Hitchcock Reviews: 1948 – 1951
Posted by therebelprince on March 30, 2012
Welcome back, to the latest of my series of Hitchcock reviews. Hitch had developed something of an individual style in England, but his first decade in Hollywood was all about experimenting to find his new style. This week, he continues to experiment, with two sterling successes and two more unusual choices.
“My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer. “
– Bruno, Strangers on a Train
“Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create. “
– Brandon, Rope
written by Arthur Laurents and Ben Hecht, from Hume Cronyn‘s adaptation of Patrick Hamilton‘s play.
After killing a classmate, students Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) host a dinner party for close friends and guests, deliberately keeping the body hidden in the room the whole time.
The tale of Leopold and Loeb – twisted, super-intelligent, young gay lovers who killed a teenage boy simply because they could – was a nationwide sensation during their trial in the 1920s. The story has inspired numerous adaptations for film, literature, and theatre, focusing on everything from the psychological development of a killer to the heightened eroticism their partnership brought to otherwise intellectual lives. Hitchcock, instead, was excited to look at the situation from a more morbid level: how hypocritical are society’s reactions to murder and crime, and, more importantly, just how does one dispose of the body?
Rope is a perverse basket of delights which manages to be both vastly overrated and vastly underrated at the same time. The mere concept is exhilirating: the entire film takes place in the apartment during the dinner party, which begins just moments after the murder in question, and the whole film is shot in what appears to be one single take. (In fact, ten long takes varying from four to ten minutes, cleverly matched so as to appear seamless). The nature of the screenplay – a true psychological thriller rather than an action-based piece – allowed Hitchcock to cast one of his most delightful galleries of grotesques, with Cedric Hardwicke, Joan Chandler, Edith Evanson, and Constance Collier among the delightful guests. (Douglas Dirk does less well as the best friend of the deceased, but it’s not too debilitating to the film as a whole.) With our awareness of the body, the script instantly aligns us with Brandon and Phillip, even as their increasingly amoral discussion of murder allows us to be horrified by the nature of their actions.
It’s easy to write off Rope as a mere experiment. No reviewer can deny the technical proficiency of the long takes and the set design – the clouds, for instance, change shape and location throughout the film, as the sun goes down. But, thankfully, the ‘gimmick’ (if you wish to be so low as to call it that) is equalled by the tension of the story at hand. As the evening goes on, and David’s absence is noticed, the tension of those present is palpable, even though no one’s suspicions are even remotely close to the truth. Rope is as much an intellectual exercise, as an experiment in suspense. Hamilton’s play (and the subsequent adaptation by Hume Cronyn) expands on Cronyn’s character from Shadow of a Doubt, discussing murder from socially challenging angles. Brandon and Phillip’s frequent citations of Nietzche are particularly intriguing, and their belief in their own intelligence makes them both fascinating specimens and invigorating proto-villains. Hitchcock, ever the Catholic schoolboy, always enjoyed a sly, lascivious undertone, and the suggested homosexuality of the young men is enhanced by the chemistry between Dall and Granger (both men with homosexual experiences of their own).
On an entertainment level, Rope is captivating: a purely edge-of-your-seat movie, even if it plays with one’s expectations of the notion of a thriller. It’s also the director’s first production in colour, and the expensive Cyclorama -creating the impression of a 360-degree view of the Manhattan skyline, complete with changing colours as the day turns into night – would perhaps not be equalled until the lavish Vertigo ten years later. I stated in an earlier review that there was no Hitchcock film which needed to be in colour. Rope could easily have been black-and-white, but there’s something in the colours that adds a garish realism to the proceedings. With the constant camera movement and tight location filming, Rope is Hitchcock’s most pure exercise in sustained suspense.
The most intriguing element of Rope is the one thing that appears to be out of place: James Stewart. Stewart, in the first of his four Hitchcock appearances, is perfectly on form as the boys’ former teacher and unwitting catalyst of their current beliefs. Stewart’s “folksy charm” was as genuine as his professionalism, and he becomes the one truly sympathetic character in the film. It’s a performance that helps to throw the depravity of Brandon and Phillip in sharp relief, and leaves him questioning the effect he has had on his students. At the same time, Stewart is a markedly different performer from the more seductive – and allegedly homosexual – stars that Hitchcock wanted for the role, such as the oft-married but rarely tied down Cary Grant. One can only ponder how different the dynamic between Rupert and his pupils would have been in that scenario.
Nonetheless, Rope is a supremely amusing and engaging picture, even if its theatricality perhaps dates it in the eyes of some younger viewers. What’s most depressing is how rarely so bold an experiment has been done – with big-name directors and performers – in the six decades since.
Hitch Cameo: In his greatest cameo challenge since Lifeboat, Hitch’s silhouette is seen in neon on the skyline, advertising the same weight-loss program he modelled for in the earlier film.
Under Capricorn (1949)
written by James Bridie and Hume Cronyn, from a novel by Helen Simpson
In colonial Australia, a young immigrant (Michael Wilding) falls in love with a family friend (Ingrid Bergman), even as his personal and business relationship amplifies with her husband (Joseph Cotten).
Critics will never agree about the merits of Under Capricorn. A rare period piece in Hitch’s canon, the film is lengthy, verbose, and boasts an array of secrets for every one of the characters in this melodrama. It was also a devestating financial failure, reportedly challenging audiences who were by now used to the genre of “Hitchcock”. Despite the well-structured screenplay (an adaptation, like so many of Hitch’s films), Under Capricorn is an out-and-out melodrama, feeling more Douglas Sirk than Alfred Hitchcock.
The film surprises, even if it’s only because of the low expectations. Wilding, Bergman, and Cotten all perform up to par, as does Margaret Leighton, in an overwritten role as Lady Henrietta’s housekeeper, who has her own secret attraction. Inspired by Rope, Hitchcock chose to film sequences in takes of up to ten minutes again, although the film as a whole does not ascribe to the “single take” philosophy of that minor masterpiece.
According to Peter Bogdanovich, many French critics considered Under Capricorn to be one of Hitchcock’s greatest. I wouldn’t make that claim, and I know few who would. The film is tirefully overlong, and rarely shows the kind of panache that dominated Hitchcock’s 1940s output. The lead actors are competent, but they’re phoning in their performances, and neither they nor the script offer much psychological depths beyond the soap opera hysterics at hand. The film offers tidbits of a tale about sacrifice and cultural isolation, but that plays second fiddle to endless romantic musical chairs. If nothing else, though, Under Capricorn looks gorgeous. After Rope, Hitchcock was clearly eager to utilise colour – although only when it was warranted. Not until The Trouble with Harry would Hitch find a film that really needed colour, but the lavish cinematography of Under Capricorn makes it stand out from the crowd. Vibrant party scenes and moonlit balconies are exquisite in this film. But… that’s about it.
As you can see, I don’t have much to say about Under Capricorn. It’s a film that basically does what it says on the tin: provides some meat for the performers, allows them to agonise over each other until they find a solution, and is one of the more formulaic scripts in the bunch. The biggest crime the film commits is a stunning lack of humour. Hitch found perverse pleasure in Rope and even a few amusing interchanges in the otherwise downcast Marnie, but Under Capricorn is a melodrama and little else. With Rebecca, that approach worked because of the committment of all involved; even if the source text was a somewhat hokey novel, everyone involved with Rebecca pitched in to make it an early classic in the repertoire. Here, not so much.
Yet, since The 39 Steps, Hitchcock had been on a rarely-broken run of exhilirating, experimental, and/or inspiring works of film. Coming at the mid-point of Hitch’s greatest era – and featuring performances from the divine Bergman and Cotten among others – this film deserves at least one viewing!
Hitch cameo: The director rather overeggs the pudding here, appearing twice amongst the crowds within the first fifteen minutes of the film.
Stage Fright (1950)
written by Whitfield Cook and Ranald MacDougall, with story by Alma Reville, additional dialogue by James Bridie, from the novel by Selwyn Jepson.
Convinced that a famous actress (Marlene Dietrich) killed her husband, acting student Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) goes undercover, taking on the most challenging role of her life to prove the claims of her good friend (Richard Todd).
After a decade on American soil, Hitchcock returns to London, at least in spirit, with this tale of a RADA actress trying to take down her more famous counterpart. Coming off Under Capricorn, it’s a relief to have a movie with a sense of fun, and Stage Fright certainly isn’t lacking in that. As with Murder! before it (a film which this resembles), Hitchcock enjoyed poking light fun at his own industry, and some of the most delightful scenes are those which directly involve the theatre. Both Wyman and Dietrich give insightful performances, although by all reports the haughty relationship between the two women weren’t faked. As the aspiring actress, Wyman is plucky and self-assured, while Dietrich gives a performance that neatly balances her mannered, ice-queen persona with the more natural ‘behind-the-scenes’ atmosphere of her flamboyant actress character.
