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Nick and Norah PhotoNick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

When a movie has as its basis such an incredible novel as Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, there should be no way that it could fail, yet this insipid teen comedy manages to toss aside all of the best stuff from the novel, including, amazingly, some of the best comedy.  It changes the course of events and ends without a single note of the beauty that gave the book such raw power.


Norma Rae 04Norma Rae

Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away.  Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.


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 03Notorious

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.

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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.

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.

North by Northwest

north-by-northwest Samt and GrantMistaken 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.  This review assumes the reader has already seen the film, and thus reveals many plot details that might spoil the movie for a novice film viewer.  Beware!

New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is about to conclude another busy day when he is kidnapped by two vaguely eastern European men (Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein) and taken to a mansion in the country. An erudite Englishman, whom Thornhill assumes is the estate owner, Mr. Townsend (James Mason) has mistaken him for a George Kaplan, a mysterious man who moves about the country making short stays in hotels before moving on.  Townsend recites Kaplan’s complete itinerary, demanding information from him.  When Thornhill tells him of his real identity and refuses to cooperate, Townsend tells his henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau) to kill him.  They force a bottle of bourbon into Thornhill, then put him behind the wheel of a stolen car and aim it at the ocean, but Thornhill revives just enough to avoid the plunge and leads them on a wild car chase.

Arrested for drunken driving, Thornhill calls his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and tries to explain about his kidnapping. On a return trip to the mansion, Mrs. Townsend tells the police that he was there for dinner, got drunk, and went off on his own.  Thornhill then takes his mother back to the hotel where Kaplan was staying and they find evidence of his presence, but none of the hotel employees have actually seen Kaplan.  When Townsend’s flunkies show up, Thornhill grabs a taxi and goes to the United Nations, where he discovers that the real Townsend knows nothing about his adventures.  As he speaks to Townsend, Leonard sneaks up and stabs the diplomat in the back, leaving Thornhill holding the knife.  A photographer takes a picture, then Thornhill drops the knife and runs off.

Hitchcock usually includes a scene in his movies where the audience learns something that his hero doesn’t know. In North by Northwest, that scene occurs in a Federal Government building (FBI? CIA? Hitchcock never says) where a group of executives led by the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) ponder Thornhill’s predicament and wonder if they should help him.  Kaplan, you see, doesn’t actually exist.  They created him in order to make the spies think that they were closing in on them, while actually they are simply trying to get them to reveal information.  They decide to allow Thornhill to sink or swim on his own.

Knowing that Kaplan’s next stop is in Chicago, Thornhill boards a train, the 20th Century Limited. With no disguise but dark glasses, he should be easy to spot, but the beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) appears and hides him in her private room.  While the porter is putting down the bed and Thornhill is hiding in her toilet, she slips a note to Luther Vandamm (James Mason), the man who had posed as Townsend earlier.  In Chicago, she pretends to help him by calling Kaplan to set up a meeting, but she gives him instructions to take a bus into the country.  That is where the famous scene with the crop-dusting plane occurs.  Waiting on the side of the highway, surrounded by bleak, empty fields, a small plane dives him, trying to run him down and spraying deadly poison on him.  He makes it to a field, then runs back onto the highway, stopping a tanker truck, which the plane then proceeds to hit, causing an explosion.  Stealing a pick-up left idling by a local, he returns to Chicago and goes to Kaplan’s hotel only to find out that Kaplan had checked out and left before Eve could have possibly talked to him.

Now that he knows she is working for his enemies, he goes to confront her at an art auction, only to find Vandamm and his henchmen. Disrupting the auction, he is able to save his own life by getting arrested.  Diverted to the airport, the police deliver him to the Professor who explains that Eve is actually working for the government, gathering information on Vandamm, and that Thornhill has now endangered her life.

North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreFollowing the villains to Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill and the Professor have set up a little scene in the restaurant at Mt. Rushmore where Eve shoots him with a gun loaded with blanks, but when he finds out that Eve will be leaving the country with Vandamm, he eludes the Professor and goes off on his own to save Eve, resulting in the famous final scene at Mt. Rushmore where Thornhill and Eve clamor over the president’s faces running from Leonard and the others with a statue filled with microfilm.

At two hours and 16 minutes, this should feel like a very long movie, but Hitchcock keeps the tension building so that viewers will not notice the passing of time. Even so, I wonder if it couldn’t have been cut a bit to bring it down to a more realistic length.  As with most of Hitchcock’s films, there isn’t much in the story, but action and suspense.  When Ernest Lehman wrote the script, he definitely wanted this to be the best Hitchcock film of all time and there may have been a certain amount of collusion from all of Hitchcock’s collaborators to make this movie his “masterpiece,” resulting in a greater length than usual.  It is Hitchcock’s longest running film and although it was stunning at the time of its release, in retrospective, there are many other films that would better fit the description “masterpiece.”

Although Hitchcock pulls all the right strings to keep the audience involved, I thought that Cary Grant really just mailed in his performance. Aside from a few moments early in the film, I really didn’t care what happened to him.  Eva Marie Saint was considerably better, bringing a level of nuance that was involving, but Mason, Landau, and all of the other actors seemed to be on automatic pilot.

The opening credits by Saul Bass are quite captivating, especially with the music of Bernard Herrmann behind them. This may be one of Herrmann’s best scores for Hitchcock as it does much of the work of keeping the film moving along.  The cinematography by Robert Burks and the editing by George Tomasini, both long time Hitchcock collaborators are terrific.  The widescreen color by Vistavision is magnificent.

What makes the film most memorable are the two iconic scenes, by themselves kinetic masterpieces: the scene in the fields with the crop dusting airplane and the scramble across the President’s faces at Mt. Rushmore. The scenes between Grant and Saint on the train are also very sexy and quite suggestive for their time.

North by Northwest deserves its place as a iconic Hitchcock film and it should be seen anyone who is a fan of suspense movies, Hitchcock or 1950’s Hollywood. It is an outstanding film and it definitely has its place in film history.  Even so, I would not call it Hitchcock’s ultimate masterpiece, as Ernest Lehman called it, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” 

In fact, Hitchcock’s very next film, Psycho, would leave a much deeper impact on his audience.