Perhaps Rear Window doesn’t have an iconic scene, in the way that North by Northwest and Psycho do, but it does have several scenes that are worth taking a closer look at. The one I chose is the scene in which the little dog is discovered dead. This is an important scene for many reasons. It is the most heartfelt moment in the movie; we feel more sorrow for the dog than we ever did for Mrs. Thorwald. It is also important for advancing the plot, for we learn that Thorwald doesn’t react to the commotion in the courtyard. And finally, from a technical standpoint, it is shot in different manner than the rest of the film.
This sequence, from fade-in at 1:22:30 to fade-out at 1:25:03, has 40 editorial cuts. This averages out to one cut approximately every 3.8 seconds. Many of the clips are much shorter than that. Hitchcock explained in an interview that the cutting gets faster as the film progresses and the tension increases. This scene has the fastest cutting we have seen up to this point in the movie.
The scene fades in on Jeff, sipping the last of his brandy.
Lisa exits the bathroom, and walks over to the window, without any cutting. Look at the way Jeff and Lisa are staged here; they are seen in a long shot, with a considerable distance between them.
They then hear a scream, and Lisa opens up the center blind. Notice the nice framing here, as you can see the woman on her balcony.
Next we cut to a mid-range shot of the woman, in distress, and we learn she is reacting to her dog, lying prone in the courtyard below.
We then get a series of shots in rapid succession, very quick cuts of many of the residents of the courtyard reacting to the drama. These shots last an average of 2 seconds each. We see the composer’s apartment first.
Then we get, in rapid succession, the newlyweds, Miss Torso, the sculptress, Miss Lonelyhearts, and even the couple on the high upper right balcony, who do not have a “story” in the movie but can be observed in a few scenes. Finally Miss Lonelyhearts leans over the dog, and observes that it is dead, its neck broken.
Up to this point, all of the camera angles have been the ones we are used to. Everything is from Jeff’s apartment, or rather Jeff’s point of view. We see what he sees, as we have for the entire movie. Now, for just one moment, Hitchcock will do something entirely different. He will break with his own “camera logic” and give us a few brief shots that can’t be from Jeff’s point of view. As the dog owner is addressing the courtyard “Which one of you did it?” we get this long shot.
This could still be Jeff’s point of view, but look how much of the courtyard we are taking in. The dog owner continues to berate the neighbors as she cries. “You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors'”. But look at this camera angle, this can’t possibly be from Jeff’s apartment.
What a fantastic framing, looking up as the dog owner says “you don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors.” We can also see both Miss Torso and the head of the sculptress. This shot lasts less than three seconds. Miss Lonelyhearts puts the dog in the basket.
The lady continues her very moving speech. “He was the only thing in this whole neighborhood that liked anybody.”
We see the newlyweds, looking out of their window, very concerned. Next we get this wonderful shot.
What a beautiful, expressive image of Miss Torso! And whose point of view is this supposed to be? Finally the basket has nearly reached the top.
Her heartfelt remarks are coming to a close, as she continues to accuse everyone in the courtyard. “Did you kill him because he liked you?” When we next see Lisa and Jeff, it is a mid-range shot, and they have drawn closer together.
From this we cut to another beautiful, expressive shot, this time of Miss Lonelyhearts.
Finally, the man takes the dog from the basket, and they go inside.
Then, just as we saw everyone react to the scream, now we see them all, in quick cuts, return to their routine. And we are back in familiar territory visually, with every shot from Jeff’s point of view. The party goers disperse at the composers.
We then see the newlyweds put their heads in, and close the blind. The couple on the far upper right balcony get another shot. Miss Torso goes inside and closes her door. The sculptress does the same.
When we next see Lisa and Jeff, they are even closer together.
Then Jeff tells Lisa that there was only one person in the whole courtyard that didn’t come to the window to look, and we get this wonderful shot, of Thorwald’s cigarette glowing in the dark like a malevolent eye.
The scene ends on Lisa and Jeff, and they are yet again even closer, as close as they can be.
So what did Hitchcock accomplish in this mere two and a half minutes of film? He told us that Thorwald is a dog killer, and he told us in a strikingly visual way. He gave us a very emotional scene, in which the dog owner berates everyone for not being good enough neighbors. Why does Hitchcock break his own rule, and give us a few very brief shots that are not from Jeff’s point of view. Because this is the most emotional scene in the film, and those images heighten the emotion. The viewer will most likely be too caught up in the story to notice or question “camera logic” as Hitchcock called it. It is powerful and effective filmmaking, and does not break with the concept of montage that he uses throughout.
And finally, we see a strengthening of the bond between Jeff and Lisa. At the beginning, there is a gulf between them. This little tragedy, the death of a dog, and the knowledge of its killer, and what that may mean, bring them as close together as they could possibly be.
Here we see how the power of cutting, and artfully framing actors, are tools that can advance the story, and enhance the emotional response of the audience. This is the master at his best.
Beginnings: Alfred Hitchcock frequently began his movies with a scene that introduces the viewer to both character and setting in an understated, economical way. The opening scene of Rear Window is perhaps the best opening of any Hitchcock film. After the curtains raise, Hitchcock does a slow counterclockwise pan of the courtyard. He is not introducing us to characters yet, he is just giving us the lay of the land.
After completing a circle, the camera pulls in the window ending on Jimmy Stewart’s sweat covered brow. Hitchcock then cuts for the first time, to a close up of a thermometer hovering in the mid 90’s. Then the camera does another, even slower counterclockwise revolution of the courtyard. This time, he begins to show us many of the characters we will encounter throughout the film.
Then the camera pulls into Jimmy Stewart’t window again, and continues, all in one unbroken shot, to show us a series of images:
Before we have had a word of dialogue, we know the precise layout of the courtyard and apartment. We know our leading man’s name (it is written on the cast), we know his profession, we know he has a broken leg and we know how he got it, courtesy of the smashed camera and photo of a race car with a loose tire flying off. All of this is done in with only two editorial cuts, and no dialogue.
Montage: Much of what makes this movie work is Alfred Hitchcock’s use of montage. Throughout the film we see Jimmy Stewart look at something, then we see what he is looking at, then we see Jimmy Stewart’s reaction shot. As in the series of images below:
Here is what Alfred Hitchcock had to say on the subject in a 1973 interview in Antaeus:
There are too many films with what I call photographs of people talking…You see, most people get confused; they think that galloping horses are cinema. They are not. They are photographs of galloping horses. Pure cinema is montage, the joining together of pieces of film and creating an idea. It’s like putting words together in a sentence. From that comes the audience’s emotion. Rear Window, possibly one of the most cinematic pictures that anyone’s ever attempted, depended upon cutting to what a man is seeing, then cutting back to his reaction. What you’re doing is using his face to create a thought process.
In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:
Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov. You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry. Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face was exactly the same. In the same way, let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!
Hitchcock used montage in many of his films, but never so completely as he does here.
Voyeurism: Rear Window deals with this subject in a couple of different ways. It is a direct commentary on people who spy on their neighbors. As Stella tells Jeff: “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people oughta do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Jeff himself speculates: “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens.”
And later, Detective Doyle will tell both Jeff and Lisa: “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there,” and later: “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
Jeff and Lisa are actually thrilled with watching the goings-on in the Thorwald apartment, and even disappointed when they believe for a moment that there is a logical explanation for all they have seen, and Thorwald is indeed innocent. Of course, the audience is complicit in Jeff’s peeping. Isn’t the act of movie-going very much like spying on a private world? It is no accident that Hitchcock shot this movie in a 1.66:1 camera aspect ratio, for this mirrors almost exactly the size of the longer windows in the movie.
