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Top Ten Tuesday – The Best of Alfred Hitchcock

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It’s always a good time to read about director Alfred Hitchcock and expect a lot of attention on the Master of Suspense in the upcoming months as there are two films currently in production about him. ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THE MAKING OF PSYCHO (expect a title change on that one) based in the book by Steve Rebello, is in pre-production with Sacha Gervasi (ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL) directing and an outstanding cast attached. Anthony Hopkins has signed on to play Hitch, Scarlett Johansson is cast as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel will be playing Vera Miles, British actor James D’Arcy is Tony Perkins, and Helen Mirren will play Alma Reville (Mrs Hitchcock). The other Hitchcock film in the works is THE GIRL produced by The BBC that will premiere later this year on HBO. THE GIRL focuses on the love/hate relationship between Hitchcock (played by Toby Jones) and his abused young discovery Tippi Hedren  (Sienna Miller).

Wile we wait for those, Super-8 ALFRED HITCHCOCK Movie Madness will be a great way to celebrate the life and films of the legendary British director. It takes place April 3rd at the Way Out Club in St. Louis (2525 Jefferson in South City). We’ll be showing condensed (18 minute) versions of several of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films on Super-8 sound film projected on a big screen. They are: 18-minute condensed versions of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE BIRDS, PSYCHO, FRENZY, and FAMILY PLOT, a Hitchcock Trailer Reel, a PSYCHO Promo Reel, and a THE BIRDS Promo reel. The non-Hitchcock movies we’ll be showing April 3rd are the Hammer Horror shocker LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, The Three Stooges in THREE SAPPY PEOPLE, THE GUINESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, the 1936 Sci-Fi epic THINGS TO COME, and the 1945 horror film DEAD OF NIGHT. We’ll have Alfred Hitchcock trivia with prizes, and much more. The Way Out Club is located at 2525 Jefferson Avenue (at Gravois) in South St. Louis. Admission is only $3.00.

Alfred Hitchcock directed 54 feature films between 1925 and 1976, and here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are his ten best:

10. FRENZY

FRENZY, Hitchcock’s next to last feature film from 1972, represented a homecoming of sorts since it was the first film completely shot in his native England since his silents and early ” talkies ” in the 1930′s. By dipping into the then somewhat new territory of serial killers, he took full advantage of the new cinema freedoms and truly earned his ‘ R ‘ MPAA rating. Perhaps ole’ ” Hitch ” wanted to give those young up-and-coming film makers a run for their thriller movie money ( take that Brian DePalma! ). Anthony ( SLEUTH ) Schaffer’s screenplay told of an innocent man ( Jon Finch ) on the run ( ala NORTH BY NORTHWEST ) after police believe him to be the notorious necktie rapist/strangler. Seems this fellow’s buddy ( Barry Foster ) made his pal’s ex-wife the latest victim in a very graphic murder in a horrific sequence early in the film ( supposedly Michael Caine passed on the role because of the extreme brutality ). But later in the story ” Hitch ” shows surprising discretion. The killer enters an apartment with another woman and the camera stays in the hallway as they close the door. Slowly the camera begins a long tracking shot down the hall ( we hear no sounds from the closed room ) and out into the busy, bustling street ( perhaps showing that life goes on). Very stylish, you old sneak!  Later we get a taste of the master’s sense of humor as the police inspector talks about the case to his gourmet-wannabe’ wife ( her dishes just sound awful!) in a series of running gags ( literally ). Even more hilarious ( and gruesome ) is when the killer realizes that his latest victim grabbed his very personal lapel pin. He’s got to track down the produce truck that carries her corpse ( shades of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY ) stuffed in a sack of potatoes! Though he neared the end of his career Hitchcock proved he could still leave movie audiences gasping! Look for him in an early scene amongst a crowd who spot a body floating in the Thames ( such a proper Englishman-he’s wearing his bowler ).

An 18 minute condensed version of FRENZY will be screened at Super-8 ALFRED HITCHCOCK Movie Madness April 3rd at The Way Out Club

9. SABOTEUR

Though not his first movie in Hollywood, SABOTEUR (1942) was Hitchcock’s first fully American film (REBECCA and SUSPICION both took place in England), one that took its lead characters on a coast-to-coast trek, ending up at one of the most American sites of all: the Statue of Liberty. Robert Cummings is wrongly suspected of being the saboteur who blew up the plant where he worked. He then goes on a cross-country run from his enemies, encountering a beautiful girl, a traveling circus (the unforgettable bearded-lady), etc. The real Saboteur is Nazi spy Norman Lloyd (still with us at 97!) who has since disappeared from the factory. Going on the run Cummings follows a lead concerning Fry which leads him to the ranch of wealthy Otto Kruger who is mixed up with a bigger plot of Sabotage. SABOTEUR introduced many elements that would become Hitchcock staples: the “wrongly-accused man” theme; the innocent hero in pursuit of the real villain with the police on his heels; the cultured villain whose outward respectability masks evil; the reluctant or hostile blonde heroine; the use of important sites (the Statue of Liberty climax, the shoot-out at Radio City) for spectacular set pieces; and, of course, the dark humor. While history hasn’t revealed SABOTEUR to be among Hitchcock’s most popular films, it certainly belongs on this list and is the one most deserving of rediscovery.

