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Two classic Hitchcocks: North by Northwest and Psycho (with spoilers)

(Re) watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films makes me appreciate why so many critics and Hitch himself saw NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) as a film that expresses the essence of Hitchcock movies. Yet it was the next film he made, PSYCHO (1960) that came to define him: he’d be Alfred Hitchcock, direct of Psycho from that moment forward.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) stars Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who through blind chance is mistaken for Kaplan, an American agent hunting enemy spy Vandamm (James Mason) and his right hand Leonard (Martin Landau). Vandamm mocks Thornhill’s denials, declaring that his performance makes the room a theater; this theatricality crops up over and over, for example when he later sneers American agents should get training from the Actor’s Studio.

The bad guys’ first attempt on Thornhill’s life fails, as does the second; however they unintentionally frame him as a murderer, forcing him to flee cops as well as crooks, traveling across country to track down Kaplan. Thornhill doesn’t know Kaplan doesn’t exist; it’s a non-existent man created by spymaster the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) to distract Vandamm from the real agent in his team. During his travels, Thornhill gets help from Eve (Eva Marie Saint), a beautiful woman who turns out to be Vandamm’s lover. Thornhill, having fallen for her, isn’t happy (“What makes a girl like you a girl like you?”), then he learns she’s the Professor’s agent on the inside. Unfortunately Leonard has figured that out too …

North by Northwest is a spectacular thriller with some great set pieces, from Grant being targeted by a crop-dusting plane to the climax on Mt. Rushmore. It carries over elements from multiple previous films including The Thirty-Nine Steps, Notorious and Saboteur. As The Hitchcock Romance says, it captures Hitch’s repeated theme that love and marriage is the happy ending for most of us. Thornhill starts out twice divorced and something of a ladies’ man (we see him dickering with his secretary about the right gift for one of his girlfriends), then he meets Eve and everything changes. Vandamm intends to kill her for betraying him; the Professor is willing to accept her death for the greater good. Thornhill loves her and he’s going to save her in spite of all of them. It’s a great film. “War is hell, Mr. Thornhill, even when it’s a cold one.”

I would really love to have seen PSYCHO (1960) at least once not knowing what was coming but a friend told me the details in high school (I wouldn’t catch it until college). In the opening, Marion (Janet Leigh), frustrated that her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) doesn’t have enough money to make a home for both of them, succumbs to a moment of temptation and drives off with $40,000 of her employer’s money. It’s a classic film noir set up that turns into an Old Dark House story when Marion ends up at the Bates Motel, where Norman (Anthony Bates) runs the largely unoccupied business and cares for his sour, bedridden mother. And then, of course, comes the infamous shower scene in which Mrs. Bates stabs Marion to death in the shower (future slasher films owe a lot to this and the later deaths). Can Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) figure out the truth?This film has a very strange structure, switching from genre to genre and protagonist to protagonist. It’s amazing visually and absorbing to watch even when I know what’s coming. That said, it’s a film that like Vertigo, I admire more than I enjoy. While in many ways it’s much more atypical of Hitch than North by Northwest, though Hitchcock Romance argues the film is a perfect example of Hitch’s tragic romances. When we catch up with Sam after the opening he’s writing to Marion to say that he’ll marry her, despite his poverty; if she’d only waited instead of acting, she’d have gotten her HEA. Like Vertigo and Rebecca, the past chokes the present. Sam’s struggling to pay off his father’s debts and support his ex-wife; Norman is dominated by his dead mother. It’s a remarkable achievement. “I’m not a fool and I’m not capable of being fooled.”

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. For extra interest, check out the great title sequences for Psycho and North by Northwest by the great Saul Bass.

 

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Bill and Ted Get Vertigo! Movies viewed

As a fan of Keanu Reaves and Alex Winter as Theodore Logan and Bill S. Preston, it was inevitable I’d watch the final film in the series, 2020’s BILL AND TED FACE THE MUSIC. It’s 25 years since the guys blew the world away with their concert at the end of BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY and in that time they’ve crashed and burned, failed to create a world of peace and harmony, and failed to find day jobs. And their two daughters, Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) are just as much music-loving slackers as their old folks.

Time up guys: the future’s Great Leader (Holland Taylor) discovers that if the guys don’t play the song that unites the world by 7:17 PM that evening, history goes off the real and reality collapses. The guys set off on a desperate quest to find themselves in the future when they’ve already written the song; the Leader thinks she can salvage time by killing them instead. The end results show, like many series, the law of diminishing returns, but the returns are good enough I’m glad I caught it. “The Sahara Desert just materialized in San Dimas — Queen Elizabeth I is looking at it.”The first time I saw VERTIGO (1958) I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it; as the standard critical take is that it needs multiple viewings to appreciate it, it seems I’m not alone. A near-fatal fall during a rooftop chase leaves John Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) afflicted with crippling vertigo that forces him off the force. A friend (Tom Helmore) asks John to shadow his buddy’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who seems obsessed to the point of suicide with a woman of the 19th century. John falls hard for Madeleine and when she finally succumbs to the haunting and kills herself, he’s completely lost. Then he meets her exact double (again played by Novak) and begins recreating her into the image of his lost love.

As part of my Hitchcock rereading I can see this has resemblances to Rebecca and the upcoming Psycho with Madeleine, then John, haunted by a dead woman; I think it may also have some commonalities with the upcoming Marnie. While it’s still a movie that fascinates me more than entertains me, it is very fascinating. The special features on this DVD detail the restoration (like Rear Window the master print had decayed over the years and that Hitchcock at one point eliminated a key flashback revealing what’s really going on (the audience hated the results so he put it back). Barbara Bel Geddes plays’ John’s ex-fiancee best friend, who gives us an outside perspective on the strange relationship, though her character doesn’t entirely make sense (she’s clearly still into him, so why was she the one who ended their engagement?). “There’s one final hing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.”

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The Wrong Man Gets Fast and Furious: Movies

After Alfred Hitchcock’s disappointing Trouble With Harry and Man Who Knew Too Much, the noirish, based-on-truth THE WRONG MAN (1956) is a welcome return to form. Henry Fonda plays a musician constantly slipping into debt to keep his family afloat. When he stops off at an insurance office to see if he can borrow against wife Vera Miles’ life insurance (she needs wisdom teeth extracted), one of the employees misidentifies him as the guy who held up the office a month earlier. They call the cops who then parade him into a couple of other stores the guy hit, and the staff confirm the identification. Before he knows it, Fonda is plunged into a legal world as alien to him as the bottom of the sea (his sense of being trapped in a world he never made is one of the film’s strengths). His wife, meanwhile, begins to crack under the strain, sliding into a nervous breakdown.

The film has more power because the cops clearly aren’t trying to railroad him, but they’re convinced he’s bad and interpret events accordingly; showing him to witnesses the way they do is almost guaranteed to produce a misidentification. Events that in movies such as The Phantom Lady are the work of the real villain — when Fonda tries to build an alibi the witnesses are either dead or he has no idea where to find them — are just the quirks of real life (today social media would make proving where he was a lot easier). A good film, though the events were way less an outlier than I imagine people thought at the time. “She’s living in another world from ours — a frightening landscape that might as well be the other side of the moon.”

With F9 (2021) I’m now caught up on the Fast and Furious franchise, though it feels like the series is running out of steam (switching to Hobbs and Shaw may be a smart move). John Cena plays Jacob, the brother we didn’t know Dominc Toretto (Vin Diesel) had; having broken bad after their father’s death Jacob now kills Mr. Nobody and captures Cipher (Charlize Theron reprising her role from Fate of the Furious) to help him find the McGuffin, a device that will let Jacob hack any and all computers everywhere. Can the team stop him, even with Han (Sung Kang) back from the dead (which is why I’m not betting Nobody is pushing up daisies either)?

This is almost meta at times in joking about its own absurdity (“You’re right — we are invicible.”) but the action sequences are routine and the goofy bits (flying a cool car into space to destroy Jacob’s satellite) didn’t work for me either. Neither did the usual We Are Family declarations — Jacob gets forgiven far too easily given his shift in allegiance is due to Cipher backstabbing him, not any reconsideration. Helen Mirren and Theron(“You remind me of Yoda — a puppet with someone’s hand up his ass.”) walk away with the acting honors. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but this entire operation is held together with duct tape.”

HELLBLAZERS (2022) is a movie I’d probably have watched to the end a decade or two ago, but my patience for sitting through mediocrity has apparently dwindled over the years. The story involves demon cultist Billy Zane unleashing a demon on a small town to the distress of Bruce Dern, Tony Todd and others, but after two or three scenes where the cast seemed to be struggling to remember their lines, I called it a day. “We didn’t open a hole into hell for nothing, you know.”

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This was unexpected —

Due to having two social events last week (friend visiting town, writer friend’s birthday party) I wound up not watching any movies, nor any the rest of this week. So I have no movie reviews to offer y’all. But as I don’t want to break my streak of daily postings, here’s the poster to Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man

As I was planning to watch Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, here’s the poster.And here are some posters from other Hitchcock films I’ve caught, not in any particular order.You can find my reviews of all of these and more listed here.

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Jimmy Stewart knew too much about the rogue nation! Movies viewed

After the disappointing The Trouble With Harry, I’d think Hitchcock’s remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) was a sign he was losing his touch — but with Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest ahead, I know that’s not the case.

This remake has the same basic set-up as the original: a  vacationing couple (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) encounter a spy, get a cryptic dying warning and have their son kidnapped to keep them silent. This considerably longer version is padded with travel footage and Doris Day feels miscast; even the climactic concert for which the killing is scheduled feels less like mounting suspense and more like Hitchcock showing off Bernard Herrman’s score.

Hitchcock believed that whatever the movie was nominally about (terrorist attack, secret document, diamonds) was just a “McGuffin” to build the story about and therefore unimportant. Trouble is, when the story’s this week, an unimportant McGuffin doesn’t work. The original film established the victim’s importance with “before June 1914, had you ever heard of Sarajevo?” (i.e., he was that important to world peace) — here it’s just a generic power grab in some nation’s politics. And unlike many Hitchcock movie relationships, there’s almost no tension between the stars other than having their son kidnapped, further draining the drama. “Americans don’t like having their children kidnapped.”

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Rogue Nation (2015) also has an assassination scene at an opera though it’s just one B plot in the story of IMF taking on “the Syndicate” (I assume that was an Easter egg — the original TV series used that term to refer to organized crime, Italian Americans resenting the use of “Mafia”). The Syndicate, in this case, is the anti-IMF, a team of specialists doing the same sort of things but for evil; can Ethan Hunt’s team stop them despite new CIA director Alec Baldwin officially disbanding them. Enjoyable, but this is the fourth time someone’s used the “Your mission” tape as a trap for the IMF — it’s getting ridiculous they still work that way (it’s why the original show always shot down pitches using that as the hook). “Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny.”

COME TRUE (2020) starts off promisingly as a young woman rendered insomniac by nightmares volunteers in a sleep study only to discover they’re not only spying on her dreams, everyone else in the research sees the same sinister landscape and strange figures … which turns out to be because she’s in a coma and the entire movie was just in her mind, which is one of my very least favorite twists. So thumb way down.

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Aesthetes, super-freaks, a dead guy and the 4400: this week’s viewing

Last year the Delta variant shut down the Durham Savoyards’ plans to stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s PATIENCE live so the went online (if you want to start with the overture, it’s here). They did a really amazing job adapting the story of Bunthorne — an “aesthetic sham” who spouts poetry to impress his female admirers — Patience, the unsullied milkmaid who has never known love and Algernon, the paragon of poetic perfection who steals her heart and that of the other women.

While the 19th century aesthetic movement (at one point Gilbert considered making it about rival curates instead, but decided mocking the church without offending the audience would be too tricky) is hardly a burning issue for most of us, pretentious artists and their groupies are still a ripe topic for satire. The script also mocks the Victorian meloramatic assumptions about love being unselfish and the twisting logic that leads to.

