In the late 1930s, with films like "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes" having proven global hits, the New York Times wrote: "Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world." And unsurprisingly, he came to the attention of Hollywood, with David O. Selznick signing the filmmaker to an exclusive contract, and bringing him over to direct "Rebecca."
And over the next 35 years, Hitchcock produced almost a film per year, including a selection of thrillers that number among the finest ever made (including "Vertigo," named by international critics this year as the greatest film ever). Becoming an icon thanks to his recognizable figure and high public profile, he produced and presented the long-running "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," which along with a long string of box office hits, made him one of the few filmmakers who was also a bona fide household name.
This period, starting with 1940's Best Picture-winning "Rebecca," saw Hitchcock nominated for five Best Director Academy Awards, but the filmmaker never won, bar the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in 1968. But it's the quality of many of the films of his Hollywood years that lingers long past any awards. With a new Blu-ray box-set in stores this week, we've been looking at the directors' career, and after examining his early silent and British films yesterday, we finish off today with the Hollywood era, from "Rebecca" in 1940 to "Family Plot" in 1976. Read on below.
Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier (she wrote the source material for “The Birds” and “Jamaica Inn”), Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” is a textbook and classic psychological drama that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. Starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, “Rebecca” centers on an unnamed and naive heroine (Fontaine), who by chance, meets the aristocratic widower Maximilian de Winter (Olivier) in Monte Carlo and the two quickly fall in love. Maxim whisks her off to Manderlay, his large country estate in Cornwall, and all seems well, but the new Mrs. de Winter gets the cold, cold shoulder from the staff and servants who can’t seem to accept her, especially the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who is particularly unpleasant and borderline sadistic. Having died under mysterious circumstances, the staff appears to have a strong loyalty to the former Mrs. de Winter (the titular Rebecca) and view this new girl as an interloper (her old bedroom is even preserved as a shrine). Exacerbating issues is Maxim, clearly still troubled from his deceased wife’s death and then his disappearance from the household on business, leaving the staff to mistreat the new Mrs. de Winter. And a full-fold conspiracy seems to be afoot. The evil Mrs. Danvers even suggests that the new bride should commit suicide and the slimey Jack (George Sanders), Rebecca’s cousin, goads Danvers in her persecution of the new Mrs. de Winter. Featuring ominous and creepy overtones, while “Rebecca” is a noir-thriller, it is at it’s core, a great drama (minus the police procedural section that bogs it down slightly) and Mrs. de Winter’s descent into near madness because of the maltreatment of the staff is expertly pitched. Hitchcock’s first U.S. production, the heavy hand of notorious meddler David O. Selznick loomed heavy over the film. While it drove control freak Hitchcock mad in his own right, the film’s masterfully sinister and shadowy tone earned the picture a total eleven Oscar nominations. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Two hours and six minutes in, walking past the phone booth.
"Foreign Correspondent" (1940)
As a patriotic pro-war spy romp through Western Europe, "Foreign Correspondent" feels a little out of place in Hitch’s ouevre. This World War II flick bridges his earlier, more-light hearted fare with his suspense-driven and serious Hollywood films that are the better known of his work. Made in 1940 just prior to the London Blitz, Hitchcock visited his home after the shoot wrapped, and upon hearing the rumors of the German plan to bomb London, commissioned legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht to pen the stirring radio speech delivered by Joel McCrea as American reporter Johnny Jones that serves as the epilogue to the film, imploring the U.S. to come to England’s rescue. It’s a profound moment that works well to ground this juicy reporter-turned-spy film, filled with every thrill, chill and exciting moment an audience could want. But what it does so well, and where other films of this kind often fail, is in maintaining the perfect tone of fun and seriousness while still racing along on the relentless steam engine of a plot. Hitch is a master of subjective perspective and point of view, deftly manipulating how the audience sees information in order to keep them guessing. McCrea, as the slick New York reporter investigating the kidnap of a Dutch diplomat, is as charming as any leading man of his time, and Laraine Day as his love interest is both steely and sweet in this role. However, as winning as they are, they stand no chance against perpetual scene-stealer George Sanders as Euro sidekick Scott Ffolliot (his last name is one of the better running gags). The film races from one suspenseful set piece to the next, culminating in the oceanic crash of a giant airship in the Atlantic, and Hitchcock executes each with a stylish efficiency. “Foreign Correspondent” hasn’t been as well remembered as some, but those who seek it out will discover a fun and highly entertaining picture awaiting them. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Reading a newspaper at the 12:44 mark.
"Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941)
No, in case you're wondering, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," Hitchcock's second pure comedy (and a screwball one at that), is not the inspiration for the Doug Liman film of the same name. They really couldn't be more further apart, though Liman and Universal possibly borrowed the title to nod their caps to the same sense of warring, marital strife (albeit, not within the world of spies). In Hitchock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," his second film released in 1941, the couple at odds are Mr. David Smith (Robert Montgomery) and Mrs. Anne Smith (Carole Lombard), a relatively happy married couple who begin to fray when they learn, that based upon a technicality, their marriage is invalid. Prior to this reveal, David’s been asked a pivotal question that has troubled his wife: if he had to do it all over again, would he have married her? Expecting a romantic answer, she receives a coldly pragmatic one instead: No, he'd remain single so he could do all the things he never had a chance to do over the years because of his marital obligations. Annoyed, Anne is even more upset when she discovers she isn't legally married and her mother only exacerbates the problem by suggesting she shouldn't sleep in the same house if a proposal isn't made immediately. Amused with the idea that they aren't married and “illicitly” living together, Mr. Smith has a more leisurely approach, and soon the vexed Mrs. has booted him out of the house trying to force his hand. The set-up and the first act are rather winning and delightful in the manner many screwball comedies can be, but when Anne tries to jump ship and marry David’s best friend, business partner and Southern gentleman Jeff (Gene Raymond) instead, the comedy becomes more than a little strained. Mildly amusing, if only to see Hitchcock in a rare attempt to make a movie without suspense, terror or tension, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is an interesting little curiosity, but in the end, very inessential. The director once said he made the picture as a favor to Lombard, but according to RKO’s archives, the filmmaker pursued the project himself. [C]
Hitchcock Cameo: Walking past Robert Montgomery at 0:42:57.
