Alfred Hitchcock’s creative cameo in Lifeboat
In looking for photos for these Hitchcock posts, I have come across a few blogs viewing Hitchcock’s body of work in weekly posts over a year. With fifty-two extant feature films, this makes a whole lot of sense. I’m not sure what I was thinking, deciding to watch them all in a little over a month. That said, watching these films in such close succession does have its benefits. Certain techniques and themes jump out at me when I see them repeat over and over in the course of a few days or weeks, although Hitchcock’s reuse of leading and secondary players can make for some jarring juxtapositions.
Watching Hitchcock’s films chronologically emphasizes the extraordinary continuity in his work, as you see Robert Donat, the man on the run on a quest to prove his innocence in The 39 Steps, become Robert Cummings in Saboteur, and later Cary Grant in North by Northwest. However, there is a notable uptick in production quality as we enter the American years and Hitchcock is able to make use of Hollywood’s financial resources.
Hollywood had courted Hitchcock for some time, but he remained in England until agreeing to a four-picture contract with legendary producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind). The first movie they made together was Rebecca, which would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture—the last of the four was not made until 1948 (The Paradine Case) because Hitchcock was often loaned out to other studios over the course of his contract.
Upon moving to California, Hitchcock very quickly discovered Northern California, purchasing his home in Scotts Valley (outside of Santa Cruz) in September 1940. Northern California locations would appear quite frequently in his work, from using Monterey Bay to represent the English coast in Rebecca and Suspicion, to choosing Santa Rosa as the setting for Shadow of a Doubt, to the iconic Vertigo, a love letter to San Francisco if there ever was one.
But, hey, we have fifteen films to cover this week, let’s get to them, shall we?
Don’t drink the coffee, Ilsa! (Ingrid Bergman in Notorious)
Top Five to Watch
Best Film: Notorious. I knew going into this week that Notorious would find itself here in the top spot. It’s a great spy story with superb acting, although much darker in tone than his other espionage films. In a way, it’s the brightest noir you’ll ever see, as beneath its polished, sophisticated tone, the film is really quite savage. And I’m not talking about the Nazis. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains are all incredible, particularly Bergman.
Favorite Film: Rebecca. This is Hitchcock’s first film for Selznick and would win the Oscar for Best Cinematography as well as Best Picture. Like Jamaica Inn and The Birds, this is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier, and tells the story of an unnamed narrator (Joan Fontaine) who marries a wealthy man (Laurence Olivier) and is haunted by the memory of his first wife. To me, this film strays pretty far from Hitchcock’s usual plots and techniques, and goes on a bit too long, but the mood and atmosphere he creates, especially with his portrayal of Mrs. Danvers, showcases the Gothic side of Hitchcock.
Best Underlying Plot: Saboteur. While totally full of wartime propaganda, Saboteur is great fun and a fine tribute to Hitchcock’s new home in the States, telling the story of a munitions worker who is falsely accused of sabotage and travels across the country to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings were imposed on Hitchcock as leads, and, as primarily comic actors (you might recognize Lane from her role as the bride in Arsenic and Old Lace), they are not quite up to the parts, but Dorothy Parker contributed to the screenplay and it shows—there are many delightful scenes.
Most Underrated: Lifeboat. This choice was a bit of a surprise to me, I thought Suspicion would end up taking this slot, but Lifeboat definitely should get more notice than it does. (Of course, in my opinion, either one is far more deserving of the Criterion treatment than Spellbound.) Despite being completely bounded by its WWII setting, Lifeboat remains extremely interesting and relevant today. Maybe it’s because I recently read Charlotte Rogan’s Lifeboat, or am really looking forward to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, but this movie resonated with me more this time around than when I first watched it. The basic story begins with the floating debris of a ship, recently sunk by a German U-boat. One passenger (Tallulah Bankhead) is sitting in a lifeboat, which gradually accumulates a motley collection of survivors, including passengers, crew, and one German. Remarkably, the entire film takes place in the boat, even Hitchcock’s cameo (see photo above).
