Alfred Hitchcock: Immigrant Worker of Suspense
The first years of Alfred Hitchcock's work in America show the patterns and themes that he'd explored in his German and British periods and would obsess his future films. But an interesting transition occurred between "The Paradine Case" and "Rope." First of all, Hitchcock began working with color film with the same eye to detail he brought to the shadows of black-and-white. Second, with "Rope," he began working as his own producer. Such was his success in his first years in America, that soon he left the Selznicks and the Wangers behind, assuming more control over his projects (although he still had to answer to the banks and studios). But there was also a change in the subject matter: while there was still the requisite threat of murder, intrigue and deception (as well as wrong men, false imprisonment and threatening mothers), "The Paradine Case" was the last Hitchcock film to feature "shame" as a major theme. From then on, the world of Hitchcock was filled with more sociopaths and genuine evil that knew no shame, and frequently relished their crimes. The concern with reputation and "what others will think" became irrelevant. From now on, it was a fight for survival. Whether this was Hitchcock's conscious choice, or a result of his work during the war (he worked on documentaries dealing with the German work-camps), or the imposed morality of his producers, or the Breen Code is hard to say.
WARNING! SPOILERS ABOUND IN THESE CAPSULE SUMMARIES!! WHATEVER YOU DO, IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THESE HITCHCOCK FILMS, THEN DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER (By all means, go to the attic OR the basement, take a shower OR a ride on a carousel, wait in a corn-field OR the schoolyard, visit Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Bates Motel, OR a beach on the French Riviera, or for that matter, just sit in your room and watch your neighbors but for the love of an omnipotent uncaring God...) I REPEAT, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER!!! DAMMITT!!!
(Thank you and have a nice day)
Alfred Hitchcock's "The Paradine Case" (1947) Adapted by wife Alma, but with a script credited to producer David O. Selznick, "The Paradine Case" was a British court drama, with very few British actors, save for Charles Laughton as a prejudicial judge. Selznick hired his then-prodigy Alida Valli for the role of a woman accused of murdering her blind husband. She goes through the indignities of searches and imprisonment (which must have appealed to Hitchcock), as well as the scorn of Society—seems she was having an affair with her groom played by a not-at-all British Louis Jordan, who looked like he'd never spent any time in a barn. Convinced of her innocence, her barrister (played by the also-not-veddy-British but very stalwart Gregory Peck) struggles hard to win her freedom and preserve her reputation, though he also has fallen under her spell, threatening his marriage—his wife being the object of lust for Laughton's judge who happens to be presiding over the case. You think that's a tangled web? How about the behind-the-scenes stories of the casting! Jourdan was hired to fulfill a contract obligation, Valli for her...relationship with the Producer, and Peck for box-office potential. Anything but story-logic. Peck, whom Hitchcock had troubles directing in "Spellbound," tried hard to give the young actor more gravitas, dying his hair gray, and shooting him from below, but at this point in his career, Peck was quite incapable of expressing humiliation, which undercut the entire point of the film. Hitchcock also had to contend with Selznick's customary second-guessing and last-minute re-writes. If Hitchcock had any doubts about producing his own films, the unpleasant circumstances of "The Paradine Case" would have dispelled them.
Hitchcock appears at 36 minutes in leaving Cumberland Station carrying a cello.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" (1946) Another of those bench-mark Hitchcock films. Working from a Ben Hecht script, Hitchcock fashioned a nearly perfect spy story involving a love triangle, a woman's degradation, Nazi spies, and a rather fortuitous "MacGuffin." Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, daughter of a convicted Nazi agent, drowning her sorrows with a mixed cocktail of fast-living and slow-gin. Lindsey Lohan of the War Years. She is recruited, somewhat improbably, by the government to spy on some of her father's old cronies, fussily plotting in Latin America. Being patriotic, wanting to clear the family name (and falling in love with her "liaison"--in both senses of the term--named Devlin, though Cary Grant pronounces it "Devil-in'") she readily agrees, and before long she has ingratiated herself into their midst, and into the heart of one of them, Alex Sebastian, played with great sympathy by Claude Rains. Soon, Sebastian asks to marry her. Her superiors are overjoyed, Devlin is jealous and torn by duty, and Alicia, seeing Devlin's seeming ambivalence, goes along with it.
For Hitchcock, the story boiled down to "How can a spy organization claim the moral high ground when prostituting someone for information?" In the process of saving her family's reputation, Alicia must destroy her own in the eyes of her lover and their bosses--who seemingly think so little of her that it hardly causes a stir. And Devlin watches the woman he loves marry another man or compromise the mission.
