, it is made quite clear at the end that Chloe will survive.  In the movie that is left uncertain at best.

Recurring players:  Edmund Gwenn would later appear in Waltzes from Vienna, Foreign Correspondent, and The Trouble With Harry.  Helen Haye and Ivor Barnard would later turn up in The 39 Steps.  Phyllis Konstam had earlier appeared in Champagne, Blackmail and Murder!  John Longden had appeared in Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, and would later appear in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Edward Chapman had been in Juno and the Paycock and Murder!   R.E. Jeffrey was also in Murder!

Where’s Hitch?  Alas, there is no Hitchcock cameo in this movie.   He has at least three confirmed cameo appearances in earlier films, but it was not yet a tradition in 1931.

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What Hitch said:   When Hitchcock mentioned the film in an article published in Film Weekly in 1936, he spoke with some fondness of the movie, saying:  “The Skin Game was one of the most successful of the pictures I made during this time.  It gave both Edmund Gwenn and Phyllis Konstam very good parts.  I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstam’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have to have a tenth take on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.”    When Hitchcock sat down with Truffaut over thirty years later, he was much more dismissive, saying only “I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.”

Definitive edition:  Beware the many public domain or bootlegged copies of this movie floating around.  The only decent quality version currently available in the United States, is to be found on the three-DVD box set released by Lionsgate.  The print is far from pristine;  the image is not always clear, and the audio is worse.  This is a movie that needs to be restored.   There are no extra features included with this movie, although the box set does include a far-too-brief featurette about Hitchcock’s early British period.

JAMAICA INN (1939) – Mayflower Pictures – Rating: ★★

Black and White – 99 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Marie Ney (Aunt Patience Merlyn), Horace Hodges (Chadwick), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Pedlar).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Produced by Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling, Sr.

Film Editing by Robert Hamer

Written by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, additional dialogue J.B. Priestly, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Original Music by Eric Fenby

Dialogue Coach:  J. Lee Thompson

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In the summer of 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was in the United States,courting Hollywood in the hope of signing a contract.  Hitchcock had been thinking about a move to the States for a few years;  now, riding the success of The Lady Vanishes, he was a hot commodity.  He finally signed with David O. Selznick in July.  His contract would not take effect until spring of 1939, which meant he had time to make one final film in England before making the move to America.  That final British film would be Jamaica Inn.  

Hitchcock had very little interest in the movie;  his mind was already on Hollywood and Selznick.  He directed it essentially as a favor to star Charles Laughton.  Over the course of his life Hitchcock was very dismissive of the movie, and it has a bad reputation in the Hitchcock canon.   Many contemporary reviews refer to it as one of the worst movies Hitchcock ever made.   Perhaps it is time for a reevaluation of this movie, particularly in light of the newly restored version released by Cohen Films in conjunction with the BFI.

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Maureen O’Hara as Mary Yellan (center) greets her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) as Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks) looks on.

As a first-time viewer of Jamaica Inn, I was surprised to discover that it is not nearly as bad as its reputation.  It does not have the feel of a Hitchcock movie at all;  anyone who subscribes to the auteur theory of film making may have a hard time seeing Hitchcock’s direct influence on this movie.  But he certainly did leave small touches here and there.  It is also not a traditional Hitchcock suspense movie;  it is at times over-the-top and downright bizarre.  But it mixes tone nicely, and never ceases to entertain.

The plot centers around Mary Yellan (played by a young Maureen O’Hara), a girl from Ireland who has travelled to England to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn (Marie Ney and Leslie Banks).  Her uncle is the proprietor of the Jamaica Inn, which is a front for a smuggling operation.  Her uncle runs a crew of ship wreckers; men who intentionally ground ships, kill the sailors and steal the cargo.  Early in the film Mary befriends Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the local magistrate, played by Charles Laughton in his usual scene-chewing fashion.  What Mary does not realize (but the audience does) is that Laughton’s character is the real mastermind behind the shipwrecking crew.   Mary also does not realize that Jem (played by Robert Newton), a member of the gang who she rescues from a hanging, is an undercover police officer, sent to infiltrate the gang to gather evidence.  So in typical Hitchcock fashion, the audience has significant information that the protagonist lacks.