8. VERTIGO

Let’s state this right from the top: VERTIGO is one of the greatest films ever made. It’s not simply hyperbole that notables such as Leonard Maltin and Martin Scorsese have called the film Hitchcock’s masterpiece.  To paraphrase Scorsese, rarely have we seen the complexity of a man’s thoughts and feelings portrayed so beautifully and compellingly onscreen.  Everything in VERTIGO – from the costumes to the location scenery to the performances of its lead actors is quite simply, perfect. Hitchcock had long wanted to film a story in the City by the Bay, and with the French novel FROM AMONG THE DEAD, he had the framework for his most personal and revealing film. The San Francisco backdrops contribute greatly to the overall dreamlike quality of much of the film, with the Spanish architecture, redwood forests, and of course, the Golden Gate. The plot of VERTIGO is famously convoluted, but suffice to say that Hitch had yet another morally ambiguous lead character in Scottie (the always solid Jimmy Stewart, here playing against his all-American every guy type), and a plethora of dualities in almost every character – and then some. Madeleine (the wonderful Kim Novak) is not really Madeleine, but Judy. And Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) wants to be Madeleine, but paints a portrait of herself as Carlotta. The old college buddy is really a calculating murderer. Hitchcock uses paintings, reflections, mirrors, and shadows to show us these dual personas constantly throughout the film. On its surface, VERTIGO is about trying to change someone you love. Haven’t we all tried this to some extent at some point in our lives? The danger, as it is here, is that it can become an obsession – this power we have to transform someone. To take the point even further, isn’t it the movies themselves which transform reality for us? It would also be easy to dismiss VERTIGO as one of the darkest and most cynical portrayals of romantic love ever filmed. But Hitchcock actually has a genuine affinity for romance. Look at the scene where Scottie finally molds Judy into the Madeleine he loves. As she enters the room, bathed in an ethereal light, Bernard Herrmann’s lush romantic score swells to a crescendo, and Scottie’s face transforms as he embraces her as Hitch shoots in a full 360 dolly (Notice how the background changes, reflecting Scottie’s memories.) Has there ever been a more beautifully rendered sequence showing a man and woman in love? Many directors would have ended the film right there, but of course, Hitch is not most directors. With its themes of the conflicts inherent in romantic love, its obsessive power to transform reality, and its dark impulses that we both fear and are drawn to, VERTIGO abides as a unique look into the mind of one very special genius.

7. REBECCA

Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, REBECCA was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940, the only Hitchcock film to ever do so (though Best Director went to John Ford that year for GRAPES OF WRATH). We never see the title character in REBECCA, but we constantly feel her presence. Joan Fontaine stars as an unnamed woman who is the “companion” of a spoiled rich woman – Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). She meets Rebecca’s widower: the rich but brooding Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The two marry and he takes her to Manderley, his palatial estate in the English countryside. There, the second Mrs. de Winter must compete with the memory of Rebecca’s perfection, and cope with the menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). REBECCA is an eerie exercise in suspense, one of the more gothic and strange of Hitchcock’s films, as it deals more with psychological terror than the espionage thrillers he’d been making in England. REBECCA proved that a skilled director accustomed to making small pictures in England could embrace the Hollywood system and develop a big movie that would find favor with critics and audiences alike. Yet Hitchcock once told Francois Truffaut that his first American film,”is not a Hitchcock picture.” Apparently producer David O. Selznick, a legendary micromanager, insisted on being closely involved with the movie and producing a faithful adaptation of the book forcing Hitchcock to deliver a film that broke the mold of his British thrillers.

