Alfred Hitchcock Makes a Modern Spy Drama

8 03 2011

The late 1960s was a difficult period for Alfred Hitchcock. Audiences’ tastes were moving in two directions: Toward the escapism of James Bond or the realism of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Hitchcock’s brand of carefully controlled suspense in films layered with meaning derived from camera movement and lighting, costume and color was no longer in style.

Hitchcock was certainly aware of the change in the air. After more than twenty years, the title “Master of Suspense” was weighing him down. Trends in European filmmaking had given him new inspiration that he wanted to follow. Around 1965, he developed a script called, alternately, “Kaleidoscope” and “Frenzy” (having nothing to do with his 1972 film of the same name). This was to be a very violent and sexual thriller, with a killer for a hero, and Universal Pictures killed the project.

While “Kaleidoscope” was in development, Hitchcock also began another script called “R.R.R.R.,” working with Italian writers Age and Scarpelli. Hitchcock had first dreamed up the idea of a comedy about a hotel full of criminals in the 1930s; now he hoped to direct it with a cast of unknowns. Again, Universal had no interest in this film, and it was dropped with little writing done.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock directed “Torn Curtain,” a movie with stars he did not particularly like, and an undercooked script. As a counter-balance to Paul Newman and Julia Andrews, Hitchcock populated the film with European actors, and set the action primarily in East Berlin.

Hitchcock took this modified European approach further with his next film, “Topaz,” released in 1969. Based on a bestselling novel by Leon Uris and adapted by Samuel Taylor, who had written the sublime “Vertigo,” “Topaz” is a difficult movie on many levels, with touches of Hitchcock’s filmmaking brilliance peeking through the morass only occasionally.

“Topaz” is divided into three sections. (It’s hard to call it a three-act structure, since each part is so separate from what came before.) Set in 1962, it begins with a typical bravura Hitchcock set-piece, as a Russian intelligence officer, on vacation in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter, defect to the United States. The suspense builds slowly as the Russians attempt to quietly evade capture by their former comrades while on a tour of a porcelain factory, the two sets of players moving against each other like chess pieces on a board. The defectors get their instructions from CIA agent Mike Nordstrom, played by John Forsythe, and make a break from a department store into the American’s getaway car, while other American agents block the Russians’ way in an oddly stiff dance, trying not to cause a panic on the crowded streets but still reach their quarry.

A beautiful, almost abstract shot of the defectors' car approaching their plane

The defectors board a plane bound for the U.S., with Kusenov, the intelligence officer, griping about the clumsy operation. After being set up in a house, Kusenov refuses to cooperate; he’s now decided that there he never made any promises to the Americans. But his hosts refuse to take no for an answer, and Kusenov finally gives up some hints about the mysterious Topaz they’ve been asking about. He sends the agents after Cuban revolutionary Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Kusenov warns the Americans that Parra won’t talk to them, and so Nordstrom enlists the help of a French agent, André Devereaux, played by Frederick Stafford.

Devereaux picks up the story here as the second part begins; he heads into Harlem, where he enlists Phillippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) to infiltrate Parra’s offices to find documents concerning a missile program, which lead Devereaux away from his wife and into Cuba. There he contacts Juanita de Cordoba (Karen Dor), a well-connected anti-Communist with romantic ties to Parra. Devereaux and de Cordoba are in love as well, and they plot how to gain information on the Russian missile program. When Parra learns that de Cordoba has been passing classified information to Devereaux, he regretfully shoots her, trying to spare her from being tortured.

Part three begins as Devereaux, now compromised as both an agent and a husband, flees Cuba and heads back to Washington, where he learns that the spy organization Topaz is based in the French intelligence community. Devereaux flies home to Paris and calls together his most trusted associates, hoping to piece things together; one of the men, Jarre, lets slip a bit of information that tells Devereaux that he is a counter-agent. Devereaux sends his son-in-law, a reporter called Francois, to learn more from Jarre, but Francois is put in harm’s way when killers show up at Jarre’s doorstep. Francois escapes unharmed, and, on recalling a phone number he heard the killers mention, tells Devereaux that the leader of Topaz is his old friend, Granville, another intelligence agent.

Word gets out that Granville is an enemy agent, and the film (at least the version I saw) ends at an airport, as Devereaux and his wife, now reconciled, board an airplane; nearby, waving to them, is Granville, boarding his own Aeroflot plane to Russia.

