Alfred Hitchcock Goes Suburban with “Shadow of a Doubt”

30 08 2010

“What it boils down to is that villains are not all black and heroes are not all white; there are grays everywhere.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock often called his 1943 picture, “Shadow of a Doubt,” his favorite film, and it’s not hard to see why. It allowed him to work with a spectacular cast, to tell a quintessential Hitchcock story, and to collaborate with top-notch writers as well as a cast member who would become a close associate.

Critics have called “Shadow of a Doubt” Hitchcock’s first truly American film, and while “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Saboteur” are both set in the U.S., those both feel like a British director’s observation of the country; with “Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock no longer holds the country at arm’s length. From the opening scenes filmed on the grimy docks of Newark, NJ, looking out at the Pulaski Skyway, we move to the idyllic town of Santa Rosa, California, Hitchcock demonstrates a new familiarity with the U.S.

The story revolves around the Newton family: Joe, the father, a banker played by Henry Travers; his wife, Emma, played by Patricia Collinge; young adult daughter Charlie, played by Teresa Wright, as well as two younger siblings. It’s summer, and Charlie, recently graduated from high school, is bored and wishing for adventure. Just as she decides to telegraph an invitation to her Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten, the family receives word that Charlie is planning a visit. She is thrilled, and takes the news as evidence of how close she and her uncle are.

Not long after his arrival, though, Charlie begins to wonder what’s going on with her uncle. His charming nature often turns moody; he shows a cynical side that almost frightens Charlie, launching into a dinnertime diatribe against idle, wealthy widows and the world at large. He’s also extremely wary of two men who come to visit, claiming to be conducting a survey for the government. The younger of the pair takes Charlie into his confidence, explaining that he is actually a detective on the trail of “The Merry Widow Murderer” — and that her uncle may be the murderer.

Charlie doesn’t believe it at first, but soon starts to see some clues, including a ring her uncle gave her with the engraved initials of one of the killer’s victims, and the Merry Widow Waltz, which seems to be stuck in several character’s heads as the film goes on. And when Uncle Charlie realizes that she is figuring out who he really is, he takes action, first by sawing through a step in an exterior stairway so that Charlie nearly falls to her death, and then trapping her in a garage with a running car.

After she survives both attempts, Uncle Charlie decides he has to leave town. He meets a train, but before it leaves Santa Rosa, he shows Charlie and her siblings his accommodations. The young brother and sister run back off the train, but Charlie is held back by her uncle until the train starts moving. They struggle in a doorway as he tries to through her out of moving train, only to fall himself into the path of another oncoming train.

“Shadow of a Doubt” was conceived by Gordon McDonnell, an employee of David O. Selznick, but much of its tone came from screenwriter Thornton Wilder, who captured the ordinary life of smalltown American as he had in his classic play “Our Town.” Hitchcock enjoyed the chance to introduce an element of evil into this idyllic setting, and the screenplay continued to develop after Wilder had joined the war effort under the guidance of Sally Benson, who wrote the story “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and Hitchcock’s constant collaborator, Alma Reville.

Teresa Wright also noted that Patricia Collinge, who played her mother, contributed to the screenplay. Collinge wrote for “The New Yorker,” and when Wright expressed concerns about a scene between Charlie and the detective in which they profess their love for each other, Hitch was happy to let Collinge rewrite the scene so that their affections were only mentioned, letting the threat of the Merry Widow Murderer remain their primary topic of discussion.

“Shadow of a Doubt” also marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with actor Hume Cronyn, who would go on to appear in “Lifeboat” and episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Cronyn cowrote the screenplays for “Rope” and “Under Capricorn,” and remained a close friend of Hitch’s through the director’s life. Here, he works primarily with Henry Travers, his coworker at the bank; the two share an obsession with murder mysteries, continually talking about the best ways to kill each other, providing darkly comic relief to Charlie’s ordeal.

The film contrasts the beauty of smalltown living with the threat posed by Uncle Charlie, and in fact he exposes his niece to darker parts of the town than she had seen before. At one point he drags her into a bar to try and stop her from exposing him. The place is full of rowdy sailors on shore leave, smoking, drinking and pawing at women; they are served by one of Charlie’s classmates, who seems beaten down and much older than her seventeen years.

