AMERICAN HITCHCOCK: PART I (1940-1953)
The enduring cinematic legacy of the undisputed ‘master of suspense’
by Nick Zegarac
“A good film is when the price of dinner, theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
Two undisputed facts exemplified the filmic legacy of director Alfred Hitchcock; first - that he is, and remains, the master of suspense in ‘pure cinema’; and second - that Hitchcock had his share of trying projects that – try as he might – never fully lived up to either the his legacy or audience expectations. Yet, to even suggest that Hitchcock had a box office flop seems sacrilege, considering the overwhelming and unparalleled string of successes he enjoyed throughout his lucrative tenure in Hollywood.
There are those like film critic Leonard Maltin who would argue that Hitchcock never made an ‘artistic’ flop. This reviewer’s curt reply however would be “see Under Capricorn (1949) or Jamaica Inn (1939)”. Arguably, even these movies have their points of interest and, to some extent, cinematic merit. But to say that Hitchcock made an occasional ‘bad’ movie is not to stain his entire palette of creativity with a whitewash of unwarranted scrutiny. It is merely suggesting honest critique through further reflection.
Partly for concision, Hitchcock’s tenure in British films has been excluded from this article. His years with Lasky and the Gainsborough Studios in England yielded some miraculous early works, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes among them. However, this early tenure is beyond the scope and focus of this article and therefore will remain conspicuously absent for another place and time.
It is important, however, to note that Hitchcock’s British years could easily fill as much space in print as the article you are about to read. Perhaps, because so much of his early works have been improperly preserved in archives, or have not been made readily available to audiences in North America, Hitchcock’s British period is widely unknown and arguably forgotten on this continent to this day; his American tenure eclipsing it and this is indeed a shame.
Over the years almost as much has been written about Hitchcock the man as there has been a thorough critique of his movies; a good many stories and personal reflections from those who worked with Hitch’ and knew him best, but also more than a handful of rumors from dubious sources that, over the years, have attempted to mar or tarnish the director’s reputation. Therefore, to set the record straight before proceeding to the filmic examples of the master at work, it becomes necessary to dispel certain myths in Hitchcock’s personal life.
To be clear on a quotation that continues to falsely resonate, Hitchcock never said that ‘actors are cattle’, merely that they should be treated as though they were cattle; a fine line of distinction perhaps – though Hitch’s favorites (among them Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Farley Granger) have all gone on record as acknowledging the director’s respect for talent. Furthermore, rumors of Hitchcock’s tastes in humor on the set bordering on sadism seem to be largely a matter of taste.
As example: to gauge the barometer in shock value he was attempting to illicit from his audiences, Hitchcock had his crew frequently surprise star, Janet Leigh by leaving various incarnations of ‘mother’ inside her dressing room on the set of Psycho (1960). Depending on Leigh’s response to the discovery, Hitch’ chose the appropriate corpse that appeared in the finished film.
Hitchcock was perhaps more than a bit droll about his handling of talent in general. He also was quick-witted about his own place within the cinema firmament. During his British tenure, Hitch’ had had plenty of practice ‘getting into the act’ as his own extra during crowd scenes; a necessity then that later would become a much sought after signature trademark in his movies.
Occasionally however, Hitchcock’s genuine respect for talent would be tested. For example, when Paul Newman suggested a meeting to discuss his character on the set of Torn Curtain (1966) the actor was politely told by Hitch’ that everything he needed to create his performance was already in the script. When Newman pressed the point by inquiring what his motivation might be for a specific scene, Hitchcock adroitly shot back, “Your salary.”
A more lighthearted incident involved a grip on the set of Lifeboat (1944) who whispered in the director’s ear in between takes that his star Tallulah Bankhead was not wearing any underwear beneath her costume. Unnerved, Hitch’ quietly replied “I don’t know whether that’s a concern for wardrobe or hairdressing.”
In another instance, actor Montgomery Clift suggested to Hitch’ on the set of I Confess (1953) that his placement within a certain shot seemed unnatural, and furthermore, that he was not entirely certain he wanted to be in that particular location for the scene. Rather than argue the point Hitchcock merely replied “Well, you better…because that’s where the camera will be.”
Indeed, Hitchcock’s fascination with the movie camera was absolute throughout his career. His films were meticulously storyboarded from start to finish and once drafted on paper each concept was fastidiously adhered to on the set. Actors of the golden age in Hollywood were perhaps more used to such rigid craftsmanship than the ‘method actors’ who populated Hitchcock’s later movies of the 1960s and early 70s.
However, a Time Magazine reporter on the set of Rope (1948) noted actor James Stewart’s grumblings that ‘the only thing around here that’s been rehearsed is the camera’. Evidently, Stewart recovered from this initial assessment of the director at work because in the years that followed he starred in three additional films for Hitchcock (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo).
By the late 1930s Hitchcock had already managed a minor coup in Hollywood – to market himself as the first director who was as readily famous and easily identifiable as the film product he created. When Hitchcock segued into television in the mid-1950s he took that ‘brand name’ with him. However, when a Time Magazine reporter suggested that he diversify the type of movies he was making Hitch’ shrugged his shoulders politely and replied “If I made Cinderella everyone would be looking for the body in the coach.”
HITCHCOCK AND SELZNICK
AN ANGLO-AMERICAN DÉTENTE
“There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
The arrival of Hitchcock in Hollywood began innocently enough with a personal invitation from producer David O. Selznick to work on the story of the ill-fated Titanic for Selznick Pictures. Arguably, Selznick had zero interest in this project, but he knew that it was of considerable interest to Hitchcock. Instilled in a comfortable bungalow in Hollywood but with precious little to do, Hitch’s dismay was somewhat quelled when he and Selznick concurred on Rebecca (1940) as his foray into American movies. The author of the novel, Daphne du Maurier was not only greatly admired by Hitch she was also a close personal friend.
