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Hitchcock’s final cameo in Family Plot

There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.

—Alfred Hitchcock

Although I didn’t finish my Hitchcock marathon by the planned end date, the delay meant that my Halloween viewing (because if you know anything about me, you know I’m watching these in strict chronological order) was a double feature of Psycho and The Birds, which seems decidedly appropriate. I first saw these two when I was very young and they affected me enormously. In fact, to this day, I always try to have a clear pattern shower curtain because I don’t want anything to be able to hide on either side. True fact.

On a family trip to California, my father humored this love of Hitchcock and kindly worked Bodega Bay into the itinerary. I had such a fond memory of the visit that I made the town the object of my first road trip up the coast once I moved to California. I had a hard time finding the harbor I remembered until I realized it had been many, many years since that first visit and perhaps the town had moved on. However, a few weeks ago, I did stop in Bodega on my way to Mendocino to make a special visit to the schoolhouse.

Every bird I saw while walking around Bodega gave me pause.

The final phase of Hitchcock’s career contains some of his best known films including Vertigo and Psycho. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate Vertigo at all, but it has grown on me. I’m still not convinced it should have dethroned Citizen Kane on the Sight and Sound list, but that’s another story. Of course, much of my newfound appreciation has to do with its San Francisco setting. This is one reason I have a strange fondness for Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, since it is filmed almost entirely in the city, but Hitchcock tries to hide the fact—perhaps one of his greatest technical feats given the distinctive nature of my hilly adoptive home.

The Top Five to Watch

Best Film: Vertigo. As I said above, this has never been my favorite Hitchcock, but I acknowledge that it’s a masterpiece and can’t really justify putting anything else in this slot. However, the older I get, the more disturbing I find the subject matter (a retired detective’s obsession with the woman he is hired to follow) and I’m not surprised the movie wasn’t well received upon its release. I’d be interested to see a study of whether men and women view this work differently. I’d also love to know how young people today view the film; much of it is quite odd and I think might seem cheesy or weird to kids today (I find the dream sequence in particular ridiculous).

Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo

Favorite Film: Rear Window. I first saw this in the theater with my Dad when they released the restored version sometime in the 80s. The basic plot is simple: a bored wheelchair-bound photojournalist (Jimmy Stewart) gets too interested in his West Village neighbors and thinks one of them may have committed murder. His glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and nurse (Thelma Ritter) are eventually drawn in to help solve the mystery. I love everything about this film: the self-reflective voyeuristic nature of it, the neighbors (who we never meet but learn so much about), the fact that Jeffries is a photographer, Lisa’s clothes, and, especially, Stella’s homespun wisdom.

We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.

—Stella in Rear Window

Best Underlying Plot: North by Northwest. A great mix of adventure, comedy, and suspense, with Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government secret agent and has to flee New York, first running to Chicago and then Mount Rushmore. There are so many classic scenes in this movie that I’m sure plenty of people who have never seen it think they have. North by Northwest takes the idea of the innocent man on the run (founds in films like The 39 Steps and Saboteur) and throws in a number of twists and turns to make it even more interesting and layered than Hitchcock’s previous films of this genre.

Cary Grant in North By Northwest

Most Underrated: Frenzy. I thought I would sneak in one of my favorites here, but I can’t think of another film that deserves this slot more. Frenzy is a great answer to anyone who thinks that Psycho was Hitchcock’s last great film. Hitchcock returns to London (and his father’s old stomping grounds at the Covent Garden Market) to tell yet another wrong man story, this time involving a serial killer who is strangling women with neckties. There is plenty of black humor and Hitchcock makes full use of changing mores, producing a film that is far more explicit than anything else he did. Do not watch this if you need a trigger warning.

Best Adaptation: Psycho. Okay, this is cheating a little, but I had to get this one in somewhere and most of the films in this period are technically adaptations, albeit of minor works. This is another film that I’m sure most people feel they have seen, but if you have only seen the shower scene, you should really check this one out. I was pleasantly surprised how well the dialogue and surrounding story hold up after all these years. Anthony Perkins is just amazing to watch and I can understand how this role dogged him for the rest of his career. The psychoanalytical ending is a letdown but I enjoyed this rewatch far more than I expected.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho

Honorable Mention: Dial “M” for Murder. This is one of the few Hitchcock films that I remember seeing for the first time, primarily because it was filmed in 3-D and I actually saw it in a theater that way as part of a Hitchcock festival in Paris when I was in high school. [Side note: With a few hundred movie screens in the city, numerous art houses, and all sorts of classic film festivals, Paris is hands-down the best city for cinéphiles.]

In many ways, Dial “M” for Murder was a trial run for Rear Window, which was to follow that same year: it was Grace Kelly’s first Hitchcock picture (of three), it took place almost entirely on one-set, and it uses a very similar suspense mechanism. It also marks Hitchcock’s entrance into the color era (after his initial experiments with Rope and Under Capricorn) as he would only make two more films in black & white for the rest of his career. So, while Rear Window is certainly more polished and dynamic, I highly recommend this as a follow-up.

Other Accolades and Admonitions

Best Opening: Rear Window. From Franz Waxman’s jazzy score to the pan through the courtyard to introduce the neighbors, Hitchcock’s perfection in setting the scene reminded me of the opening of Do the Right Thing, another tale of a New York neighborhood on a hot summer’s day.

Best Technical Achievement: The dolly zoom in Vertigo. There is a reason this type of reverse tracking shot is also known as the “Hitchcock zoom” or the “Vertigo effect.”

Favorite Image: The puddle created by Juanita’s purple dress as she falls to the marble floor in Topaz.

Karin Dor in Topaz

Best Locations: The Man Who Knew Too Much. If there was one reason for Hitchcock to remake his own work, it was for production value. From the colorful souks and squares of Marrakesh to the Royal Albert Hall, this film could have been delightful. But even the great locations can’t make up for the fact that it was overly long and meandering compared to the studio-bound original.

Best Music: Psycho. While one could make a case for either Vertigo or North by Northwest here, I think it is safe to say that Psycho would not be the same without its music. Like the use of color in Vertigo, it is absolutely integral to the film.

Best Music, Honorable Mention: The Trouble with Harry. This was Bernard Herrmann’s first score for Hitchcock. The music here really accents the darkly comic nature of this piece and we get our first signs of the Herrmann greatness still to come.

Most Frustrating Film to Watch: The Wrong Man. This low-key film was hard to watch because the wrong man aspect was so harsh, especially since the story was based on a real-life case of mistaken identity. It was just too real, and too depressing, particularly the story of the wife, which derails the second half of the picture completely. That said, Henry Fonda and Vera Miles are very good.

The Grace Kelly “What If” Award: Marnie. Kelly was the first choice for this story about a habitual thief whose employer is determined to understand her illness, but it wasn’t exactly a role for a princess. I actually thought Sean Connery and Diane Baker worked quite well, but Tippi Hedren just didn’t have the acting chops to pull her weight.

Time I’ll Never Get Back Award: Torn Curtain. This should have been so much better than it was. I think the main problem was the casting—neither Paul Newman nor Julie Andrews was very believable in this story about a scientist pretending to be a defector. The story is interesting but the technical level just wasn’t there to make it believable.

Best Ensemble: The Trouble with Harry. With John Forsythe as Sam Marlowe, Shirley MacLaine (in her first movie role) as Jennifer Rogers, a pre-Beaver Jerry Mathers as Arnie Rogers, Mildred Natwick as Miss Gravely, and Edmund Gwenn as Captain Albert Wiles, The Trouble with Harry is really a team effort. This black deadpan comedy of errors takes place in a small town in Vermont where a body is discovered and everybody seems to feel responsible for his death. This leads the various guilt-ridden characters to bury and dig up the body throughout the film. (Morbid) Hilarity ensues.

Favorite Couple: To Catch a Thief. When two of Hitchcock’s favorite actors team up for this adventure on the French Riviera, fireworks (literally) ensue. Grace Kelly is Francie Stevens, a wealthy American with a rambunctious mother, and Cary Grant is John Robie, aka The Cat, a retired jewel thief trying to prove his innocence in a series of recent thefts. If you like Charade, you will like this.

Coolest Villain: Ray Milland as Tony Wendice in Dial “M” for Murder.

Creepiest Villain: The killer in Frenzy.

Favorite Detective: John Williams as Inspector Hubbard in Dial “M” for Murder.

Favorite Fake Medium: Barbara Harris as “Madame Blanche” in Family Plot.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Thelma Ritter as Stella in Rear Window.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Edmund Gwenn as Captain Wiles in The Trouble with Harry. Edmund Gwenn’s work with Hitchcock dates all the way back to The Skin Game in the early 1930s and he is in great form here.

Best Repeat Performance: Jessie Royce Landis, first as Grace Kelly’s mother in To Catch a Thief opposite Cary Grant, and then as Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest.

Best Dressed: Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. You should appreciate Grace Kelly’s outfits (designed by Edith Head) in all three of her films while you can, fashions get pretty hideous starting with Vertigo.

Best Dressed, Honorable Mention: Grace Kelly’s masquerade ball gown in To Catch a Thief.

Best Dressed, Trees Edition: The Trouble with Harry. Vermont in the fall, one of the few things I really miss about the East Coast.

Best Running Gag: The “gourmet” cooking of the Chief Inspector’s wife in Frenzy.

Most Realistic Murder: Torn Curtain. If you ever thought murder looked easy or appealing, think again. [Note: This assessment is not based on personal experience.]

Most Ominous Moment: The birds gathering on the jungle gym behind Tippi Hedren in The Birds.

Best Red Shoes Homage: Torn Curtain. The lead ballerina in a production of what looks and sounds like Francesca da Rimini spots Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in the crowd at an East German theater and reports them to authorities.

Best Advertisement for Train Travel: North by Northwest. Selling point: the trout is “a little trouty, but quite good.”

—Think how lucky I am to be seated here.
—Luck had nothing to do with it.
—Fate?
—I tipped the steward 5 dollars to seat you here if you should come in.
—Is that a proposition?
—I never discuss love on an empty stomach.
—You’ve already eaten!
—But you haven’t.

Most Vertiginous Car Ride (tie): North by Northwest and Family Plot. Whether through booze or faulty brakes, neither of these rides are for the faint of heart.

Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern in Family Plot

Best Use of a Spirograph: Saul Bass in the credits of Vertigo.

Most Misleading Title (tie): The Wrong Man and Psycho. I kid. If you can’t figure out the gist of most of these movies by their title, you have bigger problems than I realized.

Hitchcock Filmography: The Master of Suspense
Dial “M” for Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The Wrong Man (1956)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
Marnie (1964)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Topaz (1969)
Frenzy (1972)
Family Plot (1976)

For previous posts in this Film 101 series, click below:
Alfred Hitchcock: Cultural Icon
Hitchcock I: Sound and Silence
Hitchcock II: The British Talkies
Hitchcock III: Vintage Hollywood

For my final thoughts on Hitchcock, see Hitchcock V: Wrap Party.

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