Monday, March 18, 2013

Week 9: Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, follows the story of a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who travels to the South of France as a paid companion for a rude, abrupt woman. She is swept off her feet by the handsome but mysterious Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) who recently lost his wife in a tragic drowning accident. To keep her from returning to New York with her employer, Maxim proposes to and marries the woman, taking her to his home, Manderlay. But once there, she finds that the shadow of his ex-wife, Rebecca, has a haunting presence that she can't seem to overcome.

I don't even know where to begin when talking about Rebecca. While not necessarily my personal favorite, it is certainly in my top five or so, and it is probably the most fascinating of all his works in my mind. It was his first film made in Hollywood, and it won Best Picture in 1940, his only film to do so.

Something I particularly love about this film is the symbolism of names. Maxim has three first names, giving him lots of esteem and apparent power and prestige. Rebecca's name titles the film and is used frequently, but she never appears. And the second Mrs. De Winter, the "lead," has no name. She is only identified by the name of her husband, and even then when the characters refer to Mrs. De Winter they are most often referring to Rebecca. De Maurier was very crafty and deliberate in this tier of names and power.

Hitchcock was ever his controlling self in this film. He studied handwriting in preparation, and he was quite adamant that the characters should have handwriting that matched their personality types. So if you were to analyze the notes written by the characters you would find their character traits in their writing.

Furthermore, he butted heads with producer David O. Selznick quite a bit in this film. One particular instance is that Selznick insisted that the film should end with smoke over Manderlay in the shape of an R. Hitchcock thought that was tacky and lacked subtlety, so he waited until Selznick was busy with his work on Gone with the Wind, and he changed the shot to the embroidered case in the flames. He even edited the film in the camera so that Selznick could have no possible way of changing it back. Hitchcock always had to have his way, auteur that he was. 
The directing and cinematography are beautifully executed. Hitchcock chose to shoot the film in black and white to contribute to the dark mood. He used deep focus photography, in which both close and distant planes are kept in focus, which was at the time a relatively unused style. And so much of the film is about the look in people's eyes, and reading what the characters are thinking without hearing what they are saying. It is through this that we feel the pain in Fontaine's character, the conflict in Olivier's, and the hatred in that of Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca's confidante and maid of Manderlay. It is lovely to see the dynamics in the characters.

The acting in the film is wonderful. Laurence Olivier is flawless as always. The viewer watches a strong man with a dark secret that turns him weak and heavyhearted, and he plays it to perfection. Fontaine is amazing. She was not a very big star at the time, and competed with over 20 other actresses for the part. In fact, Olivier wanted Vivien Leigh, whom he was dating at the time, to play the part, and she was strongly considered. He was so bitter about Fontaine getting the part over Leigh that he treated Fontaine awfully on the set. Hitchcock, not one to let such an opportunity pass him by, chose to tell Fontaine that everyone on the set hated her, contributing to her performance as a woman with no power and no self esteem. Fontaine shows a great range in this film, as her character is the only one who takes a great journey. Not many Hitchcock films focus primarily on the story of a woman, and she pulled this one off with grace and elegance.

Of course I would be amiss to not point out the breathtaking performances of some of the minor characters. Judith Anderson delivers a cold, chilling portrayal of Mrs. Danvers that gives me nightmares every time I watch the film. She is showstopping in this film. And Florence Bates provides some lovely comic acting at the beginning of the film as Fontaine's rude and overbearing employer. Interestingly enough, Bates had never acted in a film before this part. She began stage acting just years before, but she had a long list of careers before that. Besides running an antique shop, teaching, and being a social worker, she was the first woman to pass the bar in Texas. She met Hitchcock briefly before he cast the film and he offered her the part.

I am always surprised when I meet a fan who has not seen this film, and I would recommend it to anyone. It's a classic, so if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and go watch it!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Week 8: Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent follows the story of a young man who finds a body on the beach of a woman who had met before. He runs to get help, but two witnesses walking along the beach see him and believe he is fleeing the scene of the crime. When it is discovered that she left him money in her will, the police believe they have their murderer. He escapes from the courthouse before arraignment and enlists the help of the chief commissioner's daughter to assist him in proving his innocence.

This is one of Hitchcock's British films, and was renamed when released in America to The Girl Was Young. It is very loosely based on the novel A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey. This film, while enjoyable, definitely lacks some of the substance Hitchcock typically provides.

Some of the filmwork is very beautiful, particularly the shots of the beach toward the beginning, and shots of a crumbling mine later in the film. It was visually very appealing and well edited.

