Category Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

The Wrong Man (1956)

4 stars out of 4. Forgotten experiment and essential for understanding Hitchcock.

The Wrong Man is one of the most interesting in Hitchcock’s entire canon, for being derived from a true story and adapting a realistic tone that is completely foreign to Hitchcock. What this does is effectively drop Hitchcockian themes into the world of the emerging New Wave and desire for gritty realism that most often utilizes sprawling urban metropolises.

He even refuses his traditional cameo, and instead presents us with a statement of this film’s difference and firm grounding in reality. The film is entirely based on the true story of a New York musician who is mistook for a man who has held up and robbed several business over the past year. Manny Balestrero is slowly set up and consumed by the police’s efforts to capture this criminal, and it effectively tears his entire life apart.

What makes this all the more effective is the fact that Balestrero is played by Henry Fonda, who can speak more with his face than with dialogue. His Manny is a good man, who tries and does everything to the best of his abilities and a man who struggles to maintain both his family and a sense of dignity. It is these two elements that become so distraught and tainted by his accusation by the police.

Never before or since has guilt been such a prevalent part of a Hitchcock film. The guilt is so deeply felt that it could be visually represented among all the dark shadows crowding the sets, starkly filmed in widescreen black and white and utilizing real New York locations to great effect. It in fact feels at times as if Hitchcock had been allowed to roam free in a Kazan film, to shake loose of his studio bound ways in almost a sort of self-challenge.

The Wrong Man has some definite ties to I Confess (1952); in the phenomenally strong lead performances, low key B&W cinematography, relatively straight scripts with little to no overt Hitchcockian flourishes but The Wrong Man is a different beast because it is also an uncharacteristically (for Hitch) emotional story that in ways precedes the impact of Vertigo.  This primarily manifests itself in the story of Manny’s wife and her descent into madness over a mistaken sense of guilt. Vera Miles gives a wonderful performance that displays some of what Hitch must have obviously  saw in her and how her intended performance in Vertigo might have been.

However the film is also chock full of real life touches that only add to and enhance the oppressive sense of doom. The characters tell the story through their increasingly bleak outlooks on Manny’s impending conviction, and in the end it is only prayer that Manny has left in the world.

The score by Bernard Herrmann is perfectly sparse, and very ominous in its jazzy style which fits exactly with the broodingly oppressive New York surroundings. The film also functions as an interesting time capsule of what the city looked like at the time, a place that can now only be accessed in the works of the past.

The Wrong Man is one of the most overlooked of Hitchcock’s work, and probably the finest of his 1950’s films that stray from his established formula. It builds upon the more simplistic I Confess all the while establishing and setting the stage for Vertigo. This is not a happy film, nor should it be. It is a harrowing portrait of what it must be like to be the wrong man accused of someone else’s crimes. This time there is no escape, no man on the run, no grand adventure leading to a final denouement where everything turns out right in the end. Here Hitchcock’s hero is absolutely caught and locked up with no chance of escape. Small wonder why it didn’t sit well with 1950’s audiences. This fulfilled Hitch’s contract with Warner Bros. and he then returned to Paramount.

So this is what happened to Juror No. 8.

EDITIONS: Warner issued a DVD as part of their Hitchcock Signature Collection in 2004, featuring a nice little documentary and trailer. The transfer is good on the whole, but some scenes feature some not too pretty encoding that manifests as digital noise instead of presenting film grain. Then there are several scenes with damage and very occasional fading. Otherwise it’s very serviceable until you get to the framing. The film was released in 1956 when the widescreen format was fully taking hold among cinemas worldwide. It is therefore hard to know exactly what ratio was intended, especially as the US and Europe had differing preferred ratios. The DVD uses a 1.78:1 framing optimized for 16×9 TVs, whereas the theatrical would have been either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1. Judging from comparisons and articles, it seems that the film was composed for 1.66:1 and that the DVD is indeed a crop. It works fine, but in comparison to 1.66 framings important information is lost or cropped. The LD was open matte 1.33:1, which would be interesting to see for comparison.

Audio is a faithful 1.0 mono track on a standard compressed Dolby Digital track. This needs an HD revisit for maximum impact. Hopefully Warner comes around to doing all their Hitchcock titles soon, with Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder already approaching release. (Of course, they lost the rights to Foreign Correspondent which has long been rumored to be an upcoming Criterion release.)

