Les Diaboliques aka The Devils: psychological horror film thin on plot but thick with suspense, claustrophobia, tension and twisted endings

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Les Diaboliques” aka “The Devils” (1955)

At first “Les Diaboliques” doesn’t seem anything like director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s previous film “Wages of Fear”: one is an action thriller about four truck drivers who undertake a dangerous journey and the other movie is a psychological horror study of two murderers. Look closely though and the similarities are there: there is a great deal of unnerving tension extended through most of the two movies that culminates in more than one climax, with a twist at the end; and the action takes place in an unsympathetic universe where people are exploited by other people in particular social, political and economic environments. The exploited characters may be driven to take whatever action they can, no matter how morally questionable that is, to free themselves from exploitation and to restore meaning and purpose to their lives. “Les Diaboliques” follows two such people who take what is clearly unlawful action to free themselves. One of the two experiences a new kind of prison, a psychological one, that threatens her health and her life as well.

Christina Delasalle and her husband (Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse) run a boys’ boarding school in Paris. She teaches several subjects and he as principal attends to the administration and paperwork. Michel is also having an affair with a teacher, Miss Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and moreover flaunts the romance openly so even the children giggle about it behind Christina’s back. He abuses both women physically and mentally but though she is unhappy and despondent, Christina refuses to divorce her husband due to her strong religious beliefs. Nicole, also unhappy, suggests to the wife that they work together to kill Michel. Christina hesitates at first but agrees. The women lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment in a small village during a public holiday when the school is closed and the boys have gone home; they get the tyrant drunk and drown him in a bath-tub full of water. They drive his body back to the school and dump it in the muddy, leaf-covered swimming pool. A few days later, the women find an excuse to drain the pool, only to discover the corpse has disappeared.

Bizarre incidents occur that suggest that Michel could be alive or his ghost is haunting the school, leaving Christina and Nicole seriously rattled. Christina starts searching for Michel’s corpse and meets retired police detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) who is personally interested in the case and begins to snoop around the school for clues in spite of her protests. While Fichet conducts his investigation, the women argue and bitch about who is more guilty of murder, and end up falling out. Nicole packs her bag and departs the school, and Christina is left alone and vulnerable to strange goings-on at night that hint that Michel is not only not dead but has come to harass her.

The tension and unease that extend throughout the movie are sustained by a combination of various filming methods and tricks such as the use of close-ups of objects or actions, odd camera angles and particular rotations of the camera as it follows an action or takes in an image; and clearly defined characters in Christina and Nicole whose differing personalities and views on morality highlight their susceptibility to pangs of conscience while the murder remains undiscovered and unsolved. Viewers know their alliance will be very short-lived. At the same time the teachers seem to have more than Michel in common and there are hints of a developing lesbian relationship with Nicole the bossy leader and Christina the passive, girlish partner. Signoret plays the forceful Nicole well. Vera Clouzot, wife of the film’s director, has a tougher job playing a resigned, submissive woman burdened by despair initially and then by guilt and self-abasement after the murder, but she holds up her part adequately enough. In the climactic bath-tub scene, Clouzot’s reaction to what she sees coming out of the water seems wooden and a little overplaying of fright and terror wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Slightly hammy acting in this scene would also support this writer’s idea that Christina might be playing Nicole and the other school staff for fools as suggested by the film’s coda that involves a boy and his slingshot.)

The film is at its strongest in scenes where Christina, though physically weak from nervous stress and guilt, leaves her bed at night to investigate an intrusion into Michel’s quarters at the school and walks through dark corridors towards a lit room; here the camera’s roaming, the snappy editing, the odd shots of moving legs or gloved hands sliding up bannisters, the unusual points of view emphasising the length of corridors or door angles illuminated by flashes of light from behind, and close-ups of Christina’s wide-eyed terror, all increase and prolong the tension to the movie’s climax. The voyeuristic style of filming which forces the viewers to follow and share Christina’s fright recalls the methods favoured by Clouzot’s more famous contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. “Les Diaboliques” also shares with many of Hitchcock’s films a black humour, especially in scenes between Christina and Fichet, who insists on offering his investigative services for free, and in scenes involving Nicole’s apartment neighbours who complain about the noise of the running bath-water above them.

Though the world where “Les Diaboliques” takes place is a depressingly mean-spirited and restricted one where characters exploit one another for selfish personal gain and freedom can be gained only by transgressing social and moral rules set up by equally selfish others, the whole movie seems thin compared to Hitchcock’s more layered, psychoanalytically influenced thrillers like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”.  Plot discrepancies are very noticeable in “Les Diaboliques” and the audience needs to fill in blanks such as: how does Fichet work out what Nicole is doing with Michel’s corpse? what’s going on with Christina after two people are taken into police custody? could Fichet and Christina have been working together? – as director Clouzot, perhaps deliberately, leaves much unexplained about Christina’s fate after the end credits start to roll. Also if Clouzot had given a bit more back-story to both Christina and Nicole and allowed Michel a more rounded personality than simply making him a petty dictator, viewers might have felt more sympathy for the women as they struggle with their guilt, bad consciences and trying to justify to themselves and to each other that what they did to Michel was what he deserved. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and stereotyped: Christina as the passive, submissive good-girl wife who finds it difficult not to do as she’s told, Nicole as the icy bossy-boots schemer and Michel as all-out misogynist who marries only for money and dumps women when he sees fit.

“Les Diaboliques” is still worth a look though for the two trick endings and the way in which Clouzot builds up and maintains unease, suspense, and a sense of claustrophobia in the lead-up to the climax. Apart from this, the movie isn’t otherwise remarkable in the way it unfurls the narrative and yours truly has the feeling it sticks fairly closely to the original source material.

The film was based on a pulp crime fiction novel “Celle qui n’était plus” (known in English as “The Woman who was no more”) by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud aka Thomas Narcejac. According to legend and depending on which version of the legend you hear, Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights to this novel by half an hour to several hours after finishing “Wages of Fear”. Boileau and Narcejac later offered Hitchcock the film rights to their next novel “D’entre les morts” (“The Living and the Dead”) which the British-American director made into “Vertigo”. Hitchcock must still have been a bit sore at losing the film rights to the earlier book as he set out to beat Clouzot at his own game and the result was the famous “Psycho”. Between “Les Diaboliques” and “Psycho”, viewers certainly will think twice about taking long baths or hot showers!

North by Northwest: fun escapist enjoyment that encapsulates Hitchcock’s inner world

Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest” (1959)

After the intense “Vertigo” which initially wasn’t a great box office success, Hitchcock chose to film a light-hearted chase thriller story featuring his familiar and favourite motifs and obsessions, a touch of romance and a climax that would take place on the famous Mount Rushmore monument. As with many of his films, the hero is an everyday man who may have a doppelgänger (in this instance, a non-existent one) and who is wrongly suspected of a crime for which he is pursued and which he is determined to solve himself. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a middle-aged New York advertising executive minding his own business when he is suddenly kidnapped by spies led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his chief henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) who mistake him for another man, George Kaplan. Vandamm and Leonard set up Thornhill to die in a car accident but Thornhill foils their plan in a hilarious driving sequence; sozzled on too much bourbon, he’s the only one to avoid hitting or crashing into anyone and anything and everyone else, driving sober, creates the chain of collisions. Through a series of misadventures, Thornhill ends up being chased by both unseen spies and the police so to evade them, he catches an inter-state train to Chicago. On the trip he meets a passenger, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him from the police while on board and while leaving the train station in Chicago. Eve arranges for Thornhill to meet George Kaplan who presumably will explain everything to him and she gives Thornhill directions to the place where he’ll meet the mystery spy.

