The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Hitchcock Reviews: 1940 – 1944

Posted by therebelprince on March 7, 2012

Joseph Cotten in “Shadow of a Doubt”

Well, here we are again. After conquering Great BritainAlfred Hitchcock was lured across the Atlantic by promises of new technology, artistic freedom, fame and fortune (so, a pretty reasonable thing to do) by David O. Selznick. He’d spend the next four decades making films under increasing public scrutiny, often fighting against studio requirements, bland censorship requests, and the gulf between his ambition and what most people thought was achievable on film. But it’s worth pointing out, as we start looking at Hitch’s 1940s output, that he was no “late bloomer” as some people assume. By the time he arrived in Hollywood, Hitchcock was already a consummate filmmaker.

(And another shout-out to the 1000 Frames of Hitchcock project, for being just generally awesome!)

“I think the world has been run long enough by well-meaning professionals. We might give the amateurs a chance now. “

– Carol Fisher, Foreign Correspondent

Rebecca (1940)

written by Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood, from a novel by Daphne DuMaurier

The young, lowborn, new bride (Joan Fontaine) of wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), makes her home at his country house, Manderley, only to find that their lives are overshadowed by his towering late wife, Rebecca.

In the 1960s, Hitchcock was approached by Francois Truffaut and others of his ilk, for a lengthy book examining all of Hitchcock’s films for their grand artistry. While the accolades were touching, and not entirely misguided, part of Hitchcock was definitely amused at how the Europeans could read intention and deep meaning into every shot and frame. Hitchcock certainly made the most of his planned and choreographed frames, enjoying symbolism, thinly-veiled smut, and using the camera to comment ironically on the storyline. However, there are times when sitting in on a film class can be the most unintentionally hilarious thing, as academics fall over each other to explain the meaning of a ceiling fan in the back of the shot, and Truffaut was sometimes one of them. Yet, when it comes to Rebecca, nothing can be overstated. After training for fifteen years in Britain, Rebecca is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, an exquisite and sly Gothic romance, perfectly cast.

Daphne DuMaurier was never a great literary writer, but she knew how to tell a cracking story. Marvellously, the best conceits of the novel are retained in the film, with our heroine remaining unnamed, emphasising all the more the power of Rebecca’s memory. Fontaine and Olivier are superb as the couple at the centre of the action, with Olivier hiding his own painful secrets about the marriage, and Fontaine making the most of a character who is – by the very nature of the story – a non-entity. Even better are the supporting cast. As Rebecca’s cousin Jack, George Sanders is louche and unnerving. Judith Anderson‘s performance as the housekeeper (and Rebecca loyalist) Mrs. Danvers has been rightly touted as a cult classic, with an obsessively territorial, and seemingly homosexual, attachment to her late mistress.

Dame Judith Anderson in “Rebecca”

Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, beginning America’s love affair with the director. Perhaps the most deserved nomination is for Lyle R. Wheeler‘s Art Direction, and George Barnes‘ Cinematography, delicately playing with light and shadow to create a textured palate of black-and-white. (It’s worth pointing out that – aside from the most flashy of the Cary Grant films – there are few Hitchcock films that need to be in colour!) What elevates Rebecca above its predecessors is that Hitchcock never forgets to tell a powerhouse thriller, full of suspense and an atmosphere of fetishism, and something just around that corner. Rebecca is a perfect fusion of Hitchcock’s style and substance, but it was also a well-told story with a solid cast and minimal studio interference (there was interference from producer – and early Hitchcock champion – David O. Selznick, rather constantly in fact, but Selznick was rather distracted making a little film called Gone with the Wind). Hitch would spend the next 15 years trying to get all of these elements together in perfect combination again.

What came out of Hitch’s first American work was his greatest film to date. Compared, of course, to some of his mature classics, it is a melodrama of the highest order. Even then, though, it’s one of the greatest melodramas ever made. Hitchcock and Selznick had vastly differing visions of the story, and, although their pairing must’ve seemed like Hollywood alchemy in 1939, it was forever fractured as a result of their strong, ever-so-slightly anti-authoritarian personalities clashing. Still, Rebecca stands as a monument to their visions, each entirely separate, but twinned for the shortest while.

Hitch Cameo: Walking by the phone booth near the end of the film. (It’s rare for the director to appear so late in a work; as he became more famous in Hollywood, he’d almost always pop up in the first 15 minutes, so as not to distract audience members.)

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

written by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison (with a large number of contributing writers), from the memoirs of Vincent Sheean

During the early days of WWII, a Dutch ambassador is assassinated in New York, and Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a crime reporter recently promoted to war correspondent, finds himself in over his head.

