Kehr Capsules of the Week: Late Hitchcock selections (1951-1964)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1951 thriller, centered on a classic Catholic theme—that there is no difference between thinking a sin and committing it. When Guy (Farley Granger) daydreams the murder of his wife, black, neurotic Bruno (Robert Walker) materializes as if in answer to his prayers: Bruno will kill Guy’s wife if Guy, in turn, will kill Bruno’s father. Some critics (famously Robin Wood) have claimed that the film cops out by relieving Guy of his end of the deal, but something else is going on here, particularly when Bruno’s father—elevated, unseen, all-powerful—is clearly more than a father. Perhaps Strangers on a Train still hasn’t yielded all its secrets. A disgruntled Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay.

I Confess (1953)

Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest serious critics, the Catholic-minded Cahiersgroup, revered this 1953 film above all his 50s work; today it’s very seldom revived. Montgomery Clift plays a stone-faced priest (Hitchcock’s only direction to him seems to have been “don’t twitch”) who hears a confession of murder and assumes the killer’s guilt. The movie is more interesting than achieved: it’s the most forthright statement of the transference theme in Hitchcock’s work, but it’s also the least nuanced. Still, there are shots of extraordinary beauty, emerging from the grayish Quebec background like flashes into color.

Dial M for Murder (1953)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 adaptation of Frederick Knott’s dinner-theater warhorse about a fading tennis champion (Ray Milland) who arranges the murder of his wife (Grace Kelly). The film is confined almost entirely to a cramped apartment set—a constricted space that takes on a highly expressive quality in the picture’s original 3-D version (not the one showing). The screenplay tends to constrain rather than liberate Hitchcock’s thematic thrust, but there is much of technical value in his geometric survey of the scene and the elaborate strategies employed to transfer audience sympathy among the four main characters.

Rear Window (1954)

The most densely allegorical of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces (1954), moving from psychology to morality to formal concerns and finally to the theological. It is also Hitchcock’s most innovative film in terms of narrative technique, discarding a linear story line in favor of thematically related incidents, linked only by the powerful sense of real time created by the lighting effects and the revolutionary ambient sound track. James Stewart is the news photographer who, immobilized by a broken leg, dreams stories about the neighbors in his courtyard and demands that they come true.


The Trouble With Harry (1955)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 comedy has long been overshadowed by the masterworks that surround it (Rear Window on one side, Vertigo on the other), but it’s a wonderful, fanciful film, the most optimistic movie he ever made – a fairy tale among nightmares. The film is a celebration of the powers of the artist – as life giver, creator, liberator – assembled with gentleness and whimsy. The moment when the artist (John Forsythe) proposes to his lover (Shirley MacLaine, in her film debut) is the most gracious in Hitchcock’s work. He says, “We’ll be the only free couple in the world,” and his words are a light of hope for all the tortured couples that populate Hitchcock’s films, from Rich and Strange to Marnie. The story centers on a corpse, planted by providence in a New England forest on a lovely autumn day; the supporting players include Edmund Gwenn as a retired sea captain (unmistakably a projection of Hitchcock himself) and Mildred Natwick as the village spinster.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film has some of the bluntness of a religious tract; it’s sort of a “Handbook on Christian Marriage.” James Stewart and Doris Day are the middle-class Americans caught up in an exotic foreign intrigue: their marriage represents an imbalance of reason and emotion, repression and expression, and secularism and faith. When their son is kidnapped, Hitchcock clearly characterizes it as an act of God meant to test their union. The film is uncharacteristically rigid and pious for Hitchcock; it feels more like a work of duty than conviction. Despite the many famous set pieces the film contains (the assassination in Algiers, the attempt at the Albert Hall), the most impressive sequence, technically and dramatically, is a quiet one in which Stewart tells Day that their child has been taken.


Vertigo (1958)

One of the landmarks—not merely of the movies, but of 20th-century art. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film extends the theme of Rear Window—the relationship of creator and creation—into the realm of love and sexuality, focusing on an isolated, inspired romantic (James Stewart) who pursues the spirit of a woman (the powerfully carnal Kim Novak). The film’s dynamics of chase, capture, and escape parallel the artist’s struggle with his work; the enraptured gaze of the Stewart character before the phantom he has created parallels the spectator’s position in front of the movie screen. The famous motif of the fall is presented in horizontal rather than vertical space, so that it becomes not a satanic fall from grace, but a modernist fall into the image, into the artwork—a total absorption of the creator by his creation, which in the end is shown as synonymous with death. But a thematic analysis can only scratch the surface of this extraordinarily dense and commanding film, perhaps the most intensely personal movie to emerge from the Hollywood cinema.


North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant, a martini-sodden advertising director, awakes from a middle-class daydream into an underworld nightmare when he’s mistaken for a secret agent (1959). A great film, and certainly one of the most entertaining movies ever made, directed by Alfred Hitchcock at his peak.


Psycho (1960)

A dark night at the Bates Motel, in the horror movie that transformed the genre by locating the monster inside ourselves. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece blends a brutal manipulation of audience identification and an incredibly dense, allusive visual style to create the most morally unsettling film ever made. The case for Hitchcock as a modern Conrad rests on this ruthless investigation of the heart of darkness, but the film is uniquely Hitchcockian in its positioning of the godlike mother figure. It’s a deeply serious and deeply disturbing work, but Hitchcock, with his characteristic perversity, insisted on telling interviewers that it was a “fun” picture.


The Birds (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock’s most abstract film (1963), and perhaps his subtlest, still yielding new meanings and inflections after a dozen or more viewings. As emblems of sexual tension, divine retribution, meaningless chaos, metaphysical inversion, and aching human guilt, his attacking birds acquire a metaphorical complexity and slipperiness worthy of Melville. Tippi Hedren’s lead performance is still open to controversy, but her evident stage fright is put to sublimely Hitchcockian uses. (And does anyone besides me believe that Mrs. Brenner was having an affair with Dan Fawcett?).


Marnie (1964)

Universally despised on its first release, Marnie (1964) remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest and darkest achievements. Tippi Hedren, in a performance based on a naked, anxious vulnerability, is a compulsive thief; Sean Connery is the neurotically motivated southern gentleman who catches her in the act and blackmails her into marriage. The examination of sexual power plays surpasses Fassbinder’s films, which Marnie thematically resembles, going beyond a simple dichotomy of strength and weakness into a dense, shifting field of masochism, class antagonism, religious transgression, and the collective unconscious. The mise-en-scene tends toward a painterly abstraction, as Hitchcock employs powerful masses, blank colors, and studiously unreal, spatially distorted settings. Theme and technique meet on the highest level of film art.

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