Thornhill narrowly escapes being killed by a crop-dusting biplane in remote prairie country and makes his way back to Chicago where he discovers Kendall is in cahoots with Vandamm and Leonard at an auction, buying a small statue. Thornhill, finding himself trapped at the auction by Vandamm’s men, creates uproar and ends up being arrested by police. The cops deliver him to a man called the Professor (Leo G Carroll) who tells him Kaplan doesn’t exist but was a ruse created to distract Vandamm away from Kendall. The Professor tries to keep an eye on Thornhill and help Kendall maintain her deception of Vandamm by flying Thornhill to Rapids City, South Dakota, then to the Mount Rushmore national park in a staged ruse that puts Thornhill in hospital. Our man escapes and makes his way to Vandamm’s hide-out. He discovers that Leonard has proved Kendall’s disloyalty to Vandamm by testing her gun for blanks and the two villains plan to dump her out of their plane once airborne. Thornhill successfully warns Kendall of the plan and manages to snatch her away at the last minute from Vandamm, Leonard and another man, Valerian (Adam Williams), while they are boarding the plane. Kendall has the good sense to grab the statue bought at the auction and she and Thornhill race away with it. They are forced to climb over and down the Mount Rushmore monument with the enemy spies hot on their heels. Meanwhile the Professor, having found out that Thornhill escaped his custody, is on his way to the Mount Rushmore monument to get both Thornhill and Kendall.

On one level “North by Northwest” is good escapist fun with spectacular settings, sequences that combine comedy, danger and nick-of-time good timing, and a fine if under-used cast of actors playing roles that would be milked by the later James Bond movies: a suave and debonair hero with a flair for double entendres and one-liners; a cool mystery woman, at once capable and vulnerable, whose loyalties may be in doubt; and secret enemy agents who have as much wit, intelligence and style as they have brawn and a vicious streak. While Grant doesn’t do ordinary, everyday mummy’s boy too well – Thornhill is supposed to develop from drab, commonplace office executive with an undistinguished background to a resourceful hero who discovers strengths and talents he never knew he had – the actor manages the transition smoothly and gives credibility to a character whose details initially seem contradictory and can stretch belief. As mother’s pet, Grant’s interpretation appears more rebellious and put-upon, and as for Thornhill’s awkwardness with women, the actor has obvious difficulty with that! The character though ends up impressing viewers with intelligence, curiosity and tenacity beneath a suave, almost unflappable veneer as he tries to prove his innocence and true identity.

Saint mixes the right amount of gutsiness, duplicity and vulnerability in her role, Mason makes his silkily cultured yet sinister villain Vandamm look like a cakewalk and Landau almost steals the villains’ corner of the show from Mason with his portrayal of a tough henchman who may secretly have the hots for his boss. Interesting that three actors in the cast (Martin Landau, Leo G Carroll, Edward Platt) would end up playing significant or at least regular roles in 1960’s TV spy-themed shows (“Mission Impossible”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Get Smart” respectively) which might reflect the impact “North …” made on audiences and the film industry on its release to the extent that members of its cast found themselves typecast. Even Grant and Mason were under consideration to play James Bond in the first film of the JB franchise in spite of their ages (they were both fiftysomething). This may say something for the quality of character actors Hitchcock assembled for his film.

On another level, “North …” may be a comment on deception as a tool in modern society: all significant characters in the film, Thornhill included, must pretend to be what they’re not to achieve their objectives, elude others or just to survive. Even the plot is deceptive as “North …” dives into sidelines that have no significance other than to provide extra thrills and chills up the spine, and the movie appears to lack direction. In an age in which the United States and the Soviet Union preferred to conduct their hostilities through propaganda, espionage, competing to send people into space, building up weapons and armies, and fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America through various client states, “North …” may be as political as Hitchcock dared to be in a commercial movie context. The auction scene in a way is revealing of the play-acting and deception prevailing in society: Thornhill intuits that the small statue on offer may not be what the auctioneers and most of the audience take it to be, and openly declares it a “fake”, not knowing its true value to Vandamm and Kendall.

As a film whose script was intended by scripter Ernest Lehman to be the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, “North …” is laden with the familiar Hitchcockian tropes of the wronged man, the possibility that he may have a double, the feisty blonde heroine, hidden homosexuality, fear and paranoia in everyday life, a character with a mother complex, romantic comedy laced with sexual innuendo, the control of women and their bodies by men, fear or defiance of figures of authority (fathers, the police), MacGuffin objects that everybody chases but which have no relevance to the plot, a twist in the story and trains as sexual metaphor.

Though the film wasn’t intended to have any symbolism, symbolism can be found in it depending on where viewers are coming from. Thornhill’s quest is as much a quest for his true inner self as it is a fight to clear his name and find out who George Kaplan is. Trains, especially US interstate passenger trains, in Hitchcock’s movies are sites of unexpected meetings with strangers, hidden secrets and transformation. (What Hitchcock might have made of something like “Snakes on a Plane” can only be guessed at.) Even the progress of action from New York, that centrepiece of deception via diplomacy and the capital of advertising and public relations, to Chicago to South Dakota where (presumably) people are more honest and as open as the cornfield and prairie landscapes, to the climax on a bare mountain, can be construed as a gradual lifting away of the veil of deception and play-acting to reveal truth and corruption. And what could be more open – or perhaps less “open” – than the granite facade of the Mount Rushmore monument which itself carries layered symbolism in the choice of four former US presidents, themselves controversial figures even now, to honour, and in its own conception, construction history and what it represents to different groups of people? The monument is located in an area seized by the US government from the native Lakota (Sioux) owners and it was sculpted under the supervision of artist Gutzon Borglum who was a Ku Klux Klan member; the project itself was conceived to promote tourism, an industry relying on deception and exploiting people’s dreams and preconceptions. Of all the people and objects in “North …” that aren’t what they seem, Mount Rushmore may be the most deceptive of them all.

From a technical point of view, “North …” is notable for its use of moving text in its opening credit sequence, created by Saul Bass, to suggest the outlines of the United Nations building in New York and hint at the climax in which people will have to climb down a mountain face. Camerawork features aerial points of view that prefigure the Mount Rushmore climbing scenes  are noteworthy in how they emphasise particular actions and advance the plot. In one significant scene, Thornhill on an internal catwalk flicks a message to Kendall that lands on the floor; from Thornhill’s elevated point of view, viewers see Leonard pick up the item and place it on a coffee table, then Kendall scoop it up after he turns his back on her, in masterly shots that generate maximum suspense. The orchestral music score by Bernard Herrmann is florid, melodramatic and even screechy in parts. (Hitchcock fanatics who insist on watching the director’s films in chronological order can see how “North …” fits between “Vertigo” and “Psycho” in its technical details.) The high technical quality and polish evident throughout the movie, not to mention its ideas, put Hitchcock in serious contention to direct the first James Bond movie but fortunately or unfortunately perhaps the then owners of the James Bond character decided he was better off in his own little world.

Of course, “North …” didn’t turn out to be the Hitchcock film that ended all Hitchcock films and there are other Hitchcock films that surpass it in visual presentation, technical flair and overall plot originality. Perhaps it only fulfils Lehman’s prediction in that it encapsulates more of Hitchcock’s inner world than Hitchcock’s other films do. For sheer playful enjoyment though, this film is a highlight in Hitchcock’s overall body of work.

Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): film labours under director’s favourite themes and obsessions

Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)

As with many other films made by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” plumbs the theme of two men twinned together by unusual circumstances, each man the other’s doppelgänger, and with one man blamed and pursued for the crimes of his dark twin. In “Strangers …”, the presumed hero Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an all-American good guy: born into the working-class, through talent and hard work he becomes a successful and famous amateur tennis player who through his friendship with a senator’s family is destined for a career in politics; the villain Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is a spoilt high society playboy who stalks Guy and tries to blackmail him through his murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott). Had the film been directed by anyone else in the 1950’s, the roles of Guy and Bruno would be clear-cut: the naive Guy might make mistakes of judgement that would compromise him and draw him into Bruno’s web of blackmail and threats, but would learn from his errors and be a better, stronger person at the end, and Bruno might be a one-dimensional sinister criminal from the underworld. Under the Hitchcock blowtorch, these two men, their backgrounds and their relationship become a running commentary on American politics, culture and society of the time and turn conventional Hollywood movie notions of love, sexual attraction, good guys and bad guys on their head.

Guy and Bruno meet accidentally in the dining-room part of a fast train, sitting almost opposite each other casually, as we might do in a crowded food-court at a shopping mall for lunch, and Guy’s foot accidentally brushing against Bruno’s. A subtle homoerotic sub-text is set up immediately and it’s significant that Guy initiates the meeting unconsciously. Bruno already knows much about Guy from reading the newspapers and is aware of the athlete’s unhappy marriage; he proposes that he, Bruno, can get rid of Miriam if Guy can get rid of his (Bruno’s) brutal father. Guy wants no part of the arrangement but his resistance is weak and is interpreted by Bruno as agreement. After this meeting, the movie then explores the nature of Guy and Miriam’s marriage in some detail and viewers learn that Miriam refuses divorce because she wants to live off Guy’s earnings and stop him marrying Anna Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G Carroll) whose patronage Guy might need. Already we see Guy will benefit from Miriam being out of the way; and a phone conversation between Guy and Anna, interrupted by background train noises, reveals Guy’s unconscious wish of strangling Miriam. Bruno soon carries out his part of the “deal” and starts pressuring Guy to complete his part or to reject it and have Bruno tailing him and reminding him of his “guilt”.

As portrayed by Granger, Guy is a conventional, well-meaning but rather naive bunny lacking in moral fibre and strength: Granger definitely isn’t leading-man material but his style and lack of charisma work for the role. Guy is obsessed with keeping up appearances, keeping his public image squeaky-clean and safeguarding his entry into politics, all of which make him vulnerable to Bruno’s suggestions. Walker all but walks off with the movie: he clearly revels in his role as spoilt, rich mummy’s boy Bruno who lives off his parents and dreams of remaking the world either through half-baked inventions or murder according to his particular pseudo-Nietzschean moral code. His mind works methodically, logically: in conversation with two society matrons at a ball, he deftly steers the talk to committing the perfect murder and demolishes the two crones’ suggestions of the best way to knock off people with persuasive yet obvious counter-arguments. Having killed Miriam, he kindly posts a gun, a key and instructions to Guy to help him murder his own dad; innocent that he is and conscious of his wish for Miriam’s death, Guy keeps the weapon and instructions instead of turning them over to the police. Bruno is both sinister and amusing: his murder of Miriam, viewed indirectly as a mirror image in the victim’s dropped spectacles in the grass, is cold-blooded and vicious enough but from then on, the memory of the killing starts to play on his conscience with darkly hilarious and gruesome results at the aforementioned party. He pops up in Guy’s life at unexpected moments: at the evening ball, at Guy’s home and at his tennis matches – in one memorable if fantastic scene, Bruno sits in the middle of a crowd watching the tennis and is the only person who stares straight ahead at Guy on the sidelines while others around him are following the flying ball with their heads; the scene is suggestive on different levels and on one level, Bruno could be said to be a free-thinking, independent individual in a herd of sheep who follow every political trend.

The film encourages audiences to sympathise with Bruno: who doesn’t feel like popping a child’s balloon when rudely accosted by its owner? if you drop an expensive cigarette lighter down a grate, wouldn’t you also bust an arm to get it out? and on watching someone’s wife flirt shamelessly with two strange men she’s picked up off the street and who expect sexual favours from her, wouldn’t you think you were doing the husband a favour (and maybe the hussy as well – she might get raped) by killing her?

The acting support shines in “Strangers …” by flavouring the backgrounds of Bruno and Guy, enriching their relationship and conflict. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) seems dotty with more than one foot in the land of the fairies but this may be a mask for denying her husband and son’s natures; only the portrait she paints of Bruno’s dad hints at the man’s brutality and explains why Bruno is so keen for Guy to kill him. From Bruno’s viewpoint, both he and Guy are oppressed by the institution of Family and they should help free each other in ways that won’t attract the attention of the incompetent police force in the movie. Miriam and Anna’s characters together are a comment on Guy’s attempt to transit from one world to another: Miriam is a free spirit, uninhibited and independent while Anna, otherwise cluey and smart, is demure and knows her place in the Washington DC social set. Interestingly Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock – yes, Hitchcock gave his daughter a job) seems a lot like Miriam in looks, character and tendency to speak out so there’s a possibility that Guy might end up two-timing Anna with the young sister in a life beyond the movie’s confines. Though Miriam and Anna appear older than Guy – the contrast between their characters and Guy’s indecisive nature might be intentional – their actors achieve a good balance between delineating the women, playing up their contrasts which are as much due to social class differences as in individual outlook and psychology, on the one hand and overshadowing Guy’s passiveness on the other.

Stand-out scenes in “Strangers …” include Bruno’s pursuit and murder of Miriam, filmed as a shadow play; the alternating scenes of Guy’s drawn-out tennis match and Bruno striving to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter from under the grate, each man pitted against the other in a cosmic joke duel which drags the tension out and bogs the movie down while it lasts; and the hysterically over-the-top climax in which a merry-go-round is accidentally set on overdrive as Bruno and Guy leap onto it and punch each other over the incriminating lighter. The sexual connotations of the whirring merry-go-round (complete with a little old guy crawling underneath it so he can get to the lever in the middle and turn it off, and all those wooden horses pumping up and down on the poles), who punches whose lights out first and the whole contraption crashing down and mortally crushing one of the two men, sending him off into something resembling a post-orgasmic dream reverie, are screamingly funny! Indeed the whole lead-up to and the carousel climax, starting with Anna’s report to Guy that Bruno has his lighter, plus the death scene, might be seen as an act of homoerotic consummation.

For a movie that initially looks and runs like a mainstream popcorn thriller, there’s a lot happening under the radar that comments on aspects of early 1950’s American society as Hitchcock found it. My impression is he went over the top himself and loaded too many themes and issues that took his fancy onto the film: in common with other Hitchcock movies, the plot comes over as implausible and the movie ends up a bit lightweight because of the heavy layering of symbolism. The merry-go-round climax does look like a jokey, self-indulgent afterthought and its slapstick nature doesn’t really fit in with the low-key suspense and subtle comedy in the rest of the film. In a way it’s a pity that “Strangers …” is a black-and-white film (technically speaking): colour would bring out a lot of the visual puns and the scenes relying on shadow play might even be creepier with layered shades of dark and black rather than just grey. The movie’s worth a look at least for Walker’s riveting performance as Bruno.

The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): the movie with the secret code that cracked success for Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” (1935)

Very loosely based on John Buchan’s novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it’s best if you don’t read the novel first – this movie is an early example, if not the first, of a typical Hitchcock movie. An ordinary, innocent man called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) accidentally gets caught up in events in which a murder occurs and he finds himself accused of the crime so he must go on the run to prove his innocence and at the same time find the real killer and the reason for the killing. Going on the run means chases through a train with a narrow escape on a bridge and running through the Scottish moors with their famously moody and unpredictable weather and picturesque sheep farms inhabited by cantankerous loner crofter characters. There are the usual plot twists: a local helpful aristocrat turns out to be the head villainous honcho for the spy plot that led to the initial murder and Hannay becoming a fugitive, and the dastardly fellow shoots Hannay at close range; fortunately a Bible in Hannay’s coat chest pocket stops the bullet and Hannay is on his way again. Entanglement with a cool blonde chick called Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) – hey, women were definitely not in the novel except as extras! – and some fleeting encounters with women call attention to Hitchcock’s interest in detailing romantic attachments and the status of marriage as it plays out in individual couples’ lives. The film becomes a combination of romance comedy and a light crime caper with some violence and several scenes of slapstick and coincidence on one level, and on another level an interrogation into love and human relationships and their often fearful and deadly consequences.

The Buchan novel is in the vein of a Fleming / James Bond adventure in which the hero, who happens to have technical expertise and some military experience, cracks part of a code and engages help from a friendly politician while on the lam to discover and foil a German spy plot against the British empire. Hitchcock took the general premise of an innocent lone man on the run plus some other plot details from the book and dressed them with his own particular obsessions and cinematic devices to create something very different and original. The plot is lightweight against the novel but Hitchcock compensates for the flimsy and often implausible story-line with memorable and witty characters played by adept actors, a pace that is constant and which builds up the tension across locations in London and Scotland, and the use of comedy to stir up murky and unpleasant aspects of love, romance and marriage. Things, customs and people are never what they seem and Hitchcock delights in showing us the dark mirror twins of institutions we take for granted: characters who supposedly represent forces of law and order are in cahoots with the crooks; and a stranger who impulsively kisses ladies may be a lady-killer, figuratively rather than literally. The sudden and swift changes in the surface appearance of objects and people, and in the plot itself – for example, up to a certain point action that had occurred on-screen so far might switch to off-screen action recounted by a character – keep the film lively and flowing with continual and teasing suspense and tension.

