Christopher Reeve Stars in “Rear Window”

16 06 2013

“Rear Window,” my contender for best Alfred Hitchcock film of all time, starred James Stewart as a photographer confined to a wheelchair while recovering from a broken leg; in this version, Reeve put his own paralysis onscreen as Jason Kemp, an architect who was injured in a car crash.

The movie spends a significant amount of time on Kemp’s difficult physical rehabilitation and his hope to one day walk again; Reeve clearly was inspired to air some of the issues he had been exploring in his own life, in which he had become an advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries. Confined to his own Soho, NY, apartment, Kemp attempts to get back to business as usual, but during the months he spent in recovery his pet project was handed over to a young architect played by Hannah. Together, they continue to work on Kemp’s building, but it is during the long stretches of time he spends alone and looking out his window that Kemp realizes the sculptor across the alley may have killed his own wife.

With help from Hannah, as well as his nurse, a philosophically inclined Jamaiacan man, and a crusty cop played by Robert Forster, Kemp uses his wits and his computer to unravel the mystery. And while he and Hannah begin to forge a relationship by the end of the film, the story’s conclusion disappoints, as the body is never found—and without that, the police can’t prove that a murder occurred.

rear-window-1998-1The film is very much a product of its decade: Email is considered fancy and new, and the murderer is a sculptor, reflecting Soho’s booming gallery scene. Also, Kemp’s voice-activated computer is so good it’s comparable to the computers on “Star Trek.” Still, “Rear Window” relies on suspicion of wrongdoing that builds to suspense, and here the suspense comes from Kemp’s seeming helplessness when he’s confronted by the killer.

Even in a wheelchair, Reeve remains boyishly charming, and it’s particularly poignant to watch “Rear Window” and realize that the cure he hoped for would not come in time for him. Christopher Reeve died on October 10, 2004.


Alfred Hitchcock Cavorts with Dick Cavett

3 12 2012

On Friday, November 23, Turner Classic Movies ran a selection of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in honor of the opening of the new film “Hitchcock.” TCM kicked off the day with the June 8, 1972, episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” in which Cavett interviewed the Master of Suspense.

The breezy conversation took place at the time that “Frenzy” had just been released, and Hitchcock was in fine form. Cavett started with a tribute to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (see the photo below) and quizzes Hitchcock on many of his films, his background and his delightfully morbid outlook. Hitchcock makes some outrageous claims, such as insisting that he learned about fear from his mother, who said “boo” to him when he was three months old. He’s actually much more convincing later when, on the same subject, he talks briefly about learning about fear from his Jesuit teachers. Hitchcock relates many of his best known stories, such as being locked in a jail cell at age five, or about the time he told an ambitious starlet who asked which was her best side that she was sitting on it.

Hitchcock’s love of wordplay and puns (he actually claims that “puns are the highest form of literature) throws Cavett off once or twice. While talking about affairs between Hollywood stars, Hitchcock declines to give specific examples, saying that he was just generalizing—and by the way, he is not an Army man. General Ising, that is. And after showing a clip from “Frenzy,” in which the naked body falls from the back of a speeding potato truck, Hitchcock says that the most notable thing about the scene was how the taste of the potatoes was improved by the girl’s presence. I thought it Picture 5was more notable that the clip showed the actor’s naked bottom — especially since Hitchcock says that while movies have come a long way in terms of permissiveness since “Psycho” dared to show a toilet in 1960, television has not changed at all in that time.

All in all, it is a fun hour, in which Hithcock chats with great energy and animation — although he looks more comfortable seated than standing. When Cavett suggests they do another show soon, Hitchcock suggests the name “Cavoriting with Cavett,” which is the source of this post’s title. You can find several clips from it on youtube by searching “Dick Cavett Alfred Hitchcock.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s Two TV Rarities

23 02 2011

Besides seventeen episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and one episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” Hitch directed just two other television programs. The first, which was shown on September 30, 1957, was from the new series “Suspicion,” and like the “Suspense” radio series of the previous decade, Hitchcock directed its first episode, and in fact served as executive producer.

