Hitchcock Reviews: 1945 – 1947
Posted by therebelprince on March 20, 2012
Welcome back to the latest in my series of Hitchcock reviews. Today, we trek through the post-War years. Hitchcock’s first films in Hollywood were already indicative of a raging talent with storytelling ambition. After the theatrical experimentation of Lifeboat (it’s one of those odd twists that most of Hitch’s wildest inventions wouldn’t feel out of place in the theatre, but still feel daring on screen), Hitch was ready to push the envelope further and further. (Incidentally, I’m cutting back to just three films this week – and maybe fewer in future posts – as I seem to have more and more to say.)
“Nice people don’t go murdering other nice people.”
— Gay Keane, “Under Capricorn”
written by Ben Hecht and Angus McPhail, from a novel by Hilary Saint George Saunders.
Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), the new doctor at a lavish mental institution, begins to have a breakdown, and his confidante – Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) – discovers that he is not who he seems.
Hitchcock never won the Best Director Oscar, sharing the record for most nominations (five) without a win. Spellbound was his third – following on from Rebecca and Lifeboat – and I’d daresay that it’s the least of the three. Spellbound is an odd beast of a film, and one of the most dated in the canon, unfortunately. From the film’s opening crawl, which gives the audience a primer on the wacky new technique known as “psycho-analysis”, to the rather kooky dream sequences (which clearly aren’t trusted by the director), things are just all over the place here. The funny thing is: they shouldn’t be. Star Ingrid Bergman would reach her Hitchcock zenith in his next film, Notorious, and – with a couple of rare exceptions – Hitchcock was now on to a string of classics that would last him over a decade.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like here. As always with Hitchcock’s gorgeously shot black-and-whites, the film looks exquisite: a reminder of some of the shading that was lost when Hitchcock moved to colour. The mystery of Edwardes’ real identity proves fascinating as much for his journey of self-discovery as the emotions and intelligence it brings out in Constance, allowing both the stars to have an equal part in the relationship. When Hitchcock admired a woman, he really admired her. It’s fascinating to think that – given this 2010s era when only a handful of women are considered promising enough to lead a big-budget film – the strength of the female characters dominates so much of this era. As always with Hitchcock, the supporting characters often steal the show: Michael Chekhov and Leo G. Carroll among them, as well as Rhonda Fleming, who dominates the opening scene as a coquettish patient. And Miklós Rózsa‘s fine score – incorporating the theremin amongst other instruments – continues Hitchcock’s impressive array of musical relationships. (It’s easy to imagine Bernard Herrmann as Hitchcock’s only major collaborator, but this is very much a fallacy! This great album recreates suites from most of Hitchcock’s movies, and it’s a worthy find. Make sure to get the two-disc version, though.)
Legendary producer David O. Selznick had been a vital part of getting Hitchcock into Hollywood, but – despite their original contract – Spellbound was their first film together since Hitch’s American début, Rebecca. Each of the great men recognised the strengths, talent, and opportunity of the other, but their artistic and narrative visions clashed almost without exception. (The partnership would dissolve with its third creation, The Paradine Case.) Perhaps this explains the ultimately uneventful use of the dream sequences, designed by surrealist Salvador Dali. Selznick had been the principal supporter of the movie as a whole, since he had enjoyed his own psychoanalytical experiences in recent years, but it was Hitchcock who wanted the artist. The director shot anywhere from five to twenty minutes of dense dream sequences, featuring everything from Bergman as a Venus-esque statue to eyeballs hanging from ceilings. What remains in the film is a minimal amount of psychological visions, basically token nods to the original notion.. That’s not to say that the very idea of the clues in Edwardes’ dream is a stinker. But the Spellbound is unwilling to commit to the weirdness of the dream sequences, and – sixty years on – the film’s jigsaw puzzle approach to psychology can be a little confounding.
And finally – look, I’m sorry – there’s Gregory Peck. Peck had only wandered into acting after WWII began, and Spellbound was one of his very first films. He’s certainly not terrible here, but this kind of role just isn’t Peck’s strength. The statesmanship that saw him triumph in The Yearling and To Kill A Mockingbird was an admirable trait. One can understand why he was cast in his two Hitchcock roles: the seemingly benign psychiatrist of Spellbound, and the well-known defense attorney of The Paradine Case. Unfortunately, both roles call for a darker edge, which Peck wasn’t able to find. (Perhaps he did later in his career – I’ve not seen Moby Dick – but not here…)
All in all, Spellbound was an intriguing experiment for Hitch, but not one that I’ve ever found convincing. It’s one of Hitch’s least-challenging ’40s works, bogged down by the “cutting edge science”, a struggling lead actor, and a mystery that doesn’t quite feel like it deserves 100 minutes. Having said this, the grab-bag of a film isn’t a flop. Bergman and the supporting cast are quite good; the film treats its central characters with respect (and – even if the mystery is dragged out, it’s reasonably matured); and the fate of the film’s villain is gob-smacking. A forgettable film, but it sure looks great.