Mary and Jem escape from Jamaica Inn, only to be trapped in a cave by the rather odd members of the wrecking crew.  Eventually they will escape, only to unwittingly place themselves in more danger, as they go to Sir Humphrey’s estate, asking for assistance.

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One of the few true “Hitchcockian” shots in the movie, as the ragtag members of the gang gaze down on the protagonists.

Sir Humphrey, as played by Laughton, is an oddball character from the beginning, but it appears that he is overtaken by madness as the story progresses.   By the time that Mary Yellan knows the true nature of all the characters in the story, she is caught in the clutches of Sir Humphrey, who attempts to flee with her aboard a parting ship.  In the end Sir Humphrey will meet his downfall, quite literally, in a closing sequence that is trademark Hitchcock.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier.  Hitchcock adapted three of his movies from Du Maurier stories (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds).  Of the three, only Rebecca remained true to the source material.  The novel Jamaica Inn is a gothic novel with a suspenseful build to a surprise ending.  The action takes place over several months, unlike the movie, which is condensed into a couple of days.  In the novel, the mastermind of the gang is actually a local vicar, named Francis Davy.  The movie could not employ a vicar as the antagonist, because film censors would not permit a priest to be a bad guy.  In the novel, the character of Jem is actually not an undercover policeman, but is the brother of Uncle Joss Merlyn.  The screenplay does a very good job of condensing action and characters, and keeping the pace moving along at a nice clip.  In the novel, the reader does not learn the true nature of the vicar until the last few pages.  In the movie, we learn very early on that Charles Laughton is the mastermind of the wreckers.  Alfred Hitchcock explains why this change was necessary:

“The problem there was…one would have to have a very important actor to play this character…The question was, how could one possibly have an important actor playing in an apparently unimportant part in the first two-thirds, when the characters are talking about a mysterious and influential figure?  Naturally, then, the story had to be changed…We had to let the audience in on the secret about that figure and change the whole middle of the story, so that you saw this figure behind the scenes and how he manipulates the wreckers.  We had to invent new situations.”

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An image from a fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara sneaking behind the wreckers.

Hitchcock touches:  As previously mentioned, there are few genuine “Hitchcock” moments in this film.   Because Charles Laughton was both producer and lead actor, Hitchcock was often at his whim.  Alfred Hitchcock may have been content to shoot two or three takes of a scene for instance, but if Laughton wanted ten takes, or fifteen, Hitchcock had to acquiesce.  Even if Hitchcock was making a by-the-numbers movie to please his producer/actor, he still managed to leave his imprint on a few scenes.  The opening sequence, showing the wreckers leading a ship onto the rocks, then plundering it, is a fantastic sequence;  a couple of the ship shots are clearly models, but regardless the sequence holds up well today.   A sequence that takes place in a cave by the sea has some nice Hitchcock touches.  There is one fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara as Mary, sneaking among the rocks behind the wreckers, which cuts to a close-up of several of the wreckers peering over the rocks.  This shot is pure Hitchcock, leaving no doubt as to who directed it.  And finally, the last sequence of the film, which also takes place on a ship, finds Charles Laughton leaping to his death from the top of the main mast.  This sequence is very well put together.  Hitchcock would later end several of his movies in this way, with a major character falling to their death  (Saboteur, Vertigo, North by Northwest).  Another Hitchcock touch is the absence of a musical score.  There is original music for the opening and closing credits, but no music during the actual movie.  This is the first of three films which would have no music (Lifeboat, The Birds).

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Basil Radford provides the film’s biggest laugh.

