There are various levels to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock. The all-time classics everyone has heard of. The Hollywood stylistic experiments. His early formative British and silent work. But perhaps the most enjoyable of these groups to discover as a film buff are the ones not all that many speak about, but that are equally as brilliant to that first group. In my experience they are his best, most pure in genre terms thrillers. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is one, and happens to be my favourite of his films. And now to that I would add Strangers on a Train (1951), which if it doesn’t quite match that film for me, it manages to pack maybe the best character and best sequence of the director’s career into one film.
Perhaps equalled only by Psycho (1960) in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, this is a quite nasty film. There’s some fuckin menace bubbling along just below the surface. In perhaps the most brilliant sequence of his career, a tense and totally brutal murder takes place at a carnival. This follows a chase with all of Hitch’s hallmarks. The shadows and sounds of the tunnel of love as well as the bluster and bravado of the murderer on a test of strength, just feel so distinctly him. If it sounds utterly all over the shop and out there, it is. I’m not sure any other director could have made it work. The plot carries on, the characters swirling around one another. Hitchcock shows us he is able to elicit incredible tension, just through the length of a tennis match. The events come to a head back at the carnival from earlier in the film. This whole end sequence, sort of sums up his reputation for me. A wildly fun and crowd pleasing denouement to a perfectly, artistically constructed tense thriller. Without giving anything away, it mainly goes down on a carousel, a structure of fun taking on malevolent overtones in a stark way.
Strangers on a Train stands as a monument to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller. From the very start where our ‘strangers’ are identified only by their feet, the film almost overflows with creativity. But in a highly controlled manner, as Hitch is able to harness his highly original approach in a way that serves story above all else. There is something chilling about the psychological edges of the characters in the film, most notably Bruno. So much of the character comes from the great performance by Robert Walker. Something off with him from the get-go, his unsettling obsession with “people who do things”. The witty and quite modern script, the way Bruno helps a blind man cross the road, gives him psychopathic tendencies that feel both real and harrowing. The plotting of the film hangs off this character too, based around how each character will react to his manipulation. Just as the first trip to the carnival is maybe Hitchcock’s best sequence, Bruno is maybe his best character. Also excellent is Farley Granger, playing the charming tennis player Guy well out of his depth. He almost functions as a measure of normality to consider Walker’s Bruno against.
Verdict: Strangers on a Train is a legit classic Hollywood thriller and sees Hitchcock at the absolute peak of his creative powers. Anchored by a couple of very good performances, the plot gets you so invested in events it will leave you wanting to yell at the screen (or in my case, actually yelling at the screen). Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
You have to give it to Alfred Hitchcock. He could have comfortably kept making the same type of movie over and over again if he chose to, and in the process made a lot of money and a lot of really fantastic films. But what set him apart and made him perhaps the greatest director of all time was his constant desire to push the envelope. He famously had to fight exceptionally hard to get Psycho (1960) made, blew the budget on a Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound (1945) and got all high concept with Lifeboat (1944). Another film quite similar in premise to that is the baby-faced Jimmy Stewart starring Rope (1948).
The high concept Rope all takes place in a single small apartment. It sees two young men Brandon and Phillip covering up a murder (which they carried our using the titular weapon) whilst hosting a dinner party, with the body hidden away in the apartment as friends and family mingle. Amongst those friends is Rupert, played by a pretty young Jimmy Stewart. This mentor figure is the audience’s way into the film, reacting as we may to the events as they unfold. Rupert is brought to life by Stewart’s remarkable humorous sensibility, which shines through even in roles such as this which are not particularly comedic. The body literally sitting in the middle of the room whilst characters linger around it casts a pall on proceedings, from the perspective of the audience at least, though not the unsuspecting characters. The body also influences what is a very smart script, resulting in everything taking on different meaning if you have the knowledge of what is really going on. It is a wordy script too which is quite bold, the characters expounding a lot of ideas aloud, in a way which never ends up feeling like the unnecessary regurgitation of the plot and bringing the audience up to speed, rather adding complexity to the film’s thematic focus. The film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, which is an interesting stylistic choice. It works though, boxing in the action on screen and intensifying the claustrophobia that the audience and especially the under pressure characters onscreen are feeling.
Given the premise, it is in themes not plot that Rope has the most weight. Right from the start, you can tell that Hitchcock’s primary concern with the film is psychology. Brandon and Phillip go through a range of feelings in terms of the crime they have committed, from contentment, to guilt, to horror. This is all informed by the distinct hint of homoeroticism in their relationship and the way that one seems to be able to control and guide the other. Also feeding into the psychology of the participants is their class, which has imbued the perpetrators, Brandon in particular, with a sense of entitlement and smug satisfaction in what he has done. The manner in which Brandon and Philip revel in their intellectual game is also connected to their class. It is as if they are bored by the leisure activities that society offers them, so instead of polo they resort to a sick game of cat and mouse, as if that is the right that their class affords them. The experiment of pulling of the perfect crime, killing for the sake of danger and sake of killing, also serves to stoke the ego of the perpetrators, reinforcing what they have always been told – they are special and they are better than those around them.
Verdict: Rope always feels a little too small a film to be counted amongst the very best of Hitchcock. But there is no shame in that and the psychological aspects of the film are unique, intense and expertly written and performed. Stubby of Reschs
Again, another far too quiet film watching month for me in September. The writing of Sydney Underground Film Festival reviews took up pretty much all of my time devoted to film. And Amy and I were married a week ago, so the planning and carrying out of that awesomeness took up most of the rest of my energy. Let me know your thoughts on these flicks though in the comments section below.
- Easy Virtue (1928), Alfred Hitchcock – This is the first of Hitch’s silent films I have seen. It almost looks like Kubrick shot it in parts. There is plenty of playful camerawork and creative POV shots. Based on a play, in terms of story, there is next to nothing going on. Though the family politics/machinations right at the end are of moderate interest. If you are a Hitch completist, this is a cool exhibition of his early style. Everyone else can probably afford to skip it though. You can check the whole thing out here:
- The Past (2013), Asghar Farhadi – I actually prefer this to A Separation (2011). There are dense layers of meaning and relationships. Which makes it sound like a slog, but it is so well written and acted that it breezes by. Ali Mosaffa brings Ahmad to life with a really nuanced performance and he is one of the best characters of recent memory. A very good, slow burn drama film.
- What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi – What a stellar year for Kiwi comedy. This is a piss-funny film, both silly and smart. Actually one of the few recent films that drew genuine laughs pretty much non-stop from me. Jermaine Clement and the other stars are all really ggood with the characters helping to hold interest. The sharehouse familiarity, combined with vampire ludicrousness and mockumentary stylings help it to stand high above the average comedy.
Not Worth Watching:
- God’s Pocket (2014), John Slattery – The stellar cast – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Eddie Marsan, Caleb Landry Hones Richard Jenkins and John Turturro – can’t save this poorly scripted effort. There is a reasonable sense of place, but no sense of character and story. There are just no stakes and the grime and dirt of the life that is supposedly being shown is just not there. No texture and some horribly misjudged characters make for a dull overall experience.
- The Maze Runner (2014), Wes Ball – A killer concept wrecked by appalling writing and performances. The latter coming from some people who I have seen do really good work, such as Will Poulter and Thomas Brodie Sangster. A pity as the cool sci-fi ideas are tops and the film encompasses some really dark and tense sequences. Plus it’s got a giant frickin maze. It’s an utter sausage fest for some reason too.
If you only have time to watch one What We Do in the Shadows
Avoid at all costs God’s Pocket
Alfred Hitchcock is the filmmaker with the most entries on the 1001, and the first of those chronologically is Blackmail (1929). The film was far from Hitch’s first though, he had already made nine silent features before this one. Whilst it is definitely minor Hitchcock, Blackmail is notable for being not only the director’s first sound film, but Britain’s too. My understanding is that the film began production as a silent film, before the decision was made part way through production to make it a sound film instead. A silent version was completed, but I m not sure that it is available and this review is of the better known sound version.
Like many films of the period, including from Hitch, Blackmail is based on a play. Some of these early films, Number 17 (1932) springs to mind, really struggle to escape their source and come off feeling more like filmed plays rather than being at all cinematic. For the most part, this film succeeds in convincing you that this is definitely a film not a filmed play. Early on though, it struggles to escape it’s beginnings as a silent film moreso than its theatrical roots. The early part of the film just feels like a silent film sans intertitles. I suspect that these sequences were already filmed when the decision was made to convert the production to a sound one. Plot wise there is nothing too intriguing to report. The film is a crime story and a pretty straightforward one, at least after being pretty difficult to follow over the first section. The most important part of the plot is of course the Hitchcock cameo and I can happily report it is a cracker. One of my favourites actually, as Hitch rides a train and gets bugged by a little kid. After what is a frankly pretty boring first half, this film thankfully picks up a fair bit over the second and third acts. Part of the issue early on is that it takes a long time for the pieces to fall into place. But once there is a murder and a scramble to cover it up, we are in familiar Hitch territory – blackmail, knives, jilted cops, mistaken identity and so on – and it is a nice place to be in this master’s hands.