The acting is quite good. By far the best part of the film is the development of the relationship between the escapee, Robert Tisdale (Derrick De Marney) and the commissioner's daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam). Pilbeam is particularly impressive as the witty, insightful girl who at first doubts Robert's innocence, but ultimately comes to realize that he is telling the truth. She is quite conflicted about helping him because of her personal ties to the policemen involved, but knows that without her help he is doomed. They have an excellent onscreen chemistry, and Hitchcock allows plenty of time for us to see them fall in love. We don't always get the chance to see that process in a Hitchcock film because so much is typically going on that it has to happen in a matter of two or three scenes, but in this work we get that added benefit of realism in the love journey.

However, that is about the extent of any realism in the film. It contains two of his main go-to themes, that of a wrongly accused man, and that of police being completely incompetent. When Hitchcock was a small boy his parents had the police pretend to arrest him as some form of punishment. It left him pretty frightened of police and very bitter, as evidenced in many of his films. This one takes it to an extreme.

To Hitchcock's credit, I believe this was a deliberate choice on his part, in an attempt to make a very satirical film about the criminal justice system and police incompetence. We see the police as bumbling fools from the beginning, latching on to the smallest bit of evidence against Tisdale and not considering any other suspects. Tisdale's appointed lawyer is even worse, a fool who can barely put together a thought, much less a criminal defense case. But the fact that the police never even consider to look into the murdered woman's ex-husband, who she recently went to great efforts to divorce, and who she got into loud screaming matches with, takes that satire to an unbelievable level, and I think it weakens the film.

Furthermore, the movie has ridiculous plot manipulation as well as several plot holes. We never get a satisfactory explanation for why Tisdale is in the murdered woman's will. She knew him but they have no serious relationship or even friendship. There would simply be no reason for her to leave him a substantial amount of money.

Even worse is the fact that she was strangled with a belt off of a raincoat that belonged to Tisdale. It had been conveniently stolen the week before from his car outside of a bar and then the raincoat had been passed along to a bum who ultimately helped Tisdale identify the killer as the man who had given him the coat. The killer also left a book of matches from his place of work in the coat pocket so they knew exactly where to find him. I assume Hitch wanted us to think that the killer had stolen Tisdale's coat in order to frame him, but it seems very unlikely that he would be so meticulous in stalking Tisdale, pouncing at the first possible opportunity, stealing the coat, and using the belt as the murder weapon to set him up, but all the while being so careless that instead of disposing of the coat or returning it to Tisdale's car, he would just give it to a bum who frequents the bar and could easily identify him, not to mention forgetting to check the pockets for clues. It just doesn't make any sense. It's very convoluted and not up to the master's standards.

That being said, watching the journey of the characters figuring out how to locate the true killer is fairly entertaining. I had seen this film years before and could barely remember it, and now I am well aware of why I couldn't. 

My ultimate decision on this film is it's worth a watch if you happen to catch it on TV, but only if you are in the mood for some light comedy, and not a true work of art, great suspense, or a satisfying plot.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Week 7: The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man is based on the true story of Christopher "Manny" Emmanuel Balestrero, a bass fiddle player at the Stork Club and a devoted family man. One day Manny goes into the insurance office to check on his wife's policy in order to acquire a loan needed to remove her wisdom teeth. The women there falsely believe that he is the same man who held them up twice and they call the police. Based on the eyewitness testimony, Manny is arrested and goes to trial for a crime he did not commit.

I had never seen this film before tonight, and I am very sorry that it took me this long to get around to it. This is one of Hitchcock's best works, and I would venture to say his darkest film this side of Psycho. The case of mistaken identity, of a man falsely accused, was one of Hitchcock's favorite themes throughout his entire career. But this one truly stands out for a number of reasons.

The first being that it is indeed based on a true story, and Hitchcock chose to follow the story fairly closely. Hitchcock himself appeared at the beginning of the film to tell the viewer that the story is real. It created a sense or urgency and panic. I found myself yelling at the cops on the television, I was so angry and frustrated with the investigation.The realism was extreme. I felt very attached to Manny, and I felt that I could truly sense his pain.

The second was the very dark, cynical edge this movie had. This was partially due to the realism, but also to pure Hitchcockian technique. I think this was his best shot film as far as the art of camera work goes, all contributing to that dark, hopeless feel. One particularly impressive sequence of film is when Manny is being marched into the prison. There is a series of quick shots of Manny's face, looking down, then his feet, then a back view of the feet of prisoners walking in front of him. The entire sequence is very unsettling. It was truly a work of art.

