Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

Dial M for Murder: entertaining and witty murder mystery shows Hitchcock on a creative roll

Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” (1953)

A clever and witty murder mystery with fine acting and sparkling dialogue, “Dial M for Murder” is a highly absorbing and entertaining film. The plot does have a lot of holes and fans of television shows and movies that emphasise earnest crime scene investigations (and lots of violence and supposed hard-edged grittiness) might find fault with the way the police conduct their inquiries but the film’s focus is on underlying themes of class, gender and control which generate the thrills and the motivations for murder.

Tony Wendice (Ray Miliband) is an ex-tennis player married to a wealthy heiress Margot (Grace Kelly) who discovers that she has been having an affair with well-known crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Wendice sees an opportunity to bump off his wife and inherit her fortune when he comes across an old acquaintance from past university days Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) who is currently down-and-out and in need of money. Wendice concocts the perfect murder and explains the plan to Swann in detail, in a fine scene shot with an unusual bird’s-eye point-of-view that emphasises the interior setting of the film. Swann follows Wendice’s plan to the letter but Margot turns the tables on him by stabbing him dead with a pair of scissors. His plan in tatters, Wendice nevertheless contrives to salvage what he can of it by manipulating his wife and the police and contaminating the crime scene in such a way that Margot ends up charged, tried and convicted of blackmailing Swann and is sentenced to hang.

Halliday uses his crime novelist sleuthing skills and astonishingly comes to the correct conclusion as to what really happened but cannot prove his line of thinking is correct. Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) comes to his rescue, having initially investigated the case and deciding to return to it because there happen to be a few details involving the travels of two door-keys that don’t quite, er, key in, in the narrative that has sent Margot to prison and certain death.

Once again Hitchcock calls viewers’ attention to the unstable and often dangerous position of women vis-a-vis the men in their lives who control their money and often their fates. Kelly’s Margot is a demure and dependent woman who defers a lot to Tony and Mark. The one time in the film in which she truly takes charge of her life is when she is fighting for her life and she unknowingly wrests control away not just from Swann but from Tony; from this point on, their marriage is finished and it’s only a question of whose downfall is faster and whose is more permanent. Despite Kelly’s restrained acting, her character is never really free and at the end of the film she is no more changed for the better than she was at the beginning.

Miliband steals the show as the slimy and controlling Tony Wendice desperate for money and willing to go to any lengths to get it: he’s not above stalking and then blackmailing Swann, and his attitude towards Swann and Margot after Swann’s death is chilling despite the smarmy charm. Cummings and Dawson play their characters in workman-like mode and Williams lights up the screen with his droll inspector character who displays unexpected depths of resourcefulness.

None of the characters can be said to be moral – even Williams isn’t above deception – and though justice is seen to be done, it’s a grubby patch-up job. The police and court system are revealed as less than impartial and subject to manipulation by a clever sociopath. Only Williams’ own doggedness saves the day but the future is not necessarily “happy ever after” for Margot and Halliday. One day their relationship too will lose its sparkle, they may drift apart and Margot may find solace in another man’s arms, and the unhappy sequence of events may play out once again.

The action takes place almost wholly in one room which gives the film its claustrophobic air. Effective use is made of lighting to increase suspense and terror. The suspense is maintained throughout the whole film in spite of the light plot. Hitchcock pays great attention to details, right down to the clothes worn by Kelly, starting off with a bright red dress that is replaced by blander and duller clothing as the film progresses. In short, this film shows Hitchcock on a creative roll that was to peak in the late 1950s / early 1960s.

Under Capricorn: a psychological romantic melodrama of intense emotion, suspense and redemption

Alfred Hitchcock, “Under Capricorn” (1949)

Set in the early days of the British colony of Sydney in Australia, “Under Capricorn” turns out to be an intense psychological romantic drama of hope, redemption and the possibilities of renewal. A new governor arrives in the Sydney colony in the early 1830s, bringing along his cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) who hopes to make his fortune and return to Ireland a prosperous gentleman. Almost immediately he meets ex-con Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who, after serving his sentence of transportation for having killed his brother-in-law, has become a prosperous land-owner. Sam offers to put up Adare in his mansion where Adare meets Sam’s depressed alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman). After discovering that Adare knows Hattie through his sister Diana, Sam suggests that Adare try to talk and humour Hattie in the hope that she will become the spirited woman she once was. Patiently Adare draws Hattie out of her cocoon and fears, and teaches her how to deal with her recalcitrant servants. Hattie’s new relationship with the convict servants threatens however the position of her housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) who secretly loves Sam, so she plots to get rid of both Adare and Hattie by insinuating to Sam that they are having an affair and by poisoning Hattie.

