Rear Window, 1954 – ★★★★

#14 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

This one is often classed as one of Hitch’s greatest films, being the first collaboration of four with John Michael Hayes as writer, and boasting a jaunty theme tune over the credits by Franz Waxman.

It opens on a set of interlinked apartments, where, in one window, we find a feverish James Stewart, and in another, a man listening to that Charles Atlas ‘men, are you over forty? do you have that listness feeling?’ ad. It’s an interlinked group of lives where voyeurs and voyeured co-exist.

Jeffries (Stewart) has a broken leg and so is stuck in the space with his memorabilia and his boredom. Small wonder that soon, very soon, he was start to see something in the window across, when he’s emerged from his ‘plaster cocoon’ and his ability to watch the pretty girl across the way doing her exercises. What a mucky old man our Jimmy is.

This film catches the interest within the first five minutes, which is quite a feat. Within the first ten, we meet so many different people with their own little pockets of existence, and eventually, we meet the glorious Thelma Ritter, and any film which has here as a character player has my interest (‘we’ve become a nation of peeping toms’). Her squeaky voice and her plain yet interesting face made her a recognisable figure in numerous showy roles.

It’s hot and sticky in this suite of apartments, and everyone has their windows open so snatches of music and conversation can be heard by our bored invalid, who seems disappointed when a newlywed couple pull down the shades!

Fifteen minutes in, and the luminous Grace Kelly as Lisa leans in to kiss Jimmy Stewart in slow-mo, and we know he’s not quite as lonely as we thought. Kelly looks fantastic in costumes by Edith Head, a stunning actress playing a stunning model. No surprise she quickly became a princess in real life.

‘Rear Window’ cleverly builds the audience interest and tension by having not that much happen to start with, but Jeffries’ eyes become our eyes and we start to see what he sees and react as he reacts – that’s clever film-making. The lonely lady who makes a place for two while her wireless crooner keeps her company is particularly poignant – we smile with her, we raise our glass, we feel her despondency at her empty table.

We keep being drawn back to Raymond Burr, though, just over the way, and the sense that not all is well in his apartment. After a scream, a lot of night departures, and other suspicious circumstances, our hero Jeffries starts to believe he has witnessed something close to murder. But will anyone believe him?

The sinister scene where Thorwald sits in the dark, quiet, when all hell breaks loose in the apartment block, tells us he might be a bad egg after all, far worse than Jeffries, who spies on his neighbours with cameras and binoculars, neighbours who are just trying to get on with their lives.

Just like cameras had a focal point in ‘Peeping Tom;, here they start to become central to the story of ‘Rear Window’. But the final sequences, where Jeffries nearly comes a cropper, and then the picture of domesticity with him and Lisa at the end, are classic Hitch.

I don’t think this is his best film, but it is clever, and contains a couple of strong performances from his close collaborators Stewart and Kelly, both of which probably did their best work for this director – he certainly got a couple of career best turns out of Stewart with this and with ‘Rope’.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

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Dial M for Murder, 1954 – ★★★½

#15 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

Frederick Knott’s stage play is very old-fashioned and faintly ridiculous, so the fact that this film, of which Knott wrote the screenplay, has a bit more flair and energy must be down to the director.

Tony (Ray Milland), a rather unconvincing former professional tennis player, has an unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly), who thinks he doesn’t know about her infidelity with an American writer (Robert Cummings). He’s icily polite to her as befits an English gentleman living in Maida Vale (the ‘M’ of the title), but he really wants to plan the perfect murder.

This mystery runs on latch-keys, a feckless fraudster turned assassin, and an incorrect telephone number. Kelly is not as coolly beautiful as she was in her other Hitchcock collaborations – she looks the part of a ’50s suburban housewife – but she has a moment to shine when the title’s murder does not quite work out as expected.

Cummings had worked for Hitch before, as the leading man of ‘Saboteur’ , but he’s better here, as a supporting player. Milland has a lovely scene where he blackmails the would-be killer just as if he is discussing the weather, while Anthony Dawson makes a fine desperado down on his luck who has been driven from stealing money to defrauding old ladies, to something far more sinister.

