The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 10 – Shadow of a Doubt – A Classic Movie Review

Hitchcock gives us a crime drama wrapped in a family reunion.  Charles Oakley, played by Joseph Cotten, is being investigated by the police in the northeast United States as one of two suspects in the “Merry Widow” murders.  Three wealthy widows were strangled by an acquaintance.  Charles sends a telegram to his married sister, Emma Newton in California saying he wants to come visit her and her family.  Emma is married to Joseph Newton and they live with their three children Charlotte (Charlie), Ann and Roger. Emma dotes on her baby brother and in her eyes, he can do no wrong.  Her husband Joseph (played by Henry Travers) works at the local bank and is a quiet man who, along with his neighbor Herbie Hawkins (played by Hume Cronyn) enjoys reading and discussing the murders committed in detective novels. Ann and Roger are small children who intersect with the main story only obliquely.  But Charlie is a high school graduate who feels stifled living in the small town of Santa Rosa.  She is named after her mother’s brother, the legendary Uncle Charlie.  And right before word of Uncle Charlie’s arrival reaches them, she has been bemoaning the boredom that is their life and has decided to send a telegram to Uncle Charlie and ask him to visit them.

When Charlie hears that her uncle is coming to stay with them, she is overjoyed.  She takes the coincidence of his plans and hers as fate and is sure that his presence will add excitement and life to her stultified family.  But strange things begin happening and Uncle Charlie’s presence becomes a strange mystery for Charlie to solve.  He surreptitiously rips a page out of the family’s copy of the newspaper and when she tells him that she knows he did it he reacts violently and wrenches the paper from her hand, hurting her in the process.  When the next day two men request and get permission from Mrs. Newton to interview and photograph the family as part of some national survey, Uncle Charlie berates her for her foolishness and tells her that he refuses to be interviewed or photographed.

The survey takers are actually police detectives Jack Graham and Fred Saunders attempting to get a photo of Uncle Charlie to allow witnesses to identify him.  Jack asks Charlie if she would show him around town as part of his survey and she agrees.  During their walk Jack reveals to Charlie what they are really doing and that if the identification is positive, they will arrest Uncle Charlie.  Charlie is in a panic.  She doesn’t know what to believe but all the strange behavior of her uncle leads her to believe that it could be true.  She runs to the library and finds the newspaper article her uncle was hiding.  It is a description of the Merry Widow murder case.  One of the women who was murdered turns out to have the same initials as the inscription in a ring that Uncle Charlie had recently given her.

She confronts him and tells Uncle Charlie that the police are getting ready to arrest him.  She reveals what she found out about the ring and throws it back at him.  Uncle Charlie begs her to let him escape and spare her mother the shock of knowing her brother is a murderer.  She agrees.  But before anything else can happen news comes that the other suspect in the murders was killed trying to escape capture.  Now the detectives are no longer after Uncle Charlie.  We also learn that Jack Graham is in love with Charlie and tells her that he will return to ask her to marry him.

Uncle Charlie decides that he will stay in Santa Rosa but now he comes to the conclusion that Charlie knows too much about him.  He plans to have her die by an apparent accident.  In the first event she almost breaks her neck when an outdoor stair step breaks off under her foot and she barely catches hold of the handrail.  Later on, she finds that the step had been sawn almost through.  Next, Uncle Charlie arranges for her to go into a garage where a running car motor had filled the building with exhaust fumes and the key was removed from the ignition so the engine could not be stopped.  And just as she tried to exit the garage the door slammed shut and was jammed tight so she couldn’t escape.  Luckily Herbie Hawkins happened by and heard her cries and allowed for her rescue by, of all people, Uncle Charlie.  He deftly kicked the shim from the jammed door and put the key in the ignition as he turned it off.  Then he carried the unconscious Charlie into the fresh air where she revived.