To say that Hitchcock was wholly unprepared for the omnipotent and intrusive way that Selznick ran his studio is perhaps an understatement. Though Hitchcock has been described by some as the movies first great auteur, he failed to recognize before the ink had dried on his contract that, although his boss’s official credit was strictly as producer, Selznick considered himself more a co-collaborator than a mogul. On the set of Rebecca, Hitchcock found himself taking ‘advice’ from Selznick in everything from the way certain scenes should be shot to his choice of leading lady.
Rebecca is essentially Bronte’s Jane Eyre set in modern times. A young nameless waif (Joan Fontaine) marries aristocratic, Maxim de Winter (Lawrence Olivier) while vacationing with her paid companion, Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. For a while Maxim and his new bride are divinely happy. However, upon returning to Maxim’s home, the foreboding seaside estate - Manderly, the spirit essence of Maxim’s first wife – the late, though haughty Rebecca, begins to intrude on the couple’s serenity. It seems that everyone from Maxim’s sister, Beatrice Lacey (Gladys Cooper) to the matronly, yet strangely demonic housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) will not allow Rebecca’s memory to fade.
Feeling stifled in her new home, the second Mrs. de Winter (never named in either the novel or film) decides to throw a costume ball to liven the mood. However, her plans go horribly awry when she appears at the ball costumed in a gown that Rebecca wore the year before; one that Mrs. Danvers deliberately suggested. The costume sends Maxim into a rage and he orders his wife to go upstairs and change.
The new wife and Danvers have their confrontation in Rebecca’s bedroom with Danver’s attempting to brainwash the bride into committing suicide. Instead, the discovery of a shipwreck on Manderly’s rocks leads to the discovery of another sunken vessel with Rebecca’s concealed remains. Maxim further complicates matters when he confides to his wife that he knew all along the body was there. “How did you know?” his wife asks. “Because I put it there,” Maxim explains.
This filmic revelation is worthy of consideration because it is not as it appears in the novel. In print, du Maurier had made her hero a murderer as well; Maxim killed Rebecca in a fit of rage after she announced to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Selznick, a purist in adapting literary works to the big screen, utterly detested the revision imposed on the film by the Censorship Production Code of Ethics from murder to accidental death. In truth, what ought to have been a moment of shocking revelation now plays as slightly anticlimactic, though Olivier’s power in orating the tragic moment when Rebecca accidentally stuck her head on a sharp piece of ship’s tackle adds considerable weight to the tepid revision.
Exonerated from any wrong doing at a public inquest, Maxim hurries home to his new wife whom he realizes he truly loves, only to discover that Mrs. Danvers has gone mad and torched his beloved Manderly – presumably with his new wife inside. After a brief frantic search, the lovers are reunited on the front lawn just in time to witness Mrs. Danvers being consumed by the flames.
As Hitchcock’s American entrée, Rebecca is impressive to say the least. In hindsight, Selznick’s constant badgering through memos strengthens the novel’s loose construction. Hitchcock, though a meticulous technical craftsman was not always as well served after he and Selznick parted company. On the heels of Selznick’s gargantuan success with Gone With The Wind (1939), Rebecca proved a valiant successor, popular with audiences and receiving critical praise and accolades; including the Oscar for Best Picture of 1940; the first, last and only time an Academy Award would be bestowed on a Hitchcock film.
Awash in Rebecca’s heady triumph, it seems inconceivable that Selznick would allow his star director the opportunity to make a movie for someone else. In point of fact, after acquiring Hitchcock’s services but having nothing for him to shoot, Selznick quietly loaned Hitchcock to independent producer Walter Wanger for Hitch’s first big hit, Foreign Correspondent (1940); a taut and timely spy thriller set at the cusp of WWII. Though shot before Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent was ultimately released after the former’s debut.
In hindsight, Selznick may have already been moving away from producing his own movies to assume the roll of a savvy business agent; setting up projects, acquiring scripts, getting talent in front of and behind the camera on board and then wholesale farming out the package deal for a considerable fee and percentage of the finished film’s gross.
Foreign Correspondent is the story of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a newspaper hound who is sent to Europe to cover the pending political upheaval. Rechristened Huntley Haverstock, Jones is introduced to the curmudgeonly Stebbins (Robert Benchley) who instructs him to play everything low key, including his role as a ‘foreign correspondent.’ But Jones is determined to make good on his assignment.
Finagling a brief interview with diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Basserman), Jones is plunged into the middle of political intrigue when Van Meer is seemingly murdered before his very eyes. Though a resulting chase across the stark landscape of Holland reveals that the diplomat’s double is the one who has been assassinated, Jones is unable to prove his findings when the real Van Meer once again disappears.
Jones’ investigation is further complicated by two unforeseen circumstances; first - his main contact, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) is actually a double agent working for Nazi intelligence, and second - Jones has fallen in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day) who knows nothing about her father’s corruptions. Attempting to confide in Carol, Jones is nearly run over, pushed off a high tower and murdered in a struggle with Fisher’s henchman, Mr. Krug (Eduardo Cianelli). Eventually, the plot to obtain state secrets is foiled and Fisher, along with his daughter and Jones are trapped in a plane bombed by the Axis en route to Britain. In the resulting flood and deluge Fisher saves his daughter from drowning then nobly commits suicide – leaving Jones free to rekindle his romance with Carol.
