Hitchcock on Hitchcock – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb



1995 – University of California Press – 339 pages

There is certainly no dearth of written material on the the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock.  In the mid-1990’s, Professor Sidney Gottlieb had the bright idea of publishing a book by Alfred Hitchcock.  Gottlieb gathered together a collection of magazine articles, interviews, and speeches given by Hitchcock over the course of his career.  The end result is very rewarding, if occasionally uneven or repetitious.

In his introduction Sidney Gottlieb addresses the question of authorship.  These articles were all published under Hitchcock’s byline, but that does not mean he is responsible for writing every word.  It was very common in the days of the studio system for pieces to be written for the director and submitted to the press in order to generate publicity.   It is also a well-known fact that for several years in the late 50’s through mid-60’s James Allerdice wrote almost all of Hitchcock’s speeches for him.  The end result is that some of these pieces might not have been penned by Alfred Hitchcock, although he would certainly have endorsed them.

Sidney Gottlieb curates the pieces by subject, with sections on actors, film production, technique, etc.   The pieces are chronological within each individual section, with short introductions to each section penned by Gottlieb.   It is certainly possible to find a distinct Hitchcock voice running through most of these pieces.   In a piece written while he was still a young director working in Britain in the 1930’s he talks about his desire to obtain major stars for his leading roles.  He describes movie stars as “the jam around the pill” which will help the audience swallow his plot.

One can also see how he tailors his voice to his audience.  At one end of the spectrum are one-off pieces written  for British film magazines, injected with his typical wry humor.   But we also get pieces like a 1966 interview for American Cinematographer magazine, in which Hitchcock delves into very specific technical detail about the lighting and design of Torn Curtain.

One minor drawback to this material is that it is front-loaded.  There are far more pieces from the 1930’s than there are from the 50’s and 60’s.  There is also some repetition, as he narrates various versions of the same stories or ideas.  One recurring theme which he mentions in three different articles written in the 30’s is the desire for an all-powerful producer-director, who would have total control of a film.  He actually cites David O. Selznick as an example of an ideal candidate for such a person.  Rather ironic, considering that Selznick’s very control would be giving Hitchcock major headaches in a few short years.

Sidney Gottlieb went to great length to find and assemble this collection, and while it may be a bit much for the casual fan, for any scholar of Hitchcock this is an essential work, and comes highly recommended.



The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto


1983 – Ballantine Books – 665 pages

Coming just three years after Hitchcock’s death, Donald Spoto’s biography was at the time the heftiest tome (both in size and scope) to focus on the life and career of Alfred Hitchcock.

John Russell Taylor’s 1978 book was the only authorized biography of Hitchcock.   Donald Spoto did approach the Hitchcock family in 1980 asking for their blessing, but was told by daughter Patricia that the family would not actively cooperate with any authors after her father’s death.

That may be the best thing that could have happened to Spoto, for it freed him to explore some territory (the “dark side” of the title) that the family almost certainly would have objected to.

Donald Spoto met Alfred Hitchcock in 1975, during the making of Family Plot.  He had the opportunity to interview Hitchcock, as he prepared a book about Hitch’s films.  The seed for the ultimate Hitchcock biography was almost certainly planted at this time.

The one thing this book shares with the Taylor biography is a chronological narrative structure.    Spoto’s book doubles the earlier bio in length, and much of that extra detail is focused on the themes of Hitchcock’s films, and how they relate to his personal life.

Spoto is definitely a student of the auteur theory, believing that Hitchcock imbued his works with a personal, signature style.  As Spoto says in his preface:

…it became clear that Hitchcock’s films were indeed his notebooks and journals and that his almost maniacal secrecy was a deliberate means of defelecting attention away from what those films really are:  astonishingly personal documents.

While there is considerable merit in Spoto’s auteur theory analysis of Hitchcock’s films, there is a danger in reading too much of the personal into the films’ narratives.  This book reminded me at times of Stephen Greenblatt’s William Shakespeare biography Will in the World, which is at the forefront of the “new historicism” movement, an attempt to understand intellectual history through an interpretation of literary and artistic works.  Many of the connections here are speculative;  no matter how brilliant they may seem on paper, one can never know how much an artist is projecting his personal life upon his works, unless he expressly describes it.

Keeping that caveat in mind, this book is a delightful read, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Spoto is a master wordsmith, who does not just compile chronological narrative in a dry style, but adds a distinctive personal touch that enriches his material.  To give just one example, here is Spoto talking about Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:

In Bernard Herrmann’s musical score…the lost world of California’s Spanish past is everywhere evoked.  Memories and fragments of forgotten hopes float like lily pads in the score…The music and the sound effects are elusive and lonely, fragile and ghostly.

What a perfect description of Herrmann’s brilliant contribution to this film.  Spoto provided many details that had never been disclosed about Hitchcock’s movies.  Such as the fact the the painting Anthony Perkins’ character Norman Bates pulls from the wall in Psycho, in order to spy on Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, is a painting of Susanna and the elders, a biblical story detailing men spying on a woman as she prepares to bathe.

Donald Spoto was also the first to expose the depth’s of Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, describing the times he crossed the line with Tippi Hedren.  Spoto also describes a Hitchcock who descended into alcoholism and depression in his later years.  While some found these episodes to be scandalous, they are an essential part of Hitchcock’s life and narrative.   Spoto is not muckraking;  clearly he has a fondness for his titular subject.

While I do not consider this the definitive documentary on Alfred Hitchcock, it is an important work, both well-written and enlightening.   It is a much deeper dive that the earlier authorized biography of Taylor, and therefore is highly recommended to fans of the master of suspense.



JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930): “What can God do against stupidity of men?”

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK – 1930 – British International Pictures –  ★★1/2

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Edward Chapman (“Captain” Boyle), Sara Allgood (Mrs. “Juno” Boyle), John Laurie (Johnny Boyle), Kathleen O’Regan (Mary Boyle), Sidney Morgan (“Joxer” Daly), Maire O’Neill (Maisie Madigan). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the play by Sean O’Casey

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Edited by Emile de Ruelle

“Opening up” a stage play:  In the years and decades after making this film, Alfred Hitchcock would express some regret in not finding ways to make the film more cinematic.  The truth is that he imbued several scenes with his unique style, without at all sacrificing the tone or dialogue of the original stage play.

The entire three-act play was all set inside the apartment of the Boyle family.  Hitchcock convinced playwright Sean O’Casey that the film should begin outside the Boyle flat, then move into the flat after the opening scenes.  O’Casey was ultimately sold on Hitchcock’s idea, and wrote a new original scene for the film’s opening.  The movie opens with a very Hitchcockian shot.  The camera begins on an orator (played by Barry Fitzgerald) surrounded by a crowd.  The camera then pulls back and up, to reveal the alleyway where the men are gathered.

The dialogue and the visual combine to set the scene.  We are in Dublin, during “the troubles.”  The Civil War of the early 1920’s, when many in Ireland were clamoring for independence.   From here we cut to the interior of a bar.  We meet the patriarch of the Boyle family here, with his drinking companion Joxer.

Soon the two men head to Boyle’s tenement flat, where most of the movie will be set.  Here we meet the family.   Boyle does not work, and hasn’t for some time.  He is capable of working, but feigns a leg injury, spending his days drinking and pontificating.  His son (played hauntingly by John Laurie) lost an arm in the war, and is now a shell of himself, frightened of the very shadows.   Boyle’s wife Juno is the clear leader of the family, doing her best to hold them all together, although they are one step from being homeless.   The Boyle’s bicker back and forth, with an easy banter that leads one to believe they have gone on like this for years.

The Boyle’s daughter Mary comes home with a solicitor named Bentham.  Mary is clearly enamored of this man, and he brings good news from the family.  A distant relative of Mr. Boyle’s has died, leaving him an inheritance of 2,000 pounds.  When we next cut to the Boyle flat, things have changed mightily.  Although they have not yet received the bequeathed money, they have borrowed heavily against its eventual arrival, with new furniture, new clothes and extravagances like a phonograph.

The challenges of sound:   Although things are looking up for the Boyle family, we are soon reminded that the sorrows of war continue, and we receive a foreshadowing of events to come.  The son of an older lady who lives upstairs is murdered, and she goes off to the funeral.

Hitchcock wanted to do something very original and inventive with sound here.  One has to keep in mind that this is only Hitchcock’s second sound film.  He pushes in on son Johnny in a close up, while a multitude of sounds occur.  Hitchcock explained the structure of the scene to Peter Bogdanovich:

It was interesting the trouble one went to for sound at that time.  You see, you couldn’t add it later–it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.  I remember one shot in this very tiny studio–a close-up of the son huddled beside the fire–and I wanted to dolly in.  The camera was encased in what looked like a telephone booth in those days, for reasons of soundproofing.  So I had this booth on a dolly.  The offstage sounds were the family talking in the room–they’d bought a phonograph and they were playing a tune called “If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlor.”  Suddenly they stopped because the funeral was going by and then there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.  All those sounds had to be recorded at the same time, so the studio was packed.  There was a small orchestra, and i had the prop man sing the song holding his nose so that you got a tinny effect as on an old phonography record.  There were the actors with their lines.  Then, on the other side, I had a choir of about twenty people for the funeral, and another man with the machine-gun effect.  We could barely move in that little studio for all those off-scene sound effects on just one close-up.

One would never know from watching this scene the incredible planning that went into pulling it off, but is demonstrates Hitchcock’s ability to innovate, to use the new sound medium to the fullest.  Johnny becomes very distraught, and is concerned that the light in front of his Virgin Mary icon does not go out.

A Hitchcock tragedy:  This movie may have the most purely tragic ending of all of Hitchcock’s films.  The final act involves three blows that strike the Boyle family render the family ties forever.  The first is the discovery that the inheritance is not to be.  The will was not filled out properly, and all of the things the family had borrowed on credit are repossessed.  We then learn that Mary is pregnant by Bentham, who has fled the scene and left her alone.  Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that he did not add cinematic touches to this film, there are several in the final act.  Mary meets her old beau Jerry, who is willing to forgive her dalliance and take her back.  Until he learns that she is pregnant;  at that point he sheepishly beats a retreat.  Hitchcock chose to shoot this scene in an uninterrupted close-up two shot, which heightens the emotion of the very touching scene.

The finally tragedy is the greatest to befall the family, as Johnny is taken by force from the flat by a couple of old associates, who believe he left a comrade to die.  Johnny himself is soon killed, and Hitchcock shows the moment in a very cinematic (and very Catholic) way;  as the votive candle in front of Johnny’s statue is extinguished, we know he is dead.

Finally Juno tells Mary that they will depart together;  she is finished with “Captain” Boyle and will leave him for good.  Whereas the play ends with a short scene of Boyle and Joxer, Hitchcock chose quite rightly to end on Juno.

Juno, left alone at the end, leaves the audience with a final, moving soliloquy.  First she goes to the statue of Mary on the hearth, asking “Where were you when my son was riddled with bullets?”  Finally she offers a prayer that hearts of stone may become hearts of flesh, and the movie ends with this elegy on her son’s passing, and the futility of conflict in general.

Performance:  Most of the actors in this film were from the Irish Players theatre company, and many had appeared in the play on stage.  So clearly they were familiar with the material.  However, this was made at the beginning of the sound era, so speaking on camera was a novelty for all involved.  The performances are all solid throughout.  It really has the feel of a “filmed play” with the exception of a couple of sequences, and is acted accordingly.  Special mention goes to Sara Allgood as Mrs. Boyle; she is the heart and soul of the picture, and she is unforgettable in her role.

Source material:  Hitchcock’s movie is based on the 1924 play by Sean O’Casey.  The play is almost identical to the movie.  Hitchcock changed almost nothing, probably because O’Casey got to approve any changes or alterations to his original dialogue.  Hitchcock did excise a very small exchange between Boyle and Joxer which ends the original play.  After Mrs. Boyle and Mary have left the home  for good, a very drunk Boyle and Joxer enter.  Boyle has the last word, lamenting the terrible state of affairs in the world.  Hitchcock chose to end on Mrs. Boyle’s final monologue, which I find more fitting.

Recurring players:  Edward Chapman would later appear in Murder! (as Ted Markham) and The Skin Game (as Dawker).   Sara Allgood had earlier appeared in Blackmail (Mrs. White.  John Laurie would later play the part of the crofter in The 39 Steps.  John Longden (Charles Bentham) had several other small supporting roles in Blackmail, The Skin Game, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Fred Schwartz (Mr. Kelly) would later play an uncredited role of a tailor in Sabotage.  And Donald Calthrop (Needle Nugent) also played several other small roles in Blackmail, Murder! and Number Seventeen. 

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo in this film.   The Lodger is the only Hitchcock silent film with a known cameo.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was a bit more talkative about this film in later years than many of his other early “talkies” for British International Pictures.  He mentioned it in a 1968 article on Rear Window in Take One:  “I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.  Years ago I made a film of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.  It has a tragic ending, a very grim ending, but there was no other way around it.”

When Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock why he made this film, he replied

Because I liked the play very much.  I think the picture’s all right, though personally it wasn’t my meat.  But it was one of my favorite plays, so I thought I had to do it.  It was just a photograph of a stage play.  I wish I could have done something with it, but I truly believe that a theater piece is a theater piece–it’s designed and written with the proscenium arch in mind, and I think that opening it up becomes another thing.

And to Truffaut, Hitchcock said

The film got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema.  The critics praised the picture, and I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something.

Definitive edition:  I am hesitant to call any home version of this movie “definitive.”  It has been in the public domain for a long time, and there are several different DVD versions available.  The DVD I own was released by FilmRise in 2014.  It is bare bones, no extra features whatsoever, with a (barely) watchable print.  There is one section of the film where the print framing is a mess;  the tops of the actors’ heads are cut off.  The soundtrack is difficult to understand at times.  My fingers are crossed that this movie will get a nice release some day.


THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928): “There’s something magical in the married state.”

THE FARMER’S WIFE – 1928 – British International Pictures – ★★

B&W – 129 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Jameson Thomas (Samuel Sweetland), Lilian Hall-Davis (Araminta Dench), Gordon Harker (Churdles Ash), Maud Gill (Thirza Tapper), Olga Slade (Mary Hearn), Louie Pounds (Widow Louisa Windeatt).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the play by Eden Phillpotts.

Cinematography by Jack Cox

Edited by Alfred Booth

Just another assignment:  When Alfred Hitchcock first signed with British International Pictures, he was allowed to make a film of his own choosing, which was an original story called The Ring.  After this first success, he was primarily assigned projects by the studio.  Although several of his BIP films were forced on him, Hitchcock still found ways to make certain scenes his own.

This movie does not have too many of the signature Hitchcock touches in it.  He was assigned a play, and he shot it as such.   But of course, he still found a few scenes which he could imbue with his own signature style.

The story, much adapted from the original play, is very straightforward.  The film opens with the wedding of farmer Samuel Sweetland’s daughter.  Sweetland is a widower, and seeing his daughter married off makes him long for a return to married life.

So Sweetland (played very well by Jameson Thomas, in his only role for Hitchcock) makes a list of the women that he plans to court, for the purpose of proposing marriage.

As Sweetland makes his way down the list, one comic episode follows another as all of the women reject his advances.

The centerpiece of the film is a party at the home of Thirza Tapper.  This film has the most comic tone of all of Hitchcock’s silent films.  Gorden Harker is fantastic in the role of Churdles Ash, Sweetland’s handyman.  He is “loaned” to Ms. Tapper to be her doorman for her party, with comic results.

The tone of this section of the movie is very comic indeed.  Being a silent film, everything depends upon the visual.  And some of the visual gags are a bit over the top.

There is a bit of lovely location photography, rare in an early Hitchcock film.

The Hitchcock moment:  After being rejected by all of his intended wives-to-be, Sweetland returns home dejected.  Here is one of the only moments where Hitchcock was able to inject his unique style into the film.  And he did so through his favorite technique:  the subjective point of view.  Mr. Sweetland had earlier sat and gazed at an empty chair, the chair in which his now-dead wife used to sit.  He imagined all of his intended brides sitting there.  Now, his housekeeper sits in the same chair, and he realizes that she is the woman he has been seeking all along.  Even in a “by-the-numbers” movie like this, Hitchcock still found a way to imprint his own personal style on a handful of scenes in the film.

Tragedy strikes for this film’s stars:   Hitchcock co-wrote a five-part series that appeared in Film Weekly in 1936.  He had a few comments about The Farmer’s Wife.  After starting with some praise for Gordon Harker, he shares some tragedies that befell the co-stars.

He (Gordon Harker) is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you’ll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand…He made a very good job of it.  This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it.  

The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas.  He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England’s most popular players…He left England to take his wife to California.  She was very ill.  The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure…His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.

Thomas’s leading lady in The Farmer’s Wife was Lillian Hall-Davis.  She was an amazing girl.  On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness.  She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn’t sure she could do it well enough.  Actually, she could have played it with ease.  Yet, in private life she was an altogether different person.  She possessed a terrific personality, and amazing vivacity.  It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.

The “tragic circumstances” to which Hitchcock alludes was the suicide of Hall-Davis on October 25, 1933.  She was found with her head in her oven, and a knife in her hand.  An inquest determined that she had first slit her throat, then placed her head in the oven.  It was the wound to the throat that caused her demise.  The inquest ruled the death suicide while of unsound mind.

Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas, who both suffered personal tragedies.

Performance:  I often find it difficult to judge performance in silent films.  The film medium was very different then.  What I can say is that Jameson Thomas is very commanding in the lead role.  He combines moments of tenderness with some lighter comic touches.  And Lillian Hall-Davis, who had played a more substantial leading role in The Ring,  is very believable in her smaller role here as Araminta.  The best role in the film however belongs to Gorden Harker in the role of Churdles Ash.  Harker was one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors from his silent period, and he steals every scene he is in, just as he did in The Ring.

Source material:  The film is is based on a stage play of the same name by Eden Phillpotts, which was first performed to some acclaim in 1916.  The play is very different in plotting from the filmed version.  Where Hitchcock chose to focus his film exclusively on the titular farmer, the play focuses on his daughters as well.  That’s daughters, plural.  In the movie Mr. Sweetland has one unnamed daughter who is married off at the very beginning.  In the play he has two daughters, Petronell and Sibley.  A man named George Smerdon proposes to Petronell.  She declines the offer, because she is in love with Richard Coaker.  Richard however, is in love with Sibley.  Sibley is blinded to this love, because she knows her elder sister has feelings for him.

All of these interwoven strands play out as the Farmer is going down his list of eligible women, just as in the film.  And the resolution is the same, only that there are three marriage proposals accepted at the play’s climax;  Sibley and Dick Coaker, and Petronell and George Smerdon will join their father and Araminta in matrimony.

I can imagine the play being entertaining on the stage, but it’s a bit difficult to read.  The amount of stage direction (particularly in Act II) is overwhelming.  Just to provide one example:

MISS TAPPER goes to SIBLEY, thanks her and goes to R. of MRS. TUDOR.  DR. RUNDLE joins SIBLEY R.C.  SOPHIE gets up and goes to ARAMINTA at table.  PETRONELL moves to sofa shakes hands with LOUISA and MRS. SMERDON and sits top end of sofa.  MARY moves down to RICHARD’S place on ottoman.  MARY tries to talk to GEORGE, but he only has eyes for PETRONELL.  RICHARD goes up to R.C. of window and talks to DR. RUNDLE, and SIBLEY, handing her her teacup from small table.  DUNNYBRIG gets up and stands R. of ottoman just above and facing the VICAR and HENRY.  MRS. RUNDLE rises and goes and stands L. of MRS. TUDOR on the verandah.  

Whew!  There are many such directions to be found.  I’m sure they pulled it off splendidly on the stage, but it’s a bit much to read.

Recurring players:  Lillian Hall-Davis had previously played the female lead in The Ring.  Gordon Harker, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors from the silent period, also appeared in The Ring as Jack’s trainer, and in Champagne as the Father.

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo in The Farmer’s Wife.

What Hitch said:   Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the years.  He told Truffaut “I don’t remember too much about The Farmer’s Wife, but I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.”

Hitchcock did share one anecdote with Peter Bogdanovich:

…it was a routine job–merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue.  One day on it, Cox, the photographer, went sick, so I lit the whole day’s work myself.  I said, “Right.  Let’s go.”  Someone said, “You’ve lit it, but you haven’t rehearsed it.”  “Oh, I forgot.”  So I’d rehearse it and light it, and I kept sending over pieces of film to the lab.  I was no idiot.  I didn’t think I could do it all that well, and I had the lab hand-test every shot before I’d print it.  It turned out all right.

In a November 16, 1927 article in the London Evening News, Hitchcock said “I had to film a little scene in “The Farmer’s Wife” six times the other day because the players took it too slowly to fit in with the mood of the picture.”  Unfortunately, he does not state which scene he is talking about.

Definitive edition:  I am reluctant to call any of the public domain versions currently available in the US definitive.  I currently own the Laserlight DVD, which features a decent print.  It has instances where the image goes very dark, particularly in the first ten minutes.  This makes it hard to see the image, and nearly impossible to read a title card.  Fortunately this clears up soon enough.  I have my fingers crossed that the restored BFI print will get a home video release at some point.  There are no extra features on this DVD.


TOPAZ (1969): “Now that I have given you this information, what are you going to do with it?”

TOPAZ – 1969 – Universal Pictures  – ★★1/2

Color – 143 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Frederick Stafford (Andre Devereaux), Dany Robin (Nicole Devereaux), John Vernon (Rico Parra), Karin Dor (Juanita de Cordoba), John Forsythe (Michael Nordstrom), Michel Piccoli (Jacques Granville), Roscoe Lee Browne (Philippe Dubois), Philippe Noiret (Henri Jarre). 

Screenplay by Samuel Taylor from the novel by Leon Uris

Cinematography by  Jack Hildyard

Edited by William H. Ziegler

Original music by Maurice Jarre

A desperate choice:  Hitchcock began work on this film after the longest dry spell of his career,  his previous film coming in 1966.  Hitch had immediately begun work on another film (now referred to as Kaleidoscope), developing a screenplay and shooting some test footage.  However, the studio execs nixed this film as soon as Hitchcock pitched it to them.  After this rejection, he seemingly did nothing for about a year.  Finally, with no projects in sight, he went to the studio and asked if they owned any properties that might work for him.  And Universal suggested Topaz.  

This movie completes what I call the “frustrating Hitchcock” trilogy, following Marnie and Torn Curtain.  All three films mix scenes that showcase Hitchcock’s technical brilliance, with scenes that are utterly banal.   First off, let’s take a look at some of the elements of the film that did work.  Then we will take a look at some of the things that were lacking.

Defection, Hitchcock style:  The film opens with a classic Hitchcock sequence.  After the title sequence, Hitchcock opens on the Russian embassy in Copenhagen.  A single camera shot goes from eye level, to a bird’s eye view as we watch a family exit the embassy, then goes to eye level again.