Bergman is great throughout: depressed as a society floozy, radiantly in love with Devlin, confused and haunted in Latin America. Grant plays Devlin with a facial passivity, never cracking a smile throughout, an operative who keeps his emotions in check. Claude Rains is the smitten Nazi, whose devotion to Alicia makes him a sympathetic villain (he has the trademark Hitchcock overbearing mother, as well), and Louis Calhern is the spy boss with all the charm of a corporate snake-oil salesman.
Much is made of the "MacGuffin" in this one, written a year before Hiroshima. It's described in the script as "some sort of metal ore," a compromise when someone advised Hitchcock not to say the word "uranium." Even that caused enough of a stir that Hitchcock was investigated and tailed for three months.
Hitchcock appears at the Sebastian party drinking champagne and quickly departing at 01:04:39.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (1945) Hitchcock always has a little bit of a problem translating psychology to the screen--curable psychology anyway, and "Spellbound," though it tries very hard to legitimize Freud's treatment of mental illness through dream analysis, makes it look more like a stunt. Especially in a "Dali-esque" dream sequence (because Salvador Dali really designed it!) that when it's explained causes a bit of eye-rolling. Ingrid Bergman plays a psychologist at an insane asylum, where the staff is awaiting the arrival of the new administrator, Dr. Edwardes. When he shows up they are surprised to find him a youngish man (Gregory Peck), who is given to odd reactions when Ingrid makes suggestive marks in a table-cloth, or at other seemingly innocent times. Soon, this wrong man is suspected of killing the real Dr. Edwardes, and it takes the power of dream analysis, and the love of Ingrid Bergman to make everything right again. It's melodramatically crafted (with a script by Ben Hecht and Angus McPhail), but in pushing the love story, they might have taken it too far. Franz Waxman's score, though unconventional in places, evokes hearts and flowers a bit too hard (as does a rather silly impresionistic shot of doors opening) and combined with the very literal dream-work can produce a fit of giggles. Add to that some unconvincing process work in the skiing scenes. They also might be hitting it a little too close to have a shrink straight out of Vienna doing a little analysis on Dr. Edwardes. Unfortunately, Gregory Peck is a bit unseasoned to pull off the complexities of what are asked of him, mostly looking rather vague, while Ingrid Bergman fares a bit better, though one has to wonder about her ability to be impartial, given the way she gets involved with her patient here. The stand-out performance, though, is by Leo G. Carroll in the role of the retiring administrator. There is some nice work in this, and one should remark particularly of a Hitchcock surprise--using huge models to keep the foreground and background in focus simultaneously--he also employed this in "Dial 'M' for Murder."
Hitchcock emerges from an elevator carrying a violin case at 43 minutes into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944) Hitchcock first arrived in America to make a movie about the Titanic, but it was scuttled for "Rebecca." This might be classified as a sequel of sorts. Six torpedo-attack survivors of various nationalities and backgrounds must maintain a kind of survival in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean awaiting a rescue that may never come. Think "Stagecoach" on a raft, rather than out West, or "Gilligan's Island" without the island...or cocoanut jokes. The floaters are made up of a fashion writer, a millionaire, an Army nurse, and an English woman carrying her dead child...the crew-survivors are a black steward, the radio operator, a leftist, and an injured sailor. John Hodiak is the ostensible working-class hero, the imperious Talulah Bankhead is the high society reporter who must adjust to a more primitive lifestyle. The others, including William Bendix and Hume Cronyn, are the shark-fodder in various stages of will-to-live. And then, as the Nazis is Walter Slezak. Nazi? Who said anything about Nazi's?** Well, this was made during war-time, and Hitchcock was really making a movie about the dynamic of "can't eveybody just get along?" Well, Ingrid, if everyone got along--there wouldn't be a mooo-vie...In Hitchcock's microcosm of diversity (sketched out by John Steinbeck, and scripted by Jo Swerling, who wrote "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Guys and Dolls"), its the drama that results that matters. Contrived? Yes. But there's plenty of Hitchcock in this one, despite having no place to move the camera. And even a lifeboat leaves plenty of room for people to display the best and worst of their natures.
In what is probably his most ingenious cameo, Hitchcock shows his newly trimmed form in the "before" and "after" pictures in a "Reduc-o Obesity Slayer" advertisement in a conveniently brought-along newspaper at 25 minutes into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943) Though he sometimes denied it, Hitchcock cited "Shadow of a Doubt" as his own favorite film, partly because of his collaboration with playwright Thornton Wilder (and wife Alma and Robert Audrey, as it turns out), but also because of the immaculate way this combined study of home-town life and a serial killer in the family works so seamlessly.
