Thursday, 16 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Three - The Mature master

The two Charlies, Shadow of a Doubt
In the early 40s Selznick allowed Hitchcock to make two films at Universal, Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The latter film is his first real masterpiece, a fortuitous collaboration with playwright Thornton Wilder whose vivid recreation of small-town Americana (uncharacteristically for its period shot on location) provides a perverse backdrop for one of Hitchcock’s morally densest works. In it, an “average” Santa Rosa family plays host to one of its own members, a beloved brother and uncle who unbeknown to them is a cold, cynical misogynist and psychopath, on the lam from the law and known to the police as the “Merry Widow” murderer because of his predilection for charming wealthy middle-aged widows before killing them off. Joseph Cotten, effectively and perversely cast against type as Uncle Charlie is neatly and cruelly juxtaposed with his adoring niece and namesake, young Charlie (the excellent Teresa Wright). She innocently reads his visit as a “miracle” bestowed on the family to lift their spirits out of their provincial, humdrum, ordinary lives.

Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie, Shadow of a Doubt
Hitchcock’s superb film traces her gradual realization that this handsome, sophisticated visitor is not what he seems, and that her romantic, adolescent illusions are about to be shattered by his vision of the world as a “foul sty”, as well as by two attempts on her life. Hitchcock unravels this moral morass through sequences of seamless formal beauty; the famous opening with its parallel introductions to the two Charlies in comparable and contrasting sets of images; the noir atmospherics that invade and threaten the family’s sunlit domestic scenes; the recurring images of smoke surrounding Uncle Charlie which evoke a Lucifer-like presence; young Charlie’s two flights into the night, employing characteristic subjective camera movement, one culminating in her shattering confirmation of her uncle’s identity in the library, the other in the climactic confrontation with uncle Charlie in the Til Two bar.

Hitchcock’s dark undercutting of young Charlie’s innocent dream of small-town life is aided in no small measure by sequences of unsettling black humour (young Charlie’s father Henry Travers and his neighbour Hume Cronyn fancy themselves as amateur sleuths and constantly exchange graphic details of gruesome murders); by Thornton Wilder’s and Joan Harrison’s incisive, ironic and literate screenplay that constantly portrays each member of this “average” middle-American family (including precocious children) as living in isolated cocoons with little communication among themselves; by a pulsating Dimitri Tiomkin score that pinpoints young Charlie’s steadily mounting fears about her uncle Charlie; by Joseph Valentine’s location cinematography that lends sardonic verisimilitude to the atmosphere of cosy middle American life under scrutiny and threat here; and especially by an ensemble of superlatively honed performances (Patricia Collinge, Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten all suggesting, without ever becoming explicit, incestuous undercurrents at the heart of this very American family). Even under the watchful eye of the Hays Code, Hitchcock in his sly subversiveness was always daring the moral guardians to catch him out.

Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Notorious
Notorious (1946) is Hitchcock’s other 40s masterpiece, a noirish, brooding romantic thriller mostly set in Rio de Janeiro at the end of World War Two. Ingrid Bergman joined the ranks of Hitchcock’s good/bad women. Later incarnations would include Eva Marie Saint, ready to risk life and reputation through a sense of duty to her country, in North by Northwest (1959) and Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Claude Rains predictably lends strong humanity to his Sebastian, a tailor-made role as one of Hitchcock’s most charming and vulnerable villains. He plays the Nazi friend of Bergman’s father whom she is sent to ensnare in marriage. In doing so, she becomes herself entrapped in a complex, emotional web where she is forced to compromise her feelings and her sexuality under the nose of failed lover and fellow undercover agent Cary Grant. Grant’s performance is uncharacteristically and effectively glacial and stiff-as Hitchcock intended him to be. He joins here the ranks of Hitchcock’s growing list of thwarted romantic obsessives.

Hitchcock’s voyeuristic style is at its most compelling here, with Grant the watcher reduced to helpless impotence (at several levels) while Bergman is being slowly poisoned in a mansion that threatens to become her tomb. Bergman, encouraged by Hitchcock, projects a wanton erotic abandon in her early, inebriated scenes with such skill that the romantic obsessions of both Grant and Rains become resonant and realistic. There is some sublime subjective tracking down a staircase as Grant rescues Bergman from under the noses of her incarcerators. This is great film making!

Stage Fright
After a string of interesting experimental works – Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949) in the middle to the late 40s, Hitchcock began the 50s with an enjoyable enough throwback to the lighter English thrillers, Stage Fright (1950). I underrated it initially largely because of its relatively weak male leads (Michael Wilding and Richard Todd) but it contains some of Hitchcock’s most diabolical - and characteristically English -  humour, a theatrical ambience and a total lack of pretension all of which improve it over multiple viewings. Sequences like the theatrical garden-party set-piece and the resolute English-ness of the character people in the cast-Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndyke, Joyce Grenfell and Miles Malleson all contribute to the atmosphere of Hitchcock enjoying himself in a lighter vein. The plot, involving a flashback containing false information, allows Hitchcock to play deviously with audience sympathies.

Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train
Hitchcock went into really high gear again in his next effort Strangers on a Train (1951), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, which presents a display of Hitchcock stylistics at their showiest. Here, he is unrepentantly upfront in his manipulation of audience complicity in a crime, an exchange of murders whereby motives will be hard to find. In making the psychopath (Robert Walker) who proposes this exchange so compelling and the tennis pro (Farley Granger) who innocently plays into his hands so weak, Hitchcock invites his audience into becoming accessories after the increasingly nightmarish facts. In the process, Hitchcock indulges in some of his most bravura mise-en-scene: the entire fairground sequence exerts a malicious fascination on the viewer. Its tone is set when Walker pointlessly bursts a child’s balloon with his cigarette, and culminates in the now famous scene of Walker strangling Granger’s wife (Laura Elliott) magnified flamboyantly in the big close-up shot of her fallen glasses.

Strangers on a Train
There are many other well-documented set-pieces in what is virtually a catalogue of Hitchcock strutting his stuff: Bruno (Walker) demonstrating the art of strangling on a Washington society matron; the tennis court sequence that isolates a motionless Bruno among a host of turning heads; the sequence where Guy (Granger) attempts to retrieve the incriminating cigarette lighter from a drain which wrings out every last ounce of audience suspense. (Peter Bogdanovich in his first film Targets (USA, 1969) pays a nice homage to this); and the carousel sequence leading to Bruno’s death. Robert Walker in his penultimate film is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable theatrical creations, a richly multilayered and complex characterization which incorporates like Rope and Rebecca (1940) another clearly gay subtext, a running fascination for this voyeuristic artist; it provided the ill-fated actor with a fitting final bow but Farley Granger is equally well cast in the less showy role of Guy (all sweat and anxiety).

Montgomery Clift, I Confess
I Confess (1953), which followed Strangers on a Train, is one of two sombre and overtly religious (Catholic) works which surprised a lot of Hitchcock’s devotees. The other work in this vein is The Wrong Man (1955) and I have a fond regard for both films. Montgomery Clift may not on the face of it seem like an ideal protagonist for Hitchcock but it’s an effectively interiorised performance nevertheless; the mismatching styles exert their own fascination anyway. For the most part, the priest’s (Montgomery Clift’s) moral and spiritual dilemma is captured in restless movement-Clift spends a lot of time in the film walking through the austere Quebec streets; one street sequence where Hitchcock evokes the stations of the cross and allows Clift to break down in an overtly Christ-like gesture is so audacious it makes me gasp.

The centrality of voyeurism (in the Catholic ritual of the confessional itself and all that that implies) to the film’s plot is totally Hitchcockian and it is worked out stylistically through some overt subjective camerawork-Karl Malden observing Clift in a street crowd, for example is a stunning visual effect. Dimitri Tiomkin’s typically relentless score is another of the film’s big pluses. The only real weakness of I Confess is Anne Baxter’s heavily theatrical performance-effective enough in the flashbacks in her romantic scenes with Clift, but out of kilter with the introspective tone of the whole.

To be continued tomorrow.... Previous instalments of this series can be found if you click here and here

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