This man is a Russian named Kusenov, who wishes to defect to the United States with his wife and daughter.  The opening sequence of the film details the Kusenov family’s attempt to defect as they are trailed by three KGB agents.  First they wander through a ceramics factory, then end up in a department store.  It is outside this store that they barely make their escape.

The American who aids in the defection and brings the Kusenov’s back to the US is Michael Nordstrom, played efficiently by John Forsythe.  Ultimately, a film that begins with Russians and Americans deals more with French and Cubans.  There is a spy in the French government who is in the employ of the Soviets.  Michael Nordstrom’s French counterpart Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) tries to ferret out who the spy is, as well as figure out what the Russians are up to in Cuba (the movie is set in the days prior to the Cuban missile crisis).

The Harlem sequence, a film-within-a-film:   Devereaux learns that one of a group of Cuban soldiers staying in New York may be willing to share information, so he goes to Harlem to one of his contacts (played to perfection by Roscoe Lee Browne).  This Harlem sequence is far and away the best section of the movie.  It is full of vibrancy and life, and equals Hitchcock’s many other trademark sequences.   Here are Hitchcock’s comments on the sequence:

The best sequence in Topaz was the one outside the Hotel Teresa in Harlem, with Roscoe Lee Browne.  There, you see, was a genuine use of the long-focus lens.  Because, strangely enough, in real life, if you stand across a very wide street, you are able to single out two individuals and watch them and exclude everyone else.  But if you were to do that on film, the eyes of the audience would never go where you wanted them to go.  So I used a long-focus lens to single out the two principals to the exclusion of all else.

The sequence begins with Devereaux meeting Dubois in his Harlem flower shop.  They go inside a refrigerated room to speak, but the camera stays outside.  Here is a technique Hitchcock used many times.  We don’t need to hear the conversation because we already know what Devereaux is asking Dubois; to obtain infomation from a Cuban named Luis Uribe.

Later, the two men go to the Harlem Hotel where the Cuban delegation is staying.  Devereaux stays across the street, and the camera stays with him.  This is the telephoto lens Hitchcock was speaking about in the quotation above.  Again, for several moments, we do not hear Browne’s dialogue.  The audience along with Devereaux, is watching a silent movie.  First Dubois enters the lobby and asks the clerk to call Uribe, who comes down on the elevator.  We watch Dubois make a proposition, which Uribe refuses.

Finally Dubois convinces Uribe to come outside, where he sweetens the pot, offering cash.  This time, Uribe accepts, and the men go inside.  Now the point of view shifts from Devereaux, as we join Dubois and Uribe in the hotel.

The documents that Dubois wishes to see are in a briefcase in the room of a Cuban revolutionary named Rico Parra (John Vernon).  First Dubois and Uribe discuss the matter in Uribe’s bathroom.  Here Hitchcock cuts to a high camera angle, an angle he used at least once in almost every film, usually to heighten the tension.

It is agreed that Dubois will talk to (and distract) Rico Parra while Uribe grabs the briefcase.  They succeed in their plan, but soon Parra notices the briefcase is missing.   Dubois makes a daring escape jumping out the window onto the awning below, and running down the street.

After this fantastic sequence, the movie begins to slow down considerably in pacing, with the next section taking place in Cuba, and an even slower (and duller) section in Paris.

A bleeding dress and a Pieta:   Devereaux ends up in Cuba, where he makes contact with another spy, who he is also having an affair with.  The affair was a large part of the book, and it features prominently in the film as well.  The woman is named Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) and Rico Parra loves her just as much as Devereaux does.  Juanita’s network of spies get photos of the Russian missiles in Cuba, and Devereaux escapes with them, but things don’t go so well for Juanita and her spies.  In the film’s most famous image, Juanita meets her end at Parra’s hand, and as she falls to the floor, her dress spreads out around her, simulating a pool of blood.

And the spying couple that captured the photos meet a tragic end, after being tortured by Parra’s men.  Here, Hitchcock returns to an image he used several times, that of the Pieta.   This is his most deliberate, and most touching reference to the dead Christ in Mary’s lap.

Hildyard and Jarre:  Two men who were most closely associated with director David Lean worked on Topaz, and their solid contributions often go unmentioned.  Cinematographer Jack Hildard was a master of color cinematography, who had won the Academy Award for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.  His interior lighting on this film is splendid, with several memorable images.

Where Hildyard really shone, however, was on exterior shots.  What might have been “throwaway” transitional shots for other DP’s became magical for Hildyard.

And Maurice Jarre composed the musical score for this film.  Jarre had won two Academy Awards scoring movies for David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.  His score on this film is very engaging, sometimes even more so than the visuals.  The score was one of the few things about this film that Hitchcock was happy about, and he hoped to work with Jarre again.  Unfortunately that never happened.

Topaz, for all its flaws, does have arguably the best post-Bob Burks cinematography, and the best post-Bernard Herrmann musical score of any of Hitchcock’s final four films.

Languorous pacing:  The final hour of this film is marred by slow pacing.  Devereaux’s attempt to uncover the French spy simply drags on.  There are a couple of good moments, but overall this stretch is overlong and unrewarding.  Philippe Noiret was an interesting choice to play one of the French spies, but most of the other Frenchmen are forgettable.

Alternate endings:  Hitchcock shot an ending which involved Devereaux and the Russian mole engaging in a duel  (yes, a duel!) but this ending was rejected after test audiences hated it.  Here is Hitchcock talking about the sequence:

     The company took that out – they didn’t like that.  Put in an ending with Piccoli committing suicide.  It was a compromise.  I actually saw pictures of a duel in a very early edition of Paris-Match, I think, in which two men did meet in a football stadium.  I thought that was a rather fascinating setting, instead of the usual dawn-in-the-woods with the low fog and the black-coated men with their top hats.  That’s the cliche, you know.  But to do a duel up against a sign which says “Dubonnet” or “Perrier Water” or whatever, I though was more amusing.  I suppose it was a bit of self-indulgence.

A second ending involved the Russian agent departing on a plane to Moscow, with a smug look on his face.

The final choice, mentioned above by Hitchcock, involved a suicide.  Unfortunately by this time the actors were all discharged.  So a piece of footage of a different actor entering the Russian mole’s door was used, followed by a freeze-frame and the sound of a gunshot to imply a suicide.  None of the endings work very well, but this is probably the worst of the lot.

Performance:  Most of the performances fall flat in this one.  Frederick Stafford is a solid and capable actor, but he comes across as very wooden in this film, as do most of his compatriots.  John Forsythe is solid in a supporting role, but he has little to do.  There are two standout performances in the film however, both in smaller supporting roles.  First of all,  Roscoe Lee Browne as Dubois, the French spy working as a Harlem florist, gives a spectacular performance.  And John Vernon, as Rico Parra, gives humanity to a role that was very thinly written.

Source material:  The film was based on the bestseller by Leon Uris.  Uris was best known for Exodus, which had been a phenomenal hit in the late 50’s.  This was a more modest success.  The film maintains much of the story from the novel.  One can imagine that a book involving both Cold Way spy intrigue and the Cuban missile crisis would have been popular in 1967;  now, it all feels very dated.  Uris struggles to balance the romantic interludes and arguments of infidelity with the moments of spy craft. The book suffers from the same problem as the film;  some sections are engaging while others lag.  Deveraux’s departure from Cuba is more fraught with danger in the novel, which creates great tension for the reader.  And Juanita’s demise is not nearly as poetic as the billowy dress of the film; she dies a bloody, violent death.

Recurring players:  John Forsythe had earlier starred in The Trouble With Harry.  Lewis Charles (Pablo Mendoza, the man who takes the photos with his wife, is captured and tortured) had a small uncredited role in To Catch A Thief (he is the man who pours the bowl of milk and offers it up to John Robie in the early kitchen restaurant scene).  Hal Taggart (ambassador) had earlier appeared briefly in Marnie (man at racetrack).

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 34 minute mark.  In the airport scene, he is seen being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse.  The wheelchair comes to a stop, and Hitchcock stands up, seemingly in fine health, and shakes the hand of a man approaching from the right.

What Hitch said:  Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock how he felt about Topaz in a May, 1972 interview.  Hitchcock said “It was a film which had great drawbacks, I feel, because of the problem of foreigners speaking English.  For example, you had a Frenchman talking to a Cuban.  Now, there’s no truth there because you don’t know really what language they represent.”

When Bogdanovich asked if Hitchcock chose to do this film, he replied “No, it was owned by the company.  I was desperate for a subject and they asked me to do it, so we took it on.  It was done under pressure to a great extent…You can correctly say, Why did you do it?”

Definitive edition:  The Universal blu ray released in 2013 is the best version available.  This print is not fantastic;  a handful of Hitch’s later films could do with a clean-up.  That being said, Jack Hildyard’s cinematography looks great in several sequences.  The extra features include a half-hour documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin, which functions as a sort of apologist’s view of the film.  Also included are all three alternate endings, a storyboard comparison, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.


RICH AND STRANGE (1931): “Love is a very difficult business”

RICH AND STRANGE – 1931 – British International Pictures – ★★

B&W – 83 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Henry Kendall (Fred Hill), Joan Barry (Emily Hill), Percy Marmont (Commander Gordon), Betty Amann (The Princess), Elsie Randolph (The Old Maid).

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, adaptation by Alma Reville and Val Valentine, based on the novel by Dale Collins

Cinematography by Jack Cox

Edited by Winifred Cooper and Rene Marrison

Music by Adolph Hallis

A Hitchcock comedy:  This might not be a straight comedy, but it is as close as Hitchcock ever came in his British period.    Hitchcock creates a funny opening sequence that requires no sound to be effective.  Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) is seen at the end of the working day, surrounded by people.

We observe throngs of people leaving the building.

One man after another goes outside and opens his umbrella.  Fred fumbles with his umbrella, which turns out to be broken.  Off into the rain he goes.

Next we see him on the underground platform, pressed in on all sides.

Finally aboard the subway, he loses his balance and inadvertently plucks a feather from a woman’s hat, which he sheepishly returns to her.

Glancing at his paper he sees the following words:

This introduction is none-too-subtle, but it sets up the premise well enough.   When Fred gets home, he tells his wife Emily (Joan Barry) that he is fed up with life.  It is excitement he craves.  Well, in this type of movie this dialogue is the cue for a well-timed letter informing Fred that he has just inherited some money from a dead uncle.  So off Fred and Emily go, traveling around the world.

A talkie with titles:   Considering that Hitchcock had already made several films with sound at this point, including some that made very innovative use of the new film medium, it is curious that he chose to make a film in which sound is almost superfluous.  This film (particularly the latter two-thirds) is full of title cards, just as one would see in a silent film. 

I have read at least one source that alleges the title cards were necessary because much of the film was shot on location.  I’m not sure I buy that theory because there are dialogue scenes that could have included exposition left to the title cards.  Clearly this was a choice.  One advantage of the location shooting is getting nice shots of the local landmarks.

Even many of the jokes are visual in nature, and would have worked in a silent film, including one of the best, when a drunk Fred tries to set his watch to an elevator floor indicator.

Another nice visual joke comes later on board the ocean liner, when a seasick Fred looks at a menu and the words seem to be leaping off the page at him.

Many of the shipboard scenes are quite trite and dull.  While Fred is seasick, Emily befriends (and begins to fall for) Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont) whose company is sought by many women, including a spinsterish lady played by Elsie Randolph.

When Fred recovers, he begins to fall for a woman who is referred to as “The Princess” (Betty Amann).

The passengers disembark in Singapore.  Fred soon discovers that the Princess is no royalty at all, but a swindler, who promptly absconds with the bulk of his money.  Emily was planning to leave with Gordon, but she feels sorry for Fred and so stays with him.  The two have just enough money for cheap steamer passage home.  On the return voyage, the ship begins to sink.

The two are rescued (along with a black cat) by a Chinese junk.  A rather tasteless joke ensues, in which the couple are seen ravenously eating bowls of food offered by the Chinese, after which they  see the cat’s skin being nailed to the ship  (the implication being that they have just eaten the cat!)  At this point they fling their heads over the rail, presumably to throw up.

And the movie ends where it began, in their London flat, only now they appreciate their day-to-day life.

Missing footage?  Every print of this film I have come across has an 83 minute running time.  And yet I have seen at least 5 different reputable sources that cite a 92 minute version, when the film was first released in Britain.  What happened to this missing 9 minutes?  Is there a print of the original version out there somewhere?  It would be interesting to see what it contained.  Perhaps Hitchcock’s cameo, which does not exist in the 83 minute version?  He discussed it with Peter Bogdanovich as if it had been shot.  Or perhaps this scene, that Hitch recalls from memory, in discussion with Truffaut:

Hitchcock:  …there was a scene in which the young man was swimming with a girl and she stands with her legs astride, saying to him “I bet you can’t swim between my legs.”  I shot it in a tank.  The boy dives, and when he’s about to pass between her legs, she suddenly locks his head between her legs and you see the bubbles rising from his mouth.  Finally, she releases him, and as he comes up, gasping for air, he sputters out, “You almost killed me that time,” and she answers, “Wouldn’t that have been a beautiful death?”  I don’t think we could show that today because of censorship.

Truffaut:  I’ve seen two different prints of that picture, but neither one showed that scene.

If this scene is part of the missing 9 minutes, then it would seem like it was already missing in the early 60’s, based on this interview clip.

Performance:   Hitchcock blamed this movie’s box office failure on his casting choices in the leading roles.  Personally, I think the story is a bit of a jumbled mess, so I’m not sure any acting could have saved it.  That being said, this movie was designed to be carried by the starring couple, and the chosen actors do very little to engage or inspire.  Henry Kendall and Joan Barry have absolutely no chemistry, with each other or the love interests they develop along the way.  Betty Amann as “The Princess” is just as vapid and lifeless as Joan Barry.  Anyone who would fall for her deserves what he gets.  Percy Marmont is at least passable as Commander Gordon.  The only really pleasurable performance in the entire film is that of Elsie Gordon as the old maid.  I imagine her role as written was pure caricature; she manages to make it both funny and human.  The film could have used more such performances.

Source material:   There is more than one book that claims Dale Collins either wrote the novel Rich and Strange in conjunction with the Hitchcocks, or that he wrote it specifically for Alfred Hitchcock as a sort of treatment.  If that is true, I have found no evidence to support it.  On the contrary, in the Library of Australia I found a review of Collins’ novel from the December 12th, 1930 Sydney Morning Herald,  almost a year to the day prior to the movie’s release on December 10th 1931.  It seems highly unlikely that the book was written with Hitchcock in mind.

I have been unable to procure a copy of the book to read, so I can’t provide my customary comparison between the book and film.  Instead, I will add the complete newspaper review here, which provides a neat summary, and shows that book reviewers haven’t changed much in 88 years:

In their suburban home Emily is happy but Fred is discontented. He is a London clerk, and his humdrum life weighs him down. The postman calls, and a letter arrives announcing that they have been left a legacy of £3000, which is to be spent having “a good time.” They go travelling. On a steamer bound for the East Fred becomes enamoured of a princess with those “tawny” eyes that are so often found in novels.  His wife falls in love with a passenger, Gordon. By the time they near Singapore Fred has determined to run off with the princess and Emily with Gordon.  On arrival in port the princess turns out to be an adventuress and disappears with £1000 of Fred’s money; Emily cannot face carrying her affair with Gordon to conclusion. They sail on together, therefore, in the steamer, which comes to disaster, and the two, imprisoned in their cabin, deserted by all the others, are rescued by Chinese on a Junk, which takes them to Japan-nearly dead, and, when safe ashore, ready enough to resume suburban life in England.

