SPELLBOUND: (1945): “Will you love me just as much when I’m normal?”

SPELLBOUND – 1945  – Selznick International Pictures  –  ★★★1/2

B&W – 111 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Petersen), Gregory Peck (Dr. Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne), Michael Chekov (Dr. Alexander Brulov), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), Rhonda Fleming (Mary Carmichael), Normal Lloyd (Mr. Garmes). 

Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Adaptation by Angus MacPhail from the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding.

Cinematography by George Barnes

Edited by Hal C. Kern

Music by Miklos Rozsa

Dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali

A film full of ideas:  When Alfred Hitchcock began production on Spellbound, he was in the fifth year of his contract with David O. Selznick, and yet they had only made one movie together  (Rebecca).  Selznick had loaned Hitchcock out to other studios on film after film, to the benefit of both;  Selznick made a tidy profit, while Hitchcock enjoyed a level of autonomy he would not otherwise have.  Now Hitchcock was coming home to roost, and while he might not have been perfectly happy being under Selznick’s thumb again, he brought a multitude of strong ideas to this film.

The plot is an interesting variation on Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme.   In this case, a man shows up at a mental hospital calling himself Dr. Edwardes, the new head of the facility.   Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has some peculiar personality traits.  Seeing the color white (particular with a linear pattern) makes him turn away in revulsion.   He also falls instantly in love with Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman).  Eventually we learn that Peck is not Edwardes.  So who is he, then?  And where is the real Dr. Edwardes?

Peck goes on the run, chased by the police while unaware of his identity.   He is helped in his quest by Ingrid Bergman, who tries to be Peck’s therapist despite the fact that she is deeply in love with him.   Over the course of the movie Peck discovers the truth of who he is, and the nature of his phobia.   The real Dr. Edwardes is found dead (after all, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock without at least one murder, would it?) and the culprit discovered.  What makes this film so different from Hitchcock’s other “man on the run” films is that the character’s journey is as much psychological as physical.   Let’s take a look at some of Hitchcock’s methods of visual narrative in this film.

Constance Petersen is presented as cold, sterile, virginal in her early scenes.  She is clearly the intellectual superior of her male colleagues, who view her as just a pretty woman.   It is no accident that in her first session, her patient (Rhonda Fleming) is a nymphomaniac, a polar opposite of Constance.

Constance begins to fall for “Dr. Edwardes” the moment she meets him, and after they spend an afternoon together she finds herself even more drawn to him.  She comes back to the manor in a state of physical and emotional dishevelment.  Hitchcock here employs one of his typical subjective POV shots, as Constance joins her (all male) colleagues for dinner.

Later the same evening, Constance and “Edwardes” kiss, and Hitchcock uses a clever visual motif of a series of opening doors.

Later “Edwardes” flees Green Manor when he is found  to be an impostor, and Constance tracks him to a New York hotel.  There is a funny scene here, where Constance first rebuffs a drunken man in the hotel lobby, then uses the hotel detective to help her find Edwardes.  He calls himself an amateur psychologist, thinking he is impressing this pretty young woman with his acumen, not realizing that he is being played.

The next sequence of the film takes place at the home of Constance’s mentor Dr. Brulov, a sort of stand-in for Freud, with a Germanic accent and European look.   During the night Edwardes has a fugue episode ( look for a deconstruction of this scene as my next post).   The following day, Brulov and Constance interpret Edwardes’ dreams.

Hitchcock and Dali:  Alfred Hitchcock wanted Salvador Dali to assist in designing the dream sequence for Spellbound and Selznick acquiesced.  After some negotiations, a deal was struck.  Dali initially created several paintings which he shared with Hitchcock and his creative team.

Two of Dali’s original design paintings for the Spellbound dream sequence.

There is a persistent rumor that the sequence was originally planned to run twenty minutes in length.   There is no evidence that it was ever intended to be that long, but it was initially going to be at least a couple minutes longer.  One sequence that was filmed was cut entirely.

Art director James Basevi, Hitchcock and Dali.

Scenes from the gambling house sequence:

The parallel perspective lines on the floor continue on to the painted backdrop with the eye, which is center frame. Also note that the table and chair legs are women’s legs.

The rooftop sequence, and conclusion:

Below are some scenes from the deleted sequence, which would have played between the gambling house and rooftop sequences.

Bergman and Dali on the set.

This sequence features an orchestra suspended from above, as well as several pianos.  The pianos are smaller than normal, so little people were used as background dancers to aid with the perspective.  Neither Hitchcock or Dali was happy with the result.  Next, the scene would show Bergman turning into a statue.  They filmed Ingrid Bergman breaking out of a statue-like shell, then planned to run the sequence in reverse to get the desired effect.

Dali and the Bergman “statue”.

Ultimately, David Selznick was unhappy with the dream sequence, so not only was a sequence cut from it, but the resulting sequences were chopped into smaller segments, with Gregory Peck’s narration bridging the gaps.  It would be interesting to see the sequence play out as Dali originally intended it.  Unfortunately the excised footage is believed to be gone.

Psychological resolution, story resolution:  Gregory Peck’s character has the breakthrough he has been seeking, with the help of Brulov and Constance.  He remembers who he is (John Ballantyne) and he also remembers that he accidentally killed his brother when they were children, a guilt he has been suppressing for years.

A brilliantly layered shot. Children sledding in the snow can be seen out the window (a foreshadowing of the revelation to come).
A powerful subjective POV flashback of Ballantyne accidentally killing his brother.

Finally Ballantyne gets to the bottom of his revulsion of parallel lines on a white surface.  (It has to do with skiing).  Unfortunately, just as the film looks like it will end happily, Ballantyne is convicted of the murder of the real Dr. Edwardes.  Just as Constance helped Ballantyne cure his psychological problems, she will now save the day again, playing detective and finding the real killer.

When Dr. Murchison is discovered as the killer, he trains his gun on Constance.  Hitchcock wanted a subjective POV shot, but he wanted the gun and Ingrid Bergman to remain in focus.  The only way to pull that off was to construct a giant hand holding a giant gun.

A very impressive (if anatomically improbable) visual.

Hitchcock was not quite out of tricks yet.  At the sound of the gun flash, Hitchcock insisted on two frames of red colored film.  Each negative had to be individually hand painted when they went out for distribution.  The timing is such that Hitchcock felt most people would not even consciously register it, but he felt it would have an emotional impact.

Performance:  Alfred Hitchcock expressed some displeasure with Gregory Peck’s performance in the movie.  I think Peck was just right for this part.   There are elements to his character that could not have been pulled off by Cary Grant, for instance.  Peck is solid and always believable.  Ingrid Bergman was already a big star by this time, and she looks and plays the part.  Exquisitely beautiful, but full of inner strength, she owns this role completely. Constance Petersen is one of the strongest female leads in all of Hitchcock’s films, and nobody could have surpassed what Bergman does with the part.  Michael Chekov, who is doing a variation on Freud as Dr. Brulov, very much deserved his Oscar nomination.  Even the smaller roles are memorable, as Hitchcock favorites Norman Lloyd and Wallace Ford make the most of small roles.  And Rhonda Fleming is unforgettable.  Leo G. Carroll is another in the long line of suave, sophisticated Hitchcock villains.

