As the Summer Olympics continue, I thought everyone might still be in a LONDON frame of mind. And since it is no secret that London is my favorite travel destination AND Alfred Hitchcck is my favorite film director, I decided to merge the two in honor of London 2012. Now, to make this list, the movie has to be shot ON LOCATION in London…not on a soundstage. Dial M for Murder is “set” in London, but it was shot in Hollywood. Using London as a location criteria, there are three films that make the list. Frenzy, I feel, is Hitchcock’s best USE of London on film but my personal favorite of his three set-in-London films is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw.
When director Alfred Hitchcock shot Frenzy, he was in his early 70s and was at the end of a filmmaking career that began in the 1920s in England. After Hitchcock left Britain behind for a career in America (his first film in the U.S. was 1940’s Rebecca), he rarely looked back.
Frenzy is a triumphant return to London, with the film shot entirely there and starring an all-British cast. This movie does not boast any glitzy movie stars or any of the Hitchcock elegance of many of his previous films, but displays a rather dark, violent side unlike anything the director had shot before. The finished product results in a taut and intelligent thriller, one of the best of Hitchcock’s career and definitely the best of his later films. The movie begins with a body found, washed ashore in the Thames River. The corpse has a necktie around its neck, identifying the murder as another “necktie” serial killing. Through a series of twists and wrong turns, an innocent man is accused of the murders, which has been a common Hitchcock plot line over the course of his career (The Wrong Man and North by Northwest, in particular). The difference here is that early on in the film, the audience becomes privy to who is the guilty party and who is being framed. Knowing this before most of the cast, we are left squirming in our seats, waiting for the characters to catch up with what we already know. Also, unmasking the villain towards the beginning of the film allows the audience to focus less on plot and more on character and the cinematic style that makes Frenzy a magnificent thriller.
Stage Fright has a perfect cast and a strong plot but somehow doesn’t get the due it deserves. Made at the end of what I would call one of Hitchcock’s “off” periods (his biggest stinker Under Capricorn comes right before this one in 1949 but in 1951, Hitchcock makes Strangers on a Train which saves his ailing career), this film features many of the trademarks Hitchcock aficionados have come to know and love in his later films…the “wronged” man, the love interest, fair amounts of humor for comic relief, and a thrilling ending. So, why is it not up there with Rear Window and North by Northwest? Well, it’s not glitzy. Even though it’s about the theater industry in London, it doesn’t shine like Hitchcock’s better-known works. I would say that has to do mostly with the acting. All of the performances here seem adequate but not stunning. Jane Wyman and Alastair Sim are spot-on when playing the father-daughter act, but aside from that, they all seem lost in the script. Regardless, it’s a must-see for all thriller fans!
The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of Hitchcock’s more underrated films, especially since its only notoriety comes from introducing the song Que Sera Sera to the general public. A remake of the director’s own 1934 work from his early years working in his native England, this updated version is exactly what Hitchcock himself said it was…to paraphrase, he said that the 1934 movie was made by a amateur director and the 1956 version was made by a professional director. Taking the story of the 1934 film and enhancing it with actual locations and minor character changes, the 1956 film is a terrific example of how a good film can become a great film. The movie stars Doris Day and James Stewart as an American couple visiting the French Morocco with their young son. After befriending a British couple, they soon find themselves embroiled in a series of terrifying events, including the kidnapping of their son. The first part of the film is filmed on location in Marrakesh, Morocco but after the kidnapping, Stewart and Day head to London, believing their son was taken there. London works well here, whether as a minor backdrop (like the streets where both Ambrose Chapel and the taxonomy shop were filmed) or a major, plot-based location, such as the climatic concert scene filmed in the Royal Albert Hall. That scene stands out as one of the most intense, nail-biting scenes of pure suspense ever filmed. It lasts over ten minutes and there is no dialogue, only music, but the anxiety of Day’s performance along with the tension-mounting music and direction keeps the viewer glued to the screen. In my opinion, this remake is one of Hitchcock’s best movies.