Originally, the story that Wanger owned dealt with espionage of a different kind during the Spanish American war. As that conflict had already faded into obscurity by the time this film was set to go before the cameras, Wanger had the premise updated to reflect the dangerous rise of fascism in Europe. The final sequence – with Jones delivering his patriotic summation of ‘why we fight’ during a London bombing was a tack-on after production had wrapped and Hitchcock had already turned his attentions to filming Rebecca. Ironically, Wanger shot this final speech himself – an intervention Hitchcock deplored though it has remained one of the galvanic moments most readily admired by audiences and easily associated with the film.
The demand for Hitchcock’s services following these back to back premieres was overwhelming. While Selznick toyed with developing future in-house projects he loaned Hitchcock to RKO for an unlikely dabbling in screwball comedy; Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Scripted by Norman Krasna, the film tells the rather conventional tale of married couple Ann (Carole Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) who are floundering for reasons to stay married. The problem it seems stems from the couple’s ‘one question a month’ rule.
Ann asks David if given the opportunity to go back in time and, knowing then what he knows now would he still have married her. In a moment of honest weakness, David confesses that although he loves his wife he also misses his freedom, leading Ann to deduce that he no longer loves her at all. David’s response is made even more problematic when the couple learns that their marriage is not legal because of a state boundary dispute. Recognizing that he has been free all along and assuming the question is therefore moot, David decides to propose marriage to his wife again. Only, it is now Ann who contemplates the practicality of spending the rest of her life with David.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is an admirably nutty bit of unhinged comedy – masterfully pulled off by Lombard and Montgomery. But given Hitchcock’s proven prowess in the field of suspense one wonders today what could have possibly been going through the executive mindset at RKO to hire him for a romantic comedy.
Hitchcock shoots his film with uncharacteristically non-Hitchcockian flair. His direction is solid and more than salvageable, if not on par with the mastery of directors like Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges; both refined Sultans of the screwball. In this respect, Hitchcock clearly lags behind his contemporaries with providing the subtle nuances that might otherwise have made Mr. and Mrs. Smith not merely equitable comedy, but an outrageously ingenious one.
At roughly this point in his American career Hitchcock had begun to grow restless with the films he had been assigned. Under an ironclad contract and rented out to direct at Selznick’s whim distinctly paled to the relative autonomy and prestige Hitch’ had enjoyed in England.
After the death of her father, Lina is shocked to learn she has been left out of his will. For Johnnie, the snub is more critical. He has mortgaged their fabulous lifestyle on the assumption that Lina’s inheritance would bail them both out of debt. Now, Johnnie is forced to find other means to sustain the lifestyle to which they both have become accustom. Johnnie confides a get rich quick scheme to close friend, Gordon ‘Beaky’ Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), who agrees to help fund Johnnie’s plans – then mysteriously dies after the project is established. Suspecting that her husband may be a murderer – a progressive thought that ought to have led to an entirely different third act in the film – Lina resigns herself to the love she feels for Johnnie, despite her misgivings about his own sincerity in their relationship.
Johnnie tells Lina he is taking her to her mother’s because he cannot stand the fact that she distrusts him. On the way there Lina’s car door suddenly flies open and Lina, assuming that Johnnie is attempting to throw her from the speeding vehicle, fights him as his hand reaches for her. Instead, Johnnie pulls the car aside and tells Lina that she is a fool. He then further confides that he has always been in love with her – an unsatisfactory bit of tacked-on nonsense that succeeds in convincing Lina to get back into their car. The two drive home together – all mistrust between them seemingly forgiven.
Suspicion is based on Anthony Berkeley’s popular novel. In the novel’s original ending, Lina discovers that her worst fears are true – Johnnie is Thwaite’s killer and is planning to murder her next for the insurance money. An inexplicable obsessive love prevents Lina from saving herself. Knowing that she will be dead by morning, Lina writes her mother a note of confession, explaining the truth about Johnnie; then asks Johnnie to mail it for her after he has already made her drink a glass of poisoned milk. Lina dies and Johnnie, believing that he has managed to murder his wife while making it appear as a suicide, decides that the least he can do for the deceased is to mail her final letter home. The last shot in the film was to have been Johnnie tossing Lina’s letter to her mother in a postal mail slot – thereby ensuring audiences and the censors that justice would eventually prevail on Lina’s behalf.
The censors balked at this scenario, arguing that it did not resolve in very clear and concrete terms for the audience the apprehension of a cold-blooded killer (one of the absolute ‘musts’ in the Production Code of Ethics) and furthermore, that presenting Cary Grant as a murderer would do irreprehensible damage to the actor’s reputation with fans. Unable to sway the censors otherwise, revisions to the shooting script were eventually made and the film’s ending was awkwardly diluted. Though Suspicion did respectable business at the box office, it proved to be less successful than Hitchcock’s previous efforts; the one exception being that Fontaine’s performance as Lina ultimately won her the Best Actress Oscar statuette.
Hitchcock’s next project, Saboteur (1942) returned the director’s footing to familiar ground – in hindsight, perhaps too familiar in light of Foreign Correspondent’s success. Produced independently for Walter Wanger, the story is that of Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) an aircraft factory worker who is suspected of being a Nazi saboteur after a fire kills his best friend. On the lam, Barry meets kindly blind man, Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glasser) and his niece Pat (Priscilla Lane). Though Pat is ready to believe the worst about the mysterious man hiding in her uncle’s cabin – even going so far as to make several valiant attempts to return Barry to the authorities – Phillip reminds his niece that not all men accused of a crime are guilty of it.