Of course, the town of Santa Rosa itself is a character in the film, from the slightly dingy house the Newtons live in to the busy intersection presided over by a beat cop, from the local bank to the public library, it is all American towns, replate with gossip, provincialism and secrets. While the film idealizes the setting, Uncle Charlie and Emma Newton are nostalgic for their own childhood and the street where they grew up. Hitchcock enjoyed filming on location, capturing life in a small California town in a way that presages “The Birds.

Later, when the detectives receive word that their other suspect had been killed, Uncle Charlie assumes momentarily that he’s off the hook; he leaps up the stairs into the house, full of joy, only to realize halfway up the stairs that he is still under suspicion, slowing his ascent and turning to see his niece, framed in the doorway, looking up at him. Like Cary Grant in “Suspicion,” Joseph Cotten is convincing whether he’s being charming or menacing. Cotten would collaborate with Hitchcock again in “Under Capricorn.”

Up next, Alfred Hitchcock makes one of his strongest statements about war in “Lifeboat,” from a tale by another great American writer, John Steinbeck.


Alfred Hitchcock Encounters the “Saboteur”

22 08 2010

“I would say that the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care. I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.” — Alfred Hitchcock

The lack of discipline Alfred Hitchcock mentions in regard to his 1942 film “Saboteur” led to a picture with a dizzying diversity of settings and cast members who show up briefly and then go on their way. But really, what would “Saboteur” be without those strange detours and odd, colorful roles?

With “Suspicion,” Hitch fulfilled one of his primary goals in coming to Hollywood: He got to work with Cary Grant, who was just coming off the high of his early successes in romantic comedy and looking to subvert that image. Hitchcock gave him that chance in “Suspicion,” letting him appear charming at first, then revealing his character’s dark side.

“Saboteur” was a big step down in terms of star appeal from “Suspicion,” yet the story works in part because of it. The stars of the film – Robert Cummings, playing the wrongly accused Barry Kane; Priscilla Lane as model Patricia Martin; and Norman Lloyd as Frank Fry — were not well known enough for audiences to have much in the way of expectations for them (in fact, it was Lloyd’s film debut). “Suspicion” had to be revised at the end so that Cary Grant wasn’t a murderer after all. How likely is it that censors would feel the same way about Robert Cummings, though?

Of course, the film doesn’t work that way. It opens as Kane and his friend arrive at an airplane plant in California. On the way through the gate, they bump into a coworker who is rather unfriendly. Moments later, a fire breaks out at the plant, and Kane, his friend and the coworker all rush toward it. Kane hands his friend a fire extinguisher which turns out to be filled with gasoline, and the friend is killed in the inferno. Meanwhile, the coworker, Frank Fry, has disappeared, and the authorities’ chase after Kane is on.

Following a clue, Kane hitches a ride with a chatty trucker to a ranch, but is arrested while he talks to the owner. A breakdown on a bridge gives Kane the chance to escape, and he jumps into a river, then makes his way to a nearby house occupied by an old blind man. The blind man’s niece, model Patricia Martin, arrives at the house, and although she is believes that Kane is the saboteur in the news, her uncle asks her to help him.

They drive across the desert together, and when their car breaks down, they take refuge with a band of circus freaks in a caravan. Kane and Martin find their way to Fry’s next stop, Soda City, a ghost town where they gather hints about the spy ring’s plans before Kane is captured. He talks his captors into believing that he really is a saboteur, and they take him with them to New York City. There, Kane is taken to a society matron’s house, where a benefit dance is taking place. The money is going to the fifth columnist’s cause, of course, although the guests are unaware of this.

Kane learns that their next move will be to destroy a new ship; he escapes but does not manage to save the ship. He is again captured, but when the saboteurs get him back to their hideout, the police are waiting. The band splits, and both Kane and Martin pursue Fry to the Statue of Liberty. After a tussle in the torch, Fry falls to his death, and Kane is cleared of charges.

There’s so much going on in “Saboteur,” it’s almost a good thing that the lead isn’t as interesting as Cary Grant: A fire at an airplane plant; a road trip with a talkative trucker; a mystery at a ranch and, later, a ghost town; a wrongly accused man taking refuge with circus freaks; a chance encounter with a blind man; people taken captive in a society matron’s opulent brownstone and in a New York City skyscraper; sabotage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; a life and death struggle at the Statue of Liberty — any one of these could have been the centerpiece of the film, but, except for the Statue of Liberty finale, none are particularly more prominent than the next. The suspense does not build as well here as it does in other episodic chase films of Hitchcock’s, like “North by Northwest,” possibly due to the ever-shifting supporting cast.

Robert Cummings is not the strongest leading man, and his mission is not as personal as it might be. At first, he’s out to clear his name, but that soon fades away, to be replaced by the new goal of stopping the saboteurs from harming America’s war efforts. The reason for their activities is not very clear, though: Their leader talks about having more power, and one of the underlings has a weird conversation with Kane that implies some sort of twisted psyche, but why they side with Germany is not particularly clear.

What is clear, though, is that Germany is indeed the enemy is this picture. Hitchcock had hinted at “trouble in Europe” and “the coming war” in several of his pictures since the late 1930s, notably the similarly named “Sabotage,” but there is no question about who the enemy is here. The airplane plant is guarded by armed soldiers, and the Navy is assembling new battleships. Someone asks Kane why he’s not in the Army, and while he doesn’t really answer, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a war, and that able-bodied men who are not in the service are the subject of some suspicion.

“Saboteur” was an original idea developed by Hitchcock for David O. Selznick, with whom he was under contract. When the script was complete, though, Selznick did not want to make it; instead, he made Hitchcock shop the script to other studios, engendering ill will between the two men, as Hitchcock did not appreciate Selznick’s apparent lack of confidence in his abilities. The film was made for Universal, under a tight budget, which explains the relatively low-wattage casting. The great writer Dorothy Parker contributed to the final draft of the script, adding several patriotic speeches that hold up well. Despite Selznick’s lack of interest in the film, I believe this is the first of Hitchcock’s movies to be billed in the possessive, i.e. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur.”

“Saboteur” was praised for its timeliness and its message of warning about Fifth columnists. And while the scene with the circus freaks may seem odd, their different opinions about Kane’s innocence symbolized the different positions people were taking around the country at the outset of the war, when it was not yet clear to some Americans why we were in the fight.

“Saboteur” is also notable for Hitchcock’s use of location shots of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Statue of Liberty, although Hitch brings his technical expertise to bear in scenes like the finale, where Fry falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

So, for anyone keeping track, “Saboteur” marks the start of the second half of Hitchcock’s feature film career. I now have 25 films to go, not including some special entries that we’ll get to in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, our next film will be “Shadow of a Doubt,” starring Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotten and cowritten by Thornton Wilder.

Alfred Hitchcock Reveals a Dark “Suspicion”

17 08 2010

“You might say Suspicion was the second English picture I made in Hollywood: the actors, the atmosphere, and the novel on which it’s based were all British.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“Suspicion,” Alfred Hitchcock’s second picture of 1941, marked the beginning of his very fruitful collaboration with one of the greatest actors of the last century, Cary Grant. The film also stars Joan Fontaine, returning in a role that is in many ways like her role in “Rebecca.” In fact, “Suspicion” is rather like a modernized version of “Rebecca.” At it’s heart, it’s about a woman who is too timid to take control of her own life, and too paranoid to resist her own dark imaginings.

Fontaine won an Academy Award in 1942 for her work in “Suspicion.” As good as she is, though, Grant may be even better. He plays John Aysgarth, a ne’er-do-well, gambler, thief and cad. His performance runs the gamut from charming to sullen, from light-hearted to desperate. The film revolves around Fontaine’s character, Lina McLaidlaw, who is introduced as mousy and retiring. She has never had a relationship with a man, and this attracts her to Aysgarth: The idea of a woman who has no expectations appeals to him, for reasons that become apparent after they are married.

Hitchcock foreshadows the drama to come, as Aysgarth appears to manhandle his future wife.

Despite appearances, despite his role in upper class society, Aysgarth has no money — a fact that Lina did not realize at the outset of the film, when they are getting to know one another. They return from their honeymoon to a new house in the English countryside, replete with servants, but as they settle in, Lina learns the truth when John talks of ducking his debts. She’s stunned, but he reveals that he has a job offer — one he did not intend to take before seeing how upset she is with the idea that he has no money.

