Categories
British Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Lodger **Double Feature**

I had long wanted to experience Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into suspense, 1927’s The Lodger (sometimes subtitled “A Story of the London Fog”), but could never get through the film because the available prints were so beat up as to make it virtually unwatchable. To the rescue came British Film Institute, which despite the lack of the negative managed to restore the movie beautifully using a tinted print that had been maintained in excellent condition. Hitchcock’s version of the Belloc Lowndes tale as well as the best of the many subsequent efforts to remake it constitute my double feature film recommendation.

The story is set during a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders in London. One of the respectable families in the neighborhood takes in a mysterious lodger played evocatively in the 1927 version by early 20th century entertainment superstar Ivor Novello. His manner is strange, his habits are out of the common and he always seems to be out in the fog when the murders happen. Both the police and the family hosting him begin to suspect that a wolf has found its way into the fold. Hitchcockian magic ensues.

I embed here the restored version, which looks marvelous (Though BFI earns only an A minus because of a bone-headed decision to insert some jarring pop love songs in at particular moments of the new score). But the real attraction here is Hitchcock, who even this early in his career shows how he will come to define with unbounded creativity the suspense film genre. His origins in the silent era no doubt helped him develop his “pure cinema” style of storytelling because of course without sound it’s all about shots, images and editing. What can also be seen in The Lodger is his impish ability to break tension with humorous moments. He and Eliot Stannard also changed the original story in a way that increases tension up to the very end. All in all, the movie serves both as entertainment and an education in the early years of The Master.

Novello went to Hollywood in 1934 and made an ill-fated talkie version of the same film without Hitchcock, but the story was taken up again to much better effect by a different group of filmmakers in 1944, and I recommend it as the second half of a double feature with the 1927 version.

This version keeps closer to the original story, making it as much a character study as a mystery/thriller. This provides a chance for the sadly short-lived Laird Cregar to showcase his considerable talents as an actor. He’s near-perfect as a man whose proper British exterior hides a roiling mass of emotion and need. The rest of the cast is also strong, particularly Sara Allgood as the woman of the house and George Sanders as a police detective. The production values are first rate, with much of the budget apparently spent by respected costumer designer Rene Hubert on a series of flouncy outfits for the bewitching Merle Oberon (More information about her career is in my recommendation of The Scarlet Pimpernel). The result is a movie that if not at the level of Hitchcock’s work is still a handsome and gripping piece of cinema.

p.s. The same story was made again in 1953 as The Man in the Attic and yet again in 2009 as The Lodger. As the man once said, “In Hollywood they don’t make movies, they re-make them”.

p.p.s. In Robert Altman’s fine film Gosford Park, Ivor Novello was portrayed by Jeremy Northam.

Categories
British Mystery/Noir Romance

The Lady Vanishes

the-lady-vanishes-4

As the British phase of his magnificent career was winding down, Alfred Hitchcock turned in a film as entertaining as anything he would make in America: 1938’s The Lady Vanishes.

For the first 25 minutes, the movie is a light-hearted romantic comedy featuring an utterly charming Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as, respectively, a wealthy American heiress bound for a loveless marriage with a penurious but titled aristo and a footloose music scholar manqué who clearly has some growing up to do. That they will fall in love is never in doubt, but intrigue and murder intrude as they make a train journey across the fictional central European country of Mandrika. An elderly, kindly, British-as-Sunday-roast governess named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty, effortlessly fine) is at the center of events. After our heroine is coshed on the head by a falling flower pot, Miss Froy befriends her. But soon Miss Froy vanishes without trace and everyone denies that she ever existed! As in so many other films of this sort, the central character must struggle with whether her fears are real or are imagined (as everyone around her keeps saying).

As you might guess from the above description, the plot contrivances in this film are many, even by Hitchcockian standards. Most notably, if you watch the final few scenes carefully, you may wonder why the film wasn’t titled “The gun-toting bad guy vanishes”. But Hitchcock was aiming for a romp, not a piece of cinéma vérité, and a tremendously entertaining romp it is. Even some of the wonderful visual effects seem as much intended to invoke mirth as tension (e.g., the opening miniature shot). Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who also scripted another of recommendations, Green for Danger) produced a pearl of a script, with laugh out loud humor, cleverly constructed comic bits and suspenseful situations, cute late 1930s style sexual innuendo, and some lovely character sketches.


The most famous of the latter are Caldicott and Charters. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were born to play the parts of the two cricket-obsessed, faintly barmy Englishmen abroad and they just about made a career of it from here on out, both in movies and television. Their timing is on the same level as Bob and Ray, but their sensibility is unmistakably English (not British mind you, English). It’s a testament to the actors and the writers that they were able to create characters that audiences could laugh at even though they were themselves being mocked to some extent (Decades later, The Simpsons would pull off the same trick on American television).

Hitchcock fans argue over whether this film or another of my recommendations, The 39 Steps represents his best British work. I tend toward the latter by an eyelash, but why choose when both hold up so well three-quarters of a century after they were made? If you like one, you will like the other as the plot elements are similar and in both cases, the heroes have none of the darker shades that Hitchcock favored more as he aged. Lockwood and Redgrave are uncomplicated young people who are brave, smart, funny and in love.