Here are the curtains going up on the opening shot, just as the curtains rise at a performance. Later on, Lisa will close the curtains, saying “show’s over.” It is almost like intermission. Of course, they won’t stay closed for long. They then close again at the end, over the Paramount logo. When Jeff is looking through all of those windows, it is like he is watching his own series of private movies. One of the most powerful and beautiful shots in the film comes late, when Jeff and Stella are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts in the lower window, and stop watching Lisa inside Thorwald’s apartment. Then, suddenly, both women are drawn to the window by the composer’s music.
It’s rather like watching both films of a double feature at the same time, and not knowing which feature to focus on. When the police come to Thorwald’s apartment, and Thorwald sees Lisa signaling with the ring, he looks directly at the camera, and directly at us. This is the most unsettling moment in the movie, for now the watcher has become the watched.
At the film’s climax, when Lars Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment, and asks “What do you want from me?” he is addressing the audience too. And as is typical of Hitchcock, he subverts expectations here. We actually feel a little sorry for this sad, quiet man. And maybe even a little guilty for our spying. Of course this doesn’t last long. After all, a bad guy must be a bad guy in the end.
We will let Hitchcock have the final word on voyeurism:
I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business’.
If you want to be really mean towards the character in this film you could call him a Peeping Tom. I don’t necessarily think it’s a statement of morality because it’s a statement of fact. You don’t hide from it, there’s no point in my leaving it out. When Grace Kelly says that they are a couple of fiendish ghouls because they’re disappointed that a murder hasn’t been committed she’s speaking the truth.
A man and a woman: The real underlying theme in this movie is that of relationships between men and women, and the seemingly irreconcilable differences that separate the sexes. It is only through compromise that relationships will work, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes seem to be telling us. The subject of relationships, and the dialogue to be found in such scenes, is Hayes greatest strength. Not only is this his greatest screenplay; it is one of the strongest screenplays to ever come out of Hollywood.
We first meet Lisa Fremont with arguably the greatest kiss ever captured on screen. It is idealized and romanticized to the point of seeming like a fantasy, with a slowed down, close up image. We have to ask ourselves, is this how it really happened, or how Jeff imagined it to be?
Of course, this idealized love doesn’t last long. Very soon, they are bickering. Lisa wants a committed relationship, but Jeff won’t agree to it. He thinks they are from different worlds, and can’t compromise enough to make it work. Of course this doesn’t keep him from wanting to keep things “status quo.”
As Jeff looks out in the courtyard, virtually every window tells the tale of a relationship, and will therefore remind him of his own. First and foremost, there is Lars Thorwald and his wife. She is supposed to be an invalid, but doesn’t look to be in very bad shape. She is very critical of Lars Thorwald. Jeff comments while talking to his editor on the phone about not wanting to become a husband going home to his nagging wife. Note also, the nightgown that Mrs. Thorwald is wearing is almost exactly like the one that Lisa will wear later in the film.
There is also the newlywed couple, whose closed curtain imply the marriage is being consummated quite thoroughly. And yet by the end, they are bickering too. Miss Lonelyhearts is desperate for love, with a desperation that elevates to the brink of disaster. Miss Torso is pushing men away throughout the film, “juggling wolves” as Lisa calls it. You could say that the composer is married to his work. Stella talks about her strong marriage, calling herself and her husband “a couple of maladjusted misfits” and saying the only way you could get her wedding ring off would be to chop off her finger. And Detective Doyle is a family man, who is not averse to admiring Miss Torso himself.
When Lisa begins to take chances, when she leaves the note under Thorwald’s door, that is the moment that Jeff begins to really fall in love with her. To make sure we notice this, Hitchcock gives us a close up of Stewart’s face.
When Lisa is in Thorwald’s apartment, signaling to Jeff that she has the ring, the double meaning of the image can’t be mistaken. She is pointing repeatedly to a wedding ring on her finger. She has found Mrs. Thorwald’s ring, but it is also symbolic of her desire to wed Jeff.
The movie does have a mostly happy ending (except of course for poor Mrs. Thorwald), but there is that little twist at the end. Miss Torso is married to a scrawny soldier who is more interested in the contents of her icebox than her bikini. Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer are brought together by music, at least in a friendly way (One can’t really imagine them becoming a couple). The couple with the dog have got a new puppy, the newlyweds are bickering. And Lisa is reading a book about climbing the Himalayas, at least until she is sure Jeff is asleep. Then she grabs her Harper’s Bizarre. Compromise is the name of the game.
Sound and vision: Nothing seen or heard in a Hitchcock movie is ever there by accident, and never more so than here, where Hitchcock had such close control of every aspect of production. Hitchcock had an all-star team on this movie, and they all worked together seamlessly. From Robert Burks cinematography, to Edith Head’s costumes, to Hal Pereira’s art direction and Franz Waxman’s music, every piece of the puzzle fit together perfectly.
The above image is a good example of all of these technical elements working together.
Hitchcock also found many interesting ways to film the characters in Stewart’s apartment, without anything ever feeling staged.
Lisa wears a pale green here, mirroring the green that Miss Lonelyhearts is wearing as she prepares to go out on the town. Here is what Hitchcock had to say about Miss Lonelyhearts color palette:
Miss Lonelyhearts always dressed in emerald green. To make sure that that came off, there was no other green in the picture, because we had to follow her very closely when she went across the street into the cafe. So I reserved that color for her.
There final scene with Detective Doyle, Jeff and Lisa plays out with long takes and very little cutting. Hitchcock has the actors keep moving around, and regrouping, so the shot composition is always engaging.
One of the most overlooked aspects of this film is also one of its most brilliant, and that is the movie’s musical score. The score exists of only existing musical elements. It other words, all of the sounds we hear come to us from the open window of Jeff’s apartment, the songs are either on someone’s radio, or emanating from the composer’s apartment. And the songs all perfectly suit what is taking place on the screen. While Jeff is watching the newlyweds enter their apartment, we can hear an instrumental version of “That’s Amore”. When Miss Lonelyhearts is having dinner with her imaginary beau, the rather cruelly ironic song playing is Bing Crosby’s “To See You Is To Love You”. Later, when Miss Lonelyhearts crosses the street to the bar, we hear “Waiting For My True Love To Appear.” The greatest musical element, however, is the song “Lisa”, which we actually hear being composed as the movie progresses. In other words, the composer, in his apartment, is writing the movie’s score as we watch the movie. When Lisa first comes in Jeff’s apartment, we hear someone practicing scales. Obviously this is the warm up, before the real work begins. Then, over the course of a few scenes, we see the composer developing his song, culminating in the scene where both Lisa and Miss Lonelyhearts are captivated by the song. And finally, in the movie’s very last scene, we hear a recorded version of the song, which is named after Grace Kelly’s character.
Hitchcock thought that this idea of developing a song as the movie progressed was a failure. I disagree. I just think that the story is so strong, it gets lost in the background. I would strongly encourage anyone who is a big fan of this movie to watch it again, focusing on the sound and music. You just might be amazed.
Principal cast: James Stewart (L.B. Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald), Wendell Corey (Detective Tom Doyle), Judith Evelyn (Miss Lonelyhearts), Ross Bagdasarian (songwriter), Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso).
Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the story “It Had To Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Music by Franz Waxman
Costumes by Edith Head
(My Rear Window analysis will be broken into three parts. This is part one.)
Firing on all cylinders: Alfred Hitchcock began his tenure at Paramount Pictures in 1954 flying high. His last movie for Warner Bros., Dial M For Murder, was a box office hit. And Paramount was granting him more freedom than he’d ever had. He was bursting with energy and creativity. And he chose Rear Window as his first Paramount film.
