SABOTEUR Deconstruction of a scene: The Statue of Liberty finale

Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for staging his film climaxes in high places, with a risk of falling posed to one or more of the central characters.  We see it in his early British films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Jamaica Inn, as well as later classics like Vertigo and North By Northwest.

One of the most striking early examples is the climax of Sabotuer, which takes place atop the Statue of Liberty.   Our hero Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings) has finally cornered saboteur Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), a man he has tracked from coast to coast.  Kane follows Fry out onto the arm of Liberty’s torch, which is where the sequence begins.

The sequence runs roughly 2 minutes and 38 seconds, with 47 editorial cuts.   This averages out to approximately one cut per 3.4 seconds.  One thing that makes this sequence unique is the amount of special effects work.  There is a life-size reproduction of the statue’s hand with the torch, a smaller mock-up of the statue, as well as matte painting effects and live action film.  For a black and white sequence shot in 1942, it holds up admirably.

 

Hitchcock opens on Barry Kane in a medium shot, opening the door and walking out onto the torch walkway.  He then pulls back to give the audience this establishing long shot.

 

After about 3 seconds, Hitchcock cuts to a standard medium two-shot, with Barry Kane holding a gun on Fry.

 

Hitchcock continues to hold this shot for about 9 seconds, as Kane backs Fry up to the railing, which Fry then flips over and falls.  Hitchcock wanted Norman Lloyd to do his own stunt here, so it could be done without a cut.  Of course when Lloyd flipped backwards over the railing, he was only a few feet from the floor, with a nice soft cushioned landing.  An impressive stunt for the young actor, nonetheless.

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot as Fry (now played by a stuntman) falls, grabbing on between the thumb and index finger on Lady Liberty’s hand.  Hitch then cuts to a medium shot of Barry Kane looking down, followed by this shot from Kane’s POV, looking at Fry (Lloyd again) holding on precariously. This scene was shot with the hand resting on its side, so the actor could rest against it without having to literally hang on.  The lower portion and base of the statue are matted in here.

 

Hitchcock next cuts back to Barry Kane, first in a medium shot, then a long in quick succession.  Then we get this shot, which holds for about five seconds.  This is what I call the God’s eye view shot.   Hitchcock loved to sneak one of these shots in to most of his films.  This type of shot can break camera logic (whose point of view are we supposed to be seeing?) but add to the viewer’s sense of helplessness and awe.   The composite pieces of film here all blend very well together.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot of Barry Kane climbing over the railing in an attempt to get to Fry.

 

As Kane lowers himself down, the pace of the cutting begins to pick up a bit.  Hitchcock also does something interesting here.  After showing us Fry from Kane’s point of view, he all of a sudden shifts to Fry’s point of view.  We are looking up at Fry’s hands holding on.

 

There are a few short shots here cutting between the two men, until Kane finally lowers himself closer to Fry.  “I’ll get your sleeve” Kane says, and we see his hand stretching down.

 

After shifting the point of view from Kane to Fry, Hitchcock is going to shift it back to Kane again.  But first he is going to “reset” the POV by giving us a neutral two-shot, which lasts a brief two seconds but serves its purpose.

 

Finally we are back to Kane’s POV for this shot, which lasts about 3 seconds.  Kane has grabbed a hold of Fry’s sleeve.

 

Hitchcock cuts back briefly to a medium of Kane, then back to Fry in close up.

 

Now we get the first close up of the shoulder seam in Fry’s suit starting to pull apart.  From here the cutting will become even more rapid.

 

Hitchcock will cut away from Fry’s suit, then back to it in a series of shots.  Every time he cuts away, he gives us a completely different view of the Statue, all of them emphasizing the height, as Fry’s situation becomes more precarious.

 

Finally we go back to a  POV shot, as Kane looks down at Fry.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close-up of the hands,which allows us to see the sleeve as it finally tears completely.

 

Next comes the incredibly dramatic fall, a shot of about 4 seconds, as Fry falls away from us crying “Kaaaaaaaane!”  This shot was done with Norman Lloyd sitting on a custom saddle-like chair, on the floor of the studio sound stage, against a black screen (the precursor of today’s green screen).  The camera pulled up from the floor to the ceiling rapidly, as Lloyd flailed his limbs, pantomiming falling.  Then the shot was run in reverse with the background matted in.  It holds up very well over 75 years later.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of Barry Kane’s reaction to Fry’s plummet to his death.