Saboteur is a patchwork of themes visited more skillfully elsewhere in the Hitchcock canon; its screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker extremely episodic and often not terribly engaging. Decidedly uneven in its plotting, the film provides Hitchcock with an opportunity to test his globe-trotting agility across the continental U.S. – an exercise more fully and artistically realize a decade later in North by Northwest (1959).
There are many reasons why Hitchcock considered his next filmic endeavor one of his best. Certainly, with Shadow of A Doubt (1943) Hitchcock was given the opportunity to break away from Selznick’s hawk-eyed scrutiny which he regarded as oppressive at best. The production also realized Hitchcock’s desire to direct films that he also produced; this one for his own company Skirball Productions – peripherally aided by Walter Wanger. The film also realigned Hitchcock’s inherent zeal for directing cloistered suspense thrillers in confined spaces – a Hitchcock forte in England where money was tight and production schedules tighter still. Despite director/historian Peter Bogdanovich’s statement that Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s “first American thriller” – by that he means it was set in America instead of England – that dubious honor goes to the aforementioned Saboteur instead.
The script by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville concerns the congenial Newton family living in the sleepy hamlet of Santa Rosa, California. Charlie (Teresa Wright), a teenager emotionally wilting from misperceived boredom, is invigorated to learn by telegram that her Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten) – for whom she has been named – is arriving in town for a visit. There’s just one problem: Uncle Charles is also The Merry Widow strangler, responsible for the heinous murders of rich elderly dowagers.
Despite the fact that Charles presents the Newtons with lavish gifts upon his arrival in town - token souvenirs from his brutal slayings – the motive for his killings is not money. In one of his most uncharacteristically wicked moments ever inserted into a Hitchcock movie, Uncle Charles illustrates his indelible contempt for “rich, fat, greedy women”, equating their useless lives to that of slovenly animals fit for the slaughter.
The declaration raises more than a few curious eyebrows around the dinner table, particularly Charlie’s – who has begun to contemplate that her uncle is perhaps not what he appears to be. With a bit of amateur sleuthing Charlie learns the truth about her beloved uncle, though she is initially reluctant to share it with the family, particularly her emotionally fragile mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge) to whom Charles reappearance in town has meant everything.
Instead, a dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues. Charlie threatens her uncle with exposing the truth unless he leaves Santa Rosa immediately. After several failed attempts on Charlie’s life, Uncle Charles agrees to Charlie’s demand. However, once aboard his train Charles isolates his niece until the cars begin to pull from the station – intent on throwing her into the path of an oncoming locomotive. Instead, Charles loses his footing and slips between the two speeding trains, crushed to death beneath its wheels.
Shadow of a Doubt is a beautifully crafted drawing room murder mystery – methodically paced and quite stylish in its evocation of idyllic Americana turned upside down. Hitchcock shoots the Newton house – an actual home in Santa Rosa – with loving care for its cloistered hominess, as though it were the epitome of small town gracious living. He furthers this idealism by populating the home with a solid cast of stellar supporting performers, including Henry Travers as Mr. Newton, Hume Cronyn, a humorously meddlesome neighbor with a murder fixation, Herbie Hawkins, and Macdonald Carey (a Fox favorite) in probably his best role, as the sympathetic police detective, Jack Graham with whom Charlie has begun an adolescent romance.
From the onset, Hitchcock’s directorial footing is secure and swift, maneuvering his characters to their inevitable conclusion but in such a way that belies where the story is actually headed – thus, keeping his audience guessing. His subsequent film ventures of this period would not be quite so decisive in their narrative path.
A MAN APART
LEAVING SELZNICK BEHIND
“Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”
- Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock moved into a rather bleak, if brief, interim of undistinguished film work following Shadow of a Doubt, beginning with a thinly veiled claptrap of plot elements from both Foreign Correspondent and his penultimate British thriller, The 39 Steps, with Bon Voyage (1944), a convoluted tale about an RAF pilot who may or may not be involved in espionage for the Axis powers. This he immediately followed up with another war propaganda short subject, Aventure malgache (1944) before recovering artistically – if not financially - with his next project: Lifeboat (1944).
Loaned to 20th Century-Fox for this adaptation of Steinbeck, Lifeboat became the first of Hitchcock’s attempts at shooting an entire film within the confided space of one set. In this case, that set is a lifeboat. The story concerns a small group of survivors attempting to keep body and soul together after their luxury liner has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. The survivor’s list includes feisty reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), mistrustful, John Kovak (John Hodiak), spirited businessman, Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), loyal nurse, Alice Mackenzie (Mary Anderson), proud cook, George Spencer (Canada Lee), lumbering Gus Smith (William Bendix) and trusting Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn).
Along the way this group fish out the captain of the U-boat that sunk them, Willy (Walter Slezak). Although Willy first presents himself as grateful and sympathetic – he slowly begins to despise the lot of Americans as his sworn enemies and thereafter plots to murder them one by one. After amputating Gus’s infected leg in order to save his life, Willy waits until the rest of the survivors have fallen asleep before sadistically pushing the crippled man overboard.
Claiming that Gus’s death was accidental, Willy next lies about their whereabouts. He is not sailing them to an American port in Bermuda as planned but toward a German rescue vessel where he will be saved, but the others, most likely slaughtered or sent to a concentration camp. Charles learns first what Willy is up to and incites the rest of the crew to mutiny. The crew kills Willy in a mob rule before the Axis rescue ship is reached. A battle breaks out between that German ship rapidly gaining on them and an American war vessel looming on the horizon. The German ship is sunk by the Americans with the presumption that the American ship will now rescue the surviving members aboard the lifeboat.