By necessity, Donat carries the film for at least half its running time until Hannay meets Pamela a second time by chance. Hannay as presented by Donat is smooth and unflappable with an unexpected resourcefulness and bravado, especially in the scene where he blunders into a political meeting and is mistaken for a speaker. Once Hannay and Pamela are thrown together by the fake police, they literally stay together, handcuffs or no handcuffs, to the end of the movie as Pamela learns from eavesdropping on a conversation that Hannay has been framed for murder and she decides to help him. As played by Carroll, Pamela is a feisty and daring young miss used to getting her own way though sometimes it backfires on her. At least Hannay is gentleman enough not to take advantage of her when she pulls her stockings down in the bedroom while his hand is attached to hers with the handcuffs! The film’s coda suggests Hannay and Pamela decide of their own free will to stay linked and the handcuffs, which in the 1930’s might not yet have acquired all its dubious sexual connotations, dangle and glitter suggestively from beneath Hannay’s sleeve. Images and ideas of wedding rings, control, closeness and violence dance before your eyes.

Not surprisingly the film opened doors for its lead stars Donat and Carroll in Hollywood: Carroll’s career subsequently thrived while Donat, due to chronic ill health and general dislike of Hollywood razz-matazz, ended up with a more modest acting career that did include winning a Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role in “Goodbye Mr Chips”. As for Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps”, appropriately enough considering its subject matter and the nature of The 39 Steps (different from the novel’s 39 Steps), became his code that cracked access to Hollywood’s resources and actors to make bigger and better movies. How indebted Hitchcock was to this film as his breakthrough to Hollywood can be gleaned from other later films he made which in part could pass as remakes of “The 39 Steps”, revisiting and reinterpreting themes and concepts from that movie.

Vertigo: a beautiful film with disturbing themes of obsession and control

Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” (1958)

For a mainstream Hollywood drama, this famous film by Alfred Hitchcock, regarded by some as his greatest work, features some very disturbing themes of which some are applicable to the Hollywood film industry and even to the man himself. In an age when romantic love, marriage and family life were held to be worthy ideals for the public and it was usual for film studios and even directors to mould actors, and especially female actors, into particular stereotypes that emphasised physical attractiveness, a healthy heterosexuality and availability for marriage within the limits of a sexually puritanical society, “Vertigo” subtly undercuts these notions and exposes their sinister implications while blandly appearing to uphold them. Revisiting and idealising the past, bringing it into the present to determine the future, converting a real object or person into its ideal, and that notion’s dark twin of fearing something and trying to suppress it yet being drawn to it and allowing it to define your life and dominate your thoughts and behaviour: these two polarisations form the basis of the vertigo that engulfs former police detective turned private investigator John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) and the women Madeleine and Judy (both played by Kim Novak) whom he loves.

Scotty has recently retired from the police force after his partner’s death from a roof-top fall has left him with a morbid fear of heights. An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), commiserates with him and hires him to follow his wife Madeleine who’s been behaving oddly and may be suicidal. Scotty follows the woman closely in his car as she visits a florist, a museum, an art gallery and other landmarks around San Francisco city. He discovers she is obsessed with the life of a young 19th century woman, Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine’s great-grandmother, who suicided when young. After he saves Madeleine from suicide herself, they fall in love but Madeleine continues to be haunted by Valdes and a recurring dream of a Spanish mission church with a bell-tower. Scotty identifies the building as one just on the city outskirts and takes Madeleine there, hoping this encounter will stop the nightmares. The visit ends tragically when Madeleine climbs to the top of the bell-tower and falls to her death while Scotty, crippled by his phobia, watches helplessly.

He is cleared of murder by a court which declares Madeleine’s death to be a suicide. Scotty becomes depressed and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cares for him for a while. After he recovers, he revisits places that Madeleine had frequented and meets a young woman called Judy. Scotty becomes obsessed with recreating Judy in the image of Madeleine despite the girl’s protestations and when he has made her over, takes her to the church to retrace Madeleine’s death scene. In this way, he hopes to cure his acrophobia and to confirm whether Elster has taken advantage of his illness to stage a suicide scenario to mask his murder of the real Madeleine.

The ingenious plot with its surprising twist may be too clever to take seriously and perhaps there should have been a few clues thrown to viewers early on that Madeleine isn’t all she appears to be. Perhaps the clues are in plain view and repeated viewings of the film are needed to find them all. For one thing, Madeleine should have been aware of someone following her by car and on foot and she should have been afraid – but if she’s acting out a prescribed role, then her lack of concern becomes understandable. Scotty’s discovery of Judy’s dual nature seems hurried and forced as well: how, apart from seeing Judy wearing jewels similar to what he saw in a painting of Carlotta Valdes, does he know he’s been duped? One scene where he’s waiting for Judy to come back from the beautician and the hair salon, during which he could have ruffled through her wardrobe and discovered an incriminating grey suit or gone through her wastepaper basket and pieced together scraps of her confession note, is all that’s needed to give the plot more credibility. On the whole though the plot is spare and easy to follow and it allows for considerable character development and investigation of the movie’s themes of obsession, control of women, and the ease with which fantasy and ideal notions of love can interfere with and harm reality.

Both Stewart and Novak readily identified with some of the film’s themes and threw themselves enthusiastically into their roles; their acting which encompasses some of the noblest and worst of human behaviours is among the best audiences will see in Hollywood films of the 1950’s and brings some credibility to what is a far-fetched story. Viewers will sympathise readily with Scotty’s attempts to deal with his phobia and rebuild his life after Madeleine’s death but will find his intense obsession with Madeleine and his control of Judy’s appearance creepy and repellent. Stewart as both romantic hero and monstrous anti-hero brings the polarities of his role together with ease. Is Scotty any better than his manipulative friend who murdered the real Madeleine? For that matter, can Judy still retain Scotty’s love once he realises she has manipulated him emotionally as he has manipulated her physically?

Geddes’s character Midge who secretly loves Scotty but rejected a past marriage proposal and who acts as his confidante is an interesting person and a counterpoint to the remote Madeleine. She disappears after the movie’s halfway point when Judy enters Scotty’s life and while her absence is much missed and gives “Vertigo” a top-heavy feel, it highlights the extent to which Scotty is unhealthily consumed with draping Madeleine’s image over Judy.

The film’s bright colours and the San Francisco cityscape that includes the bay and the city’s surrounding natural environment where the sea meets land and a church is perched on wide lawns provide a beautiful backdrop to the film’s events. A softening filter is often placed over most scenes in a way reminiscent of romance films of the 1950’s and 1960’s and gives the movie a dreamy fantasy look. The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is by turns dramatic, suspenseful, highly emotional and romantic; it heightens tension in long stretches of the movie where there is no talk. The real and the unreal co-exist and bleed into each other, boundaries between reality and fantasy collapse and the imagined becomes more real than reality. This is illustrated in particular in Scotty’s remarkable dream sequence which includes a cartoon animation of a bouquet falling apart and other animated montages in which Scotty falls into an open grave or falls into the centre of the screen. Another very strange scene where the real intersects with fantasy occurs when Scotty follows Madeleine into a deserted alley and into a shabby backroom of a rundown building. He opens a door and sees Madeleine in a surreal, plush world of flowers, polished floors and wealthy shoppers; the door he is holding happens to be a mirror support. It is as if he has opened a portal into Wonderland.

The film’s structure more or less divides into two, with Madeline dominant in the first half and Judy in the second, yet the second half of the film echoes the first half: landmarks and places visited in the first half of the film are revisited in the second, and even Scotty’s viewing of Judy opening a window in her hotel echoes his sighting of Madeleine opening a window in the McKittrick hotel. Even the manipulation and duplicity of the film is duplicated: Scotty is maniulated by Elster and Madeleine in the film’s first half; in the second half, Scotty himself manipulates Judy. The circularity motif echoes also in the hairstyles of Madeleine and Carlotta in her portrait, and in the flower bouquet which Madeleine buys and which appears again and again in the film.

