Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cinema Sunday: The Master of Suspense

Good Eeeevaning! If you say this in a rather creepy English accent, you will sound like my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock.  He was famous for opening up his TV show with that trademark, “Good Eeeevaning”, but this post isn’t concerned with the TV show that bore his name, but with the many movies he directed.

Hitchcock truly was a master of suspense.  He directed nearly sixty films in a career that lasted six decades, and is often regarded as Britain’s greatest director.  There has been much written about Hitchcock, so I won't bore you with any details about him, although, if you're interested, I can recommend several books about him.

What I want to do is talk about is my favorite Hitchcock films.  They aren’t necessarily his best films, but are the Hitchcock movies that I enjoy the most.  For whatever reason, whether it's the theme, or the plot, or the chemistry between the actors, or the costuming (I'm a big fan of good costumes), or Hitchcock's craftsmanship, these films speak to me.

In no particular order, they are:

"Notorious" (1946): Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the American daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. She is recruited by T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), a government agent who wants her to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have escaped to Brazil after World War II. Alicia and Devlin fall in love, but this is complicated not only by Alicia’s wild past, but by the assignment she has been given.  Watch for the love scene between Alicia and Devlin.  Censorship codes of the time allowed a kiss to last no more than 3 seconds, so when Hitchcock filmed the scene, he directed the couple to interrupt the kiss every three seconds to nuzzle one another and whisper endearments.  That three second kiss wound up two and a half minutes long, and proved that love scenes don’t need to be explicit to get the point across.

The plot is terrific, tense and suspenseful, and the chemistry between Bergman and Grant is wonderful. It is a film well worth watching.

"Rear Window" (1954): This was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw and I was hooked from the start. Considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, it starred James Stewart, and Grace Kelly, as well as Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr (TV's Perry Mason).  Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries (“ Jeff”), a photographer who is stuck in a wheelchair while his broken leg heals.  Out of boredom, he begins to spy on his neighbors across the courtyard from his apartment, and becomes convinced that one of them has murdered his wife.  Once Jeff has convinced his glamorous girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), that he is right about his neighbor, she helps him to gather evidence to prove his case.  But is he right? You have to watch the film.

Stewart is wonderful in this, and Grace Kelly is luminously beautiful.  Edith Head designed the costumes, and they are just gorgeous.  I can’t say enough good things about "Rear Window".  I was about 24 when I first saw it, and I thought it was the most stylish and innovative movie I’d ever seen.  This is Hitchcock at his best, and it started my interest in and appreciation of all his films.

"North By Northwest" (1959): Along with Rear Window, this is arguably one of Hitchcock’s best films. It is the story of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent, George Kaplan.  Accused of a murder he did not commit, Thornhill goes on the run. Wanted by the police, and pursued by the enemy agents who framed him, Thornhill  sneaks onto a train, where he meets, and flirts with, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may or may not be who she says she is. I won’t tell you any more of the plot since I don’t want to give anything away, but watch for the biplane attack in the cornfield, and the chase scene across Mt. Rushmore. This film is great fun, stylish and thrilling.

"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943): This is not one of Hitchcock’s best known films, but was his personal favorite.  This story is set in Santa Rosa, California, which was a relatively small city when the film was made (my 1949 atlas lists the population as 12,605).  Hitchcock often stages much of his suspense in unlikely places.  This is certainly true of the Santa Rosa in "Shadow of a Doubt".  The Santa Rosa of this film is a small, sweet town, a paragon of innocence and virtue. The juxtaposition of the innocence of the town, and the evil that enters it, are what make the story so interesting to me. The film centers on Charlotte (“Charlie”) Newton (Teresa Wright), who becomes increasingly suspicious that her uncle, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) is a serial murderer.  Cotton is wonderfully creepy in this.  The supporting cast includes Macdonald Carey as the detective pursuing the murderer;  Henry Travers (you might remember him as the angel, Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) as young Charlie’s mystery-buff father; Patricia Collinge as young Charlie’s naïve mother; and Hume Cronyn as the family’s neighbor, another crime fiction buff. 

"To Catch a Thief" (1955): This movies is set in the French Riviera, with Cary Grant playing John Robie “The Cat”, an ex-cat burglar, and Grace Kelly playing an American heiress on vacation with her mother.  Robie is accused of taking up his former profession,  when a series of jewel thefts occur at wealthy estates.  It’s a lightweight plot, but great fun.  The French Riviera scenery is gorgeous, Kelly and Grant have a wonderful chemistry together, and the costumes, again by Edith Head, are amazing.  Check out the costumes in the party scene in the last part of the film. They are fantastic.

If you haven’t seen any of these films, I hope this whets your appetite to watch them.  I’ve seen a couple of them so many times, I can mouth along with the dialogue, but I still enjoy them every time I see them.

I apologize for this post being so late in the day (It’s kind of a lie to call it Cinema Sunday, since it's almost Monday here in California), but I was out this afternoon putting tarps on my roof. Fun!


  1. Alfred Hitchcock's movies were so suspenseful.We have some of those on DVD.I really love rear window.That movie has you on the edge of your seat.Especially when Lisa (Grace Kelly) is in that apartment looking for evidence.And you see him coming back.It still scares me.

  2. Hi Julie,
    Thank you for visiting my blog last week. Yours is so fun! I love all these old movies and have seen them many times. Rear Window is my favorite... and Dial M for Murder!
    Hope you're having a great Monday.


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