The score also helped create the dark atmosphere. I found myself hooked by the music from the opening scene. Even in the peaceful moments I never felt settled or safe, because the music was constantly lurking creepily, creating a sense of suspense and reminding me that this story would not be a pleasant one.

The final scene of the film left me with a sick feeling, in a good way, a Hitchcock-is-definitely-the-master-of-suspense way. It was extremely dark and creepy and very disturbing. 

The acting was phenomenal. Henry Fonda captured Manny Balestrero. He was sympathetic, real, and very true to the character. The star of the show turned out to be Vera Miles though, in her performance as Manny's wife Rose. The viewer most likely takes little notice of her for most of the film. But her performance in two scenes of the film had me speechless, and at the end of the film it was her I was thinking about, and not Fonda.

I would rate this film very high in terms of ranking Hitchcock films, and still can't believe it's taken me this long to see it. I'm very glad I chose this one, and if you haven't seen it, you should make it your next Hitchcock to watch.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Week 6: The 39 Steps (1935)

Good evening,

In The 39 Steps, a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a mysterious woman at a show in London. She convinces him to take her to his house, where she reveals to him that she is a secret agent and that some British military secrets are in the process of being stolen. She soon realizes that she has been followed to his house and reveals to him that he is now in danger as well. He offers her a place to stay for the night before she continues on her quest to stop the secrets from leaving the country. However, she is killed in the middle of the night. Not knowing what to do, he follows what clues she left behind to try to stop the thief, only to discover that the police believe he killed her. He has to race to stop the secrets from being stolen, hide from the police and the foreign agents, and prove his innocence.

I had never seen this film all the way through before, though I had caught bits and pieces on television. I was very impressed. The movie, though short, is very fast-paced from the outset.Unfortunately that can lead to some confusion towards the very beginning. The shots change quickly between people talking and at first, the viewer is unsure exactly what is happening or who to be watching. But it hits its stride quickly and more than makes up for any temporary confusion.

The audience is never bored for a moment, and the characters never seem safe for even an entire scene. Hitchcock creates several moments where the audience might believe Hannay has eluded danger for a moment, only to quickly realize how wrong they are.

This is the type of film where you have to be sharp and paying attention at all times, because most of what you see, no matter how insignificant it may seem at first, will be revisited later in the film and pay into the plot twists. 

Something that I really enjoyed as a Hitchcock fan was watching his masterful suspense so relatively early in his career. At this time he had not made the majority of the films we now remember him for, but I cannot say that he had not hit his stride. The way he manipulated little plot points that come together later in the film, the way he sets up the film work to show the audience what the characters need to be afraid of, the way he never lets you rest for a moment...all of those very Hitchcock elements were ever present in this film.

The acting is stunning. In particular, the interactions between Donat and a woman who turns him into the police during the film, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) are pleasant, amusing, and very believable. They end up handcuffed to each other at one point in the film and spend several scenes on the run, literally stuck together. The frustration between the two of them is very entertaining to watch.

Of course, Hitchcock had a hand in that as well. While filming this movie, he had them handcuffed before filming the scene and pretended to have lost the key so that they had to spend several hours handcuffed to one another. His unorthodox methods to achieve realism definitely paid off. To which I would say, who needs method acting when you have a director like Hitchcock?

This film is a beloved one to many fans, and I am glad that I finally found the time to watch it. I give it an A, and I think everyone should give it a watch. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Week 5: To Catch a Thief (1955)

Good evening,

In To Catch a Thief, a cat burglar begins to strike in France, taking prized jewelry from high profile socialites. The thief imitates the robberies of reformed cat burglar John Robie, "The Cat" (Cary Grant). Intent on proving his innocence, Robie poses as a tourist and befriends socialite Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Grace Kelly) in hopes of catching the cat burglar in the act of stealing their jewels. Francie figures out his true identity and becomes enthralled with the idea of his life of crime. To complicate matters, Robie's ex-cohorts are intent on killing him, believing him guilty and blaming him for chancing the police coming after all of them.

This film, while not in my mind an iconic example of Hitchcock, has always been very enjoyable to me. I watch it about every 3-4 years and find myself forgetting the twists and turns in the way the plot unfolds by the time I watch it again.

It is an interesting film primarily because it is a rare work for Hitchcock. It is first and foremost a love story, and is remarkably not suspenseful. The burglar plot is more of a setup for Francie's fascination with Robie, and plays as a backdrop to the romance. Seldom do we see that with Hitchcock, who, while always trying to maintain the balance between romance and mystery, almost always leaned toward the mystery side of a story.