1941 appeared to be the year Hitchcock was in a more jovial mood, and the light tone of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" to have carried over to “Suspicion,” which for the first half of the picture feels more like a romantic comedy. Playing against type, Cary Grant (who starred in four Hitchcock films in total, this being the first), plays a handsome and charming ne'er-do-well who is ultimately a big good-for-nothing louse. He steals from friends, gets fired from jobs and doesn’t have a penny to his name, but that doesn’t stop him from convincing the naive and wealthy Joan Fontaine from marrying him. To make a buck so he’ll never have to really work an honest day in his life, Grant’s irresponsible character tries one shady business scheme after another. This leads Fontaine to eventually suspect that Grant is plotting to kill her so he can attain her lucrative life insurance policy. Her suspicion is only piqued when Grant’s best friend (played by Nigel Bruce) — the man he convinced to fund his latest get-rich-quick scheme — dies under mysterious circumstances during a trip to Paris. The ending turns things on its head when Grant’s character is revealed — during a fight of pure exposition — to not have been in Paris at the time of his friend's death, and never once having plotted to kill her. Instead, desperate, he had been considering suicide because of his various debts but is now willing to face the music for the embezzlement crimes he’s been involved in earlier. The picture is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about dangers of groundless suspicion based only on assumed, incomplete, and circumstantial evidence. Be that as it may, Grant’s Johnny character is still a total shit bag. His “redemption” comes out of nowhere and pretty much tonally betrays the entire set-up of the picture, with all signs pointing to Grant being a premeditated killer on top of a scumbag schemer. Well, it turns out in Francis Francis Iles’ original novel, Grant’s Johnny does try to kill her, but RKO wouldn’t let Hitchcock script that ending, let alone shoot it. Complaining aside, like most of Hitchcock’s films, regardless if the character motivations don’t make sense in the end or if those characters are total shits, it’s a terrifically crafted and entertaining picture. Fontaine won the Academy Award for Best Actress and it was even nominated for Best Picture. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Hitch posts a letter 45 minutes in, but some have suggested that the figure pulling a horse past the camera at the 0:04 mark is also the director, which would make one of only two films to have two cameos from the director.
An innocent man on the run would be a theme Hitchcock would revisit time and time again, and “Saboteur” was arguably a dry run for “North By Northwest.” The difference here is that, constructed in the middle of WWII as it was, the theme of patriotism runs deep throughout the film just as it did in “Foreign Correspondent” (so much so you’d assume the director was American if you didn’t know better). “Saboteur” centers on aircraft factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) who flees across the United States when he is wrongly accused of starting a fire that killed his best friend. But Kane is actually the patsy for Nazi spies who have a much bigger scheme in place. Aware that a man posing as a soldier named Fry (Norman Lloyd) is the true criminal, Kane tries to clear his name by following the clues that bring him closer to the true source, and on his journey he discovers an elaborate conspiracy to blow up the launch of a U.S. Navy vessel at a Brooklyn shipyard. Along the way, he meets Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane), the typically unwilling and suspicious blonde heroine who finally concedes to the fact that Kane isn’t a crackpot and is telling the truth. The picture culminates in a breathtakingly suspenseful set-piece at the top of the Statue of Liberty that is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable endings. Seminal American writer/poet Dorothy Parker was brought on by Universal to punch up a few dialogue scenes, most of them of the patriotic sort. While not his best, “Saboteur” is as entertaining as they come and timely: production began less than two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: One hour and four minutes in, standing in front of a drug store.
"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943)
Inspired by Thornton Wilder's famous Rockwellian vision of small town America in "Our Town," Hitchcock turns the fantasy inside out with "Shadow of a Doubt." The story follows young teenager Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), who longs for excitement, which arrives in the form of her namesake, her cultured Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten). When two undercover cops show up working on a "survey" of the average American family, they reveal to her that her beloved uncle may in fact be the serial killer known as the "Merry Widow Murderer," and Charlie is forced to question her own blind loyalty to her favourite Uncle (a relationshiop that is already dripping with incestuous overtones). Cotten puts in a great show as the charming and debonair Uncle Charlie, making it as hard for audiences as it is for his niece, at first, to believe he may be a serial killer underneath it all. Hitchcock, ever a master of setting and place, creates the perfect average American family in an average American small town, complete with a chatty neighbourhood policeman to Emma Newton’s insistence that a cake cannot be made just for pictures. Park Chan-wook's upcoming "Stoker" seems to be a homage to this one, but the Korean director will have a tough task living up to its inspiration. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Playing cards with his back to the camera on the train, seventeen minutes in.
Hitchcock was always fond of putting limitations on his work in order to see what creative solutions he could come up with in order to get around his self-imposed constraints, and “Lifeboat” is one of the triumphs of these experiments. Hitch came up with the idea for the film before approaching several writers to help write it. John Steinbeck is credited with the story, though Ben Hecht, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reveille, and several other writers contributed as well. Set in a single lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, the director manages to create a dynamic character piece, all within one claustrophobic space, and no score to manipulate things either, just the slap of waves against the hull. Star Tallulah Bankhead, as an imperious newspaper columnist, finds herself aboard with a group of diverse survivors after the ship they are on and a German U-boat sink each other. The morality play of the story begins when they pull a German survivor aboard, and they must decide as a group what to do. It’s a neat little microcosm representative of larger world issues, an exploration of systems of belief coming at the end of WWII. And of course Hitch works around his limitations with his signature elan, layering characters within the frame in order to create a visually appealing frame and constantly moving plot, within the structure of a rather tiresome locale. Because of its nuanced portrayal of the German character, the film courted controversy upon its release but was still praised by critics and rewarded with Oscar noms (including Hitch's second directorial nod). It’s an interesting film that deals with questions of conflict and humanity on an intimate scale, and yet another example of Hitchcock using limitations as a creative force for his work. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: One of the most cunning (given the limitations of the setting): he can be glimpsed 25 minutes in as the "before" and "after" picture for “Reduco Obesity Slayer” in a newspaper (see photo).