A Hitchcock comedy?  I guess it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a comedy, but for a movie that involves ship wreckers, smugglers and murderers, there are a lot of genuine laughs;  some intentional, some not.   Laughton’s character is bizarre from the opening sequence, in which he leads a horse into the dining room.  The way Laughton is always yelling for his butler “Chadwick!” also supplies some humor.  The last shot of the movie, after Laughton has fallen to his death, is a shot of Horace Hodges as Chadwick, who still hears Laughton’s cries of “Chadwick” echoing in his mind.  This final shot is both genuinely wistful and slightly comic, a pure Hitchcock moment, and indicative of the way the entire movie mixes tone.  The members of the wrecking crew also add some humor to the movie.  And Basil Radford, appearing in his third movie for Alfred Hitchcock, makes the most of his limited screen time by providing some genuine laughs.

Performance:  The title sequence of this movie proclaims “Introducing Maureen O’Hara”.   This was not her first movie, but was her first leading role, and her first under the exclusive five-year contract she signed with Charles Laughton.  Maureen is charming and convincing in her role.   Some feel that Laughton’s performance is way over the top, but his character is supposed to be going mad, so while he might walk the line, I think he pulls it off.   Leslie Banks is wonderful as Joss Merlyn;  he is almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played the father in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Many of the actors in the smaller supporting roles are great.  Hitchcock used many of his favorite character actors in this movie, perhaps because he was leaving for America and didn’t know if he would have the chance to work with them again.

Recurring players:  Charles Laughton would later appear in The Paradine Case.  Frederick Piper had small parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent.  Hitchcock favorite Clare Greet had appeared in The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Sabotage.  George Curzon had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent.  The great Basil Radford was also in Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.   Leslie Banks had starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  Wylie Watson had played Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps.  Robert Adair would later have a bit part in Stage Fright.  Marie Ault had appeared in The Lodger.  William Fazan also had bit parts in Murder! and Young and Innocent.   Hitchcock regular John Longden had appeared in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, and Young and Innocent.  Aubrey Mather was also in Sabotage and Suspicion.

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Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses. She would die shortly after filming was complete.

Hitchcock legacy:  Robert Hamer, the editor of this movie, would become a popular British director in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He made his most memorable films at Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guiness.  J. Lee Thompson, the dialogue coach on this film, would become a very successful director, making many well-known movies, including The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear.  

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t!  Alfred Hitchcock had made cameos in several movies by this point, and he would make one in every subsequent movie, but he chose not to in Jamaica Inn.  Perhaps this is an indication of how little regard Hitchcock had for this movie, that he chose not to appear in it.

What Hitch said:  Despite the fact that this film was a huge hit, grossing over $3 million in 1939, Hitchcock never had a kind word to say about it.  He said “It was completely absurd…it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace.  Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed.  Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.”   Hitchcock also said of his leading man “You can’t direct a Laughton picture.  The best you can hope for is to referee”, and “He wasn’t really a professional film man.”  Harsh words, indeed.

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Definitive edition:  This movie has languished in the public domain for a long time, the result being several DVD releases of varying poor quality, some with almost unintelligible dialogue, and some even missing ten minutes of footage, which is integral to the plot!  There is only one version of this movie that you should see, and that is the brand new blu ray from Cohen films.  Their print, which is a full restoration released in conjunction with the BFI, is breathtaking.  The picture quality is startlingly good, the audio track is solid, and most importantly, the footage missing from many earlier prints has been restored.   Perhaps the excellent quality of this blu ray will help to give this movie a new life.  While it is not a great film, and not quintessential Hitchcock, it is certainly a well-constructed and entertaining film.  The blu ray includes a very informative (without being dry) commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold,  a 13-minute video essay featuring Donald Spoto, and a 2014 re-release trailer.

TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Universal Pictures – Rating:  ★★ 1/2

Color – 128 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjorg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Mort Mills (Farmer/Pi).

 Directed Torn1and produced by Alfred  Hitchcock

 Written by Brian Moore

 Cinematographer:  John F. Warren

 Editor:  Bud Hoffman

 Original Music:  John Addison

 

 

Torn Curtain begins with one Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques:  a brief montage of images, with no dialogue, that perfectly sets the scene.  Hitchcock used this type of wordless opening montage in numerous films, including Sabotage, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window.  So three minutes into the movie, we know we are on a ship that is hosting an assembly of scientists;  we know the ship is freezing cold;  and we know a certain pair are missing from breakfast, because they are in bed together.  And these of course are the stars, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), and his assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews).   This set-up is quite good;  Hitchcock is on familiar ground.  Unfortunately, the movie soon begins to labor under the weight of its own plot.