Hitch continues to play around with the camera here, filming a few scenes in lengthy takes, making this the third film of a stylistic trilogy (although, as with Under Capricorn, the takes are fewer and farther between). Admittedly, though, it’s a relief to see Hitchcock back in front of a standard film camera. Many of his films are easily explained away to neophytes as “the long take movie” or “the one with the birds”. This is bad enough, given how much more lies beneath the surface of those films, but I’m glad to see Hitchcock refusing to become a director of gimmicks. Returning also to black-and-white, Hitchcock wastes no time in returning to the cinematography style he knew so well. Conversations are lit with no less intensity than the thriller sequence that ends the film, and – as was always the way – the most fun is had by the supporting cast, including Sybil Thorndike, Joyce Grenfell, and Alastair Sim as Eve’s father. Sim thoroughly steals his scenes as the Commodore.
Stage Fright is an enjoyable film rather than a thrilling one, and the reason for this is also what makes it stand out from the other “one convinced individual against the world” pictures of Hitch’s career. Eve is far from alone in her beliefs. Indeed, Charlotte is the main suspect in the eyes of both the Commodore and Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding). While Eve’s mission – posing as Charlotte’s new maid – is no less dangerous because of this, it allows her to constantly fall back on her police friends, resulting in a story that feels at times more Enid Blyton than 1950s thriller. What it does allow for, however, is a crackling chemistry between the various cast members, which keeps the film spiriting along in high gear.
The fly in the ointment is that flashback. The opening conversation of the film establishes the parameters of what we know about the murder. Only in the final reel do we learn that we’ve been lied to: the flashback was deliberately inaccurate. Both ourselves and the characters have been misled. It’s a question that has ruffled the faathers of viewers and critics for six decades, although it’s largely an academic one. Some of the most famous murder mysteries of our era – a good chunk of Agatha Christie’s novels, and a regular feature of the Sherlock Holmes short stories – was the unreliable story told to the detective, which colours the entire case. Is it an unfair act of the script? Or does the unfair action only occur because we see the lie as a flashback? If it had merely been a lie told by one character to another, perhaps it would be acceptable. By creating a false flashback, it’s easy to see Stage Fright as a deliberate betrayal on the part of the omniscient – and assumedly truthful – filmmaker. (Sure, “murder mystery” films often enjoy providing a range of potentially misleading flashbacks, but to give just one in a film that doesn’t scream “playful!” looks fishy.) How you feel about that may impact your enjoyment of the film considerably. Certainly, on the first watch,Stage Fright shocks in an unpleasant manner. Yet, as a storytelling technique, I have no inherent problem with that decision. At the end of the day, there’s never gonna be a consensus on whether it was a cheat or merely a gimmick that went too far, but Hitchcock himself reportedly regretted the decision. (Although, that guy would say anything for a good soundbyte.)
Stage Fright doesn’t quite become a masterpiece. The stakes never feel that high – no one is really threatening nor threatend until the final scene – and Eve’s large support group makes things feel a little bit Famous Five. But the film bustles along at a nice pace, with a uniformly talented cast and a sense of reinvigoration on Hitchcock’s part (whether from the British locales or the familiar subject matter, who can tell?) And, as one of Hitch’s final black-and-white films, the lavish cinematography is worth savouring. Either way, the director had made it to the 1950s. Amazingly, even greater times lay ahead.
Hitch Cameo: Hitch rather obtrusively examines Eve as she goes undercover.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
written by Czenzi Ormonde and Alma Reville, with drafts by Whitfield Cook and Raymond Chandler, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets offbeat Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) on the train, where the two exchange facts of the people who stand in the way of their everlasting happiness. It is then that Bruno suggests they switch murders…
Strangers on a Train was the penultimate film before Hitchcock made the official transition to colour, and what a way to go! Tautly crafted, elegantly plotted, and rippling with subtext, this is sublime.
