For the August 13 post of her fine blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Margot Kinberg did something that still makes me hang my head in shame: she remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday! More than that, she honored him with a salutary post. one which you can – and should – read here.
Although it accounted for my second post ever, I’ve blogged very little about my favorite film director. I’d like to make some amends for that here with a selection of some of my favorite Hitchcockian moments. I’m not including any from my favorite film, Rear Window. That masterpiece should not be viewed in pieces but as a whole, again and again. But there is so much more to savor: here, in chronological, not favorite, order, are a spine-tingling baker’s dozen of fabulous Hitchcock moments for you to add to your Not To Be Missed List:
Blackmail (1929) – “The Morning After”
Some scholars say that 1932’s The Lodger is the film that shows Hitchcock becoming Hitchcock, but there’s plenty of evidence in this earlier film of his increasing mastery of suspense and his iconic obsessions for beautiful blondes, famous monuments and many other things. Blackmail also illustrates how, from the start of his career, Hitchcock embraced each emerging element of technology in this fast-developing art form. Originally made as a silent film, the filmmaker decided to leap onto the bandwagon of “talking pictures” and re-worked his original into a sound picture. It illustrated how Hitchcock wasn’t merely content to present technology – he was determined to demonstrate his artistry with every use of it.
Alice White (Anna Ondry) is a nice young English lass who, after a fight with her policeman boyfriend, allows a charming portrait artist to pick her up. He takes her back to his studio and attempts to rape her, and in the struggle, she stabs him with a bread knife and kills him. She rushes back to her parents’ home, unaware that her comings and goings have been seen by someone whose blackmail attempts will force Alice and her boyfriend to confront their darkest impulses.
The moment that is so great (and justly famous) occurs when Alice comes down to breakfast the morning after the killing. She is wracked with guilt over what she has done, and that is manifested by her obsession with images and sounds connected to knives. A neighbor woman talks to her mother, and the only word Alice can hear is knife. It ranks as one of the most creative early uses of sound in cinema history.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) – “The Birthday Party”
The film that distills to perfection one of Hitchcock favorite motifs – that of the innocent man on the run for a crime he did not commit – follows Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) across England and Scotland, on the run for the murder of a female spy he tried to help. All the tropes we will see again and again throughout Hitchcock’s career in films like Saboteur and North by Northwest are here, but my favorite moment comes when Hannay first confronts the head of the evil spy organization. He only has two pieces of information: the leader is missing a part of his baby finger, and there’s a professor in Scotland who might have some information. Hannay barges into Professor Jordan’s home only to find himself in the middle of a party. Hitchcock, a very private man, hated parties and set many deadly moments in his films in the midst of such events. Hannay insists on speaking to the Professor and learns, in a scene that is both funny and shocking, that sometimes the information you receive is incomplete.
Sabotage (1936) – Sunday Dinner #1
Just as Hitchcock was at the forefront of new technology like sound, his entire career reminds us that his roots were in silent film with long segments of virtually soundless action unspooling before our eyes. Sylvia Sidney is riveting as young Mrs. Verloc who is ignorant over the fact that her much older husband is a foreign agent responsible for terrorist bombings that are occurring all over London. She learns the truth in the most terrible way, so that by the time she enters the dining room at the climax to carve her husband’s dinner, her nerves are at fever pitch. Watching Sidney and Oscar Homolka soundlessly perform the final act – where Hitchcock reminds us that the force of good may win but is always tainted by the touch of evil – is to watch filmmaking in its purest form.
Young and Innocent (1937) – “Tracking Shot #1”
Volumes have been written, and justly so, about Hitchcock’s mastery of the camera, and you see evidence of this in every film. One of my favorite moments occurs when Hitchcock moves the camera in a glorious tracking shot near the climax of Young and Innocent. This is another “innocent man on the run” film: Robert (Derrick De Marnay) is accused of murdering an actress, and he knows he must find the real killer in order to get the police off his tail. The audience has already caught the real killer, the actress’ ex-husband, in the act. He is a sinister, balding figure whose eye twitches madly whenever he gets excited (or homicidal). Robert locates a bum who actually met the villain and brings him round to an elegant restaurant where he believes the killer will be found.