Though the plot becomes distractingly convoluted by the end, there’s actually a lot to like about this tale of an accused, innocent man struck by amnesia and the female psychoanalyst determined to clear him of the murderous charges. Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, an aloof shrink at a Vermont mental hospital who quickly mounts a close relationship with the new director, Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). But the young administrator isn’t who he seems to be, and his intense fear of parallel-lines-on-white arouses some justifiable suspicion by Peterson, who uncovers his false identity by comparing the actual Edwardes’s signature (autographed in his book) and the impostor’s. Peck goes on the run, adopting the pseudonym John Brown, while his main squeeze uses her abilities of psychoanalysis to find out who he actually is and why his mental state is so damaged. This leads to an impressionable dream sequence constructed by Salvador Dali, a section that the film is probably best known for at this point, and amusingly one that had very little to do with Hitchcock himself. It’s an even greater shame because the director pulled in some really strong work, from various off-putting camera angles (one a POV of someone drinking, seen through the tipped glass) to an OCD freak-out by Peck in a bathroom filled with, yes, many parallel lines on white. A superb, sturdy turn by Bergman (always reliable) would be the icing on the cake if not for the dippy conclusion, which is up there with “North by Northwest” in having a happy ending so tacked on and silly that you can’t possibly hate it. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: 43 minutes in, coming out of an elevator with a violin case.
You’re going to have to give us a moment, dear reader. We’re going to need time for a cold shower (behind our “Psycho” shower curtain, naturally) after watching Hitchcock’s sexiest scene. Rather than let the Production Code keep the chemistry between leads Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” at an acceptable level, Hitchcock twisted the code’s rules to create an intimate scene that leaves both his leads and the audience breathless. In 1946, on-screen kisses couldn’t last more than three seconds, so Hitchcock broke up the brief, fevered kisses between the incredibly attractive pair with them nuzzling each other. It sounds very PG, but trust us: this moment is far sexier than the Code had intended to allow. What else gives us a movie boner in “Notorious”? The gasp-worthy cinematography from Ted Tetzlaff is gorgeous, with more than a handful of images that have us in awe, including a tracking shot in a Rio mansion. There’s a plot in here somewhere, but it’s less about getting from point A to point B and more about the love story between Grant’s agent T.R. Devlin and Bergman’s Alicia Huberman. Devlin enlists Alicia to seduce and eventually marry Nazi Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), despite his own love for her as he places her in danger and in a relationship with a charming enemy. The Macguffin in “Notorious” is a uranium-filled wine bottle, but what’s far more engaging is the push and pull between Devlin and Alicia. Romances have been present in many of Hitchcock’s films, but this is one of the few movies where it surpasses his trademark thrills and suspense in its bid for our attention. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Drinking champagne at Claude Rains’ party at the 1:04:44 mark.
"The Paradine Case" (1947)
One of the most contentious productions Hitch ever faced, it's understandable why "The Paradine Case" is found outside the canon. Hitchcock's final film under contract with David O. Selznick, it was rewritten (Selznick has a script credit, along with the great Ben Hecht) and recut ad nauseum, and only surviving in truncated form (the original negative was destroyed in a flood in 1980), it's an undeniably half-formed picture. Furthermore, it feels half-hearted too, as Hitchcock wanted Greta Garbo and Laurence Olivier for the two leads (the foreign beauty accused of poisoning her blind husband, and her barrister, who falls in love with her). Instead, he ended up with Italian actress Alida Valli ("The Third Man") and Gregory Peck. No slouches, either of them, but this is another of those films where the director can often feel like he's going through the motions; formally, certainly, there's not a lot to really raise the pulse, the director reverting to the somewhat stagey form of some of his early 1930s work (in fact, Hitchcock was experimenting with shooting with up to four cameras simultaneously, but one never really feels the effect). That said, there are some real gems to be found in the supporting cast — the great Charles Laughton as the Judge, Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and the ludicrously handsome real-life resistance hero Louis Jourdan (the future star of "Gigi") as the servant who may or may not have been involved in the killing. And even if he wasn't Hitchcock's first choice, Peck impresses by the time the gut-punch conclusion rolls around. It's a mess, certainly (one can only wonder if the much, much longer director's cut would salvage thing, but you suspect not), but not necessarily the absolute disaster that history's sometimes made it out to be. [C-]
Hitchcock Cameo: 38 minutes in, taking a cello off the train (continuing the theme from “Spellbound”).
Based on Patrick Hamilton’s play, Hitchcock’s first Technicolor offering indeed feels like a stage adaptation, with its limited location and small set of players. But what most people remember about “Rope” is the central gimmick of the film: Hitchcock wanted to create the appearance of the movie being shot in a single take. This would be a feat now, but what made it particularly challenging then was the physical limitation of film itself, which only allowed for 10 minutes of shooting at a time. The transitions to cover this (such as zooming in on the darkness of an actor’s jacket) feel gimmicky, but it’s fun to see the auteur challenge himself technically. As for the actual story, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) decide to commit the perfect murder of their schoolmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan) merely because they can, and then the pair hosts a dinner party with David’s relatives and friends as guests who unknowingly dine inches away from their beloved’s body. Complicating matters is the appearance of Brandon and Phillip’s former teacher, Rupert (James Stewart), whose philosophical teachings inspired his students’ crime. The relationship between Brandon and Phillip is part of the intrigue; to modern audiences, it’s clear that they’re romantically involved, but to satisfy the Production Code standards, the script from Arthur Laurents (based on a treatment from actor and Hitchcock favorite Hume Cronyn) skirts what they called “it," even if it walks pretty close to the line of revealing the pair’s sexuality at times. Even if you aren’t diving too deeply into either the production of the film or its subtext, there’s plenty to enjoy if you simply sit back and relax. Despite the dark subject matter (even for a Hitchcock film), there’s plenty of black humor as well as some levity in the form of the victim’s delightfully batty aunt (Constance Collier). Hitchcock also earns his “Master of Suspense” title here, bringing the audience to the edge of their seats as Brandon and John inch ever closer to being discovered, either through Phillip’s emotional unraveling, Rupert’s sleuthing or their maid’s simple, thorough cleaning. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Another challenge, given the limited setting, but he finds his way in; the view from the apartment sees another ad for ‘Reduco,’ with the director’s now-trademark silhouette.