Source material:  Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1928 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders under the pseudonym Francis Beeding.   The novel is dramatically different from the resulting film adaptation.  In the novel, Constance Sedgwick is newly arrived at Chateau Landry, a mental asylum in the French mountains.  The man calling himself Dr. Murchison, the man in charge of the asylum, is actually a homicidal maniac who has switched places with the real doctor and imprisoned him in a cell.   The murderer, a man named Godstone, begins to exert a strong influence over the other patients, and the staff.  Godstone is a devil worshipper, who has crosses tattooed on the soles of his feet.   The book is pretty dark (including a couple of deaths), but retains a slightly comic tone at times.  The plot is far too ridiculous to take seriously.   I wonder if Poe’s story “The Tale of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” provided some inspiration, for it shares some general details of both plot and tone.  As long as one doesn’t attempt to take it seriously, it is an enjoyable if insubstantial read.

Enter the theremin:   Just as Hitchcock was full of visual ideas, he had plenty of thoughts about the music as well.  Composer Miklos Rozsa used the theramin as part of the musical score at Hitchcock’s request. The theramin (named after its inventor, Leon Theramin) is unique among musical instruments in that it is played without actually touching it.  It emits electromagnetic waves, which are “played” by moving the hands around two metal rods.  The theramin creates an ethereal sound that became popular in science fiction movies in the 50’s, but Rozsa pioneered its use in cinema.   Rozsa’s score was rewarded with an Oscar win.

Below you can watch theramin virtuoso (and third-generation relative of inventor Leon Theramin) Lydia Kavina play part of Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound score.

Recurring players:  Ingrid Bergman would later star in Notorious and Under Capricorn.  Gregory Peck would also star in The Paradine Case.  Hitchcock employed the services of Leo G. Carroll more than any other actor.  He also appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.  Norman Lloyd had appeared as Fry, the man who falls from the Statue of Liberty, in Saboteur.  Steven Geray (Dr. Graff) would later play a hotel desk clerk in To Catch a Thief.   Wallace Ford (man from Pittsburgh in hotel lobby) had played Detective Saunders in Shadow of a Doubt.  Irving Bacon (railway gateman) played a similar role in Shadow of a Doubt.  Constance Purdy (Dr. Brulov’s housekeeper) had played the landlady to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in the opening scenes of Shadow of a Doubt.   Clarence Straigh (secretary at police station) would later play a policeman in The Wrong Man. 

Academy Awards:  Miklos Rozsa won the Oscar for Best Musical Score for Spellbound.  The movie was also nominated in five other categories:  Best Picture (David O. Selznick), Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Black and White Cinematography (George Barnes) and Best Special Effects (Jack Cosgrove).

Where’s Hitch?   Hitchcock’s cameo comes at around 43:06.  He can be seen exiting an elevator in the lobby of the Empire State Hotel.

What Hitch said:  When Hitchcock spoke with Truffaut, he was fairly dismissive of the film.  I wonder if this is in part because Truffaut says he finds the film a disappointment.  Hitchcock says “Well, it’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis…Since psychoanalysis was involved, there was a reluctance to fantasize; we tried to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure.”

He added “The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 MGM/Fox blu ray is the best edition currently available.  Picture and sound quality are good, not great.  Included are a commentary track with film scholars Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg (probably my least favorite commentary track on any Hitchcock release), a 21-minute documentary on the Dali dream sequence, a 20-minute documentary on psychoanalysis, a ten-minute interview segment with actress Rhonda Fleming, a Lux Radio Theater version starring Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, a 15-minute audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich and Hitchcock, and the original theatrical trailer.

There is also a (now out of print) DVD version from Criterion, which features a strong, scholarly commentary by Marion Keane, an illustrated essay on the Dali dream sequence, an audio interview of Miklos Rozsa, a public radio piece on the theramin, hundreds of photos, the same Lux Radio Theater version that appears on the MGM/Fox blu ray, and the trailer.




STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951): “You do my murder and I do yours.”

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) – Warner Bros. – ★★★★1/2

B&W – 101 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton),  Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton), Laura Elliott (Miriam Haines).

Screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by William H. Ziegler

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

Hitchcock at Warners:  Alfred Hitchcock completed Stage Fright, which was distributed by Warner Bros., just before he entered production on Strangers on a Train.  Hitchcock had found a new professional home, signing a multi-picture deal with Jack Warner.  Stage Fright, while it had not lost money, was certainly no blockbuster, and even Hitchcock himself seemed indifferent towards the movie.  Things would be different with his next film.  He was completely engaged, and definitely firing on all cylinders creatively.  As we take a look at the story of Strangers on a Train, we will see how Hitchcock used creative visuals throughout to advance and enhance the narrative.

A chance encounter?  The movie opens with scenes inter-cutting between two pairs of very different shoes.  Two men disembark from taxis, and enter a train station.  They are never seen above the knee, as one moves from left to right, and the other from right to left.  The way the scene is shot and edited, along with the music, seem to imply that they are moving inexorably towards one another.

We then see a train moving down the track, from a low camera angle.  The intersecting railroad tracks suggest divergent lives that are about to intersect.

Hitchcock said of this opening:  The shots of the rails in Strangers on a Train were the logical extension of the motif with the feet.  Practically, I couldn’t have done anything else.  The camera practically grazed the rails because it couldn’t be raised.

Then our two pairs of feet finally collide.  One could almost call this a “meet cute”, because there is at least a slight homoerotic undertone to the relationship.  One man, Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger), accidentally bumps his foot against the man sitting opposite him.  This man, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) recognizes Guy as a tennis player, and engages him in conversation.  Bruno, talking almost non-stop, demonstrates that he knows quite a bit about Guy, including the fact that he wishes to be divorced from his wife, so he can be with Anne Morton, a senator’s daughter.   Bruno entices Guy back to his compartment for lunch.

Bruno is clearly an eccentric character, from his lobster-print tie to his many bizarre theories, and he has a delicate nature.  Guy finds him a little odd, and slightly amusing, but ultimately harmless.  Perhaps Guy feels a little sorry for him.  Bruno proposes one of his many “theories” to Guy:  the idea of a murder swap.  Two people have someone in their life that they would like to be rid of (such as Guy’s wife and Bruno’s father), but they can’t do it because of the motive.  But if they, complete strangers, swap murders, they will both be in the clear.  “You like my idea, don’t you Guy? You think it’s OK?”  asks Bruno.  “Sure” Guy assures him, “they’re all OK.”  Guy thinks he is just humoring this strange fellow, not endorsing his scheme.

Guy meets with his estranged wife Miriam, played to shrewish perfection by Laura Elliott.  She refuses to divorce him, saying she wants him back, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child.  When Bruno hears of this, he sets out to put his “theory” into practice.

Hitchcock has a marvelous sequence at a carnival, where Bruno follows Miriam and her two (!) male companions.  Bruno is not secretive about it;  rather, he makes sure that she sees him.  And she appears interested.  Even as she is with two other men, she is measuring the potential sexual prowess of a third.  She marvels at his strength when he rings the bell at the strongman game, and he wiggles his eyebrows at her, flexing his hands.  Miriam does not realize that this very strength which she is attracted to will be the instrument of her death.  Bruno follows the trio into the tunnel of love, and we get this interesting shot, as Bruno’s boat, and his figure, seem to overtake and engulf Miriam.

Finally they end up on an island, a lover’s lane of sorts, and Bruno strangles Miriam to death.  The scene begins quite violently.

The censors would never have allowed the entire strangulation to take place on screen, so Hitchcock found a very creative way to show her death.