Milly’s plotting leads to a shooting accident that nearly kills Adare and puts Sam in a difficult position where he faces returning to prison and losing his wealth and property. This leads Hattie to confess publicly that she, not Sam, killed her brother because he had tried to break up her relationship with Sam (as Sam was a lowly stable-boy at the time and she was an aristocrat) and as a result she faces being returned to Ireland to stand trial. Adare is subsequently faced with a choice to clear the Flusky couple’s names and consequently having to return to Ireland promptly without a fortune to his name, or stand aside and see Sam and Hattie separated, their marriage destroyed and Hattie returning alone to Ireland where she faces being condemned to capital punishment.

Plenty of melodrama abounds and Hattie herself faces several threats to her life and sanity. The acting is good if sometimes a bit florid and the dialogue is over-elaborate and too genteel. Hitchcock’s direction is marked by meticulous attention to historical accuracy in visual details and long takes in which the camera sweeps from one scene to the next so that viewers virtually drink in the colour and lavish detail of the historical settings.

Aside from the visual and technical details, what gives this film its attraction is its typically Hitchcockian obsessions: the precarious status of women in society and their dependence, regardless of their social class, on being married and their husbands; the hope for renewal and redemption that can be dashed by past historical ghosts; and the plot that revolves around an irascible, flawed man who is wrongly accused of a crime and is forced to pay for it, and the effects that punishment has on him. Hattie appears an innocent woman controlled by her husband and a sinister housekeeper who wants love and security no less than Hattie does. Class conflict is present as well: the reason the Fluskys are in Australia is that they have upset the social order with their love and a low-born stable groom is presumed to have killed his social superior.

Eventual redemption comes to the characters who have sacrificed a great deal, though it means that secret loves must forever remain secret or die. There is conflict between duty and maintaining social order and stability on the one hand; and on the other, natural longing and desire, and the potential for social disruption inherent within. It is this dilemma that faces Charles Adare, Hattie, Sam and Milly, and one in which each choice and its alternative are irrevocable, and their consequences are heart-break and sorrow. At the same time there is a possibility of renewal and hope for new futures.

Frantic: a cool and not at all frantic lightweight homage to Hitchcock

Roman Polanski, “Frantic” (1988)

For a film proclaiming itself “Frantic”, this suspense thriller is surprisingly cool, calm and collected as it follows its hapless protagonist doctor with an air of bemusement. This is definitely not one of Polanski’s better films: the plot, stretched out over two hours, is very lightweight and its characters are more representative of various stereotypes than real people. The film works as both homage to Alfred Hitchcock and a comic expression of a theme dear to Polanski’s heart: the outsider, displaced for some reason in a society that treats him/her with indifference and sometimes hostility, having to navigate his/her way through that society and come to grips with it in order to solve a problem.

Dr Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife (Betty Buckley) have just arrived in Paris to attend a conference. While settling in their hotel room, trying to cope with jet lag, the couple find they have the wrong suitcase. They make some calls to the lobby and the airport and then Walker decides to take a shower. While he cleans himself, the missus answers a call at the door and disappears. Initially Walker thinks his wife has popped out for a while but as the time passes by, he realises something is amiss. His realisation soon turns into alarm and he reports her missing to the police and then the US consulate but the authorities treat his plight with blank-faced unhelpfulness. Walker takes matters into his own hands and searches for his wife despite not knowing how to speak French and brushing up against the local people’s assumptions about Americans being stupid and crude. With the help of a young woman Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose case was swapped accidentally at the airport with his wife’s case, Walker discovers he and his wife have stumbled into an amoral underworld of spies trading dangerous secrets for money and using innocent and ultimately disposable people. Not only is his wife’s life in danger but Walker finds that he and Michelle are also targets for intimidation and violence.

Several familiar Hitchcockian ploys and devices are at play here: McGuffin elements are plentiful and Dr Walker represents a fairly typical if very middle class everyday man thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into a world (indeed, two worlds) unfamiliar to him. He first has to navigate the world of nightclubbing, easy drugs, prostitution and lax morality to find the first clues that lead him to Michelle and then tread warily through another even more secret corrupt and violent world of espionage. Unfortunately this scenario is treated rather unevenly and superficially, and viewers get no sense of Walker ever having to question the perhaps narrow and conservative morality he was brought up with and takes for granted. There is also no sense of Michelle being forced to question the values and morality of her world; she remains essentially a feral child throughout the film.

A major problem with this film is the one-dimensional characters who are more symbolic than real. Ford does what he can with his role as middle-aged and respectable white Anglo-American tourist of somewhat limited horizons thrust into scenarios both embarrassing and helpful to him. In order to find his wife, he must rely on a young woman of dubious reputation and mix with her social scene. This pairing of unlikely opposites is worked for comic effect in some scenes in which Walker and Michelle come across his medical colleagues who think the two are having an affair. As the film proceeds from Walker’s point of view, we are not treated to scenes where Michelle’s friends think she’s got a rich sugar daddy and try to press her to get money off Walker. Now that would have been amusing to see! Michelle initially presents as a stereotypically defiant goth girl who fell in with a wrong crowd as a teenager and survives by her wits and taking on quite dubious jobs like being a drug mule; she sort of has a heart of gold beneath the cynicism. Her streetwise instincts however become her undoing. Ultimately there’s no sense at all that Walker and Michelle have changed much as a result of meeting each other and having to work together to get what they want. All other characters are essentially props that help the action along and flesh out the scenery.

Polanski’s mischievous sense of humour is evident in scenes that involve a small statue, a replica of a much larger one familiar to New Yorkers, carrying the detonation codes for a nuclear bomb and Walker’s attempt to negotiate with some American diplomats. However the humour is not much comfort in a film that seems very hollow and which Polanski could have done better had it carried more fire about the duplicity and corruption of the world of espionage, and how it endangers the lives of innocent people who are accidentally caught up in it.

 

Topaz: lacking in the suave Hitchcockian style but still its director’s offspring in theme and motifs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Topaz” (1969)

Coming towards the tail-end of a long and illustrious career in film direction, this Cold War spy thriller is one of two 1960s movies that Alfred Hitchcock made in the then popular secret agent film genre. By then, there was a glut of secret agent films in both cinema and TV and perhaps Hitchcock was ill-advised to join the bandwagon. “Topaz” may not look or play like a typically smooth and suave Hitchcockian film but it still possesses elements and themes typical of the work of the Master of Suspense. In contrast with many spy films of the 1960s, “Topaz” shows intelligence work as risky, dangerous and involving tests of character and one’s ethics as people betray one another and are themselves betrayed, and suffer the consequences of betrayal in torture and death. Relationships come under strain and are broken with perhaps no chance of reconciliation. Deception and self-interest count for more than honour, love and loyalty to others, and even close family can be dispensed with as part of collateral damage if necessary in service to one’s masters.

In 1962, just after the US and the Soviet Union have come close to nuclear war in the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba, a senior Soviet agent and his family defect to the US and are taken to Washington DC for debriefing. There, the agent reluctantly informs his CIA handlers that the Cubans are hosting Soviet missiles and the Soviet Union has a group of NATO double agents working under the codename Topaz in Paris who have infiltrated the French intelligence service. Senior CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe) recruits French intelligence officer Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to go to Cuba and obtain information about these missiles as the country is off-limits to Americans and the Cuban government would be suspicious of lone Americans wandering about the Cuban countryside even as tourists or business workers. Over the objections and tears of his wife Nicole, Devereaux embarks on his mission. He obtains some information from an old pal Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) who narrowly escapes being shot  by bodyguards of a Cuban government official, Rico Parra (John Vernon) who is visiting New York to appear at the opening of the United Nations headquarters. Devereux then flies off to Cuba and into the arms of Juanita (Karin Dor), his secret Cuban mistress, who helps him with his mission to collect photographic evidence of the missiles. The grunt work is done by Juanita and her household servants in an ingenious scheme but they are undone by their carelessness and a bunch of hungry seagulls (well, birds were never Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite animals) and these traitorous Cubans suffer grievous consequences when they are cornered and arrested by Cuban government and security officials.

Back in Washington DC, Devereaux discovers that his wife has deserted him. He hands the information to Nordstrom who then informs him that the Topaz group exists for real. The rest of the film is given over to Devereaux trying to uncover the identities of the members of Topaz and of its leader in particular.

The film looks good if old-fashioned for its period but the colours suit the generally serious and sombre tone of the plot and its concerns. None of the cast was very remarkable at the time the film was made: John Forsythe’s fame would come much later with TV series like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Dynasty”. The acting ranges from merely efficient on Stafford’s part to good or above-average on the part of the actors playing Juanita and Rico Parra, the only characters who show any genuine emotion and who have more redeeming features than most of the cast. Browne as Dubois is the only really appealing character who steals all his scenes.

The interesting aspect of the film, given its historical context, is that the good guys – those supposedly working for democracy and freedom – are often portrayed as self-serving and lacking in moral backbone while the bad guys, serving Communism, are often intelligent and principled people. Rico Parra does not come off badly at all; he kills Juanita himself to prevent her from suffering torture and his love for her appears more heartfelt than what Devereaux has so far expressed towards her. The defecting Soviet agent comes across as a peevish and ungrateful fellow, his wife is shallow and their daughter is spoilt and selfish. The CIA officers only value the defector for as long as he has information that they can pump out of him; after he hands over the information, they will set him up with a new identity and a job, and then he and his family are pretty much out on their own. Devereaux and Nicole are unfaithful to each other and both their liaisons are nearly their undoing. Even their daughter and her husband, minor characters though they are, are a bit grasping and Devereaux himself sees nothing wrong in risking his son-in-law’s life.

The film excels in its design and in the way key scenes are shot: there are several passages of completely silent film in which significant action occurs and Juanita’s death scene is remarkable in the way her purple dress billows out imitating the spread of her blood. Scenes of black humour also appear, notably in the way the seagulls give away the presence of Juanita’s helpers to Cuban guards.

While this is not one of Hitchcock’s best films and the acting and plotting are patchy with the seams showing in the stitching, “Topaz” still manages to intrigue with its cast of non-heroic and morally suspect heroes and heroic, morally upstanding villains, and its themes of moral duplicity, deception and expedience serving as the means to an end. Espionage is not the glamorous profession most people reared on James Bond films and its spin-offs imagine. “Topaz” might lack the suave style of earlier Hitchcock films but even as a so-so effort, it’s still better than a lot of current spy thrillers coming off the Hollywood assembly line.

Shadow of a Doubt: innocence, a happy family and insular small town America menaced by an outside force

Alfred Hitchcock, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1942)

A dark film that explores the potential for violence beneath the patina of an apparently happy family, “Shadow of a Doubt” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favourites. While the film is not distinctly Hitchcockian in most of its set pieces, it does feature strong characterisation and builds tension steadily but surely to its unexpected and shocking climax. The film’s cast may not be hugely famous but main actors Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright give strong performances as Uncle Charlie and his niece Charlie respectively.

Uncle Charlie suddenly appears in the small community of Santa Rosa, surprising his sister and her husband’s family who are wealthy and prominent folks. He quickly charms everyone in the family and the wider community with his good looks and worldly manners. He inveigles his way into his eldest niece Charlie’s affections: the girl herself has just left high school and is biding her time waiting for a suitor to woo and marry her. At the same time, two detectives posing as local news reporters looking to do a story on her family show up and Uncle Charlie, on seeing them, behaves rudely and abruptly towards them. The detectives spot this odd behaviour and warn the girl Charlie. Gradually the girl realises that Uncle Charlie may be a serial killer wanted by police across America for having married and then murdered various rich widows. At the same time, Uncle Charlie suspects that his niece knows who he is and he decides to get rid of her once and for all before she can warn her family.

It’s not often that two characters develop and mature into rich and realistic characters and Cotten and Wright seize the opportunity to fill their parts convincingly. Cotten plays the part of the suave and charming but sinister outsider who has the potential to split a whole family apart; Wright plays the innocent and sheltered young woman who must discover her inner courage and who learns something of the ways of the outside world with natural style and warmth. The other cast members basically fit around the two actors but special mention must go to actors Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn who play young Charlie’s father and his neighbour who keep up a running patter of jokes about killing each other as a humorous and tension-easing counterpoint to the main plot narrative.

Parts of the narrative may strain credibility but there is real tension that is sustained throughout and the film moves smartly and confidently to the inevitable (though rather unbelievable) showdown between Uncle Charlie and young Charlie. Unusually for films of its time, “Shadow …” features a climax in which the heroine is forced to fend for herself; the expected knight in shining armour cannot help her in her hour of need.

Hitchcock manages to insert many of his beloved themes into “Shadow of a Doubt”: the notion of an innocent world, represented by Santa Rosa, invaded by dark forces from outside; the contrast between appearances and the underlying dark reality; the social restrictions on young women like young Charlie, at the start of the film yearning for a more interesting life, who as a result are made vulnerable to predatory men in their quest for love and marriage; and familiar things and concepts turning out to be sources of menace and life-threatening danger. There might also be a sly dig at the American worship of family as an institution where one feels safe and secure, everyone gets along well and there are no closeted skeletons that rattle at inopportune times.

Refreshingly for a tense psychological thriller about a serial murderer, there’s no violence until the very end and even there Hitchcock deals with that brief scene of violence efficiently with quick edits. The climax is hokey and looks cut-and-paste clunky after everything that has built up towards it. Shame.

The use of camera is very deft in suggesting that the family home has hidden secrets and dangers. Long-range shots and voyeuristic scenes seen through windows or from the top of a staircase feature throughout the film. The use of light and shadows as contrasts to illustrate the action and heighten the conflicts boiling through the film is excellent.

Other directors like David Lynch would follow in Hitchcock’s foot-steps in portraying happy families and small town communities that turn out to be dysfunctional in some way; Hitchcock made sure to set the bench high for them to jump with this film.

Hitchcock: offering banal fluff about Hitch’s marriage, ignoring complexities behind the making of “Psycho”

Sacha Gervasi, “Hitchcock” (2012)

Fifty years after Alfred Hitchcock released his film “Psycho”, both director and movie alike remain subjects of fascination for many people throughout the world. Now Sacha Gervasi has offered his version of what was happening in Hitchcock’s life during the making of “Psycho”. Alas and alack, Gervasi’s eponymous movie gives us fluff about the state of Hitchcock’s marriage to Alma Reville and her contribution to Hitchcock’s success. There is actually very little in the film beyond the usual banal excuses about taking risks as to why Hitchcock felt compelled to adapt Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho”. Instead of some serious insight into Hitch’s motivations and decision to make “Psycho” in black-and-white film, we are treated to a needless sub-plot that involves Alma and the script-writer who wrote the screenplay for an earlier Hitchcock film “Strangers on a Train”.

The film is neatly bounded in two scenes of Hitch (Anthony Hopkins)  presenting the film to the audience as though it were another episode in his famous 1960s TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. The early part of the movie when Hitch, flush from the success of his latest hit “North by Northwest”, starts scouting for a new film project, finds it and then tries to get funding for it from Paramount Studios, whose head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) is aghast at the idea of a film based on the life of a notorious serial killer, is very interesting for what it says and highlights about how artistic creativity and integrity are too often squashed by commercial considerations. The studio and censorship agency featured in the film think they alone know what the public desires. Initially Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) also opposes hubby’s determination to make “Psycho” but both she and Paramount Studios relent when Hitch decides to self-finance the film. The process of hiring actors for the various roles takes place, Paramount Studios gives Hitch the studio lot and technical crew he needs, a script-writer is found to adapt the Bloch novel, and away Hitch goes.

Feeling under-appreciated and tired of treating her husband like a baby because he refuses to give up his bad habits and exercise, Alma is attracted to the idea of working with her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) on a screenplay. This work takes her away from Hitch and “Psycho” and causes a rift between her and him when he suspects her of having an affair with Cook behind his back. Predictably “Psycho”, when completed, turns out rather badly and soon the Hitchcocks are facing financial ruin. Then Reville discovers that Cook has been romancing another woman behind her back. She promptly flies back to Hitch’s side, agrees to help him on the post-production process of “Psycho” and – well, whattaya know? – “Psycho” ends up slaying the cinema audiences in the aisles.

A second, more insubstantial sub-plot also underlies “Hitchcock”: this is Hitch’s private world in which the serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) carries out his gruesome murders and mutilations of various women in Wisconsin state in the 1950s with Hitch imagining himself actually at the scene of several of these crimes, watching Ed do his grisly work and hearing him talk about it as well. This part of the film frankly isn’t needed and could have been left on the cutting-room floor. Ed’s contribution to “Psycho” comes across as very vague and we also learn nothing about his background and the psychological and physical isolation of the man and how that influenced his thinking and behaviour.

