September 13, 2009

Beyond the essentials: Hitchcock

This is my new feature Beyond the Essentials, where I use my vast and utterly impressive film knowledge to help you figure out which lesser-known movies by your favorite actors and directors are worth your time. Or maybe I'll never write another one again. We'll see.

So I assume you've all dutifully seen the mandatory Hitchcock viewing like good little film lovers - which, for the sake of argument, consists of Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window, possibly North by Northwest. The way I arrived at this conclusion was by completing the following sentence: "You call yourself a film buff and you HAVEN'T SEEN ________ ?!?" I don't think any of his other works would induce that same level of hysteria if you hadn't gotten around to them yet. If you had any kind of formal film education, you undoubtedly saw Rope, at least in part, because GET THIS, GUYS, I DON'T KNOW IF YOU KNEW THIS, BUT THE MOVIE HAS A LOT OF REALLY LONG TAKES. Then there are the second-tier essentials, like Strangers on a Train and The Birds, which are logical next steps in your Hitchcock exploration.

But then you see that his IMDB page is a big muck of stuff you've never heard of, or maybe you've heard of it but not about it. Where to begin? While I'm hardly a scholar on the subject, I think I've delved a bit deeper into his filmography than the average bear, so allow me to share my findings. This is by no means a complete report, of course, but just a selection of highlights (and lowlights).


1. The 39 Steps (1935)
A kindred spirit to North by Northwest, this is a similar tale of a rogueish lad getting wrapped up in a big mess and going on an adventure to deal with it. It has some great twists as well as some genuinely shocking moments, and great screwball chemistry (attraction masked by antagonism) between the two leads. It's kind of a leaner, scrappier version of NbNW, and a lot of fun.

2. Lifeboat (1944)
This movie hardly reads like a Hitchcock at all. And that's not a bad thing. I think we can all agree that Hitch was more concerned with plot than with characters (and there's nothing wrong with that), so it was a neat surprise to see this character-driven piece from him. It's a handful of strangers stuck in a lifeboat, trying to survive and figuring out who they can trust. The performances are incredible, and while it's not exactly suspenseful per se, it's definitely gripping. This movie needs to be discovered. Also: look for the clever way Hitch manages his cameo.

3. I Confess (1953)
This film is called one of the more “noir-ish” in Hitchcock’s filmography, and I’m inclined to agree. Very dark and shadowy. Montgomery Clift is a perfect lead for this film, adding a lot of pathos and gravitas as a conflicted priest. Shot on location (which Hitchcock absolutely hated to do), this is a tight little piece of everything that’s good about Hitch.


1. Stage Fright (1950)
Amicable enough, it's a standard whodunit. I happen to be quite fond of films set in the backstage world. But two things make it stand out: the scenery-chewing of Marlene Dietrich, and the mind-blowing twist that, at the risk of being hyperbolic, challenges one of the conventions we take for granted in cinema (particularly in films of that time).

2. Marnie (1964)
One of the interesting things about following Hitchcock's career into his later years is seeing what he did with the increasing on-screen permissiveness in movies. Well, in 1964, he made a movie about sexual psychosis. Really. With the added subtext of Hitchcock's real-life obsession with star Tippi Hedren, there's a lot going on here. It's not perfect, and some parts are a bit silly, but it's an interesting and gutsy move from a director who was always pushing the envelope. And Sean Connery is at the height of his dashing-ness here.

3. Suspicion (1941)
Joan Fontaine stars in the only Hitch-directed role ever to win an Oscar, which baffles me. Maybe I was missing some hidden depths or something, but her performance was pretty bland. It's like a diluted version of her role in the vastly superior Rebecca a year earlier. The real draw here is for Cary Grant fans, who want to see him do something different. And by different, I mean sinister. He doesn't play a Joker type or anything, but rather subverts his classic charm into that kind of charm that a lot of murderers seem to have. If you do see this movie, though, go in knowing that the ending is very much not what Hitchcock wanted, and read what the original ending was and why it didn't make the cut.


1. Torn Curtain (1966)
This was the only Hitchcock movie I really never got much out of. Very meh, and it randomly stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Unfortunately, watching Cassidy and Mary Poppins outwit Soviet spies is not nearly as fun as it sounds.

In conclusion, though, every film by a great director has at least something to offer. Whether that potentially brief something is worth two hours of your time, however, is another matter.

What other obscure Hitchcock films can you recommend / advise against?


Anonymous said...

His original intention for the Lifeboat cameo was to float by as a corpse (source: IMDB ofcourse)

I truly believe that would've been more fun to watch :)

Scott Nye said...

Shadow of a Doubt doesn't get enough play outside of the film nerd community. Hell, I didn't even know it was as important as it was until I saw it a year ago, and I certainly didn't know it was one of his best (Top 5 easy, maybe even Top 3).

Julie said...

Yeah, I wasn't sure what the general awareness of Shadow of a Doubt was. And yes, Hitchcock as a corpse would have been very entertaining.

Chick Flicks and Beer said...

Lifeboat is an amazing film. The combination of Steinbeck and Hitchcock is enough to make me drool in my popcorn. Truly underated.

Second, I love "The Birds" and I have seen it about 200 times in some form or another. I won't get into why this film is so wonderful and for me, in many way, his best.

I am a diehard Hitchcock fan and perhaps the reason I like films so much is the fact that he made films at all. The only Hitchcock film I haven't seen (post sound) is "Jamaica Inn" which I will never watch because that then I will have seen all his films which will be a bad day.

I enjoy your blog...great.