Hitch Cameo: Smoking and carrying a violin case (string instruments become a trademark of the cameos at this point!)
written by Ben Hecht
When an American Nazi supporter is caught, his daughter Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited to infiltrate his circle. But even as she falls for her handler (Cary Grant), she must commit to a relationship with the man she has been sent to uncover (Claude Rains).
Now, this is more like it. I know it’s morbid, but I often ponder at what point in an artist’s career could they die and still be considered ‘great’? I think Notorious might be that point. While it’s in the lower echelons of my personal Top Ten, Notorious joins Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt as Hitch’s greatest films to date. Shot in lush black-and-white, the film is a true auteur effort with some of the director’s most famous moments. The lengthy tracking shot – from a bird’s-eye view of Sebastian’s party all the way down to the key in Alicia’s hand – is a marvel of camera movement, but also an amazingly efficient shot, capturing the scope of Sebastian’s mansion and the intense stakes for Alicia. (It’s easy to write off camera movement coups as “visual trickery”, but Hitch – most of the time, at least – had practical and narrative reasons for his shots, beyond their jaw-dropping effectiveness.) Beyond this, the camera in Notorious is consistently breathtaking, with even expository conversations given lively stagings and invigorating depths of scene.
The performances are nothing short of perfect. Bergman laid it on the line with Hitchcock to have a stronger say in the actions and portrayal of her character. Bergman is captivating in every moment on screen, and really sells both the assured Mata-Hari side of the character which initially attracted Hitchcock, and the increasing terror of Alicia’s situation. Cary Grant appeared in four Hitchcock films, and gave dynamite performances in all of them. His latter two Hitchcocks were – admittedly – popcorn flicks, but Notorious and Suspicion deliver scripts that allow Grant room to move. Like Suspicion, Notorious is more about the female lead, but Grant manages to be both debonair and menacing. Gregory Peck or Jimmy Stewart could never have pulled this one off. (Selznick, who was originally involved with the production, wanted my love Joseph Cotten, whom I think would’ve been ever better. But, bygones.)
Accompanying Grant and Bergman, Claude Rains provides one of the most memorable of the subtler Hitchcock villains. Rains plays a man utterly convinced of his beliefs, yet uncertain about what is required to carry them out. Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantin – in her only English-language film appearance – is utterly terrifying as Sebastian’s cold-hearted mother, who has held him in her mental grasp since his childhood. Each of these characters has their own narrative throughline, with needs and desires constantly clashing against one another. It would be stretching things to say that certain other famous villains and their mothers come directly from this pairing, but there’s clearly a need on Hitchcock’s part for his “bad guys” to have psychological and practical motivations for their actions. There’s the genuine feeling here – as there is with all great works – that you could follow any one of these characters into their own lives, rather than just cardboard cut-outs who come to life when Ingrid Bergman enters the room.
On another level, Notorious ushers in the lushly thematic middle era of Hitchcock’s works. The conflicting morals of Alicia, Devlin, and Sebastian cycle around one another in a film that examines the corruption, jealousy, and eroticism of love and attraction, all filtered through endless bottles of wine. With the advent of his TV series in the ’50s, Hitchcock would be able to oversee dozens of half-hour stories which could create taut, thematically-rich stories (even if they did vary vastly in quality). It was only when he had full control over the script that Hitchcock could do the same with film. Notorious is one such.
Beyond all this, lest I sound like a pallid film studies lecturer, Notorious is bloody entertaining. Invigorating performances, exquisite cinematography, an intricate plot (with an Oscar nominated screenplay by Ben Hecht), and a nail-biting final act which – against the odds of film history – manages to live up to, and then surpass, what came before it. Notorious came twenty years after Hitch’s first flick –The Pleasure Garden – and I’m going to call it his best film of those two decades. A must-see.
Hitch Cameo: In one of Hitch’s most intrusive (this was still before the TV days, so less people would’ve recognised the big guy), the director downs a glass of champagne at Sebastian’s party.
The Paradine Case (1947)
written by David. O’Selznick & Ben Hecht, with Alma Reville and James Bridie, from the novel by Robert Smythe Hichens
The allegation: Barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) takes on a new client, Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli), a beautiful foreigner charged with killing her elderly husband. As he prepares the case, Keane begins to fall for his client – to the despair of his loving wife (Ann Todd) – but also can’t quite convince himself that she’s innocent…
The charges: History has not been kind to The Paradine Case. Hitchcock rather famously wanted some of his old hands – Joseph Cotten, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Raines – or, at the very least, great stars he was intrigued by, such as Laurence Olivier or Greta Garbo. He settled for Valli and Todd (the latter of whom he came to enjoy greatly), and managed to get Gregory Peck – an actor who, I’m going to put it out there, wasn’t made for the darker side of the role. Hitchcock was moving away from his inspiring but divisive relationship with David O. Selznick, and this would be their last film together. Selznick constantly made changes to the work, ultimately editing the original cut down to his desired length. While the film received mixed reviews, the acting was praised, and these days the cultural legacy of The Paradine Case is muddled: it’s different enough in style and scope that many people are happy to write it off with “even Hitchcock didn’t care for this”. On the other hand, with its more-than-competent direction, it can just as easily fall into the “underrated gem” pile. My precis would be somewhere in between.
