VERTIGO tops CITIZEN KANE in ‘Sight & Sound’ poll. What does it mean?

Once every decade, Sight & Sound  (a publication of the British Film Institute) releases a list of the top 50 films, as voted on by film “professionals.”  This list has always been viewed with a certain hallowed reverence by some in the industry, but an equal number of film buffs view it as elitist.  One constant on this list for the last half century has been Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the top spot.  This year that film has been supplanted by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  

Does this mean that Vertigo is “better” than Kane?  The idea of empirically defining any work of art as better than another can only be subjective and arbitrary.   In  many other mediums of expression, the very idea of a best-of list is absurd.   The thought of trying to say that Van Gogh’s Starry Night is “better” than Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (to pick two famous paintings at random) is laughable.  There is no context by which to compare them.  They are separated by centuries, the product not only of different times and nations, but different worldviews.   Try this one:  rank the following books in order of greatness:  The Odyssey, Oliver Twist, Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Huckleberry Finn.  Difficult, if not impossible.

Yet when it comes to movies, (and music), we are incessantly making lists.  Perhaps it has to do with the medium of movies having been around for a much shorter time.  With just over a century of material to view, maybe we have an easier time placing them in context.  And yet, one could make the argument that Kane and Vertigo, although made in the same state less than 20 years apart, are as dramatically different as two paintings or novels separated by centuries.   Whatever the reason, movie list-making is here to stay.  All one has to do is google “top films of all time”, or something similar, and you will find page after page of movie lists, from the popular and mainstream, to the many hundreds if not thousands of blogs devoted to films.

I had a suspicion that a majority of film lists would be written by men, and that top-10 lists in general were more a male activity, particularly young men.   When I was a twenty-something young man I had many conversations with friends and coworkers that centered around making a list:  What are the three best burgers you’ve ever had?  Who are the five best-looking girls that work here?  Most of the guys I knew, including myself, were slightly tamer versions of the characters in Nick Hornby’s brilliant novel High Fidelity.  These fictional characters worked at a record store called Championship Vinyl, and incessantly made lists about everything.  When the protagonist discovers that his girlfriend’s father has died, these guys immediately start making a list of the top five songs dealing with death.  My very unscientific random sampling of blog sites leads me to believe that there are indeed more men making best-of movie lists, but there are plenty of women who have as well, I was delighted and relieved to discover.

So if all these lists are arbitrary and subjective, what is the point?  Why do so many movie lovers (myself included) eagerly peruse these lists?  Because we want to compare our own subjective views with those of the listmaker;  our views may be very different, but what we share is a passion for films.  Our “10-best” films are at the very least a reflection of our taste, and at best, maybe a reflection of something more.  So do these lists ultimately mean anything?  Nope.  There is no “best” anything.  The primary function of a movie is to entertain, to provide some escapism.   Whatever movie does that for you, may be your best, and that is irrefutable, no matter how many film “experts” tell you that your view is incorrect.  I once worked with a girl who thought Con Air was the greatest film ever made, and I, seeing myself as an arbiter of good taste in films, secretly snickered behind her back.   Today I would applaud her view.  If that film brings her pleasure, then who am I to deride it?

It is precisely because our tastes differ that these lists have meaning.  That is their greatest significance, as a conversation starter.  Put 10 self-professed movie lovers in a conference room, distribute to them a list of the 100 greatest films as chosen by (whomever) and give them the direction:   discuss.  You can be assured that hours of dialogue will follow.  So there you have it.   We are humans of the 21st century.  We will make movies.  We will make lists about movies.  We will discuss the lists, and the movies, endlessly, as a way of expressing our individuality, and yet finding a commonality at the same time.

Now a quick look at these two films, in the world of movie lists.   Both Vertigo and Citizen Kane appear on virtually every major “best movie” list.  However, Kane has always placed higher, until now.

AFI                AMC                     IMDB                      EMPIRE

Citizen Kane                 1                         9                            44                                 28

Vertigo                           9                        16                          49                                 40

Kane placed higher on all of these lists as you can see (of course IMDB changes constantly, but this ranking is as of 9-23-2012.)

Does this reflect a change in the view of these two movies in general, or in relation to each other?  They actually share some things  in common:  they are both considered technically brilliant, they both achieved their status of “greatness” decades after their initial release, and they are both films that many casual movie viewers struggle to engage with on a first viewing.   I have heard or seen comments many times,  in reference to both films, along the lines of:  “I just didn’t get it”, or “I couldn’t even get through it.”  While such comments may make some of us wish to grab the comment makers by the shoulders and shake them, there is a validity to what they are saying.

I love Vertigo.  I think it is an amazing work, a tortured and tortuous psychological journey into the darkness of the human psyche, with amazing performances.  This film is Exhibit A to refute anyone who thinks that Jimmy Stewart  just played variations of the same character over and over.   And I can’t say enough about Kim Novak’s work in this film.  She has to play multiple roles, and she has to make the audience fall for just as she has to make Stewart’s character fall for her, and she does it in the most intensely understated way.  But I certainly wouldn’t recommend Vertigo to a Hitchcock newbie who asked what film to watch first.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend it as my second or third choice either.  It’s not as directly engaging as Rear Window, or Psycho or many other Hitchcock films considered classics.  Vertigo (and Citizen Kane as well) require a level of committed engagement from the viewer, and some people are never going to have that kind of patience.  And for those who don’t, that’s OK.  I would say to someone who was watching these films for the first time, that they require the maximum investment if you want to receive the maximum payoff.


So which is better, the Van Gogh or the Botticelli?  The Welles or the Hitchcock?  Let’s just say they are two very good films, and you could certainly do worse than giving them a try.

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart.

James Stewart, the great American film actor, was born on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Stewart is one of the most celebrated American actors ever to appear on screen.  He was and is a truly American actor, an Everyman, someone with whom the audience could identify, and sympathize.

Stewart was incredibly prolific; in a career that spanned over half a century, he appeared in hundreds of films, television shows, radio programs, stage plays, and fought for his country in World War II.

James Stewart was nominated for five Academy Awards in his long career, surprisingly winning only once;  he took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1941, for The Philadelphia Story.   Stewart made four films with director Alfred Hitchcock during the course of his career, but was not nominated for an Oscar for any of these collaborations.    This is equally surprising, especially considering the power of his performance in 1958’s Vertigo,  certainly one of the most memorable roles of his film career.

Director Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart worked on three films together early in Stewart’s career.  This collaboration produced two unforgettable movies, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life.

James Stewart is one of the most decorated celebrities to serve his country in combat.  His rise from private to colonel in only 4 years is quite astonishing.  During the Second World War, he ultimately served as the command pilot of a B-24 bomber division, which flew many missions deep into Nazi territory.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, for actions he performed in combat.

Stewart was already a major star before the war, but it was after returning home that his career really exploded.   Consider for a moment Stewart’s film output during the fifties.  In this one decade, from 1950-59, Stewart starred in 22 films!!  His output just in this one decade includes Harvey, three films with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo), The Spirit of St. Louis with Billy Wilder, The Greatest Show on Earth with Cecil B. DeMille, Anatomy of a Murder with Otto Preminger, and 8 movies with director Anthony Mann!  All in the same decade!  Five of the Mann/Stewart collaborations were westerns, including Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur.  These westerns, which were shot on location whenever possible, had a gritty realism, and featured Stewart playing characters who were hard around the edges and morally ambiguous, a far cry from the characters he had played for Frank Capra early in his career.  These films are credited with revitalizing the western genre.

Stewart continued to work well into the 1980’s.  He died on July 2, 1997.

Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart made four movies together.

Rope (1948) –  This is probably the weakest of the 4 Hitch/Stewart collaborations.  It is worth watching more for the technical proficiency employed than the plot.  Stewart was so unhappy with the technical delays that occured on set, he is rumored to have said he would never work  with Hitchcock again!  Thank goodness he didn’t keep his word.

Rear Window (1954) – Stewart was so enchanted by the screenplay, he agreed to take a percentage of the gross rather than an upfront fee, which turned out to be a very lucrative decision.  The film was a hit in its day, and continues to entertain a new generation.  It is routinely considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – The most underrated of their four collaborations, this is actually a very entertaining and suspenseful movie.  It also did quite well at the box office.

Vertigo (1958) – A dense, psychologically complex work, which features brilliant performances by James Stewart and Kim Novak.  This film bombed upon its release, and received little critical acclaim.  It was decades after its release when the true power of this film began to be appreciated.  An absolute, undisputed classic.

So on the 104th anniversary of Jimmy Stewart’s birth, I’d like to say thank you for all the incredible, memorable performances Jimmy.  And for your service to your country.

Here is a clip of Jimmy Stewart honoring Alfred Hitchcock, when he recieved his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979.

In the late 1980’s, five of Hitchcock’s movies (including all four Jimmy Stewart collaborations) were re-released to theaters.  Here is the re-release trailer, narrated by Stewart. (Universal Pictures owns the rights to all of these film titles.)

Interview with Edna Green (Edna May Wonacott), from Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”

Edna May Wonacott with the master, Alfred Hitchcock

In my posted review of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Shadow of a Doubt I wrote that Edna May Wonacott (who played Ann Newton in the film), gives the best performance by a child actor in the entire Hitchcock canon.  And there are quite a few memorable ones:  Veronica Cartwright in The Birds, Desmond Tester in Sabotage, and Jerry Mathers in The Trouble with Harry spring to mind.

What makes Edna’s performance stand out?  Her character Ann Newton is wise beyond her years.  Other members of the Newton family treat her like a child, (which she certainly is), but she makes very mature observations.  Edna’s character gets many of the best lines in the movie, and many of them produce a smile.  My favorite line involves her character Ann commenting on her mother speaking very loud into the telephone:  “she thinks she has to cover the distance by sheer lung power”, quips Ann, a line rumored to be inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s own mother.  I also find it very significant that Ann is the only member of the Newton family who is on to her Uncle Charlie from the moment he steps off the train.  She knows that something is not quite right with him.  And Edna plays the part superbly.  It’s a performance I always enjoy, in a movie I’ve seen many times.

When I began to research Edna May Wonacott online, I soon learned that she is now Edna Green, and that she has quite a few fans.   The Lady Eve (who writes a blog on classic movies right here on wordpress and other sites as well) wrote a fantastic piece about Edna, which piqued my interest even further.  I was determind to write to Edna, and ask if she would consent to an interview for my blog.  Edna not only did reply, but graciously agreed to answer all of my questions about “innumerable things”, to steal a line from her character in the movie.   What follows is the complete text of our interview.

Steve:  How did you come to be cast in Shadow of a Doubt?

Edna:  I was standing on a street corner in Santa Rosa waiting for a bus to go home.  We had relatives visiting and my cousins and I went to town shopping.  Alfred Hitchcock and Jack Skirball the producer were standing on that corner looking at the intersection and discussing it, and I was kind of wondering what they were doing, and all of a sudden they started looking at me.  My older cousin wasn’t too happy about it and made me move away, and they still continued looking at me, and finally walked over to us and introduced themselves, and said they were going to make a movie in town and wanted to know if I would like to be in it!  Of course I said yes, and they said they would come out to our house and talk to my parents.  Then the bus came and we went home.  That afternoon they came out to the house and talked to my parents, and my mother and I went to Hollywood for a screen test, and that was how it got started.

Joseph Cotten and Edna May Wonacott from “Shadow of a Doubt”

 Did you become something of a celebrity in Santa Rosa?

Edna:  Naturally everybody in town was curious and lots of people came to my father’s grocery store that he owned, and wanted to touch the father of a movie star!  There was lots of publicity about it and lots of people watching the making of the movie since most of it was filmed on location in Santa Rosa.

  The ensemble cast in this film is amazing.  Everyone played their part so perfectly.  Did you bond as a group, when the camera was not rolling?

Edna:  It was like a job for all of us, and we became good friends as coworkers do. We didn’t get together other than work. I did become a close friend with Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter (Patricia) and when we went to Hollywood to finish the picture I would sometimes go out to their house for weekends. That was fun.

  It seems to me Teresa Wright had the most difficult role in this film, and she gives an outstanding performance.  What was it like to work with “big sister” Teresa?

Edna:  She was very nice, and so was everybody else who worked on the picture.  We were like a big family and had a good time.  Lots of practical jokes being played on each other and lots of laughs.

  Your character, Ann Newton, is the only one in the family who is immediately suspicious of Uncle Charlie.  Did you receive any specific directions on how to play your scenes with Joseph Cotten?  Did Hitchcock give alot of direction on the set to you and the other actors?

Edna:  I can’t say there were any specific instructions given.  Hitchcock just explained to me how my character felt about “Uncle Charlie” and more or less let me do my own thing.  He wanted not only my part but everybody’s part very natural and that was what I did.  I did just what he asked of me and I guess it pleased him.  He always described the scenes to us and it just seemed to come naturally.  It was very easy to understand what he wanted and that was how it came out.

  If you don’t mind a little character analysis, why do you think Ann was on to Uncle Charlie so quickly?

Edna:  I was only nine at the time and didn’t really give any thought to why Ann felt the way she did.  I can’t remember if I even knew the whole story until I saw the completed movie when it was made.  When a movie is made it’s not filmed in the sequence of the story.  We knew the night before what was being shot for the next day and that was the part you learned.

Edna May Wonacott (far right) as Ann Newton, with the rest of the Newton family.

 In his autobiography, Joseph Cotten said the screenplay for “Shadow of a Doubt” was so good that hardly a word was changed on the set.  Your character gets some of the best lines in the movie.  Do you recall if the dialogue was changed much?

Edna:  I don’t have any idea if the original dialogue was changed or not.  Probably not.  I didn’t really give much thought to what my lines were and just did what they wanted me to.  I know I had a good time everyday and enjoyed every minute of it.  Mainly because of having such nice people to work with.  Not only the actors but also all of the crew.

