Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

L

The Lady Vanishes (1938)The Lady Vanishes

Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery  remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies.  Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts.  Enhanced by Hitchcock’s own wit, it emerges as a truly entertaining popular film that reaches well beyond his normal confines of mystery and suspense.


 LeapYearTitleLeap Year

Genre films are really hit and miss.  If you’re quite lucky, you’ll get a hit, but producers find out all the time that it’s really easy to think you’ve got a winner and then just miss.  This is especially true with romantic comedies, which are perhaps the most difficult genre to score a hit.  Usually, either the comedy fails, the situation isn’t quite creative enough, or–most frequently–the leads just don’t have chemistry, which comes back to the casting.


 Little Women 1994Little Women (1994)

This Robin Swicord adaptation of Luisa May Alcott’s classic novel is very good, considering that the movie comes in under two hours.  Overall, it is a very good film.  This is the fourth adaptation of Little Women to the screen, it stars Wynona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst.


 Lost in Austen trioLost in Austen

The general fascination with Jane Austen is continued in this 2008 four-part British television film, originally aired by ITV and released in the United States as a three hour film.  Amanda Price is a modern Jane Austen stuck in an unromantic relationship with a boozy, uncouth guy, Michael (Daniel Percival) and living in a flat in Hammersmith with a girlfriend, Pirhana (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  All she really wants is to be left alone so she can immerse herself in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.


Amanda Seyfriend as Linda LovelaceLovelace

This film is a 2013 biographical picture about the life of Linda Boreman, beginning at the age of 20 and going through her marriage to Chuck Traynor and the release of her biography, .  Under the trade name of Linda Lovelace, she starred in the 1972 pornographic breakthrough movie Deep Throat and that is her lone claim to fame aside from her biography, Ordeal.

Marnie

Marne 01Marnie is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film.  There’s no murder, no spies, no sabotage, and practically no suspense.  It is a straight up psychological drama.

The movie begins with a theft.  A young woman, Marnie (Tippi Hedren) goes under various aliases as she moves from one company to another gaining trust and then stealing money from their safe before disappearing into a new identity.  She has just robbed an accounting firm that represents Rutland and Co., owned by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who remembers seeing the girl on a visit.  Following her robbery, Marnie washes the black dye from her hair to reveal her own stunning natural blonde.  She makes her way into the country where she has a standing relationship with a stable and a horse all ready for her to ride.  She also visits her mother (Louise Latham) in Baltimore, where we see her acute jealousy for a little girl that her mother looks after.  She wonders why her own mother hates her so much.

Throughout the early set-up of the film, we are shown glimpses of Marnie’s fears and phobias.  The color of bright red, for example, puts her into a blind, mindless panic.  Her mother urges her to stay away from men, because they will only hurt her and Marnie acknowledges that she’s never had a relationship with a man and never will.

In Philadelphia, she begins her life as a thief yet again, this time taking a job at the Rutland Company, not realizing Rutland’s relationship with the accounting firm she’s recently robbed.  Mark decides to hire her over the objections of his manager.  A woman named Susan (Mariette Hartley) is secretary to the manager, who keeps the combination to the safe in her locked desk.  On her first day in the office, she meets Mark’s former sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker) who obviously has designs on Mark.  He asks Marnie to come into his office on a Saturday to work, but they are disturbed by a thunderstorm.  The lightning terrifies Marnie and sends into another blind panic.  Mark comforts her and drives her home.  Discovering her love of horses, he arranges a date with her at the horse races in Atlantic City.  Afterwards, he drives her home to meet his family.

Finally seeing her opportunity, she steals the key to Susan’s desk, stays late in the office, and steals a substantial amount of money from the safe.  Realizing the situation, Mark replaces the money and tracks her down at the stable where she rides her horse.  He blackmails her into marrying him and takes her away for a honeymoon cruise, where he rapes her.  Lil becomes suspicious of Marnie.  Snooping around while Mark and Marnie are away, she discovers that Mark has paid off the accounting firm where Marnie previously stole money.  Upon their return, she invites the manager of that firm to a party at the Rutlands.  When Marnie sees her former boss, she freaks out and tries to leave.

Ultimately, Mark must force her to re-live her past and come to terms with the reason for all of her fears.