The Savoyards did a great job adapting Patience to an online environment, having much of the discussion take place in Discord chat rooms or Zoom conferences, with memes flowing in the chat channel (“They say I sleep too much — but I’m just dreaming of you!”). The end results were delightful and I recommend catching them if you’re into Gilbert and Sullivan. “I was the beau ideal of the modern aesthetical/To doubt my inspiration was regarded as heretical/Until you cut me out with your placidity emetical!”

THE DOOM PATROL opened its third season by wrappig up the Covid-shortened S2, with Caulder and his grumpy team putting an end to the Candlemaker. Things get livelier as we move into the real third season: a mysterious time traveler appears, the Doom Patrol dies, Rita travels back in time, the Sisterhood of Dada appears and so do some of the team’s Silver Age foes. It’s a weird, quirky mess in the best way, much more enjoyable than S2 was. “Jane dresses like a deranged sock puppet.”

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955) was one of my least favorite Hitchcock films when I first caught it and rewatching does not improve it. Harry is a dead guy found in the woods outside a small New England town — did Ed Gwenn accidentally pot him while hunting? Was it Mildred Natwick or Harry’s ex, Shirley Maclaine? Can artist John Forsythe get them all out of it? The running gag is that none of the cast really care about Harry except as an inconvenient problem, about as annoying as a speeding ticket; that might have worked for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents half-hour episode but it stretches to the breaking point here.

The Hitchcock Romance does make an interesting case that this the flip side of the small communities seen in Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window, the difference being there’s no murderer here: the core cast are all innocents, none of them mistrusts or suspects the others of lying about their ties to the dead guy. I think that’s spot on, but I still don’t care for the film at all. That wouldn’t interest you, doctor — it’s purely personal and not medical.”

When the CW announced it was reviving THE 4400 I was puzzled why — sure, I liked the show, but it wrapped up in 2007; is 15 years long enough in the past a revival is necessary? Much to my surprise, though, it worked. The emphasis here is that the alien abductees mysteriously returned to Detroit are predominantly black, including a trans doctor from the Harlem Renaissance, a woman civil rights activist from the early 1960s and a black lawyer who vanished just 15 years ago — which is still time enough to have transformed the people she loves. And of course the ruthless government agents and bullying cops now feel like the evening news, rather than just something knocking off The X-Files. I do hope this makes it back for S2. “The answers you think you want will only lead to your death nd the death of hose you love.”

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From Greenwich Village to Schmigadoon; movies and TV

I resumed working my way through Alfred Hitchcock’s films with one of my favorites, REAR WINDOW (1954). Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) is a globe-trotting news photographer who’s been stuck in his Greenwich Village apartment for weeks with a broken leg. In between visits from his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), a fashion entrepreneur, he passes the time vicariously watching the neighbors on the far side of the apartment-complex courtyard. A middle-aged couple with a pampered dog; the sexy dancer, “Miss Torso”; a sculptor; a couple of newlyweds; a struggling composer; quiet, desperate Miss Lonelyhearts; and a salesman (Raymond Burr) with an ill wife. When the wife disappears, Jeff becomes convinced the salesman murdered her. His cop buddy (Wendell Corey) scoffs; can Jeff, Lisa, and Jeff’s home nurse (Thelma Ritter) prove there’s been a killing?

This works well as a suspense thriller, but also as one of Hitchcock’s romances. Lisa and Jeff are clearly in love, but her business is in NYC; while he could do fashion and local news that’s not what he wants. He’s convinced himself she could never be comfortable traveling with him, there’s no point even trying to make it work — but events come to show she has the stuff of an adventurer in her.

It’s also the story of a small community, reminding me of another of the small town in another of my favorites, Shadow of a Doubt. There are multiple character arcs playing out before Stewart’s eyes, from the depressed Miss Lonelyhearts to Miss Torso fending off wolves (one theory touched on in the special features is that they represent various potential futures for Jeff and Lisa). While most analysis sees this as a film about voyeurism, the book Celluloid Skyline argues it’s about privacy: everyone is comfortable letting their neighbors around the courtyard peer into their lives in ways they wouldn’t be in front of a street-facing window (even Jeff is equally casual about what he lets people see). “That feminine intuition stuff sells women’s magazines but i real life it’s still a fairytale.”

