The original 1950 version stars a befuddled Spencer Tracy and a sparkling and beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as the beloved daughter of Tracy’s character. The 1991 version with Steve Martin comes close to the original, but even though Martin is a very solid comedian, no one can master comic confusion like Tracy. He was good at it in the film he starred in with Katharine Hepburn, but in this role he seems more irritated and annoyed than ever, mostly because he can’t stand to see his “little girl” walk into the arms of any other man but his.
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No, NOT the 1993 remake…but rather the 1950 original with William Holden and the incomparable Judy Holliday. This version is a screen classic…winning Holliday a Best actress Oscar and helping build a long career for William Holden. But, Holliday is the true star of this film…with her trademark naïve and squeaky voice, she steals the film…and audiences’ hearts. This is the story of a powerful, wealthy, yet highly unsophisticated man (played with just the right tones of comedy and anger by Broderick Crawford) who comes to Washington D.C. for some business dealings, bringing his not-so-bright girlfriend (Holliday) with him. Thinking she’s embarrassing him, he tries to get her “trained” by a journalist (Holden) on the finer things in life. Everyone in this film, directed by the famed George Cukor, is top-notch, including Crawford, who’s perfect as a rough, tough businessman who needs a lot more “training” than Holliday. But, Holliday is just perfect here as the simple, uneducated girl who falls for her tutor. After Holden begins his training, her pseudo-intellectual talk is some of the funniest dialogue in films. She’s bubbly when she needs to be and serious when that’s called for…never missing a beat. A must for all film comedy fans!
When I saw Angel Face in a Film Noir class in college, I was stunned. How could a movie be this dark, yet still so appealing? But, that, as I learned more about film, is what Film Noir is all about. Noir movies do not always have happy endings (most of them do not) and they most definitely do not have to have everything throughout the movie be idyllic and cheery. After all, Noir is about life post-WWII…it’s dark and brooding, just like war. So, getting back to Preminger’s masterpiece Angel Face…I mean, this is the man who directed one of my favorite Noir titles (and often referred to as one of the first big titles of the genre), Laura. That film ends with a somewhat uplifting ending. I mean – only the “bad guy” gets it. In Angel Face, forget trying to figure out who’s bad and who’s good and what’s going to happen next because you never will. And the ending…well, let’s just say you will be shocked. Mitchum plays the perfect Film Noir wanderer…he’s searching for something and just might have found it with Jean Simmons, a very spoiled, EXTREMELY troubled young lady with a lazy father and a rich stepmother. Enter Mitchum who Simmons sets her sights and her clutches on. It’s a timeless tale of love gone wrong…with several major roadblocks set up along the way.
Wait for a bumpy night and put this classic zinger on. This film revitalized Bette Davis’ ailing career and as soon as she speaks in this one, you will know it’s a performance she was born to play. Davis plays an acclaimed and long-standing Broadway actress who is the object of a wannabe starlet’s attention. At first, it seems the young upstart is just that…someone who is in awe at Davis’ mere presence. As the film goes on, we come to find out she’s much more than an impressionable, naive girl. The young girl, played by Anne Baxter, is great but Davis steals this movie right out from under her. Yes, this is the film that coined the phrase, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And one could say the same about Davis’ performance here…strap yourself in because you will be surprised.
Hitchcock delves into the genre of legal dramas with this one…with Gregory Peck as a British barrister who defends a woman he is convinced is innocence…mostly because he’s in love with her. Peck is miscast here, not even trying to fake an English accent. We know he can pull off a good “lawyer” act (as he does flawlessly in To Kill a Mockingbird), but he just doesn’t even seem to be trying here. Laughton and Barrymore are hardly used at all…I’m sure they were just cast for big name appeal…their roles are both minute, especially Barrymore’s. The one saving grace to this film is the plot. It’s a strong story that holds up through the years. Not packing as much of a “thriller” punch as most Hitchcock titles, this one is more about the drama and less about the suspense, though there is a crucial piece of plot that is revealed in the end. Compared to titles like Billy Wilder’s legal classic Witness for the Prosecution, the ending is not as intense, but the movie on a whole is a fine legal drama.
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!
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.