“Shadow of a Doubt” is one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films of his early American period.  It routinely makes “best film” lists, airs on television and at film festivals.  Why do you think this film holds up so well, over 60 years after its release?

Edna:  It amazes me that the film is still so popular and everybody seems to remember it.  It is really one of the true classics and I feel really proud to have been a part of it.  I carry really fond memories for that part of my life, and I am thankful to have such a blessed time of my life on film, so to speak.  I also have lots of scrap books and have been invited to lots of functions to show my scrap books and share that part of my life.  In fact I still receive fan mail and a lot of it in the last few months has been coming from Europe.  Lots of people in their 30’s and 40’s are turning to the classic films nowadays.

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I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Edna May Wonacott for taking the time to share her memories from the making of Shadow of a Doubt, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best, and most personal, films.

SABOTAGE (1936): “Who killed Cock Robin?”

SABOTAGE (1936) – Gaumont-British – Rating: ★★½

B&W – 77 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Oscar Homolka (Carl Verloc), Sylvia Sydney (Mrs. Verloc), John Loder (Police Sergeant Ted Spencer), Desmond Tester (Stevie), William Dewhurst (The Professor).

Produced by Michael Balcon & Ivor Montagu

Screenplay by Charles Bennett, based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Photography by Bernard Knowles

Edited by Charles Frend

Continuity:  Alma Reville

The movie opens on a close-up of a dictionary page, with the definition of “sabotage” prominent.  Then Hitchcock demonstrates that even at this early point in his career, he has mastered the economical set-up of a film:  close-up of a light bulb; fade to busy city street at night; back to light bulb, which flickers and goes out; close-up of a voltage meter which drops sharply; back to busy street scene, lights go out, over sounds of cacaphony; three quick jump cuts take us into an electrical plant; three men hunched over some equipment.  “Sand.”  “Sabotage.”    “Who did it?”  Over this question, we cut to a  man walking into frame, with a sinister look on his face and a sinister musical cue to match.  In about one minute the film has been set up.

And who is our saboteur?  Carl Verloc, who runs a movie theater, and lives with his wife and her younger brother in a flat adjoining the theater.  His family is not aware of his criminal activity, but a man who works at the fruit stand next to the theater is very interested in Mr. Verloc’s activities, and he’s even more interested in Mrs. Verloc.  This man is no fruit seller, he is an undercover policeman, sent to keep an eye on Verloc.

Verloc is very proud of his act of sabotage, plunging the city into darkness.  His overseer, however, is less than impressed.  They meet at an aquarium, and the other man tells Verloc that a bigger event is required:  namely, a bomb, and the deaths of innocent people.  Incidentally, the movie never tells us which country or agency Verloc is performing his acts of sabotage for, it is “they” who ask these things of him.  This is often the case in Hitchcock’s films;  the specifics of the espionage are inconsequential, it is the action that matters, for this is what advances the plot.

Verloc is instructed to visit a man called the Professor, who will build a time bomb for Verloc to leave in Piccadlly Circus.  As Verloc is visiting the Professor,  the police inspector is getting rather cosy with Mrs. Verloc and her young brother Stevie.  Clearly the inspector’s intentions with the married woman are more than professional.

Finally the fateful day arrives.  The bomb is ready.  But that dreadful police inspector is always hanging around.  How is Carl Verloc to leave the theater undetected to deliver the bomb?  Perhaps young Stevie could be convinced to do it for him.  This sets in motion the final act of the film, which will have tragic consequences for the Verloc family.  (For a detailed analysis of this final act, read the “deconstruction of a scene” segments below.  If you haven’t seen the film, be aware that all major plot points are discussed.)

Performance:  Most of the performances in this film leave something wanting.  Sylvia Sydney does quite a good job as Mrs. Verloc, but she has absolutely zero chemistry with John Loder, who plays the police sergeant.  Loder was not Hitchcock’s first choice.  Hitchcock wanted Robert Donat, with whom he had made The 39 Steps just one year prior, but Donat did not take the part.  Oscar Homolka does a decent job as Carl Verloc, but he is one of the few Hitchcock villians with whom the the audience never sympathizes, and this limits his character.  William Dewhurst is entertaining as The Professor, but overplays his part.

Source material:  It has often been remarked that the works of Joesph Conrad do not translate well to the big screen, and in most cases this has been proven out.   The reason this film does work fairly well is because Hitchcock eliminated most of the psychological and political overtones in the book, leaving just the primary action.  There were many changes in the jump from page to screen.  In the book, the bomb prematurely goes off in Greenwich Park. This is based on an actual incident that occured there in 1894.  Gone from the film version is Mrs. Verloc’s mother, who plays a fairly big role in the early part of the novel.  There is not even a hint of a romantic relationship between the police inspector and Mrs. Verloc in the novel.  Stevie is described as a feeble-minded young man in the book, whereas in the movie he is younger, and there is no hint of mental deficiency.  The book has a much darker ending (Conrad loves to kill off major characters at the end of almost every novel).  Also, in the book the Verlocs run a seedy pornographic store, selling “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls” and “a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety.”  Certainly that would not do for a movie made in the mid-1930’s;  Hitchcock has the Verlocs running a movie theater.

A Disney/Hitchcock connection?  Yes, there is a connection between Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock.  The cartoon which is being viewed in the theater near the end of the movie is the 1935 Silly Symphonies cartoon “Who Killed Cock Robin?”  In the opening credits of the film, there is a special thanks to Walt Disney for his permission to use the cartoon.

Recurring players:  Matthew Boulton (Superintendent Talbot) also appeared in The 39 Steps.  S.J. Warmington (Hollingshead) had small roles in Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and The 39 Steps.  Frank Atkinson had small roles in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent.  Pamela Bevan, Mike Johnson and Albert Chevalier also appeared in Young and Innocent.  D.A. Clarke-Smith was in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Clare Greet (the Verloc’s cook) appeared in Number 13, The Ring, The Manxman, Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Jamaica Inn.  Aubrey Mather (greengrocer) was also in Jamaica Inn and Suspicion.   Frederick Piper (bus conductor) also appeared in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, and Jamaica Inn.  Torin Thatcher had small roles in Young and Innocent and Saboteur.  And Jack Vyvian can also be seen in the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent.

Legacy:  In 1996, Christopher Hampton directed an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel.  Hampton’s version stays very true to Conrad’s source material, so his movie has few similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation.  This later version features Bob Hoskins as Verloc, Patricia Arquette as Mrs. Verloc, and Christian Bale as Stevie.

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t!  I have often heard and read, from a variety of sources, that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo in every movie from The Lodger onward.  It turns out this is not true.  If he is in this film, he’s so well hidden as to remain unrecognized.  There are a couple of sources (one of them being Wikipedia) that do cite a cameo in this film, but after scrutiny of the scenes cited I can say with some assurance they are not Hitchcock.  I would agree with the majority of Hitchcock books and websites, that he is not in this film.

