Category: Alfred Hitchcock

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

A man accidentally agrees to a murderous exchange in Hitchcock’s tense, seductive thriller

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton), Kasey Rogers (Miriam Joyce Haines), Marion Lorne (Mrs Antony), Jonathan Hale (Mr Antony), Howard St John (Captain Turley)

Two men meet on a train: Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and entitled playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). They chat awkwardly, possibly because Guy is too polite to tell Bruno to sod off and leave him alone. They both have problems: Guy can’t marry his girlfriend, Senator’s daughter Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) because his trampy wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) won’t give him a divorce; Bruno longs to escape from the shadow of his controlling dad. Then Bruno makes a suggestion: he’ll dispatch Miriam and Guy can kill his father. No-one will suspect a thing, as neither man has a motive. Criss Cross. Guy shakes hands and forgets all about it: until Bruno murders his wife and demands quid pro quo.

Hitchcock’s dread was to be arrested for a crime he did not commit. As a young boy, his father sent him down to the local police station with a note instructing him to locked up for a few hours to teach him a lesson. The horror stayed with Hitchcock for his whole life. Strangers on a Train was one of his best explorations of this concept (with the twist that the hero secretly wanted to but wouldn’t of course), and desperately attempts to prove his innocence and stop the psychopath he’s accidentally commissioned.

It’s a dream of a concept from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, superbly assembled into a tense thriller, where questions of whodunnit are (as so often in Hitchcock) irrelevant, with the real suspense coming from how the hero is going to get himself out of his predicament. That horrific predicament is masterfully assembled by Hitchcock into a series of striking set-pieces and shots, all of which carefully build a sense of being trapped in a terrible, oppressive nightmare as Guy realises there is no escape from the expectant glare of Bruno, determined that he fulfil his side of the bargain.

Bruno haunts Guy like a phantom. Guy sees him standing in front of an empty Lincoln memorial, Hitchcock shooting Walker like a distant black smear on the pristine white background. At a tennis match, Bruno sits fixedly starring at Guy, while every other face moves from side to side around him. Bruno inveigles his way into the home of Guy’s would-be fiancée and cheerfully sends him instructions on the best time and method for dispatching his father. The world seems to close around Guy – he’s framed through grills, trapped in rooms, never in control of his own destiny.

Bruno is relentless in his pursuit – and that feels like the right word for it – of Guy. It’s a superb performance from Robert Walker as this sexually ambiguous psychopath, chillingly amoral, fixated on his own desires and unrelenting in his sinister obsessions. Walker’s charisma and slimy, insinuating charm dominate the movie – he’s bizarrely sympathetic, so honest is he in his carefree sociopathy – and makes a great contrast with Granger. Here Hitchcock used the weakness of an actor to splendid effect. Original choice William Holden would never have been so meek and awkward talking with Bruno on a train: Granger, a less strong performer, utterly convinces as someone so inept at removing himself from an unwanted conversation he accidentally commits to murder.

The meeting between the two men on the train drips with homoerotic tension. It plays pretty much like a pick-up, Bruno smoothly working his way from sitting opposite Guy, to sitting next to him, to sharing dinner with him. Hitchcock introduces the two of them with tracking shots of their very differently shoed feet walking to a train, until they accidentally touch feet. Later a lounging Bruno stretches out his feet to touch Guy’s once more. Bruno essentially seduces Guy, Guy’s flustered awkwardness at least as much connected to a sort of sexual confusion as it is to the strange social interaction. Walker’s performance has a seductive purr and a beautiful delicate, feminine precision.

Not that it stops him committing murder. The killing of Miriam (wonderfully played with a slutty charm by Kasey Rogers) sees Bruno again as stalker, only this time with murder in mind. He prowls behind Miriam – dragging two horny lads along – as she moves through a fairground, keeping his distance but constantly catching her eye. Hitchcock tracks these flirtatious glances – this really is murder by seduction – and Bruno impresses her like a would-be lover with his prowess at the strong-man bell. It’s a dance, the two of them drifting down a tunnel in boats, one after the other.

And it culminates in an intimate killing by strangulation. Hitchcock uses a virtuoso shot: we watch the killing of Miriam reflected in the lens of her fallen oversized glasses, Bruno bearing down over her until she disappears. The perverse sexual excitement Bruno feels over the killing creeps into his fascination with Anne’s sister Barbara (played, for extra perverse points, by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia) who wears similar glasses to Miriam. Bruno stares at her with dreadful, tingling excitement and eventually loses control of himself miming out strangulation on a guest at the Morton’s house, swept up in the thrill of it.

Of course, Guy is far too straight-laced (in every sense) to get to wrapped up in Bruno’s plot. (Rather different from Highsmith, where his equivalent character regretfully but willingly upholds his part of the bargain.) The film overplays its hand slightly as it heads into the denouement with an overextended tennis match intercut with Bruno attempting to retrieve Guy’s lighter from a drain (where he has dropped it, en route to planting it at the murder scene). It pulls it back though with a final fight on a wildly speeding-out-of-control carousel (just the right side of ridiculous).

The film is littered with little references to doubles and dark shadows and is a superbly constructed thrill ride by Hitchcock. Granger’s weaknesses as a performer are surprisingly well suited to his role, although Hitchcock failed to hide his lack of regard for Ruth Roman in a weakly written role. The film gets a superb dark momentum from Robert Walker’s marvellous performance and Hitchcock shoots it with a brilliantly unsettling stalkerish eye, with Bruno’s trailing of each of his targets tinged with a dark sexuality beneath the malicious intent. With good reason, Hitchcock called this his “first American movie” and it kickstarted a run of hits.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

A small town family is corrupted by a malign force in Hitchcock’s favourite of his films

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Teresa Wright (Charlie Newton), Joseph Cotton (Uncle Charlie Oakley), Macdonald Carey (Detective Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Wallace Ford (Detective Fred Saunders), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton)

It’s a surprise to discover Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favourite of his films (although the Master of Suspense was a notorious kidder). It rarely makes even the top ten of Great Hitchcock’s and for years was semi-forgotten in his CV. But delve into this small-town chiller and it becomes less of a surprise the master was so fond of it. Hitchcock’s first American-set film (his previous American films being British-set), this takes an idyllic, everyone-knows-your-name, no-doors-locked small town in California and injects into the middle of it a ruthless sociopath, as charming as he is shockingly ruthless. Doesn’t that sound like Hitchcock all over?

That small-town is Santa Rosa in California. There the Newton family is thrilled at the imminent arrival of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) from New York. None more so than his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), a precocious teenager who shares her uncle’s wit and worldly wisdom. He arrives laden with gifts – but also dragging two police detectives and swirling rumours of terrible crimes. Surely Uncle Charlie – hero to all and idol of his niece – can’t also be the ruthless “Merry Widow” killer, dispatching aged widows for their riches? And, if he is, what on earth will Charlie do about it?

A lot of what would become Hitchcock’s central concerns in his later, darker, mature works make their inaugural appearance in this dark, creeping mystery. Everything in the Newton home is perfect, until they welcome Charlie, whose amiable greed and self-interest tarnishes everything he touches. Despite this, he’s the most likeable, charismatic, charming character in the film. So much so, a big part of us wills him not to be the murderer we can all be pretty confident he is. He’s far too exciting and dynamic for us to want him torn away from us!