This is a very uneven film, even though Marnie’s character offers the kind of drama that might have intrigued Tennessee Williams.  The first problem is the length of the movie.  At two hours and 11 minutes, it is simply too long for the subject matter and it becomes deeply bogged down and very difficult to watch.  It seems to me that as Hitchcock became more and more popular as a director, he allowed himself to include many things in his movies that were not essential to the film.  Not only does Marnie suffer from this, but so does North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and others.  These films all required a firm hand in the cutting room, but Hitchcock was a demanding director and editor George Tomasini, who worked with him a large number of his American films, was quite obliging.

There are other technical issues as well.  Hitchcock’s reliance on rear projection and matte painting fails him quite dramatically here, especially in the scenes where Marnie is riding a horse, coming off as very unrealistic.

Marnie 03Although he was dedicated to the elevation of model Tippi Hedren to stardom, her fine performance in The Birds does not carry over well into this psychological drama.  At times she seems rather wooden and signals her emotions, rather than using nuance to fill in the blanks.  Sean Connery, a very accomplished actor, does okay in the movie, but one is always aware that he is Sean Connery.  I don’t think there was a single spot in the movie where I actually thought he was Mark Rutland.  In addition, I don’t sense any kind of chemistry between the two stars in this movie and I didn’t really care what happened to them.  Without any real suspense to drive the movie–and with constantly looking at my watch and wondering when it would be over–it really felt forced.

Marnie 02There are two really good performances in the film.  Louise Latham is simply outstanding as Marnie’s mother, bringing the kind of nuance that makes for a starkly realistic character.  And Diane Baker is excellent as Lil, the jilted sister-in-law.

This might have been a great film, with sufficient editing, perhaps with a different leading actress as Marnie and maybe an American actor as Mark, with some of the action sequences done more realistically.  As it is, the movie looks like an overblown Hollywood version of what should be a compelling drama.

I have to rank this near the bottom of Hitchcock’s American films and I find it hard to recommend it to anyone but die-hard Hitchcock fans.

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a DoubtIs this Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie?  The Master thought so.  Of all the films Hitchcock made in his lifetime, this was his very favorite.  It combines many of his best filmmaking techniques, it is tremendously suspenseful, and the very heart of the movie is loss of innocence.  This review contains plot spoilers, so beware reading the entire summary below if you want to be surprised!

The opening credits show a ballroom with couples dancing to “The Merry Widow Waltz,” an image that will be reprised throughout the movie.

Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) lies on his bed in some nameless Eastern city, a pile of money laying on his bedside table.  His landlady tells him that two men have been looking for him, so he languidly gets himself together, goes downstairs and immediately loses the two men who are following him.  He sends a telegram to his family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them that he will soon arrive for a visit.

His niece, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) lies around her bedroom bored to tears with her life in the small town and wonders if anything exciting will ever happen.  Her father, Joseph (Henry Travers) can’t understand her, but promises that things will get better.  Charlie decides to send a telegram to her uncle Charlie hoping that he will come visit them to make things more exciting and she is stunned when the telegram from her uncle arrives–she calls it mental telepathy that they were thinking of the same thing at the same time.  Uncle Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is young Charlie’s mother and the family is completed with brainy little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and a younger brother.  When Uncle Charlie arrives by train, they are all excited to see him, especially Charlie who feels that they are like twins, partly because she was named after him and partly because he seems to bring that excitement that she really wants out of life.  During dinner that night, Emma begins to hum “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but no one can remember what it is called.  Uncle Charlie distracts them so that no one does actually give us the title.

Uncle Charlie gives everyone gifts, including a ring to Charlie that has an inscription inside, but one from someone else to someone else.  A neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn) shows up to discuss crime fiction with Joseph.  Uncle Charlie finds something in the newspaper that disturbs him.  He pretends to play a game with Ann where he tears up the section of the paper he was reading.  Stuffing it into his pocket, he goes upstairs, but Charlie is curious.  Claiming that they have nothing to hide, she steals the bit of paper, but can’t make anything out of it.  Ann tells her that the library is open until 9 PM, so Charlie runs down and finds the paper.  There is an article about the “Merry Widow Killer,” a man who marries rich widows and then kills them for their money.  When two government agents, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), show up posing as a national survey team, Uncle Charlie gets nervous and refuses to have his picture taken, but Charlie agrees to go out with Jack to show him Santa Rosa and he admits that he is a detective on the trail of the “Merry Widow Killer.”   Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects they are investigating.