Of the film’s structure, Hitchcock said  “…the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view…”, meaning that the audience is seeing things as Julie Andrews’ character sees them.  This is perhaps the weakest part of the movie.  After a solid set-up, we learn that Michael is keeping something from Sarah.   Michael receives a mysterious telegram on the ship.  Later, in Copenhagen, he receives a book that contains a coded message.  He then tells Sarah that he must leave Copenhagen that night, alone.  He is terse, uncommunicative, and dismissive.  Later Sarah learns that he has a plane ticket to East Berlin, to which she utters the almost laughingly trite line “But – that’s behind the Iron Curtain.”  Oh, brother!   Screenwriter Keith Waterhouse later called this “an immortally bad line” and despite his and his partner’s pleading “…Hitchcock steadfastly refused to modify the line, not even to the extent of getting rid of the superfluous ‘but’ and its hesitant dash.”

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

She buys a ticket on the same plane, without Michael knowing about it, and follows him to East Berlin, where he announces his intentions to defect to the communist bloc and share his knowledge of American rocketry.  It is abundantly clear to the audience at this point that Newman’s character can’t be a real defector.  I’m not sure which is more implausible:  that his fiancee and confidante would not be able to see this, or that he would keep such a secret from the most important person in his life, especially now that she is in jeopardy.   This lapse in logic causes the whole early portion of the film to suffer.  Fortunately though, the middle third of the movie is the strongest portion by far.  It shifts to Paul Newman’s point of view.  Now the viewer will see the action from his point of view.

First, the couple has a discussion in an East Berlin hotel room.  This is shot from a distance, all in one take;  the staging is rather like that of a play, and makes the viewer feel like an interloper in the characters’ private lives.  It is gorgeously shot, as described by Hitchcock:

“There was one very effective sequence in the film that I purposely played entirely in long shot.  It took place in that East Berlin hotel room where we had the evening sun shining in – just a faint yellow shaft of warm sunlight; the rest was that awful heavy brown, a mood effect.  That sequence represents very close coordination between the visual conceptions of the production designer and the cameraman.  The lighting, and the color of the light, work in relationship to the somber tones of the room.”

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A shot from a masterfully constructed sequence. The beautiful lighting makes this look almost like a painting.

Professor Armstrong has been assigned a security detail named Gromek, played by the German actor Wolfgang Kieling.  Gromek is the most interesting character in the movie;  he makes the most of every moment he is on screen.  Armstrong wants to give Gromek the slip; he leaves his hotel with the German agent in pursuit.  Armstrong goes to an art museum, where we see a silent chase through vast rooms displaying works of art, the only sound the clopping of shoes on the tiled floor.    These scenes were filmed by shooting the actors walking, while most of the walls and works of art were added in later as a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  These shots hold up very well today;  overall the sequence is quite good.

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Armstrong exits out a side door and takes a taxi to a farm in the countryside, where he meets with an American agent (played by Mort Mills) nicknamed Pi.  Unfortunately, he was followed by Gromek, and is trapped in the small farmhouse with Gromek and the wife of the agent.  Here follows the best sequence in the movie.  Now Gromek knows that Armstrong is a double agent, so Gromek must be killed.  But it must be done quietly, because the taxi driver is outside the window.  Hitchcock describes the sequence:

“In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche.  In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly.  They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.  And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.”

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The killing of Gromek, the best sequence in the movie.

