Tuesday, July 01, 2008

AMERICAN HITCHCOCK PART II (1954-1959)

HIT AFTER HIT
FROM THE MOUNTAIN

HITCHCOCK & PARAMOUNT PICTURES


“There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”
-Alfred Hitchcock

Arguably, Hitchcock’s golden renaissance as a filmmaker began with another change of venue from Warner Bros. to Paramount in 1954 and the release of Rear Window later that same year. In many respects, Rear Window is a watershed film for its director. First, it was Hitchcock’s initial foray into the studio’s patented VistaVision widescreen process that Hitchcock would use for the rest of his movies. The film was also a reunion of sorts, bringing together Hitchcock’s favorite blonde Grace Kelly with James Stewart whom Hitch’ had already collaborated with on Rope (1948). While Rope had not been an ideal experience for either director or star on Rear Window Hitchcock and Stewart struck a chord of symbiotic harmony that would result in their collaborating on two more films later in the decade.

In Rear Window James Stewart is L.B Jeffries, a somewhat sexually repressed magazine photographer who is laid up with a leg he broke while on one of his assignments. To pass the time, Jeffries spies on his neighbors: the voluptuous Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), forlorn Miss Lonely Heart (Judith Evelyn), frustrated composer (Ross Bagdasarian) and frisky newlyweds (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport). However, Jeffries attentions shift to the spurious comings and goings of one Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) after Thorwald’s wife, Anna (Irene Winston) suddenly vanishes from their apartment without a trace.
At first Jeffries girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and his physical therapist; straight shooter Stella (Thelma Ritter) believe Jeffries’ cabin fever is getting the better of him. But then there are the unexplainable bits of business observed through Jeffries rear window that draw attention toward a more sinister conclusion. Did Thorwald murder his wife? It isn’t long before Lisa has decided to play amateur sleuth – nearly getting herself killed in the process.

The level of tense economy Hitchcock achieves by confining his action to one set is not merely equitable, to his similar experimentations on Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder but, herein borders on some cinematic genius. Every pivotal moment in the plot takes place from roughly the same limited vantage of L.B. Jeffries’ rear window view, yet the action itself never seems redundant or straining for some new revelation. Part of the reason for the film’s perceivable freshness lies with Hitchcock’s clever maneuvering of the camera within these confined apartment spaces. The limited movement provides the audience with a view, primarily, of only what the characters see, hence the audience – like the characters – is in a constant state of wanting to learn and see more than they can or have been allowed to.

Jeffries apartment, courtyard and facing apartment facades are built as one gigantic three sided indoor set inside Paramount’s Stage 11, removing the false floor at ground level to create a greater sense of depth and height; allowing for total control of lighting and sound. Hitchcock further instructed composer Franz Waxman to underscore the film using recycled musical cues from previous efforts at the studio or popular music of the day to give the action a sort of benign musical familiarity. All of this attention to detail works to the film’s advantage; the neighborhood appearing as any neighborhood within a confined cityscape; the sounds readily accepted by the audience with authentic verisimilitude.

For the film’s climactic showdown Hitchcock restricts his camera movement to basics; the audience is as confined as Jeffries is in his wheelchair and forced to sit and wait for Thurwald’s inevitable arrival.