It is a somewhat ordinary story, with little to raise it to the heights. The author introduces himself among the characters:

“Did you know we’d an author aboard?”
“Have we?” said Emily, impressed.
“Yes; there he is-the one by the door,”
“What!-that fat little man with the
“Yes-a novelist. . , Dale Collins. Never
heard of him myself.”
“Neither have I,” said Emily. . . “Why,
yes I was reading one of his books Just before
we started.”
He is one of the passengers, and appears at intervals. He meets Fred and Emily in Japan, and finishes the story with them. It reads like self-trumpeting, but, of course, the author is writing his own book, and pleases himself as to what his readers may like. The descriptions of the tourists at the various ports of call are somewhat trite. The best effort is the account of the wreck and the experiences
on the Junk.

Recurring players:   Joan Barry had earlier provided the live-on-set English voice dubbing for Anny Ondra in Blackmail.  Percy Marmont would later appear in both Secret Agent (as Caypor) and Young and Innocent (as Col. Burgoyne).   Elsie Randolph would appear 41 years later as Gladys in Frenzy, the longest gap between appearances in Hitchcock films.  And Hannah Jones (the uncredited Mrs. Porter) had earlier appeared in Downhill, Champagne, Blackmail, and Murder!

Where’s Hitch?  There is no surviving Hitchcock cameo in this film, although Hitchcock did have a clever one planned, and even told Peter Bogdanovich that it was filmed, although it does not exist in any surviving print.  In the Dale Collins novel, there is a scene in which the protagonist couple enter a bar and encounter the author of the very novel they are in, who tells them their story is too outrageous.  Hitchcock planned a variation on this, where the leads would meet him as director Alfred Hitchcock. After hearing their tale, he would reply “No, I don’t think it will make a movie.”  This missing (or possibly never made) cameo is one of the many frustrating aspects surrounding this movie.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock seemed to be fond of this picture, saying “It had lots of ideas…I liked the picture; it should have been more successful.”  He also had an opinion about why the movie was a box office flop:  “My mistake with Rich and Strange was my failure to make sure that the two leading players would be attractive to the critics and audience alike.  With a story that good, I should have not allowed indifferent casting.”

Definitive edition:   The best print currently in existence is on the Lionsgate Alfred Hitchcock:  3 Disc Collector’s Edition released in 2007.  This set has 5 of Hitchcock’s early British films, 2 silent and 3 sound.  There are no extra features accompanying Rich and Strange.  The print is not great, but it is watchable.

HITCH: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russell Taylor

Hitch:  The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russell Taylor

1978 – Berkley Publishing – 333 pages

I’m not sure which phrase on a book’s cover bothers me more:  “authorized biography” or “unauthorized biography.”   This book is the one and only instance of the former for Alfred Hitchcock.  John Russell Taylor was a film and theater critic who came to prominence in Britain in the 1960’s.  Over time he became friendly with Hitchcock, and at some point in the early 70’s he proposed penning Hitchcock’s biography. At first Hitchcock politely declined, but eventually he consented, in his usual roundabout way.  He didn’t say yes directly; rather he said to Taylor, almost as an aside “When you write that book of yours…”

On the one hand, an authorized biography means cooperation with the subject, and often with family members and work associates as well.  And that seems to be the case here.  There are even a couple of direct quotes from Alma Hitchcock.  I wish there were more.  I find it very frustrating that, for all the praise Alma received and continues to receive (and deservedly so) as half of the Hitchcock team, there are very few interviews available.   Taylor also spoke to many people from throughout Hitchcock’s career;  several people from the early British period were still alive in the 1970’s, such as Charles Bennett and Michael Balcon.  That makes this the only significant biography of Hitchcock for which the author was able to speak directly not only with Hitch himself, but also a great number of those who were close to him.  That alone makes it an interesting read.

The danger of an authorized biography is that the subject may have a final say in what information is included, and what omitted.   Certainly Taylor was a great fan of Hitchcock; he was not on a muck-raking expedition.  There may not have been all that much muck to rake anyway.  But one does occasionally wonder if certain incidents were “spun” to cast Hitchcock in a good light.

The book balances the personal and the professional, covering the major milestones in Hitchcock’s life, as well as every movie he directed.  Now, many of those movies may have only half a page dedicated to them, but at least nothing is completely glossed over.  Pat Hitchcock, Alfred and Alma’s only child, also gets considerable coverage of her personal and professional life;  I imagine Hitchcock wanted her achievements included, and they are a nice touch.

In light of many weightier Hitchcock tomes written subsequently, the biggest complaint one can level towards Russell is that his book feels very slight at a hair over 300 pages.  It is also, as are many biographies, front loaded; much more time is spent on the early years, while time becomes more compressed the closer one gets to the present day.

That being said, it is a charming read.  If one wishes to read only one biography on Hitchcock, head for Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock:  A Life in Darkness and Light, which I consider definitive.  For the more than casual fan, that can’t get enough of Hitchcock lore, this biography comes highly recommended.

MURDER! (1930): “This is not a play, this is life.”

MURDER! – 1930 – British International Pictures – ★★★

B&W – 108 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Herbert Marshall (Sir John Menier), Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Phyllis Konstam (Doucie Markham), Edward Chapman (Ted Markham), Esme Percy (Handel Fane). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock and Walter C. Mycroft, scenario by Alma Reville, based on the novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Cinematography by Jack Cox

Edited by Rene Marrison

A “real” Hitchcock picture:   Alfred Hitchcock came to this project riding a high.  His last two films, Blackmail (Britain’s first sound picture) and Juno and the Paycock had both been  hits.  But Hitch felt a little guilty about taking any credit for the success of Junohe had essentially filmed a stage play as written, and believed all the acclaim belonged to playwright Sean O’Casey.   He was eager to make another picture that dealt with subject matter he could put his own personal stamp on, as he had with Blackmail.

Murder! was an ideal story for Hitchcock to adapt, and he was brimming over with ideas.  The story is set in the world of the theater, and begins with the murder of an actress in a travelling theater troupe.  Diana Baring, another actress from the company, is found standing near the body, with the supposed murder weapon near at hand.  She claims to have no memory of what happened, and is quickly charged with the murder.   The trial is glossed over, with a greater emphasis on the jury room.  One member of the jury is Sir John Menier, a leading actor of the British stage.  He is the lone hold out in favor of acquittal for a time, but the other jury members sway him to change his vote.

With a guilty verdict cast, and an execution date set, Sir John still doubts her guilt, and sets out to solve the murder and free Diana before her date with the hangman.   He elicits the help of Ted Markham, the stage manager of Diana’s theater troupe, along with Ted’s wife Doucie.  Ultimately their investigation leads them to a circus tent, where a strangely dressed trapeze artist may hold the answer to a murder.

Innovations in sound and vision:   Hitchcock opens this movie with a nice visual shot.  We see a quiet row of houses at nighttime.  Someone is making a row outside a door.  Hitchcock tracks along a series of upper story windows, as the occupants open the windows to see what the fuss is about.  His camera finally stops on the window of the Markhams.

Later the Markhams go downstairs and head down the street, only to find the scene of the murder.  Doucie Markham accompanies the landlady into the kitchen.  Less than two years after the introduction of sound in British pictures, Hitchcock leads the vanguard in new and interesting ways to use it.  He has these two ladies begin their conversation in the kitchen, then move to the dining room, then back again to kitchen and dining room, without cutting.  It is filmed adeptly and adds a slightly lighter tone to a film that has just introduced a murder.

Later, when Hitchcock cuts to Diana Baring in prison, his German expressionist influences show.  She is often shown with the shadows of bars across her or behind her.  The female guard can always be seen passing back and forth through the window in the door.  And, as the day of the hanging draws closer, Hitchcock shows the shadow of the scaffold growing taller and taller, a nice touch worthy of the great silent films.

Hitchcock used sound to greater effect in the jury scene.  After a few moments of deliberation, the verdict is eleven for guilty and one (Sir John) for not guilty.  The other jury members surround Sir John, repeating key phrases to him over and over, which finally sways him to their side. 

Here is Hitchcock describing the writing of this scene (from an August 1930 article in Cassell’s Magazine):

Trial scene?  No!  Emphatically no!  The public is weary of the trial scene and my opinion is that you cannot get it over on the screen really successfully.  It is liable to fall terribly flat.  Besides, here Sir John was the central character and here is his entrance – Enter, Sir John.  It is, in a sense the crux of the story.

A jury scene, then, it had to be.  And while Mrs. Hitchcock was curled up in an armchair, nibbling the end of a pencil and gazing into space, I toyed with the gramophone, which, like my thinking apparatus at that moment, wouldn’t go.  Suddenly the “juice” arrived and the gramophone burst into song.  Almost simultaneously my thinking apparatus started into life.

“Got it,” I exclaimed.  “We’ll have all the jury repeating single phrases.  We’ll make em ding dong, ding dong, ding dong into Sir John’s ears till he’s bewildered.  We’ll numb him with monotony and stun him with crescendo.  That’ll make him give in and everybody can see him crumbling.

There are many subtle comic touches in the film which play on British class distinctions.  Such as when Sir John is dining with the Markhams, and Mrs. Markham begins to eat her soup with the wrong spoon.  So Sir John follows her lead, not wishing to embarrass her.  And the very charming scene where Sir John wakes up in a boarding house surrounded by children and a kitten.  

As with so many Hitchcock movies, this one features a fall from a height near the ending.  In this case a rather grisly one, as the murderer slips a noose around his neck and jumps in front of the circus crowd.

Shakespearean influence:  There is a Shakespearean undercurrent in the movie, just as there was in the book.  In the novel, every chapter began with a quotation from a Shakespeare play.   To quote Hitchcock:

There were also several references to Hamlet because we had a play within a play.  The presumptive murderer was asked to read the manuscript of a play, and since the script described the killing, this was a way of tricking him. They watched the man while he was reading out loud to see whether he would show some sign of guilt, just like the king in Hamlet.

Perhaps the most impressive scene in the film is one that may be described as the first soliloquy captured on film.  There is long scene in which Herbert Marshall as Sir John stands in front of his bathroom mirror.  The radio is playing, and we hear his interior monologue as he questions the guilt of Diana Baring.   Says Hitchcock:

We had to reveal his inner thoughts, and since I hate to introduce a useless character in a story, I used a stream-of-consciousness monologue.  At the time, this was regarded as an extraordinary novelty, although it had been done for ages in the theater, beginning with Shakespeare.

The problem was that sound dubbing did not exist in 1930.  So Hitchcock had Herbert Marshall record his monologue ahead of time, and had it played live on the set from a phonograph as Marshall stood in front of the mirror reacting to his own words.  As if that wasn’t challenge enough, Marshall also had his radio on. (Interestingly enough, playing the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which would later influence Bernard Herrmann when he scored Vertigo).  Since the music also could not be overdubbed later, Hitchcock had a thirty-piece orchestra hiding behind the bathroom wall, playing the music live, which had to sync with the phonograph recording of Marshall’s monologue and Marshall’s live acting in front of the mirror.  The fact that it all comes off seamlessly is a testament to the sequence’s success.

Just as the movie (and the novel) reference The Mousetrap, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, this movie ends with its own such moment.  First we see Sir John and Diana entering a room.   Then the camera pulls back, revealing that they are acting on stage together.  Hitchcock was borrowing from himself here, as he had done something similar in one of his early silent films, Downhill.

Performance:  It is very interesting to see a movie just one year into the sound era that is so dialogue driven.  Considering how new the format was, the performances are very good.  Herbert Marshall as Sir John really has to carry the film, and he does so, creating a character that is both sympathetic and charming.  Both Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman as the Markham’s are very good as well.  Slightly less satisfying is Norah Baring as the suspected murderess, and Handel Fane as the actual murderer.   Their performances are adequate, but pale when acting opposite Marshall.

Source material:   The novel Enter Sir John was the debut novel of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson.  It is a fairly engaging read, and holds up well if one is a fan of mysteries.  The story is dialogue driven, with elements of humor throughout.   Hitchcock and Walter Mycroft did make several changes in the film adaptation.  In the novel Sir John watches the trial from the gallery.  It was Hitchcock’s idea to make him a member of the jury, which works quite well for the story.  The first quarter of the book focuses on the trial; Hitchcock chose instead to skip the trial and focus on the jury deliberation.  Many of the comedic touches from the book were kept for the film, such as Sir John reluctantly spending the night in the boarder’s house, and dealing with all the children and the cat in the morning.

The ending is rather different as well.  While both book and movie have Handell Fane being invited to Sir John’s to read for a part, which is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the novel Fane makes a dramatic escape from a window.  He is later caught on the street, only to escape the police station before ultimately being caught.  In the movie he is caught at a circus where he is a trapeze artist.  The idea of Fane being a cross-dressing performer was not in the book, existing only in the film.

Hitchcock’s German movie?  In the very early days of sound pictures, there were several attempts at shooting two versions of the same film on the same sets, but with different actors and in different languages. (Universal did this with Dracula in 1931, shooting a Spanish-language version with Spanish-speaking actors at night, while Bela Lugosi and company shot in the day).  This idea did not last too long, but Murder! was one such film.   Hitchcock shot another version, titled Maryin German (which I will review in another entry).  Here is Hitchcock:

I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language – just enough to get by…as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language.  Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one…The German actor was ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know enough about the German idiom.

Recurring players:  Herbert Marshall would play the villain in Foreign Correspondent a decade later.  Phyllis Konstam had small uncredited roles in Champagne and Blackmailand would later have a more prominent role as Chloe, the troubled sister-in-law in The Skin GameEdward Chapman also had prominent roles in Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game.   Miles Mander had appeared in Hitchcock’s directorial debut The Pleasure Garden, as well as the German language version of this film, Mary.  Esme V. Chaplin (prosecuting counsel) also appeared in Mary.  Donald Calthrop was also in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycockand Number Seventeen.  S.J. Warmington (Bennett) would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage.   Hannah Jones (Mrs. Didsome) was also in Downhill, Champagne, Blackmailand Rich and Strange R.E. Jeffrey (jury foreman) was later in The Skin Game.  Kenneth Kove (jury member) would have a small role (meek man) in Stage Fright twenty years later.  Violet Farebrother (jury member) was also in Downhill and Easy Virtue.  William Fazan (jury member) also had uncredited roles in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.   Gus McNaughton (Tom Trewitt) would later appear as the pipe smoking man on the train in The 39 Steps.  And Clare Greet (jury member) was also in The Ring, The Manxman, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotageand Jamaica Inn.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 1:02:45 mark.  As the film’s stars stand talking outside a closed door, Hitchcock walks by left to right, with a female companion on his left arm.


What Hitch said:  Hitchcock often spoke fondly of this movie.  I’ve already quoted him extensively, so we will end with his concluding remark to Truffaut:  “Anyway, to get back to Murderit was an interesting film and was quite successful in London.  But it was too sophisticated for the provinces.”

Definitive edition:  The 2019 Kino Lorber blu ray release is the best version currently available.   The picture quality is the best it has ever been, and probably ever will be.  There is some background hiss on the audio track which may require you to turn up the volume a bit more than normal, but considering this movie is 90 years old as of this writing, the sound quality not bad at all.  The blu ray contains an exceedingly dry audio commentary track by Nick Pinkerton. There is some valuable information to be had, but Mr. Pinkerton also mispronounces several proper names and words.  I have a hard time believing the utterances of someone who can’t even speak properly.   Also included is a 14-minute audio excerpt from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview sessions, a 5-minute video introduction from Noel Simsolo (in French with English subtitles),  the complete German language version of the film, and a 10-minute alternate ending.  This alternate ending is really just a couple of small scenes that were inserted into the ending to spell things out a little more clearly for an American audience.