Miriam’s glasses drop to the ground, and the act of strangulation is completed in the reflection of the glasses.  This was achieved by constructing a giant, oversized set of reflective glasses.  Actress Laura Elliott recalls that Hitchcock then instructed her to “float to the ground.”

Bruno then waits outside Guy’s house to tell him that his wife is dead and he is free.  Naturally, Bruno expects that Guy will fulfill his end of the bargain by killing Bruno’s father.   Notice how this scene is staged.  First Bruno is standing behind a gate, implying his guilt.

Then, when the police show up at Guy’s door, he too hides behind the gate.  Now he is complicit in the crime.  He tells Bruno “Now you have me acting like a guilty man.”  And of course he is guilty of wishing Miriam dead.  After all, he really did want his wife out of the way, and now it has happened.

The next section of the film has Bruno continually inserting himself into Guy’s life,  a constant reminder of the crime that has been committed, and the crime that Bruno wishes to still be committed.  Meanwhile, the police are suspicious of Guy in the death of his wife.

In one unforgettable shot,  Bruno observes Guy from a great distance, on the steps of the Jefferson memorial.

In a 1955 interview in Cahiers du Cinema Hitchcock describes this shot:  In Strangers on a Train I had to show a menacing crazy man.  I couldn’t use close-ups all the time;  that’s boring.  So I had the idea of using a small silhouette.  The grandiose Jefferson Memorial in Washington, all white, with a little silhouette, oh so black.  That was the equivalent of a close-up.

Then we have an ingenious shot at a tennis match.  Every head in the crowd is swivelling back and forth, left to right, following the path of the ball.  Every head except one:  that of Bruno, who stares directly at Guy.

Finally Guy goes to Bruno’s house.  Is he going to kill Bruno’s father?  Greater suspense is added to the scene with the inclusion of a large dog on the stairwell.   Bruno gets past the dog and into the father’s room.   He has not come to kill him, but rather to warn him about his crazy son.  Unfortunately, it is Bruno in his father’s bed.

Hitchcock describes this sequence as follows:  …in that scene we first have a suspense effect, through the threatening dog, and later on we have a surprise effect when the person in the room turns out to be Robert Walker instead of his father.  I remember we went to a lot of trouble getting that dog to lick Farley Granger’s hand.

Bruno tells Guy that he will set him up for the murder of his wife.  He has possession of Guy’s cigarette lighter, and Guy realizes that he will take it back to the location of the murder, in an attempt to frame him.

This sets up the film’s finale.  First there is a masterful sequence, showing Guy trying to win a tennis match as fast as possible, intercut with Bruno on his way to the amusement park.  Bruno drops the lighter in a storm drain and struggles to get it out.

Hitchcock described this sequence in a 1950 interview with New York Times Magazine:  In Strangers on a Train, the picture I am working on now, we are really exploiting the dramatic possibilities of movement.  The hero plays a championship tennis match, knowing all the while that the villain is moving deliberately toward the execution of a piece of dirty work which will leave the hero hopelessly incriminated.  He must play as hard and as fast as he can in order to win the match, get off the court, and overtake the villain…The camera, cutting alternately from the frenzied hurry of the tennis player to the slow operation of his enemy, creates a kind of counterpoint between two kinds of movement.

The finale of the movie is a showstopper of a sequence, which takes place on an out-of-control carousel, where Guy and Bruno face off, with the police watching.

The shooting of this sequence involved a real moving carousel, a static carousel with a moving screen behind, and a miniature.  All combine seamlessly;  the sequence holds up rather well.

Bruno refuses to confess to the murder, even as he is dying, but he is betrayed by the very object that he hoped to use to pin the murder on Guy.   This is a near-flawless film, that deserves to be mentioned among Hitchcock’s best works.

Performance:   Farley Granger is wonderful in the leading role of Guy Haines.  I find it interesting that Hitchcock wanted William Holden for the role.  Certainly Holden was a great actor, but his macho persona was not what this role needs.  Even as Guy is repulsed by Bruno, he still continues to show empathy, and I don’t think Holden could have pulled it off.  Ruth Roman, while a competent actress, plays the part with a cold detachment.  There is little chemistry between Granger and Roman.  As was frequently the case in a Hitchcock movie, the best role belongs to the villain, and Robert Walker is one of the best Hitchcock villains of all.  He is in some ways a precursor to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates;  a charming but fragile man, who has mental health issues exacerbated by his mother.   Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who plays Ruth Roman’s younger sister, steals every scene she is in.  This is the best part she ever had in a feature film, and she plays it perfectly.  Leo G. Carroll is solid, as always, in the role of Senator Morton.  And Marion Lorne, who will forever be remembered as Aunt Clara from TV’s Bewitched, plays Bruno’s mother with a brilliant comic touch.

Source material:  This movie is based on the debut novel of Patricia Highsmith.  Highsmith would go on to write many psychological thrillers, with a taut but textured literary style.  The novel Strangers on a Train differs in a few significant ways from the film.  The overall premise is the same;  the chance meeting on the train and Bruno’s idea for swapping murders.  In the novel, Guy is an architect rather than a tennis player.   The biggest difference is that in the book, Guy actually does murder Bruno’s father, completing the double murder compact.  But Bruno keeps coming around, wanting to befriend Guy.  Eventually Bruno accidentally drowns, which would seem to leave Guy in the clear.  But at some point he feels compelled to confess to his ex-wife’s lover, and this confession is overheard by a detective.  Guy turns willingly turns himself in at the end.  Never content to focus just on the plot and characters, Highsmith would often delve into psychological ruminations about the nature of people.   Here is one such excerpt of many to be found in this book:

But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative.

The thrilling carousel climax of the film is nowhere to be found in this book, but appears to be lifted directly from the 1946 novel The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. Could it be coincidental?  Possibly, although there are many similarities.   At any rate, Crispin was not credited on the film at all.

Recurring players:  Farley Granger had earlier starred in Rope.  Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll was also in Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case and North by Northwest.  Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia also had small roles in Stage Fright and Psycho.  Murray Alper (carnival boat operator who recognizes Bruno) had appeared in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Saboteur.  Al Bridge (tennis judge) had an earlier uncredited role in Saboteur.  Leonard Carey (the Antony’s butler) also had small parts in Rebecca, Suspicion and The Paradine Case.  Herbert Evans had appeared in Foreign Correspondent.  Tommy Farrell (one of Miriam’s escorts to the carnival) would later turn up as an elevator operator in North by Northwest.  Sam Flint (man who asks Bruno for a light on the train) would later turn up in Psycho as a county sheriff.  Charles Sherlock (cop) was Barry’s taxi driver in Saboteur.  And Robert Williams (bystander at drain) would later turn up in North by Northwest. 

Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman, and Patricia Hitchcock.

Academy Awards:  This film received one Oscar nod.  Robert Burks was nominated for best Black and White Cinematography.  He did not win.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 10:30 mark.  As Farley Granger is exiting the train in Metcalf, Hitchcock is boarding the train, while carrying a double bass.

What Farley said:  In his autobiography Include Me Out, Farley Granger had the following to say about his love interest in the film, Ruth Roman:

Warner Brothers was producing Strangers, and Ruth was under contract to them.  Hitch had wanted the then-little-known young actress Grace Kelly for the part, but Warners had refused.  Since they had to pay MGM to use Bob and Goldwyn to use me, they insisted that he use Ruth, who was really not right for the part.  Hitch did not like his artistic wishes thwarted.  As a result, he was cold and sometimes cruel to Ruth, which was unfair because as a contract player she was just doing what her studio told her to do.   But Hitch was right, she was wrong for the part.