At no point in this film will the audience find themselves on the edge of their seat, heart pounding as they await the final resolution. And even though I did look forward to the final reveal of the true cat burglar, in all honesty it only could have been one of two people and the one it turned out to be was the less shocking option. Were it not for his very blatant cameo, one could almost forget that this was Hitchcock.

Strangely though, I didn't find myself missing that suspense. It works for this film. Hitchcock is, if nothing else, a masterful storyteller, and therefore he can produce a fascinating story in any genre. This is no exception. The ongoing witty banter between Grant and Kelly is magnetic. They have a magnificent chemistry and the dialogue is well ahead of its time as far as sexual innuendo goes. Hitchcock, not one to shy away from such things, always managed to slip in moments that I am amazed he could get away with at the time.

And the lack of suspense relating to the mystery was replaced by a suspense for their relationship. I found myself wondering who was using who and if either was even truly interested in the other several times throughout the film. It's a fun, enjoyable journey.

The cinematography in the film won the Oscar that year, and it was well earned by Robert Burns. It is a stunningly beautiful work of art in both cinematography and editing, and film buffs can't help but be entranced by the way the film was shot. It's one of his most visually appealing works, aided by beautiful shots of the Riviera.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly Landis' character, Kelly's overbearing mother who found herself overwhelmingly wealthy after the death of her husband, when oil was discovered on their land. Like her daughter, she has a strong need for excitement and thrills, and she is extremely amusing. At one point in the film, she helps Grant escape from the police, who burst into her room expecting to catch him red-handed, and instead find her reading. She plays it off so easily, but Kelly then points out that the book she is reading is upside down. It's a wonderful moment in the film; the kind that you remember later and chuckle to yourself about.

One very interesting tidbit about this film is Cary Grant's casting. Hollywood at the time was shifting from the classic style of actors like Grant and Bogart in favor of the rise of method acting. In addition to Grant feeling that his acting style was going out of style, the rise of McCarthyism and HUAC activities angered Grant, particularly the blacklisting of his personal friend, Charlie Chaplin. Grant was disconcerted with Hollywood. For these reasons he had actually announced his retirement from acting. But Hitchcock convinced him to do this film, and he continued acting for 11 years afterward. Were it not for this film and that role, we might not have some of Grant's iconic performances, such as North by Northwest, Father Goose, and Charade.

That's about all I've got on this one. If you haven't seen it, you should definitely check it out! It may not be the most memorable, but it is very fun to watch.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Week 4: Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion opens with wild playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) encountering timid bookworm, Lina  (Joan Fontaine) in a train. He soon sets out to woo her, and the two secretly marry, against her father’s wishes. . But she soon begins to discover that he is not the man he seems to be. He gambles, lies, manipulates, and even steals. Eventually, she starts to believe he may be involved in even worse crimes and begins to suspect that he is planning to kill her. It is based on the novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley. 
For the first half of the film, the suspense is fairly lacking. But Hitchcock manages to make up for it by packing as much suspense as possible into the last 40 minutes or so of the film. The genius in this is that we as the viewers take an emotional journey with Lina. We have a sense of calm when she is unaware of the dark side of Johnnie. As she discovers more information and realizes she is in danger, we feel the full effect of the suspense. This is one of the rare film noirs in which the potential victim finds out every detail well before the climax of the film. It is both intriguing and successful. 

 Fontaine won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Lina, and her characterization was very convincing. She pulls at the heartstrings of the viewer as her panic builds up, and quite successfully works herself into a frenzy of confusion. This was the second year in a row she worked with Hitchcock, following Rebecca from the previous year. The two characters were very similar, and she enjoyed working with him very much. 

This was Grant’s first chance to work with Hitchcock, and he of course became a long term favorite of Hitchcock’s, collaborating three more times. His jovial performance is excellent. As always with Grant, you can’t help but siding with him even when he is in the wrong. 

I have always struggled with my feelings for this film. Although I do enjoy it, and would not turn down any chance to watch it, like most Hitchcock films, it will in my mind never be one of the elite. This is for two reasons. 

The first is the ending. This is another one of Hitchcock’s films where the original ending was very different than the one he ended up with, but the studio shot down what he filmed. In some cases, like in I Confess, the new ending doesn’t harm the film. In the case of Suspicion, it does. It changes the entire message of the film. The problem here is that the rest of the movie had already been filmed. So all the subtle symbology, all our Hitchcock film noir clues, are now essentially useless and contradictory. In this case, we are left with a less than satisfactory message that only comes through when you force yourself to try to see the rest of the film through the eyes of the final scene. 

