Sunday, September 24, 2006

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Alfred Hitchcock

Re: Great Directors
The Films of Alfred Hitchcock - Seven masterpieces discussed
The 39 Steps
Strangers on a Train
I Confess
The Wrong Man

It’s hard to know where to start when it comes time to write about Alfred Hitchcock. So much has already been written on his work, not to mention his often misunderstood (and often bizarre) personal life. Nevertheless, it is hard to overlook a director that found time to make 66 feature films and invent many innovative camera movements still associated with contemporary film narrative, all while mulling over countless scripts and novels in search of the next idea to bring to light. It was difficult to determine which films to discuss so I neglected a few of the widely-praised Universal films like North by Northwest, Rear Window and Vertigo in order to spout off on a few overlooked gems. The movies cited below tend to focus more on Hitchcock’s quieter psychological obsessions as opposed to his more opulent visual spectacles.

Hitchcock’s first film was Number 13 (1922) and his last film was Family Plot (1972). Along his 50-year journey as filmmaker he forged a bold visual style that had the admitted influence of Sergei Eisenstein. The director’s first jobs consisted largely of visual design work (for film), so it is clear he had already begun to train his eye in early apprenticeship. His famous sketchbooks reveal that he drew every image that would be seen in a film before he started shooting. His technical understanding of all aspects of the craft of filmmaking was rarely rivaled and many great cinematographers of the 1940s and 1950s acknowledged their debt to him. He was a different director with every actor and technician that he worked with – seeming to be able to zero in on any personality and know how to use it to serve his purposes.

One thing not commonly known is how much Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife, who collaborated with her husband on nearly all of his films) was responsible for the consistency and eye for detail in Hitch’s films. Hitchcock met Ms. Reville while working on some of the first films he served on as art director and she served as camera assistant. Her contribution was an essential element of the realization of all of his films up until 1962 when she passed away. She read and praised or declined scripts (Hitchcock never veered from his high opinion of her ability to visualize whether or not a script could be well-realized on film) consulted on all aspects of “continuity” (from pre-shooting to post-production) a title that she is most commonly credited with in his films. Hitchcock’s other greatest collaborator was Joan Harrison, who began working with the British émigré shortly after his arrival in 1940 and continued on with him until his death. Hitchcock put most of the responsibility of producing his popular TV series in the hands of Ms. Harrison, who also worked closely with Ms. Reville and Mr. Hitchcock on developing treatments of novels that would eventually be handed over to screenwriters (Rebecca, Spellbound, Lifeboat, The Birds, and many others). It seems ironic considering the flack that Alfred Hitchcock has received over the years from feminists when it turns out that two of his two most steadfast collaborators were women. Of course feminists could easily retort that those women were probably happy to be working (in such well-paying and prestigious positions), even if it meant propping up an old misogynist’s ideas.

The 39 Steps
It is perhaps fitting that The 39 Steps is Hitchcock’s first masterpiece. It presents an essential theme that drives several of Hitchcock’s successive films: a wrong man is unjustly accused of a serious crime (usually murder) and must go to great lengths to prove his innocence. Mr. Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) learns from a dying secret agent that an important government secret is about to be handed over to enemy hands and is wrongly accused of her murder in the process. Like other successive Hitchcock narratives (the sappier Saboteur, the intelligent but patriotic to the point of operatic Foreign Correspondent, but eventually realized to perfection in North by Northwest), our hero must find the source of intrigue and travel cross country to bring it to light. Along the way, the director presents a host of comic routines, innovative camera moves, fast-paced chases and narrow escapes to entertain and fascinate his viewers. Donat rustles up sexual tension with Madeline Carroll, who adds comic appeal to the film and the two learn that they must join forces to stop the spy network for a happily ever-after. Deftly balancing humor, romance, and suspense, The 39 Steps illustrates one of Hitchcock’s great formulas for entertainment at a snappy pace that set the standard for numerous imitations.

Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant ignite one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements as they criss-cross two of the director’s favorite themes: romance and suspense. Bergman’s intelligence and vulnerability make her a prime suspect to infiltrate a Nazi organization in South America led by Claude Rains and enters enemy waters with the keys of romance, much to the chagrin of co-operative Grant. Beautifully photographed and as finely balanced as a troupe of high-wire acrobats, Notorious is a baroque masterpiece with high marks for erotic and psychological tension.

Shot entirely in the confines of a lifeboat, this experimental gem is a taught psychological study of war. Talulah Bankhead is the centerpiece of this small ensemble of actors that serve as a microcosm of the conflict between the Allied and German forces during WWII. Hitchcock originally worked with John Steinbeck on the script but was unsatisfied with the finished product and hired two successive writers to strengthen the narrative before retrieving the reins and polishing the script to meet his needs. The goal of Lifeboat was to enable Hitchcock to make a statement about the contrast between the philosophies and work ethics of the Allied forces and their Nazi counterparts. After several survivors make their way to a lifeboat after being bombed by a German U-Boat, they pull an enemy soldier out of the water and offer him refuge. The script illustrates the lack of direction and listless ideals contrasted with the enemy’s ability to point the boat in the direction of a German supply ship and fool his hosts.

Today’s audiences may see a distinct parallel to the constructs of today’s bi-partisan shuffle between right-wing Republicans, who seem very adept at articulating and realizing their agenda, and the House-dominating Democrats, who talk a lot about political reform, but don’t seem to have be able to articulate a clear agenda on how to actualize their liberal platform.

Strangers on a Train
This film begins with one of the more memorable sequences ever filmed: the opening credits roll as we watch two cars pull up to a train station. Two separate pairs of shoes step out of the cabs and make their way through the station, onto the train and into a passenger car, where they bump into each other as their subjects are seated. A ridiculous plot is hatched between the two strangers to swap murders, so ridiculous that one of the subjects goes along despite the absurdity. A few days later, after a murder occurs in an amusement park, the killer comes to call on his partner to fulfill the completion of the plan. From that point onward, a dizzying game of cat and mouse ensues, leading to one of the great climactic moments in the history of cinema: a dazzling sequence on a merry-go-round that spins out of control while populated with children, courting teenagers and the two suspects that battle desperately to prove their innocence. Strangers on a Train is vintage Hitchcock with an unusually clouded psychological texture and riveting suspense.

I Confess
Montgomery Clift plays a priest who overhears a confession of a murderer and must keep his vow of silence even if it means assuming guilt for the crime. Known for his thoughtfulness regarding locations and how they best serve the film’s narrative, provincial Quebec seems the perfect place to create a claustrophobic urban atmosphere set in place with narrow streets and towering gothic cathedrals. Montgomery Clift offers one of his best performances in I Confess, his clipped emotional range and brooding silence seems perfectly suited for the role of a priest. The original script followed the play by Paul Anthelme, which had the priest hung for the murder only to later discover his innocence. Studio executives balked, and the director changed the script to have the priest proven innocence after the court case was settled (he was acquitted, but when faced with a hostile public, the wife of the killer spills the beans). Mr. Hitchcock was obviously free to comment on the church, but not the death penalty. Regarded by director Peter Bogdonovich as one of the great director’s most personal films, I Confess is an examination of the ethics of faith.

The Wrong Man
Alfred Hitchcock casts Henry Fonda in one of his greatest (and perhaps most overlooked) performances as a musician who is wrongly accused of a bank robbery and almost loses his family and his sanity in the process of proving his innocence. Hitch’s well oiled plot device of cornering an innocent man is wholly reconceived in this calm depiction of the disintegration of a post-war nuclear family. Hitchcock’s ability to hold the film just this side of controlled hysteria is only mildly derailed by Vera Miles, who loses her balance in a few scenes and pushes her character over the top. Regardless of a minor mishap in an otherwise fine performance by Ms. Miles, The Wrong Man is a fine example of one of Hitchcock's principal themes delivered in an unusually restrained direction in order to portray a greater sense of tragedy in the collapse of one man’s family due to mistaken identity.

Set in the American West, Alfred Hitchcock tore the covers off the murderous undercurrent of our country’s new-found suburban veneer and in the process posited one of the most influential classics of the horror genre in this portrayal of a man who murders in order to calm his tortured inner matriarchal voices. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates, an icon of cinematic terror and killer transvestite if there ever was one. Janet Leigh’s performance as Marion Crane captures our desperate desire to flee the 9 to 5 once and for all, but fails to realize the potential of her sex-appeal on unsuspecting motel merchants. Ms. Leigh’s murder in the shower remains one of the all-time terrifying moments of cinematic history; the impact of the camera spiraling out of her open eye delivers a lasting nightmarish image that overwhelms the viewer with death’s ineluctable ability to put an end to all our desires and maneuvers. Vera Miles and John Gavin march on to uncover the trail of Marion’s killer and sacrifice Martin Balsam to mark a path of breadcrumbs that leads to the wicked old witch who dwells silently in the blueprint for Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Mr. Hitchcock used a standard television crew to shoot Psycho for about $400,000, allowing Universal Pictures to make a lot of money over the years while earning him a great deal of creative control for future projects. Psycho is a murderous shout of a movie that ushered decades of imitations and tributes; a desperate scream for help that continues to echo long after the director’s death.

Re:A Closer Look - Hitchcock Top 20
1) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
2) The 39 Steps (1935)
3) The Lady Vanishes (1938)
4) Rebecca (1st film in America 1940)
5) Foreign Correspondent (1940)
6) Saboteur (1942)
7) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
8) Lifeboat (1944)
9) Spellbound (1945)
10) Notorious (1946)
11) Rope (1948)
12) Strangers on a Train (1951)
13) I Confess (1953)
14) Rear Window (1954)
15) To Catch a Thief (1955)
16) The Wrong Man (1956)
17) Vertigo (1958)
18) North by Northwest (1959)
19) Psycho (1960)
20) Frenzy (1972)

Phillip Greenlief
Oakland, CA