The hour-long story is called “Four O’Clock,” based on a story by Cornell Woolrich and starring E.G. Marshall as Paul, a clock and watch repairman who owns a small shop in a middle American town. Paul is a tightly wound man who has a reputation as being brusque but very good at his job. As the episode begins, we see him methodically working on an alarm clock: wiring it in some strange way, plugging it in, and using it to detonate a small charge.

His thoughts tell us that he’s planning something – he suspects something to do with his wife. Going home that evening, he sees bits of evidence that someone else has been in the house, and he decides that it’s a man. His wife is having an affair, and now he’s ready to kill them both by blowing up the house. His observations have told him that the man, whoever he is, comes by the house every afternoon – so Paul is going to set the bomb to go off at four o’clock.

The next night, Paul tries to give his wife a chance to confess, but she admits that she “had a good time” that afternoon, Paul can’t believe how calm she is. The next day, he slips into his basement during the day and sets up the bomb – but when he hears a noise from upstairs, he discovers that he’s being robbed. The thieves catch him, then gag him and tie him to a pipe in the basement where he can see the clock as it ticks down to the explosion. (As a side note, one of the thieves in Paul’s house is played by a young Harry Dean Stanton.)

Paul tries to get loose, but can’t; he also fails when he tries to break the ropes by rubbing them against the pipes. Upstairs, he hears his wife and a man, but listening closely, he realizes that it’s her brother. She’s been hiding him because he’s ex-convict, and she hasn’t worked up what to say to Paul about him coming to live with them. Paul tries to get their attention, but he can’t make enough noise, and soon, they decide to go to his shop to meet him.

Time continues to tick down, and Paul grows more and more frantic. He’s unable to get the attention of the gasman, and a small boy who peeks into the window is too small to explain to his mother that the man in the basement is in trouble. His thoughts scream that he’ll do anything to be free and safe. As Paul struggles and four o’clock grows closer, the ticking of the clock gets louder and louder and his heart pounds harder and harder.

We cut away to the outside of the house, where a crowd has gathered. In the basement, doctors are fitting Paul with a straightjacket as he mumbles to wife that he doesn’t mind if she takes a lover, only, he begs her, “Don’t leave me… don’t forget about me.” A copy trips over the power cord that’s connected to the timebomb, pulling it out of the wall. He looks at the setup and asks Paul’s wife if she could turn on a light so he can see whatever it is, and she says no, she can’t, because she blew a fuse in the basement that morning.

In this story that recalls Hitchcock’s 1936 movie “Sabotage,” it’s no surprise that the master of suspense keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as four o’clock gets closer and closer. There’s an absurdity in the situation, too, as Paul realizes how foolish his predicament is and pleads with anything and everything, even the clock itself, for help.

On April 5, 1960, the series “Ford Startime” broadcast Alfred Hitchcock’s one and only color TV episode: called “Incident at a Corner,” it starred Vera Miles and George Peppard and was set in another non-descript American town. The show begins outside a school, as an elderly crossing guard attempts to stop an oncoming car. The driver blows past his stop sign and parks, and a woman, Mrs. Tally, gets out. She’s late for a meeting at the school, but the crossing guard says that he has to report her to the police for not stopping. She is furious at this and berates him as a teacher listens to what’s going on.

Hitchcock pulls a mini “Rashomon” here, showing the scene over and over from several angles, and it’s in the final replay of the scene that we see another car nearby. A woman gets out of that car, hiding her face and rushing into a house, while her companion, an older man, watches Mrs. Tally yell at the crossing guard. Once both are inside, we hear the woman tell her companion that she knows that crossing guard, and that he’s going to give her away if she recognizes her. The man, played by Jack Albertson, reassures her, saying he’ll take care of the crossing guard.