Foreign Correspondent is one of Hitchcock’s most intriguing films, a conspiracy thriller released in 1940, and tying in to the (understandable) concerns of the era. The film has a B-movie feel to it at times, with the plot taking Jones and his new paramour Carol (Laraine Day) – the daughter of a potential traitor – from New York to England, and beyond, via windmills, psychotic bodyguards, and double – nay, triple – agents abounding. While the film was highly praised at the time, and remains relatively respected, its timing can help the flick be seen as a propaganda piece.

Laraine Day and Gertrude Hoffman in “Foreign Correspondent”

One thing that I’ve found, in rewatching Hitch’s lesser known works, is that expecting true masterpieces – a Rebecca or Rear Window – is getting ahead of oneself, and doing the director an injustice. No artist only makes magnum opuses : that’s why they’re called magnum opuses! Even in his least-assured early films, Hitch is an astoundingly competent director: an aesthete aware of the importance of the look of an actor, or the design of a prop, but also of how each scene will ratchet up the tension, or alternatively lull the viewer into complacency. While he enjoyed melodrama, he also had a taste for so much more, as the quietly humourous scenes in The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt, and others attest. While he strongly allied himself with suspense and terror – perhaps aware that this was an exceptional use of the medium in the days when people only saw films on the big screen, and not in the intimacy of their own homes – Hitchcock could venture outside these bounds with unexpectedly delightful results such as The Trouble with Harry. All of which is a way of saying, even a Hitchcock film that doesn’t immediately call attention to itself in the way that Psycho does, can often be a consummate work of film, and I think it’s easy for those of us from younger generations to cherry-pick films from the studio era, praise them as ‘masterpieces’, and ignore the rest.

Foreign Correspondent is certainly not a ‘great’ film, but it’s a damn entertaining one. The plot bustles along without ever letting up steam, buoyed by the well-known sequences such as the windmill hunt, and the climactic plane crash which still seems like an incredible act of ambition for 1940. McCrea and Day are not quite Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine, whom Hitchcock wanted but was unable to obtain, but they acquit themselves very well. McCrea particularly is a very strong everyman, with a humility that I think Hitchcock often sought in his leading men, but sometimes struggled to obtain. (Gregory Peck, anyone?) The film also looks utterly lovely – as does most every Hitch film from Rebecca on – and, with the realism of the events involved (even if it is buried underneath much adventure business), this is one of those romps where you finish the movie, and don’t find the tenuous logic already crumbling in your head.

The film was written by… just about everyone, really. Constantly revised and reworked by a number of screenwriters and story editors, Foreign Correspondent never settles into any one genre, nor does it retain that deliberately uncomfortable mix of humour and horror that dominated Hitch’s later, more auteur-like films. But this is an average script based on a cracking story and told with confidence by Alfred Damn Hitchcock. So, who’s to complain?

Incidentally, Foreign Correspendent was nominated – like Rebecca – for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, as well as a host of others. It was Hitchcock’s best year for nominations by far. While sixteen of his films would receive nominations of some kind at the Oscars – and Hitch would receive five personal nominations – they would never be in such volume again.

Hitch Cameo: outside the hotel early in the film.

Mr & Mrs. Smith (1941)

written by Norman Krasna

Ann Smith (Carole Lombard) begins to question her marriage when her husband David (Robert Montgomery) says he might not marry her if they had their time again. After a legal mix-up proves they aren’t actually married, the pair go their separate ways. But, while Ann finds new love and life, David begins to suspect he may have made a new mistake…

Carole Lombard in “Mr & Mrs Smith”

I adore screwball comedy. From The Philadelphia Story to Gilmore Girls, you’ll often find me drooling over the snappy dialogue of a pair of lovers at odds.

Alfred Hitchcock loved invention and the very medium of film. Despite his penchant for – and the public’s expectation for – thrillers, he was occasionally willing to experiment with his style. After all, many of his best films feature scenes of quirky comedy or sheer gallows humour.

Yet Mr & Mrs Smith just isn’t all that good. None of the elements are completely lacklustre: Krasna’s script easily fits the formula of the time, and contains more than its fair share of ‘edgy’ jokes. Lombard and Montgomery – along with Gene Raymond as David’s friend, and soon Ann’s lover, Jeff – are attractive, talented stars. Lombard (who was tragically killed not too long after this film was released) seems a bit off her rocker here, though! Some of her acting choices come off as a bit ripe, but her chemistry with Montgomery is undeniable. It’s not as if Mr & Mrs Smith is a write-off. It’s not a long-running film, and things move along at a decent pace with dialogue that, if not always gut-busting, is entertaining. Sure, everything feels a bit like the TV movie equivalent of a real film, but who am I to judge? In fact, I have the heretical suspicion that the person who was least interested in all of this was Hitch himself, a man who often joked that he slept in his chair on set.