The director delighted in keeping his audiences a few steps ahead of the characters, and while Robert, his girlfriend and the hobo search for the bad guy, Hitchcock reveals us the murderer hiding in plain sight using a brilliant tracking shot that covers the crowded ballroom. And as icing on the cake, note the song playing in the background.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – “Sunday Dinner #2”
Hitchcock reveled in portraying the similarity between hero and villain. Sometimes, as in North by Northwest, it was a physical similarity, but in each case, adversaries could bring out the best and the worst in each other. In Rear Window, L.B. Jeffries wants to bring down the suspected murderer Lars Thorward, but in significant ways, Thorwald is the dark version of Jeff himself.
Nowhere is the duality of good and evil rendered more chillingly and poignantly as in Shadow of a Doubt. Young Charlie feels stifled by her small town existence in Santa Rosa, California and longs for the glamorous life of her namesake Uncle Charlie, whom she worships above all others. Only we have been clued in by Hitchcock that Uncle Charlie is “The Merry Widow Murderer.”
Over the course of the first half of the film, the niece’s blindness to her uncle’s psychopathy slowly falls from her eyes. All becomes clear to her at the dinner table one night where, before her clueless family, she hears Uncle Charlie expound upon the women he has killed:
“Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities, it’s different. The cities are full of women – middle-aged widows – husbands dead, husbands who spent their lives making fortunes, working, working. And then they die and leave the money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do these wives do? These useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.”
Young Charlie can’t help but cry out, “But they’re alive! They’re human beings!” And Joseph Cotton who has been filmed saying this speech in profile at his niece’s side turns the full range of his sociopathic gaze on her and, thus, on the camera and purrs, “Are they?”
It’s Hitchcock’s little dig at us, we voyeurs who revel in the villain’s dirty business. Yes, we may be shocked at Charlie’s attitude, but as the chills run down our back when he fixes his gaze at us, we have to admit that we are also thrilled.
Notorious (1946) – “Tracking Shot #2”
I have to admit that both Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman leave me a bit cold when I watch Notorious. But I’m not there for them. I’m there for Claude Rains as Sebastian, the most sympathetic Nazi agent you are likely to meet. And that’s what’s brilliant about this movie: Hitchcock makes us uncertain over whom we should align our sympathies with. True, Grant and Bergman on on the side of the good guys, but all their tactics are dishonest in the slimiest of ways – they even con each other – while Sebastian is guided by a sincere love for Alicia. To Hitchcock, Sebastian’s greatest flaw may not be his fascism but his blind love for his domineering mother, a figure who is never portrayed with much sympathy in a Hitchcock film.
Okay, the moment I was going to mention is the famous tracking shot on the stair with the key. Check it out if you’ve never seen it. But stay and watch the film for Rains’ performance.
Strangers on a Train (1951) – “The Stolen Ending”
There are so many moments in this film worth extolling, and it’s odd considering how little I think of leading man and lady Farley Granger and Ruth Roman. He is stiff, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why any man would kill for her fretful Senator’s daughter. But the rest of the cast is fabulous: Robert Walker’s Bruno is one of the best nutjob killers ever, and Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) all but steals the show as the heroine’s smarter little sister. But Hitchcock’s filmmaking is the real star of this show. That duality of good and evil I talked about above is in full force here, especially in the achingly suspenseful final twenty minutes or so of the film, where Hitch crosscuts between Bruno and Guy as they race to a crime scene to beat each other at a deadly game. It all culminates in the ending on the merry-go-round, a finale that has been lifted (dare I say, stolen?) from Edmund Crispin’s novel, The Moving Toyshop. I remember reading the book years after I’d seen the movie many times, crying out, “Hey!” then checking to confirm that the book came first. And yet, it works so perfectly in Hitchcock’s film that I have to wonder how much Crispin minded. Does anybody know?