Suspicious and torn between family loyalty and fear that Uncle Charlie really is the killer, she proceeds cautiously.  When the suspect on the East Coast is killed trying to run away, it is assumed that the man was the killer, but Uncle Charlie begins to arrange “accidents” for Charlie, including a broken stair step and finally locking her inside their garage with the car running and the key in his pocket, trying to kill her with carbon monoxide poisoning.  The family all go off to a speech that Uncle Charlie is giving, so Charlie tries to call the government agents to no avail.  Later Uncle Charlie announces that he is leaving.  He has carefully arranged to run off with a family friend, who just happens to be a rich widow.

As the train moves off, he holds Charlie prisoner and tries to throw her off the moving train, but as the struggle, he loses his balance.  A little push from Charlie and he falls into the path of an oncoming train.  The final scene shows Charlie talking with Jack at Uncle Charlie’s funeral.  She remarks that Uncle Charlie thought the world was an evil place, but Jack tells her that there is only some evil in the world.

One can understand, especially from a thematic point of view, why this would Hitchcock’s favorite film of his entire canon.  The story develops Charlie’s arc from being an innocent, bored with her simple hometown life, to understanding that evil can lurk in the most unexpected places.  The viewer sees her grow as a person from an immature girl into a mature woman and that is always eminently satisfying.  But the film offers much more than this.  Uncle Charlie and Emma’s wistful view of the past as a beautiful waltz contrasts sharply with his perception that the world has grown into an awful place, full of stupid people who only eat and talk and display their jewelry.  His own bitterness at the world fuels his murder spree and when he sees his hope of that innocence of youth, his niece Charlie, turning cold to him, he can only respond with the despair that leads him to try to kill her.

In addition, the suspense is so finely crafted in this film that the viewer is pulled to the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens to the girl Charlie.

The performances are uniformly good, but Joseph Cotton is magnificent as Uncle Charlie.  He leads us through all of his moods, from that painful yearning for innocence to the fear of being caught, to the despair of losing his niece’s good graces.  It is a powerful performance.  Teresa Wright is wonderful as the girl Charlie, capturing the essence of a soul at the turning point of her life between childhood and maturity.  Hume Cronyn is delightful as the family friend Herbie, who is always trying to find the perfect murder.  One of the best performances in the film is given by Patricia Collinge as Emma, who may miss the innocent past even more than Uncle Charlie and whose love of him creates the central challenge to Charlie’s struggle about revealing her uncle’s identity as the killer.

However, Macdonald Carey failed to make an impression on me as Jack.  Perhaps the character was written with too many contradiction or maybe I just didn’t buy his romantic interest in Charlie.  For whatever reason, his performance did not ring true for me.  It is the only blip in an otherwise great cast.

All of Hitchcock’s best film techniques are present in Shadow of a Doubt, some of them never more finely executed, and it will remain as one of the best films he ever made.  His best?  That question is still open for debate.

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938)Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery  remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies.  Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts.  Enhanced by Hitchcock’s own wit, it emerges as a truly entertaining popular film that reaches well beyond his normal confines of mystery and suspense.

A group of English tourists and businessmen is trapped at an inn in Bandrika by an avalanche that has covered the railroad tracks.  Young, beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) has been visiting her friends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart) before returning to England to marry a blueblood with lots of money.  She isn’t terribly excited about the prospect, but at the same time she can’t really find anything to get excited about.  Two apparently gay British businessmen, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are desperately trying to get back to England to see a cricket match.

Upstairs from Iris, a young English folk music enthusiast, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) has several Bandrikans clogging a folk dance.  Along with her neighbor, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess also returning to England, Iris complains about the noise and has Gilbert evicted from his room.  In retaliation, he comes to her room with his things and announces he’s moving in.  Forced to capitulate, she calls the manager and gets his room back.  In the meantime, Charters and Caldicott can’t get a regular room, so the manager has to put them up in the maid’s room, with the lewd suggestion that the maid will have to change her clothes there.  The two men are appalled and go out of their way to avoid seeing the young woman naked.

The next day on the train, Miss Froy befriends Iris who has been hit on the head by an object falling from a window.  The coach they are sitting in includes a Baroness and a magician.  After Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to discover that Miss Froy has disappeared.  The others seated in the coach deny having ever seen Miss Froy at all, so Iris begins to canvas the train trying to find anyone who remembers seeing the woman.  Along the way, she meets back up with Gilbert, who is determined to help her, even if he isn’t convinced that such a woman existed.  She meets Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), a Bandrikan neurosurgeon who tries to convince her that she’s been hallucinating, but she can’t let herself believe that Miss Froy wasn’t real.  When Gilbert sees a porter throwing out the trash and notices the brand of tea that Iris told him Miss Froy gave to them, he becomes convinced and helps her to turn the train upside down looking for her friend.  The trains stops to pick up a special patient for Dr. Hartz and Gilbert begins to suspect that Miss Froy has been substituted for the patient.

Part of what makes the movie special is the terrific chemistry between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.  A noted actor on the British stage, this was Redgrave’s first starring role and he definitely made the most of it.  His offbeat humor teamed so well with Lockwood that the two are completely engaging throughout the movie.  The rest of the cast is also quite good, but Radford and Wayne as Charters and Caldicott practically steal the show.  Their stiff British correctness, combined with their obviously gay relationship and obsession with cricket, despite the hijinks going on around them is hilarious.  In fact, the two went on to reprise their characters in other British movies after The Lady Vanishes.

Coming as it did, after several unsuccessful films, this major box office hit was what convinced American producer David O. Selzni,k to sign Hitchcock to a contract that would bring him to America and lead him to become one of the most respected directors in film history.

The Lady Vanishes contains many of the elements that were staples of Hitchcock’s movies: the uncertainty of relationships, a long train ride, slanted camera angles to emphasize important objects in the frame, long takes contrasted with fast montage, his fascination with spies, his fear of the police, and, of course, the humor that colored many of his later American films.  This film also carries more political weight than most of his movies, as it was made during the period of time that Chamberlain was capitulating Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the situation is alluded to obliquely throughout the film, but especially near the end when the English on board the train must make a decision to either capitulate to the Bandrikian government or to make a stand.  The one man who decides to capitulate is shot dead holding his white flag, while those who hold fast persevere.

The film showcases many of the great filmmaking techniques that Hitchcock had learned and mastered.  It was given a low budget and restricted to a very small studio at Islington.  No matter.  Hitchcock built one train car in the studio and shot virtually the entire train footage, which takes up most of the film, on his one set, using superb rear projection, camera angles, and masterful dissolves to keep the film moving and make it realistic.

With its great humor, charismatic cast, fine script, and showcasing most of the plot elements and camera techniques that were Hitchcock staples, this stands out among the best of his British films and one of his best films over all.

I highly recommend this movie for all audiences!

Dial M for Murder

Dial_M_For_Murder_Grace KellyIt might be easy to plan the perfect murder, but actually doing it is something else entirely.  That is the theme of Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie adapted by Frederick Knott from his own successful stage play of the same name.

The film opens by showing us the double life led by Margot (Grace Kelly).  We see her first with her husband, Tony (Ray Milland), as she reads a Times article announcing arrival of American crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) on the Queen Mary, then segue to a steamy kiss between her and Mark in the same flat that she shares with her husband.  Through their dialogue, we learn that after meeting Margot and Mark exchanged letters, all of which she burned but one, which she kept with her.  She decided to break it off with him after Tony gave up his professional tennis career to spend more time with her, but then one day her purse was stolen.  She received a blackmail letter from the thief demanding money in exchange for the evidence of her unfaithfulness, but the culprit never returned the letter.

Mark comes home and tells them that he can’t go to the theater with them as he’d planned because of a business meeting, so he sends them off together.  After they leave, he calls a man about buying a car and asks the man to stop over to see him.  When the man, Mr. Swann (Anthony Dawson) arrives, Mark reveals that he’d known him back at Cambridge and was aware that he’d stolen some funds at the time.  In fact, Mark has been following him closely and has substantial information on the man’s criminal career, including a few current schemes.  He explains that when his tennis career was over, he was not well off financially, but that Margot is independently wealthy and that she’s named him in her will as the benefactor of her fortune.  He tells Swann about noticing his wife’s letter, then stealing her purse himself and sending her the blackmail requests.  Removing the letter, he casually drops it to the floor and Swann picks it up.  He then tells Swann that he wants him to murder Margot or he will reveal all he knows about the man’s criminal activities.  When Swann threatens to take the matter to the police, Mark tells him that since his fingerprints are now on the letter, he can claim that Swann was the blackmailer and was trying to extort money from him.  When Mark offers to pay him a thousand pounds for the deed and then explains his foolproof plan, Swann agrees to commit the murder the next evening when Tony will take Mark to his club for men-only party.

Things immediately begin to fall apart the next night as Tony tries to maneuver Margot into following his plan, then Swann bungles the murder.  He is not a professional killer and uses a clumsy scarf to try to strangle her.  She fights back and plunges her scissors into his back.  He falls on the scissors driving them further into his body and dies.  Then the movie becomes all about Tony trying to salvage himself and establish that Margot murdered Swann when he threatened her with the letter.  Unfortunately, for him, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) is suspicious when the clues just don’t add up.

This is one of Hitchcock’s best suspense films and stands out from the rest because the audience is placed in the murderer’s shoes almost from the beginning.  The suspense is generated from our misplaced sympathy for Tony’s attempts to cover his tracks and we both fear and hope that he will be caught.  It is a masterpiece of suspense filmmaking.

Ray Milland is perfect as Tony.  His suave and compliant demeanor covers his cold-blooded plan for murder and we feel his tension as the plan unravels and then changes, as he works to cover his tracks and convince everyone of a different reality.  Grace Kelly is her usual beautiful self, so easily winning the audience that we hate and regret our sympathy for Tony.  Robert Cummings is fine in his supporting role.

The color, in the restored print used for the DVD, is excellent and allows Hitchcock to weave his spell beautifully with Robert Burks’ stunning cinematography.

Dial M for Murder is a classic of the suspense genre and must be ranked among Hitchcock’s greatest achievements.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

 

mr and mrs smithThis 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.  Before leaving England, Hitchcock had expressed a desire to work with Lombard and he got his wish in this film.

David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are a devil-may-care married couple in New York City.  He is a partner in a law firm with Jeff (Gene Raymond), but is sometimes absent for days as the couple holes up in their bedroom trying to make up after an argument.  It’s one of Ann’s rules that they have to stay in the bedroom until they make up.  When the film opens, they have been there for three days and they finally reconcile.   Over breakfast, she asks him if he would marry her if he had it all to do over.  Following her rule of complete honesty, he tells her that he wouldn’t.

However, when David goes to work, an official from Idaho, Harry Deever (Charles Halton) informs him that because the county they got married in is actually in Nevada, their marriage is null and void.  David calls Ann and asks her to dinner at Momma Lucy’s, a restaurant they used to eat at before they were married.  Mr. Deever, an old family friend of Ann’s stops by their apartment and tells her what he’s told David.  Certain that David will ask her to marry him again at the restaurant, she meets him full of expectation.  When they arrive at the restaurant, they find that Momma Lucy has gone back to the old country and it is now a seedy dive.  They arrive back home and David gets ready for bed, putting champagne on ice.  Upset that he still hasn’t asked her to marry him, she throws him out of the apartment and he has to go sleep at his club, the Beefeater.

Without Ann’s rule in place to keep them in the bedroom, they cannot make up.  David, regretting his earlier statement that he wouldn’t marry her if he had it all to do over, begins to follow her around begging her to forgive him and remarry, but perversely, it is Ann who likes her new freedom.  She takes a job, which David gets her fired from.  He tries to get Jeff to talk to her, hoping they can work something out, but Ann simply hires Jeff to be her attorney and then accedes when he asks her to go out with him.

At the Beefeater, David makes friends with Chuck (Jack Carson), who has also been thrown out of his home.  Chuck sets him up on a double date with a couple of low end dames and when they appear at the restaurant, David sees Ann with Jeff and tries to make her jealous.  Desperate, he follows them to Lake Placid and begins a series of machinations designed to pull the couple apart and bring him back together with Ann.

In spite of Hitchcock’s very capable direction, there are several things in the movie that are bothersome and I believe the issues belong to the script.  For one thing, it seems very cold of Ann to simply turn away from David the way she does.  I expected to see her plotting to intentionally wound him with the objective of getting him back eventually, yet it isn’t until the very end of the movie that she capitulates and realizes that she really does love him.  If she had, for example, discussed with Jeff her plan for getting him to apologize and re-marry her, it would have made perfect sense.  Krasna (or Hitchcock) leaves us to guess at her motivation for wanting to marry Jeff.  Toward the end, we see that she is fighting against her instinct to love him, but it is actually Jeff who pushes her back toward David.  It seems a little weird to me.

Another problem is that aside from a very few moments, I didn’t find the movie to be particularly funny.  At times, it goes begging for laughs.  Carole Lombard’s superb comic timing is never really used to great effect in the script and Robert Montgomery actually mugs at times looking for laughs.  This was Lombard’s next to last movie before her life ended in a plane crash while on a War Bond tour.  It’s really too bad, because Hitchcock and Lombard would have made a terrific combination.

I guess it says something that Hitchcock himself was disappointed in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in spite of its big box office success.

It’s not a bad movie, but I was hoping for a lot more than I got.

Alfred Hitchcock

alfred-hitchcock

I am endeavoring to review as many Alfred Hitchcock films as I can, so please be patient as the bodies pile up.

Hitchcock The Birds 02The Birds

I was thirteen years old in 1963 when I went to a movie theater to Alfred Hitchcock’s latest move, The Birds, and I can still remember the effect it had, the tension it engendered, the thrill of fright, and my jangled nerves when I left the theater and stepped out into the sunlight.


Dial_M_For_Murder_Grace KellyDial M for Murder

It might be easy to plan the perfect murder, but actually doing it is something else entirely.  That is the theme of Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly as a husband who has the perfect murder on his mind and the wife who seems to be the intended victim.


The Lady Vanishes (1938)The Lady Vanishes

Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery  remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies.  Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts.


Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayThe Man Who Knew Too Much

Never endanger an American’s children.  That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956. 


Marne 01Marnie

Marnie is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film.  There’s no murder, no spies, no sabotage, and practically no suspense.  It is a straight up psychological drama.


 mr and mrs smithMr. and Mrs. Smith

This 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.


 North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreNorth by Northwest

Mistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.


Notorious 02Notorious

The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.


Psycho 1Psycho

The line between suspense and horror is blurred anyway, but when director Alfred Hitchcock and screen writer Joseph Stefano adapted master horror writer Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho for the screen, and composer Bernard Herrmann was brought on board, they changed the horror film genre forever, creating ripples that are still felt by filmmakers today.


Rear-Window-pic-2Rear Window

A nation of Peeping Toms.  That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer James Stewart as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.  His left leg is encased in a great white cast bearing the inscription, “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.”


To Catch a Thief 01To Catch a Thief

This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.


 Torn Curtain 3Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  The film as a whole has too many problems to be considered one of his best: a flabby script, lenient editing, and way too much time at the end.  


Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointVertigo

Acrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie.  Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo.  The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche.

Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain 3Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  I will discuss the plot in detail, so there will be spoilers.

American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) arrives in Copenhagen with his fiancée, colleague Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) to attend a conference.  Receiving a call that a book is waiting for him at a local book store, she picks it up for him.  Taking it into a toilet at the hotel, he reads a secret message telling him to “Contact π.”  His behavior disturbs Sarah and when she discovers he has changed his plans and will be flying to Stockholm, she decides to follow him, but he isn’t going to Stockholm, he’s actually boarding a plane for East Germany.  In a state of shock, she watches as he defects, stating to the press that he was disappointed that the United States shut down his missile program and he plans to develop an anti-missile system in Leipzig with Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) that will end the threat of nuclear war.  They have been shadowed by Professor Karl Manfred (Günter Strack) who arranged the defection.

Michael is angry that Sarah has followed him and repeatedly tells her that she should go back home while she can, but the East German government asks her to stay and work as Michael’s assistant.  Despite her disillusionment, Sarah decides that she loves Michael enough to stay and support his work.  At the time of the interview, he is informed by East German Security that he has been assigned a security watchdog, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who is to follow him around and watch his actions.

The next morning, Michael leaves the hotel and hops a bus.  Gromek follows him on his motorcycle to a museum where Michael tries to lose him.  Going out the back, he hails a cab and gives the driver an address.  At a farm outside Berlin, Michael has the cab wait while he meets an American agent (Mort Mills) who is under cover as a farmer.  It turns out that π is an escape network and Michael is going to attempt to get information from Professor Lindt that will aid the United States in their own anti-missile system.  Before he can leave, Gromek shows up.  Seeing the π symbol in the dirt where Michael had drawn it for the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell), Gromek interrogates him.  As Gromek attempts to call the authorities, the farmer’s wife throws a pot at him and Michael attacks him.  As they fight, she stabs Gromek with a knife and they wrestle his head into an oven.  She turns on the gas and he dies.  Indicating that she will bury both Gromek and his motorcycle, Michael leaves.