It is interesting to note that although Hitchcock avoids garnering any audience support over the prospect of emotional salvation for the lifeboat survivors – as per their collective crime of murder - he also fades to black before the American war ship has rescued its inhabitants, leaving the fate of the lifeboat survivors an open ended question mark.
Initially written by imminent American author John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is perhaps Hitchcock’s most finely wrought character drama to date. The performances throughout are top notch. However, Hitchcock infuriated Steinbeck’s sensibilities as an author when he called writer Ben Hecht in to rework several key sequences including the film’s ending. Interestingly enough, despite its overwhelmingly positive conclusion – that of the assumed rescue of the survivors - the film was misperceived and reviewed by the top film critics in the country as un-American and worse – pro-fascist propaganda. Concerned that this litany of negativity would also blacklist him a communist, Fox’s CEO Darryl F. Zanuck pulled the film from circulation shortly after its premiere, despite the fact that it opened to positive opening weekend box office receipts and steady business thereafter. Lifeboat would remain buried in the Fox vaults for the next 40 years.
Hitchcock’s next two projects temporarily relegated him under David Selznick’s autocratic control; Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946); the first, a psychological thriller, the latter, arguably Hitchcock’s most sublime tale of Nazi espionage. Though both were produced at RKO, Selznick’s interference on each film resulted in his Selznick International banner preempting the title sequences instead of RKO’s trademark radio tower. Subsequent reissues of both films have attempted to alternate the logo that appears before the credits. Regardless, and in essence, the two films bear Selznick’s stamp of meticulous structure and planning.
After initial apprehension, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to purchase the rights to the novel ‘The House of Dr. Edwardes’ for $40,000. Hitchcock also scored a minor artistic coup by suggesting to Selznick that renown painter Salvador Dali (left) stage the elaborate dream sequences that would stand in as the main character’s psychoanalytic nightmares. Spellbound begins in earnest with the introduction of Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman); a somewhat sexually repressed psychotherapist analyzing other sexual neurotics at Green Manors; the county sanitarium.
Although Constance cloistered professionalism becomes the brunt of Dr. Fleurot’s (Jon Emery) cynical jokes and flirtations, her own romantic life kicks into high gear with the arrival of new chief of staff, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) who will be replacing retiring head, Dr. Murchison (Leon G. Glenn). However, certain phobias begin to manifest in Edwardes’ character, drawing Constance romantically closer to him, but at the same time, exciting the mother instinct in her to protect Edwardes – both from himself and the authorities, who suspect him in the murder of the real Anthony Edwardes.
Hitchcock’s battles with Selznick on the set of Spellbound were daily and exhausting. At one point the director pleaded with Selznick to buy out the rest of his studio contract and find another director to complete the film. Selznick retaliated with the threat of a lengthy lawsuit, forcing Hitchcock back in the saddle on the project. He also encountered resistance from Salvador Dali, who had planned an elaborate dream sequence far too costly and much too lengthy for the purpose of the film.
Although Hitchcock convinced Dali to reduce his scale – many sequences that were filmed were eventually excised by Hitchcock from the final release print to tighten Dali’s meandering symbolism. None of these edits pleased Dali’s artistic sensibilities. For his part, Selznick intruded on the production by hiring a psychotherapist to act as his ears and eyes, and to make suggestions. After clashing with Hitchcock as to where the film deviated too liberally from the domain of legitimate clinical psychotherapy, Hitchcock reportedly told Selznick’s advisor, “My dear, it’s only a movie.”
After Spellbound’s premiere, Hitchcock focused his attentions on crafting Notorious. Believing that Spellbound’s narrative still lacked in clarity, Selznick pulled the general release print and removed a montage explaining the clinical treatment of patients; effectively eliminating an additional fourteen minutes from the finished feature. Even after enthusiastic reviews and favorable box office, Selznick seemed dismissive about the final film, calling it “just another man-hunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychotherapy.”
Notorious (1946) was an entirely different matter. Free of most of the angst and headache that had dogged previous Selznick/Hitchcock collaborations, Hitchcock was afforded a rare freedom in artistic expression. Selznick had been forced to bow out of the project while it was still in preproduction. He would eventually sell off his rights as part of a package deal to RKO which included stars Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Hitchcock’s services for a slick $800,000, plus half the revenue made from the finished film. Selznick used this money to help finance a project more close to his heart – the grandiose and oddly absurd western epic, Duel in the Sun (1946).
Based on a novel by John Taintor Foote, Ben Hechte’s screenplay opens the story with Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) whose father has just been convicted of being a Nazi spy. Alicia’s notoriety as a public party girl with a list of spurious associates garners the attention of the FBI, who sends special agent, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to blackmail Alicia into participating in their infiltration of a Nazi League stationed in Buenos Aires. Devlin falls in love with his secret agent; a complication magnified after Alicia agrees to marry one of her father’s old Nazi friends, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) to keep up appearances. However, from the start Alex’s mother Anna (Leopoldine Constantin) is critical of the union – suspecting that her daughter-in-law is not all she pretends to be.
At a gala party, Devlin discovers uranium being smuggled in wine bottles inside Alex’s cellar, accidentally breaking one of the bottles in the process. To cover up his tracks, Devlin embraces Alicia under Sebastian’s watchful eye, thereby drawing suspicion to her marital fidelity rather than his scheming. It is a superficial diversion and Alex quickly discovers the truth about Alicia. Together with his mother, Alex attempts to quietly poison his wife. The resulting rescue of Alicia by Devlin draws suspicion from the Nazi plotters who decide for themselves that Sebastian is an unstable link in their chain; one that cannot be allowed to live.
Notorious is Hitchcock’s most perfectly realized American thriller from his 40s vintage. It is full of stylish subtle nuances and visual mastery of film as pure art. Hitchcock also scored a subtle coup against the censors who – in their infinite wisdom to ban salacious sexuality from the movies - had deemed that any on screen kiss should last no more than a few seconds. Placing his camera only inches away from Bergman and Grant’s faces, Hitchcock had the actors merely peck one another over and over again for almost a minute; intermingling the touch of their lips with erotically peppered bits of dialogue. Though none of the ‘kisses’ lasts for more than a second, the cumulative result on screen became akin to observing two people in the throws of some great lustful passion.
The Paradine Case (1947) effectively ended the association between Hitchcock and Selznick with a modest thud. That the resulting project failed to live up to everyone’s expectations (coming directly after Notorious) belies Selznick’s intervention on the project, even though the film itself is consistently charming and moody, if nowhere near the caliber of its predecessor.
Originally Hitchcock had wanted either Ronald Colman or Laurence Olivier for the role of the barrister, Anthony Keane. There is some speculation that Hitch’ also sought the elusive Greta Garbo as his Mrs. Paradine. Disinterested in paying for these loan outs, Selznick assigned his own homegrown contract players to the cast. Hitchcock was disenchanted with this decision. Although he greatly admired Gregory Peck, Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan as actors, he felt all of them entirely unsuited for their roles.
Nevertheless, the project progressed at a grueling ninety-two day shoot – the longest of any Hitchcock shooting schedule to date. At the start of shooting it had been Selznick’s intension to create yet another colossus in film length – an extensive courtroom melodrama with obsessive love as its underpinning. Working from a script by Selznick and Ben Hecht, Hitchcock chose to acquiesce to Selznick’s demand rather than fight his desires for a really big movie; delivering nearly three hours of rough cut to Selznick at the end of the excursion. For once, Selznick felt that a film could in fact be too long and, after having disposed of Hitchcock’s services once and for all, he went to work chopping the narrative down to a modest 125 minutes.
Though the cuts are not damaging to the overall continuity of the story, they do tend to reduce various characters to mere cardboard representation. Imminent personalities such as Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore – cast in the film as tawdry philanderer, Judge Lord Thomas and Lady Horfield - simply float in and out of the story rather than becoming an integral part of it. So too, does the ending in hindsight seem slightly rushed.
The story that emerges on screen is rather threadbare and in viewing the film today one wonders just how much more there might have been to sustain an audiences’ interest for three hours. The plot concerns one Maddalena Anna Paradine (Valli), the late wife of a blind colonel whom she is accused of poisoning to death. It seems Mrs. Paradine has been having an affair with her husband’s valet, Andre LaTour (Jourdan). On the advice of legal council, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) Maddalena hires handsome hotshot attorney, Anthony Keane (Peck) as her defense. But the trial is made problematic when the married Keane begins to invest in Maddalena’s innocence on the basis that he is slowly becoming enamored with her. Keane’s wife, Gay (Ann Todd) is patient in her love, allowing her husband his romantic fancies while all the while knowing that they will come to not; for Maddalena is guilty of the charge.
Given the severity of Selznick’s editing, the distillation of Hitchcock’s usual sterling zeal for generating suspense into tepid melodrama at best is perhaps forgivable. The resulting film is much more a polite melodrama of manners than political/crime thriller. There are no surprises, no great complexities to wade through and no rivalry between characters once the audience has figured out that the accused is in fact destined to die.
ON HIS OWN
AND FEELING HIS ROOTS
Hitchcock’s first effort as a freelance director and his first film in color was Rope (1948) for Transcontinental Pictures. The original story is based partly on the Leopold Loeb case and more directly derived from Patrick Hamilton’s modestly successful stage play; ‘Rope’s End’. In the original tale, a pair of homosexual school mates strangles a straight colleague for kicks, then throw a party for the deceased’s family while the body is still hidden somewhere in the house. The film went one step further, placing the body inside a rather large credenza and then serving food and drinks to the family from its closed top converted into a dining table.
To augment the oddity of the exercise, the murderous duo also invites their old college professor Rupert Cadell to the party for two reasons: first because he is supposed to have instilled in them Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, thereby providing a theory of justification for their killing, and second, because Cadell is to have had a homosexual affair with one of the killers.
Given the climate of censorship in Hollywood at that time, Hitchcock could not directly suggest any of the aforementioned aspects about the crime, though he did succeed in creating a rather sycophantic closeness between the two actors who eventually played murderers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger). For his part, Hitchcock used Rope as his second exercise in shooting an entire film on one set; a technical gimmick he promoted as a film having ‘no edits’ or shot in ‘one continuous take.’ The premise, while interesting from a technical standpoint, proved improbable. Only ten minutes of film existed in a camera at any given time.
Undaunted, Hitchcock rehearsed his camera movements meticulously, closing in on an actor’s back or close up of a wall at the end of ten minutes before reloading the camera for his next reel. The resulting assemblage of film footage thus gives an awkward illusion of the continuity Hitchcock desired – an ‘uninterrupted’ photographic account of the stage play - though it also makes the viewer acutely aware of the gimmick every ten minutes throughout the story.
In hindsight, the chief problem with Rope is in its central casting of James Stewart as Rupert Cadell, the boy’s criminology professor. Unable to project the subtext of homosexuality onto the squeaky clean persona of Stewart places the film’s chief premise off balance, for no such motive or intimate understanding between Brandon, Philip and Rupert ever exists in the finished film.
