Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Top 100 Films #13 – Rear Window (1954)

 

rearwindow1#13. Rear Window (1954)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes (based on It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich)
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendall Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

Rear Window is the Master of Suspense’s single greatest achievement as a filmmaker, creating one of the most thrilling mysteries of all time – yet the entire film takes place in a single location. Rear Window follows L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer who has recently broken his leg in an accident. Confined to a wheelchair in his small apartment, and with a limited number of visitors (mainly his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and personal nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter)), boredom begins to set in for Jeff – he begins to watch his neighbours through the window. Since all of Greenwich Village is seemingly enduring an ongoing heat wave, the entire apartment complex is on display to Jeff, who begins to notice patterns in his neighbours and assign them nicknames. Eventually, Jeff observes some shady business across the way on a dark and rainy night – these events set him on an amateur investigation from the confines of his wheelchair. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the very first directors I became immediately attached to after being introduced to the magic of cinema. His films were darkly funny, intelligent, thrilling, and nearly all of them still felt modern and fast-paced when compared to modern Hollywood movies. Hitch’s love for the medium is obvious in every single one of his projects, good or bad. Seeing Rear Window for the first time absolutely floored me – years of seeing the story parodied and paid tribute to in pop culture somehow had not shaped my perception of the film. Hitchcock makes the most out of his single location setting, mapping out an entire apartment complex through the eyes of James Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries, whose boredom and need for entertainment drives the first act of Rear Window. Every character introduced through Jeff’s eyes is humorous, interesting, or peculiar in only a way Hitchcock could accomplish – while not developed, these characters still serve their purpose as fodder for the film’s central mystery. After Jeff witnesses what he is convinced is a murder, Hitchcock makes the audience question whether they believe Jeff, or if maybe our protagonist is going a little stir crazy. As soon as the murder plot is introduced, Hitchcock begins to slowly raise the tension by almost completely changing the formerly carefree and fun tone into a much more sinister (while still playful) one. Rear Window’s themes of voyeurism are titillating and incredibly compelling – especially for a film from the mid-1950’s. These themes reveal a great deal about Alfred Hitchcock’s unique sensibilities, giving audiences a dirty little glimpse inside the mind of the Master of Suspense. Living out some of these titillating voyeuristic experiences is James Stewart as the easygoing L.B. Jeffries. Hitchcock and Stewart’s collaborations always made for fun pairings, and Rear Window is probably my favorite in their partnership.  Stewart’s “aw shucks” personality is for the most part non-existent in Rear Window, instead replaced by a still likable, but far more self-aware and relaxed performance.  Supporting Stewart is the always delightful Grace Kelly, who carries some of the film’s most intense moments – becoming a heavily-involved accomplice of Stewart’s. Grace Kelly’s Lisa leads directly into Rear Window’s thrilling climax, which may be one of the most intense scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography – he makes perfect use of Jeff’s small, dark apartment, as well as our main character’s broken leg. When the moment finally comes, the entire audience are on the edge of their seats. Rear Window holds up as one of the best mystery films of all-time, and more than six decades later is still talked about as one of the greats. It’s a great starting place for those not familiar with Alfred Hitchcock, and anybody looking to get into classic films.

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Top 100 Films #51 – The Wages of Fear (1953)

 

image-w1280#51. The Wages of Fear (1953)
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi (based on Le Salair de la Peur by Georges Arnaud)
Starring: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck

French film director Henri-Georges Clouzot has been referred to as the French answer to Alfred Hitchcock, and after seeing a film like The Wages of Fear, it’s easy to see why. Clouzot’s film sees four men driving two trucks filled with nitroglycerine in order to extinguish a raging fire on an oil field.  The oil field is over 300 miles away from the town of Las Piedras, and the road to the field has been in a state of disrepair for years. Considering the highly volatile nature of nitroglycerine and the poor state of the roads to the oil field, it would be crazy for anybody to attempt the mission – unless those in question are incredibly desperate and willing to take such a life-threatening chance. The Wages of Fear is another film on my list that can be considered deliberately paced, as it takes quite a while to truly shift into second gear.  Clouzot uses the first act of the film to build atmosphere in the small town of Las Piedras, where only desperate men seek refuge.  It’s here that we meet our four main characters Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), all of whom are in desperate need of money so they can escape the hellhole that is Las Piedras.  Each man has his own motivations and reasons for embarking on the near suicide mission, and all of them are compelling in their own right.  When things finally get going and the men get out of the town and onto the dangerous, nearly impossible to traverse road, The Wages of Fear begins to really shine as the suspenseful thriller it is.  The film had me on the edge of my seat for the entire journey, cringing at every bump in the road, and dreading what might happen if the road conditions become any worse. When the two trucks encounter obstacles in the road, it truly becomes a race against time to solve the problem as safely and efficiently as possible – building the suspense and showing the skills of our lead characters.  The film’s gorgeous photography certainly helps push the film into classic status, with scenes of dark, flowing oil contrasting beautifully with the largely barren locations featured in the film.  The cinematography combined with Clouzot’s expert use of suspense and the build-up makes The Wages of Fear one of the greatest foreign-language films ever made, and one of the most thrilling movies I’ve ever seen.  

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Top 100 Films #100 – Rope (1948)

 

image-w1280#100. Rope (1948)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Arthur Laurents (based on Rope by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson

The 1940’s were an incredible time for director Alfred Hitchcock who was still relatively new to Hollywood at the time.  This decade saw him solidify his status as “Master of Suspense” with films like Rebecca, Lifeboat, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, and Spellbound.  Rope is one of Hitchcock’s many unsung classics from this era – combining his trademark suspense elements with groundbreaking filmmaking to create a bonafide classic.  The film was shot to appear as if it is a single continuous shot (there are 10 very well-hidden cuts throughout), and takes place in real time.  Hitchcock continues to explore the idea of using a single location to create a sense of isolation and claustrophobia – a theme that would bring him even more success with 1954’s Rear Window.  Rope sees two young men (Farley Granger and John Dall) trying to cover up a murder during a dinner party – until their former school headmaster (James Stewart) starts to see the holes in their story.  Hitchcock uses the single location and limited cutting to great effect, creating one of his most suspenseful and engaging films of the 40’s.

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Women in Film Feature #3 – Gaslight (1944)

gasl2Gaslight (1944)
Directed by: George Cukor
Written by: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston (Based on Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury

The Swedish born Ingrid Bergman has starred in some of the most iconic films of the 1940’s and 50’s, and yet remains undiscovered by an entire generation of people unenthused with the pictures, and uninterested in their storied past.  With an impressive resume of films including Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Anastasia, Murder on the Orient Express, Autumn Sonata, and a thematic trilogy of films with director Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman has an entire body of work ripe for discovery.  Renowned in Hollywood for her naturalistic performances, Bergman helped change the way actresses were viewed during the golden age of American films.  On screen, she was graceful, subtle, and effortlessly realistic – which stood out in an era filled with over-the-top damsel in distress performances by some of her contemporaries.  Ingrid’s realism focused performances managed to win her two Academy Awards for Best Actress, one for Best Supporting Actress, and saw her nominated a further four times throughout her career.  Her work with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Michael Curtiz remain some of the most acclaimed films of their time, and have ensured that Ingrid Bergman’s place in Hollywood history is rightfully recognized.

The man of the hour in 1944’s Hollywood was undoubtedly the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.  With a Best Picture win just a few years previously for Rebecca, and a slew of hit American films under his belt, the man had quickly managed to leave an impression on other filmmakers of the time.  There’s no doubt in my mind that director George Cukor took a page (or an entire chapter) out of Hitchcock’s book when approaching the story of Gaslight.  Soaked in an atmosphere of dread, featuring incredibly suspenseful moments, packed with twists and turns, and filled with good performances, it has all the makings of a Hitchcock film.  Cukor had made a career as a director for hire for major studios throughout the 1930’s, and had succeeded in eventually making quite a name for himself.  With a pair of incredible performances from leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, a tight and thrilling screenplay, and dark and moody cinematography, it’s no wonder why Cukor’s Gaslight instantly became one of the director’s biggest hits.   The film earned seven Oscar nominations including major categories like Best Picture, Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Actor (Charles Boyer), and Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury).  The highly acclaimed Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman took home her first of three statues for her performance in Gaslight, praised for her portrayal of a paranoid and desperate woman trying to a solve a deadly mystery with suspects right under her own nose.  Gaslight is also notable for being the on-screen debut of prolific actress Angela Lansbury, multiple time Academy Award nominee, and star of the long running hit show Murder, She Wrote.  The film is seen as being somewhat dated to today’s standards, but remains an incredibly effective and suspenseful look at the forced descent into madness of a woman by a man who has managed to make his way deep into her heart.