Many people have not seen any of Hitchcock’s extensive British filmography. I generally like this period of his career, with the films generally possessing a low-key charm that was not a part of bigger, ‘greater’ productions such as Psycho (1960) or North by Northwest (1959). Much of the enjoyment from watching this era of films is seeing the progress of Hitchcock’s development. Here there is little of the visual trickery and really noticeable camera movements that would be characteristics of his later work. But the young director already had the ability to frame a shot both perfectly and in a really interesting manner so that they did not feel at all staid. I often ponder the connections between Hitchcock and Tarantino as I think that they share some really interesting similarities and differences. Here, Hitch seems to be quite the forerunner of the contemporary superstar director. There is some really wink wink dialogue, especially about movies, that Tarantino himself would have been ultra proud of. Some of the other dialogue is strangely stuttering for a film from this great director, whose work is usually so sharp. The result is a film that feels more old fashioned than most of his other films. The female lead Anny Ondra gives a really excellent performance, especially in some of the more challenging scenes she is required to deliver. There is a rape scene, which is really quite forward for the time, and Ondra’s performance in the immediate aftermath is impressive, conveying the violation and confrontation she has just endured. Her performance is one of the reasons that the film remains relatively watchable today.
Some of Hitchcock’s earlier British films really only work as curiosity pieces, but thankfully not this one. After a slow start, the plot contains many of the tropes and themes that the director would continue to return to over the following decades. It is certainly not his best or even the best of his British films, but Blackmail is still worth checking out if you are a fan of the great man or just of crime cinema of this vintage.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
2014 Progress: 10/101
Even though I have seen Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) a bunch of times before, it is always exciting to be popping the film back in the DVD player. One of my favourite Hitchcock films, it is also without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.
The first half or so of the film is probably cinema’s most famous macguffin. In an attempt to “buy off unhappiness” Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, steals a large sum of money from her employer so that she can start a new life with her lover Sam. It’s the sort of snap decision we all make, but Hitch takes it to a really extreme example. After a couple of days on the run, Marion spends a rainy night at the Bates Motel. Anyone familiar with the film will know what starts to take place here, as the socially awkward Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, begins to interact with his lone guest. I will veer into spoiler territory and say that this is in many ways where the narrative of the film really begins, as Sam and Marion’s sister Lila begin a frantic search for her. As much as the character arc of Marion is often dismissed or looked over when discussing Psycho, it is actually a really fully formed and interesting one. Her decision to return to Phoenix just before she is killed is a really good example.
Psycho is a rare film that I think actually improves with each viewing. Part of that is that a first viewing is dominated by some of the iconic high points – the ‘shower scene’ and the final reveal. But after you have seen it once, everything takes on a different weight and many elements of it are actually all the more chilling. In a funny sort of way, despite near universal acclaim, I feel like the film is a little underrated. People tend to focus on the aforementioned iconic moments, but there is also so much more. Both acts of the stark two act narrative work really well. The second half turns into a wonderful detective story, full of sharp P.I. chatter and patter. The extended scene of Norman’s interrogation at the hands of the P.I. engaged by Marion’s boss is one of the film’s best moments. As for the end sequence, it could so easily have come across as laughable and on paper it really should. But somehow, Hitchcock manages to ram it home awesomely, with the closing stages being both chilling and totally satisfying.
There is barely a thriller made since 1960 that has not taken a whole lot of inspiration from Psycho and the most influential aspect of the film is the soundtrack. Obviously the sound in the shower scene is unforgettable, but literally from the opening credits, the music is playing a massive role. The perfect way in which the soundtrack is used to create tension is the main aspect that has clearly been taken onboard by numerous filmmakers. The whip smart script is brought to life by the great actors involved. Janet Leigh nails it as Marion Crane’s woman on the edge. Her desperation to be with her lover and her guilt at the theft she has done, totally inform every move she makes onscreen and every line she utters. Whilst the performances are all really good, it is Anthony Perkins who truly startles. On first viewing, it is clear that there is something a little amiss with this momma’s boy. But re-watching the film, knowing where the story ends up, and you see just how masterful Perkins’ portrayal really is. Even when his character is acting totally over the top with mental illness, the final scene for example, Perkins is reserved, knowing he does not need to go similarly over the top in his presentation to achieve maximum effect.
There is possibly no film in history which manages to combine bombastic mainstream enjoyment with artistic merit quite like Psycho. A vast majority of you have probably seen Psycho, but if you haven’t, then I highly recommend it. The best thriller in history and also a perfect introduction to the world of classic cinema, even (actually especially) if you are someone who is not really into that realm of cinema.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter