Family Plot (1976)

 ★★★★☆ 


When a wealthy woman unwittingly hires a con man and a phony psychic to find her missing heir, the results are diabolically funny in Alfred Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek mystery thriller. Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris star as a conniving couple plotting to bilk an old lady out of her fortune by pretending to find her long-lost nephew (William Devane). Meanwhile, Devane, a larcenous jeweller, and his beautiful girlfriend (Karen Black) have kidnapped a rich Greek shipping magnate for ransom. Together they’re on a nonstop merry-go round of mystery, murder and mayhem that combines suspense and comedy for unforgettable entertainment.

And so we come to the final Alfred Hitchcock film. It would be easy to make excuses for it, coming at the end of such an illustrious career that encompassed some of the greatest and most important films ever made, but the truth is, we don’t have to. It’s a great little film that is unmistakeably Hitchcock throughout and shows he never rested on his laurels.

The key thing about a typical Hitchcock plot is the simple, delicious premise and a claustrophobic situation, entrapping the central character. Family Plot doesn’t really have that. Essentially it’s two separate threads, but the light, farcical story by Ernest Lehman, built around a hugely ironic premise (jewel thief trying to do away with a couple who are simply trying to help him!), is still very enjoyable. There is a nod to previous ideas with the notion that the perfect murder was committed years before and gotten away with. For now.

The film opens with Barbara Harris as fake spiritualist Blanche in the middle of a session with Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nebitt) and being offered $10000 to track down –psychically- the only heir to her family fortune. We are then introduced to Blanche’s partner, taxi driver George Lumley (Bruce Dern) as they try to work out how to find this man who nobody knows. There is a neat switch to Karen Black as jewel thief Fran completing an audacious kidnap plot by silently collecting the ransom from a police station and taking it to William Devane (Arthur Adamson aka Edward Shoebridge, the guy Blanche will be looking for). It’s a grand and theatrical introduction for the second couple, including a brilliant reveal of a helicopter, almost like a magic trick. The neat hiding of the diamond makes for a couple of nice shots later on too.

Harris and Dern might not get the obvious set-piece to grab the viewer with, but you will quickly warm to their endearing partnership. Harris (Freaky Friday) in particular works her socks off throughout and is very funny. And this is one of the best roles I’ve seen Dern in. Not because it is particularly difficult, but he often plays characters that are difficult to empathise with. The jewel thief couple are more style over substance, but Karen Black does well with the thinnest role and William Devane is always worth watching, especially his smooth dealings with detectives who visit his jewellers (note his lapel picking to disarm them). Ed Lauter also pops up as a thug and does very well to be a viable threat in what is too light a story to handle anything really terrifying.

Most of Hitchcock’s American films had huge star power, but this had undone his later films. Marnie and Torn Curtain had the stars, but they were awkward, detached, incapable or all three! Topaz had the characters, but not the stars to pull them off. As if realising a change of gear was needed, in Frenzy he worked with a lesser-known, but a more capable and balanced cast and the story was tailored to suit them. Family Plot is the same and works very well for it, although at some cost to the epic visual style his best work is known for. Still, he rarely handled comedy well for that very reason, so this is a treat. There is one set-piece that acts as a nod to North By Northwest and the preceding car accident hilariously demonstrates Hitchcock’s grasp of the absurd cinema he helped create and reminding us a little of the humour he injected into Foreign Correspondent.

The low key setting, wider focused plot and cast of unknowns, can’t help but lend the film a touch of TV movie (though somewhat deflected by John Williams’ score), but rather than be a detriment, it simply highlights the director’s skills in composing a scene, or building character and dialogue. For some reason, I particularly noticed the sound design based on his earlier tricks to hide exposition; watch how he uses a radio to drown out dialogue and then has the characters complain so it gets turned down. It’s almost as if they acknowledge that the audience can’t hear them! And if you think that comes close to breaking the fourth wall, well just wait until the end! It’s a silly grace-note once the plot is done with, but cheeky Hitchcock clearly understands it can only work if the audience is complicit.

After his later American movies had seemed old fashioned in structure, like he was falling back on older, more reliable roots, it seems like Frenzy had given him a new direction. Tone down the visual and concentrate on a dependable, solid cast and a likeable premise. As such this is a fine swansong that while lacking the pure cinematic power of, say, Vertigo, nevertheless intrigues by suggesting what might have been. Certainly the great man was not running on empty and we couldn’t ask for anything more.