Hitchcock just didn’t have the screwball experience of someone like Howard Hawks. Mr & Mrs Smith was the director’s first out-and-out comedy since Rich and Strange, so it was never going to sizzle. No-one picks up a genre overnight. If you go into this expecting nothing, you might be able to retain your interest, although the film seems too hemmed in by formula for anyone to call it a favourite. But, if you go in expecting Bringing Up Baby, then Mr & Mrs Smith will have all the effect of a wet firecracker.

Hitch Cameo: Hitch wanders past Montgomery mid-way through the film (in a shot apparently directed by Lombard!).

“We’re not talking about killing people. Herb’s talking about killing me and I’m talking about killing him. “

– Mr. Newton, Shadow of a Doubt

Suspicion (1941)

written by Samson Raphaleson, Joan Harrison & Alma Reville, from a novel by Anthony Berkeley

Newlywed Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine) grows worried when her good-for-nothing husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) secretly begins spending her wealth. But after Johnnie’s well-off friend and business partner (Nigel Bruce) dies, Lina becomes suspicious that there may be more to her husband than meets the eye…

Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion”

I think it’s safe to say that Joan Fontaine owed much of her success to Alfred Hitchcock. Rather than ending up as “the other one” in her and Olivia deHavilland’s real-life remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Fontaine proved herself a powerful and beautiful actress on the cusp of the new acting styles, and Suspicion is perhaps her own personal greatest collaboration with Hitchcock, even if the film doesn’t quite have the power of Rebecca. She’s joined by an admirable supporting cast that includes Cecil Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty, Leo G. Carroll, and Auriol Lee as her novelist friend. Cary Grant, as the suspicious husband, is rather delightful himself in a sinister performance which, admittedly, stretches to the limits his abilities, but stretches well.

Suspicion often gets looked over by Hitchcock critics because of the unfortunate “Hollywood clearly censored my script” ending. Without spoiling the plot, the film is an exercise in prolonged suspense. Hitchcock seizes on Lina’s increased terror: for every action her husband takes that’s terrifying, he seems to redeem it with that patented Cary Grant nonchalance. The ending of the film doesn’t discredit the power of the preceding hour-and-a-half, but it’s admittedly a bit of a letdown. Fontaine and Hitchcock create a woman who seems entirely reasonable in her fears, yet also someone led on entirely by circumstantial evidence. Hitchcock knew how reliable Grant was, and used that to good effect, but it’s no wonder that Fontaine was awarded the Oscar, and the film earned Hitch’s third nomination for Best Picture.

Ultimately, Suspicion isn’t in my Hitchcock Top Ten. Even without the ruinous ending, it’s a rather single-minded film that probably wouldn’t reward on repeat viewings. Yet,Suspicion continued Hitch’s perfection of his craft. By this point, the only challenges for the great man were the technical ones (or the occasions when he was saddled with an actor who just didn’t fit his personality). Creating a lavish film full of startling visuals, sly asides to the viewer, and the occasional musical leitmotif, was all in a day’s work.

Hitch Cameo: The portly fellow mails a letter midway through the film.

Saboteur (1942) 

written by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker.

In the midst of WWII, airplane technician Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), is accused of sabotage in an already heated environment. Fleeing the law, Kane sets out to clear his name.

Robert Cummings in “Saboteur”

Saboteur is a rather middle-of-the-road Hitchcock. If the brief synopsis above sounds like North by Northwest or Young and Innocent, well that’s because it is. If the names Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane sound like they were poor replacements for Hitchcock’s preferred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, well that’s because they are. And if the basic idea sounds rather formulaic for a man who was about to commit to Dali-inspired dream sequences, single-take films, and an array of movies set in the one location, well, in truth it is.

Yet Saboteur is a rather enjoyable story, even if it does run on auto-pilot. Neither Cummings nor Lane – as the billboard model who is shanghaied into his service – ever sparkle, but Norman Lloyd is really rather good as the man Kane suspects as the real saboteur, and Otto Kruger has fun as a villainous ranch owner. And this is one of those Hitchcock thrillers that truly never lets up, meaning that the 108 minutes go by in 80.

If there was ever a film that proved Hitchcock’s famous statement, “actors are like cattle”, this is it. Saboteur is an exercise in pure direction, and I’d argue that it was a necessary palate cleanser fot the director before he moved on to some of his strongest films. While the various script elements range from formulaic to bizzare (Dorothy Parker’s addition of a strange interlude with a travelling circus, for instance). Directorial touches abound: the tight basement in which Kane is trapped by the saboteurs; some fascinating underwater point-of-view shots that directors nowadays would kill for; the immaculate climax, taking Kane and Fry (Lloyd) from Rockefeller Centre to the torch of the Statue of Liberty, made more powerful by Hitch’s decision to omit a musical score from the sequence. True, they’re moments of brilliance in an otherwise mundane film, yet each of these moments is made of simply gorgeous stuff, and proof – if Hollywood needed it – that this was a man who oughta be in pictures.

Hitch Cameo: Standing on the street, as the saboteurs begin their final plans.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 

written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville [with dialogue by Alfred Hitchcock]

The Newton family have a perfect life in cushy Santa Rosa, which becomes a little more perfect when Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) returns from a long absence. But his niece, Charlotte (Teresa Wright) suspects something is amiss…

Although I’d put it at half a star below Hitch’s masterpieces, I adore Shadow of a Doubt. Where Suspicion thrived on giving us no evidence outside of the heroine’s own fears, here we’re inundated with evidence. There seems to be too much, to the point where Charlie’s protestations of innocence seem all the more reasonable. Hitchcock manages, for the first time, to perfectly blend the thrills with the human moments. Charlotte’s investigation, aided by dashing Macdonald Carey as a young detective investigating the “Merry Widow Murderer”, is our key plot. But the everyday lives of the Newtons are just as vital, and just as vibrant. Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge have great fun as Charlotte’s parents, and the children – Edna May Wonacott and Charles Bates – are delightful (in a 1940s yelling child-actor way). Particularly delightful are the conversations between Charlotte’s father and an intrusive neighbour (Hume Cronyn), who spend their days discussing how to commit the perfect murder. It’s an inane conversation which takes on a sinister edge because of the events surrounding, and it’s a great example of how Hitch was willing to let one scene connect to another without feeling the need to lay it on thick.

 As Charlotte, Teresa Wright is likeable and earnest, and it’s no wonder that Hitchcock himself regarded this film as one of his favourites, with a cast in tune to his desires, and perhaps the director’s best example of paradise obscuring the snake. Even with the cinematography, the Oscar-nominated screenplay with its fully-realised characters, and Dimitri Tiomkin‘s smashing score, the highest accolade must belong to Joseph Cotten. Cotten is an actor whom I’ve always admired, particularly in his collaborations with Orson Welles, yet he was completely ignored by many awards ceremonies. Exuding a natural handsomeness, Cotten plays on his looks with a performance that is at turns chilling and charismatic. As Charlotte’s suspicions intensify, you’re torn between wanting Charlie to be good because he’s so lovely, and wanting him to be evil just to see what Cotten will do with the character!

Young Charlie: “They’re alive. They’re human beings!”

Old Charlie: “Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human or are they fat wheezing animals? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”

Shadow of a Doubt is also Hitchcock’s first truly American film. The sunny, marching-band slice of Americana allowed him to hone his unique blend of unsettling and comedic, in a different configuration to how he dealt with the more earthy stories among the British middle and lower classes. It’s a bright film, which plays less with shadow than many of his other ’40s works, but this only makes the suspense and tension all the more palpable, as they stand in stark relief to the small-town gossips and neighbourly goodwill.

After twenty years working in film, Hitchcock was already a consummate master craftsman. Yet, as Shadow of a Doubt proved, he was only at the beginning.

Hitch Cameo: Playing cards onboard Charlie’s inbound train.

Lifeboat (1944)

written by Jo Swerling, with Ben Hecht and Alma Reville, from a story by Alfred Hitchcock and John Steinbeck

The survivors of a German U-Boat attack huddle together in a lifeboat in the Atlantic. Their camaraderie is tainted, however, when they pull a German survivor (Walter Slezak) from the water.

No one had much fun on the set of Lifeboat. Being tossed about in a small boat in a water tank, suffering bruises and sea-sickness and hypothermia… never before or since would method acting play such a large and unexpected role in a Hitchcock film (he’d not suffer method actors lightly, but he was willing to put his cast through any amount of torture!). But they suffered for our benefit, and Lifeboat is a classic film experiment, attempting to tell the story of nine characters trapped in a space only a few square metres for the length of the tale.

For the most part, it works like a dream. Tallulah Bankhead came out of retirement to play the uppity journalist who is gradually forced to let go of all her assumptions as she tries to keep the ragtag team together. Each individual performance is very strong: Mary Anderson as a devoted nurse, Hume Cronyn as the lifeboat’s increasingly-uncertain voice of reason, William Bendix as a depressed injured passenger, and Walter Slezak as the German in question. They’re complemented by the handsome and gone-too-soon John Hodiak, Heather Angel as the distraught mother of a baby who died in the crash, and Canada Lee, the lifeboat’s only African-American passenger. Lee is shortchanged somewhat by the script, which makes a few passing references to his perceived inequality (Lee himself forced some changes upon the script in that regard), but he’s still clearly the Mary-Ann and Professor of this particular shipwrecked crew.

Nominated for Academy Awards for story, cinematography, and director, Lifeboat is a startling work of art. Eschewing a musical score, and going up against the oppressive Hays Code to demand that the line between good and evil be all but obliterated for his characters, Hitchcock created a startlingly modern film here. Even Bankhead – the only “larger than life” performer in the cast – is brought down to size, particularly by the gruff and handsome Hodiak. And the director manages to wring such life out of the one set (how many major studio films in history have been shot in such a limited location?), which never feels claustrophobic… except when it’s supposed to be.

The cast of “Lifeboat”. That’s half the film’s set, right there.

One aspect of the film that receives perhaps too much critical attention is that of the German survivor. (Contemporary reviews disliked his heroic side for what it represented; modern reviews tend to be aggrieved that the ‘foreigner’ has a dark side.) What Hitch does well – and always did well – is to create Willi as a character equal to the others. None of the characters (well, none of the lead characters) are purely black or white, and isn’t that one of the core themes of Hitchcock’s entire canon? Whether he turns out to be noble or a traitor, I dispute the idea that anyone ever wanted to make this a film about how “we’re going to lick the Nazis!”. Sure, the surface level question of “foreigners: good or bad?” speaks more to its target audience in 1944, but the prolonged tension and basic themes of man taken out of his comfort zone are universal, as in Lord of the Flies or Walkabout.

From the powerhouse moments like an amputation without anaesthetic, to the well-crafted character moments, such as when Connie is forced to lose her few material possessions to save others from the wreck: it’s an intelligent script, allowing Hitchcock to take the melodrama down a few notches and focus on intimate character relationships. (As Connie says, “Dying together’s even more personal than living together”.Lifeboat is an intriguing, one-of-a-kind movie. For twenty years, Hitchcock had been playing around within the expected format. Now, he was beginning to experiment outside of it, and the world of film was his own personal playground.

Hitch Cameo: Delightfully, as the ‘before and after’ images advertising weight-loss in a newspaper (a reference to Hitch’s own decreased weight).

Next time: we look at the late ’40s, as post-war America looks for reassurance, and Hitchcock instead spins them tales of fake identities and homicidal young men, told in dream sequences and long takes. It’s the beginning of Hitchcockmania.


10 Responses to “Hitchcock Reviews: 1940 – 1944”

  1. […] Hitchcock Reviews: 1940 – 1944 […]

  2. […] Hitchcock Reviews: 1940 – 1944 […]

  3. […] Hitchcock Reviews: 1940 – 1944 […]

  4. […] Lifeboat are generally – and fairly – considered to be two of Hitchcock’s most intriguing […]

  5. […] some of his greatest films before 1955 – Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt – had often been very funny, Hitchcock’s previous out-and-out comedies, Rich and […]

  6. […] Strange – excepting the forgettable Waltzes from Vienna – is Hitch’s lightest film until Mr & Mrs Smith, but it has a worthy chunk of adventure in the final reels, as the reunited Fred and Emily find […]

  7. […] his career, Hitch took his idea from a Daphne DuMaurier novel. Jamaica Inn had been a disaster, but Rebecca remained one of his greatest triumphs. DuMaurier would stand him well on her third adaptation, […]

  8. […] Alfred Hitchcock. Sure, one can make sweeping statements like “Rear Window is better than Mr & Mrs Smith“, but on an individual level such statements are pointless. The brooding symbolism of […]

  9. […] stinkers (Number Seventeen, Jamaica Inn), and a surprisingly small number of failures (Spellbound, Mr & Mrs Smith). That’s not to say that everything else was a masterpiece on the scale of Rear Window, but […]

  10. […] and immaculate framing that characterised vaguely similar films like The Trouble with Harry or Shadow of a Doubt. It’s notable that Lehman and Hitchcock reportedly disagreed about the nature of the film: […]

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