Stewart is thus left with the mundane responsibility of detecting their crime and bringing his former pupils to justice. Perhaps feeling more than a tad insecure about his role, James Stewart reportedly told an interviewer midway through the shoot that “the only thing that’s been rehearsed around here is the camera” – a bit of uncharacteristic bitterness that, if not entirely, then at least for the most part, was true. His comments leaked out to the trades before the film had its premiere. When Rope was finally released it did respectable business but was by no means a resounding success. However, it was not a failure either.
The next two years were trying for Hitchcock. Though Rope faired on average, his next project Under Capricorn (1949) was a miserable flop – both artistically and financially. Rebounding with another production for Transcontinental, Stage Fright (1950), Hitchcock cast the sultry Marlene Dietrich as greedy chanteuse, Charlotte Inwood. In the flashback that opens the story, Charlotte arrives on her lover, Jonathan Cooper’s (Richard Todd) doorstep with her dress bloodied. She has presumably just shot her husband and is seeking asylum and an alibi.
To protect Charlotte from the crime, Jonathan returns to her home to get her a clean dress. However, in attempting to make the homicide look like an accidental killing after a burglary, Jonathan is discovered by the upstairs maid who alerts the police of her findings. Fleeing the scene, Jonathan relies on his good friendship with Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) to aid in his escape. The subtext is that Eve harbors an unrequited puppy love for Jonathan and proves the weight of her affections by taking him to her father, Commodore Gill’s (Alistair Sim) remote seaside cabin to hide out for a few days. There’s just one problem: everything until this point in the narrative has been a lie. Told from Jonathan’s perspective, the flashback is a rouse that neither the audience nor Eve is aware of.
The rest of the story is rather benign and meandering as Eve masquerades as a maid to secure employment in Charlotte’s house with the hopes of discovering some evidence against her for the crime of murder. Meanwhile, congenial Scotland Yard Detective Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) has begun to harbor affections for Eve. The nearer he draws to her side, the closer he suspects he is coming to the truth about Jonathan – though oddly enough ‘love’ rather than ‘sleuthing’ seem more on his mind. Despite these problems in narrative construction, Hitchcock’s direction excels during two pivotal sequences.
The first is an outdoor charity fundraiser where Charlotte is scheduled to sing. Doubting Jonathan’s theory about the crime, Eve’s father sends a girl scout up to the stage with a baby doll that he has soiled in a red stain to resemble the blood on Charlotte’s dress. The rouse works, interrupting Charlotte’s performance and drawing suspicion away from the real culprit. The scene is a brilliant bit of Hitchcock staging with hardly any dialogue. But it also tends to support the false premise that Charlotte – not Jonathan – has committed the murder.
The latter moment of artistic brilliance comes at the very end of the film; concealing Jonathan deep within the bowels of the music hall, Eve confronts him with her suspicions about the crime. Before her very eyes Jonathan crumbles, confessing to Eve his obsessive love that drove him to murder Charlotte’s husband. Hitchcock captures this sequence almost entirely in extreme close-up with Richard Todd and Jane Wyman’s eyes growing larger; his with rage, hers widening in fear. This sublime moment of visceral chills ends with a chase through the music hall. Jonathan is accidentally cut in two by the steel safety stage curtain. By the time, Hitchcock exposes the truth about Jonathan, even the audience finds it difficult to believe that they have been left out of the narrative loop.
Hitchcock redeemed himself in the public’s estimation as the master of suspense with his next thriller; his first for Warner Brothers; Strangers on a Train (1951) a diabolical and terrifying excursion into the mind of a psychotic. The film is based loosely on the dark elegant novel by Patricia Highsmith. Hitchcock wanted and received the services of hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler for the screenplay. A master of dialogue, Chandler’s narrative construction left something to be desired, and Hitchcock then turned the project over to Czenzi Ormonde to polish the script into its final form.
The story begins in earnest with a chance meeting between two men, one a sycophantic mama’s boy, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), the other the all-American hunk and tennis pro, Guy Hanes (Farley Granger). After forcing a luncheon meeting on Guy, Bruno confides in him a plausible way of committing the perfect murder. Two strangers meet and swap crimes – each murdering a total stranger, thereby foiling the motive necessary for any criminal investigation to convict.
The idea, while intriguing to Guy – whose wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) is attempting to blackmail him with a pregnancy for alimony – is dismissed once the train pulls into Guy’s hometown of Metcalfe. However, Bruno takes the challenge seriously. Tailing Miriam to a fair ground, Bruno isolates his prey in a darkened corner and strangles her – returning to Guy with Miriam’s broken glasses as proof that she is dead. Appalled, Guy threatens to expose Bruno’s crime, a move Bruno discourages because, after all, Guy is an accessory before the fact. Also, Bruno is in possession of Guy’s cigarette lighter which he threatens to give to the police as proof of his complicity in Miriam’s strangulation.
The resulting plot entanglements are a race against time, as Guy struggles to find a way of exposing Bruno as the real killer.
The film throughout is peppered in Hitchcockian twists and turns, not the least of which is Hitchcock’s casting of real life daughter Patricia as Barbara; the younger sister of Guy’s new fiancée, Ann Morton (Ruth Roman) and a dead ringer for Guy’s late wife, Miriam. After finagling his way into a house party at Sen. Morton’s (Leo G. Carroll) Bruno, mistakenly believing that Barbara is the ghost of Miriam, nearly strangles a wealthy dowager during a parlor game.
The suspense culminates with a dramatic showdown at the fairground where Miriam was murdered. Bruno attempts to throw Guy from a racing carousel. Instead, the carousel spins out of control, killing Bruno but not before he exposes to Guy and the local authorities that he is still in possession of Guy’s lighter, thus releasing Guy from the suspicion of murder.