Frenzy (1972)

 ★★★★★ 

In modern-day London, a sex criminal known as the Necktie Murderer has the police on alert, and in typical Hitchcock fashion, the trail is leading to an innocent man, who must now elude the law and prove his innocence by finding the real murderer.  Jon Finch, Alec McCowen and Barry Foster head this British cast in the thriller that alternates suspense scenes with moments of Hitchcock’s distinctive black humour.

Returning to England after a dry spell in the States that put his reputation in real danger, Alfred Hitchcock went back to basics and found his mojo alive and well residing in Covent Garden, London, site of the famous market where much of this story would play out and where his own father worked years before. I don’t think he had lost anything, but he came to London with his blood up and something to prove, and prove it he did, because Frenzy is a fantastic, dark thriller, full of vigour. On the thorough documentary, Peter Bogdanovitch comments that Hitch is “firing on all cylinders”, and quotes Truffaut as saying to Hitchcock, that Frenzy is “a young man’s film”.

It’s a straight telling of a serial killer, even naive (this being before profiling was so hip), but this helps the fabric of the story and modern thrillers would do well to consider not to take so much for granted. It recalls more of Hitchcock’s roots from his silent film, The Lodger, and is as much a film about London as anything else, an affectionate if warts and all story that could only have been set there, the environment is so engrained. Identity was a key part of a good Hitchcock film, like Vertigo being entwined in San Francisco. I liked the other latterly missed Hitchcock motif; two gentlemen in a pub discuss the murders with relish, similar to the morbid curiosity of Shadow of a Doubt. One says that people come to London expecting to see “carved up whores”. Is he referring to us? After the opening scene of Londoners (including the director!) gawping at a “Necktie Killer” victim floating naked in the Thames, it’s a great start for the no nonsense story and Hitchcock has made his intentions clear from the off.

This is easily Hitchcock’s most violent film, not just in events, but it permeates the atmosphere. Not that it is unremittingly so, because it is possibly his most passionate and raw as well, full of humour and great characters. It one moment, Anna Massey strides out of the pub where she works, telling the landlord to “balls!”, in the films typically raw and real dialogue; it’s almost as if all the characters have an “up yours!” attitude, and so does Hitch.

Anna is just one of a uniformly solid cast, again like Topaz, not the mega-stars he normally uses, but this time just good actors at least. Jon Finch is the Hitchcock staple of the wrongfully accused and he’s especially good in that he isn’t a likeable character, yet he keeps the viewers sympathy. Barry Foster (Van Der Valk himself!) has great fun in a stylish performance as the suave fruit seller and proves what a marvellous actor he is. And a special mention for Barbara Leigh-Hunt who suffers the horrible signature rape and murder in the story and the key thing that makes people remember this as Hitchcock’s darkest hour. A very clever piece of writing by Anthony Shaffer (from a book by Arthur La Bern) means it’s actually the only one on-screen, despite it being a plot about a very active killer.

The horror is implied elsewhere in several stand-out moments of technical audacity, played with such confidence it’s almost rude, such as the famous shot coming down the stairs from the scene of a murder we aren’t privy too (but cleverly will see in flashback), or the bravely long static shot ending in a scream. My favourite though is the subtle moment right after Massey said “balls!” where the sounds drops right down just for a moment. Then there is the potato truck sequence, which is indulgently hilarious and awful in equal measure as the killer wrestles with a corpse, kind of summing up the whole film! But even outside the bravura moments, just basic composition and editing works every scene to the maximum.

Another reason I’ve marked this so high is that it is so full of things that weren’t necessary, yet add layers to the plot. And they’re all character moments too, mocking the criticism that even at his best, Hitchcock was all about the visuals. There’s the detective with the hilarious sub-plot of dealing with his wife’s cooking (cleverly disguising exposition while giving us by far the most disgusting scene) or Mrs. Blaney’s secretary, Jean Marsh and her barbed sneers about men. Apparently she was a victim in the original book, but not so in the film. Her repressed performance is wonderful and would have been ruined by making her a corpse.

The film feels like one of Hitchcock’s most real and organic and is a fine British film in its own right. It is nasty, but its simplicity is key. Hitchcock chose to do something easy that will have no expectations, but he did it the hard way to make it look easy! It doesn’t matter if that’s confusing. Just dive in and have a ball, because the triumphant director clearly did.

Topaz (1969)

 ★★★☆☆ 

A French intelligence agent becomes embroiled in the Cold War politics first with uncovering the events leading up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and then back to France to break up an international Russian spy ring.

It’s easy to look at Alfred Hitchcock’s last few films and come to the conclusion that he lost his touch, but while it’s true they are not as entertaining or as audacious as his best work, there is still a sense of a potent power at work. Just a few key details are missing and in the case of Topaz, almost completely cripple the production.