6. THE BIRDS

Hitchcock’s vision of the end of the world, or at least the end of humanity as its master, was a brilliant stamp on perhaps the single greatest decade of filmmaking by any one person in the history of cinema. Think about it – nearly every film on this Top 10 Tuesday list was made during the period from the early 1950s to 1963, when THE BIRDS was released. Tippi Hedren portrays Melanie Daniels, a Paris Hilton-like jetsetter who’s really a good girl at heart, if somewhat used to getting what she wants. And what she wants is Rod Taylor, in his best debonair yet macho guise, as Mitch. Melanie impulsively follows Mitch to his homestead of Bodega Bay, bringing along some caged songbirds, and coincidentally bringing on some wild bird attacks.(Mention should be made here of the Bernard Herrmann “score” for THE BIRDS – there are few actual bird sounds, only the electronic renderings of Herrmann, and no music.) You may provide your own interpretation of these events (Are the birds drawn to light? Are they some psychological manifestation of a mother’s jealousy? A romantic rival’s jealousy?= Or just some damn crazy birds?), or you can just enjoy the visceral ride of admiring a master craftsman. The famous setpieces in THE BIRDS – the schoolyard suspense, the attack at the party, the siege in the farmhouse, etc. are all prime examples of Hitchcock’s techniques for heightened suspense and making the macabre out of the mundane.Perhaps the best scene in the movie is the gas station sequence, where Melanie is trapped in a phonebooth (ah, the good old days of land lines!) and looks on helplessly as the birds begin their onslaught. When the inevitable explosion occurs, Hitch immediately cuts to a skyview, and we see the world as the birds see us – tiny, insignificant creatures amid burning petroleum that they have drained from the earth – a brilliant microcosm of the futility of human enterprise when faced with the forces of nature.

An 18 minute condensed version of THE BIRDS will be screened at Super-8 ALFRED HITCHCOCK Movie Madness April 3rd at The Way Out Club

5. NORTH BY NORTHWEST

In NORTH BY NORTHWEST Hitchcock once again explored the theme of an innocent man on the run. Unlike his recent THE WRONG MAN, this reluctant hero was not trying to escape the police ( they don’t believe him ), but a group of ruthless spies! Making this film compelling ( and very entertaining ) is Cary Grant at his most charming as Roger O. Thornhill ( the O stands for nothing ), terrific location work, and Bernard Herriman’s pulse pounding score. Early on the baddies led by the sinister James Mason and his aide Martin Landau (something…odd…is going on between those two! ) force bourbon down Grant’s throat and put him behind the wheel of a car. The camera assumes the driver’s view as it careens down a dark country road. Later Grant’s framed for a killing as news cameras capture the murder ( look for the kid in the background plugging his ears before the gunshot ). Grant gets a brief rest as he boards a train and encounters Eva Marie Saint as a cool sexy blonde ( ” Hitch ” had a thing for that type..and locomotives! ). Later we see one of the most famous film images as Grant runs down a deserted field to escape a swooping crop dusting bi-plane. The thrill ride concludes with an incredible chase on Mount Rushmore! Hitchcock went all out to give movie audiences their money’s worth! Look for him just missing a bus right after the great Saul Bass opening titles.

An 18 minute condensed version of NORTH BY NORTHWEST will be screened at Super-8 ALFRED HITCHCOCK Movie Madness April 3rd at The Way Out Club

4. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

Hitchcock indulges his penchant for locomotives once again in the 1951 classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. One of his greatest thrillers begins innocently enough on board said train when tennis player Guy Haines ( Farley Granger ) has a casual conversation with one of cinema’s creepiest villains Bruno Anthony ( Robert Walker ). Both have people in their lives causing them problems. Bruno has a mean, tight-fisted father while Guy has a loose, shrewish wife who won’t grant him a divorce so he may marry a gorgeous US senator’s daughter Anne Morton ( Ruth Roman ). Hmmm, what if they did murders for each other? The police would never suspect. Guy light-heartedly agrees, but Bruno believes that it’s real and binding. He tracks down Mrs. Haines to a carnival and strangles her ( in a low angle shot we observe the killing through the woman’s discarded spectacles-this party gal wore glasses! ). Soon Bruno calls on Guy to keep his end of the deal or he’ll alert the authorities. What to do? Walker gives a mesmerizing performance as the dead-eyed murderer with serious parental issues ( foreshadowing Norman Bates? ). Strolling through the carnival he barely breaks his stride to pop the balloon of a passing youngster. Later Bruno attends Guy’s big tennis match. All eyes in the stands are on the back-and-forth moving tennis ball except Bruno. He fixes his steady, unmoving, unblinking stare on Guy. The suspense doesn’t let up through the wild climax as both men fight aboard a whirling, spinning out-of-control merry-go-round. The influence of this masterwork continues to this day in films ( the comedy THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN ) to a recent episode of TV’s ” Modern Family “. Watch for Hitchcock attempting to board the train toting a cumbersome double bass case ( ya’ know, a body could fit in that! ).