 

After Gromek is killed, Armstrong knows is time is limited.  The final third of the film focuses on Armstrong meeing with a German scientist in Leipzig to pry some information from him;  then on his and Sarah’s attempt to escape East Germany and get to Sweden and safety.  This last section of the film is inconsistent.  While the first third of the film was marred by implausible plot points, it is technical details that help to weaken the final third.  There is a scene in which Armstrong finally tells Sarah that he is not really defecting, that he is a double agent working for America.  This scene is shot on a hilltop, and we don’t hear the dialogue.  Hitchcock used this effective technique in a few movies;  when the audience already has the knowledge that the character doesn’t, he lets the expository dialogue play out of earshot;  we more or less know what is being said.   Unfortunately, this otherwise well-constructed sequence is marred by set design.  It is painfully obvious that this “hillside” was shot on a soundstage.  Had he chosen to shoot this scene at an exterior location, it would have been one of the most powerful, moving scenes in the movie.  Julie Andrews is quite good here. For most of his career Hitchcock was the master of special effects and trick shots;  he was an innovator even in the silent film days.  How could he let a shot like this stand?  Did the artificiality not bother him?  It tends to take the audience out of the film.

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The artificial setting detracts from an otherwise well-constructed scene.

 

After this the couple are secreted away on a bus to meet a contact in East Berlin.  The bus is a fake city bus, running just moments ahead of the real bus, and the passengers all Germans with anti-communist sentiment, risking their lives.  This sequence should have been one of the highlights of the movie;  it is certainly written and structured in a way designed to build tension over several minutes.  Unfortunately, the tension is lessened again for a technical reason.  The bus is so obviously on a soundstage, with screens outside the windows projecting images of passing countryside and vehicles.  Hitchcock explains:  “I’m not happy with the technical quality of the transparencies for that scene.  For economy reasons I had the background plates shot by German cameramen, but we should have sent an American crew over.”

Again, how did Hitchcock let this slip by?  Shouldn’t he have looked at the footage sooner, while there was time to shoot replacement film?  The clearly artificial quality of these shots deflates the tension from what would have been a great sequence.

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Later the couple meet a bizarre lady who calls herself Countess Kuchinska (played by Lila Kedrova, who had recently won an Oscar for her role in Zorba the Greek).   Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Kedrova, and the sequence is somewhat effective but longer than it needed to be.  Eventually our couple are sent to a ballet, from which they will be secreted out of the country on a ship bound for Sweden.  They find themselves trapped in a crowded room, another favorite Hitchcock motif used in several movies, from The 39 Steps to Saboteur to North by Northwest.  They just manage to evade capture and make it to Sweden.  We leave them as we found them, snuggled under a blanket.

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Lila Kedrova as the Countess Kuchinska, with our hero and heroine.

Performance:  Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both solid in their own way, but lack a strong screen chemistry.  At times they seem to be characters visiting one another from different movies.  Early in production, Newman sent Alfred Hitchcock a three-page memo outlining some ideas and concerns he had about the script.  This was really off-putting to Hitchcock, who never replied to the memo, and had a very reserved relationship with the actor.  Many of the supporting characters, most of them European actors, were quite good, adding some needed life and vibrancy to the movie.

A lost scene (Gromek’s brother):  Alfred Hitchcock shot a sequence for the movie which would have occured shortly after the killing of Gromek.  Professor Armstrong stops at a German canteen and meets a man who looks a lot like the man he just killed.  This man is Gromek’s brother, and the part is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the same actor who played Gromek.  He asks Armstrong to deliver some sausage to his brother, which he proceeds to cut with a knife very like the one that Gromek was stabbed with.    This scene, rife with Hitchcock’s typical dark humor, sounds fantastic.  Hitchcock said of it:  “It’s quite effective.  In fact, very good.  I dropped it from the final film because the film was too long…the actor who played Gromek was very good.  I had him completely transformed for the brother’s role.”  Once again, Hitchcock’s judgment went awry;  he cut a scene which by his own admission was “very good” because the film was “too long”?  Why not cut a sequence that was not “very good”?  The Countess Kuchinska sequence definitely could have been trimmed.

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A shot from the deleted scene featuring Paul Newman as Professor Armstrong, and Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek’s brother.