"Under Capricorn" (1949)
Adored by the top bananas at Cahiers du cinéma but few others around the time of its release, this historical drama had such a strenuous life that it was repossessed by its financiers due to its failure at the box office, resurfacing more than a decade later on American television. Unjustly overlooked and underappreciated, "Under Capricorn" incorporates the long, unbroken takes he had employed in “Rope,” here accentuating the quiet tension brewing from a love triangle between Irish gentleman Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), wealthy ex-con Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten), and his alcoholic wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman). The two men meet and grow closer after initiating a shady business deal, soon discovering that Henrietta had actually been an old chum of Adare’s sister back in the day. He takes it upon himself to ween her off the bottle, eventually falling in love with her. Within the screenplay are occasional twists and typically masterful Hitchockian suspense moments, but most of the time is spent on the quietly budding romance between Adare and Henrietta and the understated rivalry between the two male leads. The past weighs heavily on the Flusky family, and it's only amplified by the patient, observant cinematography that intensifies every moment. It also probably contains the most heartbreaking scenes the filmmaker’s ever done, including a moment in which Flusky shamefully tucks away a surprise necklace for his wife after being the third wheel while greeting her and Adare before a social gathering. Though it deserves more recognition, it’s not without its flaws: sometimes the sets feel too small and artificial (the Expressionism he generally implements feels clunky here), and occasionally the score is heavy-handed. Still, the film has a look and feel quite unlike any other entry in his filmography (it’s shot by Powell & Pressburger regular Jack Cardiff), and cogent emotional resonance. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: The only film confirmed to have two cameos from the directors: four minutes in, he’s wearing a blue coat during the parade, then ten minutes later, he’s one of a group of three men on the steps of the town hall.
"Stage Fright" (1950)
Dietrich. Hitchcock. What a collaboration. This criminally overlooked film is one of Hitchcock’s lesser known efforts but is nonetheless just as visceral, vital and nail-bitingly thrilling as any of his other works. Perhaps because he returned to England to shoot the film with a predominantly English cast (with the notable exceptions of Dietrich and co-star Jane Wyman), it didn’t get its proper credit in the U.S at the time. The story is an illustration of what Hitchcock does so well in his twist-filled storytelling: he plays with subjectivity and perspective in order to keep the audience in the dark until the very last minute. He deftly uses a flashback at the beginning of the film to effectively skew the audience understanding of the events, mimicking the experience of the film’s protagonist, Eve, played by Jane Wyman. Eve is an aspiring actress drawn into a murder mystery cover up involving diva Charlotte Inwood, as played by an absolutely stunning Marlene Dietrich (those cheekbones could cut glass). The twists and turns of the story are relentless, as Eve disguises herself as one of Charlotte’s new maids in order to uncover the truth, and must switch back and forth in her personas in order to maintain the ruse. Wyman and Dietrich are perfect foils (and were rumored to be foils off camera too), and as compelling as Dietrich is in the role of the glamorous actress covering up the truth, they are simply pawns in Hitchcock’s storytelling web. “Stage Fright” is an underrated classic that is worth your attention. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Just before the 40-minute mark, spotting Jane Wyman in her maid disguise.
"Strangers on a Train" (1951)
“Wanna hear one of my ideas for a perfect murder?” Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a famous tennis player, is recognized on a train by Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Guy wants to divorce his cheating wife Miriam in order to marry Anne Morton, the daughter of a U.S. senator, and advance his career in politics. Over lamb chops on the train, Bruno also reveals he'd like his interfering father dead, and so suggests the perfect crime — an exchange of murders by perfect strangers. The conversation ends somewhat up in the air, with Guy placating the seemingly eccentric Bruno, who is satisfied a deal has been struck. Guy and Bruno's relationship dynamic is set from the start, the seductive Bruno and the elusive Guy. Bruno ends up killing Guy's wife, in one of the most elegantly shot strangulations scenes in cinema history, shown in reflection of Miriam's thick glasses. Then Bruno demands that Guy keeps his end of the bargain, and Guy, with motive aplenty, is put in a tricky spot. The final confrontational climax between the men resulted in a magnificently shot action scene in which Guy and Bruno fight on a merry-go-round spun out of control, resulting in a fantastic trick shot of an explosion. “Strangers on a Train” is perfectly taut thriller, in which the two male leads shine as, respectively, the ostensibly good but pretty unlikeable guy at the wrong place at the wrong time and the creepily seductive and occasionally frenzied villain who embodies Guy's darkest desires. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name, Hitchcock endured a grueling adaption process with endless rewrites, but his passion for the story never waned, and is clear in the final product, filling it with double-entendres and masterful film noirish use of black and white and shadow — and a number of shots still obsessing film students today. Despite its shocking-by-1950s-standards themes, with homosexual overtones galore, “Strangers on a Train” did gangbusters at the box office and critical esteem for the film has only grown with time. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Continuing the ever-growing string-instrument theme from “Spellbound” and “The Paradine Case,” getting on train with a double bass ten minutes into the film. All he needed was a viola and he would have had a quartet.
"I Confess" (1953)
Squashed between two bona fide Hitchcock classics, this “morality play” starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden has quite a few interesting things going for it but ultimately (and unfortunately) wades in the pool of mediocrity. Deep in Quebec City, dutiful Catholic priest Michael William Logan (Clift) receives a confession from the rectory groundskeeper in which he admits to murdering a man — but due to the whole “Priest–penitent privilege” thing, Logan is unable to assist the police in their investigation, throwing him into distress. But it gets worse: a few students admit to seeing the priest near the crime scene, causing the authorities to suspect pious Logan to be the true perpetrator. In actuality, the lead was meeting Ruth, a married woman he previously had a fling with ages before joining the priesthood. Initially a fairly intriguing look into a complex situation (complete with a terrific opening), "I Confess" gets bogged down the more characters it throws into the situation, with the romance history between Ruth and Logan being particularly lackluster. What would probably work best as a focused character study seriously loses weight with the barren mug of Clift, who just doesn’t bring the goods as a priest with serious inner turmoil. He’s much too stoic, and although it’s truly impossible for him to reveal the killer’s confession due to his vocation, some semblance of his contemplation should be felt. Its general middling nature might also have something to do with the troubled production: it took eight years and twelve writers to get going, and the director had no toleration for his lead’s method acting. Such drama was eventually mined for the 1994 film “Le Confessional.” At the end of the day you could certainly do a lot worse in this oeuvre (see: “Jamaica Inn,” “Topaz”), but it’s an intriguing premise that should be a lot more powerful. [C]
Hitchcock Cameo: Crossing a staircase at the 00:01:33 mark.
