Alfred Hitchcock’s Technical Wonder, “Rope”

30 09 2010

“I undertook ‘Rope’ as as stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it. The stage drama was played out in the actual time of the story; the action is continuous from the moment the curtain goes up until it comes down again. I asked myself whether it was technically possible to film it in the same way. As an experiment, ‘Rope’ may be forgiven.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock clearly saw “Rope,” his 1948 picture starring James Stewart, as less than successful, but in watching it I found myself completely drawn into the story. Yes, it has its flaws, but rather than focusing on them, I enjoyed the story, the characters and the actors.

Based on a British play called “Rope’s End,” by Patrick Hamilton, which itself was inspired by the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, “Rope” concerns two young men, barely out of school, who murder a friend to prove their own superiority.

The film opens as Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) strangle David Kentley with a length of rope. They hide the body in a trunk and then get ready for a dinner party, with Brandon telling Philip how brilliant they are to have planned things this way: Not only have they committed the perfect murder, they’ve also hidden the body in their living room with a dinner party about to get under way. And among those guests are David’s father, his aunt, his fiance, her former beau, and Rupert Cadell (Stewart), the boys’ former house parent at prep school.

So confident is Brandon that he insists on serving the dinner off of the trunk, but the guests barely eat because they’re so worried about David, who was also invited. Cadell begins to suspect that something is going on, and eventually pieces together the fact that the two boys committed murder. Brandon explains that they were inspired by Cadell, though, who often talked aboutNietsche’s philosophies in school; even earlier in the film, Cadell had said that murder had its place in society. Cadell is horrified to learn that they actually acted on his empty talk, and that they felt they were carrying out his suggestions. After wrestling a revolver away from Philip, he fires out the window to summon the police.

“Rope” does feel like a stage play, although it was adapted by Hitchcock and Hume Cronyn, with a script by Arthur Laurents. There’s a declamatory quality to the script,; characters don’t talk as much as make speeches. Always intrigued by sex, Hitchcock plays up the relationship between Brandon and Philip, as well as Brandon’s almost voyeuristic pleasure in stirring up trouble between David’s fiance and her ex-boyfriend. Although it’s never said, Brandon and Philip are clearly a couple.

The tension builds as we wonder whether the guests will discover what’s happened. David’s aunt nearly upsets Philips when she reads his palm and says that his hands will bring him fame; he’s actually a concert pianist, but he takes her words to mean that he’ll become known as a killer. Later, as the group discuss David’s whereabouts, the camera stays focused on the maid as she clears the food off of the trunk, nearly opening it before Brandon leaps in to tell her she can clean up later.

“Rope” is largely remembered as a technical marvel, of course. It was filmed in continuous, long takes, with little or no editing. To allow for changes in film reels, the camera periodically closes in on something black, usually a shadow on someone’s back. Those breaks are a bit jarring, but the film’s other technical achievement is less intrusive: to allow the enormous Technicolor camera to follow the characters from one room to another, walls were mounted on wheels and moved out of the way while the shooting continued. Stagehands had to whisk chairs and tables in and out of scenes, too. It all required a great deal of planning and rehearsal; while Hitchcock was a master of this sort of planning, Stewart reportedly was so caught up in the mechanics of his role that he couldn’t sleep at night.

The apartment in which the entire film takes place looks out over the Manhattan skyline, and as the story progresses, darkness falls over the city. The buildings slowly light up, and neon signs flash – including one with Hitchcock’s silhouette. It’s never very clearly seen, though, so he also appears at the very start of the film as one of the people walking by the front of the apartment building.

Stewart gives a strong performance as a man whose beliefs crumble as he sees where they led his proteges; this is the type of torn, bitter character Stewart would play in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and his Westerns of the 1950s. The rest of the small cast give strong performances as well, particularly the flighty dowager aunt (Constance Collier) and the victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke).

Hitchcock handles his first foray into color filmmaking with great subtlety. The set and costumes are all carefully color coordinated; there’s nothing garish until late in the film. With the tension at its peak, red and green neon lights cast a sickly glow on the stars’ faces.

This was the first film from Hitchcock’s new Transatlantic Pictures, a company he formed with financier Sidney Bernstein. Unfortunately, “Rope” had an uphill battle, and did not do well at the box office. Its biggest hurdle was the strong undercurrent of homosexuality throughout the story, something that was not acknowledged by the general public in 1948, which got the film banned in several cities. James Stewart was in a career slump at the time, too, which did not help. Also, I have to wonder whether Hitchcock’s promotion of the technical aspects of the film overshadowed the story itself.

The film succeeds in building a picture of David as a kind, considerate young man whose loved ones care about him a great deal. One of the strangest aspects of “Rope” isn’t in the movie at all. It’s the trailer, which shows David and his fiance in the park, talking about their future together. He never gets in a word in the movie itself, and it’s a strange way to build up sympathy for him. Take a look:

James Stewart would next work with Hitchcock in 1954’s “Rear Window,” while Farley Granger would return in 1951 with “Strangers on a Train.”