 

And finally, Barry Kane climbs back up to the torch where Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) is waiting for him.  The film ends here, rather abruptly, almost before Kane can climb into her waiting arms.

 

This sequence is relatively short, at just over two-and-a-half minutes, and it is thrilling from start to finish.  When you break it down, you can see that each of the 47 distinct pieces of film serves a very specific purpose.  Hitchcock knew exactly how to represent visually what he wanted his viewers to experience emotionally, a skill at which he would only improve over time.

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DIAL M FOR MURDER: Deconstruction of a scene – Wendice and Swan

  As promised in my previous coverage of Dial M for Murder, here is a more detailed look at one specific sequence in the film.  This is the sequence involving Tony Wendice’s conversation with Swann.  This portion of the film corresponds to Act I, Scene ii in Frederick Knott’s original play.  In Hitchcock’s movie, it is just over 22 minutes in length, comprising slightly more than 20% of the film’s total running time.  So how does Alfred Hitchcock manage to sustain interest and suspense,  for such a long period of time, with only 2 actors in one room?  There are approximately 121 editorial cuts in this 22 minute sequence, averaging one cut every 11 seconds.  This seems like a lot of editing for Alfred Hitchcock, but the specifics are much more interesting than mere mathematics.  Of course, there is more to it than just the editing.  Of equal importance in this scene is the set design.  This is one of the most perfectly designed and decorated sets in any Hitchcock film, and we will see how important that is to the scene.

First off, Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) opens the door for Swan (Anthony Dawson), and they engage in introductory remarks.  Wendice pours Swan a drink.  This happens in one unbroken two-shot, lasting just under a minute.  Both actors then take a seat, facing each other.  Then Hitchcock goes into a very “standard” back and forth as Wendice and Swan converse.  The camera is on Wendice, then Swan, then back to Wendice, etc.  This back-and-forth cutting happens over 20 times in a couple of minutes.  The camera is usually trained on the actor who is speaking, but not always.  Occasionally the camera will cut to the listener, so we can read his reaction to what the other person is saying.  This is one way of breaking the monotony of the standard “two-shot conversation” sequence.   Then, just as the conversation is starting to take a turn, Hitchcock does something unique with the camera:

As Wendice joins Swan on the sofa, the camera pans left so that we are behind the sofa, and the actors, with a lamp in between the two.  The camera has moved almost 90 degrees clockwise, and rather than cut to the new set-up, we observe the camera movement.  This is slightly off-putting.  Every time the viewer might start to get complacent, Hitchcock quickly changes the setup, keeping us off guard, and hopefully ensuring that we are paying attention to the very important dialogue.  This camera angle puts the viewer in the role of a spy of sorts, peeking over the back of the sofa.   After this dramatic camera movement, the scene continues in one uninterrupted take for about a 1 minute and 45 seconds.  During this time, Tony Wendice will get up and sit down twice, all without cutting.

 

Wendice ends up where he began, opposite Swan, and after an establishing two-shot Hitchcock goes back to the standard “back-and-forth”, cutting between the two men as Wendice slowly reels in Swan.   It is worth noting the Japanese porcelain figurine behind Tony Wendice in this photo.   The figurine appears in various camera angles, and in a couple of instances appears to be staring directly at the camera, almost as if he is listening in on the conversation.   This is not a random choice, in the figurine or its position.  It is used as a framing object. (This is not the first time Hitchcock used a figurine as a participant in a scene.  In The 39 Steps there is a statue pointing towards an open window,  making the viewer aware of trouble to come.)   After almost 3 minutes of  rather standard back-and-forth cutting, Tony gets up and moves to the desk.

 

Look at him sitting on the edge of the desk, arms crossed, both confident and comfortable.  He exudes power.  By this time he knows that he has Swan, and he is charming as ever.  Now the camera has moved to the opposite side of the room, near the fireplace.  Our view has moved 180 degrees from where we were when the two men sat on the sofa together, with the lamp between them.  Now the lamp is to the left of the frame, providing counterbalance to the figure of Wendice.  Tony Wendice will move back to the other side of the room, sitting now in the deep chair to the right of the one he sat in previously.