Later, we see Vera Miles, playing Miss Medwick, granddaughter of the crossing guard. She’s tutoring a young man in math, but after receiving a phone call he abruptly leaves. Medwick’s fiance, played by George Peppard, joins the family to celebrate the old crossing guard’s birthday, but the party is interrupted by someone from school who has stopped by to tell old Mr. Medwick that he can’t be a crossing guard any more, because he’s been accused of getting too close to the little girls.

The story begins to examine the nature of rumor mongering, as the Medwick family begins to argue about how – and if – they should fight these rumors. On the one hand, it seems like there’s no real way to fight back, as they are only rumors. On the other, Peppard (not sure of his character’s name) insists that they have to clear the old man’s name if he’s going to continue living in their town.

Peppard and Miss Medwick take it upon themselves to talk to the school’s principal and the head of the PTA, who had received an accusatory note calling Mr. Medwick a vicious old man. They then interview the teacher who had witnessed the incident, and who reported that Mrs. Tally had called Medwick “a vicious old man.” But when they confront, she haughtily refuses to admit any wrongdoing, although they’re sure that she wrote the note in the first place.

After visiting the other teacher again and learning that Mrs. Tally had never called Mr. Medwick vicious – she actually called him officious – they are at a dead end, until Mr. Medwick remembers the other car that had been nearby. They find the house and knock on the door, and Medwick does indeed recognize the woman inside: She’s from his hometown, and had been an underage “burlesque” performer years before. She had been afraid that he would start rumors about her, but now that it’s all out in the open, Medwick promises to keep her secret.

“Incident at a Corner” doesn’t bear many of Hitchcock’s typical hallmarks, although it does have an air of creeping dread. The most memorable moments are the various versions of the opening and the moment when, after he’s just been fired and accused of being a child molester, Medwick gloomily opens his front door as his family sings “Happy Birthday” to him. George Peppard is a particularly seething angry young man, although, of course, he’s wearing a suit and tie throughout.

“The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” Makes Its Debut

16 02 2011

On October 11, 1962, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” made its debut with the episode “I Saw the Whole Thing.” This is the one and only episode of the series’ three-year run to be directed by Hitchcock, although he continued making his customary introductions every week throughout the series’ run.

In fact, this episode features significantly more Hitchcock than did the half-hour episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitch not only introduces the story and provides its denouement; he also appears at each station break to make snide remarks about the commercials.

Here, Hitchcock appears next to a house key that’s taller than he is, saying that he’s decided to open a “key club” (presumably, like a Playboy Club) that caters exclusively to women. The only male member will be him.

The story begins with a series of vignettes on a street corner, as a series of people are seen going about their daily routines: a young woman fends off a pushy friend while she waits for her boyfriend; a man tends his garden; a drunk finds a quarter and decides to enter a bar; a woman waits for a bus; and a man cautiously drives his car. Each person is distracted by the screech of brakes, and as the screech gets louder, each person shifts into a freeze-frame. We then see a motorcycle on the street, its rider lying nearby, as a sports car roars away from the scene.

The next day, a man called Michael Barnes (John Forsythe) turns himself in at the police station, saying that he was the driver. He makes a statement to the effect that he did hit the motorcyclist, lost his head and did not think to stop. Barnes, we learn, is a writer of crime fiction, whose wife is in the hospital due to complications from her pregnancy. He’s rather preoccupied with her and with the baby, as she’s miscarried twice before.

When Barnes learns that he is to be tried in court, he makes several calls to ensure that his wife won’t hear about it in the hospital. Meanwhile, he consults with his attorney, who is not a trial lawyer. That turns out not to be an issue, though, as Barnes is determined to defend himself in court.

The trial begins, and Barnes learns that the prosecution has called all five of the witnesses we saw at the top of this show. The prosecutor has testimony from all five that Barnes did not stop at a stop sign, putting him in the wrong. But as they each take the stand, Barnes, in his cross-examination, is able to that most of them only looked at the scene of the crash after they heard the screech of the brakes. Only one, played by pipe-voiced actor John Fiedler, refuses to budge from his testimony, despite the holes Barnes pokes in his story.