For one thing, was Topaz made for the right reasons? I’ve been banging on about Hitchcock possibly being an influence on Bond and I wonder if he had a sense of pride to indulge, seeing as that franchise was now fully underway. In his first true espionage thriller since Foreign Correspondent, the plot concerns a suave spy [albeit French] investigating Russians at the height of the Cold War, which could easily have been a Fleming story. There’s even a Q type character in Cuba! Additionally, Hitch uses another of his favourite themes as Topaz turns out to be a secret organisation in the upper echelons of France’s Government, echoing the Fifth Columnists of Saboteur.

Unfortunately, it’s far too long, ponderously slow, has an uneven tone and doesn’t know how to end. A victim of test screenings, it was changed twice (alternate versions are on the DVD), although the original ending was absurd and needed Hitchcock at his cheeky best to sell it so it would never have worked. In retrospect though, key scenes show the director was still a force to be reckoned with. A superlative sequence in New York is an absolute stand-out and much better than an average Bond any day. Similarly, the Cuban set scenes with the tortured Resistance are powerful and visually stunning (look out for a shocking, sudden murder on a tile floor; easy to see how it was achieved, but not to be underestimated). The brilliant opening scene with the Russian defector narrowly escaping capture with his family and the New York segment, also demonstrate his cleverness with narrative, hiding exposition like he did in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake (we see characters talking about key points, but can’t hear them!), yet lingering on character moments. No-one handled the MacGuffin better, before or since. Even this sub-par effort has enough “how did he do that?” moments to make today’s directors feel inadequate.

A big problem though is surely that the story was told after the fact, undermining the tension. Released in 1969, the Cuban Missile Crisis was over, while his WWII thrillers worked all the better for being released during WWII, especially the clever, shifting tone of Foreign Correspondent that ended with a poignant scene that could send a shiver down the spine, even now.

Timing aside, the film lives and dies on its cast and unfortunately it’s no accident that the best moments are driven by the supporting characters; John Vernon as Cuban Rico Para is a tangible threat and Karin Dor as the beautiful Juanita makes you feel it, along with her Resistance fighters (awful moment in a cell, that I’m guessing Eli Roth would have handled very differently!). Roscoe Lee Browne is a live wire in New York and you’ll hold your breath as his operation hinges on nervy Don Randolph. Quieter, but solid support also comes from John Forsythe (better here than in The Trouble With Harry), but the lead character is Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) and while he has the look of Connery, he can’t convince as a likable bastard. He’s just a bastard, and we’re stuck with him for two hours! I commented that Torn Curtain suffered from not focusing on one character, so clearly, I’m never happy. It isn’t all Stafford’s fault (his wife, Dany Robin, is annoying as well, for a start) as actually he is never given anything to do. In a better received film, I’d see him as a sharp parody of James Bond, all style and no substance, letting the Resistance do the work, while he gets the credit. A plot point concerning his adultery and another that puts his son-in-law in terrible danger because of him proves irony was surely the intention, and even in the deleted original ending, he gets off without doing anything. But he is a wet blanket when the film was barely smouldering anyway. At least Paul Newman was under threat in Torn Curtain.

Of course, even in retrospect, it’s easy to see that the film suffers without the megastars Hitchcock was known for. A well placed Cary Grant can turn any film into a classic, but before you accept the obvious, bear in mind Grant, Stewart and Bergman were all superb actors as well, who worked brilliantly with the director. If the rather frustrating lead characters in Topaz were played by very good unknowns, I think it would have worked, or even someone not very good, but easily manipulated by Hitch, like Tippi Hedren. Torn Curtain managed to scrape by with disenchanted movie stars because they could do engaging performances in their sleep.

So no, Alfred Hitchcock had not lost his touch, it was everyone else! In fact, as Achim said, this was a brave film in some respects. But after all is said and done, was the world’s greatest director even relevant any more when this film was released? There’s a curious sense of isolation while watching these last few films (even the talking head documentaries are missing from the DVDs! Did no-one want to talk about Topaz, apart from a passionate, defensive Leonard Maitlin?). The studio system had collapsed and while you’d think someone like Hitchcock would thrive, maybe he needed something to fight to generate his most focused work. He’d failed to work well with new stars on Torn Curtain, lost key collaborators (Maurice Jarre, Lawrence of Arabia composer, nevertheless proves to be no replacement for Herrmann and his score makes Topaz feel like a TV Movie of the Week) and even in retrospect, the tone of Marnie through Topaz is out-of-date considering this is the era of the independent director approaching. This was a brave new world and the Western, period and urban, was making a revisionist comeback. There was no place in American film for Hitchcock any more. Maybe it was time to go back to his roots?

