Hitchcock Reviews: 1953 – 1955
Posted by therebelprince on April 7, 2012
Welcome back to the latest in my series of reviews of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. After his experimental 1940s, Hitchcock’s 1950s were an era of more traditional blockbusters – at least, traditional by Hitchcock’s standards…
“Do you really believe in the perfect murder?”
– Margot Wendice, “Dial M For Murder”
I Confess (1953)
written by George Tabori and William Archibald, from a play by Paul Anthelme
On circumstantial evidence, Catholic priest Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is arrested for murder. As the truth about Logan’s past comes out – including his torrid affair with a now-married woman (Anne Baxter) – the priest must maintain a silence which threatens his very life. For Father Logan knows the killer’s true identity but cannot admit it, as he learned the truth in confession.
Hitchcock had nurtured the idea of a guilt-laden priest restricted by the rule of the confessional for around a decade, when at last it came to fruition. Inevitably, with each passing draft of what became I Confess, the priest became slightly less dark, with his fate and past sins being gradually diminished due to the mandates of the increasingly outdated Production Code. (The Code operated primarily on an ‘honour’ system of sorts. When Some Like It Hot refused to bow to the whims of the Code, it was released without a Certificate of Approval – in a move not dissimilar to the 2012 squabble over a rating for Bully. As a surprise to no-one, this mattered not one whit, and the bigwigs who tried to promote their own tired morals were gradually phased out in the early ’60s.)
I Confess is an intriguing study. It’s very well-shot, with Robert Burks somehow improving even on the glorious cinematography he had utilised in Strangers on a Train. The Catholic themes allowed Hitchcock to develop a running tally of references to the Christ mythos throughout the film. The location shooting in Quebec lends the film a much more expansive air than many of the brilliant but studiobound pieces Hitch worked with in this era.
As Logan’s former lover, Anne Baxter gives an assured performance. It must be said that some of Hitch’s ’50s and ’60s films tread a precarious balance between the acting styles that dominated the studio era, and the reactionary new techniques which came to power after its demise. Baxter’s performance is solidly in the former camp, but she has the perfect look, easily switching from lovesick to cold as the film goes on. As the Inspector, Karl Malden comes out best, fitting the intense tone of many of the film’s scenes. O.E. Hasse is suitably manic as the killer, Logan’s German housekeeper. In fact, the whole production is rather intense, with nothing approaching lightness throughout. (The giddy flashbacks for Logan and Ruth are, of course, tainted by our knowledge of what is to come.)
And what to make of Montgomery Clift’s central performance as Father Logan? Hitchcock’s method of direction was – famously – tightly-controlled. His views on the craft of acting were – infamously – rather relaxed. Hitch generally shied away from Method actors, and some of his other collaborations – notably, Paul Newman in Torn Curtain were strained, to say the least. Clift’s performance, however, is a success. While his stoic nature doesn’t really create a multifaceted character (the side of him conducting a secret affair is underdeveloped), but Clift delivers during the impassioned courtroom scenes. For a lengthy and downcast movie, we need a protagonist who holds our attention, and Clift does so. At the same time, Hitchcock as director seems to favour the other actors, and a lot of Clift’s performance feels “solid” as opposed to remarkable. He was an actor who would’ve been fascinating on the stage, unhindered by camera angles and cutting between shots. On film, I like him, but I can’t help wishing for more.
I Confess is often written off as a lesser Hitchcock film. I’d put it into the ‘better-than-average’ category. In fact, had the director retired after I Confess, it would’ve made it into my personal Top Ten. At the same time, the sour-faced intensity of the film can make viewing it a bit of a chore. Thankfully, the stakes are consistently high, and the courtroom scenes are neatly scattered with revelations and action. It’s beautiful and well-directed, featuring some smart performances. Not everything comes together, but I Confess is worth a look.
Hitch Cameo: right as the film opens. You’ll see him!