Farley does not elaborate on why he thought she was wrong.  About working on the movie, he said:

All in all, working on Strangers on a Train was my happiest filmmaking experience… [Hitch] knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it…After he finished a setup, he would walk to the assistant, who would turn over a page.  Hitch would look at it and say:  The camera goes here, here and there; the lenses are this, this and that; the action takes place from here to there.  Then he would relax while the crew got things ready.  They respected and trusted him because he was able to be precise about what he wanted.  He never had to peer through a lens finder to see how a shot looked.

Patricia Hitchcock as Barbara Morton. Bruno becomes very disturbed when he sees her, because she reminds him of Miriam.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was proud of several moments in Strangers on a Train, but he still considered it a flawed film.  I think he is a little harsh in his assessment of this movie, which is a bona fide Hitchcock classic.  Among other things, he said:

As I see it, the flaws of Strangers on a Train were the ineffectiveness of the two main actors and the weakness of the final script.  If the writing of the dialogue had been better, we’d have had stronger characterizations.  The great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures…I was quite pleased with the over-all form of the film and with the secondary characters.  I particularly liked the woman who was murdered; you know, the bitchy wife who worked in a record shop.  Bruno’s mother was good too – she was just as crazy as her son.

I think the script is rather solid, with lots of well-penned dialogue.  Obviously it was not what Hitchcock was hoping for.  About his starring couple, he had the following harsh words:

She [Ruth Roman] was Warner Brother’s leading lady, and I had to take her on because I had no other actors from that company.  But I must say that I wasn’t too pleased with Farley Granger;  he’s a good actor, but I would have like to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger.  In this kind of story the stronger the hero, the more effective the situation.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers 2012 blu-ray release is the best version of this film available for home viewing.  In addition to a sensational print of the film, the blu-ray also includes an alternate preview version, which has some slight, subtle differences from the final cut;  an excellent commentary track including archival audio from people like Hitchcock himself, Whitfield Cook, Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, and many more contributors.  Also included are five featurettes:  a 36-minute making-of documentary; The Victim’s P.O.V, which is a 7-minute interview with the actress who played Miriam; a 12 minute appreciation by director M. Night Shyamalan;  a featurette with Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughters; and a one-minute archival clip with no audio, likely from the promotional tour from the movie.  Also included is the original theatrical trailer.



THE PARADINE CASE (1947): “This was, indeed, no ordinary woman.”

THE PARADINE CASE (1947) – Vanguard Films – ★★1/2

B&W – 114 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Gregory Peck (Anthony Keane), Ann Todd (Gay Keane), Alida Valli (Mrs. Paradine), Louis Jourdan (Andre Latour), Charles Laughton (Judge Horfield), Charles Coburn (Sir Simon Flaquer), Ethel Barrymore (Lady Horfield).

Screenplay by David O. Selznick, adapted by Alma Reville from the novel by Robert Hichens.

Cinematography by Lee Garmes

Edited by Hal C. Kern

Music by Franz Waxman

A troubled ending:  When Hitchcock entered into production on this movie in 1947, he knew it would be the last film on his contract with David O. Selznick.  While Hitchcock was dedicated to the film, his mind was already on his next project, which he planned to make as an independent producer.   The process of making The Paradine Case was in many ways a mirror of the Hitchcock/Selznick relationship.  It began with much promise, and deteriorated over time.  A controlling producer and disinterested director are not an ideal combination for great filmmaking.

The Story:  The story of The Paradine Case is excellent.  Alida Valli plays Mrs. Paradine, a woman accused of murdering her husband.  Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, the lawyer hired to defend her in court.  Over time, Peck becomes infatuated with Mrs. Paradine, actually confessing to being in love with her at one point.  As Keane develops an obsession with Mrs. Paradine, his work and his marriage begin to suffer.  Keane’s wife, played by Ann Todd, is well aware of his feelings for his client, and yet urges him on in trying the case.  The situation is further complicated by the judge assigned to oversee the case.  Judge Horfield, played to perfection by Charles Laughton, has a strong attraction to Mrs. Keane.  He makes a pass at her, while her husband is standing just feet away, unaware. She rebuffs him.  Will his anger at being turned away affect his judgment in the case at hand?

Charles Laughton making a move for Ann Todd.

As if that is not enough drama, there is another element added by Mr. Paradine’s valet Andre Latour, played by Louis Jourdan.  Anthony Keane wants to imply that Jourdan’s character may be the real murderer, but Mrs. Paradine opposes this line of defense.  Is it possible that she has feelings for the valet?  Ultimately, Keane’s monomania threatens to destroy his client’s case, his career, and his marriage.   He is able to salvage one of these three things.

The first half of the movie deals with the build-up to the trial, and Keane’s growing fascination.  The second (and far superior) portion of the film focuses on the trial.

Conflict on the set:  Much like the character of Anthony Keane obsessing over his client, David O. Selznick obsessed over the movie, involving himself in every aspect of production.   First of all in his casting choices, many of which Hitchcock was not happy with.  Then, in his constant rewriting of the screenplay.  He would watch the dailies every day, write new pages in the evening, and deliver them to the set in the morning.  As a consequence, many days filming did not being until eleven or twelve.   As Gregory Peck said of Selznick’s rewritten pages, Hitchcock would “see those blue pages in the morning and he would just retreat to his bungalow…in all fairness to Hitch, the dialogue was invariably worse not better.”

Then there was conflict over how the film was lit.  Hitchcock wanted to create a movie that was rich in shadows, but Selznick was having none of it.  Lee Garmes, the veteran cinematographer, was caught in a tug of war between Hitchcock and Selznick.  Hitchcock would ask for more shadows, while Selznick wanted glamour shots, particularly for his newly-discovered star Alida Valli.  He wanted close-ups and bright light on her face.

Selznick would dash off memos to his director, critical of the way the film was being shot.  Selznick said:

There is no shading or attempt to photograph Jourdan interestingly as there was in the first few days, and if we’re not careful this will be true of Valli…We can’t go on photographing the walls and windows, making passport photos, without any modeling to the face, any lighting designed to give the woman interest and beauty and mystery, no study of her best angles and how to light and photograph them.

Describing Hitchcock’s work as  filming “passport photos” is a particularly biting comment, which must not have sat well with the director.

A typical Selznick “glamour shot” of Alida Valli.

Hitchcock also had some elaborate tracking shots planned, which Selznick ordered scrapped and shot conventionally.  Finally, Selznick controlled the editing as well.  Hitchcock turned in a nearly three-hour rough cut, from which Selznick trimmed almost an hour, including some of Hitchcock’s more interesting shots.  Selznick settled on a preview version of the movie, but would ultimately cut an additional ten minutes.  It is uncertain whether a print of this preview version is still in existence, but it would certainly be interesting to see some of the footage that Selznick cut out.

The Hitchcock touch?  Despite this film ultimately being more of a Selznick film than a Hitchcock film, there are still several nice Hitchcock touches throughout.   There is a very well-filmed scene between Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan.   The conversation has a confrontational air.  Peck sees Jourdan not only as his adversary in the trial, but also a sexual adversary in relation to Mrs. Paradine.  As they sit and face each other across a table, a lamp is suspended above their heads, with decorative crystals hanging from it.