Deconstruction of a scene, part 1:  There are two scenes in this film that are essential for understanding how Hitchcock used the techniques of editing and montage to generate tension, and he did it in two very different ways.   Lets watch the clip above.  How do the editing choices enhance the dramatic tension?  In this very short clip, there are 37 editorial cuts, an average of one cut every 3 1/2 seconds.  Hitchcock essentially shows us 4 things, over and over:  the boy interacting with the dog;  the package with the bomb; traffic scenes; and most importantly, the faces of passing clocks showing the progression of time.  Time is compressed considerably here;  the first clock face we see says 1:31, the last one we see is turning from 1:45 to 1:46.  So we have about 15 minutes of story time compressed into just over 2 minutes of movie time.  Note the music, which  has a clocklike, metronomic percussion.  Note how the music increases in intensity throughout the scene.  Also, each time Hitchcock shows a clock face, it is larger in the frame.  The last clock we see is in extreme close-up of the hand turning.  The focus on time is important because we as viewers all know the bomb is set to detonate at 1:45.  We have knowledge that the characters do not.  At the moment of detonation, Hitchcock does three rapid cuts, showing the package with the bomb from three different angles in the space of just over one second.  Also, note how he chooses to finish the scene with a jump cut from the exploding bus to Oscar Homolka, laughing.  This rather jarring cut serves to keep the tension going for a few seconds longer.  Even after killing a child and a puppy, Hitch couldn’t let his audience off easily!

Deconstruction of a scene, part 2:  In the Verloc murder scene, Hitchcock creates tension in a very different, and much more original way.  This scene is early Hitchcock at his absolute best.  First of all, note the soundtrack.  Music was an essential component of the earlier bus explosion scene, but here it is the complete absence of music that creates tension.  Hitchcock was never afraid to use silence where many other directors would have used a dominant musical cue.  It is a shame that directors today tend to shy away from this (with one notable exception being David Fincher).   Perhaps it is best to let the master himself describe this scene:  “When Sylvia Sydney brings the vegetable platter to the table, the knife acts as a magnet; it’s almost as if her hand, against her will, is compelled to grab it.  The camera frames her hand, then her eyes, moving back and forth between the two until suddenly her look makes it clear that she’s become aware of the potential meaning of the knife…The wrong way to go about this scene would have been to have the heroine convey her inner feelings to the audience by her facial expressions.  I’m against that…I must try to convey this woman’s frame of mind by purely cinematic means.”

Now that the viewers, as well as the Verlocs, are aware of the knife and its implications, something fascinating happens.  After a series of very rapid editorial cuts,  Hitchcock changes it up.  Rather than cutting to Mr. Verloc in close up, he holds the camera on him, and has Verloc rise from his chair and walk into a close up.  Hitchcock said he wanted the viewer to “recoil…be pushing back slightly in his seat to allow Verloc to pass by.”   This is a very effective use of the camera.  Next Hitchcock cuts to Mrs. Verloc, looking vulnerable, seen from her husband’s point of view.  Note the astonishing shifting of perspective in this scene.  At first we are inside Mrs. Verloc’s mind, as she thinks of her dead brother and what she can do with the knife.  Then we are viewing the scene from our own perspective as Mr. Verloc approaches us with menace.  Then we are viewing the scene from Mr. Verloc’s POV as he approaces his wife.  Three different perspectives in under a minute, done through masterful cutting.  During the stabbing, the camera stays on their upper bodies, allowing for a moment of moral ambiguity:  does she stab him on purpose, does he thrust himself on the knife, is it an accident?  The implication is that she has killed to avenge her brother, but the action is not directly shown.  Conrad is more specific in his novel:  Mr Verloc sees the knife in her hand, but does not have “…the time to move either hand or foot.  The knife was already planted in his breast.  Into that plunging blow…Mrs. Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent,  the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms.”  (How’s that for a Conrad sentence?)    And in this scene’s final, often-imitated image, Mrs. Verloc walks away into the light,  leaving us in the dark, with the corpse of Mr. Verloc nearby, only his feet visible in the foreground.

What Hitch said:  He said that this movie is “somewhat sabotaged!  Aside from a few scenes, it was a little messy.  No clean lines about it.”  He also thought that showing the murder of Stevie “was a grave error on my part.”

Definitive edition:   This is one of many early Hitchcock films that has been part of the public domain for quite some time, which means there are many cheap versions available on DVD, either as a stand-alone title or as part of a box set.  Most of these public domain releases feature very shoddy prints, with poor visual and audio quality.   MGM/Fox acquired the American rights to this title, and seven other early Hitchcock films in 2008, and made them available for purchase individually or in the “Premiere Collection” box set.  This is far and away the best quality version of Sabotage available for purchase today.  (This movie has yet to be released on blu ray by any distributor.)  Unfortunately, both the individual title and the box set are already out of print, but they can be found at a reasonable price online.  It is well worth the price for any serious Hitchcock fan or collector;  while this may be a minor film in his canon, it has never looked or sounded this good.  The MGM/Fox DVD contains a commentary track by Leonard Leff (author of the book “Hitchcock and Selznick”), a 25-minute audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock, a short restoration comparison, and a stills gallery.

In the following clip from the Dick Cavett show, Hitchcock explains why he thinks he made a mistake with the bus explosion scene, and he also talks about the Russian theory of montage, which is essential to understanding Hitchcock.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954): “That’s the trouble with these latchkeys. They’re all alike.”

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) – Warner Bros. – Rating:  ★★★★

Color – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Ray Milland (Tony Wendice), Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), Anthony Dawson (Lesgate/Swann), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard).

Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Frederick Knott, based on his play

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Film Editing:  Rudi Fehr

Original Score:  Dmitri Tiomkin

We open on an idyllic marriage scene, in a small but well-furnished London flat, the happy wedded couple locked in a kiss.  Cut to the same married couple, eating breakfast.  The wife is reading a small notice in the newspaper, about an American author due to arrive in England on the Queen Mary that day.  Cut to attractive man disembarking from the Queen Mary.  Cut to this attractive man, locked in a kiss with the wife, in the same London flat we just witnessed a moment ago!  Alfred Hitchcock, who got his start in silent films, and never lost his flair for visual storytelling, has given us a complete set-up to the story in two minutes, with no dialogue.

The wife, Margot Wendice, and the author, Mark Halliday, had a fling the previous year, when Mark was last in London, and Margot’s marriage was in turmoil.  Now, Margot tells Mark, her husband Tony is a changed man.  She won’t leave him, because he has become the perfect husband.  She also tells Mark that she destroyed all of the letters he wrote to her, except one, which was stolen from her purse.  After the theft she recieved two anonymous letters of blackmail, and even after she paid the requested sum she never recieved the letter back.