An unusual perspective on murder from Strangers on a Train
Best Adaptation: Strangers on a Train. Not having read the original novel by Patricia Highsmith, this is a bit hard to judge; however, since I didn’t love her first Ripley book, I think I can safely say that this adaptation is at least as good as the book. In any case, it’s a great film. Robert Walker is perfectly creepy as a psychopath with daddy issues. Raymond Chandler assisted with the adaptation, but the dialogue isn’t as hard-boiled as you might think.
Foreign Correspondent is good, but it didn’t make the top five because it suffers from being bloated in length and too heavy on the propaganda. I think this was a case of “Hey, I have a budget now, let’s use it!” mixed with “America, I feel guilty for leaving England, please join the war against the bad guys!” Otherwise, it’s a great espionage story with incredible set pieces, from the chase under the umbrellas to the windmill sequence to the airliner climax.
Shadow of a Doubt was supposedly Hitchcock’s personal favorite and one where the characters are very fleshed out. Joseph Cotton plays the “merry widow murderer” who comes to Santa Rosa to hideout with his sister’s family, including his favorite niece and namesake. As detectives start to circle, and his niece starts to figure out the truth, he must decide what to do.
Suspicion was another strong contender and a favorite from my younger years, but ultimately I think it’s my love of Regency romances, the Joan Fontaine character from Rebecca, and Beaky (see below) that make this more of a personal favorite than one everyone should see. I had totally forgotten how much Lina pines for Johnny in the beginning—chalk that up to the naïve teenager in me—and that really grated on rewatch. Note: Joan Fontaine won Best Actress for this role.
Hiding the body in Rope
Best Technical Achievement: Rope. Similar to Lifeboat, Rope was a one-set film. Based on a play, the story is quite simple: two prep-school friends kill another friend just for the thrill of it, and challenge themselves by inviting friends, family, and a former teacher (Jimmy Stewart) to their apartment afterward. Two further challenges for Hitchcock were that it was his first Technicolor film and was shot in ten-minute takes (the maximum amount of film the camera would hold). Shots started and ended on people’s backs etc. to hide the film change—the effect is a film that seems to be one long take.
Biggest Surprise: Under Capricorn. This was one of the few films of this period that I hadn’t seen before. For some reason, I expected to hate it, but I didn’t. It’s an odd piece for Hitchcock: Filmed just after Rope, it also uses Technicolor and long takes, but is a period costume drama set in nineteenth-century Australia. It is not in league with most of these films, but it has a few Rebecca-like elements that I enjoyed.
Best Opening Sequence: Suspicion. The viewer’s entry into this film is a completely black screen and Cary Grant’s voice as he makes his way into Joan Fontaine’s compartment while their train is in a tunnel. A great way to destabilize the viewer right from the beginning.
Best Opening Sequence (runner-up): Strangers on a Train. Following only the shoes of Guy and Bruno as they get out of their taxis, board the train, and meet for the first time.
Ending with the Highest HSQ: Spellbound. A very clever use of perspective that must have been incredible to watch in a theater.
Best Locations: Saboteur, with location shooting in the Southern California desert and New York City, including a shootout at Radio City Music Hall and a climax at the Statue of Liberty.
Cary Grant brings a glass of milk to his wife in Suspicion
Most Ominous Moment: Suspicion. The camera slowly follows Cary Grant as he walks across a skylight window shadow that looks remarkably like a spider’s web and up the stairs to deliver what might be a fatal glass of milk. Hitchcock used a light bulb to illuminate the milk and make it glow.
Most Incongruous Use of a Theater Set: I Confess. Despite the fact that this film is about a Québécois priest (Montgomery Clift, yum) who hears a murderer’s confession and is himself accused of the crime and on trial for his life, Hitchcock still manages to stage the final scene in a theater setting.
Tensest Moment: The stitches slowly pulling out of the villain’s coat in Saboteur.
Best Running Gag (Audio): The conversations about murder methods between Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt.
Best Running Gag (Video): Joel McCrea’s wandering hats in Foreign Correspondent.
Favorite Love Scene: Foreign Correspondent:
—You see, I love you, and I want to marry you.