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – The Tell
Frankly, I don’t think this film gets the respect it deserves. It is the only one that Hitchcock’s remade, so he must have figured he could improve it. (He himself compared the two versions as the work of a talented amateur and a professional.) I understand how some people prefer the earlier version with its lighter tone and the charming yet clear-cut villainy of Peter Lorre’s character. We sophisticates who love our Hitchcock layered and complex will take the remake anytime. It is the only time in Hitchcock’s career when he presents a positive depiction of the relationship between a mother and her son. It also contains one of the most ambiguous villains in the canon and one of my favorites: Mrs. Drayton, heartbreakingly portrayed by Brenda de Banzie, is a woman whose dedication to her cause runs afoul of her blossoming maternal feelings for the young boy she has kidnapped in service to her ideological beliefs.
Most of all, The Man Who Knew Too Much proves once and for all what a fine actress Doris Day is. It is said that she became very unhappy on set because Hitchcock never gave her a note. When she finally confronted him, he was perplexed. Why should he give her notes if she was doing exactly what he wanted of her? Hitchcock was notoriously unconcerned with actors’ feelings; hence, the phrase attributed to him that “actors are cattle.” But he knew what he wanted from the character of Jo McKenna, a doctor’s wife and former professional singer whose cheerful demeanor is at war with her own neurotic insecurities. The moment you shouldn’t miss is when James Stewart, Hitchcock’s favorite leading man who plays the doctor husband, has to inform his wife that their son has been snatched. Knowing her as well as he does, he sedates her before breaking the news. Watching Day’s visceral reaction, you see the depths of which she was capable but was rarely asked to portray onscreen. This is the couple’s lowest point in the film, and while the story is outwardly an adventure, it is really about Ben and Jo McKenna finding each other again and restoring their family emotionally as well as physically. Que sera sera!
The Wrong Man (1956) – The Second Line-up
How impressive is it that Hitchcock could come up with two such powerful and different films in one year, but in one sense they are two sides of the same coin. Based on a true story that perfectly embodies the director’s favorite “innocent man accused” motif, The Wrong Man, like the previous film, uses a crime story to focus on the effect that terrible events can have on a marriage, but where the McKennas rise to heroism and re-commit to each other, Rose Balestrero (Vera Miles) falls apart. Jo McKenna, she is a devoted wife and mother with a hidden nervous streak. When her husband Manny (Henry Fonda) is jailed and accused of robbing an insurance company, Rose’s sanity slowly crumbles as the foundations of her safe life are shaken. It’s a powerful performance that shouldn’t be missed, and yet my favorite moment in The Wrong Man is pure Hitchcock and has to do with one of his favorite iconic images: eyeglasses.
I don’t know why exactly, but every time Hitchcock puts a pair of eyeglasses on somebody, it spells trouble. The vision behind those lenses tends to get distorted. Sometimes the glass mirrors an awful event, like a murder. But here it’s used more subtly. Early in the film, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) has been picked up on suspicion and is asked to join a line-up. Several employees who witnessed the robbery size up the men, and one imperious woman in glasses identifies Manny as the thief. Through her sheer force of will, her less certain friend caves in and agrees with her. Much later in the film, another man bearing a distinct similarity in appearance to Manny, is picked up after he robs another store. The same women are brought in for a second line-up, and what follows will satisfy any audience member who has spent the entire film in anguish for the Balestrero family.
Vertigo (1958) – The Kiss
Vertigo recently replaced Citizen Kane in the Number One spot on some notable best film lists. It is, without a doubt, the richest and most tragic of all of Hitchcock’s movies. Maybe it’s not my favorite because it’s almost completely devoid of the director’s puckish humor, but one could easily devise a semester-long class to study the cinematic treasures found in this film alone
James Stewart returns for the last of four roles he played for Hitchcock as Scotty Ferguson, a private eye nearly washed up by his paralyzing fear of heights (brought about when he was chasing a suspect, tripped and brought about the death of a cop trying to effect a rescue.) Hired by an old college friend to follow his beautiful wife Madeleine, whom the husband fears is possessed by the spirit of a long-dead relative, Scotty becomes obsessed with her. He meets and falls in love with her, and then he witnesses her death, which he could have prevented if only it wasn’t for that damned vertigo! He is inconsolable at his loss . . . until he meets a store clerk who resembles the late Madeleine. Scotty befriends her and becomes the most creepy Pygmalion you will ever meet, remolding Judy into the image of Madeleine by changing her clothes, her hair color, everything about her. In that last moment when the transformation is complete, Scotty and “Madeleine” are reunited in a kiss that is, by turns, erotic, disturbing, romantic, and insane. There are more layers to this moment than I could explain in a single blog post. Just watch the thing. And listen to Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent scoring of this – I go nuts every time I watch this!
In the recent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, one American director – I think it was either Paul Schrader or Richard Linklater – said that this might be the greatest moment in cinematic history.
Psycho (1960) – “Tracking Shot #3”
I always show Psycho to my high school film students. I worry for about ten seconds that these modern teens, who have been fed so much graphic violence on their screens and who have even partaken of it virtually themselves in their video games, that they would snort and scoff at the relatively “tame” violence found in this grubby black and white horror flick.
I needn’t have worried, of course, for Psycho is so masterfully unsettling that they always squirm pleasantly in their seats. Armed with a miniscule budget of $806,000, Hitchcock promised to scare the crap out of America, and he succeeded. He also made the most trenchant study of voyeurism since . . . well, since Rear Window and Vertigo! The shower scene is one of the most justly famous horror montages ever committed to film, but it’s the shot after Mother leaves the bathroom and Marian collapses on the tub floor that I always wait for.
The shower continues to run, washing all traces of Marian’s blood off the floor (the beginning of a clean-up process that Norman Bates will complete in order to cover up for his murderous mom). The camera tracks the blood going down the drain, and our eyes are drawn to the dark hole where the water spirals ever downward. And then it just . . . gets . . . great.
The Birds (1963) – “The Playground”
This is a problematical film for me. I think much of it is brilliant, and I don’t scoff – like some of my students do – at the relatively primitive special effects. Sure, digital magic allows us to see anything on screen these days, but I find it lacks any sort of imagination and, ironically, feels even faker to me than the combination of matte shots, mechanical effects and stunt work with real trained birds that Hitchcock assembled. I also recognize that this is as much a love story as it is a horror movie, and that the real mystery here isn’t why the birds are attacking – does it really matter? – but which woman will capture Mitch Brenner’s soul. Or maybe it’s really about whether Melanie Daniels, the heroine, will find her soul. No, my problem, pure and simple, is “Tippi” Hedren, the beautiful blonde Frankenstein’s monster that Hitchcock assembled to serve him. But just as Colin Clive neglected to find a good brain for his monster, Hitchcock was unable to supply his creation with some much needed acting talent. Her mannered, wooden performance nearly kills it for me every time.
My favorite moments are the attacks because they are nearly wordless, which means Ms. Hedren doesn’t get to speak. She is at her best during these moments, and the most riveting one is those suspenseful moments before the crows and ravens attack the schoolchildren. So many of my favorite moments mentioned here occur when Hitchcock feeds the audience information before his hero receives it. Here, we get a little bit more than Melanie each moment, but the director saves his most powerful punch for the end, and both heroine and audience get a great jolt!
Frenzy (1972) – “Reverse Tracking Shot”
Frenzy isn’t great, but it’s very good. It contains many of Hitch’s trademark ideas, like the duality of the hero/villain, the condemnation of an innocent man (although here, the police are a lot smarter than usual for a Hitchcock film), the obsession with beautiful blondes. There’s even a cool shot of the hero (one of Hitchcock’s least likable) getting shoved in a jail cell just as it happened to young Alfred at the behest of his own father to show what happens to bad little boys. Still, after all the greatness listed above, this film is a bit anti-climactic. But there’s one really marvelous shot, another instance of the audience being smarter than the character. This time, the consequences are truly terrible for one of the only people we actually like in this film. Using a reverse tracking shot, the director heightens our sense of helplessness as we are pulled away without being able to warn a serial killer’s next victim. Having already seen the sadistic brute dispatch an earlier victim, we squirm just as badly imagining what’s happening in the room we were forced to leave behind.
So there you have it: thirteen brilliant moments, out of thousands, by the Master of Suspense. Of course, it would make the best sense if you watch the films themselves in their entirety to really understand the context of these moments. And while you’re at it, watch The Lodger, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Rebecca and the rest. I’ve got thirteen more for you where this came from.
Or forget the rest and just watch Rear Window . . . over and over again. Savor it like the cinematic fine wine that it is. Don’t mind if I join you . . .