The film’s pace can be glacial, at least until the second bell-tower scene where, as audiences realise the extent of Scotty’s derangement and start to fear for Judy’s life, the tension skyrockets but otherwise “Vertigo” is well-made with excellent performances. On the plus side it’s beautiful and intriguing to watch with many surprising and innovative technical flourishes.  For a movie with a spare plot and small cast, it lends itself to many interpretations and touches on many aspects of human psychology that will continue to intrigue audiences.

Hitchcock gives plenty of “Rope” in excellent interior murder mystery

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rope” (1948)

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton and based on an actual murder case in which two young men strangled a teenage boy, “Rope” deserves to be a better known Hitchcock film than it is. Shot on one set, the movie is a series of several mobile 10-minute “takes” artfully put together so that the action more or less looks continuous to viewers. This method of filming and structuring the script so that the action took place in real time put a great deal of strain on the cast, especially the lead actors, and on the props people moving furniture during filming so it’s a measure of their ability and composure that most of the seven actors in “Rope” look composed and show tension and strain only when required to by the dialogue-driven plot.

Rich young flatmates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just killed their friend and former classmate David and stashed his body inside a chest. Their housemaid Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanston) returns from shopping and the three prepare a party for David’s family and friends who include his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dirk) who happens to be Janet’s ex-boyfriend. The flatmates also invite their old university teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who taught David as well. The chest is used as the buffet to serve the food. While the party guests wonder why David is taking so long to arrive and if he’s been held up somehow, the hosts steer the small talk to the art of murder and the argument, based on a popular interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, that it’s not murder for someone of superior quality or character to kill a lesser being. Cadell gradually becomes suspicious and deduces from the mix of talk of strangling chickens, David’s absence, Mrs Wilson’s mention that she had the afternoon off to go shopping and circumstantial visual evidence that his old students have indeed applied his teaching literally.

Dall and Granger as the two gay flatmates are great in their roles: Brandon (who may be slightly sociopathic) valiantly strives to maintain an air of cool smug composure and even delight but as the day passes, cracks appear in his pretence as he becomes nervous and starts to stutter at odd times. Conscience-stricken Phillip becomes more agitated and confused and acts in strange ways that arouse Cadell’s suspicions; Granger perhaps starts too early in the film having qualms about his role in the murder and some of his acting verges on the hammy but his overall performance is good. The other guests don’t notice the hosts’ bizarre behaviour: the older people are worried about David, and Janet and Kenneth stare daggers at each other. Stewart, perhaps miscast for his role, affects a kind of stand-offish avuncular intellectual stance which fades out once he suspects his old students are up to something; but his investigative side is well done. Chandler and Dick as the estranged couple don’t have much dialogue together but still put up a credible if sketchy job sorting out their differences amid mutual suspicion and at least agreeing to be friendly again when they leave the apartment.

The film falls flat at its climax when Cadell berates the two flatmates, back-tracking and arguing against what he originally taught the two in his lectures. The suggestion is that philosophy itself as an intellectual exercise, and Nietzschean philosophy in particular, leads people into dangerous and amoral ways of thinking and behaving. The climax might have been stronger if Cadell had not only emphasised David’s humanity but made his argument against murder using the same philosophy and concepts that Brandon and Phillip had used to justify killing their friend. Cadell could have shown them that it is their narrow egotistic and self-serving interpretation of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman that has led them to murder, and in this way the flatmates learn they must be solely responsible for their actions and accept all the consequences, including a possible death penalty, that arise from them. (True Nietzschean Supermen gladly accept everything that life throws at them, including pain, isolation, shame and humiliation if necessary, as a test of their mettle and as something that guides their evolution to a higher state of being and living.) The scene could still be one full of anguish for Cadell and he could still feel guilty for his part in David’s murder, as he comes to realise that perhaps he’s not as good a teacher as he thought.

The use of one set with a constantly roving camera gives a claustrophobic feel to “Rope” and there are many touches of macabre humour in the dialogue, replete with double entendres that add more tension and make Phillip more nervous, and in the dinner party conceit itself: it is more than a farewell party (Brandon and Phillip are planning to drive to Connecticut after the party finishes), it is David’s wake as well. And what could be more gruesome and funny than to serve the food off David’s coffin?

The homosexual relationship of Brandon and Phillip is a definite subtext – Brandon as the more assured, dominant partner, Phillip as the more submissive partner – and the movie suggests they killed David because, apart from being “ordinary”, he is heading for a married life with Janet and can have what Brandon and Phillip can’t have. On the other hand, Brandon and Phillip might regard themselves as “superior” because as homosexuals they need not bother with finding marriage partners and conforming to social mores but can pursue a hedonistic high-society life-style and be and do what they like. Romance, marriage and family life are an important theme in Hitchcock’s work and here it plays out in converse ways in the form of a gay couple, in David and Janet’s engagement and in Brandon throwing Janet and Kenneth together as if they were puppets (and the film suggests that’s exactly what Brandon enjoys doing: playing people against each other).

“Rope” attempts to criticise Nazism and concepts of elitism that led to the Nazi pursuit of racial hygiene policies in which people were graded into a racial hierarchy and those deemed “inferior” were killed though whether Hitchcock misinterpreted Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman is another question. At the time the film was made (the late 1940’s), most people including the Nazis themselves did misinterpret the concept in a simplistic way (people who are Supermen can do what they like and are not bound by conventional notions of morality) so it’s understandable if Hitchcock did also.

“Rope” features excellent acting performances from its three lead actors (Dall, Granger, Stewart) and from support actor Chandler in a plot that combines suspense, tension and subtlety. The visual flow that comes from the unusual filming technique used in the 1940’s adds to the audience’s sense of being voyeurs, with camera reels changing every time the camera “bumps” into the back of one of the male characters or into the furniture; it also reinforces the tense nature of the setting. The background scenes that show day changing to night and the lighting up of the New York City skyline, thanks to the Cyclorama technique used, are interesting to watch.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): good psych horror thriller about predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women

Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960)

This movie is a good psychological horror thriller with excellent performances from its two leads Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Leigh dominates much of the film’s first half. Crane is a disaffected secretary who nicks $40,000 in cash from her real estate employer on the pretence of banking it and going home early because of a headache; she instead makes off for an out-of-town weekend rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam (John Galvin). Along the way she hurriedly changes cars at a used-car dealership and arrives at a hotel operated by lone owner-manager Bates. They have supper and a brief chat together, after which Crane suddenly decides she’ll leave in the morning, return to town and hand back the money. Her plans are thwarted when an intruder stabs her to death while she is having a shower. Some time after the killer has left, Bates comes and looks into the bathroom, is shocked at what he sees and cleans up the blood and other mess. He disposes of Crane’s body, her effects and her car in a nearby swamp.

The rest of the film introduces Vera Miles as Crane’s sister Lila, a respectable single woman in contrast to the more impulsive Marion, who engages a private detective (Matt Balsam) to inquire into Marion’s disappearance. After the detective himself disappears – he joins Crane down in the swamp – Lila and Sam decide to investigate Marion’s whereabouts and, following the detective’s last piece of information, arrive at the Bates Hotel to do their own snooping …

What makes “Psycho” more than just a psych horror / slasher film – and this is often true of many of Hitchcock’s films – is its theme that informs the characters’ motivations and personalities: in “Psycho”, it’s the choices that people must make between conforming to social expectations, duties and obligations and determining their own destiny: what Marion and Norman refer to as “the private trap”. The two sisters Lila and Marion are mirror opposites: Lila chose to conform before the film’s events and stays single; Marion chooses a de facto relationship and makes other decisions on the hop. Both women are subjected separately to knife attacks: the conformist sister survives, the nonconformist one doesn’t. Bates is both a conformist and nonconformist but in an unusual way: he’s a victim of his upbringing and fate which took away his father and made his mother turn to the son for emotional comfort; the son becomes trapped in his relationship with his mother. He chooses to preserve it even if it means killing his mother and her later lover; overcome with guilt, he resurrects the mother in his mind which “she” comes to dominate as prudish and repressive.