The two Charlies are close – so much so Hitchcock would surely have dialled up the incestuous spark between them even further if he had made the film fifteen years later. They have a near supernatural mental bond, seemingly able to predict where and when the other might be. They laugh and flirt. In arguments Uncle Charlie grasps his niece like a frustrated lover, clutching her too him. As well as sharing many character traits (implying it would be easy for Charlie to become like Uncle Charlie) they’re closeness feels as much like a courtship as it does familial closeness. When Uncle Charlie takes Charlie to a gin bar to gain her confidence and support to hide from the cops, the entire scene feels like the appeal of a would-be lover.

It overlaps another theme future Hitchcock have taken further: the thin line between innocence and killer. Uncle Charlie and his namesake have a special bond. They share the same world-view and many of the same ideas. They’re both charismatic and natural leaders. They both feel stifled by this small-town world. They are both ruthlessly determined when roused. One of them might be innocent and one might be good – but how much of a push would it be to turn one into the other?

Hitchcock probes this possibility throughout in a film stuffed with doubles and duality. Both Charlies are introduced with similar shots of them lying in bed, being questioned by others. Later Uncle Charlie will inherit Charlie’s room in the house. Greeting each other at the station, they move towards each with mirroring shots. They share the same name. Twins, doubles, mirrors and the number two abound in the film – a marvellous blog here captures this all in far more detail and insight than I could here.

Uncle Charlie slithers into Santa Rosa like the serpent into the garden of Eden. He offers temptation left, right and centre. The Newton family receive lavish (stolen) gifts. His brother-in-law’s bank gets a investment from the cash Uncle Charlie carries around (he’s old fashioned you see). He laughs and jokes, reminds Charlie’s mother of the joys of her past and inveigles himself into the heart of the family (he even sits at the head of the table). But he’s also a dark, sinister figure, frequently framed at the top of staircases, marching inexorably towards camera and (in one stand out moment) breaking the fourth wall to address us directly while coldly, contemptuously outlining his theory about the pointless burden useless lives have on the rest of us.

He’s played with a charismatic, cold-hearted, jovial wickedness by Joseph Cotton. Cotton is so good as this on-the-surface amiable man, with a soul devoid of any love, it you’ll wish he’d got parts like this more often. Liberated from playing decent best-friends, Cotton dominates the film with a malignant charisma, married with a growing only-just-concealed desperation at the fragility of his fate. Opposite him, Teresa Wright is marvellous as a young woman who finds her sense of morality fully awakened into outrage by this dark presence corrupting everything in her life.

Corruption is central to Shadow of a Doubt – no wonder Hitchcock loved it – with Uncle Charlie turning everything in the simple, honest town into something darker and tainted by his very presence. There is an almost cliched home-spun decency about the town (almost as if co-writer Thornton Wilder was parodying his Our Town), serving to make Uncle Charlie’s modern sociopathy even more of a destructive force.

Shadow of a Doubt is directed with immense care, but a great deal with subtle flourish. Staircase shots abound, to stress sinister motivations, positions of weakness and unease. Characters lurch towards the camera frequently, as if the whole film was hunting us down. An air of menace, lies and danger builds inexorably as Uncle Charlie’s true-nature leaks out. There is also wit: not least from Charlie’s father (a jovial Henry Travers) and eccentric neighbour (a scene-stealing Hume Cronyn) gleefully discussing true crime throughout. There is also Hitchcock’s love of irony, not least in the fact Charlies problems are largely caused by his attempts to conceal a newspaper article that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Hitchcock makes his cameo early on as a card player on a train journey. He’s revealed to be holding all the trumps. That’s how he likes it: and perhaps explains his fondness for Shadow of a Doubt. Low key but perfectly constructed, it’s a film that latches onto themes of corruption, dark temptation and ruthless violence. Film logic abounds – who cares that the detective’s investigation is so inept they’d never be employed again – and the second half is crammed with murder attempts as unsubtle as they are ingeniously dark. Shadow of a Doubt feels like a prototype for darker themes of obsession and temptation Hitchcock would explore in the future. Perhaps that’s why he was so fond of it: it’s where he started to spread his wings.

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Obsession and grief come dangerously into play in one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeline Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry John (Coroner), Raymond Bailey (Doctor), Ellen Corby (Hotel manager), Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel), Lee Patrick (Car owner)

Spoilers: Vertigo was controversial at the time for revealing its twist, three quarters of the way through the film. I might well do the same in the review – although this is possibly a richer film if you know the twist going in

In 2012 Vertigo dislodged Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s decadal “Greatest Film” poll, after 50 uninterrupted years for Welles’ classic. It’s an astonishing turn-around for a film which was a box-office disappointment and first met with reviews that called it “long and slow” and complained that Hitchcock had “indulged in such farfetched nonsense”. (Welles also hated the film – bet he’s even more pissed off at it now.) This is partly because Vertigo is a fiercely, almost defiantly, complex and cold film that defies easy characterisation and flies in the face of the fast-paced watchability of most of Hitchcock’s popular films. But it’s still a haunting and fascinating masterpiece, which has its greatest impact when you reflect on it days after it has finished.

Its plot is both complex and slight. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is an ex-police detective, his career ended by crippling acrophobia bought on by powerlessly watching a fellow officer fall to his death. He’s hired by old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Madeline is in the grip of an idée fix that she is an incarnation of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in 1857. Scottie follows her – and develops an idée fix of his own for the beautiful Madeline. When his acrophobia prevents Scottie from saving Madeline from jumping to her death from a bell tower, he suffers a near-breakdown. Then he catches sight of Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) who has a chilling resemblance to Madeline. And Scottie tries to turn her into just that.

Vertigo is a dizzying film of monomania and obsession, something you are immediately plugged into with its beautiful Saul Bass opening (swirling spirals, reflecting the circular nature of the obsessive) and its hauntingly mesmeric and off-beat romantic theme from Bernard Herrmann (possibly his greatest work – and he also scored Kane!). More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo places us firmly into the POV of its lead character, who is in all but three scenes and whose perceptions and observations we not only share but which totally guide our understanding of everything we see in the film (until that twist, when suddenly we shift to knowing more than he does).

Hitchcock’s technique is truly masterful here. There isn’t the flash of something like North by Northwest, but the sort of chilling control that builds tension and unease that also marks out films like The Birds or, to a degree, Psycho (although that’s much more of a black joke, where Vertigo is terrifyingly serious). Hitchcock uses a huge number of POV shots, alternating with shots of Stewart’s reactions (at times these are disturbing in their fixed intensity) building a subtle momentum that reflects the character’s obsession and further filters everything we experience from his perspective.

That would be the perspective of an ever-more obsessed man tipping steadily into stalkerish territory. Few films have so clearly drawn the link between the private eye and the voyeur. As Scottie silently prowls the streets of San Francisco, observing every inch of Madeline’s actions – and Vertigo has long, worldless stretches of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – the disturbing pleasure and control that following brings you becomes more and more clear. It’s certainly giving a sense of masculinity back to Scottie, introduced to us hanging helplessly from a ledge and then so hamstrung by his condition he can’t even climb a step ladder without collapsing.