Dial M For Murder (1954)
written by Frederick Knott, from his play
When Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), finds out his wife (Grace Kelly) is having an affair, he organises to have her killed. But things go wrong, and the perfect murder becomes an attempt to escape detection…
Rope and Lifeboat are generally – and fairly – considered to be two of Hitchcock’s most intriguing experiments, particularly when it comes to their single sets. Yet Dial M for Murder is perhaps the most consummate work of the three. Rope is the most startling, and Lifeboat the most successful, but Dial M for Murder – overlong, very clearly a stage play, and with a decidedly singular focus – proves most of all the artistry of Alfred Hitchcock.
The story – set, for all except five minutes, in a terrace apartment – is simple, but the execution is infinitely complex. Tony is the clear villain here, (arranging to have one’s wife killed is rarely an heroic move), but – until the final act – he is undoubtedly the film’s protagonist. I only watched this film for the first time as part of this project – one of the few major omissions in my Hitchcock knowledge – and it came as a surprise after watching its loose 1990s remake, A Perfect Murder, in which the wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her lover (Viggo Mortensen) have far more agency in the plot, as they attempt to uncover and get revenge on her husband (Michael Douglas). Unlike that film, Grace Kelly’s Margot spends most of the film ‘offstage’, and although her lover Mark (Robert Cummings) grows increasingly suspicious, he does so primarily in the background.
Instead, the film is really a battle between Tony and Chief Inspector Hubbard (the wonderful John Williams), who is called in when – by chance – Margot manages to overcome her attacker (Anthony Dawson), and he ends up dead on her rug. Hubbard is a detective in the styling of Hercule Poirot, for both the good and the bad. On the one hand, he’s a delightful adversary to Tony, as there’s not one clue he doesn’t spot. On the other hand, his constant one-upmanship can sometimes be unintentionally hilarious. A couple of scenes overflow with: “How do you explain this, Mr. Wendice?”; “Oh, well I think x must have happened.”; “Ah, but we tested that piece of paper, and its origins are from a low-lying valley in Tuscany.” or some such. It’s not inherently ridiculous; I mean, the police had untold hours in the apartment. But the showy manner in which the evidence is related, while very theatrical, becomes a bit ripe.
There’s very little to be said against Dial M for Murder. It’s a sleek and captivating film, boasting wonderful performances, particularly from Milland and Williams, and one of the few times when an audience is almost rooting for an alleged murderer to get away with it. It’s not that Tony is particularly charming (indeed, Mark is definitely the better catch), but he’s just so clever, having thought of every possible contingency, and taking actions in the first act of the film which are so cleverly explained in the last. (Incidentally, Cary Grant was considered for – and interested in – the role of Tony, but his studio didn’t want him playing a wife murderer.)
Hitchcock’s camera creates dizzying amounts of tension throughout the film, notably in the celebrated sequence leading up to the murder attempt, as we watch victim, attacker, and planner, all intersecting with one another. The film was originally being considered for 3-D which, to my mind, is utterly perplexing. Of Hitchcock’s entire canon, is there a film less obviously suited to 3-D than this? I’ve rarely seen that technique utilised in a truly necessary way, but having to wear silly glasses just to see a few moments of psychological tension seems redundant.
Although a prolific television performer, Grace Kelly only appeared in 11 films, and three were with Hitch. This is the least of her three appearances, partly because her character lacks any real agency in the script (note the strangely docile way in which Margot is convinced to go to bed, less than an hour after she has stabbed an intruder to death), and partly because Hitchcock hadn’t yet defined the perfect Grace style. The director had always had specific images in his head of his leading ladies. His three-film run with the future Princess Grace, coupled with his near-legendary status in America, would convince him to become even more tyrannical in the future.
In some ways, Dial M for Murder never transcends its theatrical origins. It’s not in the location (Hitchcock could make any room suspenseful) or even in the lengthy dialogue. Yet, because the film is so focused on its battle of will between Tony and the Inspector, the other characters – Margot and Mark – become mere subsidiaries to the action. Given that we cannot follow them out of the living room, that’s a great disappointment. Conversely, much of Dial M for Murder works better as a film. The climax – relying, as it does, on so many little technicalities – works better in close-up when we can truly appreciate these aspects.