By contrast TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) is pure fluff, though with a Riviera setting, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the lead roles and Jessie Royce Landis as Kelly’s tart-tongued mother, it’s winning fluff. Grant is John “The Cat” Robie, a cat burglar who used his criminals kills for the resistance during WW II. That got him paroled from prison but after a series of burglaries following the Cat’s MO, the French cops are convinced he’s gone back to his old ways. Robie decides the only way to catch the Cat Mark II is to find his next target and intercept him. This brings him into contact with Jessie Stevens (Landis), a gem-dripping widow who thinks he’d make a great match for her daughter Frances (Kelly). Frances, however, knows who John is and sees herself as his partner in crime. Can Robie catch the thief? Can Frances catch her man? It reminds me in some ways of the rom-com thrillers Hitch did in the 1930s such as The 39 Steps, though not as well written. “From where I sit, it looks like you were conjugating some very irregular verbs.”

PEPPERMINT SODA (1977) is a French coming of age story in which two sisters in the 1960s deal with oppressive teachers, jerk boyfriends, Mom taking a lover, the stirrings of sex and a growing awareness of politics. I’ve been wanting to catch this since seeing the sequel, Cocktail Molotov, some years back; while nothing other films haven’t done, this film does it well.

THE CLAUDIA KISHI CLUB (2020) is a 17-minute Netflix documentary on why Asian Baby Sitter Club fans loved Claudia, not only for giving them some representation in the series, but non-stereotypical representation at that (“You’ve no idea how amazing it is for the Asian-American to be the cool one.”).

When I upgraded my iPhone last year I got three months of Apple TV free. I activated it for Come From Away, then went on to watch the first season of Ted Lasso. Ted (Jason Sudeikis) is an upbeat, folksy college football coach recruited to become coach for Richmond, a struggling British soccer team. He doesn’t know the owner, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), hired him in the belief he’d fail: her ex loves the team and seeing it go down in defeat would hurt him (“I want Rupert sodomized with a splintered cricket bat. In and out, again and again.”). Can Ted handle cocksure players, perky girlfriends and local skepticism? The results are funny as hell, though I may postpone watching S2 rather than keep my subscription going.

At my brother’s recommendation I also caught the six-episode SCHMIGADOON! Josh and Melissa (Keegan-Michael Key, Cecily Strong) are two doctors who’ve been in a relationship for a year, but it’s fraying a little. On a hiking trip they stumble into the magical town of Schmigadoon, where people break out spontaneously into song and there’s no way to leave except in the company of your true love. Trouble is, when Josh and Melissa walk away from the town, it won’t let them leave — so does that mean their love’s no good? Can they find true love in town or are they trapped there forever? With a cast that includes Martin Short, Jane Krakowski and Kristen Chenoweth, this references musicals from Carousel to Sound of Music (“Yes, I’m totally a Nazi.”). Great fun though the cliffhanger ending makes me wonder what they have in mind if this makes it to S2. “This place has completely destroyed my concept of the structure of reality because that was a fricking leprechaun!”

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Second-string Hitchcock: I Confess and Dial M For Murder

A number of Hitchcock fans rate I CONFESS (1953) as an underestimated masterpiece. I’m not one of them.

Set in Quebec, the film stars Montgomery Clift as Father Michael Logan. In an early scene, Michael takes confession from the church handyman, Otto (O.E. Hasse): he’s robbed and murdered Villette, a shady lawyer. Logan can’t tell the police (represented by detective Karl Malden) because what’s said in the confessional is between him, Otto and god.

Michael goes to check on Villette’s house but can’t explain to the police why he’s there. The police become more suspicious when witnesses report the killer was a priest (Otto disguised himself with a cassock). Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), Michael’s old girlfriend, gives him an alibi but it’s too early for the time of death. In the end, Michael ends up in court.