Strangers on a Train is the centre of a loose thematic ‘quadrilogy’ of films – first Rope, then I Confess, last Dial M for Murder – in which we get to play the confidante to someone who must hide the truth of their actions, as things spiral out of control. The difference with Strangers on a Train is that Guy is genuinely innocent in the murder of his shrewish wife Miriam (a very strong Laura Elliott – the stage name of Kasey Rogers). Instead, the odd stranger he met on the train has taken it upon himself to do this “good deed”. Perhaps this is what makes it so wonderful: the film combines Hitchcock’s trademark “wrong man” movie, with his oft-successful “play along with the killer” formula. The web that closes around Guy Haines is Hitchcock’s most fascinating, because his silence is one born out of necessity, not desire.
Leading the charge, Robert Walker powers through the film as the decidedly unhinged Bruno. He’s a terrifying, inhuman, yet incredibly charismatic force, and the middle section of the film – in which he slowly insinuates his way into Guy’s circle – could easily have been a film plot in its own right (and, really, it has, in Patricia Highsmith’s other great film adaptation, The Talented Mister Ripley). As Guy, Granger is perhaps a little effeminate to be the sportsman I imagined him to be (although, it was the ’50s, I guess), but he gives a passionate and soft preformance, and his ‘pretty boy’ looks play nicely into Walker’s portrayal of Bruno being homosexually attracted to the tennis star. The supporting cast are impeccable, with Elliott, Leo G. Carroll, and Patricia Hitchcock – the director’s daughter, here playing Guy’s sister-in-law-to-be – particular standouts. Marion Lorne has a very enjoyable little cameo as Bruno’s mother, explaining so much about his mental state. (After Notorious, Mrs. Anthony is the next step in mothers with unhealthy filial relationships, which will of course climax horrifically in Psycho.)
Finally, there’s Ruth Roman, as Guy’s fiancee Anne. By all accounts, Hitchcock was unhappy with Roman’s casting, and believed her all wrong for the part. Frankly, Mr. H, I can’t say I agree. Roman’s statuesque beauty gives Anne a regalness, and she plays the role with an intelligence that adds to the least dimensional character in the script.
What’s clever about Strangers on a Train is that the structure defies any kind of formula. The set pieces are scattered generously throughout, and Guy’s investigation of Bruno crosses over nicely with Bruno’s increased invasion of Guy’s life, and the growing police investigation. Nicer still, Anne is not treated as an idiot by the script, allowing her to put the pieces together and eventually join Guy as his second-in-command.
And what set pieces they are! The justly famous shot of Miriam being killed, reflected in her thick spectacles, was a technical marvel. The out-of-control carousel becomes truly terrifying as the scene drags out an(and which was truly a cause for concern on set, as lives were risked to make the shot come to life). Even smaller sequences, such as Guy trying to break into Bruno’s home, are perfectly directed, and aided greatly by Robert Burks’ Academy Award-nominated cinematography. Having Burks by his side as he entered the realm of colour must have been a great boon for Hitch.
The greatest set piece of all, though, relies solely on the director: the tennis match which Guy must play before he can flee his police guards, while the spectators watch, captivated, and we continually cut to Bruno attempting, in painstaking detail, to retrieve Guy’s lighter – the vital element of his plan – from a storm drain. While the ending is a little sudden, it’s nonetheless a satisfying wrap-up. (It’s a far cry, too, from Raymond Chandler’s draft of the film, in which Guy ends up institutionalised, in a rather sadistic Twilight Zone twist!)
Despite initial mixed reviews, Strangers on a Train is generally considered as a Hitchcock classic, and I’m onboard that… uh… train. Various critics are inclined to view it from any of a number of angles. A sexual parable about Bruno and Guy? An examination of the pros or cons of the Communist witchhunts, as seen by the seemingly similar traits of the two leads? A dense examination of doppelgangers, and the light and dark sides of us all? Or just a cracking thriller?
Whatever your opinion, Strangers on a Train is a gem, even by Hitchcock’s lofty standards. If pushed, I’d say it was his best film to that date, surpassing previous frontrunners Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and Notorious. Hitchcock was about to enter his ‘late’ period of mature, more enigmatic works, but first he’d have a run of blockbusters through the ’50s. Strangers on a Train is the best of both worlds.
Hitch Cameo: Once again, the director dons a double bass as he boards the train early in the film.
Next time: some of Hitchcock’s most well-known works, as he finds the middle ground between critics and the punters.