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Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) in 1944’s Gaslight.

Gaslight begins on a murderous note, with opera singer Alice Alquist turning up dead and her jewel-seeking killer fleeing the scene after being interrupted by a young woman.  The young woman is Paula (Ingrid Bergman), Alice’s niece.  The young Paula is sent to Italy soon after, in order to study under a famed opera singer, and so that she can hopefully forget about the events she saw unfold on that fateful night.  Soon, Paula meets a charming and wealthy man by the name of Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and the two quickly fall in love and marry.  Gregory convinces Paula that returning to London and living in her aunt’s vacant house would be best for her mental recovery, and the two set off for their new home.  Alice’s belongings are tucked away in the attic in order to help Paula adjust, and a young maid named Nancy (Angela Lansbury) is hired.  After accidentally finding a letter addressed to her late aunt and being forbidden by her husband to read it, Paula begins to notice odd occurrences around her new home.  The home’s gaslights begin to dim and brighten at random, pictures disappear off the walls, and she loses prized possessions from the safety of her own person.  To top it all off, the new maid seems to have taken a disliking to Paula, but her husband ignores all signs of this.  Convinced by Gregory that she’s imagining all of these events and that she’s still reeling from the trauma of seeing her aunt’s murder, Paula begins to doubt many aspects of her own reality.  She is soon isolated from outsiders by those inside the house, and her sanity is called into question by her husband.  Is there more at play than just a woman losing her mind, or is Paula being influenced by an insidious power?  Find out in George Cukor’s Gaslight!

While George Cukor and company may have taken many a page out of Alfred Hitchcock’s style book, there’s something very different and special about the way Gaslight plays out.  Its twists and turns aren’t quite as “big” as some of Hitchcock’s most effective moments, but Cukor instead opts for subtlety and making the audience think really hard.  The well-paced direction focuses on getting to know our principal characters initially, and then takes a sudden and hard turn into one woman’s battle for her own sanity.  The attention to detail and art direction is something to be admired, as the sets and costumes create a realistic and fully-immersive portrait of the film’s time and setting.  The real shining feature of Gaslight though, is its acting.  Cukor’s film is more than anything a moody and dark showcase for four incredible talents to give their absolute best performances possible.  The audience knows the twist from the very beginning, making Ingrid Bergman’s supposed descent into madness a truly frustrating and infuriating experience for viewers.  Bergman’s performance as the tortured Paula is incredible, as it’s never played in an over-the-top fashion.  Paula is a believably traumatized young woman who may have put what little trust she had left into somebody that is completely toxic for her.  Supporting Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is a delightfully evil Charles Boyer as Gregory, Paula’s charming husband.  Boyer’s Gregory is sly, cunning, and has a silver-tongue when it comes to dealing with his wife, and every scene featuring the two becomes a subtle and suspenseful power play.  Even Hitchcock would have trouble making a character so hateable and yet so fully-realized at the same time, but Cukor pulls it off masterfully.  Worth mentioning is the debut of Angela Lansbury, whose turn as the maid Nancy earned her an Oscar nomination as well.  Nancy aids in creating the tense and toxic atmosphere that is slowly driving Paula insane, and the very young Lansbury is perfect for the role.

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Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman and Best Actor nominee Charles Boyer in George Cukor’s terrific Gaslight.

While it may not be a completely unique or unpredictable tale in the modern age, George Cukor’s Gaslight is an incredible tale of a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and madness.  It gives Alfred Hitchcock’s very best a run for its money, and has been undoubtedly influential on modern day suspense pictures.  Guillermo del Toro should have taken a page out of George Cukor’s book when making 2015’s Crimson Peak, as the two films share a great deal of similarities.  Gaslight features an Oscar-winning performance from one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, a terrific and believable antagonist, subtle and deliberate pacing, and hopelessly bleak atmosphere aided by the dark and foggy cinematography.  It’s slow, maddening, and chock full of incredibly admirable qualities.  George Cukor’s Gaslight is highly recommended.