Finally, the prosecution rests, and the judge asks if the defense would like to call any witnesses. Barnes takes the stand to make a statement that while he’s very sorry for what happened, he is not guilty of any wrongdoing. However, he doesn’t realize that by taking the stand he has opened himself up to questions from the prosecutor, who asks him point blank whether he stopped at the stop sign. (Why Barnes’ councilor didn’t advise him of this pitfall is not clear – especially since Barnes should have been able to make a closing statement that would have had the same effect.)  Barnes tries to invoke the Fifth Amendment here, but the judge points out that since he took the stand voluntarily, he must answer the question. Barnes refuses to answer, and the judge threatens to cite him for contempt of court. Nevertheless, Barnes says he won’t answer, making himself look very bad in the eyes of the jury.

After Barnes checks on his wife in the hospital, we turns to a party, where young people are dancing in someone’s living room. The witness who had been waiting for her boyfriend when the accident occurred is there; she had admitted on the stand that he stood her up, and that she was so angry with him that she didn’t really see the accident at all. He meets her at the party, and she tells him about being a witness, and how the driver didn’t stop at the stop sign. But the boyfriend says she’s wrong – he was on the opposite corner, near the stop sign, and he saw the whole thing. The sportscar did stop. He never crossed the street to meet her after he saw her talking to another boy. She says he has to tell his story, but he doesn’t want to get involved. She insists, though, saying “The poor slob is gonna go to jail!”

Next, we’re back in court as the jury renders a verdict of not guilty. Barnes is thrilled, and he and his lawyer friend go to the hospital to see his new baby, who’s just been born. The lawyer says he’s glad about the outcome, but doesn’t understand why Barnes wouldn’t answer the question about the stop sign. Barnes explains that he couldn’t, not without committing perjury. It turns out that he wasn’t the driver; in fact, he wasn’t even in the car. It was his wife behind the wheel that day.

“I Saw the Whole Thing” engages the viewer nicely, as a good courtroom drama usually will. Forsythe, whom Hitchcock had directed before in “The Trouble with Harry,” makes a sympathetic protagonist. All through the episode, the viewer has to assume that he didn’t stop after hitting the motorcycle because he was so concerned about his wife, so the revelation at the end that he’s been protecting her all along makes us like him all the more. While it’s not a complex story – it certainly wouldn’t be enough to make a full-length feature from – Hitchcock does stretch out nicely, with a much fuller cast than any of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes he had directed.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” Seasons 6 and 7

10 02 2011

We’ll wrap up our look at “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” with the final three episodes of the series directed by Hitchcock himself from seasons six and seven…

Season Six begins with Audrey Meadows playing a woman trying to wrap her husband around her finger in “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat,” from September 27, 1960. Based on another Roald Dahl story, Meadows is the wife of a hardworking dentist, trying to make ends meet and wishing to be a part of high society in New York City.

After meeting her husband at his office, and looking completely happy with their marriage, she sets off to see her maiden aunt in Baltimore, as she does every month. On arrival, she instead visits another man – a rich colonel she’s having an affair with. He seems thrilled to see her, but then makes excuses to leave for the day. The next day, he has another errand to run, but leaves her with a box containing a mink coat – and a note breaking off the affair.

Devastated at the breakup and realizing that she can’t just show up at home with a mink, she still manages to concoct a scheme. She pawns the coat in New York for just $50. She then gives the pawn ticket to her husband, saying she found it. He offers to go see what it is, and she relaxes, expecting him to get the coat back and give it to her.

She then stops by his office to see the surprise he’s promised her – but instead of the coat, he presents her with a mink stole. She manages to accept the stole, then, looking dazed, takes a seat in his waiting room. While she sits there in a corner, the dentist’s assistant walks out for lunch – wearing the mink coat.

Meadows has fun with the role, calling everyone “darling” and sounding very much like she did in “The Honeymooners,” only with more money. Hitchcock seemed to have fun with the opening scene of this episode in particular, which featured closeups of a dental patient getting her teeth drilled.