Hitchcock’s next film for Paramount, To Catch a Thief (1955) proved a bittersweet occasion, for it presented him with the dilemma of working with his favorite ‘cool’ blonde, Grace Kelly for the last time before she departed Hollywood’s high society for even higher society as Princess Grace of Monaco. Commencing his shoot in the south of France, Hitchcock was also hampered by the studio’s insistence on extensive location work to take full advantage of VistaVision’s claim in ‘motion picture high fidelity’, though only Hitchcock would have considered the lushness of Monaco a deterrent rather than a plus.
To Hitchcock’s testament, the matching of real life locations in France with photographic work done back on soundstages in Hollywood was invisible to the naked eye. John Michael Hayes began his lucrative association with Hitchcock on this project, providing a slick and stylish script with plenty of smart repartee and engaging situations to divert attention away from the fact that the film’s focal point was not the apprehension of a jewel thief – as the title suggested - but rather the cleverness with which Grace Kelly’s protagonist snared herself an attractive, though decidedly confirmed middle aged bachelor.
To Catch a Thief begins with a round of perilous jewel robberies inside the posh hotel suites of some very ritzy guests. The police suspect that the crimes are being perpetrated by John Robie (Cary Grant) a one time jewel thief who fought for the resistance in France during the war and was pardoned for his crimes. Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of Foussard (Jean Martinelli) one of Robie’s former accomplices during the war years, but currently reduced to the menial tasks of a restaurant wine steward, also believes that John has come out of retirement.
From here the story shifts its focus to headstrong wealthy girl-about-town Francie Van Allen (Kelly) and her sustained infatuation with John. Francie’s mother, Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) is a flirtatious matchmaker. With her eye on John, Jessie goads her daughter into developing a relationship in order to get closer to the truth. But when Foussard (Jean Martinelli) is accidentally murdered, the police conclude that he was the man they were looking for all along. Unfortunately, that’s just the moment when John begins to have second thoughts about Foussard’s daughter, Danielle.

Critics of the day were quick to regard To Catch A Thief as lightweight, though nevertheless pleasurable entertainment. In truth, the film represents Hitchcock at his most elegant and edgy sex fantasy, but with a decided twist. Still, with its focus more on romance rather than suspense, the movie does tend to illustrate a fundamental truth about audience expectations and in subsequent screen outings Hitchcock would never again so readily divorce the romantic elements of his stories from the tautness of his thrillers.

The most readily recalled sequence from To Catch A Thief today is Robie’s seduction by Francie while fireworks explode wildly outside her Riviera hotel window. Taunting and testing Robie’s desire to possess either her or her diamond necklace, Robie’s keen eye for legitimate ice leads him to deduce, “these are fakes.” “But I’m not,” Francie coos, allowing John to lean her into the couch.


That ‘lean’ was cause for the censors to demand that Hitchcock eliminate the sequence entirely as it obviously suggested the beginnings of a sexual encounter. Hitchcock refused. The censors next made suggestions where to cut the sequence so that no ‘lean’ was implied. Hitchcock quietly took the censor’s concerns under advisement then, backed by Paramount released the film with the sequence virtually in tact.
Given the flourish of success Hitchcock sustained during the early fifties within the realm of dark and suspense-laden melodrama his next choice of project – the decidedly light black comedy The Trouble With Harry (1955) seemed an unlikely candidate for his celebrated directorial prowess.
The trouble with Harry is that he is dead – assassinated in the pastoral woods of Vermont within the first few minutes of on screen time and shortly thereafter encountered by nearly every small town kook within twenty miles who attempt to bury, then dig up, then re-bury his slowly decomposing remains somewhere in the forest. The irony of the piece revolves around the town’s folk ability to internalize the murder as preventable and, more to the point, something that even those who only knew the deceased in passing suspect they are now somehow remotely responsible for.

Shirley MacLaine was top cast as Jennifer Rogers, Harry’s wife. She is not very upset to learn her husband’s dead – though it is unlikely that she killed him. Capt. Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) discovers the body first. Together with amateur criminologist Miss Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) the two contemplate the recourse of burying Harry in the glen. Enter local artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) who is intrigued, but not terribly upset by the prospect of having a human cadaver stored in Jennifer’s bathtub.
Given Hitchcock’s aversion toward location shooting, he must have been put off by delays brought on by a sudden frost and winter storm midway through his shoot. The snow and ice effectively reduced all the lush fall colors to leaf piles blowing in the wind. The net result: Hitchcock and company returned to Paramount mid-way through production with bags of leaves that were meticulously glued onto fake trees inside a Paramount soundstage.

Hitchcock returned to form with an anomaly in his American tenure; a remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a thriller Hitch’ chose to relocate to Marrakech. The 1934 original had been set in Europe. Regardless of this change in locale, the narrative structure of the original was faithfully retained. Years later, Hitchcock would muse that his original had been made by an amateur while the remake was crafted by a master.
In the remake medical doctor, Ben McKenna (James Stewart) his wife, Jo (Doris Day) and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) are on holiday in Marrakech where Ben is attending a conference. Jo is a retired star of the London stage and easily recognizable to her fans. While at a restaurant the McKennas are introduced to Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles) – presumably fans of Jo.