The movie stars Jimmy Stewart as L.B. Jefferies, a professional photographer who broke his leg in pursuit of a photo, and is now stuck in his apartment, in a wheelchair. With little else to do, he begins to watch his neighbors, looking in their apartment windows from his own. He is just passing the time, until the invalid wife of the traveling salesman across the courtyard disappears. And the salesman (Raymond Burr) is acting strange. Did he kill his wife? That is the question that “Jeff” seeks to answer, with the help of a trio of people. His girlfriend is fashion model Lisa Fremont, played by the exquisitely beautiful Grace Kelly. The insurance company nurse that looks in on him is Stella (Thelma Ritter), who dispenses homespun wisdom along with her care. And finally there is Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), and old war buddy who investigates the salesman at Jeff’s request. Jeff and Lisa spend the bulk of the movie trying to untangle a murder plot, as well as untangling their own relationship issues.
(For a detailed look at the movies themes, please see part two of this analysis.)
Hitchcock as God: Alfred Hitchcock notoriously disliked filming on location. Despite the fact that he did some wonderful location shooting in his career, he much preferred the confines of the studio, where he was more in control of the environment. Rear Window was a dream come true for Hitch, because the entire movie was shot on one massive set built on Stage 18 at Paramount Studios. The set featured the back side of four apartment buildings, facing onto an interior courtyard. The set was so tall that the “ground floor” was actually thirty feet below the studio’s original floor. It was one of the largest and most impressive sets ever constructed.
With the pull of a lever, Hitchcock could change the lighting from dawn, to midday, to dusk, to night. He could even make it rain on cue. He also controlled the individual lights and sounds emanating from every apartment, as well as controlling every action sound uttered by everyone on screen.
Here is what Hitchcock had to say about the fictional world he created:
It shows every kind of human behavior-a real index of individual behavior. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that. What you see across the way is a group of little stories that…mirror a small universe.
Performance: There are only five characters that ever appear in Jeff’s apartment; every other performance is seen from a distance. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are nothing short of iconic in their leading roles. They inhabit the characters perfectly, and play off of each other equally well. Thelma Ritter is one of the greatest character actors to ever appear on screen, and gives one of her best performances here. (Interestingly, Ritter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress six times, never winning. This was not one of her Oscar-nominated roles). And Wendell Corey gives arguably the role of his all-too-short life as Detective Doyle. Raymond Burr is the typical sympathetic villain. The rest of the characters have to act “from a distance”, as it were. Imagine having several moments of screen time in a movie, but only being filmed in long shots. Every single character works perfectly as a piece of the ensemble, to create the harmonized feel of the picture as a whole.
Source material: John Michael Hayes adapted his screenplay from a 40-page short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had To Be Murder”. Woolrich was a talented noir crime writer who wrote dozens of engaging novels and short stories, many with a dark, ironic twist ending. Hitchcock enjoyed Woolrich’s writing. Several of his short stories would later be adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, and Hitchcock himself would direct a TV adaptation of another Woolrich short story for the NBC anthology show Suspicion.
The most significant plot element in Rear Window is lifted directly from the story: a man with a cast on his leg, trapped in his apartment, begins watching his neighbors to pass the time, and suspects one of them may be guilty of murdering his wife. Everything else in the film comes directly from the minds of John Michael Hayes and Alfred Hitchcock. There is no love interest in the story; no insurance nurse tending to his needs. Instead he has a guy named Sam who looks after him. There is no Ms. Lonelyhearts, no Miss Torso, no Composer, none of the other side stories that help to make the film so rich and complete.
The first person narrator of the story is Hal Jeffries, rather than LB, but still has the nickname Jeff. And the oh-so perfect name Lars Thorwald comes directly from the story. Jeff also has a detective friend in the story, named Boyne. He is the equivalent of Doyle in the film.
The story is quite gripping. This description of the moment when the narrator first begins to suspect his neighbor of murder is quite good, and was slightly adapted for use in the movie. Jeff says this about Lars Thorwald:
He was leaning out, maybe an inch past the window frame, carefully scanning the back faces of all the houses abutting on the hollow square that lay before him. You can tell, even at a distance, when a person is looking fixedly. There’s something about the way the head is held. And yet his scrutiny wasn’t held fixedly to any one point, it was a slow, sweeping one, moving along the houses…I wondered vaguely why he had given that peculiar, comprehensive, semicircular stare at all the rear windows around him. There wasn’t anyone at any of them, at such an hour. It wasn’t important, of course. It was just a little oddity, it failed to blend in with his being worried or disturbed about his wife. When you’re worried or disturbed, that’s an internal preoccupation, you stare vacantly at nothing at all. When you stare around you in a great sweeping arc at windows, that betrays external preoccupation, outward interest. One doesn’t quite jibe with the other.
Near the story’s climax, just as in the movie, Jeff calls Thorwald and says he knows about his wife. And just as in the movie, Thorwald discovers who has contacted him, and goes to Jeff’s apartment to confront him. In the story Thorwald is much more determined and aggressive. Jeff takes a large ceramic bust, “of Rousseau or Montesquieu, I’d never been able to decide which”, and places it in front of him on his chair. Thorwald shoots at the shadowed outline of the bust, and the bust stops the bullet. Then the police arrive, chasing Thorwald, and he falls to his death.
Recurring players: Jimmy Stewart had already appeared in Rope, and would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake) and Vertigo. Grace Kelly had just starred in Dial M For Murder, and would also star in Hitchcock’s next film To Catch A Thief. Sara Berner (the woman with the dog) would have a small role in North by Northwest, at least her voice would (she is the telephone operator that Cary Grant speaks to at the Plaza Hotel). Jesslyn Fax (sculptress) and Len Hendry (policeman) had small uncredited roles in North by Northwest. Anthony Warde (detective that mentions the hatbox at the end) will have a role as another policeman in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Fred Graham (one of police that goes to Thorwald’s apartment) would later play the policeman that falls off the roof at the beginning of Vertigo. Bess Flowers (songwriter’s party guest with poodle), known as the Queen of Hollywood extras, appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films. Voice talent Art Gilmore, whose voice can be heard on the radio, had performed the same service on Saboteur.
Academy Awards: Rear Window received four Oscar nominations: Alfred Hitchcock for Best Direction, Robert Burks for Best Color Cinematography, John Michael Hayes for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Loren L. Ryder for Best Sound Recording. Unfortunately, they all went home empty-handed on Oscar night.
Box office success: Rear Window was the highest-grossing film of 1954, eventually earning $36 million at the box office, and making it Hitchcock’s highest-earning film up to that point.
Burr as Selznick? This is what Raymond Burr looked like in 1954.
If you’ve ever wondered why Hitchcock dramatically altered Burr’s appearance for the role of Lars Thorwald, he had a very specific reason. Hitchcock had Burr made up to resemble producer David O. Selznick. Selznick of course had famously signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract in 1940, luring Hitchcock to the United States. While their partnership began with much promise, it ended rather poorly. Hitchcock had certainly had his fill of Selznick’s micro-managing. So several years later, Hitchcock decided to take a subtle jab at his former producer, by making the wife and dog killing Lars Thorwald resemble him. Hitchcock never directly addressed this in any interview, and the average moviegoer would have been completely unaware. But most Hollywood insiders would have been in on the joke.
Where’s Hitch? This film features my personal favorite of all Hitchcock’s cameos. At about the 26:15 mark, Hitchcock can be seen winding the clock on the mantel in the composer’s apartment. As he is winding it, he turns and looks over his shoulder, speaking to the composer as he sits at the piano.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had much to say about this film over the years. When talking with Truffaut, Hitch said:
It was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea…I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well charged.
