The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 2 – Rear Window – A Classic Movie Review

Rear Window is not Hitchcock’s best film.  There are any number of things to complain about.  But it’s my favorite summer Hitchcock film.  It’s possible to actually feel the heat and humidity even if you’re watching it in New England February.  But watching it in July or August just after the sun goes down on a sweltering humid day is absolutely perfect.  The mid-century middle-class New York City apartment with all the adjoining backyards spread out in front of the panoramic rear windows of the protagonist Jimmy Stewart who sits in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast provides the correct claustrophobic and uncomfortably hot environment for an irritable murderer and the amateur sleuth stalking him.  Sweat drips off the actors and overheated residents try to beat the heat by sleeping on fire escapes or drinking cold drinks.  Even the torrential rain doesn’t “cool things off it just makes the heat wet.”

The set-up is Jimmy Stewart as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, a famous magazine photographer who is convalescing with a broken leg that he earned by stepping in front of a racing car crash to get a great photo.  Thelma Ritter is Stella, the nurse sent by his insurance company to watch over him.  Grace Kelly is Jeff’s upper class, Upper East Side girlfriend Lisa Fremont who wants Jeff to settle down to a sedentary existence with her.  Jeff also has an old Air Force buddy, Police Detective Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) who comes in really handy once murder is suspected.  And finally there is the murder suspect and neighbor across the yard, Lars Thorwald  played with a minimum of spoken lines by Raymond Burr.

The movie resembles a stage play with well-defined scenes and breaks.  Each character is added to the mix in sequence and even the various parading neighbors are introduced and given their little scenes and acknowledgements.  There’s the newlywed couple, the married couple with the little dog who sleep on the fire escape, the dancer “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonely Hearts,” the composer, and the slightly crazy old sculptress.  We even briefly meet Mrs. Thorwald early on in the show, but that doesn’t last.  She’s the alleged victim.

The two plot elements that get twisted into a knot are Lisa attempting to solve the riddle of tying down Jeff and Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald killed his wife.  In both of these endeavors Stella acts as a helper and Doyle seems to be a hindrance.  Whenever the amateurs try to coax the real detective to bust in on Thorwald and gather up the evidence that they are sure must be “knee deep,” he reminds them of a silly house rule known as “due process” and of the New York State penal code in all eleven volumes that a judge would throw at him if he attempted to get a search warrant based on Jeff’s suspicions and Lisa’ feminine intuition.

I won’t spoil the story because it’s worth watching but I’ll just comment that the story moves along in a pleasant fantasy of mid-century New York City life filled with urban stereotypes and tropes even while the main characters perform the Hitchcock detective pantomime.  It’s a lot of fun.  And the actors are a pleasure to watch and listen to.  I always especially enjoy Thelma Ritter’s quintessential working-class New York City accent and attitude.

Now for the down side.  Biggest problem with the movie is trying to pretend that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are close in age.  At one point, Jimmy Stewart takes off his shirt for an alcohol rubdown from his nurse and destroys any illusion that he is a young man, whereas Grace Kelly was a remarkably beautiful twenty-five-year-old at that time.  I guess if they’d owned up to it in the story it wouldn’t be so jarring but at one point, Stella actually calls him a young man and that just explodes the suspension of disbelief for me with a snide snort.  The other story element that jars for me is the subplot with Miss Lonely Hearts.  I won’t go into the details but the whole subplot is a little too affected for my taste.  And finally, there’s a song that becomes kind of the background theme for the romance aspect of the film and is finally played over the end of the last scene.  I think it’s terrible.  It’s so saccharine sweet that it almost turns my stomach when it plays us out.  But those are the only faults.  And they don’t amount to much compared to the fun that this movie provides.

See Rear Window the first time on a hot summer night.  That should be like some kind of multi-sense version of surround sound.  Highly recommended.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 1 – A Classic Movie Review

American movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s have been hyped by generations of film lovers to the point where if you only go by reputation you may be deceived about the quality and entertainment value of any particular movie.  But without a doubt there are a number of deservedly admired works.  From time to time I will give my decidedly biased and idiosyncratic opinion and remarks on the movies I’ve watched and try to pass along useful information for those who haven’t seen some of these films.

Last year when I was looking at horror movies I reviewed “Psycho.”  But I am a fan of Hitchcock in general and in the summer, I always indulge in a good cross section of his best.  So, I’ll make some general remarks followed by more specific comments about the various Hitchcock films I’m familiar with.

Hitchcock had a long career as a director that stretched from the silent film era all the way to the 1970s.  He started out in England and some of his earlier, lesser known films were excellent.  But what is noticeable in these earlier British films are the more primitive special effects and other technical aspects.  What isn’t primitive is the skill with which the plot and dialog are constructed.  The three best of these earlier British films from my point of view are “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”  All three of these are spy stories and are colored by the tense political environment in pre-World War II Europe.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was later remade by Hitchcock in Hollywood starring Jimmy Stuart and Doris Day but I much prefer the original.  In general, they involve civilians getting caught up in espionage and fighting for their lives while the world around them is completely unaware of their plight.

As the ‘30s ended Hitchcock moved to Hollywood.  His first big picture was “Rebecca” starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  It’s sort of a mystery-suspense story with the feel of one of those Bronte sister novels.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and several others but I’ve always hated the movie.  I guess it’s a chick flick and bores me to tears.  But during the ‘40s he had a string of excellent movies.  My favorites are “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Lifeboat,” “Notorious” and “Rope.”  Now, other than Notorious, which is indeed a masterpiece, all of these other movies, especially Rope have their quirks.  Rope is a claustrophobic story adapted from a stage play that takes place completely inside a Manhattan penthouse apartment and is a sort of a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings murder story.  To say it is creepy is an understatement.  And equally claustrophobic is Lifeboat which takes place, you guessed it, completely on a ship’s lifeboat.  Hitchcock loves to put his characters together in close quarters and irritate them.  Sort of like a little boy with a bottle full of bugs.  I guess that’s his special gift.

During the ‘50s Hitchcock continued to produce critically and financially successful films.  I like “Strangers on a Train,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.”  Each of these is an entertaining movie but Strangers on a Train is the most original.  Hitchcock really loves strange and this one delivers that in spades.

In the ‘60s the only two Hitchcock movies I can recommend are “Psycho” and “The Birds.”  Psycho is rightly famous for launching the whole “Slasher” genre but more than that it blazed a trail for every movie that explored the psychology of murderers.  And think of how large that field is at this point.  Hannibal Lector and every other serial killer showcased in the movies, and on television are the direct descendants of Norman Bates.  The Birds is a horror story based on a sort of environmental backlash where birds turn on the human race.  It is weird and sometimes compelling but by the end of the movie I felt that Tippi Hedron’s character deserved all the grief she got just because of how annoying she was.

So that’s my Hitchcock list.  I’ll dig into the list in the follow ups and rate the movies and describe what makes them worth watching.

18JUL2018 – OCF Update

Greetings readers old and new.  As is my want, or as less pretentious people would say, my habit, I like to let you know what is coming up on the site.  This week is my annual stay-cation.  For eight full days I make believe that my corporate masters have been swallowed up by some beneficent plague that only spared the good.  I revel in the joys of summer and put all cares aside.  After monsoon-like thunderstorms deluged us yesterday, the world has been swept clean and the air is hot and dry just the way I like it.  I’m hosting my annual family reunion on Saturday but with days off on both sides of the big event, I see plenty of time to produce excellent OCF posts all week.

  • I’m renting the “Contemporary Series” version of the Sigma 150-600 lens and the Sony 90mm Macro lens.  They should arrive today and allow me to post on how they perform for the things I would use them for.
  • I plan to yammer on about the joys of summer.
  • I have a photo post I’m going to write about moths and butterflies and maybe other insects in my area.
  • I have some things to say about several political topics.
  • I’ll start reading some more sci-fi which may provide a review this week.
  • I plan on doing some classic movie reviews.
  • I might have some country music reviews coming up too.
  • And I plan to include this summer’s installment of my rant about the Twilight Zone.

Looks like a good week to visit the site.

11APR2018 – Quote of the Day

“It’s a Gift” and “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” are two of my favorite movies.  I often tell Camera Girl that she reminds me of the wife in those movies.  And she often throws things at me afterwards.  Fields was a sort of genius in my opinion.

 

“No doubt exists that all women are crazy; it’s only a question of degree.”

W. C. Fields

 

 

08APR2018 – Quote of the Day

 

I copied this from the public domain Project Gutenberg website but the translation that I know it from is by Howard Thayer Kingsbury and of course from Jose Ferrer’s tour de force in the 1950 Hollywood film version.  I’ll ignore Steve Martin’s Roxanne as too awful to consider.  I have to take the time to watch Gérard Depardieu’s 1990 version someday.

 

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

A Play in Five Acts by Edmond Rostand (Translated from the French by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard)

Scene 5.II

THE DUKE (pausing, while she goes up): Ay, true,–I envy him. Look you, when life is brimful of success –Though the past hold no action foul–one feels A thousand self-disgusts, of which the sum Is not remorse, but a dim, vague unrest; And, as one mounts the steps of worldly fame, The Duke’s furred mantles trail within their folds A sound of dead illusions, vain regrets, A rustle–scarce a whisper–like as when, Mounting the terrace steps, by your mourning robe Sweeps in its train the dying autumn leaves.

