Minor Hitchcock

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Today, loving directors means less legwork, less hunting around (unless, of course, you dig Miike). Now that movies are more expensive, fewer are made, and making middle-of-the-road films for middle-of-the-road profits just isn’t attractive anymore. When the studio system held sway in America, and was emulated throughout the rest of the world, the need for steady product all but guaranteed that your favorite director would be at work, producing films yearly. These days, discounting the exceptional few like Soderbergh and Allen, you don’t get that kind of regularity. Tarantino is midway through the second decade of his filmmaking career, and he’s released six features total (if you count Kill Bill as two movies). David Cronenberg, my personal favorite, has managed three features this decade, with no strong indication he’ll be matching the 90s, wherein he made four films. Quantity for its own sake isn’t a positive, but there’s something exciting about the possibilities that linger in the extensive filmographies of Ford, Hawks, and the subject of this small survey, Hitchcock.

Most of Hitchcock’s modern reputation is based on his work in the mid-to-late 50s and early 60s, and while many of the films he did prior to that are considered canon (in particular, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Shadow Of A Doubt, Notorious, and Strangers On A Train), the average informed filmgoer will consider the necessary viewing of Hitchcock to be Rear Window, North By Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho. These are the epochal titles. If he had made only these four, his influence and reputation would be secure.

But this view would be selling the man’s legacy and work short. Of the over fifty extant films to his credit, there are at least a dozen that, if not to the level above, still sparkle with the black humor and precisely timed direction that make him one of our great filmmakers.

Before he came to America in 1939, Hitchcock had solidified a place in British film history. Still, he was a filmmaker in an American idiom. While his early films have stories and settings that are resolutely British, their style is most heavily influenced by German and American techniques (and, since there was so much money and so few Nazis in the U.S., most of that German talent ended up in America, anyway).

One of his strongest British films is Sabotage. Marred by one of the weakest romantic relationships in all of Hitchcock (mostly because the male lead is a damp squib, impossible to care about), it contains two bravura sequences. One involves a boy delivering a bomb. The other involves the female lead, her husband, and a very suggestive slicing of a pork roast.

During wartime, Hitchcock did his part with movies starring those dastardly Germans, and the most fun of these was Foreign Correspondent. It’s a travelogue picture, similar to North By Northwest or TheĀ 39 Steps, and there are at least a few great shots that Brian De Palma stole wholesale. The leads are weak, but the fake European settings are a hoot. Yes, I said a hoot.

Suspicion is an almost-there, filmed in the U.S. but set in Britain for no discernible reason. As a man whose increasingly desperate fiance believes he is a cold-blooded killer, Cary Grant gives a terrific performance (for the most part). It’s a Hollywood movie, so it doesn’t end up the way it should, but Grant is eminently watchable, even in a minor effort like this.

The Paradine Case has all sorts of Gregory Peck integrity, and the movie is an OK mystery leading up to the famous and devastating final shot. (It’s probably second or third to last, but it’s the one you remember.) The film is worth the end, and Charles Laughton’s judge is one of his most loathsome, toad-like characters ever.

Rope – is that in the canon? Rope is one of my favorites, despite the self-imposed limitations (which are silly, really), all of which tie Hitchcock’s hands from being able to make a real Hitchcock movie. After this one, James Stewart said he’d never work with the master again.

Stage Fright has two terrific performances for an underperforming plot, but the end is not as tidy as you think going in. This was shot in Britain after Hitch left Selznick, the last “British” movie he did until Frenzy.

I Confess has fantastic imagery (particularly of Montgomery Clift’s priest walking around Ontario…or wherever in Canada he is), an OK plot, a difficult-to-believe love story, and a scene that is a dry run for the coroner’s inquest in Vertigo.

The Wrong Man is near-documentary-realism, a real oddity in the catalog; a police procedural from the POV of the suspect. Foreboding and almost disturbing, it is one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known gems. Henry Fonda gives a powerful performance of resigned vulnerability. Hollywood ending, but good flickishness.

The Trouble With Harry is a trifle, proof that Hitch’s humor works best in the context of suspense. Yet it has the young Shirley MacLaine (like, twenty years old), so frickin’ hot I couldn’t believe it was her.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com