This is an interesting camera angle;  before we were looking at eye level, more or less.  But now the camera is in a lower position, looking up at Wendice, whose body fills the frame.  His position of strength has grown.  His tennis trophies can be seen just above his head on the mantel.  Now Tony stands up, and we are presented with an entirely new camera angle:

Now we can see bookshelves behind Tony.  These shelves are opposite the door.  Once again the camera has swung around the room.  We are seeing furnishings that we haven’t seen before.   But there is our familiar anchor, that green lamp, more or less dead center in the room.  We’ve seen it center frame, left of frame, and now it is right of frame, providing balance in the scene’s composition.   Tony walks back to the desk, to get Swan’s “carrot”, his money.  As he walks, we see the only part of the living room that we have not yet seen:

 

 

There behind Tony’s head is a framed work of art, in between two bookshelves.  As he walks to the right, we see the second bookshelf, as well as some sort of china cabinet in the corner of the room.   Now we see the smaller, more ornate yellow lamp on the desk.  It enters this scene frame right.  Just as the Japanese figurine and the green lamp have been important elements of framing before, now the yellow lamp will fill the same role.  Tony tosses the money across the room to Swan.  This is as far apart physically as they will ever get in this 22 minute sequence.  There is a gulf between them, as Swan appears to hesitate.

 

We can now see another ornate piece of furniture, and another art print on the wall.   Note also the brandy bottle, perfectly centered in the frame. Alfred Hitchcock has made a complete circuit of the room, in a span of about 15 minutes, showing us every wall, every door, every unique furnishing.  Most viewers will make no notice of this, because they will be focused on the dialogue between Wendice and Swan, but it is the constantly changing camera angles, and decor, that enhance the dialogue.   One could say that the green lamp is the “fixed point” at center stage, around which the actors turn.   But it is not just the actors, but the camera as well (and therefore the viewer) that have rotated around the room.

And Hitchcock is not done yet.

Swan moves to join Wendice at the desk, and at this point is is clear that they have reached an agreement.

 

Look at the perfect framing of this shot.  The two men are not directly facing one another, but look at each other at a slightly oblique angle.  The telephone, which is to be the instrument of murder, is dead center frame, and directly between the men.  And the “new” lamp, which appears to be of Asian design as well, is now frame left.

Alfred Hitchcock leaves his best camera work for the end of the sequence.  All of a sudden, as Wendice begins to give the specifics of the murder to Swan, the camera cuts to a high overhead angle.

 

I call this Hitchcock’s “God’s-eye view” shot.  He employed it in a majority of his films, usually only for a matter of seconds, and usually at a moment of extremely heightened tension.  (In Shadow of a Doubt, the camera pulls upward at the moment when niece Charlie discovers that her uncle’s gift of a ring came from a murdered woman.  In the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the camera moves overhead when the McKennas are talking to their kidnapped child on the phone.)  Removing the viewer from the action in this way is startling, because unexpected.  It also makes the characters, and the viewers as well, feel more helpless.   Hitchcock uses this angle a little differently here.  We stay in this overhead shot for two-and-a-half minutes, as we observe the plotting of a murder.   So why did Hitchcock employ this high angle here?   Could it be as simple as the fact that he had already shown us the room from every other conceivable angle?  I think there is a very specific reason that Hitchcock saved this camera angle for the end.   It  serves to ensure that the viewer is aware of the layout of the room, and exactly where everything is, so that when the murder comes we know exactly what is supposed to happen.

After this the camera returns to an eye-level two shot, and finally we fade to black over 22 minutes after the sequence began.  The success of the film hangs on this sequence;  not only is Wendice hooking Swan, but Hitchcock is hooking the audience, and the innovative camera movements, combined with the exquisite set design make this sequence wonderful, and a prime example of his masterful directorial eye.

 

 

 

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

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

Color – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

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

Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Frederick Knott, based on his play

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Film Editing:  Rudi Fehr

Original Score:  Dmitri Tiomkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B&W – 108 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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

Produced by Frank Lloyd & Jack H. Skirball

Written by Joan Harrison & Peter Viertel & Dorothy Parker

Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

Film Editing:  Otto Ludwig

Art Director:   Robert Boyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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