The would-be murder scene is scored with soaring music by Dimitri Tiomkin, and Kelly’s performance is quite excellent in this scene and the one immediately afterwards. Milland is also rather good, so whether Hitch brought out the best in his actors, or whether the editing process created the performances, they remain effective.

Filmed originally in 3-D, this has several ‘props in the foreground’ sequences but seeing it ‘flat’ doesn’t really detract from what is an entertaining, if light, entry in the director’s Canon. I’ve demoted it by half a star on this rewatch, but it is still a very good picture, and better than most of the time.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

I Confess, 1953 – ★★★½

#16 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

A minor Hitchcock to many, this murder thriller has the complication of the accused being a man of the cloth, the suitably angst-ridden Method actor Montgomery Clift, whose opulent church is the scene for a confession which may cause him problems later on.

No mystery in this one as the murderer is revealed within the first ten minutes, what follows is a psychological struggle of conscience on behalf of the priest who, even when under suspicion himself, cannot break the seal of the confessional. The shadowy opening where someone in priestly robes leaves the dead man leaves us in some doubt as to the solution.

This has a similar downbeat feel to ‘The Wrong Man’, in which Henry Fonda had been accused for robberies he had not done, but in this case the stakes are much higher. Clift’s Father Logan is on the side of God, but is God on his side?

It is possible that Hitch may have been irritated by his star’s insistence on the Method and his character’s motivation, but he gets a good performance out of his whether that was in the editing suite or in Clif’s devotion to his craft. Anne Baxter is second billed as Ruth (the former girlfriend of Logan’s before he took his vows) and his advocate when he is accused of the crime.

Karl Malden is the friendly but suspicious cop who initially falls for the real killer’s lies, but who eventually makes everything right – interesting that he subscribes to the fear of the priest, but not the fear of the foreign unknown.

I still like this film, but it loses half a star on this rewatch. There are cleverer and flashier titles in Hitch’s filmography, although this remains eminently watchable.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Strangers on a Train, 1951 – ★★★★½

#17 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

One of Hitchcock’s most realised classics, this ‘murder swap’ tale has been much parodied and mimicked since release, notably in the loose comedy remake ‘Throw Momma From The Train’ and in TV shows like ‘Columbo’.

Robert Walker, as psychopathic Bruno Anthony, gives his best performance here. A troubled soul in real life he was hard to cast effectively and aside from the Judy Garland romance ‘The Clock’ he has never really clicked with me on screen. Here he is the perfect example of chilling menace.

Farley Granger, as tennis star Guy Haines, wishing to be free of his nasty wife Miriam, is weaker and less decisive, not taking the proposed plot that seriously until Anthony takes their conversation further from a discussion to completion. Granger was not a great actor (although Hitch had used him before, in a similarly weak role, in ‘Rope’), but he does well enough here.

‘Strangers on a Train’ is full of sharp dialogue and show-off shots (the reflection in Miriam’s glasses, the nonchalant pop of a child’s balloon, the merry-go-round, the tennis match where just one head isn’t following the ball), and has a building sense of horror throughout.

I still class it as one of the director’s masterpieces and find it stands up well today.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Stage Fright, 1950 – ★★★

#18 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

A very British cast (Richard Todd, Joyce Grenfell, Michael Wilding, the wonderful, wonderful Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh) join Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in this mystery thriller which starts strongly with a flashback concerning Todd and Dietrich and the death of her husband.

With a bloodstain on her skirt like a flower (that dress will reappear later, more prominently) the divine Miss D (who was around fifty at the time) exudes glamour under adversity; and when we realise she is an actress we realise she is naturally stagey and able to give a performance.

Sending Todd to go back to the house of death seems to be putting him in the frame, and that’s our first hint of unease. But he goes, and doesn’t just find her a new dress, he tries to hide evidence of the crime. There are stunning wardrobes fit for a queen. Then a scream, a maid, and a need to run.

I’m not convinced that Richard Todd cuts it as a Hitchcock leading man, much as I admire him in other roles. He doesn’t have the sense of urgency or debonair ease that characterises a Grant. As Dietrich’s lover he is frankly absurd while he never quite feels like a desperate man in danger. Compare this with The Wrong Man and you can see a difference, but these were small steps in the direction of the misaccused, which would resurface again in North by Northwest and Frenzy.