Aysgarth upsets Lina further when he sells the heirloom chairs given to them by her parents to settle a gambling debt, although he claims he had no idea she would care. Aysgarth’s old friend Beaky (played by Nigel Bruce) arrives for a visit, and immediately tells Lina stories about Aysgarth’s past that he hopes would amuse her, but instead fills her with dread.

Aysgarth’s job doesn’t last long, and Lina learns through a chance meeting that he had been fired weeks earlier after stealing 2,000 pounds. Beaky goads him into talking about what happened with the money, expecting to hear a good yarn, but Lina’s obvious discomfort keeps Aysgarth from telling much of a story.

After Lina’s father dies, leaving them little money and an imposing portrait,

Aysgarth convinces Beaky to invest in a scheme he has to buy and develop property. Lina worries that Aysgarth is going to lose Beaky’s money, and advises him against investing. Aysgarth is furious with his wife for interfering, and over a game of “Anagrams” (it looks like an early form of “Scrabble”) she has a vision of Aysgarth killing Beaky.

Soon, Aysgarth sets out for London while Beaky goes to Paris to withdraw his money for the investment. Two policemen — inept, as usual in a Hitchcock film — arrive to tell Lina that Beaky died while in Paris. She suspects that her husband may have done it, but does not betray him to the police.

At a dinner with friends, one a mystery novelist, the other a coroner, Aysgarth continues to evoke feelings of paranoia in his wife when he talks blithely about murder. Lina collapses, and Aysgarth brings her home, then serves her a glass of milk which she is too afraid to drink. She announces that she is going to visit her mother, and Aysgarth insists on driving her there, but his reckless driving along a cliff road nearly kills them both. They pull over, and Aysgarth demands to know why she’s been acting so strangely. It is only then that Lina realizes that he, too, is under a great strain. He resolves to pay his debts, even if it means going to prison, and together, they drive back home, united by their determination to see their difficulties through.

“Suspicion” was based on the 1932 novel “Before the Fact,” in which Aysgarth really is a killer. But that was too much for the board of censors, who insisted that the star of the movie had to be a good guy. The script’s ending was changed so that Aysgarth was not a killer, but an irresponsible person considering suicide as a way out of his problems. It is left to Fontaine, at the movie’s finale, to do the heavy lifting of explaining everything — Aysgarth’s motivations, his mysterious disappearances, even his plan to kill himself. It’s an exposition heavy moment in an otherwise fleet footed movie, and that ending reminds me of the coda to “Psycho,” in which the psychiatrist explains Norman Bates’ psychosis.

In fact, Aysgarth continually keeps Lina in the dark, refusing to confide in her or explain his actions. This, combined with her very limited knowledge of men, helps stoke her paranoia.

Cary Grant would work with Hitchcock again in another three films; “Suspicion” also features Dame Mae Whitty, Sir Cecil Hardwick and Leo G. Carroll. Nigel Bruce, best known as Sherlock Homes’ sidekick, Watson, is a lot of fun as the dim-but-trusting Beaky.

“Suspicion” also features more of Hitchcock’s arresting images and camera work, including the fantastic moment in which Aysgarth brings a glass of milk up a dark flight of stairs to his wife — the milk was illuminated from within by a tiny lightbulb. The sequence in which Lina imagines that Aysgarth is out to kill Beaky is similarly striking, as it superimposes their struggling figures onto a photograph of the cliffside land Aysgarth wants to develop.

Earlier this year, it was announced that Will Smith was developing a remake of “Suspicion.” Whether it can measure up to the original – or reinstate the novel’s ending, in which the male lead really is a killer – remains to be seen.

Next, we’ll look at a tale of World War II that echoes an earlier Hitchcock film: “Saboteur.”

Happy Birthday, Sir Alfred!

13 08 2010

Friday, August 13 marks the 111th birthday of Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE, the man we call the Master of Suspense. To celebrate, I’ve assembled this gallery of Hitchcock images so we can remember him not only as a filmmaker but also as a vibrant person. His character and interests inform all his best pictures, making them expressions of his own desires, fears and loves.