Torn Curtain (1966)

 ★★★☆☆ 

Paul Newman and Julie Andrews star in this classic tale of international espionage set behind the Iron Curtain. Newman plays world-famous scientist Michael Armstrong, who goes to an international congress of physics in Copenhagen with his fiancée/assistant Sarah Sherman (Andrews). While there, she mistakenly picks up a message meant for him and discovers that he is defecting to East Germany. Or is he? As Armstrong goes undercover to glean top-secret information, the couple are swept up in a heart-pounding chase by enemy agents in this action-packed Cold War thriller.

Torn Curtain is not a bad film, but it’s definitely a compromised and a messy one to begin with. There’s an interesting documentary on the disc that suggests there were some problems with casting, the script was rushed and Bernard Herrmann was fired(!). Following the deaths of other long time collaborators, cinematographer Robert Burkes and editor George Tomasini, clearly this was a difficult period following the failure of Marnie.

Still, like I say, it is not a bad film and it has some marvellous sequences. It’s really just the confused first act that struggles. Paul Newman, excellent as always, is clearly hiding something from his wife, Julie Andrews. It asks a lot of the viewer to keep up with shifting emotions when the usual claustrophobic attention to one characters point of view is missing. It seems to switch between the two when we are supposed to be in Julie’s shoes and her character is short-changed because of it (imagine if Psycho kept cutting away from Marion to see what other characters were up to). By the time she, and us, are in on the plot though, the film has found its feet and picks up pace. Once both Newman and Andrews are properly together and dealing with the situation, it’s a properly exciting suspense thriller. Julie Andrews proves to be typecast when it comes to trying to escape Germans! Otherwise she does well in a fairly underwritten role.

There are many stand-out moments, like Newman dealing with Ludwig Donath’s professor, frustrating him into revealing the MucGuffin out of pride! The murder of Gromek is also absolutely superb. That isn’t a spoiler (well I don’t think so! What is in a Hitchcock film?), but it’s an incredible moment that has to be mentioned as Hitch shows us just how tough it is to take a life. Gromek is a great character as well, smoothly played by Wolfgang Keiling. All the supporting characters are memorable actually (there’s literally a bus full of them!) and there’s a cute running joke with a snubbed ballerina. She becomes very important during the climax at a theatre. Once again, Hitch plays with the idea of a sequence played with an audience and it is brilliant.

Repeat viewings might smooth out the problems with the film (understanding what Newman’s Professor is trying to do adds a great deal of gravitas to his cold treatment of his fiancé) , but the overall problem is that there isn’t a solid, intriguing hook of a premise like usual. It was clearly rushed, because I really believe it could have been polished into something marvellous. As the documentary suggests, what if Herrmann could have completed his work at least? John Addison is an able replacement, but Herrmann created scores that wove into the fabric of the film.

Marnie (1964)

 ★★★★☆ 


The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock creates a spellbinding portrait of a disturbed woman, and the man who tries to save her, in this unrelenting psychological thriller. ‘Tippi’ Hedren is Marnie, a compulsive thief and liar who goes to work for Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), then attempts to rob him. Mark impulsively marries the troubled beauty and attempts to discover the reasons for her obsessive behavior. When a terrible accident pushes his wife to the edge, Mark forces Marnie to confront her terrors and her past in a shattering, inescapable conclusion.

I had not seen Marnie for many years and perhaps never properly, so this has been a pleasant surprise because it’s not a fondly remembered film from Hitchcock’s career, but I found it to be an engrossing and powerful film that recalls Vertigo and Spellbound in its mentally flawed lead characters.

The film seems very old-fashioned and the credit sequence feels like it’s from the 40s. So do the characters, with a story somewhat based on class conflict (Mark would be high society in any other time) and that infuriatingly outdated view of marriage, although it is part of the plot this time at least. He adopted a nostalgic style for Psycho to deliver a very modern narrative and this is similar, but the old-time feel is more sustained so can be a detriment too. Still, he’s making the sex thriller he couldn’t possibly have made before, so probably the creaky techniques amuse him more than anything. Certainly there is nothing as inventive as you would find in Vertigo.

It’s daring in its delivery and fools the viewer somewhat. The start could be a breezy caper, like To Catch a Thief, but as with Vertigo it quickly takes a dark turn and digs in for the duration. While it can be dry and talky, it is a fascinating study of psychology, which Hitchcock has dealt with before. For the first time, the typical Hitchcock romance is the primary plot.