Judged from this perspective, Scottie is one of the most darkly disturbing characters in film. Rescuing Madeline from the Golden Gate (where she has jumped in) he takes her home, undresses her and puts her in his bed – hardly normal behaviour. It’s not long from there before he surrenders to his romantic obsession (feelings Madeline perhaps returns), that eventually leads him again to be a powerless witness as Madeline plunges to her death right in front of him.

Catatonia and mental collapse follow – but really it’s perhaps just a continuation of the same obsession in another form. Because after a stay in a sanatorium, Scottie is back on the streets again, prowling for something – anything – that could make him feel closer to Madeline again. Which is how he spots Judy, the woman who reminds him of the woman he’s lost. Scottie doesn’t so much woo Judy as seemingly browbeat her into a bizarre (joyless and sexless) relationship and undertake a terrifyingly grotesque remodelling exercise, designed to make her into a carbon copy of Madeline.

This sequence is probably partly at the heart of the film’s fascination for critics and film historians – even more so since we’ve learned about Hitchcock’s manipulative, controlling relationship with his blonde female stars. Here we have Scottie instructing his love interest how to dress, walk and cut her hair – all while telling her it’s for her own good and she’ll like it – his voice with the breathless longing of a closeted pervert (that is when Scottie manages any sexual yearning to Judy, who he treats more like a treasured exhibit). This is Hitchcock dramatizing his own hang-ups, presenting them as creepy and dangerous, making Vertigo partly as well a fascinating psychological study of its director. Did Hitchcock know that his controlling relationship with women was wrong? And, in real life, could he not help himself or did he not care?

Vertigo is a perfect exploration of obsession. But it also pulls the rug out from us – and rewards constant reviewing as a result – because the film reveals there was a whole other level going on. Scottie may seem the Hitchcock substitute, but the in-film Hitch figure is actually the amiable Gavin Elster. Because the entire action of the film is carefully stage-managed by Elster to manipulate Scottie (and us!): Judy and Madeline (as Scottie has met her) are in fact the same woman, a doppelgänger for Elster’s wife. The real Madeline – who Scottie never sees or meets – is murdered by Elster at the top of that tower, and Judy/Madeline was helping build a backstory to have this murder written off as suicide, with Scottie’s acrophobia perfect to make him a powerless witness.

Here comes that pleasure for rewatching: because now when Scottie rescues “Madeline” from the river, then spends the next day with her, we thought at first he knew more than she. Now however, we understand he’s always been a patsy who knew less than anyone else. We’ve been manipulated by Elster, the master director, pulling the strings and building horrors for us. That’s Hitchcock.

The film reveals this in one of the few scenes told from Judy/Madeline’s perspective – and means we then watch Scottie actually craft a woman who actually is the woman he’s obsessed with into his memory of that very same woman. (Get your head around that!) And she allows it, because she seems as desperate as he to recapture the passion of those brief days together – but cannot tell him the thing that would help to do that. It all leads, of course, to Scottie’s destructive obsession leaving him once again to being a helpless witness as another victim plummets to their death.

Vertigo is effectively a two-hander, and most of the focus usually lands on Stewart. He is chillingly dead-eyed in this, his crazed hunting after something he doesn’t even understand capturing the controlling horror behind some romance. In many ways though, Kim Novak has the more complex part. She doesn’t speak for almost 45 minutes – she spends it mostly in long shot performing Elster’s play for Scottie (and us) of the mentally disturbed wife. But when Novak does take centre stage, this is a complex multi-layered performance, carefully modulated throughout to communicate (in advance) Judy’s vulnerability and love for Scottie, without ever letting us realise she is anything but the death-fixated “Madeline”. Novak marries two contradictory characters into one with a simple and convincing aplomb. Equally good is Barbara bel Geddes, in almost the only other named role, as Scottie’s one-time fiancée now best friend, all too aware that her feelings are not returned.

Vertigo will never match the likes of Casablanca or North By Northwest – on a list of films truly popular with audiences. It’s been described as the ultimate critic’s film: a cool, chilling, brilliantly filmed, psychological thriller that quietly exposes the mechanics of film, the manipulation of story-telling and the dark psyche of its director. In many ways initial reviews were right: on first impression, the film is cold and slow, with characters it’s hard to relate to. But it has a truly haunting quality few others can match. And it constantly presents us with a clear image, while never allowing us to guess we are seeing only part of the overall picture. It can leave us as dizzy as Scottie is, hanging from that ledge and staring down at doom, the camera zooming inside his head and showing us his terrifying POV. You need to work at it, but this is a film to value.

Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier find married life isn’t a bed of roses in Rebecca

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Joan Fontaine (The second Mrs de Winter), Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Judith Anderson (Mrs Danvers), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Reginald Denny (Frank Crawley), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), C. Aubrey Smith (Colonel Julyan), Nigel Bruce (Major Giles Lacy), Florence Bates (Mrs Edythe Van Hopper), Edward Fielding (Frith), Leo G. Carroll (Dr Baker)

It’s impossible to know what people are really thinking isn’t it? Rebecca is a film all about secrets and misconceptions, the biggest enigma of them all being that title character, the deceased wife casting a ghostly shadow over every scene. Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American picture and a masterclass in atmosphere with a vulnerable and deeply sympathetic lead, packaged into a wonderfully entertaining film combining the best of producer David O. Selznick’s sense for literary translation with Hitchcock’s filmic virtuosity.

On the French Riviera, a naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine), working as a paid companion for widower Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates), meets and becomes engaged to the aristocratic Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim is a widower, whose previous wife Rebecca drowned. Becoming the second Mrs de Winter, our heroine quickly finds herself out of her depth in Manderley, Maxim’s colossal country home. Every where she goes there are memories of Rebecca, her husband still seems to be in love with his first wife and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), still fanatically loyal to Rebecca, takes every opportunity to subtly remind the second Mrs de Winter of her own inadequacy. But is there a darker mystery behind the death of Rebecca?

Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning film (his only one, although he didn’t get the Director award) is a gothic delight. The action takes place in a mist-filled Cornwall, in a house where every nook and cranny has a dark secret. From its opening sequence, with the camera tracking through a fogbound forest before emerging in sight of a the intimidatingly grand Manderley, this is a film swimming in atmosphere and a dread of dark, psychological secrets, wrapped up in a dynamic melodrama.

At its heart is the vulnerable second Mrs de Winter – so timid we never even learn her name – beautifully embodied by Joan Fontaine. Nervous, awkward and shy, her hands often clasped together and shoulders (under a parade of unglamourous cardigans) tense, she rarely (if ever) looks comfortable. Fontaine’s wonderfully judged performance makes her bashful and deferential but also kind and guileless. Her polite eagerness to do the right thing and help people makes us warm to her instantly. And it’s impossible not to empathise with this gentle middle-class girl, parachuted into being the grand mistress of a huge house. Everyone seems to find her wanting – even Maxim’s decent sister (a droll performance by Gladys Cooper) good naturedly criticises everything from her lack of hobbies to poor dress sense.

That house would make anyone feel inadequate. Hitchcock frequently shoots Fontaine dwarfed by Manderley’s huge interiors, with its walls which seem to stretch on forever. She looks like a small frightened rabbit, as hopelessly oppressed by the building as she is bewildered by the procedures involved in running a house like this. Plus, there are all those reminders of Rebecca – everything seems to carry a monograph and not an item in the house seems to be without her personal touch. In many ways Rebecca is a ghost story without a ghost, where Rebecca’s presence (or lack of it) dominates the entire world of the film.

And our heroine (so uncertain of who she is, she tells a phone caller “I’m sorry Mrs de Winter has been dead for some time” before she suddenly remembers that is now her) won’t be allowed to escape that legacy. Not least because Mrs Danvers is there to remind her. In a superbly cold, calculating and chilling performance of barely repressed obsessiveness, Judith Anderson is outstanding as this housekeeper from your nightmares. Mrs Danvers is determined to turn Manderley into a mausoleum to her lost mistress – and ideally the new Mrs de Winter into a human sacrifice. Hitchcock manages to suggest more than a hint of sexual obsession into Mrs Danvers – she fondles with awe Rebecca’s negligee, drapes herself in Rebecca’s fur coats and remembers her with a breathless intensity. It’s an obsession that makes her subtly unbalanced and deeply dangerous.

Rebecca contains many of the themes that would run through Hitchcock’s work. Obsession obviously has a dark hold over Manderley, not least over Maxim who has the air of a man capable of violence. Unspoken, unknown crimes haunt over Manderley. The death of Rebecca is constantly bought back to us, not least with the film’s continual visual reference to crashing waves. The second Mrs de Winter feels isolated and watched at every turn, a stranger (and potential victim) in her own home. Several shots hammer home giddy, vertigo-inducing heights – from Maxim’s introduction on the cliffs, to the long drop from the heights of Manderley which Mrs Danvers urges a distraught Mrs de Winter to consider taking.

But what’s superb about Rebecca is that the reveals we expect to find are of course totally different to the reveals we get. A lot of this hinges on Olivier’s complicated and fascinating performance as Maxim. In many ways a man of total self-assurance – he barely breaks away from his breakfast to phone Mrs Van Hopper and inform her he will marry her companion – the more time we spend with him, the more his vulnerability, insecurity becomes clear, as does his patrician pride which leads to a self-damaging bluntness. When the secrets are revealed, its striking how this scion of the upper classes becomes suddenly lost – just as finally receiving some answers and reassurance turns Fontaine’s Mrs de Winter into someone more sure of herself than we have ever seen.

The film’s final act spools out a well-paced, intriguing courtroom drama, turned reversed murder-mystery. While some of the original novel’s developments are changed for code-related reasons (the usual provisos on crime and punishment), it makes very little impact on the compelling nature of the vice that seems to be trapping Maxim and his wife. Much of this is powered by George Sander’s superbly hissable turn as a preening playboy (and total shit), purring lines such as “I say marriage to Max is hardly a bed of roses is it?” with a near sadistic glee. It builds to a denouement straight out of horror, with Mrs Danvers taking rightful place as a demonic lord of misrule.

Rebecca was a product of the collaboration between Selznick and Hitchcock: two strong personalities who knew their own mind. Their relationship was fraught and troubled – they basically agreed on almost nothing – but the clash produced a work that stands as some of their best. Selznick demanded Hitchcock stick to the book – he had wanted to name the lead character ‘Daphne’, and introduce a running joke of sea sickness and a Jane Eyre-ish ‘mad woman in the attic’ – and in turn Hitchcock refused to film Selznick’s suggested flourishes (such as a smokey “R” filling the night sky for the final shot). Goes to show that conflict can produce great art.

Rebecca is an outstanding gothic melodrama, superbly acted (there is not a weak link in the cast) and brilliantly directed with a mist-filled flair and sense of heightened tension. A fascinating psychological puzzle while also being superbly gripping entertaining, it’s one of the finest Best Picture winning films of all time.

Lifeboat (1944)

The survivors face the weather, the sea and their own suspicions in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), Walter Slezak (Willi), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J Rittenhouse), Heather Angel (Mrs Higley), Hume Cronyn (“Sparks” Garrett), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer)

Spoilers: If you can spoil a film made 76 years ago… but the ending will be discussed

The middle of the Atlantic at wartime. A ship has been sunk by a German U-boat, which was itself sunk in the exchange. A single lifeboat picks up survivors, a mixture of passengers, crewmen – and a German sailor from the U-Boat. Low on food and water, with only a faint idea of where they are, can they survive long enough to find either land or another ship? That’s even before we can overcome questions of trust – or not.

Taken from a scenario written by John Steinbeck, Alfred Hitchcock was originally attracted to Lifeboat because he fancied the idea of directing a film that was set in only one location. And a tiny one at that! Needless to say, such is the imagination and skill the film has been made with that you will soon forgot that it all takes place effectively in one tiny room. Instead, as the camera skilfully cuts and moves through the boat, finding intriguing angles and never once let the pace slip, you’ll be sucked in this intriguing story of survival and morality.

Lifeboat was attacked at the time precisely because of these difficult questions of morality. Unlike many other war films of the time, it wasn’t just interested in propaganda. Instead the German here – later revealed to be the captain of the U-Boat – is not only the films most charming and engaging character, brilliantly played by Walter Slezak, he’s also the only one that has any real idea about how to survive. Need a sailor? He’s best qualified. A navigator? The only man with a clue. Need to lop a gangrenous leg off? Willie can do it with a pen knife. His resourcefulness needs to be weighed in the balance though with his lies, manipulations and hording of supplies.

But the fact the film presents us with a Falstaffianly rogueish German, rather than a monster – and also makes him the most effective of the survivors – was a problem at the time. Combined with the fact that the representatives of the allies are a mixed and divided back. A chippy socialist sailor. A decent but ineffective radio operator. A jobsworth nurse, possibly carrying someone else’s husband’s child. An ambitious gossip columnist. An industrialist who assumes he should call the shots. And a black steward who even needs to take a moment to think about before they decide to treat him as an equal, or even use his real name. A unified and decisive group of allies, this ain’t.

The events of the film then develop in a host of challenging ways. Sure, our heroes eventually come together – but its in a murderous fury that sees them lynch Willie, beat him to death and throw him overboard. Willie saves their lives – but he also hordes water and then persuades the delirious Gus (whose leg he amputated) to throw himself overboard when Gus spies his secret water stash.

This lynching scene is the heart of the film – indeed most of the action is a slow, tension-filled, build towards it. And, for all that Willie is a seemingly unrepentant Nazi (dropping broad hints about having spent some time in Paris) who we are told ordered the shooting of survivors in the water, its hard not to feel some sympathy for him as Hitchcock cuts to a close up of his horrified eyes as he realises what the passengers are about to do. Just as the passengers, waking to find Gus gone and Willie assuring them it was for the best, take a on a monstrous inhumanity as they murder him.

Hitchcock described them later as a pack of dogs. Of the passengers, alarmingly it’s the two most decent (Hume Cronyn’s gentle radio operator and Mary Anderson’s nurse) who turn the most savage in the onslaught. Only Joe – perhaps remembering other lynchings he may have witnessed? – keeps a horrified distance from the slaughter. In a traditional propaganda film, as many critics wanted at the time, this would be a moment of triumph. The allies coming together to vanquish their common foe.

Instead, it intentionally leads a queezy and unsettling taste in the mouth. Hitchcock seems to be challenging us to ask just how we feel about this. Willie has done terrible, greedy, awful things. He’s got a lot of blood on his hands. But do we feel its right for these guys to murder him – and as brutally as they do here? (Hitchcock shoots the lynching at a distance, the passengers descending on Willie like a mob, his bloodied face emerging at one point before being dragged back in). There is nothing really triumphant about this. And, after the deed, no one seems sure how to process it. Rittenhouse even suggests Willie deserved his fate for his ingratitude after they hauled him from the water.

As safety is finally found near the end, it’s not clear what anyone has learned. The whole ghastly cycle looks like it might be repeated when a young German sailor is hauled onboard after another supply ship is sunk. Some passengers are ready to butcher him immediately – the sailor fortunately is armed. Sanity just about prevails, but already the passengers are beginning to revert, right down to starting to address Joe by the common short-hand name for a black steward, George.

But then at the same time, it’s not as simple as that. After all, these German sailors sunk a ship killing hundreds of people. During the first night on the boat a baby dies in his mother’s arms – the mother then throws herself overboard the next night, despite the passengers attempt to restrain her. Those deaths are discussed again at the end when the passengers obliquely wonder if they did the right thing. The film won’t say for sure, but leave it to you to decide. And it’s that rich sense of unease that helps make this a rather overlooked masterpiece for Hitchcock. A lot more than just a technical triumph, it’s a searching and questioning film.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

lady vanishes
May Whitty is searched for by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr Hartz), May Whitty (Miss Froy), Cecil Parker (Mr Todhunter), Linden Travers (“Mrs” Tothunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness), Catherine Lacey (Nun), Googie Withers (Blanche), Sally Stewart (Julie)

In his conversations with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut declared every time he tried to study The Lady Vanishes, all its tricks and mechanics, he always ended up too wrapped up in the plot to notice them. It’s about as fitting a tribute as a film can get, that it got one of the world’s ultimate film buffs just sit down and enjoy the ride. The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock’s penultimate British film and it might well be one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films he ever made.

It’s late 1930s in Europe and a group of mostly British travellers have got stuck waiting for a train in the fictional country of Bandrika (but it’s clearly Germany). Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on her way back home to (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) get married, exasperated by the loud noise made in the room above through the night by folk music expert Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are cricket obsessives, desperate to get home for the big test match. Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker) is a lawyer, keen not to draw attention to the fact Mrs Todhunter (Linden Travers) isn’t actually his wife. When the train finally leaves the station the next day, Iris is hit on the head by a plant plot (was it pushed?) that very nearly hits governess Miss Froy (May Whitty). Miss Froy takes care of Iris on the train – but when Iris wakes after a rest, she finds Miss Froy has disappeared and – furthermore – everyone denies she ever existed in the first place. While a Bandrikan psychiatrist Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) claims she may be suffering from concussion, only Gilbert believes her story. Will they be able to prove Miss Froy is real and rescue her from whatever peril she has found herself in?

Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes shouldn’t really work – not least since it takes nearly 20 minutes before we get any indication that we are watching anything other than a romantic comedy. But perhaps that’s also why it works, because those first 20 minutes are beautifully scripted, with some cracking dialogue and some skilfully drawn character work that invests us in these people long before any danger arises. It also serves as a brilliant counterpoint to the nearly non-stop tension and action that comes in the final hour of the film – who could have believed that all that light hearted banter in a guest house could end in a ruthless shoot out in the woods?

It all seems to change pace on a classic Hitchcock touch – a folk singer is suddenly, violently, strangled by an unseen assailant (why? I’ve no idea. The film doesn’t think you’ll care about the logic gap, and you don’t). But a large part of the film’s success stems from Hitchcock’s collaboration with Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder on script-writing duties. Gilliat and Launder made a number of changes to the original novel, adding a greater espionage element. Even more importantly, they overhauled several of the characters, not least changing the Gilbert character from an engineer into a charming (if eccentric) folk music expert with a deadpan wit. Even more successfully, they introduced the hilarious ultra-British Charters and Caldicott, classic eccentric grown-up public schoolboys with a fascination with cricket (the combo was so popular Naunton and Wayne played versions of these characters another eleven times).

The script’s wit, playfulness and scintillating dialogue is what drives most of the film’s energy – and certainly what helps to make it as entertaining as it is. In particular, the dialogue exchanges between Lockwood and Redgrave hum with the sort of love-them-hate-them banter that wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy (“You’re the most contemptible person I’ve met in all my life!” “Confidentially I think you’re a bit of a stinker as well”), and the two actors shine in roles that start with classic feuding but subtly and beautifully come together as a romantic couple by the film’s end. Lockwood has pluck, guts and determination, a mix of socialite and head girl determination. Redgrave is superb as Gilbert, showing the sort of matinee idol wit and charm – not to mention an unconventional romantic sex appeal – that he very rarely got to exhibit again (sadly he didn’t get on with Hitchcock, and never worked with him again).

The film is full of wit and invention, but mixes it with a properly engrossing mystery. Every character has very clear reasons for denying the existence of Miss Froy (May Whitty is superb as a seemingly dotty old woman, hiding cunning and an unexpected capacity for action). We know that of course Iris is right – but even so, it’s hard not to begin to suspect that maybe the oily Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas whose professional smoothness neatly tips into cruelty) is right and she is suffering from concussion. The unravelling of this mystery is half Agatha Christie (vital clues pop up here and there), half famous five adventure – but the nearly “real time” playing out of the mystery injects huge amounts of tension and excitement, particularly as the villains start to be revealed.

The film also serves, interestingly, as a plea for British invention in European affairs in the era of appeasement. The train is stuffed nearly exclusively by Brits, most of whom are quite content at first to let things drift and not rock the boat. However, when the chips are finally down and its time to make a stand, the majority of the characters knuckle down and get their hands dirty to fight for justice. Even Charters and Caldicott take up arms (with a typical British reserve) to protect their fellow passengers, while Gilbert has already shown himself capable of being a man of action (as well as a pretty neat impressionist and physical comedian) when called upon. It’s telling that Cecil Parker’s Mr Todhunter is the nearest thing we see to an appeaser on the train (with a fear-and-hope-tinged expectation that everyone is playing by his own antiquated rules), and he’s the only one who angrily questions taking a stand.

It’s not surprising from Hitchcock, who made an even more passionate plea for intervention a few years later with Foreign Correspondent. Neither is it a surprise how superbly the film is made. Hitchcock is at the top of his game here, shooting the train brilliantly (the set was tiny, not that you could tell from the number of angles Hitch finds here). His mastery of the pace and tone of the film is spot on: the second half never lets up, and you never for one minute lose the film’s wit, even while the stakes become more bigger and bigger. The film has possibly the most winning romantic pairing in all of Hitch’s movies, helped hugely by the natural and winning playing of Redgrave and Lockwood. It so successfully builds up the possibility of Iris being mistaken, that it makes the audience start to question what they’ve seen.

It’s a superbly directed film, but above all it’s supremely entertaining in a way few other films can hope to be. Its re-watch value – from hearing the jokes again, to spotting the early clues – means it will be rewarding audiences for decades to come.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly basically have a nice French holiday in To Catch a Thief

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (John Robie “The Cat”), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (HH Hughson), Charles Vanel (Monsieur Bertani), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard), Jean Martinelli (Foussard)

One of the nice things about being a powerful film director is, if you fancy a nice holiday in the sun, get a film greenlit in a nice location and settle in for a nice vacation. That’s perhaps the real story behind To Catch a Thief, a popular Hitchcock film that is, at best, a second tier entry in his CV – but has some truly lovely location shots of the French Riviera in it.

The film meanders through a plot that never really heads anywhere particularly interesting, other than crossing off some of Hitchcock’s familiar beats. Cary Grant coasts along as suave former French Resistance fighter and infamous jewel thief “The Cat”, now retired to a lovely vineyard on the French Riviera (presumably off the back of his ill-gotten gains). His French resistance past has basically made him immune from persecution, until a copy-cat thief starts to plunder the jewels of the rich. With Robie Suspect #1, who better to catch a thief than…another thief?

To Catch a Thief is so much about its style, its expensive Hollywood production standards and luxurious location shooting, that it almost forgets to have any substance at all. I suppose that doesn’t completely matter when this is very much one of Hitchcock’s entertainments – a luscious change of pace from his previous film Rear Window, which was all about confined spaces, voyeurism and seedy thrills. Here instead the focus is on beauty, charm and frothy comedy, with the plot unspooling so gently, that the final resolution is virtually thrown in as an afterthought.

Instead the focus is more on the extended game of flirting between Grant and Grace Kelly as daughter of wealthy American jewel owner Jessie Royce Landis. Grant was, of course, twice as old as Kelly (and only eight years younger of course than Landis, who played his mother four years later in North by Northwest), but the two make for a chemistry laden couple. (Hitchcock cheekily has one seductive late night conversation intercut – and end – with a fireworks explosion. No prizes for guessing what that symbolises). 

Much of this fire comes from Grace Kelly who, fresh from her Oscar win for Best Actress, is brimming with confidence. Clever, sexy and dangerous – she’s excited by Robie’s life of crime and loves the idea of joining him in a life of crime, don’t get many leading ladies of the time being as daring as that – Kelly oozes sex appeal and looks like she could eat Grant for breakfast. It takes all the experienced cool and charm of Grant – who adjusts the part so neatly into his wheelhouse, he feels like he could play the thing standing on his head – to keep up. Kelly is radiant and magnetic and walks off with the movie. So much so you wish it gave her slightly more to do. 

But then the plot of the film doesn’t give anyone much to do. Robert Burks (Oscar-winning) photography is lovely, really capturing the beauty and elegance of the French Riviera. But the events around it are nothing to write home about, an underpowered caper with little of the director’s energy and fire or his subversive creepiness. The identity of the copy-cat will be a mystery perhaps only to those who have never seen a movie, while the generally predictable beats in every scene make it feel like a hodge-podge pulled together from the offcuts of better films.

It’s got a lovely feeling of a holiday adventure for all and sundry. Plenty of French actors dutifully trudge through – although to a man their characters are either incompetent, bullies or crooks – with The Wages of Fear Charles Vanel clearly dubbed as a seedy ex-Resistance fighter turned restaurateur. It’s all very well mounted, entertaining enough and leaves almost nothing for you to digest after it’s finished.

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant is on the run in the sublime North By Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Josephine Hutchinson (“Mrs Townsend”), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)

What is it about? Ernest Lehman went in wanting to write the “ultimate Hitchcock film”. And I think you can say he pulled it off. North by Northwest is the perhaps the most electric, fun, dynamic and nonsensical of all Hitchcock’s action-adventures, a neat bookend with The 39 Steps for Hitchcock’s career. It’s such good fun you scarcely notice the plot makes very little sense and the film is barely about anything at all other than a man getting chased. It has the most Macguffiniest MacGuffin in the whole Hitchcock career, an item of such little interest to the viewer that it never appears on screen and is only cursorily discussed. 

Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, nifty Mad Man-esque ad executive (you can imagine that Don Draper dreamed of being Roger Thornhill) who accidentally gets mistaken by shady goons for the mysterious “Mr Kaplan”, actually a non-person used as a distraction by the FBI. Cue Thornhill’s kidnapping, interrogation by the goon’s suave leader (James Mason, never more James Mason than here), escaping a murder attempt, getting embroiled in the murder of a UN official and fleeing New York in the train compartment of smart and sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). And that’s before we even mention killer crop dusting planes, faked shootings, auction house shenanigans and a vertigo inducing game of cat-and-mouse on Mount Rushmore. Is there a more fun film in the world?

North by Northwest gained its Hamlet inspired title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hawksaw”) and it’s pretty meaningless – Lehman basically liked it and throws in a fictional “Northwest airline” so Thornhill can fly ‘North’ at one point (geddit?!) – but it also captures a sense of manic powerlessness in the film. Thornhill spends a good slice of the film telling anyone who will listen he is notKaplan, while every action he carries out seems to serve only to convince his pursuers he definitely is. The film’s echo of madness in its title carries across to the frantic energy of the film, and Thornhill’s belief that he must surely be the only sane man in a world of lunatic chaos. 

And it’s prime Hitchcock chaos here in his most engaging, fast-paced and funny action adventure. The sort of prime piece of entertainment assembled with such skill, energy and excellence it looks really easy (but of course isn’t). Hitchcock keeps the momentum of this crazed chase perfectly pitched, and stages each of the set pieces so well that all of them have become icons of adventure cinema. Who can look at a crop dusting plane without thinking of Thornhill running in desperation, in the middle of nowhere, from a lethal plan swooping down on him from above? Who can look at Mount Rushmore without imagining Grant and Saint climbing all over it with Landau in pursuit?

It’s Grant as well that really makes the film work. He’s such an accomplished screen presence, so smooth and practised, it’s very easy to see this as a film where he is barely acting. But that would be to do him a major disservice. Not only is such a balance of light comedy and action so hard to pull off (so much so that Harrison Ford as Indy is possibly the only one who can get close – and that character is chalk and cheese with Thornhill) – but Grant builds a character who develops perceptively and clearly over the course of the film. 

Initially the typical Grantish stereotype – so suave, confident and shallow that even his middle initial “O” literally stands, Harry Truman like, for nothing – Thornhill begins as a man who blithely assumes he can drift through his life and getting anything without question. Events – and his embroilment in them – however see him develop from a deeply selfish and lazy man into one who carries moral force, loyalty, determination and dedication to duty and an increasing sense of confidence and derring-do. From the man who is the victim of circumstance at the start of the film, failing to get anyone to believe him, he becomes a man who saves himself and everyone else with his pluck, daring and resourcefulness. And he does it all while never losing his light, almost put-upon, wit and playfulness. It’s a truly great personality performance with real depth and development: a hollow man who becomes a real man of standing and purpose.

He’s backed superbly by the cast who seize their roles with gusto. James Mason drips British superiority and suaveness (has there ever been two such cool actors facing off?) as VanDamme, Eva Marie Saint is every ounce the brave, resourceful, daring and clever lady that prompts Thornhill to man-up. Jessie Royce Landis gets some lovely comic mileage from Thornhill’s pecking-hen mother (hilariously she’s only 8 years older than Cary Grant). Martin Landau simpers rather effectively as VanDamme’s fey sidekick.