As the scene becomes more intense Hitchcock cuts to a close-up, and now we see only the crystals, suspended almost like a jagged row of teeth above the men’s heads.

There is a scene in the courtroom which Hitchcock was particularly proud of, which involved Alida Valli sitting in the defense box while Louis Jourdan entered the courtroom and walked around the box, to the witness stand.  It was done by shooting Jourdan first, walking through a 200-degree arc.  Then Alida Valli was placed in front of a screen showing this footage, and sat on a stool that slowly turned.  As Hitchcock said:  “It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.”

A “complicated” Hitchcock shot. Alida Valli senses Louis Jourdan without ever looking at him.

Finally, there is a trademark Hitchcock overhead shot, following Gregory Peck as he slowly leaves the courtroom for the last time, in defeat.

Performance:  Gregory Peck is a great actor, but Hitchcock may have been right when he stated that Peck was not a convincing English lawyer.   Alida Valli plays Mrs. Paradine as cold and distant.  That is how the character was written in the book, and yet she is also supposed to possess an almost immeasurable allure, affecting every man she comes in contact with.  This allure is missing from Valli’s performance, and the character of Mrs. Paradine suffers for it.  Ann Todd, in the role of Mrs. Keane, also plays her part with a certain detachment.  As Hitchcock said of her character:  “She was too coldly written, I’m afraid.”    And Louis Jourdan, with his charm and good looks, was not exactly what this role called for.  These are certainly all good actors, but they were at odds with the material at hand.  The really good performances in this movie are found in the smaller roles.  Charles Laughton is perfectly cast as the lecherous Judge Horfield, and Ethel Barrymore is also wonderful in the role of his wife.   Charles Coburn is solid, as always, in the role of Sir Simon Flaquer, and Joan Tetzel is a revelation in the role of his daughter, Judy.  She has more vibrancy than all the other women in the movie combined.

Source material:  This film is based upon the 1933 novel by Robert Hichens.  The basic premise of the novel is the same as the movie, and it’s a good one.    The novel is a decent read by today’s standards, although the courtroom scenes at the end are the most gripping part of the book.  There are several differences between the novel and film.  In the novel, Mrs. Paradine is found guilty, but she never actually confesses.  Not only that, but the reader is never definitively told that she killed her husband.   It is implied, but not explicitly stated.    Also Mr. Paradine’s valet,  called William Marsh in the book, does not commit suicide.   At the end of the novel we find out in an aside that Keane has retired from the bar, and that Judge Horfield was shot, and has also retired.   We are led to believe, through a fairly subtle clue,  that Keane shot Horifield.  Lady Horfield is also a more significant character in the novel.

Hitchcock themes:  One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most pervasive themes is that of guilt, both real and perceived.  Everyone in this movie is carrying some level of guilt, except perhaps the lecherous Judge Horfield, who feels no guilt for his actions.  Mrs. Paradine doesn’t express any guilt for her husband’s death, but perhaps feels bad for the way Andre Latour is treated.  Keane feels guilty because he is emotionally unfaithful to his wife.   His wife feels guilty because she cannot stand back and let him try the case.  Latour feels guilty because of his indiscretions with Mrs. Paradine.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between this film and Vertigo.  Both films feature a man falling in love with an idealized version of a woman, a woman that does not really exist.  And in both cases, the man in question blindly pursues this idealized woman to a tragic ending.

Academy Awards:  Ethel Barrymore received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, for her brief but memorable role as Lady Horfield.  She did not win.  Some may be surprised that a role comprising only three minutes of screen time could be nominated for an Oscar.  The print of this movie that was shown to the Academy for voting consideration was longer than the final theatrical cut, and included some more scenes of Barrymore’s character.

Recurring players:  Gregory Peck had earlier starred in Spellbound.  Charles Laughton had appeared in Jamaica Inn.  The stalwart character actor Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor.  In addition to this film, he was in Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.  Patrick Aherne (police sergeant) would later have a small role in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.   Leonard Carey (courtroom stenographer) also had bit parts in Rebecca, Suspicion and Strangers on a Train.  Elspeth Dudgeon had appeared in Foreign Correspondent.   Lumsden Hare (courtroom attendant) had appeared in Rebecca and Suspicion.  Phyllis Morris (Mrs. Carr) had a bit part in The 39 Steps.   The great character actor John Williams has an uncredited role as Barrister Collins, Gregory Peck’s assistant.  He is seen in several scenes, but has no dialogue.  He would have plenty of dialogue in Dial M For Murder and To Catch a Thief.  

Joan Tetzel and Charles Coburn provide two of the best performances in the movie.

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock shows up just after the 38:00 mark, exiting the train station, and carrying what appears to be a cello case.

What Hitch said:  Generally speaking, when Hitchcock considered one of his own films to be weak, he had little to say about it.  But he actually had quite a lot to say about this movie, while recognizing its flaws:

Let’s go over some of the more apparent flaws of that picture.  First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer.  I would have brought in Laurence Olivier…But the worst flaw in the casting was assigning Louis Jourdan to play the groom.  After all, the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess, but also a nymphomaniac.  And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom…Unfortunately, Selznick had already signed up Alida Valli – he thought she was going to be another Bergman – and he also had Louis Jourdan under contract, so I had to use them, and this miscasting was very detrimental to the story.  Aside from that, I myself was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor.

Definitive edition:  Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in 2017, as part of their Studio Classics series.  The print is good, not great.  As a matter of fact it has a very grainy appearance in places, but it is still better than it has ever looked on a home video release.  The blu-ray includes a commentary track by Bill Krohn and Stephen Rebello; two audio interviews featuring Hitchcock, one with Francois Truffaut and one with Peter Bogdanovich; a Lux Radio Theater radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotten; a brief interview with two of Gregory Peck’s children;  theatrical trailer; and a restoration comparison.


SUSPICION (1941): “If you’re going to kill somebody, do it simply.”

SUSPICION (1941) – RKO Radio Pictures – ★★★

B&W – 99 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Joan Fontaine (Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth), Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Nigel Bruce (‘Beaky’ Thwaite), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlaw), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Martha McLaidlaw), Leo G. Carroll (Captain Melbeck).

Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles

Cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr.

Edited by William Hamilton

Music by Franz Waxman

A promising premise:  In 1941, while under contract to David O. Selznick, Hitchcock made back-to-back films on loan-out to RKO.  The first was the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which Hitchcock claimed he made as a favor to star Carol Lombard.  The follow-up film was a project he had his eye on for some time,  based on the work of an author (Anthony Berkeley Cox) he really admired.  That film would become Suspicion.  It was actually another A.B. Cox novel that first caught Hitchcock’s eye, a book called Malice Aforethought. Hitchcock wanted to make a film version, but never acquired the rights.  So he settled on Cox’s follow-up novel, Before the Fact. 

The subject of the film is a young woman named Lina, played with impressive restraint by Joan Fontaine.  She is in many ways a continuation of the character that Fontaine had played a year earlier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.   Lina is one of Hitchcock’s sexually repressed women,  a character type that would surface in several Hitchcock films (Ingrid Bergman in SpellboundTippi Hedren in Marnie).  She has a couple of chance encounters with a man named Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) who is the exact opposite of her:  an extrovert of the highest order, charming and rakish.  She finds herself drawn to him.   When she overhears her parents commenting on her spinsterish condition, she practically throws herself at Johnnie.  She runs off to the justice of the peace, and they are married.

Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine, flanked by two stalwart British character actors, Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

It does not take long for Lina to realize that her new husband has a few character flaws.  She learns that he is broke.  Then she learns that he has a gambling problem.  She also discovers that he is a thief, an embezzler, and a compulsive liar.  Despite all of this, she remains loyal to him.  The film follows a pattern of Lina being hurt by Johnnie’s behavior, then being won over by his “naughty schoolboy” attitude.    But will Lina also stand by Johnnie if he is a murderer?

Shortly after Lina and Johnnie are married we are introduced to Johnnie’s old school chum “Beaky” Thwaite, played to perfection by Nigel Bruce.  Nigel is a rather simple but likable chap.  At one point, Johnnie proposes to Beaky a joint business venture in which Beaky will put up all of the money.  Lina suspects that Johnnie plans to take the money for personal use.  Shortly thereafter, Beaky ends up dead, under suspicious circumstances.  Lina begins to suspect that Johnnie may be guilty of murder.  She then begins to suspect that he plans to murder her as well, for life insurance money.    She believes this right up to the last scene, when events take a surprising turn.

Performance:   Let’s begin with the good.  Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award for her performance in this movie, the only Oscar in an acting category ever bestowed in a Hitchcock film.  Many people have said it was a “make up” Oscar for not winning the previous year, for Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  It is not a typical Oscar-winning role for the time, being understated rather than melodramatic.   Fontaine’s performance is entirely appropriate for the character, and deserving of the award.  British film royalty Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke are splendid as Lina’s parents.   Nigel Bruce (best known for playing Doctor Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes) is wonderful as Beaky Thwaite.  He is completely endearing to both Lina and the viewer, which is important so we will feel his loss all the more.  Surprisingly, the problem with this movie is Cary Grant.  It is not that he acts poorly.  It is rather that it is impossible to like his character as written.  It is hard to feel fondness for this lying, stealing cad, no matter how much he tries to charm everyone, and no matter that he is played by one of the most charming actors ever to grace the screen.

Would you like a glass of milk?  In the most well-known scene in this movie, Johnnie Aysgarth brings a glass of milk to his wife, Lina.  The audience is not sure at this point if that glass contains poison.  Hitchcock wanted to be sure that every viewer’s eyes were on that glass.  So he used a simple, but ingenious method to shoot it.  In this sequence he employs two of his signature motifs:  the overhead shot, and the staircase.  He begins with a shot from above, as a square of light floods the tiled floor from the kitchen.  Suddenly that light goes out, and Cary Grant walks out with a glass of milk on a tray.  Then the camera pans with him as he walks up the stairs in shadow, with tray in hand.   Hitchcock explained how he made sure that glass stood out:  “I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous.  Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s attention had to be focused on that glass.”

It is interesting that Hitchcock criticized his cinematographer for this film being “too glossy”, when scenes like this show a perfect marriage of light and shadow.

Academy Awards:  Suspicion was nominated for three Academy Awards.  Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.   The movie also received a Best Picture nomination, and Franz Waxman’s musical score was nominated as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox, written under the pseudonym Francis Iles.  The book is an entertaining, if frustrating read.  It is a first-person narrative told from the point of view of Lina McLaidlaw.  The book begins much as the movie does.  Lina is a spinsterish 28-year old,  who is swept off her feet by the charming and impetuous Johnnie Aysgarth.   Lina marries Johnnie, and then he begins to show his true colors.  Only the Johnnie Aysgarth of the book is a much more vile character.   He does share a few traits with Cary Grant’s character in the film;  both are liars, thieves and embezzlers.  But the Aysgarth of the novel is also an adulterer, who has a child with the family maid.   This much darker Johnnie Aysgarth also is responsible for the deaths of both General McLaidlaw, and Beaky Thwaite.  And at the end of the novel, he murders Lina as well.  So we have a novel that is narrated by the murder victim herself.  It is frustrating to see this woman who continues to stick with this reprehensible man, as she learns more and more about his behavior, eventually allowing herself to be poisoned by him, because she can’t live without him.  Hence the title of the book, because Lina is an accessory before the fact to her own murder.

The ending that could have been:  Initially, Alfred Hitchcock wanted an ending to his film that was truer to the original novel.  He explained why he had to change the ending in an interview he gave to the New York Herald Tribune shortly after the film’s release:  “I knew as soon as I read Before the Fact that there’d have to be a different ending…It is axiomatic in Hollywood that unhappy endings breed commercial failures…In Suspicion we had a story that led naturally to an unhappy finale…Cary Grant is familiar as a light comedian, and Joan Fontaine is remembered mainly as the heroine of the happily ending Rebecca.  It is doubtful that those two would be accepted as figures in a tragedy.   But supposing we had forgotten all that and made the husband a murderer – then we’d have had the Hays office to deal with.  The code demands that a murderer face punishment by law…Toward the end of the film Grant brings Miss Fontaine a glass of milk which she believes to be poisoned.  It seemed logical to me that she should drink it and put him to the test…We shot that finish.  She drained the glass and waited for death.  Nothing happened, except an unavoidable and dull exposition of her spouses’s innocence.  Trial audiences booed it, and I don’t blame them.”

Hitchcock’s preferred ending, which was written but never filmed, had Grant truly poisoning Fontaine.  She pens a letter to her mother, writing of her suspicions that Johnnie may kill her.  She seals the envelope and affixes a stamp, just as Cary Grant brings in the milk.  She drinks it, and slumps over, dead.  The last scene of the film would have shown Grant, whistling, posting the letter in a mail box, inadvertently sealing his own fate in the process.  This ending would have been far more satisfactory than the one chosen for the film.  This movie’s greatest flaw lies in the building up of Grant’s character as a possible murderer, then showing us that he is not.   But are we to forget all of his other significant character flaws?  And who killed Beaky?  This is left unexplained, as if insignificant.  This movie parallels Hitchcock’s earlier silent film The Lodgerin which we spend most of the film asking “Is he, or isn’t he a killer?”   In both cases the films are based on novels in which the man in question really is a killer.  And in both cases, Hitchcock had to compromise on his preferred choice of ending, because one simply could not have a matinee star be a killer in those days.  Of the two, this movie suffers more because of this choice

Themes and motifs:    Hitchcock’s favorite concept, that of guilt, real or assumed, is on full display.  Lina feels the guilt for Johnnie’s actions that he apparently does not.   I previously mentioned the trademark Hitchcock overhead shot, and the staircase, both employed in this movie’s most effective scene.  There are a couple of other nice Hitchcock touches.  One involves a dinner scene in which a pathologist is discussing a corpse while cutting into his game hen.  Hitchcock loved to mix macabre details into dining scenes (Rope, Rear Window, Frenzy). There is also a comic scene which involves a policeman staring in puzzlement at an abstract painting.  Hitchcock loved to place works of art in his films, and he also loved to portray policemen as ineffective simpletons, so this is in effect a two-for-one scene, as the provincial county policeman struggles in vain to “get” an abstract painting.

There is also a painfully misogynist scene, in which Cary Grant and Nigel Bruce attempt to cheer up Joan Fontaine by making faces and tickling her chin.  So Cary Grant has pawned her family heirlooms for gambling money, and she is supposed to accept this because a couple of men are treating her like a baby?