—I love you, and I want to marry you.
—That cuts our love scene down quite a bit, doesn’t it?
—Do you mind?
—Not at all. It’s made a new man of me.
—I hope not entirely new. It took me some time to get used to the first man you were.
—To be perfectly frank with you, I expected a little more argument. I’m really left with quite a few things I very much wanted to say.
Favorite Couple: Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I think this film is vastly underrated, but it could have been so much better than it was. Apparently Lombard, a friend of Hitchcock, wanted to work with him. Although there are many comic moments in Hitchcock’s films, this is his only screwball comedy. The crux of the plot is that Lombard and Montgomery discover their marriage isn’t legal, and while Lombard tries to break away, Montgomery tries to win her back. It’s very formulaic, but I absolutely adore Lombard.
The second Mrs. de Winter and the creepy Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca
Best Villainess: Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
Best Villain: Robert Walker as Bruno in Strangers on a Train.
Favorite Heroine: Tallulah Bankhead as Constance Porter in Lifeboat.
Favorite Hero: Michael Wilding as Inspector Wilfred Smith in Stage Fright. This may be mostly because he reminds me of Peter Lawford in Easter Parade.
Favorite Supporting Character: Nigel Bruce as Beaky in Suspicion. One of the most sympathetic and funny characters in any Hitchcock film.
Favorite Supporting Character (runner-up): Stebbins in Foreign Correspondent. Played (and written) by Algonquin Round Table member and writer-critic Robert Benchley, Stebbins, a foreign correspondent based in London, gives an air of authenticity to this movie.
Salvador Dali’s dream sequence in Spellbound
The Freudian Slip Award: The dream sequence in Spellbound. It should be said that I do not like this movie: the plot is ridiculous, and I don’t think either Ingrid Bergman or Gregory Peck is very convincing; however, it is worth watching for the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali.
Best Frankenstein Homage: The scene in the blind man’s cabin in Saboteur.
Best Contemporaneous All About Eve Homage: Stage Fright. Jane Wyman plays (wait for it) Eve Gill, an aspiring London actress who “goes undercover” as Marlene Dietrich’s maid and dresser in an attempt to clear her friend of the murder of Dietrich’s husband. This one had interesting characters and a few good red herrings.
Most Misleading Title: Spellbound. This gives no clue as to the plot or tone of this film. Under Capricorn could have taken this one, but I don’t think it’s misleading so much as nonsensical.
Favorite Champagne Call Back: Notorious. As in the silent era, champagne once again takes center stage as a plot device and is used to show time passing, as in The Ring. This time, the dwindling champagne stock may cause Bergman and Grant’s spy shenanigans to be discovered.
The Least But Not Last Award: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache. These two short French films (about 25 minutes each) were made during the war as propaganda for the Free French. I hadn’t expected to enjoy them, but they are tight little stories and, while not obviously “Hitchcockian,” there are little touches here and there that show the master’s influence.
Valli and Emily Blunt, separated at birth?
Time I’ll Never Get Back Award: The Paradine Case. I knew I shouldn’t bother to rewatch this one, but for some reason it came before the other two ahead of it in my queue, so I figured why not? The only benefit to the rewatch was that I realized that Emily Blunt is a dead ringer for Valli, who plays Mrs. Paradine. Seriously, I googled to see whether they were related. They’re not apparently, but someone else clearly had the same idea because there is a Facebook page devoted to the concept. Otherwise, this is a fairly boring, hopelessly miscast courtroom drama. The courtroom scenes are dramatic, but the trial doesn’t start until more than an hour has passed, which is a problem.
Hitchcock Filmography: Vintage Hollywood
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Bon Voyage/Aventure malgache (1944)
The Paradine Case (1947)
Under Capricorn (1949)
Stage Fright (1950)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
I Confess (1953)
For previous posts in this Film 101 series, click below:
Alfred Hitchcock: Cultural Icon
Hitchcock I: Sound and Silence
Hitchcock II: The British Talkies
For the next post in this series, see Hitchcock IV: The Master of Suspense.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these films!