The Lady Vanishes was such a success that the same writing team and a number of the actors were reunited to make another movie of the same sort, this time directed by Carol Reed. My recommendation of that movie is here.

The Lady Vanishes is in the public domain, and there is a a perfectly nice print from The Internet Archive you can watch here. The Criterion Collection version, available for purchase, looks even better and also includes some wonderful extras.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir Romance

Notorious


Nazis in hiding! Smuggled uranium! Espionage! All minor distractions from the central tantalizing mystery that keeps the audience in delicious suspense: Does Cary Grant’s character really love Ingrid Bergman’s or not? It’s all there in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic Notorious.

The plot: Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in one of her career-defining roles) is the alluring daughter of a Nazi sympathizer. She has a notorious reputation as a drinker, party-goer, and sexual libertine. After the war ends, her father is convicted of aiding the Nazis. At a party where she deep in her cups and flirting with all the men, she meets a handsome, mysterious secret agent who is appropriately named Devlin (Cary Grant, just perfect…again). Devlin eventually persuades Alicia to go investigate Nazis who are now hiding out in South America. Does she agree out of patriotism, guilt over her father’s crimes or growing love of Devlin? He seems at times to love her back, by why then does he seem not to care when her assignment requires her to bed and wed an old friend of her father’s (Claude Rains)? The mystery of the Nazi plot and the maddening complexities of Devlin and Alicia’s relationship become intertwined as the thrilling story unfolds.

This movie vividly demonstrates how the presence of stars can shape how audiences react to characters. Without Bergman’s high-wattage stardom, audiences might have viewed Alicia as a pathetic, boozy, scrubber. Without Grant’s fame and on screen magnetism, audiences might have viewed Devlin as a cold, calculating bastard (Indeed, if Claude Rains weren’t a Nazi, the audience might have rooted for him to get the girl — after all, at least he loves her unreservedly). The instinctive liking the audience had for the stars allows the two film icons to develop multi-layered characters rather than having them rejected out of hand. Quite simply, Bergman and Grant tear up the screen here and they get tremendous support from Rains and from Leopoldine Konstantin as a memorably terrifying mother (even by Hitchcockian standards!).

Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock) | Slices of Cake

In the eyes of many film buffs, Notorious is the pivotal film in Hitchcock’s career, and not just because he famously managed to make Grant and Bergman’s Production Code-allowed three second kiss last for several minutes. When David O. Selznick sold the film to RKO to deal with a money crunch, Hitchcock finally didn’t have to choose between a big budget and production control. From this film onward through the rest of his U.S. career, he was able to be producer-director of marquee projects with A-list stars. Notorious also showcased The Master’s maturing ability to handle grown-up romantic story lines. There were love stories in his earlier films (for example The 39 Steps which I recommended here) but they were generally frothy and light-hearted. The love triangle in Notorious — scripted by the brilliant and prolific Ben Hecht — has much more psychic weight, adding a new dimension to Hitchcock’s work to accompany his already matchless ability to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. Last but not least, Hitch’s visual style, already impressive, took a major leap forward with this film: It’s enthralling to look at and comprises some of his most memorable images.

There’s only one Hitch, and Notorious is among his best works. Do not miss this classic romantic thriller!

p.s. Watch VERY carefully as Cary Grant ascends the stairs to Bergman’s room and compare what you see to the nerve-wracking conclusion as he and Bergman descend the same staircase. Why are there more steps on the staircase in the latter? Because Hitchcock knew how to string out excruciating tension.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Psycho


Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificence as a filmmaker stemmed from his restlessness. He ruled 1950s cinema, delighting both audiences and critics with big budget, suspense-and-romance movies shot in glossy color. The studio heads at Paramount Pictures expected that for the final film he was contracted to shoot for them, he would go back to the well that had made him world-famous and Paramount executives very rich. But the suits misjudged the genius’ desire to keep pushing the envelope rather than repeating himself. Hitch announced that he wanted to make a low-budget, black-and-white horror film based on the exploits of a real-life serial killer. The studio execs wouldn’t touch it, so he got the money together on his own and used the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show to shoot the movie. The result was a trendsetting, nerve-shredding masterpiece: 1960’s Psycho.

The story opens with Marion Crane (an achingly vulnerable Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) discussing how they can never get married because of the financial constraints they face. Enter one of Hitchcock’s most inspired MacGuffins: $40,000 in cash that Marion is entrusted by her boss to deposit in the bank. Impulsively, she steals the money and drives to visit her lover, getting lost on a lonely road in a rainstorm. Fortunately, she finds an empty motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in his signature role). The lonely young man tends the failing motel, while also watching over his emotionally disturbed mother. As shown in one of the movie’s many beautifully scripted and acted scenes (with evocative incidental music), Marion and Norman connect with and at the same unnerve each other:

I was blessed to see Psycho many years ago with no idea of the plot or legend of this film, and for that reason I will reveal no more of the story other than to say that it’s a masterclass in horror and psychological tension, with coruscating performances, direction and camerawork (The staircase sequence with private investigator Arbogast and the subsequent shot of Norman carrying his mother down to the fruit cellar are both technical marvels). The famous score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his best, and amps up the terror almost beyond belief. Credit also must go to screenwriter Joseph Stefano for realizing that Robert Bloch’s novel had to be significantly altered to work as a film, particularly in terms of building out the backstory of Marion Crane and re-conceptualizing the character of Norman Bates.