The McKennas also meet mysterious Frenchman, Louie Bernard (Daniel Gelin) who offers to act as their cultural liaise while on holiday. However, when Bernard, disguised as a native, is stabbed before Jo and Ben’s eyes in the marketplace he manages to confide an ominous secret to Ben before dying; that a high ranking political official is to be assassinated somewhere in London, England. The plot thickens as Ben learns that the Draytons have kidnapped Hank and are holding him hostage to buy Ben’s silence until the assassination can take place.

Hitchcock reportedly did not want to work with Doris Day at the start of production – assuming that her talents lay in the delivery of a song rather than solid acting. However, Day proved her worth to Hitchcock as a serious actress in the sequence where Jo - having learned that her son has been kidnapped and furthermore, that her husband has drugged her to calm her down prior to divulging this information - suffers and emotional breakdown.


Nevertheless, to appease fans of Doris Day musicals and the front offices at Paramount, Hitchcock reluctantly agreed to allow Day to warble a song in the film – but only if the song could be incorporated as a pivotal plot element within the story. That song – Que Sera Sera became a number one best selling single and an Oscar-winning hit.
For the scene where the McKennas are approached by the mortally wounded Bernard, Hitchcock had wanted the actor’s dark facial make-up used to disguise him to come off as he collapses in Ben’s arms, thereby revealing his true identity. Unfortunately, after several failed takes it was discovered that the thick make-up application simply would not smudge. Eventually, Hitchcock came up with his own clever solution – applying flesh-colored make-up to James Stewart’s hands instead. As Ben catches Bernard’s face between his fingers, the flesh tone in the palms of his hands wipes off on the actor, implying that the opposite has occurred.

Hitchcock also indulged in another brilliant bit of ‘pure cinema’ during the climactic Albert Hall sequence where the assassination is supposed to take place. In the twelve minute reveal, uninterrupted by dialogue and accompanied by the suspenseful Storm Cloud Cantata conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock recreated the memorable sequence of his 1934 original almost shot-for-shot. The sequence begins as Jo enters the concert hall and the London Orchestra begins to play. She spots the balcony boxes at opposite ends of the venue where assassin, Rien (Reggie Nalder) and his chosen victim, the Foreign Prime Minister (Alexi Bobrimskoy) are seated. Unable to intervene, Jo is powerless and driven to panicked frustration while Ben frantically combs the upper balconies in search of the assassin and some answers to their son’s whereabouts.

At a pivotal break in the music, Jo lets loose with a blood-curdling scream – distracting the crowd and causing the Foreign Prime Minister to lurch in his seat just as the assassin fires his bullet. Initially aimed as a kill shot to the heart, the bullet instead takes the Foreign Prime Minister in the shoulder. Ben bursts into the balcony box where the assassin has been hiding and after a brief struggle the assassin plummets to his death without revealing Hank’s whereabouts.

Perhaps more than any other Hitchcock film of the decade, The Man Who Knew Too Much reveals how far Hitch’ had come in his mastery of the cinematic medium. His handling of all the elements is both swift and assured and he manages to invest the characters with a sense of immediacy that escalates almost from the moment Hank vanishes from Marrakech. Upon its original theatrical release, The Man Who Knew Too Much was hailed by critics and audiences alike.
Perhaps as a rebuttal to all the high profile ultra-gloss entertainment he had been indulging in, Hitchcock next film The Wrong Man (1956 and for Warner Bros.) was a relatively low budget, dark and brooding story shot in black and white and based on a real life case of mistaken identity surrounding one Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda). Manny is a trumpet player at the Stork Club who is wrongfully accused of holding up a local insurance agency after his wife, Rose (Vera Miles) is denied coverage for some much needed dental surgery. Everyone in the burgled insurance office who testifies against Manny is convinced that he is the man who held them at gunpoint and made off with a considerable bankroll. The problem is that Manny is actually innocent.

An unusual departure for Hitchcock, who also briefly narrated the prologue, the film was based on Maxwell Anderson’s novelized account of the real Christopher Balestrero’s struggle to clear his name. Though remaining faithful to the book (the screenplay was also penned by Anderson and Angus McPhail) Hitch’ deliberately omitted textual references that in the novel cleared Balestero of the crime beforehand and thus would have defused the tensions in the film.

Nevertheless, Anderson’s wordy prose seems to have inadvertently hampered Hitchcock’s agility as a cinematic storyteller. His lack of engagement with the material is evident from the moment the awkward narration opens the story. For the first time in his career, Hitch’ is relying more on ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ the audience what they need to know – his sense of ‘pure cinema’ relegated to a rather straight forward faux noir crime story that simply fails to maintain its level of suspense throughout. If Hitchcock’s 50s tenure does have a weak spot, it is The Wrong Man.
The decade would be rounded out by two of the best movies Hitchcock ever made; Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959). It is one of Hollywood’s great ironies that only the latter film was a critical and box office success at the time of its theatrical release. However, time has proven the artistic merit of both efforts; each clearly belonging in a league of their own.

For years Hitchcock had wanted to make a film set in San Francisco – a city he regarded as one of the most cosmopolitan metropolises in the world. Bad timing and other pending projects for the movies and his weekly commitment to his own television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents… precluded Hitch’ from realizing his dream project until 1956 when the novel d’Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was brought to his attention. The book was a critical examination of the all consuming aspects of obsessive love tinged on this occasion with elements of the supernatural and an intriguing crime story besides.
In realizing the story for the screen, Hitchcock turned to famed author, Samuel Taylor and Alex Coppel; the former a master at creating romantic melodrama, the latter an expert constructionist in penning mystery/thrillers. For the re-titled film, Vertigo, Hitchcock once again turned to everyman, James Stewart as his central protagonist; this time cast as retired police detective turned private investigator, Scottie Ferguson. Suffering from bouts of dizziness in high places (hence, the title of the film) after witnessing the death of a fellow officer off the side of a Frisco high rise, Ferguson’s career seems at an end. He is brought out of retirement by former college acquaintance, Gavin Elstor (Tom Helmore).
It seems that Elstor’s wife, the cool Madeleine (Kim Novak) is plagued by mysterious blackouts. Elstor confides to Scottie that he believes in the very real possibility that Madeleine is being possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Vance – a well known tragic historical figure who will not rest until she has driven Madeleine to suicide. At first, Ferguson refuses to believe this far fetched tale. Gradually, however, he begins to piece together a premise that does indeed suggest some other worldly explanation for Madeleine’s frequent disappearances. After rescuing Madeleine from a failed suicide attempt at Golden Gate Park, Ferguson discovers that he has begun to fall in love with her himself, much to the chagrin of his friend, brazier designer Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes).
Actually, the whole premise is a rouse concocted by Elstor and Judy – the woman impersonating his wife, Madeleine whom Elstor has already murdered. Luring Ferguson to the mission bell tower at Old San Juan Batista – and knowing that Scottie’s vertigo will prevent him from catching up to her in time - Judy/Madeleine appears to commit suicide by throwing herself off the tower’s belfry right before Ferguson’s eyes. Driven into a catatonic state, Ferguson is gradually nursed back to health by Midge, only to accidentally run into Judy on a street in San Francisco in her original brunette hair and make-up. After an awkward meeting, Judy agrees to go out with Ferguson. Shortly thereafter, he becomes obsessed with remaking her into the image of his dead love interest.
In many ways Vertigo shows off the combined essences of Hitchcock’s cinematic prowess to their very best advantage: from the film’s inventive spiraling main title sequence designed by Saul Bass, to Hitchcock’s extraordinary usage of color to evoke mood, to his memorable montage illustrating Scottie’s dizzy spells (a forward zoom/reverse track camera trickery devised by Irmin Roberts), the film is a cinematic feast for those clever enough to appreciate that exposition in film storytelling is not everything.