Romance is dealt with in prescribed ways approved by society and these ways usually privilege men’s needs and preferences over those of women. This puts Marion in an unenviable state: she’s in a relationship with a divorced man she wants to marry but who can’t afford to marry her. When a lecherous tycoon propositions her and throws the $40,000 down on the table for a property sale, it’s understandable that she would take it: she and Sam need the money, the tycoon treats it as small change. This becomes obvious after her death: her boss notifies Lila of her disappearance and the missing cash rather than go to the police, indicating that he and the tycoon are willing to forgive Marion for the theft.

Marion’s shower death scene cuts the film in two very different halves and the way it is done deserves mention: for modern audiences, it’s not gory and only once is the knife seen to pierce, or at least touch, flesh. Blood flows in the water and down the drain but is not seen much. Marion’s screams, the dull knife thuds (the film crew repeatedly stabbed a watermelon for the sound effects), the very quick camera cuts and the repeating shrill, hysterical violin music by Bernard Hermann provide the horror. The camera continually cuts between Marion’s point of view and the killer’s, and this helps to transfer the focus of the plot from Marion to Bates. A kind of sexual intercourse has occurred in the death scene. While the shower scene is structurally pivotal to the movie, the scene itself is the culmination of the chat Marion and Bates have about being free to live one’s own life versus obligations to family and how individuals become trapped in a particular groove as a result of personal history and family background. It’s during this chat that Marion decides to return to town to deal with her particular “private trap” and Bates determines that she should stay at the hotel. Viewers who watch and listen to this chat closely will link the bathroom intruder with Bates himself.

The weakest part of “Psycho” is the denouement in which a psychiatrist explains Bates’s behaviour and family history, followed by Bates sitting alone in a jail cell facing the camera. Although these scenes provide closure for those viewers unfamiliar with Freudian psychology, they cut off the possibility of multiple interpretations of Bates’s behaviour and place ultimate blame for his psychosis on his domineering mother. One could suggest that the psychiatrist imposes his own interpretation of Bates’s behaviour, based on interviews with him, and isn’t necessarily to be believed; Bates may be using his mother as a scapegoat for his crimes – a classic example of projecting blame. According to Bates, his mother disapproves of sexual desire yet earlier when Lila snuck into the woman’s bedroom, she saw small monuments to romantic and sexual love. Bates and another character in the film also acknowledge that Mrs Bates had a lover. Who is the real Mrs Bates then?

The low budget for “Psycho” at the time of filming meant it was shot in black-and-white which hinders aspects of the plot’s development and elaboration: the landscape in which the events take place looks generic and never becomes part of the movie. Colour film would have given sharpness to the film’s look and a colourful desert background would have heightened the isolation of the Bates family property and its lone inhabitant from the rest of the world. The Bates family mansion would look more dilapidated and distinctive as a character in its own right instead of merely resembling a haunted-house stereotype. The use of colour inside the mansion could have emphasised its three floors’ resemblance to the Freudian concept of the human mind: ground floor / ego, upper floor / superego, basement level / id. There is an emphasis on contrasts of light and dark within “Psycho” which colour film and a clear filter might have made more of.

The film makes several assertions about the nature of Bates’s psychosis and his relationship with his mother, all of them quite contradictory and undercutting each other, and challenges audiences on the good girl / bad girl polarity represented by Lila and Marion. Lila is the good girl but the film seems more sympathetic towards Marion, at least until she decides to turn back to town and return the money. Marion comes across as an attractive, likeable character with faults and her sister as proper, more mature perhaps, but maybe less deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The private detective is diligent in his work but ends up dead; the local police sheriff seems lackadaisical in investigating Marion and the detective’s whereabouts but survives. These positions the film revels in, many of them related to the central themes of the polarity of predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women and their sexuality, make “Psycho” an ambiguous and complex film.

Not “Frenzied” enough: a re-run of familiar ideas for Hitchcock but no more

Alfred Hitchcock, “Frenzy” (1972)

Coming at the tail-end of the UK film director’s illustrious career, “Frenzy” is a straightforward murder thriller set in London in the early 1970s. On second thoughts, maybe it was straightforward only for Hitchcock, not his audience: the film carries familiar Hitchcock devices such as the idea of an innocent man being accused of crime or some other deed and being pursued or arrested by authorities while the real perpetrator is at large still, and the killer possibly has a strange relationship with his mother. Scenes of straight-out sadism and sexual violence with references to serial killer psychology are balanced by comedy, farce and graveyard humour. For all that though, “Frenzy” feels like just a walk in the park for Hitchcock for this viewer, partly because of its scaled-down focus on ordinary working people in London, and partly because while it repeats several of Hitchcock’s favourite motifs it doesn’t do much new with them. Neither does it demonstrate or suggest anything that might indicate a new creative direction for the film-making legend.

Former pilot Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) finds himself at the centre of a police hunt after his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and new squeeze Babs (Anna Massey) are found dead on separate occasions, both of them having been killed by a serial rapist / killer nicknamed the Necktie Murderer who has been terrorising the women of London for some time. Blaney seeks help from a friend, a vegetable seller called Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him shelter but betrays him to the police. Despite Blaney’s protestations of innocence, the police promptly press charges and hustle him quickly through a court and Blaney ends up in jail. In the meantime a good-natured police inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) realises that Blaney may be innocent after he comes across evidence linking Rusk to Babs’s murder. He is later informed that Blaney has escaped from prison and realises the man may be heading to Rusk’s apartment to avenge the deaths of his ex-wife and girlfriend.

As audiences learn the identity of the Necktie Murderer within the film’s first half-hour, “Frenzy” turns its focus onto aspects of Blaney’s character, background and behaviour and various coincidences that suggest to others that he’s the most likely person to be the murderer. Blaney’s been down on his luck lately, having been sacked from work and is in need of money; he’s impulsive, hot-tempered, self-centred and is capable of violent acts. He nurses grudges and doesn’t ingratiate himself with others. Rusk on the other hand is charming, cheerful and friendly, devoted to his mum, and well-liked by everyone who knows him. Spot the killer yet? The subtext is that old cliche that we can’t judge books by their covers and that Blaney and Rusk can be seen as each other’s twin as it were. As the two pals who are as different from each other as night is from day, Finch and Foster are very credible though one has the impression that the bad boy with a heart of gold and the good boy with a hidden and horrifying secret were not difficult stereotypes for them to play.

Oxford as a main character comes late in the movie and his appeal comes mainly from his intelligence and conciliatory nature, and his droll relationship with his wife (Vivien Merchant) who is learning high-class French cuisine and insists on feeding hubby her often inedible and tasteless results. The dinner-table moments provide ample opportunities for macabre slapstick humour as Oxford and the missus discuss aspects of the murder case – in one scene Oxford describes how the Necktie Murderer broke a victim’s fingers while his wife snaps breadsticks, as if in imitation – though after a couple of scenes like this, the humour becomes stale and something else that’s funny is needed. The most hilarious section in “Frenzy” involves Rusk, having dumped a victim in a potato truck, trying to salvage his necktie pin and having to hide among the sacks when the truck starts travelling to a depot; with the victim’s whole body stiff from rigor mortis, he gets kicked in the face constantly by her foot.

The film is peppered with various witty remarks, visual jokes and other utterances and scenes that have double or opposite meanings in the movie’s context: initially amusing, they can become a tired cliche in themselves as the movie progresses. One of the funniest jokes is the appearance of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s famous painting “The Chinese Girl” hanging in Rusk’s apartment: the painting in itself is merely kitsch but appearing in a serial killer’s abode, well, the girl’s green skin can only mean one thing … the guy likes his girls dead!

The support cast hold their side up well and if anything are more important as a group than the three lead actors, as they flesh out lead character Blaney’s background and character and make plausible the possibility of his being the serial killer so their acting and their character details, however minor, are crucial. Brenda’s secretary (Jean Marsh) not only looks like a narrow-minded, holier-than-thou puritan, she is one in the way she speaks to Oxford about Rusk pestering her boss. The fact that Brenda, despite being divorced and employing a spinster stereotype as her assistant, runs a dating agency that might attract sleazy types is a droll detail but is important nevertheless: it brings the serial killer to her.