Next, Hitchcock reunites with both Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten for “Under Capricorn.”

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100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock Part 1

28 09 2010

Recently, Roger Ebert posted his list of “100 Great Moments in the Movies” on his Chicago Sun-Times blog. After counting how many of those movies I’d seen (58!) I thought it would be fun to do something like it for our own Mr. Hitchcock. Since I’m only up to 1947 in his long career, I thought I’d split the list and post the first half now.

Here, then, are the first 50 of 100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock, with annotations below:

  1. A cad is haunted by visions of a dead girl in “The Pleasure Garden.”
  2. A young woman’s silent scream opens Hitchcock’s first great movie, “The Lodger.”
  3. The Lodger (Ivor Novello) arrives at his new home, startling his landlady.
  4. An angry mob tries to kill the Lodger.
  5. Amateur boxer “One-Round” Jack Saunder is beaten by boxing champ Bob Corby in “The Ring”
  6. Ivor Novello rides down an escalator as he falls from grace in “Downhill”
  7. Farmer Sweetland makes a list of potential new brides in “The Farmer’s Wife.”
  8. A young divorcee gives herself up to the press after being humiliated in court at the end of “Easy Virtue.”
  9. A detective watches his quarry through the stem of a glass in “Champagne.”
  10. Hitchcock brings the Isle of Man to life in “The Manxman.”
  11. Hitchcock teases actress Anny Ondra in the sound test for “Blackmail.”
  12. A woman is forced to kill her attacker in “Blackmail.”
  13. The blackmailer is chased through the British Museum in “Blackmail.
  14. A back-alley speech about Ireland’s freedom is disrupted by gunfire in “Juno and The Paycock.”
  15. A cross-dressing killer leaps from the high-wire to his death in “Murder!”
  16. At an auction in “The Skin Game,” nouveau riche Edmund Gwenn outbids wealthy aristocrats.
  17. A young couple books passage home on a tramp steamer after an unsuccessful cruise, only to nearly die when the ship begins to sink in “Rich and Strange.”
  18. Hitchcock revisits his German expressionist roots with “Number 17.”
  19. Johann Strauss outshines his father when he conducts “The Blue Danube Waltz” in “Waltzes from Vienna.”
  20. Peter Lorre’s surprisingly charming terrorist in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
  21. Richard Hannay tries to hide from the police by kissing an unwilling fellow traveller in “The 39 Steps.” Unwilling fellow traveller immediately gives him up to the authorities.
  22. “Am I right, sir?” With his dying breath, Mr. Memory reveals the secret of “The 39 Steps.”
  23. Peter Lorre shoves the wrong man — a suspected spy — off a cliff to his death in “Secret Agent.”
  24. A saboteur is killed by his former comrades in the explosive finale to “Sabotage.”
  25. The spectacular tracking shot that takes viewers from an overhead view of a hotel lobby across a crowded dance floor and into the eyes of a killer in “Young and Innocent.”
  26. The rush to secure rooms in a crowded hotel lobby at the start of “The Lady Vanishes.”
  27. The young lovers of “The Lady Vanishes” enter the Foreign Office to find old Mrs. Froy alive and well after all.
  28. Charles Laughton climbs a ship’s mast, then throws himself to his death to avoid capture in “Jamaica Inn.”
  29. Joan Fontaine opens “Rebecca” with the line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…”
  30. Mrs. Danvers drives Joan Fontaine half crazy while describing her late mistress in “Rebecca.”
  31. Mrs. Danvers refuses to leave her late mistress’s room as Manderly burns to the ground in “Rebecca.”
  32. An American reporter in Holland chases an assassin through an umbrella toting crowd, then hops into a car and continues the chase into the windmill-dotted countryside.
  33. “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” grill each other over breakfast, leading to a break in their marriage.
  34. John Aysgarth charms — and is charmed by — Lina McLaidlaw at the start of “Suspicion.”
  35. Lina imagines Aysgarth killing his best friend in “Suspicion.”
  36. Aysgarth brings his ailing wife a frightening looking glass of milk in “Suspicion.”
  37. Barry Kane and Patricia Martin encounter a troupe of circus freaks in “Saboteur.”
  38. A fifth columnist plummets to his death from the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur.”
  39. Mr. Newton and Herbert discuss the best way to kill one another over a family dinner in “Shadow of a Doubt.”
  40. Uncle Charlie, “the Merry Widow Murderer,” momentarily thinks he’s off the hook in “Shadow of a Doubt.” Bounding up the stairs to get ready for dinner, he turns to see his niece framed in a doorway, still certain that he is a killer.
  41. A young pilot realizes that his naivete may have helped the enemy in “Bon Voyage.”
  42. Although imprisoned, a French Resistance leader struggles to secure escape for his friends in “Aventure Malgache.”
  43. Walter Slezak is hauled into the “Lifeboat,” only to mutter “danke schein,” revealing to his fellow passengers that he’s German.
  44. Slezak’s character, now revealed to be the captain of the U-boat that sunk his fellow survivor’s ship, exhibits what seems to be super-human stamina, rowing his fellow survivors toward a German ship.
  45. As Gregory Peck kisses Ingrid Bergman for the first time in “Spellbound,” a series of doors open, symbolizing Bergman’s icy doctor’s sexual awakening.
  46. Gregory Peck breaks through to the traumatic childhood memory of accidentally killing his brother in a shocking, silent moment of “Spellbound.”
  47. Hitchcock outfoxes the censors by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant kiss briefly and repeatedly in “Notorious.”
  48. “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.” Devlin finds Alicia half-dead at the hands of her own husband in “Notorious.”
  49. Devlin leaves Alicia’s husband to his ruthless comrades at the end of “Notorious.
  50. Mrs. Paradine tells her lawyer, Gregory Peck, that she despises him even though he’s won her freedom in “The Paradine Case.”





Alfred Hitchcock Examines “The Paradine Case”

27 09 2010

“First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer. Aside from that, I myself was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor. I never truly understood the geography of that house or how she managed the killing.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“The Paradine Case” brought Alfred Hitchcock back to familiar territory, with a story set in London and dealing with the trial of a woman accused of poisoning her husband. Alida Valli plays the accused Mrs. Paradine, whose husband, Colonel Paradine, was blind. An alluring and exotic woman “with a past,” Mrs. Paradine seeks the council of her friend, Sir Simon (Charles Coburn), who recommends his friend, the barrister Anthony Keene, played by Gregory Peck. Peck takes on the case, and quickly becomes infatuated with Mrs. Paradine. He decides that she can’t be guilty, simply because she’s too fine a person to commit murder.

As Keene delves into the case, his wife (Ann Todd) begins to suspect his real feelings for his client. It’s when the trial begins, about halfway through the film, that you can see why Hitchcock didn’t believe Peck as an English barrister. It’s not because Peck’s accent is questionable at best; it’s because the prosecutor (Leo G. Carroll) and the judge (Charles Laughton) follow British legal practices, while Keene seems to be playing Perry Mason. He needs constant reminders to adhere to legal procedure, as though he isn’t really British. Peck gives a fine, strong performance, though, showing the stoic attitude that made him a star.

Keene corners Colonel Paradine’s manservant on the stand, exposing inconsistencies in his testimony and forcing him to admit that Mrs. Paradine was at the root of the rift between himself and his master. At the end of the day, Mrs. Paradine tells Keene that she hates him, because he broke his word that he would not badger the servant on the stand. The next day, as the trial resumes, the court receives word that the servant has killed himself, and Mrs. Paradine confesses that she loved him – and that she killed her husband. Keene’s distressed attempt to make his final argument in the case is heart-wrenching, as there’s nothing he can do to save his client.

In the final scene of the film, set in Sir Simon’s home, Keene is convinced that his failure will mean the end of his career, but his wife tells him that he will recover, and that he can take the Paradine case as an object lesson. It’s an odd, flat ending to a not very satisfying movie.

Clockwise from top left: Alfred Hitchcock, Louis Jordan, David O. Selznick, Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn, Gregory Peck, Ethel Barrymore, Ann Todd and Allida Valli

The many stars lined up by producer David O. Selznick and Hitchcock for this film did not make it a success. (The posters lists Valli and Jordan as “new Selznick stars!) In fact, some of them, Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore, playing his wife, are barely necessary to the story. Barrymore appears in just two scenes: One, at a cocktail party, and the other, at home having dinner with his wife.  The movie would have worked just as well if the judge had been seen only during the trial.

Similarly, there’s a sequence where Keene visits the Paradine’s country home that serves very little purpose. He noses around and tries to speak to their servant, played by Louis Jordan, but really accomplishes nothing.

The screenplay for “The Paradine Case” is credited to Selznick, although it was worked on by Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Ben Hecht and James Bridie. Selznick’s contribution was to watch each day’s filmed “rushes,” rewrite the scenes and insist that they be reshot with his script.

As usual when dealing with an unpleasant circumstance – Selznick’s interference – Hitchcock buried himself in technical challenges. In this case, he devised a new method of filming, which he tried out during the trial scenes. He set up four cameras and trained them on four actors, allowing for takes that could run up to 10 minutes. Hitch would take this new method further in his next two pictures, “Rope” and “Under Capricorn.”

“The Paradine Case” was the final film Hitchcock made under contract with Selznick, and only the third released through Selznick International Pictures. Going forward, Hitchcock would be an independent director, taking greater control of his career as the 1950s approached. This was also the final film both Gregory Peck and Charles Laughton made with Hitchcock.

Next, Hitchcock adapts a famous stage play with interesting results in “Rope,” starring James Stewart.





Alfred Hitchcock Triumphs with “Notorious”

19 09 2010

“The story of ‘Notorious’ is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant’s job – and it’s a rather ironic situation – is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’s bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story, whereas Claude Rains is a rather appealing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for Ingrid Bergman is probably deeper than Cary Grant’s. All of these elements of psychological drama have been woven into the spy story.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock reached a new peak in moviemaking with “Notorious,” released by RKO Pictures in 1946. Playing on fears that lingered in the new, postwar era, “Notorious” wraps together romance, espionage, suspense and glamor. As Hitch mentions above, the movie starred Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains, with a script by Ben Hecht from a short story that had been set in World War I.

Hecht and Hitchcock moved the story into the days just after World War II. Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, whose German father is found guilty of treason against the United States as the story begins. As her father is thrown into prison, Huberman gets drunk with her houseguests, trying to forget that she, too, is under suspicion. When she awakens the next morning, one guest is left: T.R. Devlin (Grant), an FBI agent who needs her help. The agency has learned that some of her father’s German compatriots have relocated to Brazil, and they need Huberman to infiltrate the group and find out what they’re planning.

After Devlin says that her service could help her father, Huberman agrees, and they fly to Rio de Janeiro – but during the flight, Devlin tells Huberman that her father died in prison that morning. It’s this kind of manipulation that characterizes the whole film. Devlin and Huberman fall in love while waiting for her assignment to begin, and when her orders come through, Devlin is visibly disgusted, as she has been instructed to get close to one of her father’s friends by seducing him. Knowing her reputation for partying and sleeping around, Devlin turns cool, making snide remarks about how it will be easy for her to draw on past experience to get close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Sebastian will be easy prey, as he was in love with Huberman years before.

Devlin’s behavior could be a ploy to motivate Huberman into the assignment, or to protect her by pretending he never really cared about her – or he could just be lashing out, frustrated at what’s being asked of her and powerless to do anything about it.

Huberman, with Devlin at her side, meets Sebastian while horseriding, and soon Huberman and Sebastian are a couple. Sebastian is suspicious of Devlin, though, who keeps showing up wherever they go; he’s getting information from Huberman, but she tells Sebastian that he’s an old flame she now detests. Sebastian asks her to prove that he means nothing to her by marrying him.

After the wedding, Huberman reports to Devlin that the only place she hasn’t been able to search for evidence of the German group’s activities is the wine cellar. Only Sebastian has the key, so Devlin tells her to suggest a party, during which they can get into the wine cellar.

The tone of the movie shifts with the party; the romance (and romantic frustrations) of the first half of the movie give way to sheer suspense: First, Huberman must steal the key; then, during the party, they have to slip away to the wine cellar. The pressure escalates as the guests drink champagne faster than expected, which means Sebastian will have to get more bottles from storage.

Rummaging around in the wine cellar, Devlin knocks a bottle from a shelf, revealing that it holds not liquid but what turns out to be uranium ore. With Sebastian coming down the stairs, Devlin and Huberman kiss, then explain that he forced himself on her. Sebastian doesn’t believe him, and when he returns to the cellar for champagne, he finds the remains of the broken bottle – proof enough that Devlin and Huberman are against him.

Concerned that his comrades will kill him if they find out the truth, Sebastian wants to murder his wife, but his elderly mother says it has to be gradual. They begin poisoning Huberman, and when she misses her meeting with Devlin, he becomes concerned. He breaks into Sebastian’s home and finds her in bed, more dead than alive. Sebastian finds Devlin making his way out of the house with his wife, but because his friends are on hand, too, he can’t reveal what really happened. Devlin and Huberman make their escape, leaving Sebastian in the company of his ruthless friends, who have already figured out that there’s something strange about the situation.

The original ending of “Suspicion,” made five years earlier, was supposed to have Joan Fontaine write a detailed letter about Cary Grant’s crimes, then ask him to drop it in the mail. He was then going to kill her and go ahead and post the letter. That didn’t happen in the film, of course, but Hitchcock got to revisit that kind of sophisticated ending, in which the audience has to consider the outcome for the cast, in “Notorious.” We assume that Huberman will be cured, because Devlin said he’d take care of her; we assume that their love wins out, and we assume that Sebastian will be killed by his comrades. By implying all this rather than showing it, Hitchcock creates a more intelligent ending than, say, having the villain fall to his death as in “Saboteur.”

“Notorious” boasts a phenomenal cast, of course. Cary Grant is grim throughout – he almost never cracks a smile, except when he’s putting on an act, making the viewer wonder about his own past. Ingrid Bergman is desperate but determined to do right for her country and herself. The most chilling moment of the movie comes when Devlin finds Huberman sick in bed. Holding her close, he asks what’s wrong, and she whispers, “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.”

