Alfred Hitchcock’s second to last film, the underrated Frenzy, may not rank in his top tier. I would reserve that for The Birds, Vertigo, Notorious, and the first two-thirds of Psycho. But it definitely deserves consideration for that next tier, a still high quality group of classics that may include Rebecca, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window and North By Northwest.
Returning for the first time in decades to his old stomping grounds in England, the then seventy-three year old master was able to fully embrace the sex, violence, and nudity standards that had become looser by the early 1970s. The film is shockingly explicit even when compared with say, Marnie, his sexual thriller he made only eight years earlier.Continue Reading
The massive career of Alfred Hitchcock can be broken down into three sections. There’s his early British career (that includes both silent films and talkies) that ends with Jamaica Inn in 1939. Then there’s the first half of his American period; he crossed the ocean and found instant success with Rebecca and continued to hone his craft and try out different genres during the 1940s and early ‘50s. And then finally there’s his most celebrated period beginning around ’54 with Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, where the name Hitchcock became a brand and most of his films were events in themselves. Of that middle period, besides Rebecca there are a number of celebrated and still admired flicks including Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train. But one film that really stands out, less flashy than the others but more emotionally devastating, is Notorious. On paper it’s an espionage thriller, but it’s actually one of the great heartbreaking love stories of the era.
Just after WWII, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the party girl daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by an American Intelligence agent, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), to prove her love to the red, white, & blue by infiltrating a group of Nazis who are hanging out in Brazil, planning a little postwar revenge against the USA. Things get complicated when, while waiting for the job to start, the two beautiful people fall in love. When the details arrive, ...
Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s arthouse shocker, Les Diabolique, Alfred Hitchcock took a break from his big budget Technicolor thrillers to make a little horror film called Psycho. Like the French film, he would shoot on a shoestring budget and in black & white. After the massive success of his previous film, North By Northwest, most of the suits at the studio thought their cash cow was off his rocker. Forgoing most of his big money crew he had worked with for years, he used the team from his anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, knowing they could work fast and cheap and would be more open to some of the new radical tricks Hitchcock was hoping to try out. With no one understanding what the master had up his sleeve, in the end, Psycho has proved to be one his biggest hits and one of the most influential films of all time.
Perfectly taut and compact, every line of Pyscho's dialog, every camera movement, and even the casting is all carefully constructed for the scare and suspense payoffs to come. Based on a then little read novel with the same title by Robert Bloch (Strait-Jacket), Hitchcock burned through a couple of screenwriters before Joseph Stefano got the vibe he was looking for. Bloch was inspired by the horrific true-life serial killer Ed Gein (whose ghastly crimes would inspire a number of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Motel Hell).Continue Reading
Based on Patricia Highsmith's book The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of her five Ripley novels known as the "Ripliad," she is also the author of the book that became Strangers on a Train), which of course was also filmed later by Anthony Minghella in ’99, the French version Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) proves to be a much more entertaining ride. That’s not to say that the American version isn’t also very good. I like it a lot and I don’t know which version is closer to Highsmith’s book, but where Minghella tried to ring psychological complexity out of simplicity, often making it feel overstuffed, director René Clément (most famous for Forbidden Games from ’52) goes for a more straightforward suntanned noir. And as much as I admired Matt Damon as Ripley, Clément’s ace-in-the-hole is the young French superstar Alain Delon who doesn’t wear his acting on his sleeve like Damon did--instead he just naturally oozes charisma, making the character less a super-geek psycho and more a smooth criminal.
The film starts right off with two American buddies (strangely, played by the French stars) living the cafe life in Italy. It’s casually mentioned that the father of the rich one, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), has hired the other, Tom Ripley (Delon), to convince his party-boy son to return home to San Francisco (?!) and finally face his adult responsibilities. Of course, Minghella’s Ripley starts in the States, with the setup played out on camera; score this to Purple Noon for cutting to the chase. None of Philippe’s other rich friends care much for Tom, including his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and his pal, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns, an actor actually born in America, though most of his career was in French cinema. He’s fine but the American version’s Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in the role). But the ever cruel Philippe enjoys having Tom around where he can pick on him and taunt his lack of sophistication. (Ronet is much more mean-spirited and less charming than Jude Law’s take on Dickie). Ripley envies Philippe’s lifestyle, his money, his clothes, his freedom and his relationship with Marge. The American version gives Ripley an obvious homosexual obsession with his idol. Here it’s only lightly hinted at; Ripley’s main obsession is more financial and materialistic. The French version does not linger on their relationship long enough to get into those matters, and by the end of the first act, Ripley has purposely killed Philippe in order to steal his money and even woo Marge. The murder in the American version is a fit of passion; here it’s premeditated. The suspense comes in how he covers it up. It’s on a boat and it’s not easy. And the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Ripley and the police investigating the murder (and later Ripley is forced to kill Freddie), as Ripley pretends to be Philippe to keep the investigators and Marge off his trail.Continue Reading
Stranger by the Lake
Talking about sex on film and why he felt it didn’t work Orson Welles once said, “Ecstasy isn’t really part of the scene we can do on celluloid.” I wonder what he would have made of Stranger by the Lake, a film that is about almost nothing but sex. Okay, you might say it’s about the search for connection, and the complicated nature of human relationships, and it’s kind of a murder mystery as well but everyone is naked almost the entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many uncircumcised penises (it’s French..) in a movie before. As a thriller, it works well enough. The nudity is distracting to a point but it works in tandem with the languid pacing and serenity of the visuals. This is, in some sense, a nature film.
The film takes place at a cruising spot near a lake in France. Men come to sunbathe nude, and to go into the woods nearby to have anonymous sex. It’s a world unto itself with its own peculiar rules and set of codes. Real life doesn’t seem to intrude but that’s an illusion because the dangers of the real world are ominously close. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular who is more drawn to this spot than he wants to admit. He likes disappearing into the woods. He strips, he swims, he sunbathes, he cruises, and the scenes have an unobtrusive medium-shot matter-of-fact-ness about them. They look like anthropologists doing fieldwork on gay subcultures could have shot them.Continue Reading
Strangers on a Train
For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.
With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.Continue Reading
Isn't it funny that few people have not heard of The Birds, and yet fewer would vote it one of Hitchcock's best? Perhaps the reason is that more than any other Hitchcock film, The Birds leaves the viewer with the very unsettling feeling of a nightmare without end.
The basic story of a beautiful, spoiled socialite chasing after her beau to small-town (and fictitious) Bodega Bay seems insignificant to the film. Even the underlying message of the mass revolt of nature, as symbolized by birds against man, seems insignificant. In the end, it is the experience of going through the nightmarish bird attacks that will haunt us forever. Hitchcock unceremoniously throws the audience in with the unfortunate lot of the characters. We were scratched, bitten, terrorized right alongside Tippi Hedren.Continue Reading
Though Francis Ford Coppola is best known as director of bona fide American classics such as the Godfather and Apocalypse Now, The Conversation may be his purest offering of artistic expression. And though not autobiographical, the film is certainly personal and undeniably haunting.
Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a lonely surveillance expert hired by a mysterious agency to record a seemingly benign conversation between a young couple. Though Caul is meant to remain unattached and unconcerned with the contents of the conversation, he soon finds himself becoming personally involved, fearing for the safety of the couple and the possibility that he may unwittingly play a role in their demise.Continue Reading
The Talented Mr. Ripley
A lot of directors working today try to ape Hitchcock. His films are the gold standard for artful forays into psychological terror. Christopher Nolan is just the latest celebrated director trying to tap into a rich vein of Hitchcockian malice for his own films. But while Nolan succeeds with astonishing set-pieces within his films—think of the face-to-face interrogation room sequence between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight—his films are, for the most part, long on disorienting gimmicks and rather low on psychological depth. He also doesn’t go near the subject of sex and Hitchcock’s films are full of sex—sexual obsession, sexual dread, sexual paranoia—the one exception being sexual fulfillment which seemed to exist only within the arms of his most beautiful and iconic star couplings in films such as Notorious and To Catch a Thief.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a first-rate Hitchcockian exercise from the late director Anthony Minghella and it has all of the corrosive sexual dread you could ask for as well as a disturbingly convincing subtext on the kinds of identity games Americans are always involved in. It’s glamorous and dark and manages to top Hitchcock in at least one respect—its undercurrent of eroticism is explicitly homosexual.Continue Reading
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading