The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 6 – Strangers on A Train – A Classic Movie Review

Strangers on a Train is a Hitchcock film from the middle of his Hollywood era.  It has one of Hitchcock’s craziest villains and one of the weirdest finales.  Which with Hitchcock is really saying something.  The premise is that two strangers meet on a train and one of them proposes that each commit a murder that benefits the other.  The idea is since they’re perfect strangers they won’t be suspected in a murder associated with the stranger but not himself.  The one proposing the deal is a very strange man named Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) who hates his father.  The other man is a relatively famous amateur tennis player named Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) who has an unstable and unfaithful wife Miriam, that he’d like to divorce to marry Anne Morton, the daughter of a US Senator.  But Miriam refuses to allow it because of the monetary benefits marriage provides.  Guy doesn’t even know how to react to this outrageous proposal so he treats it jokingly and gets off the train at his stop.  But he accidentally leaves his very expensive and monogrammed cigarette lighter on the train with Bruno.  Guy may treat this proposition as a joke but Bruno certainly doesn’t.  We get a scene with Bruno and his parents.  Bruno and his mother are both lunatics but she seems relatively harmless.  We hear his father state that he will have Bruno put away.  This activates Bruno and he proceeds to murder Miriam at an amusement park.  He stalks her and flirts with her and chokes the life out of her.  Then he casually walks away.

Bruno  goes immediately to Guy and announces that he has carried out his side of the bargain and expects Guy to kill Bruno’s father.  When Guy threatens to call the police Bruno counters by saying both would be held responsible in the conspiracy.  Most of the rest of the movie involves Bruno hounding Guy even within his circle of friends.  And this is where you realize that Bruno is the most interesting character in the movie.  His insanity does not prevent him from entertaining the minor characters at dinner parties and outside restaurants.  He tells Anne’s father about his theory of interplanetary clairvoyance and he entertains an old lady socialite with his theories on murder.  Unfortunately he gets carried away and almost chokes her to death at a dinner party.  All in all he’s a very spirited fellow.  But eventually all good things come to an end and when guy doesn’t come through with his “criss-cross” side of the murder bargain, Bruno decides to frame him for the original murder using the monogrammed lighter as evidence.

Several additional scenes advance the story to the climax and we return to the scene of the crime, the amusement park.  A very bizarre and cinematically interesting scene with a carousel brings it to a head and Bruno and Guy and the police finally sort things out.

Even though Guy and his friends are the innocent victims, I never felt all that much sympathy for them.  They don’t really evoke much interest.  They’re all kind of flat.  So, despite the fact that he’s a thoroughgoing psychopath, the movie is really the Bruno Anthony show.  And as creepy as he is he definitely keeps my interest.  I like this Hitchcock pretty well but I could see how it might not appeal to all tastes.  Caveat emptor.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 5 – The Thirty Nine Steps – A Classic Movie Review

Continuing on with the British films I’ll review “The Thirty Nine Steps.”  This is another espionage tale where the civilian protagonist is swept up in a confusing web of events that he must navigate or be left holding the bag in a murder manhunt.  Our hero is a Canadian visiting London on a work assignment who meets up with a femme fatale at a London music hall and quickly gets drawn into her attempt to prevent a spy ring from stealing vital British military secrets.  When she ends up in his apartment with a large knife protruding from her back he flees the scene to attempt to clear himself by finding and foiling the espionage ring.

The coincidences, unlikely events and sheer dumb luck that fills the story line makes the suspension of disbelief out of the question.  But Hitchcock replaces it with humor, human interest and a twisting turning plot line that comes full circle and provides the payoff.  Along the way you meet a varied cast of characters each lovingly fleshed out by the dialog and script.  One of my favorites is a milkman delivering to the hero’s building the morning he’s trying to escape from the scene of the murder.  He tries to recruit the milkman to help him escape the scene of the murder but the deliveryman flat out refuses to believe that there’s been a murder and he’s trying to elude the killers.  When the protagonist relents and claims that he’s just spent the night with a married woman and is trying to elude her husband the milkman immediately falls in with the plan and agrees to help without further complaint.  The fleeing man is obviously a brother in arms to the apparently philandering milkman.  Quite a lot of dialog is lavished on this completely ancillary plot device but it’s just this attention to detail that makes the picture memorable and interesting.  And there are several of these types of vignettes sprinkled in the picture.  And there’s a sort of love story although it does involve being handcuffed to a fleeing murder suspect and being gagged and even choked at one point.  But in Hitchcock love will find a way.

The final twist of the story as I mentioned, circles round to the beginning  of the story and is quite clever although there were clues if you were paying attention earlier.  All in all, it is a very well put together plot.

Once again, we have an earlier British Hitchcock that equals or even exceeds the quality of the Hollywood era “classics” that Hitchcock is famous for.  With actors that are complete unknowns to an American audience and immersed in the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic milieu of 1930s Britain, Hitchcock constructs an interesting and highly entertaining story out of a totally improbable premise.

I will dial back my praise with one caveat.  For the younger readers who have been saturated from birth with high definition picture and sound quality, it may be a little off-putting to see an old black and white movie from the 1930s.  This is a restored film where the worst of the sound and visual damage has been repaired.  But it’s picture quality is not even close to 2018 standards.  For those viewers of an older vintage this warning is of course unnecessary.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 4 – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – A Classic Movie Review

This review is of the earlier British version of the film.  Simply stated, in my opinion, it’s the better film.  No disrespect to Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day but the 1950s version is not even close to the original.  Once again Hitchcock gives us a tale of everyday people colliding with the world of spies.  In this story there is an international plot to assassinate a foreign leader.  And an English couple who accidentally become entangled in it are forced to choose between stopping the killing or getting their kidnapped daughter back alive.