As a villain, Claude Rains is rather pathetic – he’s manipulated by Bergman and Grant, his friends, and, most of all, his mother. (One of my favorite moments in the film happens when Sebastian starts to tell his mother that he’s been betrayed by his wife. Before the wedding, she had warned him that Huberman was not marriage material; later, when Sebastian starts to explain the situation, his mother smirks at him, expecting him to say that Huberman is cheating on him. When he instead says that he’s married to a U.S. agent, his mother quickly turns off her “I told you so” look and takes control of things.)

Hitchcock tells this story in a sure, simple way, with few of the flourishes that had charaterized his earlier films, other than Huberman’s distorted vision on waking up after a night of drinking, and, later, when she’s succumbing to the poison. Ben Hecht’s script – which was sharpened a bit by Clifford Odets – crackles, although some of the patter might be hard to believe coming from non-American actors less talented than Bergman and Grant.

“Notorious” features a scene that’s famous for working around the production code while subverting it to his own ends. In a scene near the start of the movie, Bergman and Grant are shown in a hotel room, kissing and holding each other. As they continue to kiss – briefly, but continuously – they make their way across the room toward the ringing telephone. The quick kisses were Hitchcock’s way around the production code, which dictated that screen kisses could only last a few second. The finished scene conformed to the guidelines while creating a scene that was far more erotic than the Hays code had anticipated.

The uranium ore found in the wine cellar is among Hitchcock’s most famous McGuffins, one which was only decided upon late in the production. Selznick reportedly didn’t understand its significance, and probably assumed that audiences wouldn’t get it, either, but by the time the film premiered, radiation and atomic bombs were front page news.

This was the second to last film Hitchcock made with producer David O. Selznick, who sold distribution rights to RKO to help him finance his own over-budget “Duel in The Sun.” Although Selznick was distracted by “Duel,” he did have some input, notably making Sebastian’s mother a stronger character.

Hitchcock was credited as producer on “Notorious,” a role he’d play more and more in years to come. Also, as the trailer below shows, he’s now being called “The Master of Suspense,” a nickname that came into use in the late 1940s, which would stay with him for the rest of his career.

Hitchcock would still make one more film with Bergman and two more with Grant. Claude Rains would appear in several episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Next, we’ll take a look at the “Paradine Case,” starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd and Charles Laughton.





Alfred Hitchcock Gets Psychological in “Spellbound”

12 09 2010

“It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis. The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.” — Alfred Hitchcock

If Alfred Hitchcock sounds less than enthusiastic about “Spellbound,” his 1945 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, it’s with good reason. It was his first film since “Rebecca” to be released by Selznick International Pictures, and David O. Selznick’s demands resulted in a not very pleasant filmmaking experience for Hitchcock, and a somewhat disjointed and trite movie.

That said, the good qualities of “Spellbound” do outweigh the bad. The story begins at a sanitorium, Green Manors, where Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) is fretting over the imminent departure of her boss, Dr. Murchison, played by Leo G. Carroll. Murchison has been asked to leave by the board of directors after he had a breakdown, and his replacement is a Dr. Edwardes, played by Peck.

Peterson’s colleague admires her skills as a psychologist, but says that she’s too cold, and that  she can never be truly effective until she’s known love. Of course, he wants her to fall for him, but she isn’t at all interested. And from the moment she lays eyes on Edwardes, a fire is lit within Peterson. He’s tall, young, good looking, and a bit mysterious, and she can’t resist him. Edwardes arouses suspicion, though, when he blows off his first afternoon at Green Manors to go on a walk with Peterson. (One of the funniest moments of the film occurs when Peck offers Bergman her choice of ham or liverwurst sandwiches during their walk, and she looks away dreamily and says, “Liverwurst.”)

There’s something odd about Edwardes, though. He had a hostile reaction when Peterson traced some lines on a tablecloth with a fork, and nearly freaked out when he saw something strange in a pattern on her dress. Comparing a note he sent her with a signature in a book, Peterson realizes that this is not the real Dr. Edwardes. She confronts him and learns that he is a delusional amnesiac – and that the real Edwardes is missing. The psychological jargon flies fast and furious (it’s almost like the staff at Green Manors never talks about anything but work) as they try to get to the bottom of things, but when they go to confront the phony doctor, they find that he’s gone. Peterson follows him to a New York City hotel, and she starts to work on him in earnest, believing that there’s no way he could have killed anyone.