In a piece written for Take One in 1968, Hitchcock had a lot of interesting comments to make, including more on the idea of montage:
It’s composed largely of Mr. Stewart as a character in one position in one room looking out onto his courtyard. So what he sees is a mental process blown up in his mind from the purely visual. It represents for me the purest form of cinema which is called montage; that is, pieces of film put together to make up an idea.
Hitch also says:
Rear Window has a happy ending, but I don’t think you have to drag in a happy ending. I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.
Definitive edition: Universal’s 2014 blu-ray release is fantastic. First of all, the picture quality is amazing. Watching this blu-ray on a large hi-def TV reveals many never before noticed details. The soundtrack is fantastic too. Included with the movie are several extra features. First and foremost is a wonderful commentary track by John Fawell, author of a book about Rear Window. This is hands down one of the most informative commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, without ever becoming too dry or scholarly. Also included is a 55-minute making of documentary, a 13-minute interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, two other mini-documentaries, a half hour vintage interview with Hitchcock conducted in the early 70’s, and audio excerpts from the Truffaut interview sessions. In addition, the blu-ray has both the original and re-release theatrical trailers.
Strangers on a Train was the first collaboration between director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks. Burks would go on to be the cinematographer on eleven more Hitchcock films. He was always able to adapt to the subject matter and give Hitchcock exactly what was needed. Whether black & white or color, whether the documentary style of The Wrong Man or the lush color scheme of Vertigo, Burks and Hitchcock were always in sync. Burks received an Oscar nomination for Strangers, and I think it’s worth taking a deeper look at his lighting scheme.
I have already written about Hitchcock’s clever use of lamps in several movies. (The Paradine Case has a sequence in which a lamp is almost a third character in the scene. And I’ve written extensively about the importance of lamps in Dial M for Murder.) But I am amazed at the number of visible lamps in this movie, often (but not always) in place as a visible light source. Clearly this was a deliberate design, the result of Hitchcock and Bob Burks working together. And of course credit has to be given to set designer George James Hopkins, a four-time Oscar winner.
So in the following picture it is not exactly a lamp, but there is a visible light source in between Guy and Miriam as they talk. It provides visual balance to the framing.
The entire carnival sequence is fantastically lit. It was rare in the early 50’s to see a sequence like this filmed on location, at night, and it makes a huge difference. In a shot like this, there is the play of light on the water for an added effect.
How about this interesting camera angle, when Guy gets the phone call from Anne Morton after Miriam has been killed. The lamp appears to tower over Guy.
When Guy gets to the Morton’s house, the sequence features no less than three lamps, filmed from a variety of sides and angles. This first lamp is easy to identify, with the sash along the top.
Now here is lamp number 2 behind Barbara’s head. What a perfectly framed image. Notice that the lamps all function practically as part of the set; in other words, they are one of the light sources illuminating the image.
This is lamp number two again, seen behind and below Anne in her close-up.
Now we see the original lamp, at frame right, where before it was frame left. Notice how it not only lights the corner, but provides balance to the composition.
And here is lamp number three, as the camera has made a full circuit of the room.
After Senator and Barbara Morton leave the room, Anne and Guy come together, with lamp number one perfectly centered in the frame behind them.
When Guy returns to the Morton’s the following evening, we see lamp number one from a different angle. Guy is feeling the weight of his predicament, and a lamp again seems to tower over him.
Later, Guy is in his apartment, hiding Bruno’s gun. For the first time he towers above a light source.
Hennessy joins Guy, and the same lamp provides balance to the scene. Now Guy has visual dominance over another character, as well as a light source.
Now we are back at the Morton house for the party, but in a different room, which means…different lamps!
Here is lamp number two in this room. Once again, it provides nice balance. Just as in the other room in the Morton house, the lamps in this room all have distinct designs, making them easy to distinguish.
Finally we get this lovely lamp, and composition, as Bruno is talking about murder to the two older married women.
Notice how the light sources shift, from frame left to frame right. Here Bruno is demonstrating the instruments with which he would kill.
And now, back in the study, the very same lamp that was between Guy and Anne in a moment of affection is between Guy and Bruno. (I must also note the reprint of the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington hanging above the lamp. We can see the painting every time we see the lamp, and the lamp illuminates it as well.)
Here is a fantastic shot, just after Bruno turns on the lamp in his father’s room. Yet another lamp illuminating the gulf between Guy and Bruno.
This is my favorite use of a lamp in the entire film, and for once it is not used as a light source. This scene takes place in daylight. The lamp is there purely to provide visual balance and counterpoint.
And finally, there is this hanging light at the carnival, which causes Bruno to hide his face in the shadows.
It is no wonder that Bob Burks received an Oscar nod for this movie. What is perhaps more impressive is how the lights are hiding in plain sight. Lamps are such a simple, innocuous feature in most rooms. And yet, just like any other detail, they are never seen within the frame by accident in a Hitchcock film. To paraphrase Hitchcock, the background has to function. And this movie is a perfect demonstration of how the director, cinematographer, and set designer all worked together to create a lighting scheme that serves both the function and the aesthetic of the movie.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) – Warner Bros. – ★★★★1/2
B&W – 101 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton), Laura Elliott (Miriam Haines).
Screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by William H. Ziegler
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Hitchcock at Warners: Alfred Hitchcock completed Stage Fright, which was distributed by Warner Bros., just before he entered production on Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock had found a new professional home, signing a multi-picture deal with Jack Warner. Stage Fright, while it had not lost money, was certainly no blockbuster, and even Hitchcock himself seemed indifferent towards the movie. Things would be different with his next film. He was completely engaged, and definitely firing on all cylinders creatively. As we take a look at the story of Strangers on a Train, we will see how Hitchcock used creative visuals throughout to advance and enhance the narrative.
A chance encounter? The movie opens with scenes inter-cutting between two pairs of very different shoes. Two men disembark from taxis, and enter a train station. They are never seen above the knee, as one moves from left to right, and the other from right to left. The way the scene is shot and edited, along with the music, seem to imply that they are moving inexorably towards one another.
We then see a train moving down the track, from a low camera angle. The intersecting railroad tracks suggest divergent lives that are about to intersect.
Hitchcock said of this opening: The shots of the rails in Strangers on a Train were the logical extension of the motif with the feet. Practically, I couldn’t have done anything else. The camera practically grazed the rails because it couldn’t be raised.
Then our two pairs of feet finally collide. One could almost call this a “meet cute”, because there is at least a slight homoerotic undertone to the relationship. One man, Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger), accidentally bumps his foot against the man sitting opposite him. This man, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) recognizes Guy as a tennis player, and engages him in conversation. Bruno, talking almost non-stop, demonstrates that he knows quite a bit about Guy, including the fact that he wishes to be divorced from his wife, so he can be with Anne Morton, a senator’s daughter. Bruno entices Guy back to his compartment for lunch.
Bruno is clearly an eccentric character, from his lobster-print tie to his many bizarre theories, and he has a delicate nature. Guy finds him a little odd, and slightly amusing, but ultimately harmless. Perhaps Guy feels a little sorry for him. Bruno proposes one of his many “theories” to Guy: the idea of a murder swap. Two people have someone in their life that they would like to be rid of (such as Guy’s wife and Bruno’s father), but they can’t do it because of the motive. But if they, complete strangers, swap murders, they will both be in the clear. “You like my idea, don’t you Guy? You think it’s OK?” asks Bruno. “Sure” Guy assures him, “they’re all OK.” Guy thinks he is just humoring this strange fellow, not endorsing his scheme.
Guy meets with his estranged wife Miriam, played to shrewish perfection by Laura Elliott. She refuses to divorce him, saying she wants him back, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child. When Bruno hears of this, he sets out to put his “theory” into practice.
Hitchcock has a marvelous sequence at a carnival, where Bruno follows Miriam and her two (!) male companions. Bruno is not secretive about it; rather, he makes sure that she sees him. And she appears interested. Even as she is with two other men, she is measuring the potential sexual prowess of a third. She marvels at his strength when he rings the bell at the strongman game, and he wiggles his eyebrows at her, flexing his hands. Miriam does not realize that this very strength which she is attracted to will be the instrument of her death. Bruno follows the trio into the tunnel of love, and we get this interesting shot, as Bruno’s boat, and his figure, seem to overtake and engulf Miriam.
Finally they end up on an island, a lover’s lane of sorts, and Bruno strangles Miriam to death. The scene begins quite violently.
The censors would never have allowed the entire strangulation to take place on screen, so Hitchcock found a very creative way to show her death.
Miriam’s glasses drop to the ground, and the act of strangulation is completed in the reflection of the glasses. This was achieved by constructing a giant, oversized set of reflective glasses. Actress Laura Elliott recalls that Hitchcock then instructed her to “float to the ground.”
Bruno then waits outside Guy’s house to tell him that his wife is dead and he is free. Naturally, Bruno expects that Guy will fulfill his end of the bargain by killing Bruno’s father. Notice how this scene is staged. First Bruno is standing behind a gate, implying his guilt.
Then, when the police show up at Guy’s door, he too hides behind the gate. Now he is complicit in the crime. He tells Bruno “Now you have me acting like a guilty man.” And of course he is guilty of wishing Miriam dead. After all, he really did want his wife out of the way, and now it has happened.
The next section of the film has Bruno continually inserting himself into Guy’s life, a constant reminder of the crime that has been committed, and the crime that Bruno wishes to still be committed. Meanwhile, the police are suspicious of Guy in the death of his wife.
In one unforgettable shot, Bruno observes Guy from a great distance, on the steps of the Jefferson memorial.
In a 1955 interview in Cahiers du Cinema Hitchcock describes this shot: In Strangers on a Train I had to show a menacing crazy man. I couldn’t use close-ups all the time; that’s boring. So I had the idea of using a small silhouette. The grandiose Jefferson Memorial in Washington, all white, with a little silhouette, oh so black. That was the equivalent of a close-up.
Then we have an ingenious shot at a tennis match. Every head in the crowd is swivelling back and forth, left to right, following the path of the ball. Every head except one: that of Bruno, who stares directly at Guy.
Finally Guy goes to Bruno’s house. Is he going to kill Bruno’s father? Greater suspense is added to the scene with the inclusion of a large dog on the stairwell. Bruno gets past the dog and into the father’s room. He has not come to kill him, but rather to warn him about his crazy son. Unfortunately, it is Bruno in his father’s bed.
Hitchcock describes this sequence as follows: …in that scene we first have a suspense effect, through the threatening dog, and later on we have a surprise effect when the person in the room turns out to be Robert Walker instead of his father. I remember we went to a lot of trouble getting that dog to lick Farley Granger’s hand.
Bruno tells Guy that he will set him up for the murder of his wife. He has possession of Guy’s cigarette lighter, and Guy realizes that he will take it back to the location of the murder, in an attempt to frame him.
This sets up the film’s finale. First there is a masterful sequence, showing Guy trying to win a tennis match as fast as possible, intercut with Bruno on his way to the amusement park. Bruno drops the lighter in a storm drain and struggles to get it out.
Hitchcock described this sequence in a 1950 interview with New York Times Magazine: In Strangers on a Train, the picture I am working on now, we are really exploiting the dramatic possibilities of movement. The hero plays a championship tennis match, knowing all the while that the villain is moving deliberately toward the execution of a piece of dirty work which will leave the hero hopelessly incriminated. He must play as hard and as fast as he can in order to win the match, get off the court, and overtake the villain…The camera, cutting alternately from the frenzied hurry of the tennis player to the slow operation of his enemy, creates a kind of counterpoint between two kinds of movement.
The finale of the movie is a showstopper of a sequence, which takes place on an out-of-control carousel, where Guy and Bruno face off, with the police watching.
The shooting of this sequence involved a real moving carousel, a static carousel with a moving screen behind, and a miniature. All combine seamlessly; the sequence holds up rather well.
Bruno refuses to confess to the murder, even as he is dying, but he is betrayed by the very object that he hoped to use to pin the murder on Guy. This is a near-flawless film, that deserves to be mentioned among Hitchcock’s best works.
Performance: Farley Granger is wonderful in the leading role of Guy Haines. I find it interesting that Hitchcock wanted William Holden for the role. Certainly Holden was a great actor, but his macho persona was not what this role needs. Even as Guy is repulsed by Bruno, he still continues to show empathy, and I don’t think Holden could have pulled it off. Ruth Roman, while a competent actress, plays the part with a cold detachment. There is little chemistry between Granger and Roman. As was frequently the case in a Hitchcock movie, the best role belongs to the villain, and Robert Walker is one of the best Hitchcock villains of all. He is in some ways a precursor to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates; a charming but fragile man, who has mental health issues exacerbated by his mother. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who plays Ruth Roman’s younger sister, steals every scene she is in. This is the best part she ever had in a feature film, and she plays it perfectly. Leo G. Carroll is solid, as always, in the role of Senator Morton. And Marion Lorne, who will forever be remembered as Aunt Clara from TV’s Bewitched, plays Bruno’s mother with a brilliant comic touch.
Source material: This movie is based on the debut novel of Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith would go on to write many psychological thrillers, with a taut but textured literary style. The novel Strangers on a Train differs in a few significant ways from the film. The overall premise is the same; the chance meeting on the train and Bruno’s idea for swapping murders. In the novel, Guy is an architect rather than a tennis player. The biggest difference is that in the book, Guy actually does murder Bruno’s father, completing the double murder compact. But Bruno keeps coming around, wanting to befriend Guy. Eventually Bruno accidentally drowns, which would seem to leave Guy in the clear. But at some point he feels compelled to confess to his ex-wife’s lover, and this confession is overheard by a detective. Guy turns willingly turns himself in at the end. Never content to focus just on the plot and characters, Highsmith would often delve into psychological ruminations about the nature of people. Here is one such excerpt of many to be found in this book:
But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative.
The thrilling carousel climax of the film is nowhere to be found in this book, but appears to be lifted directly from the 1946 novel The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. Could it be coincidental? Possibly, although there are many similarities. At any rate, Crispin was not credited on the film at all.
Recurring players: Farley Granger had earlier starred in Rope. Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll was also in Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia also had small roles in Stage Fright and Psycho. Murray Alper (carnival boat operator who recognizes Bruno) had appeared in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Saboteur. Al Bridge (tennis judge) had an earlier uncredited role in Saboteur. Leonard Carey (the Antony’s butler) also had small parts in Rebecca, Suspicion and The Paradine Case. Herbert Evans had appeared in Foreign Correspondent. Tommy Farrell (one of Miriam’s escorts to the carnival) would later turn up as an elevator operator in North by Northwest. Sam Flint (man who asks Bruno for a light on the train) would later turn up in Psycho as a county sheriff. Charles Sherlock (cop) was Barry’s taxi driver in Saboteur. And Robert Williams (bystander at drain) would later turn up in North by Northwest.
Academy Awards: This film received one Oscar nod. Robert Burks was nominated for best Black and White Cinematography. He did not win.
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 10:30 mark. As Farley Granger is exiting the train in Metcalf, Hitchcock is boarding the train, while carrying a double bass.
What Farley said: In his autobiography Include Me Out, Farley Granger had the following to say about his love interest in the film, Ruth Roman:
Warner Brothers was producing Strangers, and Ruth was under contract to them. Hitch had wanted the then-little-known young actress Grace Kelly for the part, but Warners had refused. Since they had to pay MGM to use Bob and Goldwyn to use me, they insisted that he use Ruth, who was really not right for the part. Hitch did not like his artistic wishes thwarted. As a result, he was cold and sometimes cruel to Ruth, which was unfair because as a contract player she was just doing what her studio told her to do. But Hitch was right, she was wrong for the part.
Farley does not elaborate on why he thought she was wrong. About working on the movie, he said:
All in all, working on Strangers on a Train was my happiest filmmaking experience… [Hitch] knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it…After he finished a setup, he would walk to the assistant, who would turn over a page. Hitch would look at it and say: The camera goes here, here and there; the lenses are this, this and that; the action takes place from here to there. Then he would relax while the crew got things ready. They respected and trusted him because he was able to be precise about what he wanted. He never had to peer through a lens finder to see how a shot looked.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock was proud of several moments in Strangers on a Train, but he still considered it a flawed film. I think he is a little harsh in his assessment of this movie, which is a bona fide Hitchcock classic. Among other things, he said:
As I see it, the flaws of Strangers on a Train were the ineffectiveness of the two main actors and the weakness of the final script. If the writing of the dialogue had been better, we’d have had stronger characterizations. The great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures…I was quite pleased with the over-all form of the film and with the secondary characters. I particularly liked the woman who was murdered; you know, the bitchy wife who worked in a record shop. Bruno’s mother was good too – she was just as crazy as her son.
I think the script is rather solid, with lots of well-penned dialogue. Obviously it was not what Hitchcock was hoping for. About his starring couple, he had the following harsh words:
She [Ruth Roman] was Warner Brother’s leading lady, and I had to take her on because I had no other actors from that company. But I must say that I wasn’t too pleased with Farley Granger; he’s a good actor, but I would have like to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger. In this kind of story the stronger the hero, the more effective the situation.
Definitive edition: Warner Brothers 2012 blu-ray release is the best version of this film available for home viewing. In addition to a sensational print of the film, the blu-ray also includes an alternate preview version, which has some slight, subtle differences from the final cut; an excellent commentary track including archival audio from people like Hitchcock himself, Whitfield Cook, Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, and many more contributors. Also included are five featurettes: a 36-minute making-of documentary; The Victim’s P.O.V, which is a 7-minute interview with the actress who played Miriam; a 12 minute appreciation by director M. Night Shyamalan; a featurette with Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughters; and a one-minute archival clip with no audio, likely from the promotional tour from the movie. Also included is the original theatrical trailer.
Principal cast: Gregory Peck (Anthony Keane), Ann Todd (Gay Keane), Alida Valli (Mrs. Paradine), Louis Jourdan (Andre Latour), Charles Laughton (Judge Horfield), Charles Coburn (Sir Simon Flaquer), Ethel Barrymore (Lady Horfield).
Screenplay by David O. Selznick, adapted by Alma Reville from the novel by Robert Hichens.
Cinematography by Lee Garmes
Edited by Hal C. Kern
Music by Franz Waxman
A troubled ending: When Hitchcock entered into production on this movie in 1947, he knew it would be the last film on his contract with David O. Selznick. While Hitchcock was dedicated to the film, his mind was already on his next project, which he planned to make as an independent producer. The process of making The Paradine Case was in many ways a mirror of the Hitchcock/Selznick relationship. It began with much promise, and deteriorated over time. A controlling producer and disinterested director are not an ideal combination for great filmmaking.
The Story: The story of The Paradine Case is excellent. Alida Valli plays Mrs. Paradine, a woman accused of murdering her husband. Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, the lawyer hired to defend her in court. Over time, Peck becomes infatuated with Mrs. Paradine, actually confessing to being in love with her at one point. As Keane develops an obsession with Mrs. Paradine, his work and his marriage begin to suffer. Keane’s wife, played by Ann Todd, is well aware of his feelings for his client, and yet urges him on in trying the case. The situation is further complicated by the judge assigned to oversee the case. Judge Horfield, played to perfection by Charles Laughton, has a strong attraction to Mrs. Keane. He makes a pass at her, while her husband is standing just feet away, unaware. She rebuffs him. Will his anger at being turned away affect his judgment in the case at hand?
As if that is not enough drama, there is another element added by Mr. Paradine’s valet Andre Latour, played by Louis Jourdan. Anthony Keane wants to imply that Jourdan’s character may be the real murderer, but Mrs. Paradine opposes this line of defense. Is it possible that she has feelings for the valet? Ultimately, Keane’s monomania threatens to destroy his client’s case, his career, and his marriage. He is able to salvage one of these three things.
The first half of the movie deals with the build-up to the trial, and Keane’s growing fascination. The second (and far superior) portion of the film focuses on the trial.
Conflict on the set: Much like the character of Anthony Keane obsessing over his client, David O. Selznick obsessed over the movie, involving himself in every aspect of production. First of all in his casting choices, many of which Hitchcock was not happy with. Then, in his constant rewriting of the screenplay. He would watch the dailies every day, write new pages in the evening, and deliver them to the set in the morning. As a consequence, many days filming did not being until eleven or twelve. As Gregory Peck said of Selznick’s rewritten pages, Hitchcock would “see those blue pages in the morning and he would just retreat to his bungalow…in all fairness to Hitch, the dialogue was invariably worse not better.”
Then there was conflict over how the film was lit. Hitchcock wanted to create a movie that was rich in shadows, but Selznick was having none of it. Lee Garmes, the veteran cinematographer, was caught in a tug of war between Hitchcock and Selznick. Hitchcock would ask for more shadows, while Selznick wanted glamour shots, particularly for his newly-discovered star Alida Valli. He wanted close-ups and bright light on her face.
Selznick would dash off memos to his director, critical of the way the film was being shot. Selznick said:
There is no shading or attempt to photograph Jourdan interestingly as there was in the first few days, and if we’re not careful this will be true of Valli…We can’t go on photographing the walls and windows, making passport photos, without any modeling to the face, any lighting designed to give the woman interest and beauty and mystery, no study of her best angles and how to light and photograph them.
Describing Hitchcock’s work as filming “passport photos” is a particularly biting comment, which must not have sat well with the director.
Hitchcock also had some elaborate tracking shots planned, which Selznick ordered scrapped and shot conventionally. Finally, Selznick controlled the editing as well. Hitchcock turned in a nearly three-hour rough cut, from which Selznick trimmed almost an hour, including some of Hitchcock’s more interesting shots. Selznick settled on a preview version of the movie, but would ultimately cut an additional ten minutes. It is uncertain whether a print of this preview version is still in existence, but it would certainly be interesting to see some of the footage that Selznick cut out.
The Hitchcock touch? Despite this film ultimately being more of a Selznick film than a Hitchcock film, there are still several nice Hitchcock touches throughout. There is a very well-filmed scene between Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan. The conversation has a confrontational air. Peck sees Jourdan not only as his adversary in the trial, but also a sexual adversary in relation to Mrs. Paradine. As they sit and face each other across a table, a lamp is suspended above their heads, with decorative crystals hanging from it.
As the scene becomes more intense Hitchcock cuts to a close-up, and now we see only the crystals, suspended almost like a jagged row of teeth above the men’s heads.