This, of all the Hitchcock canon, is the title which would work the best as a rather heightened melodrama, performed with a knowing slant by modern performers. It teeters on the edge of the ridiculous, even if it gets there by the idiocy of a man who puts love before common sense, and then compunds the error by going on the run.

If you view this film simply as hokum and fun, as it is, you will enjoy this. The first Mrs Reagan, Jane Wyman, is the faithful friend (the Midge of Vertigo, for example) who helps Todd evade the police by becoming Dietrich’s maid and exposing the truth, and she fits in well with her British co-stars and their eccentricity.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Under Capricorn, 1949 – ★★★★

#19 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

I’ve seen many lukewarm or downright negative reviews of this costume drama, but I think if it hadn’t been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it would be better regarded.

Michael Wilding is Charles Adare, an Irish gentleman who has little in the way of money who meets former convict Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a man with a secret, who married above his station to the now-alcoholic Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), a Lady who has known Wilding back in Ireland when he was a boy.

Margaret Leighton as house servant Millie manages to be even more vicious than Mrs Danvers, a poisonous little bitch who chides Cotten just as Iago did Othello. And so as Bergman tries to pull herself back into the society which shuns her husband, he in turn is consumed by jealousy.

Two sequences I particularly liked: one where Wilding whips off his coat as if it is Walter Raleigh’s cloak and drapes it over a window so Henrietta can see how beautiful she is in her reflection; the other where Flusky holds a necklace of rubies behind his back as a surprise for his wife at a critical point in the plot.

Only some of the musical flourishes and long takes betray the Master’s touch, but this is a strange exercise for him to undertake: still, in a decent print the colours and composition of cinematography shine through (Jack Cardiff’s touch, reminiscent of his work a couple of years earlier on ‘Black Narcissus’ for The Archers).

Joseph Cotten (miscast as Flusky, to see this character brought to life watch John Hallam’s portrayal in the later TV movie) dismissed this film as ‘Corny Crap’, while Ingrid Bergman’s personal scandal when she ran away with Roberto Rossellini hurt both critical and commercial reactions to this film.

Wilding, at this point not yet ensnared by Hollywood or Elizabeth Taylor, is fine as the impoverished gentleman, while Leighton’s viper of a maid (Leighton would eventually wed Wilding, in 1964, after unsuccessul marriages to Max Reinhardt and Laurence Harvey) is excellent.

Hitch himself disowned it in later life, but I can’t help feeling he was wrong, as what shows on the screen is a vibrant drama with a strong performance from Bergman.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

The Reverse Hitchcock Project

In the spirit of list-making and viewing challenges over at Letterboxd, I have tasked myself with watching all of the surviving films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but instead of doing it the conventional route, starting with his silent features, his early British talkies, and finishing with the big Hollywood titles, I’m doing it in reverse, starting with ‘Family Plot’ and finishing with ‘The Pleasure Garden’.

That’s fifty-seven films to get through, and should you want to follow my progress, here’s the link to the Letterboxd list. I’m rating and reviewing them as I go along.

Those titles are also listed here, for reference.  As of today, the 29th January, I have watched the first two.

1 Family Plot
2 Frenzy
3 Topaz
4 Torn Curtain
5 Marnie
6 The Birds
7 Psycho
8 North by Northwest
9 Vertigo
10 The Wrong Man
11 The Man Who Knew Too Much
12 The Trouble With Harry
13 To Catch a Thief
14 Rear Window
15 Dial M for Murder
16 I Confess
17 Strangers on a Train
18 Stage Fright
19 Under Capricorn
20 Rope
21 The Paradine Case
22 Notorious
23 Spellbound
24 Bon Voyage
25 Aventure Malgache
26 Lifeboat
27 Shadow of a Doubt
28 Saboteur
29 Suspicion
30 Mr & Mrs Smith
31 Foreign Correspondent
32 Rebecca
33 Jamaica Inn
34 The Lady Vanishes
35 Young and Innocent
36 Sabotage
37 Secret Agent
38 The 39 Steps
39 The Man Who Knew Too Much
40 Waltzes from Vienna
41 Number Seventeen
42 Rich and Strange
43 Mary (German version of Murder!)
44 The Skin Game
45 Elstree Calling
46 Murder!
47 Juno and the Paycock
48 Blackmail (sound version)
49 Blackmail (silent version)
50 The Manxman
51 Champagne
52 Easy Virtue
53 The Farmer’s Wife
54 Downhill
55 The Ring
56 The Lodger
57 The Pleasure Garden