“Topaz” is populated – perhaps overpopulated – by characters we barely get to know, including the CIA agents attempting to make Kusenov cooperate, de Cordoba’s network of Cuban peasant operatives, Parra’s revolutionary stooges, and the French agents who work with Devereaux. Hitchcock costumes them distinctively, which helps the viewer to keep them straight, but very few of the cast are engaging as characters. Although Hitchcock’s concession to Universal was to film a bestseller, he preserves so much of the convoluted plot that it’s hard to follow what’s going on from one scene to the next. One that feels that Hitchcock might have been making a point about the ultimate triviality of spy work by reducing the secret agents to near ciphers.

Or are the heroes and villains of “Topaz” not the cast members but their nations? There are scenes set in Sweden, the United States, Cuba, Russia and France, and Hitchcock creates a distinctive look for each setting; the countries almost have more personality than the characters do.

Hitchcock makes his traditional cameo about halfway through the film; he’s in an airport, being pushed along in a wheelchair, when he suddenly stands up to greet a friend.

“Topaz” encountered some serious trouble during test screenings. Originally, the film ended with Devereaux and Granville dueling at a football stadium, but American audiences found this laughable. The second ending, described above, was also disliked, as the villain gets away with his misdeeds. A third ending was made, too, in which we see Granville enter his house, followed by a gunshot that’s meant to imply that he killed himself; this is the most commonly seen ending, although it was tacked onto the movie so late that it had to be made with reused footage. It’s both cheap looking and unclear.

Of the sprawling cast, the standouts are John Forsythe, who recalls the cool, early spies of Hitchcock’s films like “Secret Agent”; Karen Dor, who played Juanita de Cordoba; John Vernon as Rico Parra; Dany Robin as Devereaux’s wife; and Roscoe Lee Brown as Phillippe Dubois. There’s also some rather bad acting from Tina Hedstrom as Kusenov’s teenaged daughter and Claude Jade as Devereaux’s daughter, although Hitchcock was fond of Jade.

As with “Torn Curtain,” Hitchcock rushed “Topaz” into production, and the script feels unfinished. The dialogue is flat, even laughable, at times. Hitchcock had often said that by once the script was finished, the film was over for him; actually shooting it was both boring and the dreaded point where compromise began. Now, it seemed that even the act of creating the script no longer interested Hitch. After the test screenings, Hitch cut the movie considerably, although it’s the full two hour twenty minute version that appears on DVD currently.

Still, there are moments of genuine brilliance in the movie, including that opening defection, the sequence in which de Cordoba’s operatives capture information on the missile program and are themselves captured, and, especially, the moment when Parra shoots de Cordoba. As she collapses, her dark purple dress spreads out on a black and white tile floor; shot from above, it looks almost like a pool of blood. It’s a fascinating moment in an otherwise workmanlike movie.

Here’s the exciting trailer for “Topaz,” in which Hitchcock briefly describes the movie against modern graphics and type treatments. Note the emphasis on the novel’s bestseller reputation…


“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 Reveals “The Trouble with Harry”

15 12 2010

“It’s taken from a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and I didn’t change it very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Released in October 1955, “The Trouble with Harry” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s little gems: a black comedy set in autumnal New England that’s also a murder mystery and a romance.

After a credits sequence featuring artwork by New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, we are treated to a series of breathtaking views of Vermont’s hillsides, brightly colored with autumn leaves. A small boy (Jerry Mathers) marches through the woods, toy raygun in hand. And then, he stops. Before him on the trail is the dead body of a man in a gray suit, his feet pointing toward the heavens. The boy, Arnie, goes running for his mother, but the body is not alone for long. Moments later, the parade continues, as Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), who had been hunting rabbits, finds the body, too. Wiles decides that he must have accidentally shot the man, but before he can move the body, more people wander by: a doctor so absorbed in his reading that he doesn’t even notice the body when he trips over it, a tramp who takes the deceased’s shoes, as well as a woman, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who talks to Wiles about the situation.

Wiles decides to bury the body and not alert the authorities – it was an accident, after all – but before he can do anything, little Arnie comes back with his mother, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine). She recognizes the body as Harry, her estranged husband. What’s more, she’s glad to see him dead.

Finally, Wiles hides the body and gets a local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), to help him bury the body. Later that day, though, Wiles discovers that he did indeed kill a rabbit, which means that he couldn’t have killed Harry. He convinces Sam to help him dig up the body again, and so begins a strange odyssey in which Harry is buried and dug up again several times over the course of the day. Along the way, Gravely admits that she might have killed Harry. Rogers, too, could have been the killer, although it seems unlikely. After burying and disinterring the body over and over, the local deputy sheriff learns that something is going on. Marlowe throws him off the trail, but after learning from the doctor that Harry died from a heart attack, the group decide they must redeposit the body where they found it so that the deputy can find it on his own. With Harry above ground and definitely dead, Rogers is free to marry Marlowe; Wiles and Gravely, too, seem ready to become a couple.