"Dial M for Murder" (1954)
A debonair former tennis player plots the perfect murder of his wife in “Dial M for Murder,” based on the play by Frederick Knott. Tony and Margot Wendice (a smooth Ray Milland and a luminous Grace Kelly in her first Hitchcock outing) at first appear to be a happy couple living in London. It’s quickly established, though, that Margot has been having an affair with an American crime novelist (Robert Cummings), and Tony has been hiding his knowledge of her infidelity. Milland, in a role originally intended for Cary Grant, gives a suave, chilling performance, calmly and meticulously putting his plan into motion by blackmailing an old college acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) into murdering his wife for her inheritance. But Tony has to be quick on his feet and change his plans when the murderer becomes the murdered, in an over-the-top scissor death scene. Margot has enough fortitude to kill her attacker, but frustratingly lacks the smarts to suspect her husband’s involvement, and the detective work is left up to her rather bland but clever boyfriend and the police inspector (John Williams) on the case. While Margot’s passivity is a mild annoyance, it doesn’t overshadow the real joy of watching this film – absorbing Tony’s keen attention to detail and premeditated actions and waiting for him to slip up and get caught. ‘Dial M’ was Hitchcock’s only third full-color film, and he uses it expressively with Kelly’s costumes, ranging from virginal white to scarlet red to somber black. It was also Hitchcock’s only film shot in 3D. The camera was cumbersome to work around and very large – said to be as big as a dressing room — and then the film was primarily screened “flat” anyway. While not as claustrophobic and tense as the similarly single-set “Rope,” Hitchcock wisely decided against opening up the sets and instead used dramatic angles and tight direction to keep the film from feeling inert. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: Another pictorial cameo rather than a physical one: he’s on the left hand side of the class reunion photo 13 minutes and 13 seconds in.
"Rear Window" (1954)
Hitch knew as well as anyone the value of a thriller in a confined space (see "Lifeboat," "Rope," the preceding "Dial M For Murder"), but never demonstrated it as well as he did in "Rear Window," a film that is among the most entertaining films the director ever made, but also perhaps his greatest love letter to the voyeurism of his medium. If you've never seen the film (somehow), it stars James Stewart as photographer L.B. Jeffries, who's broken his leg, and is now stuck in a cast in his apartment. The titular window of the property looks out onto a courtyard, and L.B, to the slight disappointment of his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, making a good case for being the most beautiful woman in history), starts spending his time spying on the eccentricities of his various neighbors. But things take a darker turn when he comes to suspect that one of them has murdered and dismembered his wife. It's astonishing that a film that, for all intents and purposes never leaves a single room, is so cinematic, with the director right at the top of his game, and using the inherent tension of separation of space to the full. And Stewart is about the perfect lead, Hitchcock subverting his persona subtly as he would later in "Vertigo," but ensuring that he's a firmly rootable hero (not to mention the complex and deeply sexy chemistry with Kelly). They announced last week that the film is heading to Broadway; they'll have an almost impossible task to live up to this one. [A+]
Hitchcock Cameo: At 26:10, winding a clock in the apartment of the songwriter character.
"To Catch aThief" (1955)
Hitchcock was the master of elevating genre fare to something more significant through his craft, but "To Catch a Thief" is proof that the director was able to take his skills and make something that's about nothing but pleasure. And almost nothing in his filmography is as pleasurable as this. An example of a sort of post-"Roman Holiday," affordable-air-travel era of Hollywood fascination with European glamor, it sees Cary Grant (his third of four collaboration with the director) as John Robie, a former Resistance hero turned retired cat burglar who comes under suspicion after a series of jewel robberies blamed on a thief known as 'the Cat' in the South of France. He sets out to clear his name, which involves him keeping an eye on the collections of wealthy American tourist Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). It's unshamedly feather-light stuff, but the string of subsequent knock-offs over the year make it clear how incredibly difficult it is to get something like this right. And yet Hitchcock makes it look entirely effortless: the easy, crackling chemistry between Grant and Kelly, the gorgeous VistaVision French Riviera landscapes (which won cinematographer Robert Burks an Oscar), the lean, twisty screenplay, the pitch-perfect editing. This isn't Hitchcock the auteur at his work, it's Hitchcock the crowd-pleaser, and while it's not one of the director's most significant films, it might be one of his most fun. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Sitting next to Grant on a bus at the 0:10 mark.
"The Trouble with Harry" (1955)
Based on a novel by Jack Trevor Story (who, despite Hitchcock’s daughter assertion on the DVD special features, did not act in Hitchcock’s earlier film “Champagne”), “The Trouble with Harry” concerns the pesky body of one Harry Worp (Phillip Truex), who appears on a grassy knoll in a small town in Vermont. All of the townspeople think that they might have accidentally been responsible for killing Harry and all of them have different views about what to do with his body now that he’s shown up, with the film taking on a kind of buoyant, screwball tone wrapped around a pitch-black comedy. Shirley MacLaine, her hair cut into a “Rosemary’s Baby”-ish bob, is particularly magnetic as Jennifer Rogers, Harry’s bubbly wife and (of course) one of the supposed murderers. As “The Trouble with Harry” goes along, the situations get even more outsized and surreal and you can tell that it was a touchstone for later dark comedies, including Robert Zemeckis’ demented “Death Becomes Her” and (more explicitly) the “Weekend at Bernie’s” films. The film was notable in the Hitchcock canon for being one of his rare commercial flops (and for being largely unavailable afterwards) and also for being his first collaboration with famed composer Bernard Herrmann (a relationship that would continue for almost a decade but end bitterly over the disputed score to “Torn Curtain”). Less than a decade before his death, Hitchcock claimed that “The Trouble with Harry” was his favorite film and it’s easy to see why – the movie is idiosyncratic and totally Hitchcock, full of playful dark humor and gorgeous camerawork. But it also seems more pure and oddly personal. “The Trouble with Harry,” you can tell, comes from a singular point of view that wasn’t as interested in goosing the audience but instead was concerned with presenting something atonal and strange. It wasn’t your average Hitchcock movie. It was better. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: At 0:22:14, he walks between the window and the limousine.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)
Almost as soon as he moved to Hollywood, Hitchcock considered remaking "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the 1934 film that marked his first big talkie hit; the idea was floated as far back as 1941. In the end, it was the desire to fulfill a contractual obligation to Paramount Pictures that saw the project move forward, with the director telling writer John Michael Hayes ("Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief") not to watch or read the original, to help differentiate the pair. The set up is basically the same, nevertheless; a vacationing couple (James Stewart and Doris Day, American rather than British, and in Marrakech rather than the Alps) watch their new French pal murdered, and become embroiled in an international assassination plot, only for the villains (a British couple played by Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie, subbing in for the original's Peter Lorre) to kidnap their child (their son, rather than a daughter this time). Hitchcock told Truffaut in 1967 that "the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional," and technically, certainly, he's right; the remake sees Hitch at the peak of his skills, the set pieces more gripping, and the filmmaking more inventive. But narratively, we're not so sure. At nearly 45 minutes longer than the original, the '56 edition feels baggy where it should be lean, and while Stewart is as good as ever, he and Day feel a little bland compared to Leslie Banks and Edna Best (it doesn't help that Day's singing skills are shoehorned inorganically into the plot). It's all still very entertaining, and it's fascinating to see the director's two takes on the same premise, but as far as we're concerned, there's a slight case of diminishing returns. [B-]
Hitchcock Cameo: 25 minutes in, his back to camera, watching acrobats in the marketplace.