At this moment Margot’s husband Tony returns to the flat, and his wife introduces Mark as a friend of hers.  Tony sends the couple off for an evening on the town, saying he is too busy with work to accompany them.  He then makes a phone call summoning a man to the flat, on the pretext of buying a used car.  This man, named Swann, was an old college schoolmate of Tony’s, and Tony uses a very subtle and charming method of blackmail to convince Swann to murder his wife, for the sum of one thousand pounds.  It turns out that Tony knew about the affair all along.  He is the one who stole the letter from his wife’s handbag, and he wishes to dispense with her and inherit her considerable fortune.

The murder is to take place the following evening,  when Tony and Mark will be at a stag party, and Margot will be home alone.  Tony will hide a key outside the flat so Swann can let himself in, then at an arranged time Tony will make a phone call to the flat, summoning Margot from bed to the phone, where Swann will finish her off.  There is a very suspenseful build-up to the moment of the phone call, and as it happens Margot is able to grab a pair of scissors from the desk and stab Swann in the back.  He falls to the floor, impaling himself and dying instantly.  Margot summons Tony home, who, instead of despairing at seeing his plans foiled, sends Margot to bed, then rather adroitly manipulates the scene so it will appear that Margot wilfully murdered Swann.

Now Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by the always solid character actor John Williams) arrives on the scene.  It is established rather quickly that Margot is indeed convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  It seems that Tony’s plan will succeed, but Inspector Hubbard is a very cool character, and knows more than he lets on.  The climax of the plot hinges on something as simple as a key, with Hubbard playing a hunch that turns out to be correct.

Why does this film work as well as it does?  It is 80% dialogue, 20% action.  It takes place all in one small flat.  It is considered a “minor work” of Hitchcock, and justifiably so.  And yet it is thoroughly entertaining.  For me it is Ray Milland that saves the day.  The wrong actor in the Tony Wendice role would send the film irrevocably off the rails.

Performance:  The performances are all solid, with the exception of Robert Cummings, who seems a little soft in his role as the boyfriend, and fails to generate any sympathy.  Ray Milland really carries the movie, as yet another sympathetic Hitchcock villain, charming from his first scene to his last.  John Williams is fantastic as Inspector Hubbard.  (Film lovers may recognize Williams as Audrey Hepburn’s chauffeur father in the movie Sabrina, also released in 1954.)  Both John Williams and Anthony Dawson reprised their roles from the original New York stage production of the play.  And then there’s Grace.  Has any woman ever looked as gorgeous on screen as Grace Kelly?   Although she had an other-wordly beauty, she always created characters that female moviegoers could identify with.

Hitchcock in 3D?  Yes, this film was initially released in the 3D format.  Alfred Hitchcock did not wish to use  3D in the way it was typically employed at that time, with lots of very obvious moments of long narrow objects poking and jabbing at the audience.  He only employed that twice in the film, once with scissors and once with a key.  Rather, in anticipating the way 3D is used today, he framed the scene with objects along the proscenium, like a lamp, or a bottle, that gave added depth to the scene.  The film has not been available to view theatrically in 3D since a brief  re-release in 1982, but is just as visually compelling in the 2D format.

Source material:  Frederick Knott adapted the screenplay from his own successful stage play, and changed very little.  All of the major plot elements are in place in the play, and many lines of dialogue are lifted directly from it as well.

Hitchcock moment:  The scene in which Tony Wendice outlines his plan for murder to his old schoolmate Swann would be enough to derail most movies, but here it works brilliantly.  For 22 minutes of screentime (that’s 1/5 of the entire movie!), we have two characters in one small room, talking.  The camera does move, as do the characters, and the staging and filming are perfect.  But the scene is entirely dialogue driven, and not only the dialogue but the acting could not be better.  Ray Milland does a vast majority of the talking, and he is completely charming, winning over not only Swann but the audience as well.  If Milland does not succeed in doing so, the rest of the movie does not work.  This scene alone makes the film worth watching. (I will attempt to do a deconstruction of this scene, as a separate entry, at a later time.)

Keep it closed:  In the Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock talked about directors adapting movies from stage plays, and how they would frequently “open up” the play, taking it beyond its original setting.  He felt this was a big mistake; it was the original story and setting that made the play successful, so he felt one should not mess with success, but rather keep it in its original setting.

Guilty as charged:  Since the theme of guilt and innocence seems to be the most prominent throughout Hitchcock’s works, it may be worthwhile to look at how the concept applies to the characters in this film.  Tony Wendice is guilty from a criminal respect; he first plots to murder his wife, then works to have her hanged for murder.  Yet there are many moments in the film when the audience sympathizes with Tony.  Certainly Margot and Mark are guilty of infidelity, and while this is not an act deserving of murder, it certainly colors the way that viewers feel about them as characters.  Mark is never a sympathetic character.  Lesgate, or Swann, is also criminally guilty.  It would appear he has had the makings of a thief for many years, and he rather quickly agrees to commit a murder for a fairly small sum.  Many would argue he gets what he deserves.  Yet once again, Hitchcock manipulates the audience in such a way that we feel a bit sorry for Lesgate, who is really just a pawn in Tony Wendice’s grand plan.  Even Inspector Hubbard carries a guilt, for he manipulates the Wendices as well, in order to prove his theories.  So on a psychological level, there are no innocent people in this film.  And Hitchcock, primarily through the story and brilliant cutting, has the audience shifting its sympathies almost from moment to moment.

Recurring players:  Robert Cummings had earlier starred (in much more convincing fashion) in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.  John Williams had appeared in 1947’s The Paradine Case, and would later become the go-to guy for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, appearing in numerous episodes.  Harold Miller was also an extra in Saboteur.  Sam Harris (man in phone booth) was also an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur  and The Paradine Case.  Forbes Murray, (the judge) would later appear as an extra in Vertigo.   Grace Kelly would go on to star in the unforgettable Rear Window, and she would have the pleasure of sharing the screen again with John Williams in To Catch A Thief.   And let’s not forget Bess Flowers, “the Queen of the Hollywood extras.”  She appeared (primarily as an extra) in over 700 films, far and away the most of anyone in movie history.  In addition to being “woman departing ship” in this movie, she was also an extra in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo and North by Northwest.  

Legacy:  This movie would be remade twice for television, in rather forgettable versions.  It was also updated for the big screen in 1998’s A Perfect Murder, directed by Andrew Davis and starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen.  This version has the husband (Douglas) convincing his wife’s lover to commit the murder for him.  It does not share too much in common with the original film, and while the plot twists are somewhat clever and original, it does not have the dramatic intensity of the earlier film.

Where’s Hitch?  How would Alfred Hitchcock insert a cameo into a film which takes place almost exclusively in one room, with a very small cast? No problem!  In the school reunion photo hanging on the wall, in which we see Tony Wendice and Swann sitting side-by-side, there is a familiar face on the near side of the table, turning to look at the camera.   This very clever and effective cameo comes at about 13:11 into the film.

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock was very dismissive of this film, saying that he was just “coasting, playing it safe.”  On the surface this is understandable as there really isn’t much to this film.  And yet it works; for a dialogue-driven movie in an enclosed space,  it is completely compelling and entertaining.  All Hitchcock would ultimately say was:  “I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a  stage play.  All of the action in Dial M For Murder  takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter.  I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth.”

Definitive edition:    Warner Brothers released a 3D blu-ray version of this movie in 2012, and it is well worth the extra expense to pick it up.  Even if you do not have a 3D TV, you can still play the movie in 2D.  The 2004 DVD version was a decent print, but it was also in standard format.  Apparently it was easier (and cheaper) to project 3D movies in the standard screen format.  I always assumed that was the aspect ration in which Hitchcock shot the film, so imagine my surprise when the blu-ray began playing and the movie was in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio!   It is like watching an entirely different movie.  The widescreen, the colors, the depth of focus are all quite good.  Many techies have complained about the quality of this transfer, but I can assure you that Dial M has never looked this good on home video.   Not even close.   Why on earth did Warner release the DVD in standard format?  At least they have corrected that mistake.  The blu-ray also includes a ho-hum 21 minute-documentary, not so much a making-of as it is contemporaries lavishing praise on the movie.  You hear from Peter Bogdanovich, M. Night Shyamalan and others.  Also included is the theatrical trailer (also in widescreen.)

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) : “We’re no ordinary uncle and niece.”

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) – Universal Studios – Rating: ★★★★½

B&W – 106 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal Cast:  Teresa Wright (Charlotte “Charlie” Newton), Joseph Cotten (Charlie Oakley), MacDonald Carey (Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton).

Produced by Jack H. Skirball

Written by Thornton Wilder & Alma Reville & Sally Benson, from a story by Gordon McDonell

 Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

 Film Editing:  Milton Carruth

 Original music:  Dmitri Tiomkin

Charles Oakley lies on his bed in a nondescript boardinghouse.  He is a picture of ennui, and everything about him suggests carelessness, from the recumbent way he smokes his cigar to the money scattered on the floor.  He stirs from his lassitude when the landlady informs him that two gentlemen asked about him;  he then gathers his things and leaves, giving the “gentlemen” the slip.  Suddenly a man of determination, he sends a telegram to his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them of his intention to visit.

Dissolve to Santa Rosa, a picturesque American town.  Oakley’s niece, “Charlie”, is lying on her bed, in much the same state as her uncle.  She is in the dumps, and wants to do something to shake up the family.  Suddenly an idea occurs to her, and she rushes to the telegraph office to invite her Uncle Charlie to visit.  She arrives just in time to receive the telegram from her uncle announcing his impending arrival.  It’s almost as if they were reading each other’s minds, speculates Charlie.   

Soon thereafter Uncle Charlie arrives, descending from the train under a plume of dark smoke that presages the arrival of something sinister in sleepy Santa Rosa.  At first the family is delighted to see him, from sister Emma Newton, to brother-in-law Joseph and the three children.  Uncle Charlie brings fine gifts for everyone, including an emerald ring for his favorite niece, his namesake Charlie.  The ring inexplicably has in inscription, initials that Uncle Charlie insists were not put there by him.  She does not care, saying that makes the ring more precious, because somebody happy had worn it before her.

Two men arrive at the Newton home who claim to be conducting a survey.  They wish to ask questions of the household and take photographs.  Uncle Charlie is evasive, refusing to be involved and bordering on rudeness when he encounters the two men in the home.  Could these be the same “gentlemen” who were inquiring after Charlie at his boardinghouse?  Soon enough niece Charlie learns from one of the men that they are police, and are indeed on the trail of her uncle, who may be involved in some pretty nasty crimes, namely the murder of several widows and the theft of their money.  Charlie does not want her mother to know, for it would break her heart.  She begins an investigation of her own, and soon discovers the answer to the question of her uncle’s guilt or innocence.   This portion of the story involves a cat-and-mouse interplay between uncle and niece, with the rest of the family ignorant of the  situation and implications.  At the same time Charlie begins an awkward romance with the detective who had tipped her to her uncle’s situation.

The contest of wills between the two Charlies seems to be won by niece Charlie, and her uncle agrees to leave Santa Rosa.  On the train that will take him away, he tries to silence his niece’s suspicions, with deadly consequences.

Performance:  This is arguably one of the best casts in any Hitchcock film, from top to bottom.  Joseph Cotten is perfect as Uncle Charlie, creating one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains.  Teresa Wright as niece Charlie has the most difficult part in the movie, as her character undergoes a dramatic transformation when she learns several truths about her uncle, and the world.   Henry Travers, who will forever be known to movie lovers as Clarence the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, is pleasant and likeable as the Newton family patriarch.  His primary job is to provide occasional comic relief.  But the most memorable, and most moving performance in the film belongs to Patricia Collinge as Uncle Charlie’s sister Emma.  Emma’s fondness for her younger brother is palpable, as is her fondness for childhood recollections.  If there is one performance that is not entirely perfect it is that of MacDonald Carey as Detective Graham.  He seems out-of-place in some of his onscreen interplay.

Writing:  Thornton Wilder, who wrote the quintessential American idyll Our Town, was the principle screenwriter.  Hitchcock charged Wilder with creating another slice of small-town American life, and introducing menace into it.  And Wilder’s writing is pitch perfect. His tone ranges from the charming and occasionally comic portrait of the Newton family, to Uncle Charlie’s almost shockingly dark monologues about modern big-city life.  Hitchcock was so impressed that he gave Wilder a special acknowledgment in the opening credits, in addition to his screenwriting credit.

The doppelgänger effect:  The central relationship in this movie is that of the two Charlies, uncle and niece.  The idea of the characters as doubles appears frequently.  First as they both appear sprawled on a bed in their respective opening scenes.  Later in several lines of dialogue.  Teresa Wright as Charlie tells her uncle “We’re sort of like twins, don’t you see?”Later Uncle Charlie accosts his niece outside a bar called “Til Two”, finally taking her inside.  There are no overt incestuous signals in this relationship, but it is a very odd relationship for an uncle and niece.  She gazes at him longingly in their opening scenes together, and when she walks through town with him, arm in arm, she is delighted when her friends look at him in awe, almost as if she wants them to think he is her beau.  What Uncle Charlie doesn’t foresee is that his niece has an inner mettle that has remained hidden, and it only comes to the forefront as she is forced to confront him.  They are indeed very much alike, and it is this that allows her to best him in their game of wits.

“Shadow of a Doubt” house as it appears today, Santa Rosa, CA, photo by author.

The precocious girl:  Women in Hitchcock movies are often the dominant partner in a relationship.  They are often more intelligent and resourceful than their male counterpart.  This also applies to young girls.  In this film, the younger daughter Ann Newton, (played delightfully by Edna May Wonacott) is wise beyond her years.  She is constantly reading and repeating things she has learned in her books.  She is also the only member of the Newton family that is never taken in by Uncle Charlie.  She is suspicious of him from the first moment she lays eyes on him, and although she never learns the nature of his crimes, she is not fooled.  Wonacott gives the best performance by a child in the entire Hitchcock canon, in my opinion.  Meanwhile the young boy Roger (played by Charles Bates) is a typical boy child, who does have one great reaction shot, played for comic effect, when Patricia Collinge says the youngest child is always spoiled.