For this climactic finish, Hitchcock wanted a shot of a man crawling beneath the racing carousel en route to its emergency release lever located in the center axis. After toying with the idea of incorporating rear projection to accomplish the feat, the stunt was instead accomplished live by Harry Hines who performed it without trick photography or safety devices – his head only an inch away from being decapitated by the whirling floor boards of the ride. In an interview conducted many years after the fact, Hitchcock’s face grew pale and nervous when he spoke about Hines’ fool bravery.
Hitchcock immensely enjoyed working on this film, perhaps because the problems he had had previously with structure and staging were absent from the Chandler/Ormonde screenplay allowing him to indulge in creating his ‘pure cinema’ without having to constantly perform a patch up job on the script.
In retrospect, the next two films Hitchcock did for Warner Brothers were rather straight forward set pieces: the crisis of conscience potboiler, I Confess (1953) and the experimental 3-D who done it, Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954). I Confess is the story of Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) a Catholic priest who, after learning that his gardener, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) has brutally murdered the church’s unscrupulous lawyer, is bound by his vow of silence not to pass along the confession to the police. Father Logan’s faith is tested from all sides, including a subtle threat made by Police Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden); that his former lover – prior to entering the priesthood - the now married Ruth Grandfort (Ann Baxter) might be called upon to testify.
Hitchcock ran into considerable defiance from Clift throughout the shooting. The actor questioned the director incessantly as per his character’s motivation. During one scene that called for Clift to raise his head as he exited the courthouse, thereby providing Hitchcock with an eye-line match to the subsequent shot that explained the action was moving toward the Chateau Frontinac Hotel, Clift reportedly told Hitchcock, “I don’t think my character would look up then”, to which Hitchcock replied, “Well you better.”
Despite solid performances from the entire cast and a fairly taut climactic showdown between the insane Keller and Father Logan – the rest of the George Tabori/William Archibald screenplay is rather unevenly paced and hampered by a lengthy flashback that needlessly fleshes out the romance between Ruth and Michael. If, in hindsight there seems to be little to recommend the film as one of Hitchcock’s best, there are also few negative qualities that make the film unmemorable. Despite his confrontational attitude on the set, Clift delivers a solid performance as the man torn between his own conscience and succumbing to a breech of faith. Hasse is a spooky villain – greedy, vial, yet tragic too in his exploitation of even his ever loyal wife in his vane attempts to remain free of incarceration.
THE PLAY’S THE THING
Hitchcock once confided to Peter Bogdanovich that when all creativity seemed to fail, the best any director can hope for is a pre-sold stage hit that he can easily transform into a presumably equally popular film. However, Hitchcock also advised Bogdanovich that the worst thing any film director could do was to ‘open’ a stage work ‘up’ to the infinitely larger cinematic canvas of possibilities. Instead, Hitchcock suggested that the play’s original construction should be adhered to as closely as possible throughout. For the most part, Hitchcock took his own advise on his next project; Dial M for Murder (1954), the film based on the play by Frederick Knott who also, at the director’s behest, wrote the screenplay.
The story concerns one Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) a former tennis pro who regrets giving up his racket for a quiet married life with socialite Margot (Grace Kelly). Tony’s distemper is furthered by the discovery that his wife has been having an affair with successful writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). When Mark arrives in London for a visit, Tony invites him to a stag party, thereby leaving Margot quietly home alone to get murdered.
Previously, Tony had exposed to his old college mate, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) his own knowledge about Swann’s blackmail dealings and his involvement in the mysterious death of a wealthy dowager. To forget all that he knows, Tony proposes to Swann that he kill Margot for a few thousand pounds. As there is no correlation between Swann and Margot or Swann and Tony no one need be the wiser for the crime and Swann will be much the richer. Caught with being exposed for his past indiscretions, Swann agrees to kill Margot.
But Tony’s plan goes awry when Margot accidentally kills her attacker in self defense instead. Through a series of plot twists, Tony concocts a scenario that makes it appear as though Swann was trying to blackmail Margot for her affair with Mark, thereby making her killing Charles appear as a desperate act motivated by revenge and fear than self defense. At first, this alternative theory gains the attention of Police Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). Margot is arrested and put on trial for murder. However, as Mark grows ever more suspicious of the facts Tony begins to plot anew, hoping to incriminate and exact his own revenge on the lovers.
As per the studio’s request, Hitchcock shot Dial M for Murder in the gimmicky process of 3-D, then a popular new process that promised to lure audiences away from television and back into theaters. However, unlike most films shot in 3-D, Hitchcock employed the image trickery sparingly, only providing two instances where objects appear to fly out of the screen and into the audience. In the first instance Grace Kelly’s hand, reaches behind her for the scissors that will mortally wound Swann in the back during her attempted strangulation. In the second example, Hitchcock allows a vital bit of evidence that will convict Tony – his hidden hall key discovered by Inspector Hubbard – to be put on display as Hubbard’s hand slowly projects the evidence forward for the audience’s consideration..
For the rest, Hitchcock structured each scene in the film to consist of a definite foreground, middle ground and background – inviting his audience to indulge their voyeurism somewhere between the last two plains and making the audience part of the action within the cinematic space of the room. In the end, all of Hitchcock’s planning was for not: by the time Dial M for Murder was released into theatres the fad of 3-D had quietly died out. Although several theatres equipped to show the film in 3-D were provided with that option, the bulk of the paying public only saw it in the more traditional ‘flat’ screen projection as it currently exists today.