It is difficult to appreciate today how challenging it was for Hitchcock to get this film past the censors in 1960, but to give you one example of how strict the prevailing norms were, this is the first American movie to show someone flushing a toilet (Think of the children!). There is of course much more here than that to upset the censors, but Hitch mostly got the sexuality and graphic violence he wanted, thus pre-figuring what the 1960s would later bring in a flood to movie audiences. As ever, the Master was ahead of the curve.

p.s. With the aid of fellow director Barry Levinson, Mel Brooks brilliantly parodied the most famous scene in Psycho in his 1977 film High Anxiety.

p.p.s. The 2012 film Hitchock focuses heavily on the making of this movie. Although it garnered mixed reviews, I thought that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren have rarely been better.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Dial M for Murder

I have recommended a clutch of Hitchcock films (Notorious, Psycho, The 39 Steps, and The Lodger), but omitted some of his best known. Some of his classic films (e.g., Rear Window) have been written about so much that I can’ t think of anything novel to add. Others exceed my powers: I’ve seen Vertigo a dozen times but still can’t fully explain why it is one of the greatest works of art of the latter half of the 20th century, though I know in my heart that it is.

So let me recommend a film you may have missed, which is usually considered a minor success of The Master: 1954’s Dial M for Murder. The movie had a strong foundation because it was based on an extremely well-crafted hit play by Frederic Knott (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie version).

The story is a simple one: A tennis-playing effete British smoothie (Ray Milland) discovers that his glamorous wife (Grace Kelly, elegant and effective) is carrying on a passionate love affair with a broad-shouldered American (an appropriately manly Robert Cummings), so he decides to murder her. But rather than do the deed himself, he seeks the help of an intermediary, leading things to go horribly awry…unless of course he can clean up the mess by framing his wife for a terrible crime.

When film directors adapt plays, they typically insert scenes of exteriors, use many long shots and wide shots and trolley shots etc., in order to give the audience a cinematic experience. Hitchcock did just the opposite, shooting almost entirely on a single set, and using camera placement within it to keep things fresh. The claustrophobic framing adds to the tension of the film while somehow never coming across as stagy.

The highlight of this film is the astonishing performance of Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, the suave and unflappable villain. He won a Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend, but I think he’s even better here. Even when he cruelly and cleverly blackmails an old college mate (Anthony Dawson) into participating in his murder plot, he is ever calm and smiling, the perfect British upper class sort. It is that emotional tone in his performance, combined with Hitchcock’s directorial genius, that makes the famous closing scene of this film so memorable.

The foil for Tony Wendice isn’t really his romantic rival Mark Halliday (Cummings), but the intelligent, moral Chief Inspector Hubbard. He is played by John Williams, never a huge star but someone Hitchcock used over and over in movies and TV shows because he consistently gave solid and intelligent performances. Williams is at his best here, nicely leavening his hard-headed cop role with touches of warmth and humour.

In summary: Fantastic source material, fantastic director, fantastic cast – what’s not to like?

p.s. You may wonder why such a short movie has an intermission. This film was originally made in 3-D, and the intermission was to give a chance for those theaters with only two cameras to load the next two parallel reels. I regret very much never having seen the 3-D version, because Hitchcock allegedly used the technique in a more creative, less gimmicky way than did other film makers. The most famous 3-D moment was the extreme closeup of Ray Milland’s finger dialing M. To get the shot right, they built a gigantic phone and a huge paper-mache finger tip! In any event, unlike most 3-D movies, it’s perfectly watchable without the 3-D effects.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Comedy Horror/Suspense Romance

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935)

Alfred Hitchcock had a successful directing career in Britain that preceded his American super-stardom. Hitchcock fans rightfully consider the 1935 comedy-romance-thriller The 39 Steps among the very best works of the Master’s “British period”.

Robert Donat cuts a dash as Mr. Hannay, the hero of the film, who tries to save England from the threat of nefarious and crafty foreign agents. As in other Hitchcock films (e.g., North by Northwest, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much,), the central character is an innocent who is pulled into a web of intrigue and danger which he doesn’t understand. But unlike in those darker films, it doesn’t seem to bother him a jot.

“Did this beautiful woman just fire a gun in a crowded theater to evade her pursuers and then tell me that she is an international spy for hire? Well then, let’s go back to my flat for a large whiskey and soda and I’ll cook her up some haddock while she tells me all about it.”

“I seem to have walked into a political rally focused on I know not what and I have been mistaken for the distinguished guest speaker. Well then, jolly good, I’ll give it a go.”

“Am I really handcuffed to yet another beautiful woman as I run through the Scottish Highlands with people trying to shoot me? Well then, I wonder if she’s married or at least broad-minded.”