The script is crammed with great lines from Lehman, all of which delivered superbly by the cast. But it’s a director’s treat, and Hitchcock delivers it brilliantly. I’ve mentioned that MacGuffin – it’s some microfilm or something in a statue that’s the root of the all the problems – but it hardly matters. The film powers forward with the dynamic energy of a comic farce crossed with action adventure. Thornhill’s initials spell out “ROT” and in an affectionate thing that’s what the film is – something that doesn’t take it self seriously but sets out to entertain at all costs. 

So we get Hitchcock splicing in rom-com flirtations between Grant and Saint (and no less than two shots of trains speeding down lines and into tunnels, just to hammer home exactly what they are doing to kill time on the ‘sleeper’ train) with edge-of-the-seat sequences (the slow tension build at an abandoned bus station while Grant waits for “Kaplan” only to fall victim to assault from crop duster) then segues back into comedy (the hilarious “pretend to be drunk” to escape assassination at an auction) it’s perfectly assembled. And that end sequence at Mount Rushmore – a near perfect mix of comedy, action, adventure, suspense, thriller and romance. It’s flawless.

William Goldman famously stated North by Northwest had the finest, most economical ending of all time – and it ties up perfectly and beautifully about six plot threads and cliffhangers in less than 70 seconds – but the entire film is a perfect package. Hitchcock’s glossiest chase adventure is wonderfully directed and in Cary Grant it perfectly married up possibly the only actor in the history of film with both the charisma and the acting chops to play the part with one of the greatest entertainments in the history of film. It’s mad, meaningless nonsesense – but who cares, it’s a great, great, great film.

The Birds (1963)

Tippi Hedron has a bad day at the birdcage in The Birds

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Tippi Hedron (Melanie Daniels), Rod Taylor (Mitch Brenner), Jessica Tandy (Lydia Brenner), Suzanne Pleshette (Annie Hayworth), Veronica Cartwright (Cathy Brenner), Charles McGraw (Sebastian Sholes), Lonny Chapman (Deke Carter), Joe Mantell (Cynical Businessman)

Alfred Hitchcock is often seen as the master of technique, the doyen of suspense, the master of the shock twist. Perhaps it was his love of this sort of material that led him to this radical reworking of Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds. After all Hitch had already directed the greatest ever du Maurier adaptation (Rebecca), so working with du Maurier was hardly new and turning this English suspense story into a sort of post-apocalyptic, tension-filled plot-boiler was right up his street. The Birds is a master-class in the director’s craft, and a curiously empty experience with barely a human heart in sight.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedron), a slightly spoiled heiress, arrives in a small coastal town in California in order to play a practical trick on lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Deciding to stay the night, she quickly realises that she has chosen the wrong weekend to get away as, while sparks grow between her and Rod, they also grow between humanity and the birds, as our feathered friends (enemies?) begin a series of escalating attacks on the population of the town that eventually lead to multiple deaths and destruction.

Hitchcock’s film is as masterclass in the slow-burn, deliberately the slowest film the director perhaps ever made. Hitchcock prided himself on his films in suspense being the awaiting of an event to happen. The bomb you know will go off on the bus. The plane circling Cary Grant that seems ripe to attack. The Birds takes this to the nth degree. The film’s very title all but tells you that the birds are going to attack, so Hitchcock takes it nice and slow, letting scenes play out with a breezy lack of pace, almost like a low-rent romantic comedy. But somehow this long unwinding of not a lot happening works well, because every scene somehow becomes a corkscrew as tension as every single bird in shot becomes suspicious. 

This atmosphere is increased by the wide open locations and remote locale the film is set in, with these all-American small town sites seeming to stretch on forever around the characters only serving to stress their isolation and vulnerability in the middle of all this deadly nature. Hitchcock also carefully stripped out all musical score from the film, instead providing a sound track of natural noise complemented by slightly exaggerated bird noise (created by use of a Trautonium, supervised by master composer Bernard Herrmann). The often makes the film eerily and unsettlingly quiet, with the soundtrack only punctured by the frequently (perhaps deliberately) mundane dialogue. Suddenly with this brilliant combination game, the entire film becomes a tense waiting game for the unleashing of avian attacks, every frame a tense waiting for the bang you all know is coming. It’s Hitchcock using every aspect of his reputation, and the film’s promise of violence, to create an overwhelming effect that is deeply unsettling no matter how many times you see the movie. 

Hitchcock also gives a slow build to the bird violence. Events escalate quickly, from the unsettling gathering of the birds in several places (most notably along telephone lines and outside a school playground) to subtle messages about chicken’s refusing food, to first Melanie and the other characters colliding with or being bitten by birds. It all builds to a grim reveal of a local farmer who has been attacked over-night, with Rod’s mother stumbling across the mutilated old man, Hitchcock’s camera delightedly cross cutting onto the man’s pecked out eyes. It’s the most grotesque shot of the film – and coming before we’ve seen our first mass bird attack, leaves us in no doubt as to the danger of these animals.

And when those bird effects come they have a real unsettling violence to them. In a blur of both real birds and super-imposed images (I will admit that the special effects of this film do now look a little dated, with the mixture of real, model and photo trickery birds rather jarring) the birds fly with an almost unimaginable aggression at the human beings. Flocks descend, pecking, biting and clawing, leaving human bodies maimed, blinded and bloodied. Crowds of school children are attacked while fleeing their school. A gas attendant is brutally set upon leading to a firey conflagration. Passers-by and those unable to get refuge are beaten to the ground under a flood of winged assailants.

The film changes tack in its final sequence into a tense series of sieges as Melanie, Rod and his family hole up in Rod’s house by the lake, barricading doors and windows as the birds peck relentlessly at doors and windows, slowly forcing their way in. Rooms that fall to the birds become whirlpools of deadly flying creatures, a tornado of wings and pecks that few can stand against. Hitchcock’s camera cuts rapidly from the flood of birds, to ever increasing pecks at hands and arms, to hands thrown up to protect eyes – a brilliant call back to the eye horror shown earlier in the film that immediately inspires. The birds attack in unpredictable waves, their attacks dying down at moments as the sit calmly and placidly only to expectantly burst back into violence.

It’s just a shame that Hitchcock’s film is so enamoured with its undeniable technique that it neglects to feature any heart or soul at all. The characters are a stock collection of forgettable tropes, most played by forgettable actors, or mute ciphers. The film almost deliberately throws together a truly trivial collection of stories and character motivations to pepper the centre (perhaps this bland self-interest is what pisses the birds off so much) of the film, that frankly are not that interesting. Rod Taylor is a solid but uninspiring performer, Jessica Tandy is saddled with a truly pathetically weak role. So many of the other characters such little impact that they barely warrant names. Rarely in Hitchcock films have the human characters felt so much like devices, square pegs in square holes, totally subservient to the Master’s whims. Put frankly, for all the tension of when the birds will turn, you’ll care very little for any of their victims. 

A lot of focus on the film has been on Tippi Hedron, in particular her accusations of ill-treatment (routed in frustrated sexual obsession) from Hitchcock. These stories – and Hitchcock’s subsequent description of her as little more than an attractive prop (a feeling he tended to have for lots of actors) – have drawn attention away from the fact that she is actually very effective in The Birds, and that her brightness and intelligence makes her the only person who feels real in the whole film. It makes it all the more sad that the final sequence renders her into a mute, shell-shocked victim – but Hedron’s promise (never fulfilled due to Hitchcock’s sabotage of her career) is clear here.