After the disappointing box office performance of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s last film of the decade, North By Northwest (1959 for MGM) returned to a more reliable blend of dark sadism and light humor to ensure its returns and audience popularity. Determined to write the ‘wrong man’ movie to top all the rest, screenwriter Ernest Lehman devised a stylish thriller incorporating nearly every Hitchcockian film devise from the director’s illustrious tenure into one seamless roller coaster ride of masterful thrills and humorous suspense.

Over the years, rumors have circulated that Hitchcock unintentionally mentioned the idea for the project to James Stewart while production was wrapping on Vertigo. When Stewart became eager to play the part of Roger Thornhill, Hitchcock was forced to admit that he had Cary Grant in mind all along. However, there are problems with this theory.

First, Hitchcock seldom worked far in advance in planning his subsequent projects. In general, but specifically at this point in his career, Hitch’ took his time deciding what film would come next. Also, once he was involved on a movie, he committed himself wholly to that project until it was completed. Since North By Northwest was not a pre-sold play or movie property already waiting in the wings, but one commissioned from Lehman by Hitchcock, it seems unlikely that the idea came to him well in advance of wrapping production on Vertigo.

Second, given the solid working relationship between Hitchcock and Stewart, it does not make much sense that Hitch’ would have merely mentioned a movie idea to his star without having Stewart in mind for the lead. More than likely, MGM did not want Stewart cast – either because he seemed too old for the part, was not one of their stars under contract or was inadvertently being blamed for Vertigo’s poor performance at the box office.

Whatever the reason, North By Northwest stars Cary Grant as harried ad man, Roger O. Thornhill. After being mistaken for a secret agent by Phillip Van Damme (James Mason), Roger quickly discovers that he is a sitting duck, rift for multiple assassination attempts by Van Damme’s men unless he can get to the bottom of things.


Unfortunately, Roger’s attempts at contacting UN political analyst, Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) goes horribly awry when one of Van Damme’s assassins kills Townsend in the middle of the United Nations lobby while making it appear as though Roger is the killer. Considered a fugitive from justice, Roger next stumbles onto Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious flirt traveling by train and oddly intent on helping Roger elude the authorities.
Slowly Roger comes to trust Eve and eventually the two have an affair. However, when Eve appears to be working for Van Damme, Roger confronts the motley crew in the open, thereby exposing Eve to terrible danger. Eve is the double agent that Van Damme has mistaken Roger for.

Hitchcock relied heavily on matte paintings and process photography in North By Northwest to sustain a level of purely escapist make-believe. The film’s two most memorable set pieces – a bi-plane assault on Roger along a lonely stretch of North Dakota road – and the scaling of Presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore were both elaborately staged at MGM rather than shot on location. In the former instance, Grant was placed on a treadmill in the foreground, running for his life while reacting to a process screen of rear projection with the bi-plane photographed separately.

In the latter sequence, MGM’s scenic art department crafted an elaborate replica of Rushmore’s faces, relying on equally elaborate matte paintings to capture the steep downward perspective as Eve and Roger appear to be dangling from the jagged precipices for the film’s climactic showdown. Some surviving studio memos indicate that this final race across Rushmore was recreated out of necessity rather than from Hitchcock’s innate dislike of location shooting. It was only after the State Park denied MGM access and even permission to use the real location for the film that the decision was made to recreate Rushmore on the back lot.

MGM licensed Paramount’s patented VistaVision process for North By Northwest after Hitchcock refused to photograph the film in Cinemascope. Although the making of the film proved an enjoyable experience for all concerned, the film also marked the last time Cary Grant worked for Hitchcock.
Today, rumors abound as to why these two alumni never reunited for another try – especially since North By Northwest was one of Hitchcock’s most profitable thrillers. One plausible reason is that Grant had begun to feel as though his days as a leading man were numbered. While the actresses Grant was frequently being paired with were increasingly getting younger, Grant himself was already well into his middle age at the time North By Northwest went before the cameras. Following the success of the film, Grant would reluctantly agree to make only one more thriller: Stanley Donen’s faux Hitchcockian spy movie: Charade (1963).

@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).