 

 

OCF Classic Movie Review – Charles Laughton – Part 1

So instead of looking at a movie, let’s switch it up and talk about an actor. Charles Laughton was a British actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1930s and 40s) who lasted into the 1960s.  In most cases this was fairly rare.  And that is because most of those actors back then were movie stars who depended on good looks to bring in the audience.  Once they hit forty parts started drying up.  Not Laughton though.  He resembled, and as he got older, more and more closely resembled, a toad.  Because of this he never depended on his looks to garner success.  He was a truly versatile and skillful actor.  As I’ve stated recently we are inside the month-long pre-Oscar movie festival on TCM.  Many old classics are being shown daily.  Over the weekend I watched two Laughton movies in one day.  In the morning I watched him in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” and that night I watched him in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  The only thing that King Henry and Captain Bligh have in common is that they were both English.  The characterizations, appearances and mannerisms are worlds apart.  And yet both characters are memorable and believable.  And the same can be said for the multitude of characters he played over the years.  He was the Hunchback of Notre Dame, an American senator in the Cold War era, the Roman senator Cicero, an English barrister, the Emperor Claudius, a British butler in the old Wild West, Captain Kidd the pirate, a hobo, a ghost, a henpecked husband who murders his wife and even a horror movie mad scientist.  His versatility allowed him to create entertaining characters in a comedy, drama, tragedy, history or any combination of the above.  In fact, it was sometimes the case that a poor movie would still be worth watching just to see Laughton do his stuff.  Laughton movies that I have enjoyed for at least his efforts include:

1)            Mutiny on the Bounty (highly recommended)

2)            Witness for the Prosecution (highly recommended)

3)            Advise and Consent

4)            The Private Life of Henry VIII

5)            The Hunchback of Notre Dame

6)            Ruggles of Red Rock (a very silly but enjoyable comedy)

7)            Spartacus

8)            The Canterville Ghost (a WWII comedy)

9)            Island of Lost Souls (an early horror movie)

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 Version) – A Classic Monster Movie Review

This is not part of the Universal Monster series.  Paramount made this film and Frederic March was a pretty big star at the time so this movie was made as a serious literary drama.  That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t contain scenes and effects taking advantage of the hedonistic exploits of Mr. Hyde.  It does and to a degree that shows that this is during the pre-code period.

The plot follows the usual story line and we witness the happy, virtuous and talented Dr. Henry Jekyll metamorphose into the bestial sadistic Mr. Hyde.  And we follow as Jekyll’s life and fortunes come crashing down.  And of course, everyone around him is destroyed in the catastrophe.

The story by Robert Louis Stevenson was supposed to be about the duality of the human soul.  The theory holds that the evil side of the human psyche is also the active/vital part and the good is the passive/weaker part.  And in a sense there is truth in that.  Our basest instincts are thoroughly hard-wired and are inseparable from the rest of our selves.  Bottling up those instincts eventually leads to them bursting out in a destructive explosion.  The saner course is to train and channel the energies of the brute and tame them to our better nature.  So that’s the philosophy.

Now about the movie.  Well it’s kind of fun.  There are all kinds of outdated special effects and some hammy acting on display.  But it’s a pretty well-done production.  I think it’s an entertaining old monster movie.  And I like it better than the later version with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.  I recommend it to fans of old monster movies.

 

Topper – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The pre-Oscar TCM movie festival continues so I decided to re-watch Topper.  This is without a doubt one of the goofiest screwball comedies of the 1930s.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are George and Marion Kirby, a young married couple.  They’re rich and they live a wild life.  They stay up all night dancing and drinking and driving around in a crazy fin-backed whale of a roadster.  Their banker is a middle-aged mouse of a man named Cosmo Topper.  Topper has a proper wife who wants Topper to get up at 8am and go to bed by 11pm and have lamb on Sunday and steak on Tuesday and boiled vegetables on Wednesday.  She expects him to be the respectable banker so she can be part of high society.

When George and Marion show up at Topper’s bank one morning for a business meeting you can tell that all three of them think that Topper’s life is not much fun compared to the Kirbys.  Driving back from the meeting George is characteristically driving like a madman around some hairpin turns when he gets something in his eye and crashes them.  Staggering out of the wreck George and Marion gather their senses and realize that they have died in the crash and are now ghosts.  Taking stock of the situation they realize they don’t have any good deeds on their records to allow them to expect admission through the pearly gates.  The scene dissolves with the ghosts themselves dissolving into invisibility.