Merry widow waltz:  This waltz plays over the opening credits, along with footage of waltzing couples, which looks like stock footage but Hitchcock said he filmed specifically.  The waltz features prominently in a dinner table scene, and Hitchcock uses the dancing couples footage as a transitional shot at a couple of key moments in the film.  This is a very interesting expressionistic touch.

Dark humor:  Hume Cronyn provides some dark humor as Herbie Hawkins, friend to Joe Newton.  Hawkins and Newton read whodunits, and discuss the best way to kill each other, not realizing that they are only a few feet away from someone with practical experience!  There is also perhaps a subtle indication that Herbie would like to do away with his mother, yet another charming mother/son relationship.

Emma Newton as Emma Hitchcock:  Alfred Hitchcock’s mother Emma passed away during production of this film.  There is much speculation that the character of Emma Newton (the name can be no coincidence) was inspired in part by the director’s own mother.  Certainly Emma Newton, as played so wonderfully by Patricia Collinge, is allowed a sentimentality that is seldom if ever seen in Hitchcock films.   Her emotional response to the news that her brother will be leaving is so genuine, that it almost moves the viewer to tears, particularly because of the things we know about her brother Charlie that she does not.

What Joe said:  Joseph Cotten, in his 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, said of this film that “it is certainly mentioned to me as often as Citizen Kane and The Third Man.”  He also complimented Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, saying “I cannot remember any shooting script that suffered so few alterations during production.  All the actors agreed that the author’s words were not only easy to learn, but a pleasure to speak.”

Academy awards:  Gordon McDonell received a nomination in the now defunct “Best Writing, Original Story” category.

Recurring players:  Joseph Cotten would star later in Under CapricornHume Cronyn would appear in Hitchcock’s next film, LifeboatWallace Ford would turn up in Spellbound, as would Irving Bacon. Frances Carson appeared in Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur.  Edward Fielding was also in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound.  Constance Purdy also appeared in Spellbound.   Byron Shores was in Saboteur.   And Eily Malyon, the perfect spinsterish librarian, had earlier played the perfect spinsterish hotel desk clerk in Foreign Correspondent. 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about 16:26.  He is seen from a right rear profile as a passenger on the train.  He is playing cards with a doctor and his wife, and the camera shows that his hand is the entire suit of spades!

 

Legacy:  Universal remade this movie in 1958, as a noirish B-movie called Step Down to Terror.  It was also remade for TV in 1991, with Mark Harmon in the Uncle Charlie role.

Hitchcock moment:   For the most part this movie was shot in a very straightforward manner, with Hitchcock’s usual economy of shots.  The shot in the library where the camera pulls back from a close-up looking over Teresa Wright’s shoulder, high up to the ceiling, is impressive.  Production designer Bob Boyle said that Hitchcock wanted the camera movement to be almost like a gasp, or sudden intake of breath.  There is also the shot of Teresa Wright coming downstairs with her hand on the bannister, as the camera slowly zooms in on her hand, and the emerald ring plainly visible on it.

What Hitch said:  Numerous critics say that this was Hitchcock’s favorite among his own films.  His daughter Patricia states it unequivocally:  “It was my father’s favorite picture.”  One would think she would know.   When pressed on this point by Truffaut, Hitchcock answered:  “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.”  (In referring to the “plausibles” Hitchcock was talking about people who dismissed the plots of his films because they were not plausible).  “But that impression is also due to my very pleasant memories of working on it with Thornton Wilder.”

Definitive edition:   The best edition of this movie available for purchase today is Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release, (also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set).  The picture quality is not quite as sharp as the blu-ray remaster of Saboteur, being a little grainy at times, but it still looks spectacular for a movie that is over 70 years old.   The audio track (2-channel mono) also sounds quite good.  Extra features include a 35-minute making-of documentary, which has interview footage with Hume Cronyn, Teresa Wright, Patricia Hitchcock, Robert Boyle, and Peter Bogdanovich.  Also included are production drawings, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.

SABOTEUR (1942) : “Just a guy from Glendale.”

SABOTEUR (1942)  – Universal Studios  – Rating:  ★★★½

B&W – 108 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Robert Cummings (Barry Kane), Priscilla Lane (Patricia Martin), Otto Kruger (Charles Tobin), Alan Baxter (Mr. Freeman), Norman Lloyd (Fry),  Alma Kruger (Mrs. Sutton), Vaughan Glaser (Phillip Martin).

Produced by Frank Lloyd & Jack H. Skirball

Written by Joan Harrison & Peter Viertel & Dorothy Parker

Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

Film Editing:  Otto Ludwig

Art Director:   Robert Boyle

Poor Barry Kane, hard-working American patriot, doing his part to support the war effort in a Los Angeles airplane factory.  When a fire erupts in the factory, he is one of the first on the scene, and through the machinations of a suspicious man named Fry,  Barry’s good friend dies in the fire, and Barry himself is suspected of sabotage.  Armed with only one small clue, Fry’s name and an address briefly glimpsed on an envelope, Barry must track down the real saboteurs while staying one step ahead of the police.  This is Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite motif, which he used many times:  the innocent man, falsely accused.

The address leads Barry to a California ranch run by a Charles Tobin, who is the mastermind of the saboteurs.  Charming and urbane, he is the quintessential Hitchcock villain,  a man who can calmly play with his granddaughter while plotting the deaths of innocent people.  Barry has his first run-in with the police at the ranch, and after escaping, acquiring a  pair of handcuffs for his troubles,  he winds up at the woodland house of a kind old blind man.  Soon the blind man’s niece arrives and is instructed to drive Barry to the blacksmith to have the handcuffs removed.

The movie continues as a series of set pieces, and truly the individual strength of many of the pieces is greater than the strength of the movie as a whole.  Barry and Patricia move from West to East, from Los Angeles to New York, and Patricia’s feelings about Barry move from doubt to trust, while the nest of saboteurs grows and the pieces begin to fit together.

Eventually the couple find themselves in a mansion in New York City, surrounded by socialites at a charity event being hosted by the saboteurs.  With all the exits guarded, they are literally trapped in a crowded room.  This is a familiar theme in the works of Hitchcock; oftentimes his protagonists feel alone precisely when they are surrounded by people.

Our couple is separated and imprisoned separately at this point, both using ingenuity (rather implausible in one case) to earn their freedom.  Barry Kane finally runs into his nemesis Fry, the man behind the fire at the airplane factory, and a chase ends atop the Statue of Liberty, with Fry literally hanging by a thread from liberty’s torch.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film; the action maintains a steady pace as the setting  moves from one location to another.   The performances of the leads are a bit uneven.   There is a reason that Hitchcock loved to cast stars in his leading roles:  they were generally very good at what they did, and they had an easy time holding the audience’s attention.  Neither Robert Cummings nor Priscilla Lane was an A-list actor,  and they were both known for more lighthearted material.  Their performances are not bad, but their golly-gee style of delivering dialogue, while very much in vogue in the 40’s, seems somewhat dated today.  Contrast this with the performance of Otto Kruger, the mastermind of the saboteurs, whose  characterization seems very real even by today’s standards.