A brief note on aspect ratio:   During the early days of sound films (approximately 1928-1932) many films were shot in a ratio of 1.19:1 (referred to as the Movietone ratio).  This involved overlaying an optical audio track over the film track.  The result was a film that was much closer to square than we are accustomed to seeing.  However, films from this era are very rarely released in this format for home viewing.   They are either “stretched” so the existing 1.19:1 ratio fills a 1.37:1 area, or the framing is opened up on the sides.  This particular version of Murder! chose the latter option, opening up the framing, which results in film equipment being visible in a couple of scenes.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well Made Film by John Fawell


2001 – Southern Illinois University Press – 179 pages

I first became aware of John Fawell when I purchased Rear Window on blu ray.  It is Fawell’s erudite and entertaining commentary track that appears as one of the bonus features.  This book explores many of the same themes addressed in the commentary track, but in greater depth.

What sets this book apart from most other Hitchcock books focused on one film is that this is not a nuts and bolts “making of” book.  If you are interested in learning which scenes were shot on which day, this is not the book for you.  Fawell focuses exclusively on themes and ideas.  He references many works that preceeded him, while putting forth many of his own ideas as well.

While Fawell is somewhat scholarly in tone, he writes in a way that is still accessible to the fan.  As he says in his introduction:  “I wrote the book even more for the nonacademic, the person who is looking for a careful explanation of why Hitchcock is taken so seriously.”

It is clear that Fawell is not just a professor, but a fan as well.   He is someone who has watched this movie, and thought about it, many times.  The chapters are broken down into different thematic elements.  Perhaps the most enlightening for me are the sections on the soundtrack.   The visuals of Rear Window are so powerful and entertaining that one can easily miss some of the background music and sounds.  I think Rear Window has one of the greatest diegetic soundtracks ever constructed, and Fawell gives this subject the time and attention it deserves.

Fawell also examines each of the characters who Jeff watches from his window, looking at what they represent thematically.  He has a chapter focused on loneliness, another on Jeff’s emasculation, and another on the subject of Jeff as Hitchcock.  He also focuses on the brief instances when Hitchcock takes us outside Jeff’s point of view.  Again, Fawell provides the best insight yet recorded on this aspect of the film.

This book is a treasure trove of ideas for anyone who is a fan of this movie, and wants to dig a little deeper into the possible meaning and subtext.  I would recommend giving Fawell’s excellent commentary track on the blu ray a try first.   It is very engaging and full of ideas.  If you enjoy that, and want a deeper dive into some of those themes, then the book is highly recommended.

TORN CURTAIN: Deconstruction of a scene (the killing of Gromek)

Torn Curtain may be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most problematic and frustrating films.  It is a film of moments, a few of them quite good, and perhaps the greatest moment is the Gromek murder sequence.   Here is Hitchcock to set the scene:

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

This sequence runs around 8 minutes and 8 seconds in length, and is made up of 138 pieces of film, which averages out to an editorial cut every 3.5 seconds.   I have seen this sequence many times, and thought I knew it very well, but it was only upon studying it frame by frame that I realized how much Hitchcock relies on quick cutting and montage here.  This sequence is similar in that regard to the shower scene in Psycho and the attic attack in The Birds, although this sequence runs much longer.

Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) enters the small house, looking very happy that he has caught Professor Armstrong (Paul Newman), who is looking for another way out.

There is some standard back and forth cutting here, as Gromek begins to question Armstrong.  Then Armstrong and the woman (Carolyn Conwell) move to the center of the room, with the supporting beam between them.    

There is some more back and forth cutting, then Gromek calls Armstrong to the door.  Gromek shows him the pi symbol drawn in the dirt.  Hitchcock does something very interesting with the cutting here.  As Gromek is interrogating Armstrong, trying to provoke him, he reaches out his hand and pokes at Armstrong’s midriff.   This is shown in a couple of very fast (< 1 second) insert shots, almost like blows.

Gromek closes the door, and Armstrong moves back to the center of the room.  As Gromek moves to the phone  to call in and report there is more back and forth cutting here, with the shots averaging 3 seconds or so.  After Gromek dials the phone, a pot of soup is hurled at his head, landing just above the phone.  Hitchcock here inserts an extremely fast, almost subliminal close up of the the pot passing Gromek’s head.  I had to slow the image down to 1/8 speed to be sure it was an editorial cut and not a zoom.  It is a seamlessly inserted cut on movement, which then returns to the medium shot of the pots contents all over the phone and the wall.  

Then Hitchcock gives us this interesting image, the only such image in the sequence.  Why does he pull back like this, besides the fact that the composition of the shot is beautiful, almost like a painting?  I think it is to show us the lay of the land, before the confrontation begins in earnest.

Gromek goes for his gun, which flies across the room as Armstrong grapples for it.  The woman grabs it.  Unfortunately she cannot use it, because the taxi driver outside the window would certainly hear.  Armstrong has Gromek in a chokehold, which we observe from a high angle.

Hitchcock employs his subjective point of view, as he often did, by giving us shots from the woman’s POV.  She observes the taxi driver out the window, then searches for a quiet weapon.   She sees the knife in the kitchen drawer.

Then Hitchcock places the camera in front of her, and slowly tracks as she crosses the room, holding the knife out.

There is more cutting back and forth here between the woman and the struggling men.  She is hesitant, not wanting to injure Armstrong.  Gromek continues to talk (“She’s gonna cut your fingers off”).

Finally she stabs Gromek.  Just at the instant of the blade landing, it snaps off.  And here Hitchcock inserts another one of those very fast, almost subliminal close ups before returning to the medium shot.

Gromek continues to stuggle with the tip of the blade embedded in his neck.  Now Hitchcock returns to the subjective point of view as the woman looks around for another weapon.  She sees the shovel, and grabs it.

The next series of shots are done in montage, about 8 shots in less than 10 seconds.   First a close up of the shovel hitting Gromek’s knee, then a close up of his face in pain.  This repeats four times.  Until Gromek finally slumps to the floor.

Gromek just won’t quit.  He smiles as he begins to rise.  Once again the woman scans the room, and her eyes stop on the oven.  We get a close up of her hands  turning on the gas jets, then she and Armstrong begin to grapple with Gromek.

Then comes a fascinating sequence of shots, mostly from Gromek’s point of view.   As the other two are sliding Gromek across the floor towards the stove, we get a close-up of Armstrong’s face, then Gromek’s head on the ground, then a close-up of the woman, and finally a shot of the open oven.  This same four-shot sequence repeats two more times, with the oven getting closer each time it repeats.  We see a total of 12 shots in 28 seconds.  

We next get a one-second shot of Gromek’s head going in the oven.  Then we cut to an overhead shot of Gromek in the oven.  After all the rapid cutting, Hitchcock holds this shot for 41 seconds without a cut.  We see Gromek’s hands flailing, then finally falling limply to his side, indicating his death.

The final cut of the sequence begins with a close up of the gas jets being turned off.  But Hitchcock does not cut away from this.  Instead he keeps one continuous take, as the two survivors move away from the stove, recovering from their ordeal.  This shot is the longest in the sequence, at around 50 seconds.  Why does Hitchcock end with this long take?  It allows both the characters and the audience to catch their breath.

As in many of Hitchcock’s signature scenes, he employed all three of his favorite camera techniques here:  montage, the long take, and the subjective point of view.   The sequence was carefully storyboarded before shooting, and when you break it down, you can see how each individual piece of film is integral to the story that Hitchcock is telling.