The marital rollercoaster of Hitch and Alma makes for entertaining viewing and gives Hopkins and Mirren opportunities to enrich their characters (though Hopkins with all his padding seems uncomfortable) but ultimately it is very banal and superficial, and turns the two into just another middle-aged couple in mid-life crisis. Alma mothers Hitch and he deliberately behaves like a petulant child: big deal. Part of the problem is that Mirren all but steals the show from an overly made-up Hopkins: one could cast her as a stolid, pasty-faced and overweight peasant babushka in a faithful remake of a Soviet tractor musical and she would still look like a far too sexy 60-year-old. Indeed, the first shot we see of Mirren in “Hitchcock” is in bra and slip, just as the first shot of Janet Leigh in “Psycho” itself was done in bra and slip. The mundane probability is that Reville, while important to Hitch in his work, was not an equal partner as “Hitchcock” suggests. If she had been even half as sixty-something siren-like as Mirren, she and Hitch would have had more children other than just their daughter Patricia who inexplicably is whitewashed out of the film in spite of landing a small role in “Psycho” as Marion’s secretary colleague in the real estate office.

The other actors bravely hold up their own: special mention goes to Toni Collette as Hitch’s long-suffering bespectacled assistant and to James D’Arcy for nailing Anthony Perkins in an audition scene in which he puts his hand between his legs and massages his thigh (same as what Perkins himself did in a scene in “Psycho”). Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel look like startled rabbits about to be made roadkill by a semi-trailer at night with headlights on in their respective roles as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles but they otherwise perform competently. Probably the only actor who really lets down the side is Huston who is one-dimensional as Cook.

The film feebly tries to explore Hitch’s supposed obsession with his leading ladies and his puzzlement over why they always “betray” him (with the insinuation that they do so because he is too controlling) but glibly resolves the issue by reconciling him and Alma, his true “Hitchcock blonde”. The reality is much more complex: the film attaches too much attention to the apparent “blonde” obsession and ignores Hitch’s sympathy for women, the way they are treated by society and are expected to sacrifice themselves and their individuality for marriage and child-bearing. There is nothing said about Hitch’s hostility towards authority figures and the way he portrays the police force as indifferent, incompetent and sinister in “Psycho”.

“Hitchcock” could have said far more about Hitch’s battles with Paramount Studios and the censors, and what these say about the social and political climate that prevailed in the United States in the late 1950s / early 1960s. At a time when Stephen Soderbergh is reported to have found Hollywood unwilling to finance his biopic about the US entertainer Liberace because the movie is – wait for it – too gay (duh?), “Hitchcock” could have been an interesting commentary on how talented film-makers are often forced to take quite dangerous personal risks and improvise ways of subverting studio restrictions and censorship rules, in the process turning out quite remarkable works.

The Ring: an early technical triumph for Alfred Hitchcock in the sport movie genre

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Ring” (1927)

An early triumph for the young Alfred Hitchcock, released in the same year as his better known “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”, the boxing film “The Ring” deserves its own accolade as one of his more technically accomplished films from the silent movie era. Already the film features much symbolism in its name alone: there is the obvious reference to the boxing ring but the title also refers to a wedding ring, a bracelet and the love triangle that is the movie’s heart. Themes familiar to Hitchcock fans are not so much in evidence here and the major attractions lie in Hitchcock’s increasingly confident use of editing, montage, the camera as voyeur and development of character through action and emotion.

Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) works his way up as a boxer from fighting amateurs at country fairs to professional level. His main ambition is to succeed at boxing and earn enough money to marry the cashier Mabel (Lillian Hall Davis). However Mabel meets another boxer, Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), and falls in love with him. As Sander wins his bouts, he marries Mabel and continues to fight but gradually discovers his wife is still attracted to Bob. He vows to keep on fighting to a level where he can seriously challenge Corby. Eventually the match is arranged and everyone in town turns up to watch the match. Can Gander beat Corby and win back Mabel? Who will Mabel choose?