The film opens up in the Swiss Alps where Bob and Jill Lawrence along with their young daughter Betty are involved in some sporting competitions.  Jill is a competing in a skeet shooting match and sometime during the games they have befriended a French downhill skier named Louis Bernard.  After the competitions they all attend a dinner and dance party.  During the party Louis is fatally shot but he manages to tell the Lawrences that he has a secret message that must be given to the British Consulate.  Bob finds the message in Louis’ room but before he can inform the consulate he receives a message telling him to say nothing if he ever wants to see his daughter Betty alive again.  She’s been kidnapped.

So that’s the setup.  And it takes the rest of the movie for Bob and Jill to figure out the message and find the spies without the help of the police.  In between there are homicidal dentists, sun-worshipping churches and classical music performances at the Albert Hall and most importantly there is Peter Lorre as Abbott.  He will be the only actor familiar to American viewers and he is definitely the highlight of the movie.  Of course, he’s the head villain and the most interesting character in the film.  Being Peter Lorre, he is palpably creepy but at the same time not completely unsympathetic as a character.  His dealings with the Lawrences are strangely cordial, almost friendly, as if it’s all just an unfortunate business situation and there are no hard feelings.  And he can inject a touch of humor into the film such as in a scene where Abbott has left the hideout and gone down to the street to talk to the police.  When the gang hears a police whistle blowing they suspect the worst has occurred.  Hearing footsteps approaching they pull their guns.  When Lorre opens the door, he sees the guns and he puts his hands up and smiles playfully at his gang as if to say, “Well, you’ve got me.  Now what?”  It’s just a throwaway moment but it does provide a human touch to the character and gives an extra dimension to the scene.

The climax of the film is a protracted gun battle between the London police force and the spy ring.  Hitchcock really went to town with this scene and the bad guys start off with a fusillade of lead that seemed more appropriate in a World War II machine gun battle.  The merry mayhem goes on for a good little while and forces the police to raid a hunting store to obtain high powered rifles to compete with the weaponry the bad guys are sporting.  I guess Hitchcock can be seen here to be one of the fathers of the action film.

What I especially liked about this film is the way Hitchcock adds in the little touches that aren’t central to the plot.  During the gun battle the English police officers commandeer the surrounding buildings and watching them interact with the tenants and order them around in their own homes was very interesting not because it advanced the story or included characters that would be seen again but because it was humanly interesting.

I like the British Hitchcock films because I think they’re more grounded in the real world that he came from.  The common people seem a little more real than his later attempts at bystanders and incidental characters as if they were based on real individuals he had known.  Hitchcock is known for his crime films and these mundane bits don’t seem to belong in that genre but to the contrary, I think it’s the mundane but authentic elements in a story that make it feel real and that gives it impact.  Otherwise it becomes just fantasy.  Well anyway that’s my opinion.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 3 – Notorious – A Classic Movie Review

Of all the films made by Alfred Hitchcock, the one that most closely aligns with the feel of Hollywood’s Golden Era is Notorious.  The action of the characters and the look and feel of the scenes adheres to the conventions and formulas of that period’s filmmaking.  And I mean this in a positive sense.  The production values are excellent.  The actors are the finest.  The dialog and plot are very well done.  A good case can be made that this is the best movie made in Hitchcock’s long and successful career as a filmmaker.  The movie takes place in 1946.  World War II had just ended and Nazis were still topical.  Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is the daughter of a German spy recently convicted of espionage in the United States.  She is a loyal American and agrees to help the U.S. government in the person of T. R. “Dev” Devlin played in his typically winning way by Cary Grant.  Naturally they fall in love but the problem is the government wants Alicia to become romantically entangled with a German industrialist living in Rio de Janeiro named Alex Sebastian (played by the inimitable Claude Rains in his remarkably idiosyncratic way).  She is supposed to find out what dastardly plots these escaped Nazis are planning.  This of course leads to jealousy and spite in Devlin and pain and anger in Alicia.  When circumstances force her to marry Sebastian to maintain the espionage this further poisons the relationship between our two star crossed lovers (are there any other kind?).  The plot has twists and turns and uranium salts (which got Hitchcock in trouble with the real US Government) but throughout we root for the love story and hiss at the bad guys (in this case Nazis and the US Secret Service).  The remarkable thing in this movie is that although Claude Rains is the evil Nazi you kind of sympathize with his character at certain turns.  He is the unfortunate man in a house with two women, his new wife and his domineering mother.  And he is haunted by the ubiquitous Cary Grant popping up everywhere and presumably a rival for his wife’s affections.  Who wouldn’t want an atom bomb available under those difficult circumstances?

Hitchcock’s cinematic work began well before Hollywood’s Golden Era and in England.  He continued to create popular and original thrillers well into the 1960s, long after the studio system had disappeared.  Thus, Hitchcock is not defined by or limited to the Golden Era sensibilities.  But Notorious without a doubt possesses the “classic” look of that era and definitely deserves its reputation as a masterpiece.  Anyone interested in Hitchcock or the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s should consider viewing this film.

Now put all that aside.  Notorious is a great story.  Hitchcock provides all kinds of suspense and intrigue.  Everyone on both sides is hiding something from everyone, including themselves.  So much deception even starts to trip up the deceivers and eventually it all starts to crumble.  The ending is a collapse all around and a fitting finale.  I highly recommend this movie and hope you’ll enjoy the performances not only by the three main characters but also from all those bit part Nazis doing their best to be wonderfully evil.

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.

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 get 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.