Farewell, Bernard Herrmann:  Hitchcock began this movie having lost two of his most important collaborators,  editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Bob Burks.  He would lose another one during post production.   Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the film score for seven Hitchcock movies, was hired to score this film as well.  Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted something different, explaining in a telegram “This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater it is young vigorous and demanding.”  It seems to me that Hitchcock should have heeded his own advice;  nonetheless, Herrmann promised to deliver the type of score that Hitchcock was asking for.  But when it came time to hear it, Hitchcock didn’t like it at all.  Herrmann stormed off;  he later claimed he quit, while Hitchcock claimed he was fired.  Whatever the reason, one of the greatest parternships between film composer and director was ended;  they would never speak again.

Recurring players:  Because Hitchcock recruited many European actors for this movie, he did not employ many people that he had previously worked with.  William Yetter, Sr. had also been an extra in Foreign Correspondent.  And Mort Mills, who plays the agent named Pi, had earlier appeared in Psycho as the highway patrolman who follows Marion Crane early in the movie.

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock wrote a memo detailing his cameo for this movie:  “I should be seen sitting in an armchair in the lounge with a nine month old baby on my knee and I’m looking around rather impatiently for the mother to come back.  This impatience could be underscored by shifting the baby from one knee to the other, and then with the free hand, surreptitiously wiping the thigh.”  This is exactly how the cameo was shot, and begins at about the 8:18 mark, early in the movie.

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Hitchcock on the set, providing direction during the Gromek killing.

The resolution:  Alfred Hitchcock began shooting this film with a screenplay that was not up to his usual standards.   Everybody recognized this (Paul Newman later said “We all knew we had a loser on our hands”), but they all soldiered on.  Despite the flaws in the screenplay, the film could have been better than it is.   Hitchcock could have recognized and corrected some of the technical faults in the picture.  He could have trimmed a couple of overlong sequences, and left intact a scene that by his own admission was “very good.”   How could Hitchcock be so right in some instances, and so very wrong in others?  It would make more sense if the whole film was a disaster;  it most certainly is not.   This film is ultimately a mix of a few very good moments, and many forgettable ones.   Losing so many important collaborators had to impact him; he was reeling from numerous losses.  The film made a meager profit of $1.5 million, which was a bona fide flop, especially considering the director and the two stars.  The reviews were harsh;  some suggested that Hitchcock had lost his touch.  Unfortunately for Hitch, things would get worse before they got better.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray is the best looking and sounding version of this movie available.  John Warren’s cinematography looks quite good.  The blu-ray contains a 32 minute documentary called “Torn Curtain Rising”, which is rather poor.  Unlike most of the other documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock movies, this one features no interviews with cast or crew members.  I have heard Julie Andrews discuss this movie many times, as recently as last year;  surely she would have participated if asked?  Instead we get some bland narrator taking us through the film and offering an apologist’s view of its faults and strengths.  Also included are 14 minutes of Bernard Herrmann’s musical cues, which he wrote before leaving the project to be replaced by John Addison.  Again, Universal dropped the ball here.  Herrmann scored much more of the movie than 14 minutes.  Why not include all of his cues, which I personally feel are better suited to the material than Addison’s.  Also included are production photographs and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

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The three-act structure is a basic tenet of screenwriting.  Most films generally follow the template:  setup, confrontation, and resolution.     Torn Curtain is a movie where the three acts are clearly delineated through a shifting narrative focus.  As Hitchcock himself said “…the picture is clearly divided into three sections.  The story worked out very naturally in that way…”

So our examination of this problematic Hitchcock movie will attempt to follow the same structure.  This blog entry will be the setup:  how did this movie come to be?  It will also introduce the confrontation:  what went wrong in preproduction.  A second entry will continue with the confrontation and onto the resolution, with a focus on the film itself and its aftermath.