She’s half in love with him by now, but all they have learned is that his initials are J.B. and that he was a doctor of some kind before he lost his memory. Now calling himself John Brown, he  is caught between his affection for Peterson and his growing irritation at her attempts to unlock his past and clear his name. They travel to Rochester to take refuge from the police with her mentor, an older psychologist played by Michael Checkhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov). To cover their trail, they claim to be newly married; in an odd lapse in logic, Peterson believes that Brulov is so absent-minded that he doesn’t notice their lack of wedding rings or luggage, but Brulov shows how sharp he is soon enough. When Brown awakens in the middle of the night and tries to kill Brulov in his study, the older man keeps his wits about him, talking to Brown while he gives him a glass of milk dosed with a sleeping drug.

(Another lapse in logic occurs when Brown and Peterson arrive at Brulov’s house, only to find that Brulov is not at home – but two members of the police force are waiting for him. The cops barely seem to suspect the duo, even though they’re supposed to be questioning Brulove about Peterson.)

When Brown awakens, he and Peterson explain the situation to Brulov, and Peterson begs him for help. He agrees, and, conveniently, Brown had a symbol-laden dream that night. Brulov and Peterson ignore the fact that Brown’s dream might have been affected by the sleeping drug, and instead plow into a very quick dream analysis.

As Brown recalls the dream, the scene fades from Brulov’s parlor to the dream itself, in a very famous sequence designed by surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Brown explains that he found himself in a gambling house where the walls were decorated with eyes. A scantily clad woman was kissing all the gamblers, and a masked man played blackjack with him. A seven of clubs gives him 21, and then he is running on a barren landscape where the masked man holds a melting wheel.

Slowly, Brulov and Peterson put together Brown’s clues, realizing that he had met Edwardes at a ski resort when sled tracks in the snow outside the house set off a spell of paranoia in Brown. A name from the dream gives them a clue to the name of that resort, and they go there, trying to reconstruct events while the police continue their pursuit. On the slopes, Peterson and Brown ski downhill toward a cliff, seemingly where Brown and Edwardes had been. Brown struggles to remember what happened, and has a breakthough: He remembers a childhood trauma in which he accidentally killed his younger brother.

After tipping off the police, the body of Edwardes is found at the bottom of the cliff, but the body shows that Edwardes had been shot. Brown is arrested, but Peterson, back at Green Manors, realizes what really happened when she talks to Murchison: He killed Edwards himself when he realized that he was going to be replaced. Murchison congratulates her on her “young and agile mind,” which seems to be Hitch’s way of glossing over the fact that she has solved the case with almost no clues.

Murchison pulls a revolver from his desk drawer and tells Peterson that she won’t live to tell the police, but she keeps talking to him in soothing tone, echoing Brulov’s scene with Brown, and he lets her walk out of the room, then turns the gun on himself and shoots.

Now cleared of all charges, Brown – now using his real name, Ballantyne – is released from jail, and he and Peterson are reunited. (Why he adopted Edwardes’ identity is never explained.)

David O. Selznick had pushed “Spellbound” on Hitchcock. Selznick had undergone psychoanalysis and had become a proponent for it, so much so that he also insisted that his own psychiatrist serve as a consultant on the film. The half-baked aspects of the film’s psychology – that an amnesiac could be cured with a few sessions and one dream analysis – don’t help the scenario’s believability, and the dream itself is too on-the-nose to be believed. (The melting wheel symbolizes a revolver, the seven of clubs giving Brown 21 represents New York’s 21 Club, etc.) Hitchcock had little to do with the Dali sequence, and reportedly was not happy with the famed artist’s involvement in the production.

Still, the dream sequence bears at least one distinctive Hitchcock touch, which is the oversized seven of clubs card, a trick to make the card readable on camera and add to the strange quality of the dream in a way that is certainly not Daliesque. Hitchcock’s own touches of filmmaking brilliance show here and there, in the shocking, silent moment when Ballantyne remembers killing his brother, or when Ballantyne and Peterson kiss for the first time and we see an ornate door slowly opening, to show another door that slowly opens, etc., etc. The doors are a more meaningful symbol for Peterson’s awakening sexuality than any of the ham-fisted symbols out of the dream sequence. The final Hitchcock touch is at the climax of the story; when Dr. Murchison holds a gun on his employee, we see his hand holding the gun, with the camera showing his point of view. After Peterson leaves the office, the hand slowly turns until it faces the viewer before it fires. To make the effect work, Hitchcock had a model hand and gun built, so that it could turn smoothly.

Ben Hecht, the prolific screenwriter who had worked on “Gone with the Wind” for Selznick and with Hitchcock on “Watchtower Over Tomorrow,” wrote the screenplay for “Spellbound,” based on a story by Angus McPhail, from a 1927 novel called “The House of Dr. Edwardes.” The film also includes a brief appearance by Norman Lloyd, the saboteur from Hitchcock’s film of the same name.

Although “Spellbound” loses credibility with modern audiences over its hokey psychology, the twist on Hitchcock’s typical wrong man plot, in which the female love interest must unravel the mystery to save the man, makes the picture engaging and, at times, truly gripping. Bergman is particularly brilliant; her turn from icy analyst to a fully rounded person is rather moving. Peck is fairly wooden, although he’s hampered by his character, who spends a lot of screentime rubbing his head and trying to remember who he really is, then passing out. Take a look at the poster, above, and you’ll see the emphasis on Bergman, already an international star, over Peck, who was a relative unknown at this point in his career. Hitchcock would make one more film with Peck, 1947’s “The Paradine Case,” and two more with Bergman, the 1946 classic “Notorious,” as well as the much-maligned 1949 film “Under Capricorn.”

Hitchcock himself makes a memorable cameo in “Spellbound,” exiting an elevator in a New York City hotel, cigarette in hand, looking very pleased with himself. I haven’t been writing that much about Hitch’s cameos because so many of them are not that interesting, but the sly smile on his face here could not be ignored.

For pop music fans, it’s also worth noting that “Spellbound” features early use of the theremin, which would later gain more recognition in The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.”

Next, we’ll look at one of the true classics of cinema: “Notorious,” starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.





Alfred Hitchcock Sails in “Lifeboat”

6 09 2010

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In “Lifeboat,” Alfred Hitchcock presents a wartime parable that pits the essential good nature of ordinary people against a single, sly enemy. Released by 20th Century Fox in 1944, the film is set in the midst of World War II, entirely in a crowded lifeboat.

The film opens just after a Navy ship has been torpedoed by a German U-boat, with Tallulah Bankhead, as wealthy writer and photographer Connie Porter, sitting alone in the lifeboat as wreckage floats by. She’s soon joined by several workers from the ship, including William Bendix (“Gus”), John Hodiak (“Kovak”), Canada Lee (“Joe”), Hume Cronyn (“Garrett”) and Mary Anderson (“Alice”), as well as wealthy industrialist Charles Rittenhouse, played by Henry Hull. Another young woman and her baby join the group as well, but she is too shocked to realize that the baby is dead.

The final guest on the lifeboat is a member of the U-boat crew who seems to speak only German, played by Walter Slezak. His arrival sparks a heated debate among the rest of the group, with Hodiak insisting that they throw him overboard to drown. Cooler heads prevail, with Rittenhouse making the argument that the German, Willi, should be treated as a prisoner of war.

Rittenhouse takes command of the boat, but lacking nautical expertise, he relies on the others to help him reach the decision to make for Bermuda. Through Connie, who speaks German, Willi says the course they’ve chosen is wrong, but no one believes him. Gus, meanwhile, has his wounded leg examined by Alice, a nurse, who cleans up his wound. Everyone is assigned jobs, and they construct a mast to help them reach their goal.

After realizing that her baby is dead, the young woman slips out of the boat in the middle of the night and is never seen again. The tension continues to increase as it becomes clear that Gus’s leg is gangrenous. Claiming to be a former surgeon, Willi offers to amputate it. The operation takes everyone’s efforts, leaving Garrett alone to keep the boat steady in an increasingly rough sea.

A storm robs the survivors of their supplies, and things go from bad to worse. Kovac takes over as de facto leader for Rittenhouse, but Willi undermines his new role. The survivors learn in quick succession that Willi was the captain of the U-boat, that he speaks English, and that he was hiding a working compass. But after the storm, and after so much time going in the wrong direction, their chances of reaching Bermuda are slim, and so they go along with Willi’s scheme to rendezvous with a German supply ship.

Now free to speak English, Willi continues to manipulate the crew, watching and smiling as they bicker among themselves. Somehow, while they collapse in the heat, Willi rows endlessly. Only Gus, half hallucinating, is conscious enough to see Willi sipping from a water bottle. He begs Willi for a drink, but the threat of being discovered is too great, so Willi pushes Gus overboard.

The others wake up and see that Gus is gone; on questioning Willi they notice that he’s sweating, and find his water bottle, which immediately breaks. In a fury, the remaining survivors throw Willi overboard to die.

The survivors come up with a scheme to catch fish, using Connie’s diamond bracelet, but as they make a catch, Joe spots the German boat. Just as they’re about to be captured, the boat is sunk by an Allied vessel. As the friendly ship steams toward them, a hand reaches into the lifeboat. It’s a young German sailor from the supply ship, and as the survivors start to discuss what to do with him, he pulls a pistol on them. Kovac takes the gun away, and they await their rescue.

Hitchcock took a lot of criticism for “Lifeboat” for the portrayal of the German captain as smart and driven. While the others bicker, he conceives and enacts a plan, keeping his strengths and his scheme hidden. As Hitchcock explains in the quote above, he wanted to show that the Allies needed to pull together. This might have been a better message in 1942, when Hitchcock first conceived of “Lifeboat,” or in a more metaphorical way, as in the scene with the circus freaks from “Saboteur.” But by 1944, tolerance for criticism of the Allies’ efforts against the Axis was gone, and so Fox was pressured to keep publicity for “Lifeboat” to a minimum, diminishing its chances for success.

From the basic concept by Hitchcock, “Lifeboat” was shaped into a novella by John Steinbeck, in the style of “The Moon is Down.” Hitchcock and screenwriter Jo Swerling changed the original story enough that, combined with the criticism of the treatment of the German captain, Steinbeck distanced himself from the project. (It didn’t help that Steinbeck was already considered a radical in some circles for works like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “In Dubious Battle.”) The novella was never published.

“Lifeboat” is a gripping drama, and the performances by Bankhead, Slezak and Bendix are all strong. The technical achievement of setting the entire film in the boat is extraordinary, and was only possible due to extensive planning and storyboarding.

It’s also worth mentioning that “Lifeboat” contained Hitch’s trickiest cameo appearance. By now, the cameos had become a tradition, but in this case there were no opportunities to walk through a scene. Hitch considered floating by the lifeboat as a corpse, but didn’t like the idea of getting in the water. Instead, since he had recently lost a great deal of weight, he appeared in a “before and after” weight loss ad in a newspaper.

Next, we’ll look at “Spellbound,” a 1945 film that teams Hitchcock with yet another famous collaborator, artist Salvador Dali.





Alfred Hitchcock Goes to War

3 09 2010

As World War II wore on, a few members of the British film community began to openly criticize Alfred Hitchcock for his move to Hollywood, saying that he had deserted his nation. Of course, when Hitchcock came to the U.S. in 1940, the potential duration of the war was not very clear, and the blitz of London had not yet happened. Still, their words undoubtedly stung Hitchcock, who was in fact torn between his loyalty to England and to his family still living there and his new roots and responsibilities in Hollywood.

In 1944, Hitchcock stole out of the U.S. and travelled to England to make his own contribution to the war effort in the form of propaganda films. The two that are readily seen each run about half an hour; they were made in London, written or cowritten by Angus McPhail, who would work on several other Hitchcock projects. They focused on the French Resistance movement, and were filmed in French with members of the Molieres Players. Both are available for download from archive.org.

“Bon Voyage,” the slightly shorter of the two featurettes, concerns a young RAF officer and his escape with a fellow flier named Godowski from behind enemy lines in France. The officer tells his story to his superior on his arrival back in London, explaining how his friend arranged everything, from a rendezvous with members of the French Resistance to the final flight out of France, only to find out at the end that there was only room for one on the transport. The RAF officer wins the seat in a game of dice, and Godowski asks only that he deliver an envelope in London.

Of course, Godowski is himself a member of the Gestapo who used the pilot to flush out members of the Resistance and deliver a communique to another spy in London. The RAF pilot doesn’t believe it when his commanding officer explains the situation, but as the older man fills in the blanks, the young pilot realizes the truth — and is shocked to think that his actions doomed the attractive young woman of the Resistance who helped him escape.

“Aventure Malgache” is set in Madagascar, then a French colony that had been taken over by Germany. The story begins with a trio of actors getting ready to perform a play – but one of them is complaining that he can’t get a handle on his character. His friend, Clarousse, tells him a story of a similar person, hoping to provide some insight into the role. Clarousse had been the leader of the French Resistance in Madascar, and the person he describes was a member of the Vichy French in Madagascar called Michel. Michel was determined to stop members of the Resistance from escaping to freedom, and took underhanded steps to stop it, such as pretending to be a defense lawyer to win Clarousse’s confidence. Clarousse was not taken in, but managed to keep up communication while in prison, enabling many to make their way off the island.

The portrait of Michel, and the valor of the Resistance, builds up through “Aventure Malgache” until Clarousse escapes as well. He first becomes a pirate radio announce, then an actor, putting on stage plays about the Vichy’s treacherous ways. His friend, who needed guidance in his acting, is offended that Clarousse thinks he’s a natural to play Michel, and the film ends as they stop short of breaking into a fight, only to realize how foolish they’re being.

Legend has it that on review, the British Ministry of Information deemed these films too bluntly realistic to be released.

Hitchcock played a part in two other propaganda films as well. One is a 1944 war bond fundraiser called “The Fighting Generation,” starring Jennifer Jones, the actress with whom David O. Selznick was obsessed. Although the film reportedly still exists, it has been locked away in the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles since the end of World War II. However, we do have a few images from it, and you can read more about the film here.

The fourth and final propaganda film Hitchcock worked on is “Watchtower Over Tomorrow,” released in 1945 and cowritten by Ben Hecht. Hitchcock is one of four directors to work on the 15-minute film, which spotlighted the Dumbarton Oaks conference that laid the groundwork for the United Nations. Whether this film still exists in any form is uncertain; I have not been able to find a trace of it beyond records at the Hitchcock wiki page or at IMDB.com.








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