3. SHADOW OF A DOUBT

In SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) Teresa Wright plays Charlie, a small-town high-schooler in the sleepy burb of Santa Rose who enjoys an extended visit from her favorite uncle, also named Charlie (Joseph Cotten). The horrified Charlie eventually discovers that her beloved Uncle is a mass murderer, preying upon and killing wealthy old women. Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock) based their screenplay on a story by Gordon McDowell, who in turn was inspired by the real-life serial killer Earle Leonard Nelson, known as the “Merry Widow Murderer”. Joseph Cotten was deftly cast against type by Hitchcock, bringing a superficial cheerfulness to Uncle Charlie, which can turn on a dime to efficient cruelty. The structure of SHADOW OF A DOUBT is perfectly calculated, letting the viewer know early on just what kind of man Uncle Charlie really is, but providing tension through his devious charade as a gentle, kind man deserving of his family’s love, an unease which fuels the chilling cat-and-mouse game between Cotten and Wright that provides the film’s tense center. SHADOW OF A DOUBT is said to be Hitchcock’s personal favorite and it’s not difficult to see why: much like BLUE VELVET, it’s about the menace that lurks below every picturesque small town or, as Hitchcock himself claimed, “It brought murder and violence back into the house where it rightfully belongs.” Look for the master’s cameo playing poker on a train.

2. PSYCHO

Everyone remembers the film’s most famous scene: the oft-copied but seldom equaled artistry of the shower murder, with its nerve-wracking staccato string music, its implied nudity and stabbing, and its 78 separate edits. But what everyone does not realize is that this iconic sequence – one of the most famous in film history – was actually a creative response thought up by Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock to avoid censorship. In 1959, censorship (the Code) was still alive and well in Hollywood, movie ratings were still years away, and Alfred Hitchcock was at a crossroads in his career. With a string of box office hits and a popular hit TV show, Hitch was one of Hollywood’s most bankable and recognizable directors. But Hitch was also troubled by the critical and box office failure of VERTIGO, one of his most personal films. He felt that his next project should be something different other than the same big studio crowd-pleasers he had built his reputation on, so when he read a review of a new novel by Robert Bloch inspired by the real-life serial killer Ed Gein , Hitch was immediately attracted to the lurid subject matter, with its themes of transvestism, incest, necrophilia, and a dose of taxidermy. Hitch began story conferences with screenwriter Joseph Stefano (later to produce TV’s OUTER LIMITS), getting more and more excited at the prospect of filming cheaply, dealing with taboo subject matter, and – most importantly – killing off his leading lady in the first act. He decided to forgo the usual studio crew for one made up primarily from his TV show, which could shoot quickly and economically. With a few exceptions, such as visual consultant Bass and composer Bernard Herrmann, Hitch kept the production low-budget and under the radar. At a time when Technicolor had become almost commonplace, PSYCHO was shot in black and white for both artistic and cost-saving reasons. (Hitch once responded to a question of why he didn’t film in color with, – That would have been in bad taste.) In today’s horror climate of “torture porn” and overblown SAW-like deaths, it’s easy to forget how difficult it was to make a film like PSYCHO, breaking new ground in telling an adult story in adult terms. The problem of how to film a brutal murder without actually showing anything was just one of many hurdles Hitch had to solve. Setting the tone with its opening voyeuristic shot of a barely-clad couple in the throes of a passionate affair, PSYCHO portrayed an openness about sex that only foreign films at that time had shown.Hitch tread carefully with the censors, often asking for more than he actually wanted, but Stefano remembers that even such a mundane item as a toilet had never been shown onscreen in a major studio film, let alone a toilet flushing! Made at the peak of his genius, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO has rightly claimed its throne as Father (or Mother) of the modern horror film, influencing thrillers for decades and creating a new sense of realism that continues through the slasher films of today. Stripping the bleak essence of human nature to austere, colorless banality, PSYCHO would have assured Hitchcock’s reputation even if it were his only film.

An 18 minute condensed version of PSYCHO will be screened at Super-8 ALFRED HITCHCOCK Movie Madness April 3rd at The Way Out Club

1. REAR WINDOW

Only a master of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock could produce such a quintessential film on the subject of paranoia. There is no shortage of films about conspiracy theories and government coverups, but what of the paranoia that comes from us fearing the worst in each other? James Stewart delivers an uncharacteristically neurotic performance as a wheelchair bound photojournalist who believes he has witnessed a murder while spying on his neighbors from his apartment window. Hitchcock sets up a thrilling story with two distinct and opposing characters, but creates within the viewer uncertainty regarding who is right and who is wrong. REAR WINDOW pits the aggressive, short-tempered bully against the helpless, voyeuristic interloper. Shot almost entirely in one location, as only Hitchcock could do, the film maintains a level of excitement that seethes the potential danger of the story’s protagonist. REAR WINDOW would later inspire a television remake in 1998 starring Christopher Reeves and a modern retelling in 2007 called DISTURBIA.

REAR WINDOW will play in St. Louis as part of Landmark’s Tivoli Theater’s Reel Late Midnight Series April 27th and 28th. The Tivoli is located at 6350 Delmar in The Loop

 

4 Comments

  1. Juliette

    March 27, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Very good synopsis, surprised not to see ‘Marne’ up there though. ‘Rebecca’, has to be my fav. Looking forward to the forthcoming movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, where Hopkins will play Hitchcock and Mirren his wife.

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