Now convinced that she had to get Uncle Charlie to leave she used her uncle’s absence at a party to find the ring in his room.  Seeing it on her finger Uncle Charlie announces that he would be leaving the next day for San Francisco.  But while seeing him off at the train Charlie is maneuvered by him onto the departing train and by sheer brute strength, he drags her over to an open door on the end of a train car and prepared to throw her off the train as soon as its speed is sufficient to kill her.  But at the last second Charlie wrenches herself free and in doing so causes Uncle Charlie to lose his balance and fall off the train directly onto the tracks of an oncoming train.

In the next scene Uncle Charlie’s funeral is going on in the church and Charlie is outside explaining to Jack Graham why she didn’t turn her uncle in to the police.  They both agree that they will keep Uncle Charlie’s secret away from the people of Santa Rosa.

Most critics think that Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s best works.  I tend to agree.  Allowing Charles Oakley to give his feelings about society in general and about his victims at the family dinner table and during a fraught conversation with his niece at a seedy dive bar hits the right notes in this strange juxtaposition of normal family life and antisocial psychosis.  The tension between Charlie’s desire to spare her mother and even in a sense her uncle from the consequences of his crimes and her horror at what he actually was see-saws the movie right to the end.  There are many nice touches from the supporting cast.  I especially enjoy Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers arguing over the advantages and disadvantages of poisoned mushrooms over blunt force trauma as a murder weapon.  It shows that Hitchcock had already embraced his reputation for graveyard humor and didn’t mind letting the audience in on the joke.

And it was fun to see Joseph Cotton as a psychotic killer.  Cotton always seems to show up as the honest, likable hero.  It must have been a relief for him to get to play a monster for once.  He was very good.

If you are a fan of Hitchcock and haven’t seen Shadow of a Doubt do yourself a favor and see it.  And even if you’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, I can highly recommend this one.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 11 – The Lady Vanishes (1938) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie filmed in England before leaving for Hollywood.  The plot involves a train somewhere in central Europe with some British citizens on their way back home.  An old English lady named Miss Froy is involved in some kind of espionage.  She befriends a young woman named Iris Henderson who is going home to marry a rich man she doesn’t love.  When Miss Froy disappears from the train and all the other passengers and crew swear she was never there Iris recruits Gilbert Redman to help her solve the mystery.  There are comic touches that involve a pair of friends named Caldicott and Charters who are obsessed with reaching England in time to watch the National Cricket match.  In fact, the comic bit they did in this film was so popular that the actors, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford respectively, reprised their characters in a number of films for many years afterward.

Hitchcock builds up the characters with plenty of background and personal details in scenes that take place before the train ride and once the young couple begin delving into the mystery it is obvious that a criminal conspiracy is taking place to kidnap Miss Froy, although no apparent reason exists.  On the train is a noted brain surgeon and he tries to convince Iris that a serious blow to the head that she sustained just before getting on the train is the source of her delusion about the missing Miss Froy.  Later on, we find out that he is the ringleader of the plot.

Finally, Miss Froy is freed and she reveals to Iris and Gilbert that she is a British spy and she must flee the train and go cross country to return to England.  But first she teaches Gilbert a musical phrase that is code for some top-secret information.  The adventure comes to a climax in a gun battle between the storm trooper and the English passengers as they attempt to take control of the train and flee over a border to a non-hostile country.  After several casualties they escape and return to safety.  When they reach England, Iris decides to forsake her rich loveless bridegroom and go off with Gilbert.  But first they head for the British foreign office to give them the musical code message.  But just as they reach the office Gilbert realizes he has forgotten the music.  But then hears the tune being played on a piano in the room they are about to enter and they see Miss Froy playing the tune.

This all sounds like a ridiculous jumble and in a way it is.  There are all kinds of odd things going on as there always are in a Hitchcock film.  A homicidal magician complete with a booth for making women disappear.  A mysterious burn victim with bandages that cover her face who is brought on the train well after Miss Froy disappeared.  There’s a deaf-mute nun in high heels.  A platoon of storm troopers that I guess are supposed to be German.  An avalanche, a murdered singer, clog dancers, a comedic Italian innkeeper who promises things he can’t deliver in four or five languages and scantily clad women.