The Newton family is tinged with a touch of the macabre, but only because their lives and family are so "normal." If they only knew the truth. Charley hates her normal life in Sant Rosa. She wants adventure, and mystery and romance. She wants something to happen! Better watch what you wish for, kid: Her namesake, Uncle Charlie, is coming to town. And it's not for nostalgia, although Uncle Charlie is all about nostalgia. No, Charlie the elder is coming for a visit because he's on the run from a couple of detectives tracking the "Merry Widow" Murderer. And before you can say "black smoke from a train over-shadowing everything good in town," he's starting to arouse suspicion, especially in his adoring niece.
It's hard to know where to start--"Shadow of a Doubt" is, like "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," "Psycho" and YOUR favorite Hitchcock film, the director at his peak. The presentation, they way the film is shot (one of my favorites is a medium close-up of Uncle Charlie nestled in bed, the headboard of which seems to be forming angel's wings...or are they devil's?), how Hitchcock turns the warm, inviting town of Santa Rosa into a threatening hell in the latter half, the way his camera crawls up to Joseph Cotten's face as he starts a tirade about modern times and the idle rich, and when the niece (off-camera) protests, his face swings into the camera and envelopes it (Joseph Cotten was never better than this movie--exploiting his slightly louge manner as a kind of pathology, and young Teresa Wright, who would have a long Hollywood career matches him). The family is full of Wilder-Hitchcock eccentrics that to reveal much would spoil the fun, but watch for a very young Hume Cronyn, who was a frequent Hitchcock collaborator (he adapted "Under Capricorn" for Hitchcock) in a key role. It's filled to bursting with good ideas that warrant repeated viewings.
***Hitchcock plays cards on the train to Santa Rosa at 17:00 into the film. He must have known the picture was going to be good--this is his "gin rummy" hand.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur" (1942) "Saboteur" is, like "The Thirty Nine Steps," one of those Hitchcock "Wrong Man on the Run" stories that reached its zenith with "North By Northwest." In fact, "Saboteur" might as well be the blue-print for the Cary Grant film. Robert Cummings (who would show up again in "Dial 'M' for Murder") plays a munitions worker who is accused of sabotage and goes on the run to prove his innocence. Dorothy Parker worked on the screen-play and her wit can be seen when Cummings and the inevitable blond accomplice (Priscilla Lane, imposed on Hitchcock by Universal--she gets top billing) hide out in a train-car of circus freaks. But what "Saboteur" is most famous for is its over-the-top finale. Where "North By Northwest" used Mt. Rushmore, "Saboteur" stages its final confrontation atop the Statue of Liberty, when Robert Cummings must help the man who can prove his innocence (a young Norman Lloyd, who would go on to produce "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") from falling from the Torch. Staged in near-silence, without music score, it is one of the most nail-biting sequences any director has put to film. In a movie that deals with the theme of patriotism in time of war, it's a giddily hysterical sequence that still manages to thrill. The effects, for its time, are spectacular as well.
Hitchcock stands outside a drug store 60:00 into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (1941) Hitchcock's next film is an anomaly--a comedy with Carole Lombard (who coerced him into directing) and Robert Montgomery. He's a partner at a prominent New York law-firm. She's...incorrigibly cute in a cloying kind of way. When they have a spat they don't go to bed mad. They lock themselves in their apartment--he doesn't go back to work until they're back blowing kisses at each other. During a reconciliatory breakfast, this brilliant lawyer makes the mistake of saying he probably wouldn't get married again if something happened to her. Then, convenienetly, it's discovered that their marriage wasn't legally binding. Hilarity ensues.
Well, not much. There is a protracted scene that produces well-earned chuckles when the two, now dating separately, end up at the same night club and simultaneously spy on each other and pretend they're having a FAB-ulous time. But that's about it. Hitchcock would flirt with cutesiness later in his career, but he would never again commit himself to a project where the only jeopardy is getting stuck on a World's Fair thrill ride in a down-pour (the 1939 New York World's Fair is only tantalizingly seen). The only "wrong man" here is Robert Montgomery (Elizabeth's Dad) who is so twee in this, he could be auditioning for "Bewitched."