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 46:56 mark in the film.  He is seen posting a letter in the village mailbox.Cameo


Recurring players:  Cary Grant would later appear in Notorious, To Catch A Thiefand North by Northwest.  Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce and Billy Bevan (ticket taker on train) were in Rebecca just one year earlier.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke would later appear in Rope.  Dame May Whitty had appeared in The Lady Vanishes.  Isabel Jeans had appeared in two Hitchcock silent films, Downhill and Easy Virtue.  Heather Angel, who played the maid Ethel, would later appear in Lifeboat.  Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll was also in Rebecca, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Trainand North by Northwest.   Leonard Carey (McLaidlaw’s butler) also had small roles in Rebecca, The Paradine Case and Strangers on a Train.   Alec Craig (desk clerk) also played a desk clerk in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Edward Fielding (antique shop proprietor) also had small roles in Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubtand Spellbound.  Gavin Gordon would later appear in Notorious.  Lumsden Hare (Inspector Hodgson) was also in Rebecca and The Paradine Case.  Gertrude Hoffman and Hilda Plowright had also appeared in Foreign Correspondent.  Aubrey Mather (executor of will) was also in Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.  Ben Webster had earlier appeared in Downhill.

What Hitch said:   When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if he was satisfied with Suspicionhe replied:  “Up to a point.  The elegant sitting rooms, the grand staircases, the lavish bedrooms, and so forth, those were the elements that displeased me.  We came up against the same problem we had with Rebeccaan English setting laid in America.  For a story of that kind, I wanted authentic location shots.  Another weakness is that the photography was too glossy.”

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers released this film on blu-ray in 2016, as part of their Warner Archives collection.  The print of the movie is very solid, highlighting cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.’s excellent play of light and shadow.  Also included are a 20-minute featurette which includes interview snippets with the usual cast of characters:  Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel,  Robert Osborne and Bill Krohn.  John Waxman (son of composer Franz Waxman) also provides some comments about his father’s work with Hitchcock.  The blu-ray also includes the original theatrical trailer.


NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959): “That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – MGM – Rating: ★★★★★

Color – 136 mins. – 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Philip VanDamm), Martin Landau (Leonard),  Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Edward Binns (Captain Junket).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Editor:  George Tomasini

Original musical score:  Bernard Herrmann

Production Design:  Robert Boyle

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

Alfred Hitchcock’s film output during his first two decades in America is astonishing, especially by today’s standards.  Between 1940 and 1959, Hitchcock directed 23 feature-length films, an average of one film every 11 months.  If that is not impressive enough, during this same time period he still found time to direct 14 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, 2 TV shows for other anthology programs, and several short propaganda pieces during World War II.  He also recorded his personal opening and closing remarks for 167 episodes of his television program, as well as doing extensive pre-production on several film projects that never came to fruition.   Whew!   I’m exhausted just listing his accomplishments.

So at any given time during this period, it was not uncommon for Hitch to be working on up to three different projects simultaneously.  In the summer of 1956, he was going on a promotional tour for The Wrong Man, which he had just finished filming.  His next planned film was to be Flamingo Feather, but this movie was scrapped after already being announced in the trades as a Hitchcock feature to star James Stewart.   This meant that Vertigowhich was in the screenwriting phase, was moved up to be Hitch’s next feature.  And what would follow Vertigo?

MGM was in turmoil at this time.  At one time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, MGM had just fired Dore Schary as studio head and stockholders were in a panic.  MGM began courting Hitchcock; if the studio could announce a future Hitchcock film, shareholders would be pacified.  So Hitchcock was hired to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM upon completion of Vertigo at Paramount.

Hitchcock hired Ernest Lehman to write a screenplay for Mary Deare, but Lehman was struggling with the adaptation.  He wanted to quit the project, but Hitchcock told him they would just shelve that screenplay and create something original together.  And that original screenplay, which was born out of Hitchcock’s desire to stage a chase scene atop Mt. Rushmore, would become North By Northwest.  

An image from the iconic Saul Bass title sequence.

North by Northwest begins with a burst of kinetic energy;  Saul Bass’ title sequence, a series of intersecting diagonal lines which become the side of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, meld with Bernard Herrmann’s driving music.  The skyscraper image is followed by a montage of people in motion, and the title sequence ends with Hitchcock himself missing a bus.  The message is clear;  the viewer had better keep up, or be left behind.  When we first see Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill he is stepping out of an elevator, walking and talking.  This film begins as if we are joining a movie already in progress.  There is no slow build, no exposition to set the scene;  that will come later.  Just a few short minutes into the movie Thornhill (Grant) has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity.  A group of spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a government agent.   The ringleader of the spies is Philip VanDamm, played by the impeccable James Mason.   Mason questions Roger Thornhill at a large Long Island estate, then has his henchmen (led by a young Martin Landau in the role of Leonard) get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, planning to drive the car off of a cliff.


Cary Grant is interrogated by Martin Landau and an amused James Mason.

Roger Thornhill manages to escape his would-be assassins and ends up in the hands of the police.  We soon meet Roger’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis.   Landis had played Grace Kelly’s mother in the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief, and she and Cary Grant established a great rapport in that movie, so it was natural to pair them together again.   Landis does a great job in this movie, despite the fact that the actress is too young to be Grant’s mother.   (Many people have even said they are the same age, or that Landis is younger than Grant.  Let’s put this spurious tale to rest now.  Jessie Royce Landis was born on November 25, 1896, while Grant was born on January 18, 1904.  So while it is true that Landis is not old enough to be Grant’s biological mother, she is over seven years older).

Thornhill begins a search for the man he was mistaken for, George Kaplan, believing that he will hold the answers to this mystery, and his mother accompanies him as he begins his search.  Soon enough the spies are hot on his tail again, and he is framed for a murder at the UN building.  Now public enemy number one, he sneaks aboard the 20th Century Limited train en route to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint.  It is interesting to note that Saint, the leading lady, does not make her entrance until the 44th minute of the film.  And once Eva Marie Saint makes an appearance, Jessie Royce Landis does not appear in the film anymore, nor is she referenced.   So Cary Grant’s character is under the thumb of his mother in the beginning section, and that female control transfers to Eva Marie Saint for the duration of the film.

Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are essentially having sex with their clothes on; this is about as sexually charged a scene as Hitchcock ever shot.

This next section of the movie, as Grant and Saint converse in the train’s dining car, then later rendezvous in Saint’s sleeping compartment, are some of the most sexually charged scenes in 1950’s cinema.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s dialogue walks a subtle line, but there is nothing subtle in the way that Eva Marie Saint looks at Cary Grant; it is a bold and brazen seduction.  By the end of the train sequence, the audience knows a few things that Roger Thornhill does not.  Hitchcock typically liked to give the viewer information that the protagonist lacked.  So by this point the viewer knows that George Kaplan does not exist, and that Eve Kendall is somehow associated with James Mason and the spies.  Things are looking rather hopeless for Roger Thornhill.