Villette, it turns out, was blackmailing Ruth. While Michael, still a civilian, served in WW II, stress led him to stop writing home to Ruth. She lost hope and married her boss, but when Michael returned, they spent the day together … which turned into a chaste night together when they were caught in a storm. Even for a more conservative era this seems like a thin reed to blackmail someone with, but Ruth paid up. Michael, therefore had reason to kill Villette. He didn’t, but how can he prove it without compromising the seal of the confessional?

Everything eventually works itself out a little too conveniently for me. And not entirely happily; like Suspicion, Ruth’s marriage hardly looks healthy enough to provide a satisfying ending. It was apparently a personal film for Hitch, a devout Catholic, and the cinematography is great. But it still doesn’t work for me. “God, perhaps has forgiven me thanks to you — but the police never will.”

I’m not aware of anyone claiming 1954’s DIAL M FOR MURDER is an unsung masterpiece; according to Films of Alfred Hitchcock, the director picked it to wrap up his obligations to Warner Brothers, and because he needed something undemanding to work on while he recharged his batteries.

Ray Milland steals the show as Tony, an unctuous fortune-hunter married to Margot (Grace Kelly). whom he knows has fallen in love with Mark (Robert Cummings), an American mystery writer. Tony explains to a shady former acquaintance, Swann (Anthony Dawson) that he’s worried she’ll leave him and take her money with her; if she dies first, well, her will makes him the sole heir. Tony has it all worked out how Swann can break into the flat and kill Margot while Tony and Mark are out; instead, Margot kills Swann. Tony quickly sees how he can make it look as Swann was blackmailing her over her affair with Mark, and murdered him.

This is a competent staged play, but nothing more than that. The mystery element in the script wears thin by the climax, which revolves around multiple keys and which characters know where to find them. Still, if it let Hitchcock recharge and do Rear Window next, I can forgive its weaknesses. “They call police flat-footed, but heaven save us from the talented amateur.”

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Strangers on a train get criss-crossed while Brits grow old: movies viewed

Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) opens with a striking sequence in which we follow Guy (Farley Grainger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) as they get out of their respective taxis to board a train — but all we see is their lower legs. Sober dark shoes on Guy, a tennis pro and serious young man; snazzier footwear for Bruno, an irresponsible idler.

Although they’re strangers, when Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy it turns out he knows everything about Guy. Even given Guy is a well-known athlete, it comes off as something of a mancrush; it’s also reminiscent of every story I’ve heard or read about creepy guys insisting on intruding into a woman’s commute, ignoring that she clearly doesn’t want to talk. Guy reluctantly listens over lunch, where Bruno tells him a crazy idea he’s had. He wants his father dead, Guy (dating senator’s daughter Ruth Roman) would be better off his estranged, cheating wife were dead, but they’d be prime suspects. What if they each killed the other’s target? Guy doesn’t know Bruno’s father has no motive, who’d even think of suspecting him?

Guy has no interest in this but his comments convince Bruno they have a pact (again, rather like guys who are convinced they’ve bonded with the woman they’re talking to, even as the woman’s desperate to get rid of them). Bruno does indeed murder Guy’s wife (who’s refusing to divorce him now that her lover has dumped her) and then he starts asking Guy well, when do you whack my daddy? And if Guy reports him to the cops, Bruno’s going to explain about their supposed deal …

This has always been one of my favorite Hitchcock films but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. Was it just my mood, which was a little out of sorts at the time? Or was it one of those cases where I rewatch or reread something and without the shock of the initial encounter I see the flaws? The climax, for example, intercuts Guy playing in a tennis match with Bruno launching a scheme and the tennis simply doesn’t provide any tension (The Hitchcock Romance suggests it’s a deliberate kind of wink-wink at the audience, but I don’t buy it). And Roman is very stiff as the love interest. That said, it’s far from a bad film and deploys several Hitchcock tropes, such as the Innocent Man Accused (though ambiguously innocent, as Guy does indeed benefit from Bruno’s actions) and a character, a la Shadow of a Doubt, with a lurid interest in crime fiction (Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, playing Roman’s sister). Leo G. Carroll plays Guy’s prospective father in law. “Now why should I stop off in Medcalf to kill a woman I’ve never met — unless it was a plot and you were in on it.”

CRISS CROSS (1949) is the noir film Stephen Soderbergh remade as The Underneath, starring Burt Lancaster returning to his LA neighborhood to see his family, totally not to see ex-wife Yvonne deCarlo, and even if he did, he’d certainly not try to resume their relationship … Where Soderbergh focused on family dysfunction with a largely clueless chump of a protagonist (evidence for John Rogers’ argument that neo-noir characters are never as smart as they think), this one is all about sexual obsession and desperation: Lancaster wants deCarlo so he strikes a deal with her current lover Dan Duryea (always a great, creepy sociopath on screen) to rip off an armored car (he’s one of the guards) but things don’t go the way he expects … “I was wrong — it was in the cards, and there was no way of stopping it.”

Werner Herzog’s WILD BLUE YONDER (2005) starts promisingly as an alien reveals his people have been living among us for years, but without successfully accomplishing anything, even alerting us to their presence (his display of their duplicate Washington DC is hysterical). Most of them film, though, is a drama about space flight which doesn’t work for Alien Visitors and isn’t very interesting either. “Those who arrived here just sucked.”

My big birthday event this year was watching 63 UP (2019), following 56 Up in the seven-year cycle of visiting with an assorted group of Brits first interviewed at seven years old. Once again we catch up with a scientist, politician, librarian (who passed since the previous film; two others don’t look in good shape this time out), teacher, cabbie and others as they ruminate on their kids, life since the last film, Brexit, the British class system and whether their seven year old selves foreshadowed who they are (I must admit, the sharp twists in their lives in previous installments look less drastic now). While only one interviewee dropped out, the solicitor, as usual, objects that he’s not the man he appears to be (““I’m three-quarters foreign, hardly a typical example of the class I’m supposed to represent.”) and one of the women let fly on what she sees as persistent sexism in the series (“You don’t seem to realize how much things changed for women in the 1970s.”). Fascinating as always. “We’re still in the middle of the longest engagement known to man.”

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Impossible spies, unconvincing actors: movies viewed

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) easily surpasses the first and second films in the series, starting with the opening in which malevolent bad guy Philip Seymour Hoffman puts a gun to Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife’s (Michelle Monaghan) head and threatens to pull the trigger if Ethan doesn’t deliver the McGuffin. Then we flashback to show how Cruise got married and also returned to the field to rescue protege Keri Russell from Hoffman (it doesn’t go well). Hunt wants revenge; Hoffman wants the McGuffin (in best Hitchcock tradition, we never learn what it is). Trouble is afoot. JJ Abrams directs this as a first-rate thriller, though the villain’s scheme (come up with a casus belli for another Mideast invasion) now feels very right-after-9/11 in spirit. With Laurence Fishburne as Hunt’s superior, Simon Pegg as a techie and Ving Rhames returning as Ethan Hunt’s right hand. “Please don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions.”

STAGE FRIGHT (1950) has aspiring actor Jane Wyman reluctantly agreeing to help former boyfriend Richard Todd save his mistress Marlene Dietrich from a murder rap over the death of her husband. Of course that proves more complicated than expected — and is Todd telling the truth about everything?

This strikes me as switching up a number of Hitchcock conventions: the Bad Girl (Dietrich) is innocent, at least of murder (in contrast to, say, The Paradine Case), while the male romantic lead on the run is guilty as sin (as opposed to Spellbound and multiple other films), though the relationship between Wyman and cop Michael Wilding is much like Shadow of a Doubt.

The movie, as a whole, though, doesn’t work for me. I’m not bothered by the opening flashback being a lie (something which multiple critics complained was a cheat) but Wyman’s a bland kewpie doll here (she’s rarely anything more). While I like the idea of her as the Actor of Justice vs. Dietrich’s Actor of Doom, and the theme that everyone in the movie is acting and posing in various ways, the film doesn’t do enough with it. The best thing about it is the supporting cast of British actors including Alistair Sim as Wyman’s wannabe rogue of a father (“It was only one cask of brandy.”), Sybil Thorndyke as Wyman’s dotty mom and Joyce Grenfell in a bit part at a charity fete. “You’re not by any chance thinking of changing horses in mid-stream?”

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