The cast of “The Trouble with Harry” is filled with New England eccentrics, like Mrs. Wiggs, a local shopkeeper who tries to sell Marlowe’s paintings. Taciturn and unsmiling, she doles out sharp comments in her cluttered store. Miss Gravely is oddly vain about her age; Wiles has built himself up as an adventurer when he was only a tugboat captain, and Marlowe reserves the right to not sell his paintings to people he doesn’t like, even though he has no money. Shirley MacLaine, in her first film role, portrays Rogers as a forthright young woman who is thrilled that her troublesome husband is dead; when asked why she hit him over the head with a milk bottle, she repeatedly refuses to answer, saying that’s between her and her late husband.

There’s a bawdy streak to the movie, too, from Marlowe and Wiles’s conversation about Gravely, with Marlowe saying “no man has crossed her threshold before” and Wiles answering, “Someone’s got to be first.” There’s also a great deal of giggling when we learn that, in exchange for his paintings, Marlowe declined money but asked instead for a double bed. And of course, there’s the well-known line MacLaine delivers after Rogers and Marlowe kiss: “Lightly, Sam. I have a very short fuse.” Ahem.

The cast is a delight, helping to keep things light despite a murder and the chance that someone – or all of them – might be arrested. Forsythe is full of brash energy whether he’s teasing the local spinster, haggling with an art collector or trading quips with MacLaine, who gives as good as she gets. (Hitchcock would always say he discovered MacLaine.) Gwenn has fun with his role, too, letting his sea captain spin ever more ridiculous yarns of Turks running amok with machetes and so forth. This was Gwenn’s last film role with Hitchcock; he was 78 at the time.

“The Trouble with Harry” bears more than a passing resemblance to Shakespearean comedies like “Twelfth Night,” with its bucolic setting, its endless coincidences (really, how can so many people stumble upon that body?), a clueless authority figure, and, of course, romantic pairings. About half the movie was shot on location in Vermont, but bad weather made it necessary to relocate to the Paramount backlot. Before leaving Vermont, Hitch had the crew box up an enormous number of fallen leaves, which were then spray painted and pinned to trees on the new sets. The location shooting may be the most beautiful Hitchcock had filmed since “The Manxman,” shot on the Isle of Man.

Through the 1950s, Hitchcock had built a crew of trusted associates who served him well on “The Trouble with Harry,” including Associate Producer and Second Unit Director Herbert Coleman, who scouted the locations for this film, and cinematographer Robert Burk, who captured the blazing color of the fall foliage. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, on his third consecutive movie with Hitch, drew on his own New England upbringing to replicate the cadences of the locals, keeping the script lively, fun and fast paced.

Most important, this film featured a score by composer Bernard Herrmann, who would work with Hitchcock on seven more films in the next ten years. Here, the score is bright and playful, emphasizing the farcical feel of the plot; at times, it even seems to propel the action, using plucked strings to echo the characters’ steps as though they were in a cartoon. In his best work with Hitchcock, Herrmann’s scores would enhance the story, setting the tone and pointing to important plot points.

Hitchcock also continues to edge closer to featuring an original pop song in this movie, with the song “Flaggin’ the Train to Tuscaloosa,” written by the great jazz composer and inventor Raymond Scott, whose songs were often heard in 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons. As in “Rear Window,” the new song is not heard in a fully orchestrated and performed rendition; here, it’s sung informally by Sam Marlowe as he wanders around the town. This would change in Hitchcock’s next film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” when Doris Day sings “Que Sera Sera.”

“The Trouble with Harry” was not a hit on release; it was too dark for American audiences, although it fared better in Europe. However, its tone helped set the stage for Hitchcock’s new venture into TV, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which made its debut one day before “The Trouble with Harry” opened. Although AHP was often suspenseful and frightening, the introductions by Hitchcock featured the same kind of gallows humor as “The Trouble with Harry.” (Incidentally, Hitch makes his cameo in this movie at about the twenty-two minute mark, wandering by as the wealthy collector examines Marlowe’s paintings.)

Next, Hitchcock remakes his 1934 suspense film “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring James Stewart and Doris Day.

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