The rescue of the ‘Hitchcock 9’

For the past couple of years, the British Film Institute has been involved in a major project to restore all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, and over the past three months these have been premiered with new scores across London. I previously reported on The Pleasure Garden at the Wilton Music Hall, and since then I have caught up with a further three restorations at the BFI Southbank.

First up was Downhill, starring Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, and Ian Hunter, from the play by Novello and Constance Collier. A rather mature Novello gets expelled from school when he takes the blame for a shopgirl’s pregnancy (his friend is the one responsible), and we follow his descent (and ascent, and descent) literally from rugby ace and head boy to chorus boy, gigolo, and destitute beggar before the inevitable happy ending as the film comes to a close. Hitchcock used stairs and escalators to represent the descent of his leading man. Jeans plays the flighty and two-faced actress who only throws herself at Novello when he improbably inherits money from a distant relation. She and her fancy man soon work through this money and our hero is left again to fend for himself. This film has previously been badly served in DVD releases – its inclusion in ‘Hitchcock – The British Years’ presented the film without a soundtrack, while a substandard print appeared on a release in Greece. Now it looks approximately as the director must have intended, tints and all. I didn’t see the version with the ‘beatbox’ score, but rather a more sedate but enjoyable one from John Sweeney.

Next was Easy Virtue, again with Jeans in the lead, but this time suffering from the loss of an original negative which means ‘restoration’ is not quite of a quality which could be broadcast or easily watched. The elusive twenty minutes which seems to be missing when comparing the original running time and the one it has now has not been located, and so this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play is simply good – but not great. The inter-titles have however been redone and look pristine. This film has not looked as appealing as this for a long time, regardless of it still having the feel of squinting through the fog, and Stephen Horne’s piano accompaniment was a suitably classy side dish.

The final film of the three I watched was The Ring, which showcases the ill-fated Lilian Hall-Davis, the Danish actor/singer Carl Brisson, and Ian Hunter (again – he also makes an appearance in Easy Virtue). Perhaps one of Hitch’s greatest silents, and his first from an original screenplay rather than a published or performed source, this story of many rings – a boxing ring, a wedding ring, a bracelet – sparkled with the jazz score of the Soweto Kinch Sextet, which fitted perfectly with the action, which revolves around a rivalry for the top in the boxing ring, and for the girl. This film is lively, and Hall-Davis in particular is a delight to watch.

 

Cinema review: Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden – restored

The BFI’s ‘Genius of Hitchcock’ project launched this week with the restoration of the director’s first film from 1926, ‘The Pleasure Garden’, now with original tints and extended to a length of twenty minutes more than has previously appeared on DVD releases.

The setting for this first screening (with live accompaniment from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, to a new piece composed by Daniel Patrick Cohen) was the charming but dilapidated Wilton’s Music Hall, in Whitechapel, just a short walk from Tower Hill tube station. Given the young Hitchcock’s love for the theatre (which is shown by the opening shots of this film, featuring blonde chorus girls) it was the perfect venue, and it was fitting that with the launch of this season the announcement was made that Wilton’s has gained Lottery funding – of £56,000, as it turns out.

The film itself is a potboiling melodrama with a leering villain (Miles Mander), a sweet chorus girl (Virginia Valli), a gold-digging bitch (Carmelita Geraghty), and a nice but dim chap (Hugh Fielding). There’s also a cute dog to rival ‘The Artist’ and Uggie. Although it isn’t top drawer Hitch, there is much to enjoy in this piece from the fledgling director, and from this beautiful restoration.

The remaining eight silent features are to be restored for this year’s Cultural Olympiad (The Ring, The Lodger, Blackmail, Downhill, Champagne, Easy Virtue, The Farmer’s Wife, The Manxman), and donations can still be made via the BFI website .