The Silence of the Lambs

Silence Lambs 01When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.

The following review contains a detailed analysis of the plot, so be forewarned.

Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) for this job without telling her why: he wants to get Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help them profile Buffalo Bill so they can catch the killer before he acts again.  Even before she can leave Quantico for Baltimore, they are already too late.  Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) lures young Catharine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van and abducts her, putting her down in an empty well in his basement and forcing her to use lotion to soften her skin while his little toy poodle Precious looks on.  Sitting at a sewing machine, surrounded by rare moths, he sews his collected skin together.

Silence Lambs 03In Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter’s prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who has taken to using subtle torture to try to make a name from Lecter, who was at one time himself a brilliant psychologist.  Given the antagonism between the two, she requests to see Lecter alone.  As she walks up the corridor to the special cell, one of the other inmates, Miggs, whispers obscene things to her.  In his cell, protected by glass, he is prohibited from contact with anything that might be used as a weapon or to escape, even pens, although he is allowed pencils to complete intricate drawings.  Clarice asks him about an especially detailed drawing of Venice and he remarks that it is his only way of having a view of the outside world.  Fascinated by her, he picks out her perfume and tries to get inside her mind without revealing anything of himself.  Frustrated, he dismisses her, but on the way out, Miggs throws a ball of come at her and this upsets Lecter who yells at her to come back.  He tells her to find an old patient of his, giving a few verbal hints and a fake name.

Clarice unravels his clues and follows them to a self storage garage outside Baltimore with an old car that contains a mannequin and a jar containing the head of Lecter’s former patient.  She revisits Lecter and he reveals that he did not kill the man, but that it is the world of a serial killer in the making.  Using a quid pro quo dialogue, he reveals bits and pieces while learning of Clarice’s youth, including the death of her father and her brief time on a sheep ranch in Montana staying with cousins afterward.

Another body is found and Clarice accompanies Crawford to examine the body.  Although he appears to be playing psychological games with her, Clarice stands up for herself and earns the fair treatment she deserves.  While examining the body, they find the pupa of moth wedged inside the girl’s mouth.  The investigation leads Clarice to university specialists who tell her that the pupa is a rare species of Asian moth.

Back in Quantico, she sees a television report that Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill.  Martin attempts to humanize her daughter to the killer by showing pictures of the girl growing up and referring to her over and over by her name: Catherine.  Oblivious to the broadcast, Bill continues to sew the skin of his victims together.

Silence Lambs 02Promising Lecter a transfer away from Dr. Chilton, Clarice tells him that if he can help them find Buffalo Bill, he will even be allowed some time on a beach.  Recording the conversation, Dr. Chilton checks with Senator Martin and discovers that the FBI has lied to Lecter and no such deal is in place.  He reveals this to his patient and brokers his own deal with Martin.  During his conversation with Hannibal, who is restricted with a straight jacket and face plate, Chilton leaves his pen lying in the office, then leaves Lecter to his assistant with the instruction to clean him up and get him ready for transfer.  In Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter is taken off the plane, but when Chilton goes to sign his release, he can no longer find his pen.  Lecter watches him anxiously until a guard offers a pen instead.

Introduced to the Senator, Lecter gives her false information as to the identity of Catherine’s abductor and is then escorted to a special cell on an isolated floor of the courthouse.  Clarice comes to see him, even though it is no longer her case, to try to find out why he gave the Senator false information and to keep trying to get the real killer’s name.  Playing quid pro quo again, he gets her to reveal that the reason she ran away from the ranch in Montana was that she was awakened by screaming because the spring lambs were being slaughtered.  Appalled, she opened the pen to let them go, but they wouldn’t leave, so she took one lamb and ran away, getting caught several miles from the ranch.  Lecter gets her to admit that she sometimes still has nightmares about the screaming of the lambs.  As Chilton and the officers escort her out, Lecter gives her back her case file and tells her that all she needs to know is there.  When the guards deliver Lecter his dinner, they handcuff him to the bars of his cage, but using components from Chilton’s pen, he unlocks his cuff and kills the two guards, cleverly making his escape.

Silence Lambs 04Piecing together bits of what Lecter has given her, she realizes that the killer might live close to the first victim because in the beginning these killers covet those who are nearby, that they see every day.  With this knowledge, she goes to visit the family of the first victim and stumbles upon the killer.  I won’t revel the ending, even though it is very exciting.

Only the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay, it is also the first horror film to be named Best Picture.  All five awards are richly deserved.

This 1991 film truly established Jonathan Demme as a master of the art of film directing and in The Silence of the Lambs he has created a masterpiece that even Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The airtight script by Ted Tally, based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, melds several genres in a stew that is absolutely compelling.  A friend of Harris, Tally’s first draft was accepted by Demme and the film went into production with very little revision.  It is virtually unheard of in the film industry for a script to be so well written is taken on a first draft basis.

Murder mystery, detective story, horror, and psychological drama all work together under Demme’s expert hand.  Running just under two hours, the story is so gripping that it is extremely difficult to pull oneself away.  The music by Howard Shore feels invisible, yet it is coldly calculated to lead the viewer steadily and deeply into the grisly scenario.  Shore said of his score, “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie.”  Bullseye.

Demme’s use of close-ups in the intense dialogue between Starling and Lecter, especially with the camera moving ever so slowly in tighter and tighter, creates such a feeling of intimacy and gripping suspense as to make it palpable.  In addition, the movie is a prime example of brilliant editing, each scene cut perfectly for the story.

The acting is pure gold.  This is by far Jodie Foster’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and she earned her Oscar by imbuing Clarice Starling with such a rich and subtle layering of character that she was completely believable and utterly compelling.  Opposite her, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with such brilliance, both believably intelligent far beyond most people and yet eerily spooky in his madness, one moment perfect British manner, one moment biting someone’s nose off.  Whenever he is present, a scene is elevated to the deepest level of psychological complication.  Great acting!  The supporting cast all do their jobs, each actor invested in their little part of the tapestry.

I’ve now seen this movie six times and each time I still find every single moment of it to be utterly compelling.  It stands the test of time with no effort at all and must be considered deep within anyone’s list of the Top 100 films of all time.

Adults only, this is a must-see movie!!!

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 Save the Last DanceSave the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance is a surprisingly well-thought out film.  Although it is primarily concerned with dance, it also deals with some big issues.  Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick  Thomas are great as two dancers with completely different backgrounds who come together to merge classical and hiphop dance styles.  Lots of fun, great music, and some serious issues.


Viola and Shakespeare in bedShakespeare in Love

Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.  Great performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, and Judi Densch fuel this terrific comedy and unpredictable romance!


Silence Lambs 01The Silence of the Lambs

When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.


Cooper and Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook

This delightful comedy/drama was written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from the book The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Centered around two quirky people, both at a crossroads in their lives, the film presents bi-polar disorder as a condition that can be overcome.  Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award performance opposite Bradley Cooper, with Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker.


Speak-Movie-kristen-stewart-7224892-960-540Speak

Here’s a 2004 film that really went under the radar.  It was screened at Sundance and aired on Showtime and Lifetime, but I’d never heard of it.  Based on the novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, it tells the story of a high school freshman, Melinda Sordino, who is brutally raped at a party by a senior boy.  Starring Kristin Stewart in a wonderful performance.


Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.


amy adams emily blunt sunshine cleaningSunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a delightful comedy and drama, with a great cast, a strong script by Megan Holley and crisp, clean direction by Christine Jeffs.  Although it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, the two performances at the center of it by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt really propelled the two actresses to the acclaim they so richly deserve.

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RachelGettingMarried_9Rachel Getting Married

This is a film that is uncertain of its genre.  It starts out and has the feel throughout of a slice of life movie, yet, underneath, a great tragedy is struggling to get out, and, at the end, it bursts into a kind of feel-good film.


realitybitesReality Bites

This 1994 movie, written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, touches on a number of issues for young people, including attachment to brands, rejection of previous generations, employment difficulties, and romantic angst.  Highly successful at the time, much of the movie can be said to be just as valid for today’s young adults as it was when released.


Rear-Window-pic-2Rear Window

A nation of Peeping Toms.  That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.


Goldsworthy 01Rivers and Tides

Andy Goldsworthy

Working with Time

The violent colors of autumn leaves, an iron-rich rock that turns water blood red, blackened stalks, great slabs of ice, thorns, chipped rocks: these are the materials that Andy Goldsworthy uses to create his ephemeral art.


Audry Hepburn Roman HolidayRoman Holiday

This classic romantic comedy is as much fun today as it was when the film was first released in 1953.  It is built around two lies of identity told to each other by the main characters so that they can spend a day together in Rome.


ruby-sparksRuby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is a brilliant 2012 romantic fantasy.  Both a comedy and a drama, it never falls into the genre of romantic comedy, but blazes its own original, fantastic trail.  Written by Zoe Kazan and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film has a single, organic arc that shoots into the sky like a brilliant firework, ultimately exploding into fragments that all make perfect sense.

All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

Notorious

Notorious 03The 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.

This review contains plot spoilers.

When her German immigrant father is convicted of treason in 1945, beautiful Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes on a binge.  Her reputation as a party girl has been well earned, so American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) tries to keep some distance as he prepares to recruit her to spy on her father’s old friends, but he can’t seem to help getting involved with her.  Although she claims not to care about it, Devlin has wiretapped proof that she is a patriot and so he gets her to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a job.

By the time she is settled in Rio, Alicia is in love Devlin and she goes off of alcohol and dedicates herself to him, but he doesn’t quite believe her.  He is still suspicious that she will take another lover when she can.

Her job is to hook up Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s friends who made advances to her in the past.  She practically begs Devlin to tell her not to take the job, but he thinks that she should refuse it on her own.  This test of wills leads her to accept the challenge.  She is successful with Sebastian, but he keeps seeing her with Devlin and suspects that she may not really love him.  He dares her to prove her loyalty by marrying him.  Alicia brings her dilemma to the American agents, all of whom want to leave the decision up to her, except for Devlin.  In love with her and angry that she has actually taken Sebastian for a lover, he advises her to go through with the marriage.

Notorious 01Alicia becomes convinced that whatever Sebastian is hiding is kept in his wine cellar, but he has the only to it.  On Devlin’s urging, she steals the key and plans to investigate during a large party.  She invites Devlin and the two of them sneak away during the party to look in the wine cellar.  He accidentally breaks a wine bottle and it is full of uranium.  Although he cleans up the mess and they make their escape, Sebastian has discovered that his key is missing when he goes to get more wine.  He sees Devlin and Alicia together and they kiss to cover their escape from the wine cellar.  Sebastian sees them and realizes that Alicia doesn’t really love him, then, when his key appears on his key ring the next morning, he realizes that she is a spy.

At the urging of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), they begin a slow process of poisoning Alicia.  When she grows more and more ill, she cannot make a meeting with Devlin and he becomes suspicious.  He goes to the house to investigate and finds her deathly ill.  Confessing his love for her, he takes her from the house right in front of all of the Germans.  Sebastian begs to go along with them, but Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to face the wrath of his ex-Nazi friends.

In its restored version, this black and white film is absolutely beautiful.  Ingrid Bergman was made for the black and white film medium and the camera certainly loves her beauty.  Alicia is a very complicated role and her performance is dynamic and powerful.  Likewise, Cary Grant plays Devlin as a very complicated man and gives probably the best performance of his career, nuanced and detailed.  Hitchcock uses his camera masterfully, creating some of the best shots of any of his films.

Notorious 02The suspense in this movie is palpable, at times so thick that it is almost impossible to watch, but the story is so compelling it is difficult to turn away.  The kisses between Bergman and Grant are incredibly sexy.  In one shot, they kiss, nuzzle, talk, and kiss over and over again for minutes.  The movie also contains one of Hitchcock’s most well known shots, a long crane shot from the second floor of the house, moving inexorably down to a close-up of Bergman’s hand, behind her back, holding the key.

Written by Hollywood’s legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht, Notorious is a masterpiece that must be included among the very best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and it should be seen by everyone!

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!

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.

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.

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.