There is a scene in the courtroom which Hitchcock was particularly proud of, which involved Alida Valli sitting in the defense box while Louis Jourdan entered the courtroom and walked around the box, to the witness stand. It was done by shooting Jourdan first, walking through a 200-degree arc. Then Alida Valli was placed in front of a screen showing this footage, and sat on a stool that slowly turned. As Hitchcock said: “It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.”
Finally, there is a trademark Hitchcock overhead shot, following Gregory Peck as he slowly leaves the courtroom for the last time, in defeat.
Performance: Gregory Peck is a great actor, but Hitchcock may have been right when he stated that Peck was not a convincing English lawyer. Alida Valli plays Mrs. Paradine as cold and distant. That is how the character was written in the book, and yet she is also supposed to possess an almost immeasurable allure, affecting every man she comes in contact with. This allure is missing from Valli’s performance, and the character of Mrs. Paradine suffers for it. Ann Todd, in the role of Mrs. Keane, also plays her part with a certain detachment. As Hitchcock said of her character: “She was too coldly written, I’m afraid.” And Louis Jourdan, with his charm and good looks, was not exactly what this role called for. These are certainly all good actors, but they were at odds with the material at hand. The really good performances in this movie are found in the smaller roles. Charles Laughton is perfectly cast as the lecherous Judge Horfield, and Ethel Barrymore is also wonderful in the role of his wife. Charles Coburn is solid, as always, in the role of Sir Simon Flaquer, and Joan Tetzel is a revelation in the role of his daughter, Judy. She has more vibrancy than all the other women in the movie combined.
Source material: This film is based upon the 1933 novel by Robert Hichens. The basic premise of the novel is the same as the movie, and it’s a good one. The novel is a decent read by today’s standards, although the courtroom scenes at the end are the most gripping part of the book. There are several differences between the novel and film. In the novel, Mrs. Paradine is found guilty, but she never actually confesses. Not only that, but the reader is never definitively told that she killed her husband. It is implied, but not explicitly stated. Also Mr. Paradine’s valet, called William Marsh in the book, does not commit suicide. At the end of the novel we find out in an aside that Keane has retired from the bar, and that Judge Horfield was shot, and has also retired. We are led to believe, through a fairly subtle clue, that Keane shot Horifield. Lady Horfield is also a more significant character in the novel.
Hitchcock themes: One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most pervasive themes is that of guilt, both real and perceived. Everyone in this movie is carrying some level of guilt, except perhaps the lecherous Judge Horfield, who feels no guilt for his actions. Mrs. Paradine doesn’t express any guilt for her husband’s death, but perhaps feels bad for the way Andre Latour is treated. Keane feels guilty because he is emotionally unfaithful to his wife. His wife feels guilty because she cannot stand back and let him try the case. Latour feels guilty because of his indiscretions with Mrs. Paradine.
There is an interesting comparison to be made between this film and Vertigo. Both films feature a man falling in love with an idealized version of a woman, a woman that does not really exist. And in both cases, the man in question blindly pursues this idealized woman to a tragic ending.
Academy Awards: Ethel Barrymore received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, for her brief but memorable role as Lady Horfield. She did not win. Some may be surprised that a role comprising only three minutes of screen time could be nominated for an Oscar. The print of this movie that was shown to the Academy for voting consideration was longer than the final theatrical cut, and included some more scenes of Barrymore’s character.
Recurring players: Gregory Peck had earlier starred in Spellbound. Charles Laughton had appeared in Jamaica Inn. The stalwart character actor Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor. In addition to this film, he was in Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. Patrick Aherne (police sergeant) would later have a small role in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Leonard Carey (courtroom stenographer) also had bit parts in Rebecca, Suspicion and Strangers on a Train. Elspeth Dudgeon had appeared in Foreign Correspondent. Lumsden Hare (courtroom attendant) had appeared in Rebecca and Suspicion. Phyllis Morris (Mrs. Carr) had a bit part in The 39 Steps. The great character actor John Williams has an uncredited role as Barrister Collins, Gregory Peck’s assistant. He is seen in several scenes, but has no dialogue. He would have plenty of dialogue in Dial M For Murder and To Catch a Thief.
Where’s Hitch? Alfred Hitchcock shows up just after the 38:00 mark, exiting the train station, and carrying what appears to be a cello case.
What Hitch said: Generally speaking, when Hitchcock considered one of his own films to be weak, he had little to say about it. But he actually had quite a lot to say about this movie, while recognizing its flaws:
Let’s go over some of the more apparent flaws of that picture. First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer. I would have brought in Laurence Olivier…But the worst flaw in the casting was assigning Louis Jourdan to play the groom. After all, the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess, but also a nymphomaniac. And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom…Unfortunately, Selznick had already signed up Alida Valli – he thought she was going to be another Bergman – and he also had Louis Jourdan under contract, so I had to use them, and this miscasting was very detrimental to the story. Aside from that, I myself was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor.
Definitive edition: Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in 2017, as part of their Studio Classics series. The print is good, not great. As a matter of fact it has a very grainy appearance in places, but it is still better than it has ever looked on a home video release. The blu-ray includes a commentary track by Bill Krohn and Stephen Rebello; two audio interviews featuring Hitchcock, one with Francois Truffaut and one with Peter Bogdanovich; a Lux Radio Theater radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotten; a brief interview with two of Gregory Peck’s children; theatrical trailer; and a restoration comparison.
Principal cast: Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), John Hodiak (John Kovak), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Henry Hull (Charles Rittenhouse, Jr.), Walter Slezak (Captain Willi), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley).
Screenplay by Jo Swerling based on a treatment by John Steinbeck
Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Music by Hugo W. Friedhofer
Origins: Although signed to a contract with David O. Selznick, Lifeboat would be the sixth consecutive film that Alfred Hitchcock would make on a loan-out to another studio. This is the only film that Hitchcock ever made for 20th Century Fox. It would run over schedule, over budget, and actually lost money on its initial run. It has been an often overlooked film in the Hitchcock oeuvre that has finally begun to receive the acclaim it deserves in recent years.
The movie has a typical Hitchcock opening, a wordless montage of images that sets the scene perfectly. First we see smoke emanating from a smokestack. We then see that the smokestack belongs to a sinking ship. Finally, various objects from the shipwreck drift through the screen. First the objects are innocuous: playing cards, a magazine, etc. But finally a dead body drifts into screen. The dead body is face down, and wearing a life vest that identifies him as the crewman of a German U-boat. Eventually we see a woman alone on a lifeboat. The woman is Constance Porter, played to perfection by Tallulah Bankhead. It is no accident that she is introduced alone in the boat. Constance is the central character in the film, as is the journey her character undertakes.
Eventually we end up with nine survivors on the boat. They represent different types. The boat is a microcosm of the world during wartime: the industrialist, the socialist, the German U-boat survivor, etc. The main plot line of the movie involves the way the survivors of the shipwreck will treat the German sailor. Do they keep him alive? Do they trust his navigational skills? After all, it was his U-boat that sank their ship in the first place. As is typical of a Hitchcock film, the audience is given information about the German (Captain Willi, played by Walter Slezak) before the other characters in the film. When the others finally have this knowledge, what course will they take? This is the ultimate point that Hitchcock wished to make with Lifeboat. The Germans were implacable; they had a sense of purpose, and the only way the Allies would beat them is to put all differences aside and unite with the same sense of purpose. Lifeboat is more about characterization than it is plot, so I won’t dwell too much on plot specifics.
Each of the characters must undergo a transformation to reach the place where all can work together in unity. By the film’s final act, the crew have survived a vicious storm together, and the population of the boat has decreased somewhat. It is Constance that has to discard the most trappings. This is achieved visually, as her personal belongings are stripped from her one by one throughout the film. First her camera, her suitcase, her mink coat, her typewriter and ultimately her treasured bracelet are all lost overboard. Finally stripped of these physical accoutrements representative of her place in society, Constance is left with the only things that really matter, and gives a rallying speech, uniting the members of the boat to work together.
Framing the image: One of the technical aspects of the movie which most appealed to Hitchcock was the idea of filming an entire movie in a limited setting, and developing different camera set-ups and methods of framing to tell the story. Throughout this article I have included a few examples of the many ingenious ways that Hitchcock framed the characters on the boat. He used just about every conceivable set-up possible, without ever leaving the confines of the boat, and not once does the camera work seem artificial, or contrived. This is a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a technician. I would venture to say that Hitchcock’s technical achievements on this film surpass the story itself.
Performance: Although this movie is an ensemble piece, featuring nine people in one small space, Tallulah Bankhead is clearly the focal character. As Hitchcock said: “The characterization by Tallulah Bankhead dominated the whole film.” Bankhead was known more as a stage actress, and hadn’t been in any films for a decade when Hitchcock sought her out to be his leading lady. She is the exact opposite of the “typical” Hitchcock leading lady, the blond, ethereal beauties such as Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Bankhead is dark haired, passionate and sultry. And she is absolutely perfect in this movie. This is far and away the greatest performance of her career on film.
The actor Murray Alper was originally cast in the role of the injured sailor Gus. Alper had appeared in the small but memorable role of a truck driver in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and Hitch was so pleased with his performance that he offered him this very substantial role. Unfortunately, Alper could not overcome his seasickness. The boat was attached to a mechanism that kept it constantly rocking, and after three days of filming Alper was released. His loss was William Bendix’s gain. Bendix, an underrated character actor who had a prolific career until his early demise, gives a career performance as Gus. Bendix’s Gus is so likable, his portrayal so heartfelt. He represents every American who didn’t make it home.
John Hodiak also gives the performance of a lifetime as Kovak. Hodiak died at only 41 years of age, and never had another performance of this magnitude. All of the other cast members give solid performances. Walter Slezak is fantastic in the role of the German. Hume Cronyn, an always dependable character actor, is solid, even if his English accent is questionable.
Source material: Alfred Hitchcock hired John Steinbeck to pen an original treatment that would become the basis for the film. Hitchcock had just had great luck working with a couple of established American authors (Dorothy Parker had helped pen the screenplay for Saboteur, and Thornton Wilder had co-written Shadow of a Doubt.) His relationship with Steinbeck would not be so rosy. Hitchcock describes the writing process for this film as follows: I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all….I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again.
Steinbeck’s original treatment, or novella, has never been published, despite many entreaties to the Steinbeck estate to do so. Steinbeck was so disgusted with the final product that he asked for his name to be removed from the film. That was not to be. 20th Century Fox felt that his name might add some prestige, and refused to remove it. Funnily enough, Steinbeck would receive an Oscar nomination for best original story. One of the things that most troubled Steinbeck was Joe Spencer, whose characterization in the film was a far cry from the way Steinbeck had written him.
Canada Lee, actor: When this film was released, there were virtually no significant roles given to people of color in Hollywood. If one looks at the roles of African American actors in Hitchcock movies, one sees the repeated stereotypes typical of the time: railroad porters and servants. There is even an unfortunate use of blackface in one of Hitchcock’s otherwise great British thrillers, Young and Innocent. Canada Lee’s character Joe Spencer is the first person of color to have a major speaking role in a Hitchcock movie. And almost the only one, ever. We would have to wait another quarter century (!), until Topaz and the amazing Harlem sequence featuring Roscoe Lee Browne.
Canada Lee was a pioneer for people of color on the screen. He was a brilliant actor, whose talent transcended the stereotypes that he was often handed to play. Lee began his professional life as a boxer, but a detached retina forced him to seek out a new career. Lee became a stage actor, who achieved acclaim on Broadway in the role of Banquo in the Orson Welles’ directed all-black MacBeth in 1936. Welles and Lee would reunite in 1941, to even further acclaim, in a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Lee’s character Joe, as written in Lifeboat, is just another stereotype, beginning with his name. Henry Hull’s wealthy industrial capitalist Rittenhouse keeps calling him “George.” This was a term in common use at the time for railroad porters, no different than “boy” or “son”, and just as demeaning. Joe finally corrects him, letting Rittenhouse and the audience know that he has a name, and an identity. The screenplay pens Joe as a reformed pickpocket. Why does the only person of color need to have a criminal background? He is also the only one who espouses any spirituality, and he has a recorder tied around his neck, upon which he plays plaintive tunes in appropriate moments. Lee elevates this character far above the written word, however. He consciously made sure that there was never an element of the subservient black man in his roles. He speaks with brilliant, restrained elocution, and a calm dignity that propels his character to a moral high ground. In many ways, Joe is the only person on the lifeboat who maintains a moral equanimity throughout the movie. Sidney Poitier would later cite Canada Lee as a major influence on him, someone who helped blaze a trail that would ultimately lead Poitier to the podium as a recipient of the first Best Acting Oscar for a man of color.
Academy Awards: Lifeboat received three Oscar nominations: Alfred Hitchcock for best director, John Steinbeck for best original story, and Glen MacWilliams for best black and white cinematography. It lost in all categories.
Recurring players: Heather Angel had appeared as Ethel the maid in Suspicion. And Hume Cronyn had played neighbor Herbie Hawkins in Shadow of a Doubt.
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s ingenious cameo comes just after the 25-minute mark. Here is Hitch’s description: That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink…Finally, I hit on a good idea. At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for “before” and “after” pictures. These photographs were used in a newspaper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them – and me- when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat. The role was a great hit. I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how the could get Reduco.
What Hume said: In A Terrible Liar, Hume Cronyn’s memoir, he has some harsh words for co-star Tallulah Bankhead: She was famous as a young woman for her looks, her scandalous behavior and above all for that low-pitched, throaty voice. One of my reservations about the lady was that the voice was heard all too often. She was a compulsive talker with a reputation for wit. My own estimation was that this was based on the law of averages: anyone who talked as much as Tallulah did was bound eventually to say something witty. Unfortunately, I saw more of the termigant than the wit.
Ouch! Then, three pages later, perhaps feeling guilty, Cronyn praises Bankhead’s professionalism: She was on time, she knew her lines, she took Hitch’s direction beautifully, she always turned up to play a scene with the rest of us even though she herself might be off camera, and I never heard her complain about the working conditions. These were pretty rough…we were frequently wet, cold, and covered with diesel oil.
About the film in general, Hume said it was an uncomfortable one to make, physically uncomfortable, because of its nature. Nine of us huddled together in a lifeboat on frequently stormy seas for the best part of three months. To call it close quarters would be an understatement. No part of the film was actually shot at sea. It was made either in the studio or in a tank on the back lot at Fox…The film posed technical difficulties that were meat and drink to Hitch. He rejoiced in solving them.
What Hitch said: In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said: We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination…Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit elsewhere, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous. I never let that camera get outside the boat, and there was no music at all; it was very rigorous.
Definitive edition: Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in March of 2017 as part of their Studio Classics line. The blu-ray has very solid picture and sound; not perfect, but definitely the best it has looked and sounded in a long time. It includes two audio commentaries: one with film historian Tim Lucas, the other with Drew Casper, who holds the title of Hitchcock professor for the study of American film at USC. Lucas’ commentary is full of interesting story about the making of the film. I must confess that Drew Casper’s dry professorial air, and very distinct locution get on my nerves, although one can definitely learn from listening to his commentary. Also included is a twenty minute making-of documentary, an eleven minute audio clip from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a blu-ray re-release trailer.