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Noirvember Feature #5 – They Live by Night (1948)

They_Live_By_Night_posterThey Live by Night (1948)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray (based on Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson)
Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

The story of two young lovers on the run from the law is a wildly popular tale in Hollywood history, and many of its origins can very likely be traced back to 1948’s They Live by Night.  Nicholas Ray’s film noir is seen as many to be the prototype to the story of Bonnie and Clyde, a film many consider to be the most successful of the subgenre.  Though the similar stories had been told in the past (specifically in Fritz Lang’s 1937 You Only Live Once, and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps), Ray’s film modernizes the story for a new generation.  Films that would follow the same story arc as They Live by Night include: 1950’s Gun Crazy, Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and most recently Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.  They Live by Night would be director Nicholas Ray’s debut behind the camera, and what a career it would lead to.  Ray would go on to direct such films as Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life, and Party Girl, and is still celebrated and analyzed decades after he passed away.  Ray has become something of a cult figure to cinephiles, and his legacy only continues to grow.  The film stars young Farley Granger, who would go on to be noticed by names like Alfred Hitchcock and Humphrey Bogart, and the lovely Cathy O’Donnell – a film noir regular for most of her ultimately short career.

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Farley Granger (Bowie) and Cathy O’Donnell (Keechie) on the run in 1948’s They Live by Night.

They Live by Night sees three bank robbers (Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub) escaping from prison early on.  Our main character Bowie (Farley Granger) has been wrongly accused of murder and is now on the lam.  He decides to hire a lawyer in order to prove that he isn’t guilty of his alleged crime, but first must get his hands on the money needed. After becoming injured, Bowie seeks refuge with a gas station owner and his young daughter Catherine, or Keechie (played by Cathy O’Donnell).  After quickly falling head over heels for each other, the young couple decides to get hitched and run away together.  Bowie plans to become an honest, hardworking man, but unfortunately for the young couple life isn’t always that simple.  Bowie once again bumps into former partners in crime Chicamaw and T-Dub, and is coerced into joining the crew for one more dirty job.  Will the young couple live happily ever after, or will the life of crime catch up with them?  Find out by watching Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night.

While the film isn’t exactly unique by today’s standards, there’s absolutely no denying the influence it has had on modern film.  They Live by Night avoids many of the film noir cliches we’ve come to know and love (and sometimes hate), and instead becomes something much more profound.  This is a love story through and through, with very little mystery involved.  The audience isn’t left to pick up the pieces or be the detective, but instead get to follow two well-rounded, and young characters who are very easy to like.  The film takes a little while to ramp up, but it’s smooth sailing once it gets going.  My favorite scene of the involves involves Bowie and Keechie getting married late at night in an odd little establishment.  The man officiating the marriage and the two witnesses are delightfully weird and eccentric, and the scene itself is quite funny.  This scene helps to relieve the tension felt through the first act of the film, and briefly makes it feel as if things are going to be perfectly okay for the young couple.  The performances by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell are both very good, and it’s no wonder why somebody like Alfred Hitchcock would become interested in having the young man in some of his films (Rope and Strangers on a Train). Cathy O’Donnell would become a William Wyler regular, appearing in Best Picture winners Ben-Hur and The Best Years of Our Lives, as well as his film noir Detective Story.  For Nicholas Ray’s first feature film, the direction is quite smooth and restrained.  It definitely doesn’t feel like somebody’s first film, which is a testament to the skills of the man behind the camera, and probably also to the strict studio system of the 1940’s.

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There’s a heck of a lot to admire about They Live by Night.  It paved the way for some of my all-time favorite films including Badlands, the Tarantino-penned True Romance, Bonnie and Clyde, and countless other greats.  The movie definitely runs at its own pace, which helps establish the universe and characters, but unfortunately stops the film dead in its tracks during a few scenes. The important thing is that I was entertained throughout, and thoroughly impressed by how modern it all still feels.  It may not be a perfect film in my books, but it’s definitely a fun, thrilling ride.  It would make way for one of the most underrated directors of the 1950’s, and its influence is still felt today.  It might not be my favorite film in the Noirvember series, but I still found a great deal about it to be satisfied with.  They Live by Night is very easily recommended.

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