In Leipzig, Michael is about to be debriefed for Professor Lindt when state security bursts in with the news that Gromek is missing, so they decide to debrief Sarah first, but when confronted with revealing American secrets, she can’t go through with it.  Speaking to her alone, Michael finally reveals to her that he is on a spy mission and gets her cooperation.  The cab driver (Peter Lorre, Jr.) sees the missing Gromek’s picture in the paper and comes forward, telling the police that he drove Michael to the farm.  When they arrive, the farmers are gone, so they commence digging and find the motorcycle 

After Michael gets the formula he is looking for, he and Sarah begin a convoluted escape route that includes assistance from a university clinic physician Dr. Koska (Gisela Fischer) and another man from π (David Opatoshu), eventually landing them back in East Berlin.  Their instructions call for them to go to a  post office and along the way the meet exiled Polish countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) who wants them to sponsor her to the United States.  Their escape plan calls for them to go the ballet where state security hunts them down.  Michael’s only resort is to yell “Fire!”  During the ensuing chaos, they are taken backstage and put in ballet trunks for shipment to Sweden, the ballet’s next stop.  As the trunks are about to be offloaded, the lead ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) blows the whistle and a guard shoots up the trunks, but they are the wrong trunks.  Michael, Sarah, and their rescuer have jumped into the water and swim safely to shore.

Normally, Hitchcock’s scripts have been worked over for many months, if not years in advance of shooting.  In this case, the script by Brian Moore was not ready.  Both Hitchcock and Newman knew it and Hitch sought additional help with the dialogue, but the studio had foisted Julie Andrews on him as his leading lady and she had a very short window to film the movie, so they went ahead with a faulty script.  It did not help that longtime Hitchcock collaborators Robert Burks (cinematography) and George Tomasini (editing) had both passed away, so he was working with people he wasn’t completely certain of.  He also had a falling out with his longtime musical director, Bernard Herrmann, and even though Herrmann scored part of the film, Hitch fired him and had John Addison complete the work.

The second problem in the film is that the climax occurs when Michael finally gets the formula from Professor Lindt, but the film continues on for nearly forty-five minutes after that as the elaborate escape, done with Hitchcock’s usual sense of suspense, plays out.  It simply goes on too long and it should have been edited down to fifteen or twenty minutes tops.  It makes the movie drag exactly where you don’t want a movie to drag.  At two hours and eight minutes, the film feels like it goes on forever.

That being said, the movie also contains the best scene Hitchcock ever filmed: the killing of Wolfgang Kieling by Paul Newman and Carolyn Conwell. 

Although both Herrmann and Addison had written music to accompany the gritty scene, in the end Hitchcock opted to only use the natural sound of the three people in their life and death struggle.  We hear grunts, scuffling, and very little dialogue as the two men struggle with each other.  Hitchcock intercut the scene as montage, so the viewer gets glimpses of arms and hands, short close-ups of faces, and two-shots of the struggle.  Almost forgotten is Conwell’s terrific contribution to the scene.  They can’t make any loud noises because the cab driver is still waiting outside, so they can’t shoot him.  She tries to stab him, but in the struggle the knife only goes into his shoulder, the blade breaking off and blood soaking his shirt.  She takes a shovel and bangs his knees to make him go to the floor.  Kieling gets both of his hands around Newman’s neck and tries to choke him, but Conwell begins to drag them across the floor, her face sweaty and creased with the exertion.  In the final moments, Hitchcock shoots the scene from above the oven and we see Newman and Conwell gasping for air as Kieling’s hands go through the paroxysm of death, fighting against the gas and gradually giving in, eventually resting with no movement at all.  If feels like an absolutely real death.

The reactions of Newman and Conwell afterward is just as important. As they regain their breath, the viewer can see the emotional scars of the act of killing: the trembling, the sweat, the redness of their faces, the disbelief that they have just taken a man’s life. 

It is overpowering cinema. 

When I first saw this movie in a theater in 1966, that scene haunted me and I have never forgotten it.  I think it has a much greater impact than the shower killing in Psycho, which is generally considered Hitchcock’s best murder scene.

There are other wonderful things in the movie to delight film students and Hitchcock fans.  The scene in the museum, for example, where Hitchcock never shows Gromek following Michael, but we hear the echo of the pursuer’s footsteps.  The tension on the bus on the escape back to East Berlin is almost unbearable.

However, even with all of the wonderful techniques of Hitchcock at his best, the film as a whole has too many problems to be considered one of his best.  A flabby script, lenient editing, and way too much time at the end all work together to sink this movie.  In fact, in the canon of films that Hitchcock made in America, it must be considered one of his least successful.