Marnie is a troubled woman and her light-fingered habits are a symptom of something more disturbing. Sean Connery is perfect as Mark, obviously turned on by Marnie’s problems, making him pretty unstable too! He is a great character, supremely confident and charming, exactly what Cary Grant used to do (Hitchcock pretty much invented Bond, now gets to use him), now with him a manipulative sexual predator, taming the frigid Marnie by unravelling her mysterious past which is acting as a chastity belt!  It makes for a suffocating effective chemistry between the leads, with an early uncomfortable peak as Mark pretty much rapes her. That is nasty, but for the most part there is a lot of fun to be had between Connery and Hedren as they toy effectively with one another.

Apparently Mark wasn’t an accomplished psychiatrist in the book or early screenplay draft. Instead he sent Marnie to see one. It takes a small contrivance explain how he can pull this off, but the plot benefits ten-fold. Another character would have interrupted the dynamic between them. Another change is the character of Mark’s sister-in-law, Lil (Diane Baker). Often Hitchcock romances involve two men for one woman and “Lil” was the other man in the book, so ready-made for the director it seemed. Except having her fighting for Mark’s affections is much more interesting, especially as it is never explored fully and just adds to the enigma that is Mark.

This isn’t outwardly ambitious visually for Hitchcock, which could be surprising given the work that went into Vertigo. Instead it’s a simply effective, with key scenes that linger. The stark rape scene for one; Marnie’s silent robbery in another; a heartbreaking conclusion to the hunt; and a superb flashback, which is very unusual (he did one for I Confess, but this is could have been a cul-de-sac for the plot, so he brilliantly takes it head on).

Much of the films unfair reputation may be down to the fact it was adapted specifically for Grace Kelly, but she had to refuse. After The Birds, Hitchcock was sure he had found a suitable replacement in the earthy Hedren, but she would always be in the shadow of a Princess. That’s a cruel twist though because Hedren is good enough in a role probably very different from the one offered Kelly considering the changes, and is she really the lead, considering how passive and smothered the character is?

Marnie isn’t for everyone. It can be uneven and may disturb as much as entertain, but go in with the right frame of mind and you’ll reap its rewards. It deserves a re-evaluation.

The Birds (1963)

 ★★★★☆ 


As beautiful blonde Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) rolls into Bodega Bay in pursuit of eligible bachelor Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), she is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. Suddenly thousands of birds are flocking into town, preying on schoolchildren and residents in a terrifying series of attacks. Soon Mitch and Melanie are fighting for their lives against a deadly force that can’t be explained and can’t be stopped in one of Hollywood’s most horrific films of nature gone berserk.

This could be Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film, although perhaps it’s even stranger that such a taut horror comes from Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca). Although he had already handled horror in Psycho, that was really a logical extension of his thrillers. The Birds on the other hand is more typical of the paranoid sci-fi b-movies of the 50s, with a small town facing an absurd threat that can’t be explained. So they don’t! The closest they come is a great scene in a cafe as the townsfolk argue over the reasons for the birds strange behaviour. It’s like a high class Twilight Zone with some classic moments and a wonderful atmosphere that borders on post-apocalyptic.

It stars Tippi Hedren in her first role and she’s very good as the Paris Hilton of her day, but that side of the story comes across as a bit odd. The first part is about her pursuing Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to Bodega Bay on a sort of whim, and the absurd lengths she goes to get two Lovebirds to his little sister after a brief meeting in a San Francisco pet shop. The story is about the dangers of complacency, so a bored socialite having no purpose in life heralding the attacks is ironic, but certainly not obvious. It is very witty though and her scenes with Taylor are great fun. He provides substantial support, along with the superb Jessica Tandy who brings another level of class to the whole production.

There’s a sense of heightened reality from the start in Hitchcock’s most consistently colourful film since The Trouble With Harry, with the sound design unusually prominent (overdone tyre screeching, etc) in place of an entirely absent score and used to grating effect when the birds start attacking. Those attack scenes are all brilliantly and indulgently staged with some very clever “yellow screen” effects. The moment when the gas station blows up is a highlight and followed with a wonderful aerial shot. Other stand-outs are the quieter scenes, like Jessica Tandy finding the body with the eyes pecked out in a fantastic three step zoom and her strangled scream shortly after conveys more terror than Wes Craven has ever managed in his entire career. The crows gathering on the climbing frame behind Hedren and the resultant attack on the kids is incredible, outdone only by the last act, with a frenzied, claustrophobic attack on one character followed by the classic final shots, most brilliantly parodied in a Simpsons episode!

Now I look again, I think this rather unassuming bit of fun has proved to be very influential. The aerial shot and Tandy’s scream, notable again for there being no theme, in particular contribute to an atmosphere you can pick up on elsewhere, like in Jaws maybe, whose story mirrors this one very closely in many respects. Regardless, this is a classic, simple horror that still has the power to turn your stomach in knots.

Psycho (1960)

 ★★★★★ 


Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark masterpiece of the macabre stars Anthony Perkins as the troubled Norman Bates, whose old dark house and adjoining motel are not the place to spend a quiet evening. No one knows that better than Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the ill-fated traveller whose journey ends in the notorious shower scene. First a private detective (Martin Balsam), then Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) search for her as the horror and suspense mount to a terrifying climax where the mysterious killer is finally revealed.

By 1960 Hollywood had changed a great deal. The strict studio system was all but broken and the Golden Age was over. Although Alfred Hitchcock had fought the producers on many of his pictures during this time, he had also flourished. He was shrewd enough to play them at their own game and often his films were more interesting because of some awkward compromise, so it was always possible he would falter while a new breed of filmmaker would overtake. In fact, brilliant though North By Northwest was, had he continued in that vein he would have quickly become a bloated self-parody.

The reason I say this is because Psycho more than any of his others from this time, looks and feels like a classic Golden Age studio film. Its black and white, stark photography by John L. Russell, and nourish premise regress it by 10 years at least, more suitable to the time of Shadow of a Doubt and is as sharp and lean as that film. It must have been refreshing for an audience of a certain age to settle into such a familiar style. Of course, Hitchcock is lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, brilliantly using the familiar conventions to support a brave screenplay.

Hitch, The Master of Suspense, had been tightening the screws on the viewer and his lead character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as she wrestled with the paranoia and guilt of stealing her boss’s money so she could run away for a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). By his own definition, nothing could happen to her until that last act because that wouldn’t be suspense. But then he takes away the safety net in the spectacular and still effective classic shower scene, pulling the bath mat from under the audience, so to speak! That moment hasn’t dated at all. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is still the most powerful screen murder. Hermann’s classic theme is set aside for the moment; George Tomasini’s frantic editing, the awful screeching and those lingering final seconds are all the more heartbreaking because we’ve come to know the character so well.

From this point on all bets are off and the film is unquestionably superb with Hitchcock clearly relishing finally being able to test the viewer. The narrative had already gently shifted focus to the nervy-perv Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in a clever scene where he brings Marion something to eat (it stops being her story when she joins him for lunch) which is audacious enough for a classic plot and Perkins excels under the uncomfortably close focus of the camera that reveals all the tics of one of cinemas greatest characters, the ultimate mummy’s boy, cleaning up after his bonkers parent who we only see fleetingly, in shadows, or hear her grating voice. Repeat viewings reveal layers upon layers in his performance.

The final act has a couple more shocks in store and the brilliant thing is, they are fundamental. Nothing is contrived and it withstands scrutiny. The ending is unusually indulgent for a Hitchcock movie, with Simon Oakland as Dr. Richmond revealing the intricacies of Mrs. Bates like a ghost story! But of course, she has the last word in a beautifully judged final shot that lives on long after the film.

This isn’t suspense, but a true properly scary horror, which in itself was a shock for the Hitchcock faithful, especially considering his regret over Sabotage (the difference being Psycho lingers on the horror). If you think I’m being over dramatic, consider Peeping Tom, released the same year, with a similar attempt to test the viewers willpower. Sadly, although a brilliantly successful film with a recent re-evaluation, the experiment backfired and destroyed director Michael Powell’s career.

Some say Psycho is Hitchcock’s best film and although I don’t quite agree, it’s difficult to argue against. It is as least his most memorable, a milestone in the horror genre and one of the finest films ever made, finding new fans in every generation.
Oh yes, and it was the first film to show a flushing toilet! Told you it was a new age…

North By Northwest (1959)

 ★★★★★ 


Cary Grant is the screen’s supreme man-on-the-run in his fourth and final teaming Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. He plays a Manhattan adman plunged into a realm of spy (James Mason) and counterspy (Eva Marie Saint) and variously abducted, framed for murder, chased, and in a signature set-piece, crop-dusted.

Coming as it does fairly late in Alfred Hitchcock’s career, and his most successful period, it seems fitting that North By Northwest works as a greatest hits, aided by regular contributors, including composer Bernard Herrmann. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is most closely related to Saboteur, itself a development of several earlier plots, with its wrong man on the run chased by gentlemen villains belonging to a sort of Fifth Columnist group, but there are many motifs from Hitch’s other films. The whole thing is faster and bigger than ever before, with Hitch revelling in the absurdity. Even the title doesn’t make sense and yet the plot manages to follow it!