But it’s actually highly entertaining.  All the little details of the story are well done and diverting.  The various characters are given enough development and even the villains are well rounded characters.  I thoroughly enjoy this movie and highly recommend it.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 9 – Rope – A Classic Movie Review

This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama.  Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city.  They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity.  As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment.  After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet.  The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.

Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party.  Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest.  All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for.  Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught.  And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily.  In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity.  When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality.  This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party.  Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene.  He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence.  He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.

Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety.  And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife.  Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his.  She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table.  As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day.  And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).

Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument.  Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught.  Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on.  Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case.  Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket.  When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it.  He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip.  He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him.  When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country.  Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket.  Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol.  Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun.  The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip.  He opens up the chest and finds David’s body.  Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy.  Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law.  Rupert goes over to the window and opens it.  He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive.  Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie.  The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley.  He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities.  The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip.  But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert.  His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible.  The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks.  During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.

With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years.  It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s.  From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement.  It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic.  One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano.  I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly.  Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip.  It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948.  But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship.  And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way.  It’s not fun to see.  I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill.  The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.

Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Re-Posted from October 2017 in honor of Halloween.  Boo!

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.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 8 – The Birds – A Classic Movie Review

Chronologically, “The Birds” is the last of Hitchcock’s films that I admire.  Films like Torn Curtain and Topaz have their points but none of them catch my imagination.  I’ll loop around onto a few more of his earlier films soon but I want to delve into “The Birds” first.

Tippi Hedron plays Melanie Daniels a wealthy young woman who tries to play a practical joke on Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor’s character) to revenge herself for a joke he played on her when they were in a San Francisco pet store.  Knowing that he wanted to buy a pair of love birds for his sister but was unable to, she buys the birds and secretly follows him to his home in Bodega Bay, California and leaves them at his door.  While outboard motoring back across Bodega Bay she is attacked by a seagull.

Mitch witnesses her escapade and patches things up with her and invites her to dinner.  Melanie becomes friends with Mitch’s mother and sister and even befriends and sleeps over the house of Mitch’s old girlfriend Annie.  From this point onward, the story begins to revolve more and more seriously around bird attacks.  At first seagulls seem to be the culprits and only seem to behave aggressively when Melanie is present.  But later all types of birds begin to attack humans randomly and finally the attacks become fatal.

The two most visually memorable attack scenes are the crows at the school and the seagulls at the gas station.

In the first case Melanie has gone to bring Mitch’s sister back from school by car because of the growing risk.  Annie, who happens to be the teacher, is getting ready to dismiss the class but tells Melanie to just wait until the class finishes a song they are learning.  Melanie sits in the school yard with her back to the playground and we listen to the class’s hypnotically monotonous song while we get to watch as a “murder” of crows slowly but surely fill up the monkey bars.  When Melanie realizes what has happened she goes to Annie’s class to warn them.  The class leaves in a silent and controlled withdrawal until the crows suddenly attack en masse.  In the chaos of escape no one notices that Annie has fallen fatally victim to the crows.

In the gas station scene, a man filling his gas tank is struck in the head by a seagull and drops the flowing gas pump hose.  The seagulls attack several individuals.  But the whole things spin out of control when  a smoker who hasn’t noticed the flowing gasoline lights a match near the gasoline pool.  The station bursts into flames and amid explosions the attacking gulls unleash mayhem on the fleeing humans.  Melanie is of course in the thick of the action and when she takes refuge in a telephone booth the gulls perform kamikaze attacks trying to break through the glass.  The scene ends with an aerial shot retreating up above the carnage and intersecting with one of the flying gulls.

The movie never really explains why the hell the birds have decided to wage war on humanity.  The closest we get is a lecture given to a diner full of townspeople by a lady ornithologist on how birds lack the intelligence to coordinate a cross-species campaign.  But when pressured to measure the numerical threat she does admit that if all birds ever coordinated an attack on humanity it would rival a biblical plague.

The last act takes place in Mitch’s house that has been reinforced with planks covering the windows and doors.  But as evening turns to night birds furiously attack even the walls and vigilant repairs are barely enough to prevent a breach.  Finally, later that night Melanie hears fluttering noises upstairs and find that one room has been infiltrated through the ceiling.  She is trapped in the room and badly injured before Mitch hears her cries and saves her.

Finally, before day breaks Mitch and his family decide that Melanie must be brought to a hospital.  The birds have become quiet and the family decides to attempt their exit.  They tip toe into the car and drive slowly and carefully through a sea of thousands of standing birds that grudgingly give way as they drive through them.  The movie ends on a shot of this ocean of quiescent bird life, waiting for the next trigger to send them marauding through the town again.

The concept of the movie is ridiculous.  But as with his anticipation of slasher movies with Psycho Hitchcock has presaged the hostile natural disaster genre that became such a big hit with Jaws.  The idea that technologically invincible humanity can be brought to its knees by hostile natural forces has become a favorite theme of horror and environmental revenge films.  But all this ground-breaking stuff aside, The Birds is an engaging movie.  The production values are very good and the acting is sturdy enough for the material.  As with several other of Hitchcock’s protagonists, Melanie isn’t actually the most sympathetic personality and in addition when she walks into that bedroom where all the birds are hiding she appears to be moronic in her inability to make a quick getaway.  I mean what did she expect to see in a room from which bird noises were coming?  An elephant?

I give The Birds a solid six out of ten.  Your mileage may vary.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 7 – Dial M for Murder – A Classic Movie Review

The same year (1954) Grace Kelly starred in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” she appeared in another Hitchcock film “Dial M for Murder.”  This one is also a claustrophobic apartment centered drama.  This one takes place in London and Kelly is Margot Wendice unhappily married to Tony played by Ray Milland.  She has an American boyfriend Mark Halliday played by Robert Cummings.  Tony is aware of the affair and has a plan to eliminate his wife but keep her money.  He plans her murder to occur at their apartment while he is at a party with Mark thus providing himself with a strong alibi.  He blackmails an old acquaintance of his from college, Charles Swann, who is a small time criminal, to commit the murder for him.  He gives Swann the key to the apartment and designates a time when he will call his wife to lure her into the darkened living room where Swann can strangle her.

The machinations around the crime and the details of its failure make for the complexity of the second act.  While being strangled Margot manages to grab a pair of scissors and plunge them in Swann’s back.  After Swann expires, Tony recovers from the failure and without missing a beat tells Margot over the phone to wait until he gets home to call the police.

Tony manages to tamper with evidence and clue in the police to blackmail evidence that paints Swann’s death as Margot killing her blackmailer.  She is subsequently charged with murder, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  The third act involves Chief Inspector Hubbard’s investigation of the facts of the crime and his clever trap for the real killer.

So, this sounds like a pretty standard British murder mystery story.  It is.  But the thing that elevates it is Ray Milland’s work.  He is extremely entertaining as the clever, manipulative and thoroughly affable Tony Wendice.  In every scene, except those with John Williams’ Inspector Hubbard character, Tony dominates the screen and the atmosphere.  He manipulates the other characters easily and expertly.  They don’t even realize after the fact that he’s been working against them.  Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings do a competent job of performing their parts.  John Williams does a slightly over the top portrayal of a senior British police detective with his Oxbridge accent and proper mustache brush.  But it is Ray Milland that makes this movie so much fun for me.  He is delightfully evil, a suave friendly devil.  And Hitchcock did his best to make the staging enhance the choreography of the crime and also the crucial finale that completes this filmed play.  And finally, once again I think Hitchcock’s English roots allows him to stage American actors as Brits but to still capture the essence of the British drawing room murder mystery.  And all this without even a butler to be framed for the crime.

Well done Sir Alfred.  I give this my highest rating for excellent entertainment value.

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.