In the hilarious episode “The Horseplayer,” first shown on March 14, 1961, Claude Rains is a Catholic priest whose church has a leaky roof. Although he is optimistic, there is no money for repairs. He also finds that he has a new parishioner: a gambler who’s been coming to church to pray for winning horses.

Rains meets the gambler, who gratefully explains how prayer works for him, and while Rains tries to explain why this is wrong, the gambler doesn’t seem to get it. He keeps offering to place bets for the priest. On his way to a meeting with the bishop, the priest runs into the gambler again. The gambler explains that he’s on his way to put all his money behind a sure thing, so he can move to Florida. He again offers to put a bet down for the priest. Thinking of that leaking roof, the priest decides to take him up on his offer. He withdraws his entire $500 of savings and gives it to the gambler.

At the bishop’s office, the priest explains what he’s just done, and how he knows that it is a sin. The bishop seems more amused than upset, but he directs the priest to pray that that the horse loses.

Later that day, the gambler shows up at the church again, looking miserable. The priest looks relieved, and the gambler confirms that the horse “quit on him,” and that he lost all his money. The priest says it’s all right, but the gambler hands him a wad of bills, explaining that he couldn’t bring himself to bet on the horse to win – so he bet on it to place, and when the horse came in second, the priest won $2,100.

The contrast between the upstanding priest and the Runyonesque gambler is very funny, and the fact that the gambler has no idea when to stop talking about the horses makes the situation even funnier. This really is more of a shaggy dog story than a thriller, which shows how broad the series was.

Alfred Hitchcock’s final half-hour episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” from season seven, ends with a bang. The story is “Bang! You’re Dead,” starring Billy Mumy. Originally broadcast on October 10, 1961, it is easily the most chilling of Hitchcock’s seventeen episodes.

Mumy plays Jackie Chester, a boy with a cowboy hat and toy pistol who’s too small to play with the other boys in his neighborhood. Feeling left out, he’s happily distracted by the arrival of his uncle, just back from a sales trip in Africa. Jackie follows his uncle and father into the house, chatting about the trip as they drop a suitcase in the guest room. Jackie is left alone while the adults leave the room, and he decides to find the surprise his uncle promised him. He opens the suitcase and finds a pistol that looks a lot like his, along with a box of ammunition. He takes the gun, puts a bullet it, plus a few more in his pocket, then wanders out of the house.

As Jackie wanders toward the grocery store, he keeps spinning the gun’s cylinder, and we see the bullet in different positions each time he spins it. He also keeps shooting various things, with no result. The tension mounts and he keeps pulling the trigger. At the grocery store, he rides a toy pony on the sidewalk, and when a girl comes along who also wants a ride, he threatens to shoot her. He then wanders around the store, idly adding bullets as he walks around.

Meanwhile, Jackie’s parents and uncle realize what has happened, and they frantically search for him. His mother reaches the grocery store but keeps getting put off by people who are busy with other customers. By the time she gets an announcement made, Jackie has left. In the parking lot, the three adults hear loud bangs – but it’s just teenagers gunning a hot rod.

Jackie arrives back home to find the maid busy with dinner. He tells her to stick ’em up, but she’s too busy to play. They go back and forth a bit – she says she’s going to have to tell his mother that he wouldn’t mind her – and he says he’s going to shoot her. She says, “Blaze away, I’ve made my peace with the Almighty,” and he pulls the trigger. Just then, the three adults burst through the door, and his uncle throws a pillow at him, causing his shoot to hit a mirror rather than the maid.

The final scene of this episode reuses Hitchcock’s trick from “Spellbound,” showing a Jackie’s hand holding the revolver, giving us his point of view as he aims at various points around the room.

Although Hitchcock makes his usual joking remarks at the top of the show, at the end he is unusually serious, using the moment to implore parents to be more careful with firearms in the home.

Next week, we’ll look at Hitchcock’s one episode from the series “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” as well as two of his TV rarities.

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