It is probably the film that really started set-piece cinema, with the hero moving from one danger spot to the next. Certainly if Hitchcock can be credited with a hand in creating the Bond franchise, this is the final and most obvious piece of the puzzle; a cross-country thriller with a smart-arse hero and a suave villain. And I’d say fundamentally better than any Bond from that early period. Incidentally he was offered the first Bond script, Thunderball, but passed to make Psycho.

With the wisecracks and insistence on a freshly pressed suit for every occasion, Cary Grant is the closest to an American Bond too, though he is better as the permanently perplexed everyman, who can never quite grasp just how this ridiculous situation arose. He adds another level throughout, especially to the fantastic crop-duster sequence (recently voted the number one movie moment by Empire) and the wonderful banter at the auction. Grant was one of cinema’s greatest movie stars and he uses the persona brilliantly. He even convinces when he turns hero-proper for the final act, normally the point the modern descendants of North By Northwest falter (except those with Harrison Ford, another classic everyman) and keeps the story grounded throughout.

Usually the romance sub-plot turns out to be the real story in Hitchcock films. That may be the case here, but it is left much later to give the films drive and conclusion in the final act and Eva Marie-Saint is as important to the plot as she is to the hero. She makes a great Femme Fatale and the early seduction is a highlight of the movie. The very final shot is pretty cheeky too! Rounding out the cast, James Mason is the smoothest of criminal masterminds and Martin Landau impresses as his sly right-hand man.

As with the best of this sort of movie, the main plot points are dealt with efficiently leaving a huge margin to play with. Some may see it as extravagant, but I say not at all. So it is Hitchcock’s slickest and most fun work, but no less ambitious, with some incredible compositions, thanks in part to regulars Robert Burks’ photography and George Tomasini’s editing. The crop duster opening and the escape from the UN (following a very theatrical murder!) stand out in particular.

It pounds along at a fast pace and has dated very little, except the writing; it just isn’t the modern way to slow down action movies with all that pesky character stuff, is it? Except Bond…

Vertigo (1958)

 ★★★★★ 


James Stewart plays Scotty, a recently retired detective crippled by Agoraphobia (fear of heights), hired by an old friend to trail his wife (Kim Novak). After rescuing her from San Francisco bay, Scotty becomes obsessed.

Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s most powerful film and amongst the very best of all time. These days, words are cheap and “Masterpiece” is bandied around without really considering what it means. If I had to pick one from his incredible career, Vertigo would be Hitchcock’s.

A traditional Film Noir, the plot is very straightforward. Unusually for Hitch there is little to be gleaned from the premise; a retired detective follows a woman at the behest of her husband, who happens to be an old friend. If anything, it’s obvious. Anyone who understands Noir will immediately think they have the whole thing sown up!

Vertigo is very ambitious though. That basic story is pretty much done inside 80 minutes starting from the most memorable opening of his films (the much imitated dolly-cam shot), but the fallout is devastating to Scotty. Still it feels like an ending with a wonderful dream sequence reminiscent of Spellbound and certainly the film changes aesthetically, with deep primary colours lighting the hotel room where Scotty’s obsession dangerously manifests and the narrative delicately shifts to Novak’s character as roles are reversed in a superb sequence. It’s a master-class for anyone interested in film writing. Later we return to the room and attention moves back to Scotty for an unforgettable finale after typically Noir-ish revelations following another “false” ending.

The two leads are incredible in the most demanding roles of their careers. That either can hold the audiences sympathy while they suffer from deep rooted obsession and guilt is testament to their skill. Stewart is the less surprising given his prolific career (although some may be surprised who dismiss him as an everyman), but Novak is fantastic in what is at least a dual role. Almost forgotten is Barbara Bel Geddes as Scotty’s very close friend. It isn’t her fault, but the screenplay bravely uses her without giving her a resolution.

I say the screenplay bravely uses her, because this isn’t an audience friendly film. There’s more than a few elements that wouldn’t have got passed the studios that couldn’t allow Cary Grant to be a villain just a few years before. No-one gets treated well during this film, least of all the viewer! There is little-to-no humour, no set-pieces, no gimmicks, no showing off; even the famous dolly-cam shot feels integral. Hitch commented in an interview that he’d tried to do it for Rebecca, but perfecting it for 15 years pays off by using it so perfectly here.