After the release of Marnie in July of 1964, Alfred Hitchcock took some time choosing his next project.  For the majority of his directing career, Hitchcock had worked on multiple projects at one time;  while completing the filming of one movie he would already be involved in the writing of his next movie, and was often looking beyond that.  Those days were over.  Hitchcock, now sixty-five years old, was increasingly conscious of his health.  He also seemed unsure of his next step.  Several months passed, during which time Hitch screened some movies at home, read some books, but seemed no closer to choosing a prospective film.   Two of the films he had screened and enjoyed were The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, and he actually talked to Richard Condon (the author of The Manchurian Candidate) and Rod Serling (who penned the screenplay for Seven Days in May). Whether Hitchcock hoped to work with these writers, or just wished to share his admiration is unknown, but nothing came of the discussions.   One of the books Hitchcock read during this period was John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, one of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps.  Several times since the success of Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps he had planned to  film one of Buchan’s sequels, but it never happened.

Then suddenly, in November, he tried to start three different projects, almost simultaneously.  This sudden creative burst could be interpreted in a couple of ways.  In the first place, it is clear that he was firing on all cylinders, creatively speaking.  But it also appears that the master of suspense was casting about, not sure which direction to proceed.   The younger Hitchcock of the 1940’s and 50’s never vacillated to this degree.

One of Hitch’s three ideas was for a movie that could function as a sort of prequel to Shadow of a Doubt, detailing the exploits of a man who murders several wealthy widows.  He brought in Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, and asked him to write a novel that Hitch could then turn into a movie.  Bloch was intrigued, but the project was short lived, in part because of monetary disputes,  also because Hitchcock simply felt no rapport with Bloch.

Hitchcock’s next idea involved a family of crooks that run a hotel as a cover for their criminal activities.  This was a premise that Hitchcock had first thought of decades before.

His third idea involved an American spy.  Hitchcock envisaged a movie as far removed from James Bond as possible; he felt that the new spy movies were outlandish, and also borrowed a little too freely from his own North by Northwest.  He thought it was time to make a very realistic, down-to-earth story about a spy who defects to the Communist bloc.

Hitchcock jettisoned the first idea after the talks with Robert Bloch went nowhere, and proceeded with the other two ideas simultaneously.  He actually approached famed writer Vladimir Nabokov about writing a treatment for these two ideas.  Apparently they met in person, and had phone conversations as well.   The specifics of these talks are unknown, but their correspondence by letter has survived.  On November 19,  1964, Hitchcock wrote to Nabokov at his residence in Switzerland, sharing his two ideas for movies:

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Hitchcock and Nabokov? An intriguing partnership that never came to fruition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Now the first idea I have been thinking about for some time is based upon a question that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion picture or, as far as I know, in literature.  It is the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector…the type of story I’m looking for is an emotional, psychological one, expressed in terms of action and movement…”

Hitchcock then outlined his second idea:  “I wondered what would happen if a young girl, having spent her life in a convent in Switzerland due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a widowed father, was suddenly released from college at the end of her term.  She would be returned to her father, who would be the general manager of a large international hotel.  The [father’s] family are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of operations.  Now into this setting comes our 19-year-old girl.”

Nabokov responded in a letter dated November 28, 1964.  He said in part:

“I find both your ideas very interesting.  The first would present many difficulties for me because I do not know enough about American security matters and methods…Your second idea is quite acceptable to me.”  It’s interesting that Nabokov rejected the first idea, which would become Torn Curtain, in favor of the second.

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George Tomasini, superb film editor.

Before Hitchcock received Nabokov’s reply, however, he was faced with a  personal and professional tragedy.  On the 22nd of November, George  Tomasini,  who had edited Hitchcock’s last nine movies, died suddenly of a  heart attack while on a camping trip.  Tomasini, an avid outdoorsman, was  only 55 years old, and in apparent good health.    Tomasini was a very  important part of Hitchcock’s team, one of the most important collaborators  of his entire career, and someone whose company he enjoyed.  As Tomasini’s  wife, actress Mary Brian explained many years after his death “Mr. Hitchcock  wanted George to go with him on every location…because he liked his  company, aside from any input that George could give him.  Mr. Hitchcock  always gave George first cut.  He wanted to see his interpretation.  Then they  got down to the fine work.”

This was the first of many losses and setbacks that Hitchcock would face during the preparation and filming of Torn Curtain.   In my next blog entry, we’ll take a look at how all of this loss impacted the final product.