"The Wrong Man" (1956)
“An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that,” a police officer intones in Alfred Hitchcock’s minor, but no less masterful “The Wrong Man.” But of course, that adage will be turned completely on its head in the film that could seem unbelieveable, but is based almost beat for beat on a true story. Revisiting a common theme of the ordinary man wrongly accused and caught up way in over his head, it’s the procedural nature and the touchingly vulnerable turn by Henry Fonda that carries the story of mild mannered Manny, a family man and jazz musician struggling to make ends meet. A seemingly innocuous trip to the insurance company to try and borrow money against his wife’s policy turn accusations that he’s the serial thief who held up the office not too long ago. And so begins a Kafka-esque nightmare as he tries to solidify alibis, find witness and just somebody, anybody who can verify and understand he’s not the criminal. Shot on location in New York City, it adds an extra dimension to the humanity Fonda pours on screen — your heart breaks over and over for Manny, whose battle through the legal system takes a toll on the mental health of his wife. Those looking for Hitchcock-ian visual flourishes won’t get them here, but instead it’s a filmmaker who realizes the situation itself is powerful enough all on its on. And combined with a performance by Fonda who brings the innocence — both legally but more crucially emotionally — of Manny to the fore, the greatest suspense and perhaps horror in “The Wrong Man” is drawn from the notion that justice be can blind…even to the innocent. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: The only film in which Hitchcock essentially plays himself; he appears in silhouette to deliver the prologue, apparently because he wanted to place an emphasis on the based-in-fact nature of the tale.
Contrarians move on. We’re not going to argue with “Vertigo” ’s recent usurpation of the top spot in the Sight & Sound critics poll, because, inasmuch as any film deserves the title of Greatest Film of All Time (a whole different debate), this one probably does. An endlessly fascinating, heady blend of psychodrama, ghost story, perverse romance and ludicrously intricate murder plot, what’s perhaps most remarkable about it having climbed so high is just how crooked it is, how absurdly far it deviates from standard classic film format, and how subjective and ambiguous it remains after all the analyses. Contrast it, say, with the formal, crisp, perfection of “Citizen Kane” — the film it deposed — and ”Vertigo” feels like a glorious, soupy mess, perhaps the least contained of Hitchcock’s films, which should threaten every moment to burst the banks of disbelief and flood over into risibility. But it never does, instead it weaves its strange off-kilter spell that, like a fragrance or a snatch of melody, evokes much more than it states. And what in other films might have been glaring issues, somehow here contribute to that unique mood: Kim Novak is an actress we tend to find awkward onscreen, but here the themes of artifice and performance and deception, not to mention the inherent misogyny of the conceit, are given a unique spin by the discomfort of her portrayal of Judy/Madeleine. And the plot, in another film, would be the highest, archest camp, but even as the story spins off in ever more eccentric directions, Hitch’s tonal mastery is total, and so elements that should be lurid or grotesque (and in subsequent films, like “Marnie” or “Frenzy” he went there quite frequently) instead become resonant and full of delicious, dark irony: a cyclical greek tragedy playing out on the streets of San Francisco. The fact is, “Vertigo” lives and breathes and expands wildly beyond the confines of its 35 millimetres (or 70 if you catch it in its VistaVision original), so perhaps it’s no surprise that its critical ascent took a while. Maybe “Vertigo” wasn’t so much released as planted all those years ago, and needed the space of intervening decades to grow in the collective filmgoing unconscious: for those who first saw it to realise the long-term unshakability of its peculiar charms, and for critics to go back and worry at it. Finally, though, we realised that “Vertigo” is just not going to give up its secrets any time soon, which has only made us love it more. It may well become the most written-about film of all time, but its portrayal of guilt and hauntedness and fear and fixation is just too rich and nuanced to allow a definitive interpretation. Except maybe, if you set any store by this sort of thing, that “it’s the greatest.” [A+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Moving on from the string section, he carries a trumpet case in the street at the 0:11:40 mark.
"North by Northwest" (1959)
Hitchcock gave screenwriter Ernest Lehmann just three ideas as a jumping-off point for “North by Northwest": mistaken identity, the UN building in New York City, and an epic chase across Mt. Rushmore’s famous faces. What emerged from the unlikely source of the “Sabrina” scribe was the quintessential film from the director, populated by four-time Hitchcock lead actor Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint as the cool blonde, a Macguffin in the form of an ancient status filled with microfilm, a number of exotic locations and an electric score from Bernard Hermann. Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a Madison Avenue ad man drawn into intrigue when he is mistaken for George Kaplan and kidnapped by heavies employed by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Things get even more complicated when he meets blond beauty Eve Kendall (Saint), and she – of course – isn’t who she first appears. The plot ably skips from New York City to Long Island to Chicago to South Dakota, but the film’s most memorable scene is likely the crop-duster chase set in Indiana that has the impeccably dressed Grant dirtying his grey suit as he dives into the dust to avoid the low-flying plane. A half a century later, it’s still a thrilling scene, punctuated by Hermann’s iconic score and the normally unflappable Grant looking a combination of exasperated and terrified. Everything is tied up neatly at the end, and Hitchcock’s famously raunchy sense of humor takes over. As Thornhill pulls his new wife into bed in a train compartment, the train itself thrusts (ahem) into a mountain tunnel. Subtle, it’s not, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a near-perfect end to a delightfully airy film sandwiched between two of the director’s darker, heavier offerings, “Vertigo” and “Psycho.” [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Missing a bus two minutes and nine seconds in. The only film in which he’s essentially heralded by his on-screen credit.
Aw, jeez. What's left to say about "Psycho?" Endlessly analyzed, deconstructed, remade and discussed over the past 52 years, probably more so than anything else in Hitchcock's filmography, and the film itself will, in a few short weeks, form the basis of the Anthony Hopkins-starring biopic "Hitchcock" (which was originally titled "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"). But when you cut through the academics and the analysis and the fact that it's almost impossible for new generations to come to it unspoiled, the film remains a cracking thriller, and probably the most unnerving film the director ever made. If you've recently slipped out of a 60-year coma, let us fill you in. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, who rips off her employer in order to help out her boyfriend (John Gavin). Checking into the eerie Bates Motel, staffed only by loner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his unseen mother, she has a change of heart, only to be brutally and suddenly murdered, seemingly by Mrs. Bates. It's one of the great shocks in cinema (and one of the great examples of sneaking in experimental, avant-garde technique into mainstream film), but there's a twist just as surprising, if not more so, still to come. One could arguably quibble about some of the supporting performances, but Leigh and Perkins are iconic, and Hitchcock is at the very peak of his game (indeed, one could easily argue it was all downhill from here). That even the mostly substandard sequels couldn't sully the name of the original is a pretty major demonstration of the film's staying power. [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: 06:35, glimpsed wearing a cowboy hat through the window of Marion's office.
"The Birds" (1963)
Hitchcock movies often don’t always make a lot of sense plot wise from a modern perspective and can often feel a little ridiculous if you break them down. With terror being the aim, at least in “The Birds,” the motivation is usually to just get these characters into this horrific situation as quickly as possible so they can be terrorized. So, if there was a “honest trailer” version of “The Birds” it might say that a seaside town of San Francisco is so ecologically disrupted by the presence of a crazy rich bitch (Tippi Hedren) who drives two hours to deliver a pair of lovebirds to a cocky asshole she met randomly in a pet shop because she’s got a crush on his asshole-ish ness, well, that honest trailer wouldn’t be that far off. Why Hedren’s character would do any of that doesn’t make a lick of sense unless you’re a total stalker-y sociopath (which doesn’t appear to be the case), but Hitchcock does have some fun with the implications that a woman who doesn’t belong disturbs the order of things, which manifest with birds in the area going batshit crazy and trying to kill everyone. That said, when you look past some of the silly concepts and the fact that there’s little explanation as to why the aves go nuts (other than some of the suggestions we’ve given), “The Birds” is a chilling and well-crafted horror that truly peaks when the picture does away with the suspense and intrigue and just breaks down into the rein of terror that these feathered creatures unleash. Perhaps one of the the most unnerving elements of the movie is Hitchock's decision to do away with a traditional score, instead using sound effects, an atonal electronic sound design and long stretches of silence (Hitchcock's previous musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann is credited as "sound consultant"). At the same time, while memorable, and perhaps one of his best-known pictures, “The Birds” feels far less like mandatory watching than a good dozen other Hitchcock films. A remake with George Clooney and Naomi Watts in the Rod Taylor and Tippi Hendren roles was rumored in 2007, but luckily, it never came to pass. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: Two minutes in, leaving the pet shop with his real-life dogs, Geoffrey and Stanley.
The final “Hitchcock blonde” to have a central role and one that Truffaut stated was “stifling, like a nightmare,” Tippi Hedren gives a layered performance as the titular con-artist with a hearty distrust for the male gender (also on the list: stormy weather, the color red). Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), owner of a company she knocks off, falls head-over-heels for the woman and agrees he won’t turn her in to the law if she agrees to marry him. After a double-whammy of raping Marnie and saving her from a subsequent suicide attempt, Rutland decides to get to the bottom of her neurosis, and the newlyweds pay a visit to her Mother and receive a startling explanation. Consistently interesting and envelope pushing (the rape was hugely unexpected and expertly handled), “Marnie” is probably the director’s most visually ambitious film next to “Vertigo” — there’s constant play with color (especially red) and his love for Expressionism runs rampant in nearly every scene, making Marnie’s troubled psyche immensely felt. Hedren’s character is grippingly mysterious, her intentions and fear intriguing up until the final reveal; in addition, Rutland is good intentioned, but eternally suspicious after forcing Marnie to consummate. In terms of being a pure suspense craftsman, there are plenty of enthralling sequences (such as Marnie’s office robbery), but the granddaddy of them all involves the protagonist escaping from a group hunt, horse-bound (not just any mustang, either — hers, named Florio), and missing a jump over a stone-wall. She catapults forward and hits the ground without a scratch, but her ride isn’t so lucky, and the lead struggles to find a gun to put it out of its misery. The escape begins thrillingly, quick cuts between backdrops and location shooting, and in Marnie’s eyes we can see the ecstasy of freedom — but it is short-lived, her behavior destroying a loved one and sending her into absolute hysterics. There’s nothing left but a gaping wide crack for convalescence. While possibly a bit long in the end, it’s engaging from start to finish, and pretty unique compared to the rest. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Crossing the hotel corridor five minutes in.
"Torn Curtain" (1966)
One could be forgiven for expecting a lot from the sole collaboration that teamed up one of the great directors with one of Hollywood's great stars, in the shape of Paul Newman. Furthermore, "Torn Curtain" marked Hitchcock's 50th film, so expectations were even higher for something special. Sadly, that's far from the truth, with the film marking one of the major lowpoints of the director's late period. Newman plays Professor Michael Armstrong, a rocket scientist who to the surprise of the world, not least his fiancee Sarah (Julie Andrews), appears to defect to East Germany. In fact, he's a double agent, out to discover what the Eastern Bloc know about U.S. anti-missile systems, which puts both of their lives in danger as they try to return to the West. "Torn Curtain" has some cracking set pieces long the way, it should be said; the crowded theater escape at the conclusion, and most memorably, Armstrong's brutal murder of a Stasi agent, which stands with anything on the director's resume. And as with "Marnie," the use of color is pretty impressive. But as a whole, the film's a damp squib and the script (by Brian Moore and "Billy Liar" writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) is deeply lacking, in need of a sure hand like Ernest Lehmann. And most damagingly, the leads never gel, either with each other or with the director (Cary Grant had turned the part down, and Newman and Hitchcock maintained a frosty relationship throughout the shoot). It's a curiously anonymous film, and firmly in the 'minor' section of Hitchcock, despite its occasionally interesting spots. Also worth noting is that the film saw the falling out between composer Bernard Hermann and the filmmaker, after the composer ignored Hitchcock's instructions not to write music for the famous murder scene. [C-]
Hitchcock Cameo: In the lobby of the Hotel d'Angleterre, with a baby on his knee.
The director's second dour, unloved spy thriller in a row, "Topaz" (an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Leon Uris, based loosely on real events) saw Hitchcock veer away from using stars, having been burnt by his experience with Newman on "Torn Curtain." Instead, he cast international names like Frederick Stafford, Dany Robin, Michel Subor, and Truffaut favorite Claude Jade. Unfortunately, the results were not all that much more successful. Stafford plays a French agent who travels to New York, newly married daughter (Jade) in tow, after a CIA pal asks him to investigate the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, only to discover the existence of a spy ring within French intelligence. It's a more realistic take on the spy genre than, say, "North by Northwest," but Hitchcock shying away from names results in something of a charisma vacuum in the film — Stafford is pretty wooden, and the rest of the cast don't grab you much further. The plot is convoluted and somewhat contrived, without ever building up much of a head of steam of suspense, and unlike "Torn Curtain," there isn't so much as a single memorable set piece. A more realistic and grown-up kind of thriller from Hitchcock was an intriguing idea, but the execution here is deeply, deeply disappointing. [D+]
Hitchcock Cameo: One of our favorites; 33 minutes in, he enters pushed in a wheelchair, only to stand and walk away when his nurse is distracted.
Whereas "Psycho" was about the slow, subtle reveal and teasing moments of prolonged suspense, the thematically similar "Frenzy" is pure insanity. Released towards the end of his career (after Hitchcock had surpassed, in the words of Eli Roth, "the point of fuck-it"), the film focused on a rapist/serial killer in contemporary London who strangles people with his necktie. It's an odd (but totally winning) mash-up of two of Hitchcock's favorite obsessions – the operations of a serial killer and the wrong man accused of the crime. What makes "Frenzy" so different than his previous films, however, is how balls out it is. Instead of gingerly cutting around the murders, Hitchcock shows everything – and the result is a kicky Technicolor free-for-all of lurid sex and violence, lacquered with Hitchcock’s droll visual style and fondness for dark humor (never have the words “sex murderer” been wrung for so many laughs). Based on the novel "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square" by Arthur La Bern and adapted by Anthony Shaffer (a noted playwright who wrote the “Citizen Kane” of British horror movies, “The Wicker Man”), it remains, to this day, genuinely shocking and deeply funny, a late-era masterpiece that proved that he was still keen for low-budget experimentation up until the bitter end. It also makes for a wickedly sharp and observant movie about London — the way that violence is ingrained in the city, always underneath the surface but ready to show its teeth (there are multiple references to Jack the Ripper, including the killer’s eating of grapes — supposedly a way that the Ripper lured some of his victims to their doom), and the kind of explicit sex that goes on with a knowing wink from the prim-and-proper residents (“Do you want the two singles or the matrimonial-sized bed?”). Hitchcock was not only going out of his way visually and tonally, but he was also delving deeper thematically. It might be just as shocking as any of the murders. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Three minutes in, wearing a bowler hat, and refusing to applaud a speaker.
"Family Plot" (1976)
Lights out, applause, curtain call. While not exactly meant to be his last hurrah, the deteriorating health of the “Master of Suspense” (just before he had received a pacemaker) forced this light mystery-thriller to have the unwanted burden of being the final credit on a cinematic legend’s resume. In fact, its modest, jocular nature has drawn a vast amount of ire from the director’s staunch fanbase (the most amusing case of mud slinging compared it to an episode of “Hart to Hart”). While its detractors aren’t entirely wrong (it’s no gem, just a bit unimpressive and prosaic), it’s enjoyable enough, and the acting is comparatively looser than most of what comes before it thanks to the allowed improvisations on set, a first for the director. Could this have marked a new workstyle for the man who once compared thespians to cattle? We may never know. "Family Plot" finds Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern as they search for the missing nephew/heir of Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), an elderly women with a large fortune to squander. Their eyes set on the $10k reward/finder’s fee, the couple eventually sniff him out, though they get more than what they bargained for when he’s discovered to have changed his identity after he committed a murder. But just add it to the list of red flags: he’s a successful kidnapper, wealthy jeweler, and last but not least, played by the eternally intimidating William Devane. If you hear anything positive about this movie, people usually reference the hilarious “car chase” — which is misleading, and not only because it only involves a single car charging down the road with its brakes cut. The filmmaker manages to play with conflicting tones here: he cuts like a maniac between the interiors of the car (where Dern and Harris banter) and the driver’s POV as they swerve and barrel down a mountain road. It was a somewhat new approach for the director (he had done comedy before, but never so intertwined with the suspense), and proved that even in ill-health he could deliver a highly thrilling sequence. Things wrap up with the inevitable bow at the end, and Harris gives a wink to the camera — perhaps too cute to close a movie, but a rather touching, playful final shot of a career. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Whether because of ill health or something else, Hitch’s last on-screen appearance is in his iconic silhouette, through the doors of the Registrar forty minutes into the film.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Drew Taylor, Kimber Myers, Deborah Bosket, Sam Chater