Vertigo is a powerful study of a man losing his marbles while trapped in a doomed love affair and it’s as pretty as it sounds. But like the central character, you can’t help but lose yourself and it rewards the multiple viewings you will surely have with hitherto unseen layers. This is down to the incredible skill of the director, supported by Robert Burk’s photography and Bernard Hermann’s score (script notes show his absolute faith in Hermann). While the middle act really cuts lose with colour, the finest moment is possibly Novak’s sublime introduction in a club with daring contrasts (to signify the heart of the story perhaps), fluid shots and a gorgeous theme. Hitch really knew how to photograph women and like Grace Kelly before her, gives Novak an entrance to die for.

There has been much said about this film showing up Hitchcock’s own obsessions and dark-side, especially with blondes, but I think that’s rubbish. He was a master technician who enjoyed playing with perception and he couldn’t have pulled this off if he wasn’t at his most potent and self-critical. He does treat the characters more bleakly than he has ever done before, which is proper Film Noir, but even more powerful than the average example. It’s interesting that he follows The Wrong Man with this. Perhaps doing that true story gave him the confidence to trust the audience to follow a character down a darker path than before. Certainly the way he plays with the narrative is very audacious for the time and sets the scene for what he did with Psycho, although that was much more a genre piece.

It may be that you won’t enjoy Vertigo, but don’t dismiss it. It isn’t trying to entertain you. It’s one of the most important films ever made, so if you come out of it with a frown, invest another couple of well-spent hours watching it again.

The marvellous DVD contains several easter eggs, including an alternative (or at least additional) ending that Hitchcock was forced to add on originally. Pesky studios like closure! Still it is an excellent scene and he does very well to add a splash of humour and keep it in the mood of the film. To see it, select ‘Bonus Features’, the ‘Obsessed with Vertigo’ documentary and then the chapter list. Go to the last two pages and after the last marker for the actual documentary, there are more chapter stops. As well as the ending, there are also trailers and production art.

The Wrong Man (1956)

 ★★★★★ 


Henry Fonda plays musician Manny Balestrero, arrested for a crime he didn’t –could never- commit. His wife (Vera Miles) feels the pressure as the evidence mounts.

This is a very different Hitchcock film as he tones everything down to follow the true story of Manny (Henry Fonda), who’s misfortune it is to look very like a man wanted for several robberies. While the style is not so much Cinema Verite, it is certainly reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism, especially Bicycle Thieves from 1948.

Like that film the story is terribly bleak, but differs in that it isn’t quite so unremitting and has a natural drama to it (neo-realism kind of just happens). It’s ideal for Hitchcock, because if it hadn’t have been a true story, he’d have eventually written it! It just happens to have similar beats to one of his thrillers and the central conceit of a normal everyday man taken away from his family is just the sort of thing he relished. It bears comparison with I Confess, especially as there is an undercurrent of Catholic faith.

Henry Fonda is nothing short of perfect in this role. Such a gentle man, he has boiling emotions behind his eyes, conveying frustration, exhaustion, terror, anger and in a most poignant scene, just desperately sad. Vera Mills matches him in the scenes of her mind breaking down. I bemoaned The Man Who Knew Too Much for not having something to focus on, other than the main plot, where usually he would have a romance building. Cleverly, Hitch hooks onto how Manny’s relationship with his wife breaks down and how he has to fight for it as well as clear his name. It doesn’t matter how innocent you are, there will always be consequences in an ordeal like this.

Apparently Hitchcock regretted showing what happens to her, but it’s powerful stuff. It is his most serious film, but don’t be put off as it isn’t a trial to watch; it’s important to note that it’s paced like any drama and ultimately positive. As piece of suspense, it is superb, especially considering the different approach.

It’s quite brilliant how he chooses to avoid any kind of obvious direction or editing. I’ve heard people describe it as being like a documentary, but I disagree, because if anything a documentary is even more manipulative. This just feels honest, which is why the cast was so important here. Where normally there might be jump-cut or a zoom, now it’s purely lighting and expression. There are still moments of genius that match the fluidity of the story; note how the camera refuses to be blocked by doorways as we follow Manny into his house and later, the cell. Bernard Herrmann too produces a low-key score; his partnership couldn’t have been more in tune with the director across all their films. I continually defend Quentin Tarantino, but partnerships like that do demonstrate how he could be missing out by steadfastly refusing to let others score his work.

Hermann went on to score Taxi Driver and I just read this film was a big influence on Martin Scorcese. It’s obvious now I think about it. This is a very special film and a milestone I think for Hitchcock. It’s a reliable testament to his humility; how he was always able and willing to adapt to new methods that would then continue to inform his work.