Case for the prosecution: There are some serious flaws with the film. Peck – as I mentioned – is great as a renowned barrister, but not great as much else. Alida Valli is beautiful but disappointingly one-dimensional as the widow Paradine. If I had to make a guess, I’d argue that the film’s box office flop was in part due to the fact that the title and poster – “seven stars! one trial!” – suggests a murder mystery. However, the script isn’t asking “Who did it?”. It’s asking one question – “Did Mrs. Paradine do it?” – which slowly morphs into another: “Did she do it alone, or with an accomplice?”
The story itself is also structurally uneven. The relationship drama between Keane and his wife is settled early on, even though Keane’s attraction to his client is the only questionable element of his personality. Once it’s resolved, he’s much more of a vanilla leading man. The other unfortunate side effect is that Hitchcock – who came to enjoy Todd as an actress – increased Mrs. Keane’s presence in the film, which simply unbalances the plot, as she’s completely redundant in the second half. Keane’s apparent attraction to Mrs. Paradine is so subdued after the opening that the most fascinating relationship becomes one between Mrs. Paradine and her husband’s valet, Andre Latour (the very pretty Louis Jourdan), who may or may not have been having an affair with her. Even then, since the whole film is told from Keane’s perspective, that relationship can only be seen through silent glances in a courtroom! The Paradine Case bears many similarities to Agatha Christie’s film Witness for the Prosecution, but it can’t hold a candle to that constantly surprising classic.
The defence: Yet perhaps I’m being unfair. The Paradine Case is no masterpiece, but it deserves a critical re-evaluation. After all, most of the facts I mention above are scripting or casting decisions, and Hitchcock had far less control over this script than he did over most of his films in the ’40s (Hays code notwithstanding). From a technical standpoint, Hitchcock continued to challenge himself, setting up several cameras around the courtroom. Not only did this enable him to shoot takes of up to ten minutes, but the court scenes could be filmed like a play, capturing the reactions of the witness, jury, defendant, and barristers all at once. A great deal of time is spent in the courtroom and Hitch uses an array of points-of-view and differing shots to keep the setting exciting. (Something he’d experienced with Lifeboat, and was about to experience again with Rope.) There are some delicately choreographed shots (look, for instance, at the shots I’ve included here), and the usual sterling cinematography. Between the lavish design of the courtroom, the filming techniques, and the costs of those involved, The Paradine Case cost almost as much as Selznick’s Gone with the Wind.
The supporting cast of immensely talented actors are primarily wasted. Leo G. Carroll, Charles Laughton (an actor I love but who should never have been invited back to Hitchcockville after Jamaica Inn), and Ethel Barrymore pop up in thankless roles. (Barrymore, as the wife of Carroll’s Judge who functions as a bit of a Greek chorus, reminds me of Vivien Merchant’s delightful sideplot in Frenzy twenty-five years later) This fact is made all the more painful if you watch this after Notorious, where every role contributes to a striking tapestry of characters. Only Todd and Jourdan acquit themselves well. Jourdan gives the film’s only truly sparkling performance as the servant with dubious motives, with his European matinee idol looks helping add complexity to his sullen character. Things liven up somewhat during the atmospheric trip Keane takes to the Paradine manor, but they don’t justify the $2 million dollar loss the film ultimately took.
Closing arguments: The Paradine Case is a relatively static film, with a plot that doesn’t present much in the way of suspense. One of the great challenges of reviewing film – as opposed to literature, art, or even theatre – is that one has to dissect the separate elements. Hitchcock was often saddled with individual components – script, producer, cast, censorship – that he had to overcome, and separating the direction from the obstacles is yet another challenge in discerning a film’s merits, along with all the other struggles six decades after it was made. It’s a watchable two hours, certainly, but whether it’s the fault of Selznick’s editing, Valli and Peck’s miscasting, a confused script, or simply Hitchcock’s indifference, things never really take off the ground. I suspect that the jury will be out on The Paradine Case for a long time to come.
Hitch Cameo: The director dons another string instrument (this time a cello) as he alights from a train, 38 minutes into the film.
Next time: Hitch takes us to Australia, London, and an apartment with a few nasty surprises…