First off, my friend Rick Parker provided this look at Hitchcock as he might look if he still walked the Earth today! That’s right, it’s Zombie Hitchcock!

Next we have Facebook friend Abel Saidman with this lovely Hitchcock painting:

Here’s a Hitch sketch from the great comics artist Joshua Middleton:

This one’s from some hack named Al Hirschfeld:

Finally, here are a few other oddball images of Hitch from TV appearances:

Alfred Hitchcock Tries Screwball Comedy with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”

8 08 2010

“That picture was done as a friendly gesture to Carole Lombard. In a weak moment, I accepted.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock may have claimed that he directed “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” as a mere favor to a friend, but I’ve read elsewhere that the studio’s records show that Hitch pursued the picture. As his only real comedy (elsewhere I’ve seen it described as his only American comedy, but I can’t find anything he directed in England that would qualify), it’s an anamoly, and, ultimately, neither funny enough nor satisfying enough.

Released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1941, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is about David and Anne Smith, played by Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard. They’re a young married couple living in a glamorous life in a New York City apartment. He’s a successful lawyer, and she is his well-dressed wife. As in most screwball comedies, their relationship is quirky: They have a list of rules, one of which says that if they ever quarrel, they will not leave their bedroom until it’s resolved, even if it takes days. The other rule is that once a month, one  of them may ask a question that the other is bound to answer with total honesty.

Naturally, we start off with them in the middle of a 3-day argument that’s kept him out of the office. It ends over breakfast, at which point she asks her question of the month: “If you had to do it all over again, would you?” He hesitates, but then says yes, of course he would marry her again.

An old friend tells Mrs. Smith she's not really married; will he ever get home to his family in Elmyra?

At his office, though, trouble is waiting, in the form of a lawyer sent to explain that the Smiths’ marriage is not legal. Anne learns of the problem as well, and over dinner – in Momma Lucy’s, the restaurant they used to go when they were younger, now rundown – they argue over how long he took to bring it up. (Anne’s mother is mortified by the situation, even offering her daughter the chance to sleep at home until they can be legally married again.) Anne throws David out, and he spends the night at his club.

Before long, Anne has a job (as a clerk at a department store), is dating (first her new boss, then David’s business partner), and continually fending off David’s attempts to patch things up – and ignoring his attempts to ruin her chances with the partner, a Southern gentlemen called Jeff.

Meanwhile, David joins his friend Chuck on a double date at the Florida Club, where he knows Anne and Jeff will be that night. David is appalled at his date’s lack of manners: On the pheasant she’s ordered for dinner, she first says it’s like chicken, but too tough, then adds that it’s not bad once you work on it a while.

The plot comes to a head on a winter vacation at Lake Placid, where Jeff and Anne are visiting his parents. David had planned a vacation for the same time and place, so he is there as well, pretending to be deathly ill so Anne will feel bad for him. She discovers that he’s faking, but when Jeff gently refuses to come to her defense, she realizes that he’s too genteel for her fiery temperament. She decides to leave on cross-country skis, which she’s never tried before. David helps her on with them, but she can’t get out of her chair to leave the cottage they’re in. As she flails around in her easy chair, he leans over her, she looks up at him and melts from anger to love in a flash. It’s an abrupt ending to a movie that echoes “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The problem with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is that it’s just not funny enough. Hitchcock was adept at injecting humor into tense scenarios, but here, in a flat-out comedy, the humor is not strong enough. The story moves at a breakneck pace, and the actors are broad and fun, especially Lombard, but it just doesn’t add up. The whole premise of the Smith’s relationship is too silly to allow us to sympathize with their difficulties.

That’s not to say that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is not worth watching. The story is told with bold, confident camera work, and the cast includes a number of character actors, including a few who appeared in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Also, there is a terrific set piece in which Anne and Jeff go to the World’s Fair and enjoy a parachute ride – until it breaks down, stranding them in the rain.

The story is that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was written with Cary Grant in mind, and I have to wonder if it would have worked better with him instead of Robert Montgomery. Hitchcock’s next film, “Suspicion,” was his first collaboration with Grant.

Here is the very odd trailer for the movie – odd because it doesn’t include any clips from the film itself, just still photos.

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