Eve Kendall sends Thornhill to a supposed meeting with Kaplan on a deserted Indiana highway, where he faces another assassination attempt.  The crop duster sequence is not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs, but one of the most memorable scenes in film history.  Couldn’t these spies think of less elaborate ways to kill someone?  It certainly seems like a lot of trouble to go to, sending a man to the middle of nowhere, so he can be gunned down by a crop dusting plane.  Of course, within the confines of the movie, the viewer does not question the logic of the scene, in part because of the movie’s frenetic pace.  Every scene seems a logical follow up to the preceding scene.  ( I will do a deconstruction of the crop duster sequence in my next blog entry.)

download (1)This sequence marks a pivotal change in the movie; up to now Roger Thornhill has been a victim of circumstances beyond his control.   He has been emasculated and manipulated like a pawn.  He does not yet understand how all the pieces fit together, but he does know that he can only rely on himself if he wishes to survive.  This sets up another fantastic sequence which takes place in a Chicago auction hall, where Roger Thornhill confronts Eve Kendall, VanDamm, and Leonard.    VanDamm is standing behind Eve, with a hand on her shoulder, as if he is clutching a possession.  At one point in conversation, VanDamm asks Eve if Thornhill was in her hotel room, to which Thornhill replies “Sure, isn’t everyone?”  Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of VanDamm slowly removing his hand from Eve, which is as telling as any dialogue could be.  Once again it seems that Roger Thornhill will be captured and killed, and once again he uses his wits to escape.

Cary Grant’s character is beginning to assert himself, and now it is Eva Marie Saint who feels like a pawn as the two men tower over her, discussing her as if she were an object.


Finally Roger Thornhill meets an American intelligence officer known as the Professor, (Leo G. Carroll), who fills in the blanks for Thornhill.  He now realizes that Eve is working for the Americans, and he realizes that he has put her at risk.  This sets up the final sequence of events at Mount Rushmore, which involves much duplicity amongst the leading characters, until finally Thornhill and Grant are fleeing for their lives on the monument itself.  Hitchcock was not allowed to film on the monument, so this sequence was made with some gorgeous process shots that combine matte painting with a scale model of the Rushmore faces that was build at MGM.  The film ends as it began, in motion, and finally the audience can catch its collective breath.

Themes:  One of the reasons that North by Northwest is such an iconic film is because it contains all of Hitchcock’s major themes.  First and foremost is the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, who is trying to find the real conspirators while staying one step ahead of the police.   He had already filmed variations of this theme several times (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur), and while those are all good films, this movie can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work.  Other prominent Hitchcock themes present in this movie include the icy blonde leading lady;  the domineering mother; and the debonair gentleman antagonist.   There are a handful of Hitchcock films that feature a hint of homosexuality, and there is a slight element of that here in Martin Landau’s character Leonard.  Late in the film he utters the line “Call it my woman’s intuition.”  And James Mason’s character accuses him of being jealous.  There is certainly a suggestion here that Leonard’s feelings for his boss went beyond the professional.

Hitchcock and the censors:  Alfred Hitchcock delighted in sneaking sexual subtext past the film censors, and he succeeded many times in his career.  There is one line of dialogue in this movie that the censors would not approve, however.  When Eva Marie Saint is talking to Cary Grant in the dining car, the original line of dialogue was “I never make love on an empty stomach.”  This was unacceptable to the censors, so the line was looped to say “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”  If you watch Eva Marie’s lips, you can clearly see the dialogue does not sync up.  It doesn’t really matter what she said, though, because the tone of her voice, the way she looks at Cary Grant, the way she pulls his hand towards her to light her cigarette, are as blatantly sexual as a major movie scene could be shot at the time.


Hitchcock also delighted in the final shot of the movie, which did not appear in the screenplay;  it was Hitch’s own invention.  As Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the upper berth bed on the train, Hitchcock cuts outside, to a shot of a train entering a tunnel, which was a not-too-subtle mimicking of the act of sexual penetration.  Hitchcock was very proud of this shot, telling the story many times.

Hitchcock and final cut:  At two hours and sixteen minutes, this is the longest film of Hitchcock’s entire career.  But it certainly doesn’t seem like it;  the fast pace, the constant shift in location, and the witty dialogue ensure that the movie never lags.  A couple of Hitchcock’s later pictures certainly feel longer (I’m talking about you, Torn Curtain and Topaz).   But MGM had reservations about the movie’s length at the time.  They wanted him to cut one sequence in particular:  when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet in the woods after she has pretended to kill him, and they say their goodbyes.  Hitchcock believed the scene was necessary, and after getting reassurances from his lawyer that the “final cut” clause of his contract was ironclad, he respectfully told the studio that he would not cut a frame.  In the end, North by Northwest was the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock’s career to date, a massive hit with critics and audiences.  This is one time where the master was right to stand his ground.

Performance:  Every single performance in this film is spot-on, from the leads to the minor supporting characters.  Cary Grant would remain very proud of this film until he died, and justifiably so.  James Mason was so good as the bad guy, it has been suggested that his character was the prototype for a generation of James Bond villains to follow. Eva Marie Saint showed as much range as any female lead in the Hitchcock canon.

Academy awards:  North by Northwest received three Oscar nominations:  best original screenplay, Ernest Lehman;  best film editing, George Tomasini; and best Art Direction – Color.   It was another MGM picture that was the big winner at the 1960 Academy Awards – Ben-Hur.  That film would dominate the night, winning 11 total Oscars.  While it is hard to argue with Ben-Hur  in the editing category, I honestly feel that North by Northwest got robbed in the Color Art Direction category.  The sets in this movie are simply sublime, to the extent that they influenced many films that followed.


Recurring players:  Cary Grant had also appeared in Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief.  Jessie Royce Landis had worked with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.  Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Caseand Strangers on a Train.  Malcolm Atterbury would later appear in The Birds.  Sara Berner, Len Hendry and Jesslyn Fax had been in Rear Window.  Tommy Farrell and Robert Williams were in Strangers on a Train.   Kenner G. Kemp and Bert Stevens had appeared in The Paradine Case, and would later be in Marnie.  Doreen Lang was also in The Wrong Man and The Birds.  Alexander Lockwood was in Saboteur and Family Plot.  Frank Marlow had also been in Saboteur and Notorious.  Howard Negley and Frank Wilcox were also in Notorious.  Jeffrey Sayre was also an extra in Saboteur, Notoriousand Vertigo.  Harry Strang and Dale Van Sickel were in Saboteur

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo in this movie is impossible to miss, coming at the end of the title sequence.  At about the 2:09 mark, just as his director’s credit disappears from the screen, Hitchcock attempts to board a bus, which closes the door in his face and pulls away without him.

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What the actors said:  Eva Marie Saint said that Hitchcock only gave her three simple instructions for her character:  “Lower my voice; don’t use my hands; and look directly at Cary Grant in my scenes with him, look right into his eyes.  From that, I conjured up in my mind the kind of lady he saw this woman as.”

Cary Grant, speaking of his relationship with Hitchcock, said that “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words.”

James Mason admitted that he enjoyed Hitchcock’s movies and found him a charming man, but admitted that he thought Hitch used actors like “animated props.”

What Hitch said:  I’ll include some in-depth comments from Hitchcock in my next entry, about the crop-duster sequence.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers blu-ray, released in 2009, is the best version available.  First of all, the VistaVision transfer is breathtaking.   This may be the best looking of all of Hitchcock’s films on blu-ray.  The soundtrack is high quality as well.  The blu-ray includes a feature-length (1 hr. 27 min.) documentary about the leading man called Cary Grant:  A Class Apartas well as three other documentaries:  The Master’s Touch:  Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57 mins.), Destination Hitchcock:  The Making of North by Northwest (39 mins.) and North by Northwest:  One For the Ages (25 mins.)   Also included is a commentary track with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers, one hosted by Hitchcock, and a TV spot.