Hitchcock walks in front of the entrance to their apartment building at 41:00 into the film. He's moving pretty fast--perhaps he's trying to make a getaway.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" (1941) Hitchcock and Fontaine again, after "Rebecca," and with some qualities to the earlier film, but pushed further. This time Cary Grant is the husband for the tremulously suspicious wife Fontaine plays, but instead of having a shady past, she thinks he's a murderer, and that he wants to murder her! Fortunately, she has a good soul-mate in the director, who angles everything in that direction.**** In the most famous shot of "Suspicion," Grant walks up from the kitchen to deliver a glass of milk to his by-now paranoid bride. She's sure he's poisoning her, so Hitchcock stages the walk up the circular stairwell dramatically, with a spider web of shadows splayed against the walls, and the glass of milk ominously glowing--Hitchcock put a light bulb in it, and wired it up to beam from the glass. Nigel Bruce (Basil Rathbone's "Dr. Watson") plays friend and confidante, and all the performances are top-notch. Grant and Fontaine make a great screen couple, even if a very dysfunctional one.
Hitchcock mails a letter at 45:00 into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) Hitchcock's second film in America, and once again, you wouldn't know it. A lot of it takes place in Holland, so of course, you have inclement weather and a windmill figuring prominently in the plot. Reporter Joel McCrea (with ultra-American name of Johnny Jones) is in Europe following the efforts of a Dutch diplomat carrying an Allied treaty. When the diplomat is kidnapped by Nazi Agents, McCrea shucks off his objectivity and pursues the kidnappers..and the story.
According to Wikipedia, a huge slew of writers participated in the screenplay.***** But despite that, Hitchcock couldn't secure his choice for the lead, Gary Cooper, as he wouldn't stoop so low as to make "a thriller." There are the requisite betrayals and double-crosses. At one point, Joel McCrea goes out the upper-floor window of his hotel to escape his captors and over to the adjoining room, just as Cary Grant would in "North By Northwest" 20 years later. And there are the Hitchcockian set-pieces: a murder in the driving rain, as we follow the killer's excape through a path of jostling umbrellas; a windmill that reveals its secrets by turning against the wind; and a rather mind-blowing shot of a plane crash-diving into the ocean from the cockpit's perspective, complete with water flooding the chamber violently.
And it ends with a plea for America to get into the fight, as McCrea reports his story in a darkened broadcast booth in London as the bombs begin to fall.
"Okay, we'll tell 'em then. I can't read the rest of the speech I had, 'cause the lights have gone out, so I'll just have to speak from the cuff. All that noise you hear isn't static - it's death, and its coming to London. Yes, they're coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and on the homes. Don't tune me out, hang on a while - this is a big story, and you're part of it, it's too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come... as if the lights were out everywhere, except in America. But keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they're the only lights left in this world!"
At our point in history, it is easy to look at "Foreign Correspondent" with the knowledge of the London Blitz. But for the audiences at its premiere those events hadn't happened yet. The film opened at the time The Battle of Britain was happening in the skies. Three weeks later, German bombs started to fall on London as depicted in the film.
Apparently, Joseph Goebbels admired it as a great piece of propaganda.
And Gary Cooper would later tell Hithcock it was a mistake not to have starred in this movie.
Hitchcock walks in front of Joel McCrea reading a newspaper at 11:00 into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940) Hitchcock's first film in America, under contract to Über-producer David O. Selznick.****** Hitchcock wanted to film this himself, but couldn't afford the screen-rights, and originally, he was supposed to make a film about the Titanic for Selznick, but when that fell through, or the plans sunk, Selznick suggested the Daphne DuMaurier story, a sort of modern take on a Brontë novel, instead (she also wrote the original story for Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" and "The Birds"). Despite being his first film in America, the film is as British as British can be--the story takes place in England, the three leads are British, but because Hitchcock had no access to real locations, "Rebecca" has a remote, fairy-tale quality to it—almost Disney-esque. Joan Fontaine is the unsophisticated girl who happens to fall under the charms of the rather frosty Maxim DeWinter (played with a certain lack of commitment by Laurence Olivier). Following their hasty marriage, he brings her back to the Manderley Estate, where if she isn't her own worst enemy, the staff, especially the creepily engaged Mrs. Danvers, is. Danvers (Judith Anderson) makes no secret of her preference for the deceased former Mrs. DeWinter (the "Rebecca" of the title--Fontaine's character, significantly, isn't named at all) and it becomes a psychological battle of wills between the idealized past and the haunted present. Hitchcock's first film in America won the Best Picture Oscar for 1941. The award went to Selznick. The award for Best Directing that year went to John Ford for "The Grapes of Wrath," his third Oscar of the five he would win in total.
Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for Best Directing.
Hitchcock is waiting while George Sanders makes a phone-call towards the end of the film.
* There is a spectacular shot in "Notorious," during the part sequence, that travels from the second floor balcony and slowly swoops down to an all-important key in Ingrid Bergman's hand. It's an amazing shot filled with suspense of its own accord. Well, Cary Grant kept that key as a good-luck charm for most of his life, but when he heard that Ingrid Bergman had developed cancer, he sent it to her for luck. At Hitchcock's AFI tribute, Bergman, knowing she was dying, gave the key to the frail Alfred Hitchcock, who would only live another year, himself. They held onto each other close, and whispered in each other's ear. It is the most genuine, emotional moment seen in those false-sentiment AFI events.