The second and more prominent reason I don’t adore this film is Lina’s character. With very few exceptions Hitchcock women are notoriously awful creatures. They are weak, silly, frivolous, gullible, or just plain stupid. But Lina really takes the cake—she is all of the above. She stays with Johnnie after she finds out that he married her with every intention of living off her father’s money, after he sells the fine, antique chairs her father gave her as a wedding gift to bet on the horses, after he lies to her about having a job, after she suspects him of murder, even after she believes he plans to murder her. At some point, I just want to pause the movie, reach into the screen, and shake or slap some sense into her. This is not a fault with Fontaine’s acting by any means, it’s just the way the character is written. 

Ultimately, this film is worth a watch, if for no other reason, than for the famous scene of Johnnie carrying a glass of milk which Lina knows is poisoned up the stairs to her room. Hitchcock put a light in the glass to give it an ethereal glow, solidifying that film’s place in film history. It is an epic scene.
Good evening!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Week 3: I Confess (1953)

Good evening. I have to first confess that I Confess slipped through the cracks for me. I had not only never seen it before, but I also don't remember ever having heard of it before either. I am glad that I stumbled upon it.

In the film, Father Michael Logan finds the church handyman, Otto Keller, praying in the church late one night. The distraught Keller asks the priest if he can speak to him in confession. While in the confessional, Keller reveals to Logan that he has murdered a lawyer, Mr. Villette, while trying to rob him and getting caught. Unfortunately for Logan, that happens to be the same lawyer who was blackmailing his ex girlfriend Ruth, now the wife of a prominent politician, about their past relationship. Suspicion for the murder naturally falls on Logan, who, bound by the vows of confession, cannot reveal what he knows about Keller.

I am surprised that this film is not better known, because it is very representative of Hitchcockian style. The symbolism is powerful, from the very opening sequence, which shows several "direction" street signs pointing towards the body. Those signs later symbolize Logan's inability to turn his poor fortune around, his inability to do anything but allow himself to stand trial for a murder he did not commit.

The acting and camera work are also classic Hitchcock. There are countless shots of various characters revealing their own personal moral dilemmas by the pain and conflict apparent in their eyes. The sense of suspense, of not knowing whether the priest will betray his vow, or whether someone else will discover the truth, is captivating.

Montgomery Clift delivers a solid performance as Father Logan, but every bit as impressive is Karl Malden as the police officer investigating the murder. O.E. Hasse steals the film as Keller, though. His transformation from broken man searching for peace after committing murder, to an empowered antagonist thriving off of Logan's vow to silence, back into a broken man struck in the circumstance he created was lovely to watch.

My criticism in this film lies in the character development of Ruth, played by Anne Baxter. Baxter's performance itself is fine, but her character seems so unlikeable that I don't sympathize with her at all. Furthermore, Hitchcock chose to reveal her past relationship with Logan in a very romantic, dreamy, flashback that seemed fairly boring and dragged on for far too long, distracting from the pressing storyline. Despite this drawback, it was a good film overall.

Hitchcock worked on the film for this script with 12 different writers for eight years, longer than any of his other films. He was obviously very dedicating to seeing it through. It was based on a play he had seen by Paul Anthelme called Nos Deux Consciences. 

He and the screenwriter, George Tabori, decided to make a few changes from the original script. He added in the past relationship with Ruth to create a stronger motive for Logan to have killed Villette, even creating a child they had out of wedlock. They also chose to stay true to the play's ending, having Logan die at the end of the film. The censors ultimately shot down both of these decisions. Tabori refused to make the changes, so Hitchcock brought in another writer to do so.

It is highly reported that Hitchcock had trouble working with Clift, the original "method" actor in Hollywood. His acting method and drinking on set slowed the filming. He would often have to have many takes on Clift's scenes when he would refuse to take Hitchcock's direction and apply it. One well known, amusing instance of this was a scene where Hitchcock asked him to walk down the stairs and look up in the sky, so Hitchcock could cut to a shot focusing on the top of a building. Clift told him "I'm not sure that I would look up." Hitchcock responded "Well, if you don't look up, then I can't cut to the shot I want." Hitchcock and Clift definitely butted heads, though in the end the film was still successful on both of their parts.

I believe this film was probably dear to Hitchcock's heart, since he was raised strictly Catholic. I wonder if the Catholic overtones somehow contributed to this film being not as well known or liked as some of his other works. He once said about this film "We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the athiests, and the agnostics all say, 'Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing."

Despite his concerns in that area, though, I think that all people can appreciate the position Logan was in. The moral dilemma reads well to the audience, no matter what their religious beliefs. Though it was not by any means his best work, I think it is underrated and definitely worth watching.