Hitchcock’s film finally ends on a truly nihilistic, Armageddon tinged ending that speaks volumes for the post-apocalyptic nuclear anxiety prevalent in the West in the 1960s. The birds rest, triumphant, over the chilling silence of the world as what remains of our heroes beat a retreat. It’s a chilling flourish in a film that is a stylist’s triumph but lacks any real heart. It’s a film that haunts the memory but it doesn’t win the heart. If Hitchcock really did hate actors and most people, this film makes a good case for arguing that’s a pretty honest insight.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Joel McCrea, Laraine Day and George Sanders take on shady European powers in Foreign Correspondent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Joel McCrea (John Jones/Huntley Havestock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Scott ffolliott), Albert Basserman (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Eduardo Cianelli (Mr King), Harry Davenport (Mr Powers), Edward Conrad (Latvian)

In 1940, Hitchcock was new in America, after a parade of successes in Britain. 1940 was a red-letter year for the master, directing not one but two of the films up for Best Picture. The Oscar was carried home for his masterful gothic adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but equally memorable was Foreign Correspondent, a stirring, heartfelt thriller about the build-up to war in Britain, a passionate cry for American intervention and brilliant propaganda contribution to the British war effort (even Joseph Goebbels tipped his hat to it).

John Jones (Joel McCrea) is the new foreign correspondent in Europe for the New York Morning Globe. Given the pseudonym “Huntley Havestock” (because it sounds better), Jones is picked out because he’s a hard-boiled crime journalist, practised at winkling out a story, rather than the cozy posh boys usually sent out to Europe. In Amsterdam, Jones attends a peace conference hosted by leader of the British peace party Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), where eminent Dutch diplomat and architect of the fragile European peace Van Meer (Albert Basserman) is due to speak. While Jones falls in love with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day), Van Meer mysteriously falls to show at the dinner – and arrives at the conference the next day only to fail to recognise Jones and immediately get assassinated. Suddenly Jones finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of spies with only British journalist Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) and Carol to help him.

Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is a masterful spy caper, in the style of many of his early successful works such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, superbly assembled by a genius at the top of his game, with access to funding and techniques beyond what he had in Britain. Hitchcock went through several versions of the script – there were no fewer than nine writers who worked on this film, four of whom are credited – but it matters not a jot when the script they finally came up with matched such superb, zingy, screw-ball style dialogue with such brilliant set-pieces.

The film also had a serious purpose as well. From the start, this is a cry of one of Britain’s most prominent ex-pats to his newly adopted nation to join the effort to preserve Western civilisation against the onslaught of Nazi oppression. Joel McCrea’s Jones – a part written for Gary Cooper, who forever regretted turning the role down – is the quintessential American, disinterested in the world, sure of America’s place in it, who has his eyes opened and passion ignited by seeing up-close and personal the dangers from the agents of totalitarianism. The agents of the enemy nation – probably Germany, a country that is referenced in passing, but the film deliberately keeps it shady in an attempt to appear even-handed – are ruthless, brutal and unscrupulous. Their plans are fiendish and they are bent on world domination. But all this is worn very lightly within a caper framework that has as much interest in Jones falling in love with Carol as it does with foiling the baddies.

It also plays neatly on Jones’ very old-school American obsession with fair-play, and bringing down the baddies no matter what. Witnessing Van Meer assassinated before his very eyes, Jones is determined to go to any lengths to ensure both that justice is done and he is the man who gets the story. At the same time, Jones also has an honest and homely sense of romanticism about him. The film gets a tonne of comic and romantic mileage out of the cracking dialogue between McCrea and Loraine Day as Carol, with the sort of intelligent, witty banter that wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy, with Jones’ blunt “I say what I mean” attitude crashing beautifully against Carol’s more English rectitude. 

Hitchcock shows himself a brilliantly adept director of comedy – something he doesn’t get enough credit for – in these sequences between the two of them sparring over the course of the movie. And it’s not just them, but also his work with George Sanders – cast against type as a cool, noble British agent – brilliantly hilarious as the curiously named “ffiolliott” (the sequence, mid car chase, where he calmly explains to the befuddled Jones while bullets fly why his name deliberately has no capital letter is hilarious). Comedy is a rich vein in Foreign Correspondent and it works so well here because it lightens both the drama of the thriller elements and the political message of “pro-intervention”.

The thriller sequences are just as superb. The assassination sequence is a stand-out, a shooting on a rain soaked series of steps outside a conference, with the assassin making his retreat through a crowd of on-lookers carrying umbrellas under hot-pursuit from Jones. Hitchcock takes his camera above the crowd, meaning we only follow its progress through the disruption of the umbrellas, before the two men emerge (bullets flying) and move straight into a breathless car chase through the Dutch countryside. It’s a masterful sequence.

And it’s far from the last. The film has a superb series of tension-filled sequences, from Jones playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse in a Dutch windmill, trying to avoid being seen by the German agents occupying it while finding out as much as he can about their plans, to Jones reporting what he has found to a man we already know is a double agent. Edmund Gwenn, cast well-against type as a jovial, remorseless assassin, gets a brilliant sequence of attempts to kill Jones without putting him on guard, culminating in a vertigo inducing sequence at the top of Westminster Tower. It’s the second such sequence, Jones already having to climb over the roof of a hotel in Amsterdam to escape assassins (along the way brilliantly hitting the neon sign of the Hotel Europe so that it reads “Hot Europe”). Hitchcock tops it all with a brilliant plane-crash sequence shot with chutzpah and daring and is a technical marvel considering the resources available in 1940.

All this excitement and adventure helps to deliver the message of the film as strongly pro-interventionist to encourage the Americans to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Van Meer (a fabulous performance from Albert Bassermann of old-school nobility, made even more astonishing by the fact he didn’t speak a word of English and learned it all phonetically) has a brilliant, impassioned speech – all the more affecting for its  lack of histrionics – that condemns the brutality and violence of the dictatorships. The film is capped with Jones’ Ed Murrow-style broadcast from Blitz-besieged London. Both sequences raise genuine lumps to the throat – McCrea’s delivery is perfect – and the final sequence is all the more astonishing when you realise it was conceived and shot before the Blitz even started.

Not that the film is completely obvious in its allegiances. The turn-coat Brit in the film is a complex, even sympathetic figure who is merely serving his actual home country in the best way possible. He’s largely presented as reluctant to commit crimes, but believing that they must be done and is even allowed a heroic death. His identity perhaps is fairly guessable (he even has a Germanic dog!) but it still works very well in the film.

Hitchcock draws superb performances from the cast – helped by that script of zingers. McCrea is just about perfect, Day very sweet, Sanders is brilliant, Herbert Marshall’s Stephen Fisher a brilliant portrait of arrogance and tortured duty, Robert Benchley very funny (and writing his own scenes) as Jones’ colleague who’s struggling to stay on the wagon, Harry Davenport superb as Jones’ His Girl Fridayish editor. Basserman was Oscar nominated – and deserves it for his big speech – but it could have been any of the cast. Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is often overlooked among the master’s many, many triumphs. But any pro-interventionist, anti-German film that has even Joseph Goebbels singing its praises must have a fair bit going for it.