It is the very lack of star power that has kept this film from getting greater recognition.  It is a hidden Hitchcock gem,  well worth viewing for casual fans, and a deeper exploration by Hitchcock scholars.

Writing:   The screenplay is of paramount importance in any discussion of this movie, which came out at a time when many of America’s great writers were trying their hand at penning a Hollywood screenplay or treatment.  Everyone from Raymond Chandler to William Faulkner to Aldous Huxley gave it a try.  And Hitchcock himself collaborated with Robert Benchley, Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, and in the case of this film Dorothy Parker.

This screenplay, along with Thornton Wilder’s for Shadow of a Doubt, are the most literary of all Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.  Dorothy Parker’s influence can be felt throughout this screenplay.   First of all in the sequence with the blind man, which clearly was inspired  by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and is written and acted superbly.  Such warm, tender and likeable characters are seldom found in a suspense film.  There is also a fine sequence that takes place in a circus caravan, in a bus filled with circus freaks.  Our starring couple find themselves surrounded by Siamese twins, a bearded lady and several other strange characters, and the dialogue manages to combine warmth, comedy and suspense, all wrapped in a World War II allegory.   (More about the war in a moment.)  Later the film features one of the most head-scratchingly bizarre monologues in the entire Hitchcock canon, which is almost surely Dorothy Parker’s writing.  This is the moment when the saboteur Mr. Freeman, apropos of nothing, states to Barry Kane that he wishes his boy children were girls, and proceeds to describe how as a child, he had long golden locks that people would stop to gaze at!  A very creepy moment indeed.

There are even more subtle moments that show Parker’s fine touch, such as the billboards Barry Kane passes in his travels, each one with a message that has a deeper significance to him:  “You’re being followed”, “She’ll never let you down”, and “the final tribute.”  There is also a scene that takes place in the library of the Sutton mansion, in which the visible book titles are carefully chosen;  beyond the ones pointed out by Barry Kane (Escape), and Charles Tobin (Death of a Nobody), some of the other visible titles  could relate to the plot of the movie.     There is also a great self-referential moment in the screenplay.  When Barry and Pat are dancing in the ballroom, Pat says that she wishes she had met him somewhere else, like the North Pole, and Barry replies “We might end up there yet, too”, a nod to the continually changing locations in the film. And finally, the sequence in Radio City Music Hall features a film within a film, which has dialogue that works for both the onscreen and off-screen characters in the theater.

Propaganda:   This film was released in 1942, and its subject matter was used as a form of propaganda to arouse American sympathies for the European cause against the Nazis.  There are two monologues in particular that are being addressed directly to the movie-going public.  Hitchcock had done the same thing  in his earlier film Foreign Correspondent.

Guilty as charged:  The theme of guilt and innocence, both real and perceived, factors heavily in this movie as it does in almost all Hitchcock movies.  When Barry Kane is hitching a ride with the truck driver, he is fleeing from a crime that he did not commit.  And yet he does feel a level of guilt for his friend’s death.  After all, he had the fire extinguisher in his hands, before he passed it off to Ken..  The rattling fire extinguisher inside the truck cab serves as a reminder.  And the truck driver narrates a story where a fellow driver used an extinguisher to save his friend’s life, saying that if he didn’t have a fire extinguisher he would have seen his friend fried right before his eyes.  Which is of course exactly what Barry Kane did observe.  And the use of the word “fries” serves a double purpose as it reminds Barry Kane of Frank Fry, the real culprit.

Keystone cops:  It’s worth pointing out that the police in almost all  Hitchcock films are bunglers bordering on incompetence, who generally do arrive just in time to arrest the villain; but the villain is often caught in spite of them, not because of them.  This film is no exception, although in this case the police have no plausible evidence to believe Barry Kane’s story of innocence until very late in the film.

Where’s Hitch?   Alfred Hitchcock’s original cameo in this movie was rejected by the censors.  It featured him walking down the street with a young lady, talking to her in sign language.  After a couple of seconds, the young lady looks indignantly at him and slaps him on the face.  This was considered a misrepresentation of deaf people, and was cut, the footage long since lost.  Quite a pity,  because as a result of this Hitchcock just threw in another cameo, almost as an afterthought.  It occurs at about 1:04:33, with Hitch as a patron in front of the Cut Rate Drug store.  It is one of the least noticeable and most forgettable of all Hitchcock cameos.

 

Recurring players:  Robert Cummings would also appear as Grace Kelly’s love interest  in Dial M for MurderIan Wolfe, who played Robert the Butler, played a very similar character in Foreign Correspondent.   Charles Halton (the uncredited second sheriff) and Emory Parnell (the husband in the film within a film) also appeared in Foreign Correspondent  and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Vaughan Glaser (the charming blind man) appears in one scene in Shadow of a Doubt, in a non-speaking and uncredited role.  Murray Alper (the truck driver) has very small uncredited parts in Strangers on a Train and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Frances Carson also appears in Foreign Correspondent and Shadow of a Doubt.  Al Bridge and Charles Sherlock also appear in Strangers on a Train.  Dale Van Sickel and Harry Strang were also in North by Northwest Ralph Brooks, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Jack Gardner and Sayre Dearing were also extras in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Art Gilmore, the voice of the radio broadcaster, also lent his voice to Rear Window and the trailer of To Catch a Thief Alexander Lockwood was also in North by Northwest and Family Plot.  Jeffrey Sayre is in Notorious, Vertigo and North by Northwest.   Sam Harris was an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder Henry Norton and George Offerman, Jr. were also in Foreign Correspondent Frank Marlowe was also in Notorious and North by Northwest.  And Norman Lloyd would later play the psychiatric patient Garmes in Spellbound.

Hitchcock moments:  Hitchcock was a master technician,  and most of his films contain scenes that are memorable for the groundbreaking storytelling techniques employed.  In this film the standout scene is the climax atop the Statue of Liberty.  This scene employs live action shots, small scale reproduction, matte painting, and black screen (the b&w precursor to today’s green screen), all put together in a way that holds up very well after nearly 70 years.

What Hitch said:   In the Truffaut  interviews, Hitchcock spoke of his displeasure with the leading actors in this film, with the exception of Norman Lloyd as Fry.  His final analysis is that “…the script lacks discipline.  I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay…I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.”  – Truffaut – Hitchcock, p. 151, 1983.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release (which can be purchased as a stand-alone or as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set), is far and away the best quality edition of this movie on the market.   For a movie that is over 70 years old, in standard format, the picture quality is astonishing.  There is amazing clarity and depth of focus, so it is definitely worth an upgrade if you own the DVD.   The sound is 2-channel mono, and sounds as good as it ever has for home video.  Extras include a 35 minute making-of documentary, which features interviews with Norman Lloyd and production designer Robert Boyle.  Also included are storyboards, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.