** This Nazi happens to be one of the crew-members of the U-boat that sank the freighter everyone came from.
*** Hitchcock's graddaughter took a college course studying his films and turned in a paper on "Shadow of a Doubt," with the help and advice of her grandfather. When she only got a C+, he replied, "Sorry, sweetheart, it was the best I could do!"
*** Hitchcock was on loan to RKO, and when one of the executives saw "Suspicion," he was so alarmed that he took out every shot that implicated Grant. The film ran 55 minutes long. Cooler heads prevailed.
**** Their list: Robert Benchley (who appears in the film), Charles Bennett, Harold Clurman, Joan Harrison, Ben Hecht, James Hilton, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin, Richard Maibaum and Budd Schulberg. That's quite a list! But Walter Wanger had been trying to make a movie like this since 1936. A lot of writers had a lot of opportunities over the years.
***** Also according to Wikipedia, Selznick's meddling influence informed itself into a couple of Hitchcock's films. Roger O. Thornhill, the protagonist on "North By Northwest," at one point mentions that the "O" stands for "nothing." Supposedly, the "O" in David O. Selznick didn't either, Selznick picking the "O" for how it sounded. And Thorwald's attire in "Rear Window?" Modeled after Selznick.
And that's where I stop. I've only seen a couple films from his British period (The excellent "The 39 Steps," and that only recently, and the original version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" with Peter Lorre). But, with some minimal searching, the Internet has a few complete Hithcock's from the period available to stream (And this is, "Alfred Hitchcock II", after all) I would also direct your attention to the Hitchcock version of Wikipedia, still in its infancy, but from there you can find a web-site called the "1000 Pictures Project" reducing every Hitchcock film to 1000 individual frames. Once I found that, I found it incalculably useful for illustrations throughout the text (I believe they follow a mathematical pattern: divide the film's length by 1,000, grab a frame at every interval of that amount. It would explain why some critical shots are not included. But, hey, if you've got a complaint, you try it!). I also spent some enjoyable time re-acquainting myself with "Hitchcock/Truffaut," Francois Truffaut's near-definitive book-length interview with Hitchcock. Want to hear the original tapes of those sessions? Go here. You'll find that the book (translated from English to French and then back to English) doesn't follow the conversation too exactly.
Is Hitchcock important to Film, or as he put it, The Cin-e-ma? Of course he is. The man, with every film, designed a new way to present the world, a new way to communicate it—to turn it into art. He managed to expand the vocabulary of visual presentation, of film itself, into a whole 'nother realm, and one would think that that expansion stopped dead with Hitchcock, given how often his tricks and framings are used by current directors. Often imitated. Never topped. One is hard-pressed to think of anyone since who has furthered that work. The fact that Hitchcock worked in the thriller realm should not negate his importance, though it almost certainly kept him from winning an Oscar for directing...ever (he won the Irving Thalberg Award in 1968). Big deal. He was a name unto himself in Hollywood and throughout the world. Though he may not have had great success at the end, he never stopped being a household word, or being a significant draw for his movies. And that's a result of consistently being innovative in ways of connecting with his audience. And after all, Ingrid, it's only a moo-vie.
The other aspect about Hitchcock to remember is that he was relentlessly entertaining...just fun.
It would spoil things to take Hitchcock too seriously.
Peter Bogdanovich tells the story of interviewing Hitchcock, and after a few drinks, they take the elevator down to have dinner. At the 18th floor, more people come in to go to the dining room, and Hitchcock begins talking, "...Oh, it was horrible! There he was, lying in a pool of his own blood! Blood coming from his ears...from his nose...Blood everywhere!" Bogdanovich has no idea where this is coming from, but assumes that's because he's a little drunk, and must have missed something. At the 15th floor, more people come in. Hitch continues: " Blood everywhere! He was such a sorry mess, and caked on the walls, it was absolutely horrible, I thought 'I need to go call a doctor, but was there time?'" The elevator is now at the bottom floor to the dining room and the bell rings. "And I said to him, 'What happened? How did this happen?'" The door opens. No one moves. Everyone is waiting to hear the answer. "Excuse me," says Hitchcock and grabs Bogdanovich and exits the car first. Eventually, the elevator car empties...but Bogdanovich turns to Hitchcock, whispering, "Well, what did he say?" Hitchcock waves him off, "Oh, nothing...that was just my elevator story."