In the next scene Topper is at home with the missus.  We witness the boredom of his respectable existence.  At this point a mechanic shows up with the Kirby’s repaired sports car.  Both the mechanic and Mrs. Kirby remark on how mismatched this car would be for Topper.  His pride is stung and he takes off with the car.  The car gets the better of him and he crashes it at the same spot that the Kirbys crashed.  The Kirbys make their presence known and Topper eventually gets over his fright.  The rest of the film is the tale of the Kirbys trying to humanize Topper and make his life happier.  This is the good deed that they hope will get them into heaven.

With a plot this frothy everything depends on the characterizations of the stars.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are at their witty best bantering together while teaching Topper to be a man and not a mouse.  Roland Young brings his characteristic upper-class Englishman’s mumbling confused manner to his portrayal of Cosmo Topper and Billie Burke as Mrs. Topper is the outraged prim and proper wife who needs to learn that a husband still needs to be a man.  An uncredited part has Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano and singing for the happy couple.  All in all, I’d say this is a goofy comedy that from my point of view provides good entertainment.  The story sails along and even the minor characters are well done and add to the fun of the story.

I give this movie 4 out of 5 stars.

2001: A Space Odyssey – A Science Fiction Movie Review

(Warning, this whole review is one long spoiler.  In my defense this movie is 49 years old.)

The only good thing about The Academy Awards is that for the whole month before, TCM plays many good (and not so good) old movies.  Last night I watched 2001.  As the exit music was finishing it occurred to me that this was the first time in almost fifty years that I had watched the movie from beginning to end.  Back in 1968 I attended the film in a large theater in Manhattan as part of a class trip.  At the time I was a sci-fi fan but I distinctly remember becoming incredibly bored during the “Infinity” sequence.  And sure enough, last night I found my eyes glazing over as I waited for Keir Dullea to stop making funny faces and show up in Versailles.  And then it also occurred to me that it was actually a very, very good movie.  So, let’s talk about it.  You already know I don’t like the “Infinity” sequence.  But I find the rest of the film is excellent.  Not everybody cares for Kubrick’s style in film-making.  There is a great deal of stylization and idiosyncratic imagery that bothers many people.  And without a doubt it is highly un-naturalistic.  In fact, the ape men were the most realistic as personalities.  The other characters are decidedly wooden.

But without a doubt this movie is an amazing spectacle.  The matching of images to the musical soundtrack is perfect.  The sequences of space ships landing and maneuvering are shown as if they were dancers in a ballet.  The “Dawn of Man” sequence is riveting.  I could believe that the actual event was very much like the portrayal (minus the monolith of course).  It captured the essence of human ingenuity.  The desperate and sordid circumstances of that ingenuity ring true.

And then there’s HAL.  I hate HAL.  I always have.  But he is the perfect Frankenstein Monster.  And the arc of his crime and punishment is, for me, a thing of hideous beauty.  His relations with the astronauts are as creepy and dishonest as some Dickens villain, something like Uriah Heep.  Some people feel sadness when Dave lobotomizes HAL and reduces him to the level of a two-year-old singing “Daisy.”  I never shared that sadness.  I guess I’m more Old-Testament.

So, that brings us back to the “Infinity” sequence which sucks.  But following it we have what I call the “Versailles” scene where I guess Dave lives his life out as a captive of the monolith makers.  This is weird and I guess necessary to set up the conclusion.  Dave dies and is reborn as the next stage of human evolution.  And he is returned to our solar system and the picture ends with him floating above earth to the sequence of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” playing us out.

In sum we have a fifty year old movie that is still visually stunning, that addresses the inexplicable advance of savage animals to the brink of interplanetary travel and the frightening prospect of facing our masters in artificial intelligence.  What’s not to like?  Well he could have added a few good-looking space babes but nobody’s perfect.

Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie.  And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is.  Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster.  In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.”  The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters.  What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door.  Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path.  So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac.  And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.

Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories.  It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.

But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie.  Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time.  The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted.  The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening.  For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.

But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest.  The movie is a complete story.  Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen.  And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman gets several good lines including the closing soliloquy.

And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie.  The monster gets to tell his side of the story.  In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too.  Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape.  And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him.  And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable.  Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.

Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder.  When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”

And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster.  Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood.  But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing.  And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).

What do I like about this movie?  Everything.  The actors are excellent.  The dialog is perfect.  Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen.  I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out.  But it’s the perfect adult horror movie.  The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs.  I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster.  Man.