 

By the end of the year, Hitchcock was in a bit of disarray.  His creative spark had been briefly muted.  After losing George Tomasini, he also lost Nabokov, who had backed out of both projects by Christmas.  But in the first week of the new year Hitchcock forged ahead on both projects.  He hired the Italian screenwriting duo of Age and Scarpelli to write the hotel story, tentatively titled “RRRR”.  This project would eventually be scrapped, because, as Hitchcock rather bluntly stated “…Italians are very slipshod in matters of story construction.  They just ramble on.”

Hitchcock brough novelist Brian Moore to Hollywood, to try and entice him into writing Torn Curtain.   Moore had no interest in writing a screenplay, but was convinced by his lawyer to accept, because the money offered was too good to pass up.   After Tomasini’s death, this was the second indication that Hitchcock was in trouble.   Reluctant screenwriters do not make great movies.  But Hitchcock forged ahead.

In the matter of casting,  Universal wanted him to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.  Hitchcock admired Newman’s early work, and thought he would do well.  He pushed back a little on Andrews, but the studio, and Hitchcock’s agent, said she was “great box-office.”   Hitchcock agreed to both actors well before the first draft of the screenplay was ready.   Their combined salaries (around $1.5 million) was more than the rest of the film’s budget.  And this for a screenplay that had yet to be completed.

Brian Moore’s initial draft was submitted in April of 1965.   Hitchcock cajoled him into writing a second and third draft, with additional rewrites, all done by the first week of August.  Hitchcock asked Moore to do an additional “polish” on the screenplay. By this time, Moore was exhausted, and frustrated with the screenwriting process.  He dropped out of the project, preferring to return to his novels.  Further, he told Hitchcock that the screenplay needed a complete rewrite, not just a polish.   At this point, Hitchcock’s production schedule was already locked in.  Julie Andrews was only available for a limited window in the fall, so he had to proceed.   So Hitchcock hired the British writing team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who stayed on during production, often rewriting scenes only hours before they were shot.  

Now Hitchcock would suffer another devastating loss.  Julie Andrews was scheduled to shoot some test footage at Universal in September of 1965, with Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks.  The following is a production memo from Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Roberts:

Friday September 17, Bob Burks “was terribly sick with nerves…and could not shoot the tests with Julie Andrews.”

“On Saturday Sep. 18, in the morning [Burks] called Mr. Hitchcock and it was decided that it would be too risky for him to do the film.”

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Alfred Hitchcock and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Burks prepare a shot on the set of “North by Northwest.”

Bob Burks had been the cinematographer on twelve Alfred Hitchcock movies, dating back to 1951’s Strangers on a Train.  He was arguably the most important technical collaborator in Hitchcock’s entire career.  And now he would be unable to shoot Torn Curtain, due to “nerves”.  Apparently the last decade and a half of nearly non-stop filmmaking had caught up with him.  Hitchcock was disappointed, but certainly did not express any ill will towards his long-time friend.  Hitchcock merely hoped that after taking a breather, they could work together again on future Hitchcock movies.  Unfortunately, they would never have that opportunity, because Burks and his wife would die in a house fire in 1968.

  What had happened to Alfred Hitchcock?  The man who had always been so sure of himself; the man who had worked with almost complete autonomy in the waning days of the studio system; the man who, as recently as 1959, could stand up to the studio heads at MGM and refuse to cut a scene from North by Northwest?  Three years earlier, he could do no wrong.  Now nothing seemed to be going right.

So, the setup:  Alfred Hitchcock can’t decide on a topic for his movie.  He devolops several ideas simultaneously, hoping to find one that sticks.  And he proceeds with the last idea standing.

The beginning of the confrontation:  He had leading actors he wasn’t altogether pleased with; a screenplay that was not ready to be shot;  a shooting schedule that was locked in; and was missing two vital members of his collaborative team in Tomasini and Burks.

This is where we leave Hitchcock as he steps before the cameras on October 18, 1965 to begin principle photography on Torn Curtain.  To be continued…

 

 

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