As expected, the camerawork is impeccable and a significant actor in its own right, panning away from Rusk as he takes Babs to his apartment and floating down the stairs (staircases are major fixtures in Hitchcock films) and out into the streets like a lonely waif while he does what he has to do. Much later as Blaney goes up the stairs seeking revenge, the camera tracks him closely and eagerly, following his hand as it slides up the support rail, emphasising the two men as polar yet complementary opposites. The whole film looks colourful in the way that Hitchcock’s films for Hollywood in the 1950s were vividly coloured. Even the musical soundtrack for “Frenzy” sounds 1950s with its smooth orchestral backing and quite melodramatic tunes and is perhaps the most dated aspect of the film.

Food is a major motif in “Frenzy” but it’s a pity Hitchcock doesn’t connect it very closely to consumption, sex and death. The rapist “consumes” his victims and tosses them out like so much trash: this could have been connected to Rusk’s work as a vegetable seller in some way. Images of abandoned vegetables and fruit that look rotten outside but are still fresh inside could have been used to reinforce the film’s message about how superficial knowledge of a person and circumstantial evidence can be used and manipulated into condemning innocent people who may be alienated from society in some way. Food could also have been used to illustrate and explore Rusk’s relationship with his mother, and give audiences some insight into how he became a violent misogynist.

Not a bad film for a director in the twilight of his career but for some viewers it’ll be hard to shake off the impression that in “Frenzy”, Hitchcock is simply re-running his favourite ideas and not milking them for new insights into people’s motivations and behaviour.

To Catch A Thief: there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style

Alfred Hitchcock, “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

A clever light-hearted comedy crime caper set in southern France, this was one of Grace Kelly’s last films before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and settled permanently in that part of the world, and Cary Grant’s “comeback” movie after he had declared his retirement from making films in 1953. Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie aka the Cat, enjoying life as a vineyard owner on the Cote d’Azur. Enjoyment is short-lived though as a series of jewellery burglaries with the hallmarks of the Cat’s style lead the local gendarmes to suspect Robie’s gone back to his old occupation. He calls on his old friends with whom he fought in the French Resistance in the 1940’s (and with whom he swore never to return to crime) to pull in some favours but they’re suspicious and upset that he’s apparently gone back to his old ways.  He escapes the police only with the help of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of his friend Foussard. Danielle is infatuated with Robie and suggests they flee to South America together but Robie refuses.

His reputation under a shade, Robie decides to clear his name by catching the copy-cat (ha!) in action so he enlists insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) to help him. Hughson introduces him to rich American socialite Mrs Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) who happen to be top of a list of likely victims for the thief. Initially Frances is attracted to Robie (and eventually falls in love with him), guesses his identity and becomes enthralled with his presumed life-style, at least until mother loses her jewels to the thief.

Robie stakes out the roof-tops to try to catch the thief but ends up struggling with an attacker who turns out to be Foussard. Foussard falls from the roofs into the harbour and drowns. The police later announce that Foussard was the copy-cat thief but Robie points out to Hughson in his office that Foussard had a prosthetic leg and couldn’t be the thief. Later at Foussard’s funeral, Danielle sees Robie in attendance and accuses him of murdering her father so he has to leave. On exiting the cemetery, Robie meets Frances who has read about Foussard’s death in the papers. She apologises to Robie and confesses that she loves him.

In the evening Robie attends a masquerade ball with Frances and by doing a costume swap with Hughson, manages to evade the police and stakes out his position again on the roof-tops, determined to catch the real copy-cat thief …

The film is beautifully shot in what was called VistaVision at the time: Hitchcock revels in bird’s-eye view and aeroplane shots of colourful French Riviera coastal scenes with picturesque villages, long snaking roads through mountains and luxurious holiday resorts for the rich. The rich colour of the setting is echoed in the lavish masquerade ball in the last quarter of the film. Even the roof-tops at night exude an eerie, almost radioactive-bright green colour. The most colourful highlight of the film though – and the most overtly sexual – is the fireworks scene, interspersed with scenes of Robie and Frances alone together in a darkened room, trading witty sexualised repartee and doing more besides while the camera concentrates on the pyrotechnics.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the film and much of it, like the fireworks display, isn’t necessarily verbal: even the car-chase scene, where Frances hits the gas to escape the cops and Robie is forced to be her unwilling passenger, could be construed as a kind of “seduction” (read: rape, sort of) scene. Then there are obvious gags like Danielle showing off her legs to a police plane on the floating jetty. The physical setting itself carries cultural baggage as a place for holiday romance and seduction – no doubt fictional British spy James Bond spent many days and nights on the Cote d’Azur and in Monaco with gal pals too numerous to mention – and the colours of the masquerade, and the masquerade itself with its late 18th-century costume theme, recall the sensual decadence of the period of French queen Marie Antoinette’s court.

It becomes clear that the film’s crime caper plot is secondary to its raison d’etre which is the romance between Grant and Kelly’s characters. Robie may be the thief trying to catch a thief but the real thief is Frances who catches him and steals his heart. The denouement in which Frances gazes around Robie’s property and comments on how her mother will love the place, Robie’s priceless expression at the comment and the doomy sound of the church bell tolling at the same time is a hilarious Hitchcock piece of black humour and a small showcase of how well Grant and Kelly worked together despite the huge difference in their ages (at the time, he was at least twice her age). I haven’t seen Cary Grant in a movie before but his acting here suggests that “To Catch A Thief” was a cakewalk for him: he glides well-dressed through his scenes, seems very relaxed and barely creases his forehead even when danger threatens. No wonder he was an early candidate to play James Bond. Kelly, playing an assertive and intelligent young socialite who, uncharacteristically in a 1950’s film, is the active suitor to Grant’s character who plays hard-to-get, would have made an ideal Bond girl if she had been born half a century later. It’s likely that Kelly and Grant improvised a lot of the sexual banter within the scene paramaters set up by Hitchcock. The ad-libbing would highlight how well they clicked together on the screen. The predictable screen romance becomes more interesting and I can truly believe Frances will be more than a match for the lounge-lizard Robie.

It’s interesting that in this film and “Rear Window” at least, Kelly plays a sophisticated, wealthy ice-queen socialite with nerves of steel and daring who will defend and preserve not only her own life but the lives of others, with the aim of snaring a man who’s less of a “man” than she is. I’ve not yet seen “Dial M for Murder” but I understand that in that film, Kelly plays the same kind of character. Like Lisa in “Rear Window”, Frances assumes characteristics associated with male heroes of 1950’s films while the male co-star is forced to adopt a passive feminine role or the characteristics associated with such a role: she saves Robie from being detained or shot by the police on two occasions while he is either helpless or trapped. In a period when most movies portrayed blonde women as empty-headed, ditzy sex bombshells, Kelly and other blonde actresses who featured in Hitchcock’s films must have been thanking their lucky stars to have come across a director consistently offering them challenging work. The popular conception of Hitchcock has always been that he was a misogynist and treated his actresses badly, but this conception could be based on his complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds” and “Marnie”. I’d say Hitchcock’s relationship to his lead actresses must at least have been as complicated as, say, Danish director Lars von Trier’s relationship to the lead actresses in the films he directs: von Trier draws performances from his lead actresses that can be great as well as emotionally draining for them in films that have been construed as demonstrating a misogynist viewpoint. But I suspect von Trier  likes turning traditional (or maybe not-so-very traditional) Western views of women on their head in ways that challenge and confront audiences about their own beliefs and the possibility that at some level, we are still influenced by old notions about how “good” women should behave versus how “bad” women usually behave. In like manner, Hitchcock may have enjoyed turning ideas about “good ” women and “bad” women on their head. I’m sure modern audiences watching Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” might be just as amused or surprised as audiences were 50-plus years ago seeing her character pursue Robie aggressively and flaunt her sexuality at him in the darkened hotel room during the fireworks display.

