Monday, February 13, 2017

Classic Hitchcock on a Snow Day

As Grenville noted in the previous post, it was a cold and (very) snowy weekend here in Nashua, NH. Apt living has the benefit of no shoveling or digging out needed. We stayed indoors and watched classic Alfred Hitchcock films, thankfully available online.

Hitchcock, an English film director and producer if often called The Master of Suspense for pioneering elements of the suspense and psychological thriller genres. Out of 53 major films he directed, only one, Rebecca (1941), won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In later years Lifeboat (1945), Spellbound (1946), Rear Window (1955), Pyscho (1961) were nominated. He never a Best Director Oscar, but in 1968 was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement. His brief acceptance speech was "Thank you very much indeed."

My favorite Hitchcock films feature actor Cary Grant as the male lead. Hitchcock and Grant teamed on four films: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). The first two were filmed in black and white; the last two in color.

Actor Jimmy Stewart also made four Hitchcock films (all in color): Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). The last, while now a classic, received negative reviews and poor box office receipts on release. Hitchcock blamed its failure on Stewart "looking too old to attract audiences" and replaced him with Grant in North by Northwest. (Grant was 4 years older than Stewart.)

Our weekend viewing were the first two Hitchcock-Grant pairings: Suspicion and Notorious. Here's a rundown on both if you aren't familiar with the plot lines.
Suspicion (1941) is a romantic psychological thriller that starred Grant and Joan Fontaine as a married couple. It was Hitchcock's fourth Hollywood production based on the novel, Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Iles. In the film, a shy spinster (Fontaine) runs off with a charming playboy (Grant), who turns out to be penniless, a gambler, and dishonest to the max. She comes to suspect that he is also a murderer, and that she will become a victim.

This relationship mystery hinges on the idea that Lina McLaidlaw doesn't trust her charming rake of a new husband, Johnnie Aysgarth, who’s more ambitious than industrious. Is it just her imagination as she uncovers his gambling and other secrets, or is her instinct warning her to be afraid? Hitchcock snakes viewers through the highs and lows of their evolving emotions.
Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant in Suspicion

The film's climax has lead to a couple of theories. One is that Hitchcock planned to follow the book's ending in which Johnnie gives Lina a glass of milk containing poison. Supposedly, Lina is positive that he plans to kill her, but loves him too much to live. She drinks the milk, but first writes a letter to her mother explaining what happened. The last scene would have seen Johnnie sending the letter. Hitchcock said this was his original intention. The film has many references to letters and stamps. In the opening scene, Johnnie borrows a stamp from Lina to pay his fare telling the annoyed conductor, "Write to your mother."

Another is that Hays Production Code guidelines wouldn’t let the film end with what would have been Lina’s suicide. Criminals could commit suicide within the code, but a heroine could not despite the fact that her action could help convict a killer. And, the studio didn’t want Grant shown as a murderer. Hitchcock has been quoted as saying that the studio forced him to change the film’s ending to protect Grant’s image. As a result, the climax doesn’t make much sense to many.

The Hays Code (Motion Picture Production Code) was the set of industry moral guidelines applied to U.S. motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was named after Will H. Hays,  president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. Under his leadership, the MPPDA, later the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the Production Code in 1930 and began strict enforcement in 1934. The Production Code spelled out acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a U.S. public audience.
Fontaine won the 1941 for Best Actress Academy Award the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film and almost didn't qualify. The film opened in New York in Nov 1941, but didn't play in Los Angeles until Jan 1942. After Fontaine won the New York Critics Circle Award for best actress, RKO scheduled a special screening at the Pantages Hollywood Theater on Jan 12, the final day of eligibility under academy rules of that time.
Notorious is a 1946 American spy film noir starring Cary GrantIngrid Bergman and Claude Rains as three people whose lives become intimately entangled during an espionage operation.  Shot in late 1945 and early 1946, it was released by RKO Radio Pictures in August 1946. 

In Notorious, an allegory of love and betrayal, Hitchcock fuses two of his favorite elements: suspense and romance. A beautiful woman with a tainted past (Bergman) is enlisted by American agent T.R. Devlin (Grant) to spy on a ring of Nazis in post-war Rio. Her espionage work becomes life-threatening after she marries Alex (Rains), the most debonair of the Nazi ring. Devlin rescues her, only after he admits to his role in her desperate situation and acknowledges that he’s loved her from the start. The film contains memorable performances, a script by renowned screenwriter Ben Hecht’s and Hitchcock’s direction.

Notorious is well known for two scenes. In one, Hitchcock
Claude Rains, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, stars of Notorious
starts wide and high on a second floor balcony overlooking the great hall of a grand mansion. Slowly he 
tracks down and in on Bergman, ending with a tight close-up of a key tucked in her hand. Hitchcock also devised a scene that circumvented the Production Code's ban on kisses longer than three seconds—by having his actors disengage every three seconds, murmur and nuzzle each other, then start back up again. The 2-1/2 minute kiss is "perhaps his most intimate and erotic kiss."

Critics consider Notorious an artistic watershed for Hitchcock and one that represented a heightened thematic maturity. According to his biographer, "Notorious was the director's first attempt, at age 46, to bring his talents to the creation of a serious love story; its story of two men in love with Ingrid Bergman could only have been made at this stage of his life." 
On a future weekend, we'll watch the last two Hitchcock-Grant collaborations: To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). Being snowbound wa a very good thing.


Lynn said...

I have seen all of the Hitchcock films and love them all. My favorite is North by Northwest. So funny - I had seen it several times over the years and was visiting my parents several years ago and we noticed it was coming on TV that night. So we watched - oddly, they had never seen it. They kept asking me what was going to happen. :) My favorite line in the film is hearing Cary Grant pronounce the word "dandruff." :)

Sandra said...

I loved Stewart and Grant in anything they did and have seen a lot of these movies. Rear Window scared me silly. I was maybe 10 or 12 years old and we went to the drive in with my aunt .. at that time it was a thriller. when I watched it a year ago, I could not figure out why it scared me.

Emma Springfield said...

I am a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. My favorite is Lifeboat.

William Kendall said...

Hitchcock and Grant- a great combination. My favourite of Hitch's films is North By Northwest.

"That's not very sporting, using real bullets."

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