 

NOTE: There is a reason why Scorsese refers back to this constantly. It is highly influential to him and this becomes obvious with it (and I Confess) dealing heavily in Catholic guilt.

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Filed under 4 stars, Alfred Hitchcock, Film Directors, Film Review

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Stars, VistaVision, Romance, Intrigue, Exotic locales…what more could you possibly want?

4 stars out of 4. A large slice of cake. In France.With Mother.

To Catch a Thief is never amongst the list of great Hitchcock titles. It isn’t meant to be. Here is a film designed and crafted explicitly for one reason alone: to entertain and delight the audience. It is a stunning feast for the eyes in glorious VistaVision (Hitch’s first film in the format), loaded with breathtaking shots of the French Riviera. (though I don’t envy the cameraman who had to hang out of a helicopter with the large VV camera.)

In another wrong man thriller setup, former jewel thief John Robie  (Cary Grant) is suspected by the police after a series of thefts  are carried out that mimic his old exploits. So he must go on the run in order to prove his innocence. But does he really? No, because this is merely an excuse to setup the main plot of the film which is not “set a thief to catch a thief” but just how the gorgeous Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly) will catch this thief for her very own. Through a series of setpieces and alluring double entendres the real thief is unmasked and the stars end up in each others arms. Certainly worth the price of admission.

There is little sexier in cinema than the sight of Grace Kelly looking pleased with herself. The extended car chase through the high cliffside road where she reveals her knowledge of Grant’s true identity leaves every man in the audience absolutely smitten. (What is it about women drivers being so damnably attractive onscreen?) There is little for Grant to do in the film other than be himself, so his performance takes on a relaxed quality that adds multitudes of self-assurance to the man known as “The Cat”. And catlike he certainly is, as To Catch a Thief shows off his acrobatic talents with nearly every frame. The definition of “catlike grace” is Cary Grant.

In many ways this film is a dry run for the later North by Northwest (1959) with the implementing of light almost screwball comedy that Grant was born to play into Hitch’s wrong man schtick. Also introduced is the romantic plot so that the light bubbly confection now becomes a multilayered cake of epic proportions. Hitch once famously told Francois Truffaut (they met originally on this set) “some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake”, and To Catch a Thief just might his biggest slice of all. It is certainly the richest and heaviest.

It is impossible to dislike To Catch a Thief, as it goes so completely out of its way to win you over. It is not great drama or suspense but something made to be enjoyed by people in escape from their dreary lives. All in Motion Picture High Fidelity with Cary and Grace. Thank you Hitch for such a delight.

EDITIONS: VistaVision can never be accurately replicated on DVD properly. The original 2002 issue was rife with defects, damage and artifacts and with over-saturated color. The 2007 Special Collector’s Edition added featurettes and commentary, while sporting a newer and cleaner transfer that seemed more accurate to the film, albeit if a bit boosted in color in some places. The Centennial DVD edition was part of a last grab by Paramount to get another DVD sale in before a Blu-ray release. All of these discs come from HD masters and are directly ported to Blu-ray, which this film was. The DVD was cleaner and slightly more detailed but less colorful. The new Blu-ray is the first release to even hint at the powerful detail of VistaVision, but is nowhere near what it could be. The master was struck from clean reduction elements Paramount had at 2K several years back, but since one reel of the film’s negative is damaged they did not want to do a full scale restoration for a higher resolution scan. This transfer is certainly serviceable and great looking on the whole, but it lacks the full color of the film and pales in comparison to Warner’s release of North by Northwest. (which had a full restoration and 8K scan.)

Audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD lossless for both a 2.0 surround remix and thankfully the original mono track. The mono is quite clear and faultless. I have no reason for the remix to ever be played. Essential disc that bests the standard definition versions, but is not fully indicative of VistaVision or the film.

I still have a certain fondness for the color on the 2007 SCE disc even if it is not quite correct.

Here is the DVDBeaver review for detailed image comparison:

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReview/tocatchathief.htm

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Filed under 4 stars, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Film Directors, Film Review

Saboteur (1942)

4 stars out of 4. Forgotten classic and pure Hitch.

The forgotten film of the early American Hitchcock period. For every Suspicion, Hitch needed a adventure to clear the mind. Saboteur is 108 minutes of nonstop inventiveness and sheer storytelling. An obvious entry in his wrong man series and a quasi-retelling of his own The 39 Steps (1935), this is an odd cross between Foreign Correspondent (1940) and the Americana of Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

It is highly reminiscent of  The 39 Steps, in fact so much so that it really resembles more of a transplanted version with updated effects and Americanized elements. But this is not a weakness. It is conscious desire by Hitchcock to get back to fast moving thriller storytelling, after making two back to back that were not of a highly stimulating nature. (Suspicion (1941) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) respectively) It is of course no surprise to discover that Hitchcock himself wrote the original story idea. Here you can see the energy picking back up, along with all of the techniques form his silent films and his heavy German Expressionist influence. In fact, the famed final confrontation on the Statue of Liberty goes completely silent if you pay attention. It works just as well as his earlier British films, and with the greater technological resources of Hollywood.

Barry Kane (Cummings) is a worker at a wartime aircraft munitions factory. He bumps into a strange man named Frye (Norman Lloyd) just as a fire breaks out in the factory. He, Fry and another friend arrive first on the scene and Frye hands Kane a fire extinguisher before disappearing. The extinguisher is grabbed by Kane’s friend who dies in an explosion. The police discover that the extinguisher was actually loaded with gasoline and the blame then falls squarely upon Kane who escapes and travels cross country to clear his name and find the man responsible. Along the way he will pick up a beautiful if remote blonde, who will eventually come around by the end title card.
The film (like Foreign Correspondent before it) would not work if the original big name casting choices had been made available. There is an earnestness and certain realism in the use of lesser names and fresher faces. It provides a sense of urgency that might not have been equaled with star power. You truly believe it when Robert Cummings has to shove his hands into an automobile fan to cut off a pair of handcuffs. The political and patriotic implications are hard to miss. In fact they are so blatantly present that we are easily able to glide past them without getting caught up in a room full of talking heads. (Probably Hitch’s intention.) What is more interesting and far more sinister is the social criticism and far reach of the sabotage ring.
This leads to my favorite scene in the film, with the young heroes confronted and trapped in a charity gala dance. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to go, and they begin to do the only thing that will keep them out of the enemy’s hands and certain doom: dance.
Even with a bit lifted from Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Saboteur never strikes a false note save for perhaps its abrupt ending. (But quite a few of Hitch’s films end this way, with everything tied up neatly. Saboteur  just needed to have the shot last a little longer. Though Hitch lamented in later years that the final confrontation positions should have been reversed to create better suspense.)
What Saboteur lacks in scope and lasting impact it makes up for with heart, ingenuity and a great sense of spirit. This makes it far more enjoyable and more Hitchcockian than the more lauded and lavish Selznick extravaganzas.

The 108 minutes are packed with set pieces: The aircraft factory blaze, the truck fire extinguisher gag, the taillight, the baby as a bullet shield, the capture and escape from policemen, and of course the movie within the movie. In a brilliant moment, Frye escapes into Radio City Music Hall in the midst of a packed movie. The events onscreen coincide and interact with the events onscreen on the screen. The mind delights with the amount of layers within.Then all of this is masterfully topped off with the precursor to North By Northwest‘s conclusion, men dangling and grappling on top of the Statue of Liberty.
Sometimes, Hitchcock just needed some time away from David O. Selznick. This resulted in a fresh wave of new creativity that abounds in what are typically disregarded by critics and scholars as B-thrillers from the Hitchcock canon. Saboteur is a highly assured film that displays a rougher quality than Hitch’s previous American output, due to being an independent production and working at Universal studios. It is the natural progression from Foreign Correspondent to Shadow of a Doubt on a re-shaped foundation of The 39 Steps.
EDITIONS: There are two DVD releases, one from the original batch of Universal owned Hitchcock films circa the early 2000’s and the later issue originally from the 2005 Masterpiece Collection and later sold individually. Nearly identical discs that seem to share the same transfer, menus and extras. The later edition is brighter and less grainy with enhanced detail that is more pleasing to the eye. The difference is less noticeable than with others in this Universal Hitchcock line. Sound on both is clear mono in Dolby 2.0 and there is a nice little doc on the film with those involved.  Universal has recently announced their Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection for Blu-ray, and seemingly with the news of new HD transfers. Hopefully they have done so and not simply re-utilized the same transfers for the umpteenth time. This will make a stunning HD title.

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Filed under 4 stars, Alfred Hitchcock, Film Review