For a film that’s regarded as Hitchcock at his fluffiest, I managed to write a fair amount but this demonstrates that even fluff, when done by Hitchcock, still retains a lot of the rich, subversive and layered quality of the Hitchcock universe. Deception is everywhere in this film wherever viewers look and might be considered a major theme. Perhaps Robie’s look of horror at the end of the film is its real climax: he realises the depth of Frances’s deception and that her “love” for him was really a way of snaring more real estate and wealth for her family. Who’s the real thief? Yep, there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style.

Rear Window: clever Hitchcock suspense film turns the tables on viewers as passive spectators

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” (1954)
 
From the days when Hollywood occasionally made films that featured rich sub-text and challenged audiences to question their role as viewers comes this enjoyably suspenseful Hitchcock thriller featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays Jeff, a photojournalist laid up for several weeks at home with his leg in plaster due to an accident while on duty; Kelly plays his wealthy socialite girlfriend Lisa. Home is an apartment with large windows overlooking a central courtyard in a block of apartments, all of which feature large windows through which Jeff watches his neighbours at work and play to pass the long boring hours of recuperation.
 
The viewers come to know the neighbours well too: there is the long-married couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) in the top-most unit who sleep out on the balcony when the weather gets too hot and who have a little pulley system to lower their terrier in a basket down to the courtyard so he can run about; in one of the middle units is a young dancer (Georgine Darcy) who does exercises in her underwear during the day and in the evenings is courted by numerous suitors; on the ground floor is a middle-aged woman (Judith Evelyn) who lives alone and wishes for a boyfriend. Elsewhere in the apartments is a newly married couple, a woman sculptor working on a project and a songwriter (Rob Bagdassarian) who belts out new tunes on his piano but can’t get a career break. Then there’s Mr Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a travelling salesman who cares for his fussy invalid wife. Jeff spies on all of them with his binoculars and telescope camera, enjoying secret voyeuristic thrills while watching the dancer, sympathising with the single woman (he dubs her “Miss Lonelyhearts”) and the songwriter, and comparing himself and Lisa with some of the married couples. Lately Lisa’s been thumping him to commit to their relationship: she wants to go steady and eventually marry Jeff; he all but breaks out into a cold sweat thinking about how marriage will restrict his freedom and put a brake on his careening about the world as a photographer, and how it presumably will turn Lisa into a nagging old hag as well.
 
Over time, observing the residents, Jeff has a fantasy that Mr Thorwald has murdered his wife and disposed of her during one hot sleepless night. From then on, strange things occur in the Thorwalds’ home: porters take away an unusually large suitcase bound with ropes; Mr Thorwald is viewed through his kitchen window cleaning a saw and a large knife; Mrs Thorwald’s handbag frequently appears in the company of her husband but she is never seen at all; the little terrier starts sniffing around the flowers in the communal courtyard garden and Mr Thorwald urges it on. Jeff develops his hunch with Lisa and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) that something’s amiss with the Thorwalds; less convinced is police detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) so Jeff, Lisa and Stella must collect evidence to prove that Mr Thorwald has been up to no good and their combined endeavour puts both Lisa and Jeff in grave danger.
 
The film is made almost completely from Jeff’s point of view and is based entirely in his apartment: this clever and effortless approach puts viewers completely in sympathy with Jeff to the point where, like Jeff, they become unaware of how far entangled Jeff becomes in the affairs of the Thorwalds and the danger he puts himself, Lisa and Stella into until Lisa breaks into the Thorwalds’ home to find his wife’s jewellery and is attacked by Thorwald himself. (The approach also slyly lets Lisa off the hook for persuading Jeff that his version of events is correct and worth pursuing.) Even when Doyle reasonably questions Jeff’s very subjective and limited version of events and ultimately rejects everything Jeff says, viewers may still side with Jeff’s opinion as the only one that best explains what’s happened to Mrs Thorwald. The limited first-person point-of-view approach puts viewers in guilty collusion with Jeff: when Thorwald decides to pay a visit to Jeff, we can’t help but stay with Jeff, trying as best he can to defend himself and thwart Thorwald, to the bitter end so that we “share” some of the punishment Thorwald dishes out to him.
 
Just as masterly is the constant but subtle sub-plot that anchors Jeff’s beliefs about the Thorwalds: all the neighbours, both married, attached or single, mirror and comment on Jeff and Lisa’s relationship in some way. The Thorwalds’ marriage is a reversal of the main character’s relationship: Thorwald cares for his invalid wife who nags at him; Lisa looks after Jeff while he frets about not being able to travel and work, and they argue about their relationship. The couple with the terrier have the kind of snug, self-absorbed relationship Jeff fears he might have if he were married. The songwriter and Miss Lonelyhearts are frustrated with their lives; Lisa and Jeff are dissatisfied with aspects of their relationship. Throughout the film, the neighbours’ relationships change: the newly wed couple at the beginning of the film start to argue and nag each other; the long-married couple lose their terrier and perhaps go through a period of grief and evaluation of their relationship before acquiring a new puppy; the dancer all along has been waiting for her soldier boyfriend to return home; and the songwriter, who at last has a hit song, and Miss Lonelyhearts strike up a friendship.
 
In tandem, Jeff and Lisa’s relationship changes during the course of the film and this change is mirrored in Lisa’s clothes: first we see her in extravagant evening dress which resembles a bridal gown, initially confirming Jeff’s opinion of her as too upper-class for him; over time her clothes change to business wear, a sun-frock and finally casual blouse and jeans, representing her accommodation of Jeff’s preferences and desires. Then by climbing over a balcony and into Thorwald’s home, confronting and resisting the man, and getting hold of the evidence of Thorwald’s wrong-doing, she proves she is willing to get her hands dirty and is capable of changing and becoming the wife Jeff desires. Jeff is forced by circumstances into helplessness and unconsciously mimics the actions of traditionally helpless women in Hollywood movies (for example, putting his hands to his mouth) while watching Thorwald accost Lisa roughly. As a result of Lisa’s actions, Jeff and Lisa finally commit to each other in the wordless coda where they are settled together in his apartment, Jeff able to sleep and no longer interested in watching his neighbours, and Lisa keeping watch over him. By changing her reading material from an adventure novel to a fashion magazine, Lisa signals to viewers that role change is easy for her and is something she can use to get what she needs and wants from Jeff and remain true to herself.
 
Superficially a caper about a photojournalist used to being the observer and chronicler of events, reinforced by the use of limited first-person point-of-view, “Rear Window” is a clever inversion of the audience as voyeur and an interrogation of the film-viewing habit: we identify early on with Jeff as passive spectators (but able to switch on and off our viewing of the neighbours’ antics at will) and with him are dragged into the crime scenario by Lisa and Stella. Thorwald completes Jeff’s integration into that scenario (and by implication, into the life of the apartment block community): he attacks him and then drags him onto the balcony, attracting the attention of the neighbours; Jeff ironically becomes the main spectacle when he falls and from then on, can never be just a passive observer who can withdraw from the scene whenever he wants. He has to appeal to the neighbours for help and by doing so, he alerts them of his existence; now that they know him, he’s now part of their community and his antics are theirs. The film perhaps is asking us: can viewers just be passive observers and, by observing something happening, aren’t we also influencing the course of events and bringing them to us? After all, Thorwald only attacks Jeff when he discovers Jeff observing him. This is something well worth remembering in our current age where news becomes “news” thanks mainly to media like Youtube, Twitter and Wikileaks: “news” doesn’t exist, or something hasn’t “happened”, if there are no observers to spread it and start off a chain of actions and reactions that involve both observers and the observed.
 
One observation I might make at this point is that a couple of years after “Rear Window” was released, Grace Kelly had married Prince Rainier of Monaco and was forced to give up her film career; at the same time, she remained an object of tabloid gossip and rumour about her love life, which began at the start of her acting career, right up to and beyond her death in a car crash in 1982. After the sheen of Kelly’s tragic death faded away, the tabloids’ voyeuristic, prurient gaze turned to her children’s various romantic foibles and has followed them to the present day. Kelly attempted to resume her acting career at least once; Hitchcock offered her the lead role in his film “Marnie” but Rainier forced her to turn it down. The contrast between what possibilities marriage implies for Lisa, as demonstrated by Jeff’s neighbours and the film’s closing scene, and what actually worked out for Kelly in her marriage couldn’t have been much greater.