As this project has progressed, I’ve been making my personal rankings of Hitchcock’s 44 talking pictures. It’s an impossible task at the best of times: how do you compare films made over a fifty year period, and do individual negative elements – a bad script, a poor casting choice, a censorship decision – derail one film but have less of an impact on another? (Beyond this, I have an aversion to straight-up “Best Of” lists, since they devalue the experience of each work in its own context.) Even within this framework, Dial M for Murder is hard to rate. So much of what makes the story work comes straight from the play. So much of what makes it consistently interesting, however, is the work of the director. It’s not a great film but it’s a fascinating story. This was a rare occasion when the director had a sure-fire script, which made up for the fact that reportedly struggled greatly with casting and restricted budgets. Dial M is a slick, enjoyable piece of work, and proof – if anyone needed it – that Hitchcock was a consummate filmmaker.
Hitch Cameo: In the photograph of Tony’s college reunion.
Rear Window (1955)
written by John Michael Hayes, from a short story by Cornell Woolrich
Wheelchair-bound photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) grows addicted to viewing the lives of his apartment complex neighbours with binoculars. Until one day, he begins to suspect a neighbour (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife…
Not everyone would agree that Strangers on a Train is one of Hitch’s greatest films of the ’50s, but few would deny Rear Window‘s place near the top of the canon. The last of Hitchcock’s restricted-set films, Rear Window is also his cheekiest. I have an immense fondness for his later films, even though some of my favourites – Vertigo, for instance – are decidedly lacking in humour. But Rear Window is perhaps Hitch’s most all-around entertaining film, and a damned fine example of the craft of movie-making.
Everything is in place here. James Stewart was the wrong choice in Rope, which should’ve gone to the declining Cary Grant. Stewart would give further defining performances in two further Hitchcock films, but Rear Window is his greatest. Stewart is gamely aided by delightful performances from Wendell Corey as his detective friend, Thelma Ritter as his endlessly amusing nurse, and Grace Kelly – far better utilised and styled here than in Dial M for Murder – as his girlfriend. The interplay between the four is divinely scripted (and John Michael Hayes was nominated for an Oscar for his insightful screenplay), treading the line between wisecracking, philosophising, and character creating. The other Academy Award nominations are equally deserved: Robert Burks‘ lurid but homely cinematography, Loren L. Ryder‘s sound direction – capturing the ambient sounds of the apartment complex, and of course Hitch’s direction. Beyond this, Edith Head‘s costumes give Kelly that look. 1954 was Kelly’s annus mirabilis (in film, at least), as she appeared in 5 of her 11 works, two with Hitch.
With such a tight, character-focussed script, Hitchcock could focus on matters important to him: the interplay in Jeff’s apartment is equally weighted between the participants, which means that the story of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship develops in its own quietly subtle way alongside the individual lives of each of Jeff’s neighbours. They all have their own stories, developing alongside the investigation into Thorwald. Stage Fright suffered somewhat because the heroine had such a merry band of followers: she wasn’t the fugitive individual, instead she was the leader of the Famous Five. Jeff’s crew, on the other hand, are equal participants in their own narratives – a study of voyeurism and human nature, a romance tale, a comic duo – trying to help their leader, but none able to do all Jeff can. It’s just a delightful piece of cinema.
(Incidentally, if you’ve not seen Robert Zemeckis‘ What Lies Beneath, I’d recommend it – if not as a film itself, at least as an exercise in Hitchcock fandom. Michelle Pfeiffer begins to suspect her gruff neighbour of murdering his wife, only to worry that her husband Harrison Ford has his own secrets. If that already sounds like about half a dozen different Hitchcock films, you’ll be staggered by how many films and TV episodes of the great director are referenced throughout.)
he film’s overriding discussion about voyeurism and our morbid curiosity is only more relevant six decades on, and the film’s structure gave endless grist to the mill of French film critics. Francois Truffaut and his ilk would do anything they could to ignore Hitch’s more prurient side, and his interest in human nature. Instead, Rear Window could only be about the relationship between spectator and screen, as a deep comment on the relationship of the filmmaker to his audience. Whether or not that’s a load of tosh, Rear Window is that rare film which captures both the public and critical imagination, and deservedly so. Hitchcock earned his fourth (of five) Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards, and there’s a true sense of time and place in every single shot. Working now with a long list of repertory players – Stewart, Kelly, Hayes, Head, Burks, and his new editor George Tomasini – Hitch created a film in which every scene is expertly pulled five different ways. Any action taken by one character is felt by every other character in the moment, and our empathy, suspense, and sense of humour are constantly conflicted.
Rear Window was was Hitch’s finest film to date, and it’s telling that – for the rest of the decade – he’d be torn between making films that were commercially appealing, and those that were critically so. It was going to be increasingly rare for him to create a work that catered to both markets.
Hitch Cameo: winding a clock in the songwriter’s apartment, during one of Jeff’s casual investigations.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
written by John Michael Hayes, from a novel by David Dodge
Famed, retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) discovers that someone is mimicking his style in the French Riviera. With the help of an insurance man (John Williams), and the daughter of an old co-conspirator (Brigitte Auber), he sets about hunting down his copycat…
Carol Cling of the Las Vegas Review Journal cites To Catch a Thief as “fluff, but made of spun gold, with Grant and Kelly at their glittering best”. I feel as if I don’t need to elaborate on that summation.
There’s none of the stakes here of Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, nor the sly director-audience relationship of his upcoming The Trouble with Harry, nor the darker studies of humanity that would occupy Hitchcock thereafter. Neither the script or cinematography equal any of Hitchcock’s other 1950s works, and everything feels incredibly “knowing”. It’s that sense of self-awareness and deliberate coyness which works in a 22-minute self-referential TV comedy, but is tiresome at 106 minutes. Even the director – by now one of the most sought-after figures in all of film – seems to be just enjoying the European holiday, bringing together one big star and one promising ‘It’ girl, for his most conventional Hollywood film. Grant and Grace Kelly serve up a string of flirtatious dialogue, but it has none of the scandalous double entendre of Bogey and Bacall, or much of the sublime pandemonium of Hepburn and Tracy. As Danielle, French actress Brigitte Auber was highly appreciated by Hitchcock. She looks great, and fits the film’s milieu, but I’ve never personally been won over by Auber’s contributions to cinema.
That was to get the negativity out of the way. The other side of the coin is that Grant and Kelly have an irresistible chemistry, with marvelous supporting performances from John Williams and Jessie Royce Landis, the latter of whom would soon be aged up to play Grant’s mother in North by Northwest!. That film is this one’s spiritual cousin. While North by Northwest has the lion’s share of the iconic images, it also has a notoriously confusing plot. To Catch a Thief is a shallow movie – outrageous, given it is surrounded by Rear Window, I Confess, Strangers on a Train and Vertigo – yet is perhaps Hitchcock’s sleekest work. The film was deservedly nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction and Costume Design. Edith Head did the costumes for most of Hitch’s films from Rear Window to Family Plot. Considered by her detractors to be “safe” (by avoiding fads, Head hoped her films would date less quickly), the designer’s classical tastes perfectly suited Hitchcock’s perpetual elegance. Robert Burks, back for his fifth straight Hitchcock, won an Oscar for his cinematography (although I’d argue this was far more of a ‘straight’ job than many of his highest achievements!). And the film made almost $9 million, which was several times the initial investment, cementing the name “Hitchcock” in the minds of moviegoers for decades to come.
There’s a sly, seductive nature to the film, even if the script isn’t as witty as it would like to be. The much-discussed sequence in which Grant and Kelly’s lovemaking is offset by fireworks can be easily parodied, but is startlingly effective. This is by far Hitch’s most colourful film as well. From the climactic costume ball to the green-tinged frames at night, it all looks bold and bubbly.
To Catch a Thief is no-nonsense romance and thrills. Or perhaps, all-nonsense, as the case may be. It’s not classic Hitchcock, and it’s a pale imitation of classic Hollywood, but numbers don’t lie. Perhaps it prefigures the more winningly sly future works – North by Northwest, Psycho, Family Plot. Perhaps not. In this case, one shouldn’t ask questions. Mindless enjoyment, but as “fluff… made of spun gold”, the film succeeds.
Hitch Cameo: wandering up stairs in the early moments of the film.
Next time: we take a look at two lesser-known Hitchcock films, and a rare case of a director remaking his own work…