I remember how excited I was when I got to this one during my “in order” Hitchcock phase as a child. Coming right between Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and the same year as To Catch a Thief, this one would have to be great, right? Well, to a 10-year-old, it was…for lack of a better term, boring. Why? Because it is a dark comedy and the humor, I guess, was over my head. I was expecting another thriller like the ones before and after it. But, instead I got a sweetly innocent story about a small New England town and a newly widowed single mother. Harry, the title character, is/was her husband and the beginning of the film shows his dead corpse lying on the grass under some autumn trees. How, why, and by whom Harry died contributes to both the story and the humor of this tale. And, watching it again as an adult, I liked it quite a bit. It’s sharp and original and clever. But, it’s not Rear Window. Hitchcock didn’t take that many chances throughout his career. He discovered early on that he was good at and liked directing thrillers so he mainly stuck to that. This is one of the few times he deviated and not only does it showcase Hitchcock’s versatility, it also proves he can poke fun at thrillers…in The Trouble with Harry murder/death is pretty dang funny!
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At 143 minutes, this is Hitchcock’s longest film. In comparison, North by Northwest is 136 minutes. Anyone who has seen North by Northwest knows there is not a slow second in that film. I don’t think even Hitchcock could say that about Topaz. Set in 1962, Topaz takes place in New York and Cuba, dealing with Cuban/Russian – American/French relations. At times, it is a sharp, clever movie that is as fast-paced as Hitchcock ever was. Sadly, though, more often than not, it tends to drag through the “information” scenes (scenes with TOO much dialogue and too much information that has to be conveyed to the audience). The romance between the French spy (or is he a spy?) and Juanita falls flat. But, there are some moments that one can only describe as PURE Hitchcock. Juanita’s death scene is one of Hitchcock’s best ever. And the sequence in Harlem is also top-notch suspense. With a little more time in the editing room, Topaz could have been one of Hitchcock’s best. Watch it…with the fast forward button not too far from reach.
You know how all parents say that they do not have a favorite child. But, you KNOW they do. And, with a favorite, there’s always one that…just rubs them the wrong way. The one they think “what happened here?” all the time. Torn Curtain is my not-so-favorite child. Alfred Hitchcock was, to me, the filmmaker of all filmmakers. I like and admire other directors but Hitchcock will always be tops. And, then there’s a movie I have to justify and even recommend to people like this. It’s not that Torn Curtain is a bad film. It’s a good spy thriller. But, I’d come to expect Hitchcock to not make just GOOD films. I want to see perfection, like I’d usually seen in the past. Torn Curtain most definitely is not perfection. It’s a flawed film that eventually does work, but it takes more effort than it should. From what I know about the making of this one, I know Hitchcock and Paul Newman did not get along. And Hitchcock did not want to cast Julie Andrews. Sure, Hitchcock had been “forced” to work with actors he wasn’t that dazzled with before (think Kim Novak in Vertigo) but usually there was one star he was excited about…which got him through the movie. This time, both of his stars were not his favorites. Did that affect the film? Was Hitchcock so blinded by disappointment for the actors that he could not see his way to make a better film? Well, that’s one way to look at it. The story here is about an American scientist who fakes defecting to East Germany in order to get at the mathematical formula of a famed scientist on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The film has some great moments in it…the most notable being the killing of an East German agent who finds out the scientist is not legitimately defecting. Sadly, though, the great moments are too far and few between to call this a great Hitchcock movie. Thankfully, the Master of Suspense did redeem himself six years later with Frenzy. I’m not even going to acknowledge Topaz, which came in-between… Topaz, sadly, is another one of my unloved Hitchcock children.
Honestly, Rope is far from my favorite Hitchcock film. It is slow-ish and more “talkie” than most other Hitchcock movies…relying more on dialogue than action for its suspense. But, after viewing it again recently, I found that even one of the less satisfying films by the preeminent thriller director Hitchcock is STILL better than most of the thrillers made today. The story is loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murderers…the two University of Chicago students who decided commit the perfect murder to prove they can because they are intellectually superior humans. So, at the beginning of the film, a murder takes place. And the rest of the film is a will-they-get-caught-or-won’t-they as they entertain guests (including the victim’s parents!) in the same room where the body is hidden. This is one of the films Hitchcock used as an experiment. It’s his first film in color and, like Dial M for Murder’s attempted use of 3-D, the director tries something he’s not done before here. He uses ONLY nine takes to film the almost hour and a half film. These long takes, on their own, do a great job of building to and adding to the suspense. We almost feel like we’re right there…in the apartment…one of the guests watching this story unfold. So, instead of choosing one of the more lame and overly-predictable thrillers made today, try this one. I cannot say it’s Hitchcock’s best but it sure beats most everything else!
Praised as the first true Hitchcock masterpiece, this is a great spy thriller, though I wouldn’t actually label it as one of Hitchcock’s best. What I would say is that this is probably the film that sealed Hitchcock as the main director of the thriller genre, because it is a strong thriller and also because it was a box office hit. The story follows Robert Donat’s character, who’s on the run for a crime he had nothing to do with. Enter Madeleine Carroll who at first provides an excellent foil but then also becomes a willing love interest. It’s a great movie with two wonderful performances by Donat and Carroll. In addition to being one of the first Hitchcock films to use the “wronged” man as a theme, it also is probably the first use of something later coined as the MacGuffin, a plot device that is used to move the story along but actually, it’s of no true significance to the story. Here, the MacGuffin would be the formula inside the mind of Mr. Memory. The 39 Steps is a fast-paced thriller that really keeps the audience guessing right until the very end…and one of the best of British Hitchcock.
One of Hitchcock’s best uses of big finales…this one taking place on the Statue of Liberty (OK, not the REAL Statue, but this IS a movie from the 1940s!). Later in his career, he would shoot suspenseful scenes at the United Nations, Mount Rushmore, and the Golden Gate Bridge, and earlier in his career…back in England…he shot a great scene in Blackmail at the British Museum. The ending, somewhat, makes up for this one being a little slower than us Hitchcock fans had become accustom to. Saboteur is a good Hitchcock film and a great spy thriller, though I feel it could have used a little more time at the editors. Again, we have a plot that revolves around a wronged man…this time, it’s Robert Cummings who gets falsely accused for an act of sabotage and spends most of the movie running from the police and the REAL bad guys. This is a must for any thriller fans. And, of course, for all Hitchcock fans, but don’t be surprised if you’re not just a tad disappointed.
A classic Hitchcock film that has a perfect cast 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 and 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 theatre 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. Wyman and 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 second film Hitchcock made in America was really his attempt to help the WWII effort in England (it was made before America entered the war). Joel McCrea plays a naïve, inexperienced journalist who somehow gets caught in a spy ring. By far, the best part of this one is the ending, among the windmills of (what is supposed to be) Holland. Unfortunately, Hitchcock never worked McCrea again…they made a good team. McCrea seemed comfortable with the material and Hitchcock used his character well. Not one of the major Hitchcock films, but a must-see regardless.
If you read my annotation on The Birds, you know Tippi Hedren is not my favorite actress. But, compared to her lackluster performance in The Birds, she shines here. It’s the script in Marnie that I have trouble with. When this one came out in 1964, it didn’t do as well as expected and was not raved by the critics. As with Vertigo, both the public opinion but mostly the critical opinion, time has been kind with Marnie. Some critics now hail it as one (with Vertigo) of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. I would not go that far. Yes, Hedren is better, but she’s still not good enough to carry a film. The plus here is that unlike The Birds’ Rod Taylor (who is just so-so), Sean Connery provides a stronger counterpart for Hedren’s weak-ish acting. But, a masterpiece? Have these critics seen Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt? As I said, Marnie’s biggest issue, in my humble opinion, is the script. The screenplay here is lagging considerably, especially in the middle. The film starts off well and moves along at a good pace. Then, somewhere around the time Connery begins helping Hedren with her many problems, the story almost comes to a halt. Hitchcock saves it with a tense ending, but I admit I do expect more from The Master than just a good beginning and ending. So, you might be asking, why do I keep writing reviews for films that I’m not in love with? Well, first of all, I like them. They are great movies. They are just not up to Hitchcock’s usual HIGH standards.
In Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock shoots an entire film on one set. In Rope, he not only just uses one set, he also experiments with long takes…using only 5 or 6 takes to complete a full-length feature. Where did he get these ideas from…? Well, in 1944, four years before Rope and ten years before Dial M For Murder, there was Lifeboat. Based on a John Steinbeck story, this film takes place IN A BOAT at sea. A ship has gone done (it happens before the movie even begins) and we see Tallulah Bankhead in a small-ish dingy, adrift. As the film progresses, more and more people find their way to the lifeboat, including a German, who might or might not be captain of the ship that bombed the American ship, sinking it. For an hour and a half, this film deals with the way these people all get together and relate with each other and the impending doom they face if not rescued. A well done, thought provoking film…that is more drama than thriller, but tense enough to be something from The Master of Suspense.