Editor's note: The timid, overweight son of an East End London grocer, Alfred Hitchcock grew to adulthood without displaying any extraordinary aptitude in any area until he more or less wandered into the movie business a hundred years ago. Though he died in 1980, he remains the world's most written-about and studied filmmaker, with biographies, memoirs, critical studies, trivia and quiz books, chronicles of the making of Psycho and Vertigo.
More than that, Hitchcock is still the film director with the most pop culture currency. His contemporaries -- Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Ford -- never had their own television series, much less his fame. Modern famous directors Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Stephen Spielberg are not as instantly recognizable as Hitch. Hitchcock is an icon like James Dean in his red windbreaker, Marilyn with her blown-up skirt or Elvis strangling a microphone with his untended guitar bouncing 'round his hips -- people who've never seen his movies know the fat man with the taste for blood.
Our Joe Riddle has made a study of Hitchcock's work in Hollywood. The following is part one of his film-by-film synopsis of all features made by Hitchcock after he crossed the pond in 1940. Part two will follow next week.
I've never counted his last British production, Jamaica Inn, as a "Hitchcock film." It was not very well received, even though it had Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara as part of the cast. (They would also appear in The Hunchback of Notre Dame that same year but to much greater -- and deserved -- acclaim.)
Hitchcock is credited with making the first talkie in England, called Blackmail, in 1929. He also shot it as a silent film and some critics prefer it to the sound version, according to Leonard Maltin in his Classic Movie Guide.
My favorite film from this period is The Lady Vanishes, released in 1938 and starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas and Dame May Whitty (as the lady who vanishes). Witty, suspenseful and political, this film serves as a template for many Hitchcock films to come. And ask yourself, "When do nuns wear high heels?"
My second favorite would be The 39 Steps, wherein Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are chased through the Scottish countryside (usually handcuffed together) by men who mean to do them harm. It is quite adult for its time with bits of sophisticated humor and true suspense scattered throughout.
Hitchcock came to the United States after he signed a contract with David O. Selznick. That partnership was not very prolific as Hitchcock was loaned out to several other studios during his indenture.
With Rebecca, Hitchcock hit a home run first time out. Joan Fontaine (her character's name is never mentioned) marries the mysterious Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and both are haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca. Also memorable is Judith Anderson as the evil Mrs. Danvers who runs his estate called Manderley. (Cloris Leachman has said she modeled her Frau Blucher [horse whinnies] in Young Frankenstein on Anderson's portrayal of Mrs. Danvers.) Remarkably, this film was Hitchcock's only Oscar win. It won best film of 1940 and was the best of the three Selznick/Hitchcock films.
Hitchcock had many run-ins with Selznick, who micro-managed every aspect of the film. At one point, he wanted the ending to have heart-shaped smoke rising from Rebecca's bed as Manderley burned around it. "Can you imagine?!" Hitchcock said years later in a TV interview.
His second film of 1940 was also excellent, Foreign Correspondent, with Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders and Herbert Marshall. In this film, American reporter McCrea is dragged into an assassination plot with spies and political intrigue (which would figure in later Hitchcock films). The film -- on loan-out to producer Walter Wanger -- finished shooting in May and by July, the Germans had started bombing England. The ending was reshot to follow the actual events just after they happened.
His third American film was a loan-out in 1941 to RKO, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard. It was not what you would call "a Hitchcock film" in that it was not suspenseful nor intriguing. Still, this screwball comedy had a great cast working with thin material.
Joan Fontaine won her only Oscar in Hitchcock's next film, Suspicion, on loan-out to RKO again, which teamed him with Cary Grant for the first time. A fine film marred by the studio's insistence of making Grant a hero instead of a murderer, which was the original plot.
Hitchcock's next film, 1942's Saboteur for Universal, was a film that mirrored the way things were going in the United States. An innocent man (Robert Cummings) is framed for sabotage at a California aircraft factory that kills his best friend, and he sets out across the country looking for the man (Norman Lloyd) responsible. Similar to The 39 Steps in that Cummings is handcuffed to Priscilla Lane for a part of the film. The circus train scene is bizarre but fascinating. And Lloyd's fall from the Statue of Liberty's torch hand is a classic in suspense.
In 1943, also at Universal, Hitchcock made one of his best films, Shadow of a Doubt, wherein a young woman (Teresa Wright in her finest hour) dotes on her visiting Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) until she slowly realizes he is the serial killer whom the police are after. Terror in a nice small town was never captured better. Adding to the story is Hume Cronyn as comic relief, in his film debut.
One of Hitchcock's most ingenious creations was Lifeboat, on loan-out to 20th Century Fox in 1944, which was set entirely in a lifeboat. It had the distinction of the marvelous Tallulah Bankhead in the cast and was based on a John Steinbeck story. As the United States was fighting for its life, the director told the story of survivors from a sinking ship, sunk by a German U-boat. And to add to the drama, one of the passengers is the captain of said U-boat, played with menace by Walter Slezak. Hume Cronyn was also a part of the cast.
Working again for Selznick, Hitchcock made Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman (who would work twice more for him) and Gregory Peck (who also would work again for him in one of his worst films). Released by United Artists, Spellbound had a minimum of Selznick's interference in the story of psychologists and patients. Delving into psychoanalysis was new then as was the Oscar-winning music score by Miklos Rosza using the theremin, that strange-sounding instrument that was over-used in sci-fi films all through the '50s. It also had a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali -- which had originally been 20 minutes long -- and directed by the legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies.
In 1946, Hitchcock was loaned out to RKO for Notorious, one of his best films. Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains are at the top of their game in this stylish noir set in South America. Grant is a spy who falls for Bergman and convinces her to help him keep tabs on Rains and his Nazi ilk. She even marries Rains to seal the deal. Their scene in the wine cellar still gives me chills.
Next was The Paradine Case, which was a misfire through Selznick's insistence on using Gregory Peck, Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan in the key roles. He spent as much money making this as he had Gone With the Wind, but you'd never know it by watching the long-winded drama of an attorney who falls for the woman he is defending for murdering her husband. Hitchcock took 92 days to film this drama. The large cast is wasted, including Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn and Ethel Barrymore. Selznick threw out the original script by Ben Hecht and James Bridie and wrote his own. He also threw out the music score by Leith Stevens and had Franz Waxman write a new one. The original length was almost three hours, cut down to 132 minutes and finally to 125 minutes. This production ended Hitchcock's contract with Selznick.
Hitchcock signed a new contract with Warner Bros., where he had a bit more say in his productions. But studio interference would again become a problem.
His first film at Warner Bros. was the Technicolor drama Rope, based loosely on the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder. The film was shot in 10 takes, which made the film seem more like a play. The idea was to keep the plot moving in "real time," meaning everything happened in real time from the first scene to the last. The two main characters Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) kill a classmate for the hell of it right before their guests are to arrive for a party. The murderers, who are likely lovers, have invited the dead man's relatives and friends, including James Stewart, who was a college professor of the men and who eventually figures out what they have done. It was not successful at the time but has gained in appreciation over the last 70 years.
Another critical and commercial failure was Under Capricorn, a Technicolor drama set in Australia that miscast Ingrid Bergman as an unhappy alcoholic wife and Joseph Cotten as her ex-convict husband. Two pluses in the cast were Margaret Leighton and Michael Wilding, but they couldn't make up for the rest of the film's shortcomings. This would be Hitchcock's third misfire at the box office in a row.
The director returned to England to film Stage Fright, which had the distinction of Marlene Dietrich, Richard Todd and Alastair Sim among the cast. But it also had the miscast Jane Wyman, whose accent came and went. It used flashback sequences involving a murder and the person who may or may not be the guilty party. Another box office failure.
But the fifth try proved a charm, as Hitchcock made one of his finest films. Strangers on a Train, released in 1951 by Warner Bros., was a critical and box office success. The director had wanted William Holden for the lead but had to settle for Farley Granger. He also settled for Ruth Roman, whom he ridiculed at every moment, mainly because Jack Warner insisted on using her. In Raymond Chandler's screenplay, Robert Walker gave his best (and penultimate) performance as the rich man-boy Bruno Antony, who devises a plan to swap murders with Granger.
Hitchcock travelled to Quebec for his next film, I Confess, a murder mystery involving a priest and the sanctity of the confessional. For non-Catholics, this may have been a reason for the film's failure at the box office in 1953. (Priests are bound to keep secret all that they hear in a confessional.) The murderer confesses to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) who cannot repeat what he has heard to the police. Clift was appropriately solemn and stoic as the priest who is implicated in the murder of a man who was blackmailing his former lover, played by Anne Baxter. The change of scenery and lovely score by Dimitri Tiomkin make this one of my favorite Hitchcock films.
I suppose Hitchcock was trying to keep up with the latest technology (in 1954) for his next film, the Warner Bros. mystery Dial M for Murder, shot in 3-D, during the initial run of three-dimension films in the early '50s. Ray Milland, Robert Cummings and Grace Kelly (in her first film for the director) were the stars. According to IMDb, Hitchcock's dream cast for this movie included Deborah Kerr, William Holden and Cary Grant. Kerr and Holden were busy making other movies. Grant refused to play a villain, a role Ray Milland was happy to play. It collected a tidy sum at the box office but was not one of Hitchcock's favorites. He said Jack Warner forced him to direct it. The 3-D craze ended as quickly as it started, and the film was released "flat."
Next week: Rear Window (1954) through Family Plot (1976).
MovieStyle on 01/03/2020