To us moderns, the story is hokey in its details but Hitchcock was more interested in the love triangle and the characterisation of Mabel who is the most developed character than in portraying boxing as a career in the 1920s. It’s a given in many of Hitchcock’s films that the main female character should be the most complex of the cast, no matter what the plot, and “The Ring” is no different here. Mabel is torn between the shallow, fun-loving life-style that Corby as an established professional boxer can offer her and the plainer, down-to-earth and genuine life that is Jack’s to give. The inner conflict that Mabel experiences is most vividly expressed in the climactic boxing scene where she is seen racing from Corby’s side to Jack’s side and back again. Hall Davis is quite effective as Mabel and has a lovely beauty in several shots. Unfortunately her career in films was short-lived; the arrival of talkies cut short further success and she committed suicide in 1933. Brisson brings to his role an imposing physical presence and height, and experience as an amateur boxer; he’s not much of an actor but he has a frank and open sincerity that makes him perfect as a wronged man. Ian Hunter as Corby hasn’t much to do apart from playing suave and seductive; he was to have a long film career that lasted nearly 40 years.

The film shows German Expressionist influences in a number of scenes and although the plot can be quite involved, it is skilfully relayed so as to rely on very few titles cards and the flow of the narrative is not disrupted as a result. Throughout his career, Hitchcock never forgot his roots in silent film and a number of his later movies, even famous ones made in the late 1950s and early 1960s like “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”, feature extended scenes where nothing is said. The boxing scene where Sander and Corby settle their differences once and for all uses clever edits and a dream-like sequence simulating the effect of slight concussion to draw out and heighten the inner and outer conflicts of the two men: they are fighting not only for their reputations and careers, they are fighting for the love of a woman. There are scenes throughout the film where the camera is used as a voyeuristic device that lets us see how the rivalry between Sander and Corby develops and escalates.

It is quite a slow film in its first half and doesn’t accumulate pace and tension until Mabel’s adultery with Corby becomes overt and Sander’s anger at her betrayal threatens to get the better of him. Minor characters such as Sander’s trainer provide light relief and pause in the tension. Overall “The Ring” is recommended to Hitchcock fans to see how their favourite director was refining his signature style.

The Manxman: love triangle reveals early Hitchcock themes about love, duty and responsibility, and women’s oppression

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Manxman” (1929)

Last of Alfred Hitchcock’s true silent films, “The Manxman” is already straining at the limitations of the silent-film mode with its dark and complicated story of two men, friends since boyhood, who compete for the love of a woman in their small fishing community. Set in a village on the Isle of Man, this unhappy plot takes in quite a few themes that Hitchcock would return to many times over his career as a film director: the rocky path to true love, the individual’s struggle to be true to himself or herself versus social and community obligations, traditions and responsibilities which deny the individual his/her authenticity, the obsession with money and wealth, and the ruin that material aspiration may bring. There is also a message about the impact that class barriers have on people’s lives and desire for happiness and the ruin that comes when people strive for personal freedom and truth and find themselves up against the weight of tradition.

Pete, a poor fisherman, and Philip, a lawyer whose family has supplied the Isle of Man with judges for a long time, have been working together to get a fair deal for their fishing community. They (Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen respectively) have been pals since childhood and trust each other deeply. Pete falls in love with the publican’s daughter Kate (Anny Ondra) but her father rejects him because of his poverty. Pete asks Phil to look after Kate and sails away to Africa to find his fortune. During his time away, Phil and Kate fall deeply in love. The community receives news that Pete has died and the two lovers believe they are free. Pete returns from Africa as a rich man and claims Kate; they marry and move into their new home. Yet Kate still loves Phil and her anguish eats away at her. Phil meanwhile buries himself in work and prepares to become Deemster (judge). Matters reach an extreme point when Kate attempts suicide and Phil must choose between his new career as Deemster and his love for Kate.

Characterisation is strong if rather stereotyped: Pete is played as a simple man lacking in insight who unthinkingly forces Phil and Kate to be together; Phil is more intelligent if less brave; and Kate, the most complex of the three, is the most true to herself and the strongest, determined not to live a lie and to be with the man she loves in spite of his cowardice. Character development is rather uneven, most of it occurring at the climax when Phil and Kate admit their affair and Pete realises the emotional torture he put his best friend and his love through. Although the film ends uncertainly for the three main characters, the outcome is also satisfactory for the audience as the deceit has ended and Pete is almost literally a new man, having learned that money, wealth and increased social status cannot buy or keep love.

The film was made in a fishing village on the Isle of Man and has much of the flavour of the community there though the plot and characters strongly dominate in nearly all scenes. There are beautiful shots of the landscape and something of the lives of the fisherfolk and their customs is clear. Tradition is quite strong and the people have a simple and robust Christian faith and belief in their Manxian traditions which, unfortunately, prove ineffective against young romantic love and a woman’s desire to live a true life. Hitchcock is sympathetic to Kate’s needs and desires but balances his sympathy with respect and sympathy for the fishing community. Kate’s love rivals are lesser men compared to the woman but eventually derive their strength and maturity from her example.

Although made at quite an early time in Hitchcock’s career, “The Manxman” bears comparison with later Hitchcock films like “Vertigo”, “Psycho” and “The Birds”, all of which share in the film’s concerns about love, duty and responsibility, betrayal and how society oppresses women and denies them their worth as individuals.

 

 

Family Plot: skilfully made comedy thriller that deconstructs familiar Hitchcock motifs and themes for laughs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Family Plot” (1976)

Considering that the famous British director was in bad health when he made this film, I find “Family Plot” to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy thriller about two con-artist couples engaged in deception of one form or another – and trying to outwit each other. An elderly lady (Cathleen Nesbitt), remorseful over the way she treated her unmarried sister and the sister’s baby son years ago, consults phony psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) to find out what happened to the nephew. Blanche scents that a huge sum of money may be in the balance and she and her cab-driver boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) try to figure out a way to get it; they find themselves on the trail of one Edward Shoebridge who may or may not be dead. They find out during the course of the film that he certainly is NOT dead; what takes them most of the film’s running time to discover is that Shoebridge is also Arthur Adamson (William Devane), a jeweller who is also a thief, a kidnapper and extortionist, and who with his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) and partner-in-crime Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter) is trying to shake off Blanche and George who are determined to investigate exactly what happened to Shoebridge. Hilariously, Shoebridge / Adamson turns out to be the nephew of the elderly lady.

The film is very much character-driven though the casting seems rather uneven: Harris and Dern as the amateur detectives totally out of their depth in a danger-filled investigation are hilarious (though Harris looks old-fashioned in her Doris Day get-up and is required to overdo the slapstick) while Black and Devane seem miscast and mismatched as partners in both crime and romance. Black is too nice to be a villainous vixen and Devane, very 1970s clean-cut and all flashing white teeth, looks a caricatured oleaginous and smarmy snake-oil dealer for a role that calls for him to be amoral and brutal (his back-story among other things includes his having locked his parents up in their bedroom and then burning the house down). Everything revolves around these couples so it’s just as well that in spite of their clean-cut looks, the actors acquit themselves adequately to well in a vehicle that combines light comedy and slapstick with quite dark and sinister themes in a highly improbable plot. For all his stereotyped moustachioed look, Devane pulls off a difficult role of appearing suave and sophisticated while being really malevolent without a redeeming bone in his body.

Admittedly the film looks dated – it looks more late 1960s than late 1970s in spite of the fashions the actors wear – due to the filming techniques used and the curious mix of dramatic orchestral music that was typical of 1960s Hollywood flicks and the harpsichord-toned soundtrack of the sort that became popular in the 1970s. (The music is the work of the famous Hollywood music composer John Williams.) The pace is slow to begin with but after the first half-hour, it starts to move more briskly and becomes enjoyable. Hitch is not averse to throwing in scenes that might remind viewers of “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief”: for heaven’s sake there’s even a silly and over-long runaway car scene reminiscent of the car chases of “North …” and ” To Catch a Thief”. Indeed, Hitch seems keen on deconstructing beloved motifs of his: the cool blonde lady in the first 20 minutes is really only wearing a wig; Blanche and George emerge from their wrecked car looking clean and tidy; the idea of opposed twins, represented this time by the scheming couples, bumbling amateurs pitted against intelligent professionals, is played for laughs; and the rocky path to romance, usually strewn with danger, death and the odd psycho killer, is more wacky than spine-chilling.

Hitch knew that he’d been left behind by a new generation of film directors, represented by Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg, and that he himself didn’t have much time left in the world so it’s rather fitting that he revisits familiar themes, plot ideas and motifs in a light-hearted deconstructive way that allows him to say goodbye to over fifty years of directing films. “Family Plot” may not rank among his best films but it is competent in execution and for all its aged looks and the miscasting, it has a zest that’s a bit slow to get going … but once it does, it makes the film fun to watch.